‘What's that?’ We're packing our bikes and Kathleen puts the bike pump in the holder on her bike. ‘That's a bike pump for when we get a flat tire and we have to repair it,' she explains. ‘Wow' says Bruce, a boy who lives with other boys in one of the hotel rooms and in exchange does some chores in and around the hotel. Some Ugandans already know that 'mzungu', as we are called for the last two months, carry a bicycle pump. Several times already we've been asked if we can inflate a tire. We of course do that, but we're always a bit hesitant, afraid that we'll simply blow the tire, which is mostly worn down to the wire, to pieces.
‘And that?’ He's pointing at our tent. ‘You really do have everything’, he says with a mixture of amazement and admiration in his voice. I realised that myself on my bike. Most people in the countries we've cycled through in the past few months have a certain profession and the possessions that go with it. One can sew clothes and has a simple foot driven sewing machine. The other has a coal stove on which he prepares chapatis, a kind of pancake eaten for breakfast and lunch, a third is a carpenter and has a saw, the fourth has a number of wrenches with which he repairs mopeds and the fifth has a moped with he uses as a taxi, both for people and goods. A three-seater sofa is so far the largest object we have seen on the back of a moped. People visit each other to get something done of which you don't have the necessary tools. And that's how the local economy works in a village.
But we can repair and blow our own tire, we can repair our own clothes, we can heal ourselves to a certain extent, repair our bicycles, prepare our own food, send our own mails, if necessary have our own 'house' with us and don't need anyone if we want to make a phone call. After all, we have our own Tanzanian, Kenyan and now Ugandan phone number.
‘Do you also have a camera?', Bruce asks. Then we can take a picture of us together. Including our two cameras on our phones and one on my tablet, we have five cameras with us, I realize. ‘Good idea’ I say to Bruce. ‘I'll get our camera’ and grab Kathleen's compact camera; I don't want to confront Bruce with my luxury camara that we also have with us, besides our own bike pump, tent and all that other stuff. I really feel a bit uncomfortable with our wealth at the moment.
We stay in the hotel where Bruce is staying for three days and met him the first day. He told us that he's an orphan and that he's studying to become a car mechanic, but for the moment he quit because he doesn't have the money for it. He started working at night and it was impossible to combine it with school during the day.
In my mind, unnoticed and unintentionally, there is a little voice: to what extent is that true and to what extent is this a story to make me feel sorry for him? There are regularly children and teenagers who appeal to us for money and that is almost always accompanied by a story that they are orphans. On the other hand, with the recent history of Uganda in mind and the AIDS virus that has not skipped Uganda, it is quite possible that what they tell us is all true.
Bruce asks if there are Africans living in the Netherlands. ‘Yes’, I say; 'we live in a city where 175 different nationalities live and certainly people from Africa; probably even from Uganda'. And can I go with you to the Netherlands; I would like to live there so much'. I explain to him that this is difficult, that the Netherlands is a lot smaller than Lake Victoria at which the hotel is situated and that it is already crowded. ‘Our government has decided to only receive people who are threatened in their country of origin, for example for religious beliefs. It's on my tongue to start talking about homosexuality, but in Uganda homosexuality is severely punishable and the Lonely Planet advises not to bring this subject up for discussion. So I'll leave it at that.
During the days we are in the hotel, Bruce regularly comes to have a chat and by now we belong to the select company of his good friends, he soon lets us know. When we leave Bruce says he is really going to miss us. We make some jokes with each other when he takes me aside. ‘Mr. Paul, I know it's very difficult, but could you call me if you see an opportunity for me to come to the Neetherlands? Here's my phone number and this is my facebook name'. His eyes are serious; the big smile that normally appears on his face has disappeared. He's dead serious. I realize that I give him hope, no matter how small, and that hurts me. Especially because I know that I will never call him. I know he has no chance of a Western life. It feels unjust and at the same time this is the reality we both have to live with, although I can't say it in his face. ‘Bruce, it was really nice to meet you. I'll keep your phone number. Don't count on it, but if I see an opportunity, I'll let you know’.
All morning on the bike, I keep thinking about him. The wealth in the world is so unevenly distributed. How fortunate that I've just been born on the right side of the line. Not only because of the financial wealth and the cultural wealth, but actually mainly because of the development opportunities we have and with that the prospect of a better life. I'm convinced that Bruce has the talent to become a good car mechanic and I think he can do even more, but will he ever get the chance to develop so far...?
In the afternoon Bruce disappears more and more into the background. Along the way we passed a young girl with two amputated lower legs, who moves her hands in a primitive tricycle. She has to 'climb uphill' and after each lap with her hands she steers her front wheel against the sidewalk, so her bicycle doesn't roll backwards and she can catch her breath for a while. Further on we see an old man walking on old wooden crutches. They are much too short for him, so he walks all the way bent forward.
