I don’t want to say that inequality doesn’t exist in America. It does. But in the US, inequality exists concurrently with an ideal that says we must always strive for equality. Sometimes our belief in this dream blinds Americans to the inequality that surrounds us. Racism, ageism, sexism, classism. It’s all there. But Americans like to think that we don’t discriminate, even if we do. We like the idea that everyone is equal, that everyone has an fair chance in life, despite the fact that we know it just isn’t true. Throughout history, Americans have preached a rhetoric of equality and democracy while we have often practiced something quite opposite.
I find that there is something very different about inequality here in Uganda, and I can’t quite describe it fully yet. I guess that you could say that in many cases there is something very matter-of-fact about inequality here. You can read power relations everywhere. They are even plainly illustrated in people’s bodies. Women kneel to greet men or people they respect. The females take care of the household while the man sits and reads the newspaper. Children, especially girls, speak in a whisper with their eyes cast downward and heads bowed.
Here, there are people who say that if a man does not beat his wife, he doesn’t love her. A young person’s ideas are not listened to with the same seriousness as someone who is older. Students fear their teachers–though it recently was ruled illegal, students still get caned in school for misbehaving. Many men still believe that if a woman says no, it really means yes. Physical violence is a constant threat within families– just this morning I walked past a woman who was threatening her toddler in public, “I will beat you!” I’m ashamed to admit: after only four months, I barely blinked.
Of course, I write of all this from my own perspective. That of a 23-year-old, white American woman in the midst of very unfamiliar surroundings. My perceptions of all this are largely dependent on my race, my education, my age, my gender, my language, and the way I was raised. I can assume that my perspective is only a tiny slice of what might really be true.
Sometimes I have a free pass as a “muzungu.” Because I am the white lady, there are times when I am practically treated as a man. It is not taken for granted that I do the same heavy household work that is expected of Ugandan women– when I wash my own laundry by hand outside, it can draw a crowd. The ladies in the market were surprised to learn that I do my own cooking and cleaning.
One thing that I am not sure that I will ever get used to is the kneeling. Every day, women who, by the logic of the tradition, I should kneel to greet (because they are older than me), kneel to greet me. These women give me automatic respect due to the color of my skin.
Whiteness/Americanness (which are too often equated with one another by Ugandans) translate into all sorts of assumptions- about power, money, and knowledge- some of them true. People ask me for jobs, visas to the US (sometimes in the form of marriage proposals), money, candy. And, while this sometimes gets tiresome, I don’t really blame them. While I may be living in Eastern Uganda on a Peace Corps stipend, I am still an American. And that, by definition, makes me incredibly rich, if not with money, with opportunity. I live a life that is incredibly filled with possibilities– more possibilities than the average Ugandan will ever have.
Despite all that comes along with being a white American, I am still, after all, a woman. In a culture where women are judged on their children and families, sometimes people don’t know what to think of me. There are a lot of questions. Do I really live in that house all alone? How many cows would my father like for my brideprice? A woman without a family around to occupy and define is a real rarity. Still, many people assume that I’m even younger than I am– a few weeks ago, someone guessed that I was 14. My age only becomes an issue at times because people tend to be fairly dismissive of young people here. Not just children either. In Uganda, you are considered a “youth” until the age of 30. When people learn my real age, they begin wondering. There is an idea that there must be something wrong with a woman who isn’t yet married at 23 years old.
I thought this entry was going somewhere, but this is all I have for now. I guess I have a lot of thoughts about the inequalities I see, but few of these thoughts come together to form any sure conclusion.
Every day I must remind myself that there are things that are changing, even if change is painfully slow and often difficult to see.
There are times when I feel like if I can scandalize people by being a woman who rides a bicycle and speaks without bowing her head, maybe I will have done my job. Maybe some little girl will think that she can do that too.