These days, I’m spending lots of time doing “secondary” work (that is, outside of my originally assigned organization) in a place called Malaba. It will take a few entries to describe what this work entails, but I’m first going to just describe this border-place, and what makes it so unique, challenging, and satisfying a place for me to work.
I think I can accurately describe Malaba as the edge. It is physically on the very eastern edge of Uganda, and it’s one of the main border crossing points for goods coming from Kenya. Malaba’s single tarmac road is always roaring with large trucks kicking up clouds of orange-red dust as they move around the parking yard, awaiting clearance. Shiny cars, freshly imported, weave deftly around potholes as they make their journey to Kampala from the port of Mombasa. Ladies walk the railroad tracks with large burdens balanced atop their heads, dodging the looming Uganda Revenue Authority customs office with their petty smuggled goods. Young Kenyan men hawk 30-in-1 DVDs from their backpacks. Street money changers offer to change Ugandan shillings to Kenyan. Bicycle taxis here live up to their name of boda-boda (which originated with calls of “border, border!”); the riders ask each passerby if they’re crossing. And all of this, in a buzz of shifting, switching, searching languages: Kiswahili, Luganda, Ateso, Dhopadhola, English…
Malaba is also home to many people living on the very edge. Many of the most desperate people living on the margins of society and survival flock to Malaba, looking for some chance at improving their lives. This makes the border a place where problems found elsewhere in Uganda are magnified.
Sex is a business in Malaba. There are many women and girls engaging in commercial and transactional sex. For those who never had the opportunity to finish school, this is a way of generating income to support themselves and their families. For those still in school but without parents to provide for them, selling sex is a way of raising money to pay school fees.
As is the case also in America, Uganda faces serious problems of addiction. Both Americans and Ugandans have unhealthy drinking habits. A friend told me the other day that one in five Ugandans is addicted to something. While occasionally (more so in Malaba than elsewhere) I happen upon the odd addict who’s hooked on marijuana or other leaves, the most widespread addiction issues here have to do with alcohol. There are several Ugandan beers, but generally local brew is cheaper. Drinking it is also a social experience; a group, generally of men, sip from a communal pot through long straws while exchanging news and stories. Unfortunately, even when drinking passes the point of responsible practice, it is seen as acceptable. Alcoholism is practically accepted as normal. And there is no such thing as rehab. So alcohol abuse is a huge problem country-wide in Uganda. Unfortunately, it is magnified at the border, where brewing and selling alcohol is a profitable industry.
Alcohol exacerbates other community problems. Domestic violence too often goes un-reported. When it’s reported, too often, the authorities do not take action. Many community members who are HIV positive, and some with AIDS are on treatment with anti-retroviral drugs. Unfortunately, drinking alcohol does not allow these potentially life-extending drugs to work, so there are too many funerals. After the funerals there are orphans. And as there are orphans, there are street children, roaming, sniffing glue to numb themselves, and searching for what to eat.
For most people, Malaba is merely a stop on the way to somewhere else. There is a sense that it is this temporary place, so nobody needs to take responsibility or become attached to the place. The most visible manifestation of this is the sanitation situation in town; trash is everywhere, and less than half of all homes have some sort of toilet or pit latrine.
So few people choose this as their place, or even want to stay here longer than they must. But right now this is where I want to be.
I am working in place where what I have to offer is not enough, but it is something, a piece. I am doing work that requires me to learn every day. I am working with people who are passionate about what they do, who are truly committed to working together to improve their community. I am working with people who want to learn everything and anything I have to teach. I am working with people who question me, challenge me, and will not hesitate to tell me when I am wrong. I am working with friends.