I notice that I'm starting to build an armor around me as self-protection. There are so many smiling faces here and at the same time so much suffering, that it sometimes makes me despondent. Especially because I realize that people often can't buy the means to make their existence a little more liveable. As a Westerner I see simple solutions, often consisting of better and more equipped tools, but these are simply not available to these people here. I have to protect myself so as not to let the suffering come in too much, but every once in a while a 'Bruce' comes along and drills through my armor without a problem.
The - mostly Western - calls we read advise not to give money to individual people, because that way their dependency is maintained and sometimes there is a criminal organization behind a beggar. On a higher scale I understand this reasoning, but if it concerns an individual who happens to cross our path, I find it much less obvious. We can give a lot of money without suffering at all, while it probably means a lot to that person. But five minutes later we meet someone again in a similar situation and ten minutes later again. Every day we receive dozens of requests for money and for us it is often not easy to estimate who really needs the money and who just tries. And that is why we decide not to give money to individual people, but to give small donations to local organizations and projects that help people, offer opportunities or support. And at the same time, I wonder if this is not a much too Western approach. We are here in Africa, where the group is central and where the group takes care of every individual in that group. Where the richer cousin contributes more to the family than his poorer cousin. In short, should we here behave like Westerners who give money to an big organization in the hope that it will be okay? Am I not a guest in Africa and should I not adapt to their norms and values? And don't the beggars belong to my 'family'? After all, we can both be found on the streets and we roam the country. And a beggar often has two wheels, although they stand next to him instead of behind each other in the shape of a wheelchair. And shouldn't I just give him something as a 'richer cousin', regardless of the Western principles? What if you have had polio in your childhood and as a result you wouldn't be able to work and would be forced to rake your money this way? At times like that, I don't find those Western principles very logical anymore.
Nevertheless, for the time being, we stick to the principle of not giving money to individual people, but to local organisations, often NGOs, that are close to our values. On our journey we come into contact in different ways with people who work for an NGO or who have founded one themselves and when I hear the stories about it, I am all impressed by their work and I am convinced that NGOs do meaningful work.
But then again I read that in 2008 more than half of the budget in Uganda came from Western donors. I haven't been able to get more up-to-date figures, but we see a lot of cars and even more roadside signs of NGOs, so it will still be a substantial part. And while Uganda has a fertile climate. The Ugandan is even seen as lazy by his neighbours, because he hardly has to work to get food, it grows that easily. In short, doesn't the West see Africa, and in this case especially Uganda, much too much as a helpless and pathetic little country, while it isn't? Can't they really keep their own trousers on, or does the government find it easy that the poorest population groups are taken care of by all those organisations from the rest of the world? And I wonder, don't the aid organisations have any interest of their own either? After all, they also employ people. In fact, they have to make themselves superfluous, but do they really withdraw when the time comes, or do they always see something in which they can play a role? What makes it even more confusing is that some NGO’s also work against each other. For example, very conservative American churches that have gained a foothold here curse contraceptives and preach large families, while next to such a church stands a large billboard of another NGO promoting 'a managable family', with a picture of a man, a woman and one child. With an average age of 16 years and an average birth rate of 6 children per woman, it seems that a pastor in Uganda gets a bit more hearing than a billboard.
And while cycling through the country, I also wonder what it does with the self-esteem of a 16 year old when his school building was built by South Koreans, the water pump in his village was built by the Turks, the bridge was financed by the Chinese and the European Union has a project running how to keep cattle responsibly, as we see in one of the villages. ‘And why exactly do I have to go to school?’.
And finally, doesn't the West partly maintain the situation and poverty through trade tariffs and protecting its own market?
I notice I'd really like to get it clear to myself. Before this trip I knew exactly what was good for Africa, but now that I am there, it gets more and more complex by the day and I am less convinced that I know what is right and what is bad for the country and its inhabitants in the long run.
In Kampala we have a mid-week rest to let all the impressions we gained so far sink in, to sniff some culture and to explore the route for the coming weeks. We stay in an airbnb in the diplomatic district, within walking distance of a large mall. When we get in there, after being frisked, we have to swallow. It's more luxurious than the most luxurious shopping mall in the Netherlands, with waterfalls and plenty of Christmas decorations in the central hall and expensive shops around it. The whole world of people can be found there, Europeans, Asians, but fortunately most of them are Africans. I notice that I like that. The cars entering the parking garage are bigger than I will ever be able to afford. It does me good to see that there are Africans who are clearly much richer than I am. At last we're not those rich whites here; stronger, we're barely worth a look. Until we get out of the mall and see beggars sitting against a wall with mutilated limbs. They clearly address to the westerners with their request to give them some money. I am right back in reality. But do I have to give anything now? Or don't I?