It is 6:30 in the evening and 5 FRA Secretariat Staff members bump down the Jinja highway in Eastern Uganda. FRA’s Executive Director (Ed), 2 Program Officers (Po), and 2 interns (1 female and 1 male; both Canadian) have been traveling in a van through Uganda’s lush country side for nearly 7 hours. They have traveled no more than 250km. Their destination? A small town that borders a number of rural communities in the Uganda’s Teso region. Their purpose? Spend the next two days conducting dialogues with farmers in various rural districts.
The van continues to putter along increasingly unpaved roads as the Staff reaches its destination. The sun is setting over the Lion Kingesque landscape that characterizes much of Eastern Uganda. As the two interns look out the window they are shocked to see large rock formations that seemingly appear out of nowhere. They wipe puddles of sweat off their faces because the other passengers insist that roasting like a pig is a reasonable alternative to using air conditioning.
The van comes to a sudden halt and everybody flies forward: goat crossing. Once the pack of goats successfully crosses the road the van driver hits the gas pedal with enough might to bust Rob Ford’s body fat through a brick wall. The male intern sits still in the back seat, awake as the day he was born. He is convinced that the driver is strung out on cocaine based on the reckless way he navigates the dirt roads – masterfully dodging renegade cows, chickens, goats, ducks, and the odd 3 year-old child. The rest of the car is fast asleep. Apparently the male intern is the only person who cannot be lulled to sleep by an endless string of near-miss head on collisions.
A half hour later the weary travellers arrive in Soroti, a town in the Teso region, and settle into their respective rooms.
At 6:30 the next morning the entire town wakes to the sound of roosters crowing. The male intern shoots out of bed and hits his head on a metal bar supporting a mosquito net: “MOTHER SHITTER!…Hue? Is that you!?!” Seconds later a chorus of goats, chickens, and cows join their rooster compatriots and the air fills with sounds of animals starting their day. Alarm clocks are obsolete in rural Uganda.
As the FRA Staffers drive through Soroti the female intern realizes that Uganda has taken a toll on her male counterpart’s attitude towards livestock. The van passes a small-scale farm where 9 or 10 cows graze in the field:
Male intern: “Man, that family must be rich! Look at how many cows they own. Do you think there is a wedding coming up?”
Female intern: “Really? That’s your first reaction? I definitely thought you would open with ‘Holy Cow’… you’ve changed”
9:30 rolls around. The dialogue is supposed to start shortly after 9:00 in a village an hour away from Soroti. FRA is the organizer of the dialogue, but has not left Soroti. After making a 30 minute pit stop at a local NGO Secretariat to pick up a projector, the FRA contingent finally departs for the first dialogue more than an hour after it is set to start.
At 11:30, after getting lost 4 times, the van finally arrives at the meeting spot where the dialogue is set to take place. True to form, the FRA Staff is the first to arrive. Po1 exclaims, “See! No reason for worry! It is the rainy season so farmers must tend to their gardens before they can leave their households. Nothing starts before 11:00 in the rainy season.” Po2 shoots Po1 a dirty look. Po1 lets out a loud chuckle and walks away.
Absolutely everything grows the equatorial paradise that is Uganda. Every millimetre of land is covered in life: green grasslands, monstrous trees, moss-covered rock formations, blue streams, small-scale farms, and free-range livestock. The male intern is not a religious guy but thinks that if there is a Garden of Eden, it is located in Eastern Uganda. He is also perplexed why food insecurity is such a large problem in a place where everything grows. Ecology cannot be the problem so widespread hunger in rural Uganda must come from somewhere else.
A large cow charges at the male intern. The incident effectively ends his period of reflection and replaces it with crap in his pants… not literally.
The dialogues commence a few minutes after the male intern’s front row seat to East Africa’s version of Calgary Stampede… minus Justin Trudeau in a hideous cowboy hat. The purpose of the dialogues is to share the findings of a baseline report (conducted by FRA) with farmers and local stakeholders. The report outlines the critical gaps that make women vulnerable to shocks of poverty, hunger, and malnutrition in Uganda. The findings in the report will be used as a basis for a project that will seek to enhance women’s resilience in agriculture.
A project to enhance women’s resilience in agriculture is of first order importance in the Teso region. As it stands, Ugandan women undertake the majority of productive labour on small-scale farms, yet they remain marginalized, mistreated, and suffer from an overall lack of empowerment. This lack of empowerment is rooted in deeply embedded patriarchal structures that limit women from reaping the benefits of their hard work. For instance, even though women cultivate and sell most of the food grown on their land, their husbands are the ones who control household income. As a result, many Ugandan women do not have any say on how their hard-earned money is spent.
Further, women are systematically excluded from agricultural policy making processes at the community level. In fact, the study conducted by FRA finds that women: (1) are not invited to community fora; (2) remain literally voiceless if they are invited; (3) are not taken into consideration in decisions that affect their productive labour. Consequently, Ugandan women in agriculture largely remain second-class citizens that lack a proportionate measure of decision making power on their farms.
Quite simply, when more than half of the productive labourers in the agricultural sector are systematically oppressed, even people who live in the Garden of Eden are not immune from food insecurity. The issue of food insecurity is exacerbated when you mix the pre-existing patriarchal structures in Ugandan rural society with complex land title issues, extremely high birth rates (usually upwards of 7 children per mother), unbalanced divisions of labour, inadequate access to agricultural extension services, environmental shocks, oppressive gender roles, corruption, seed patents, systemic alcoholism, and lack of access to quality agricultural inputs.
Furthermore, thanks to neoliberal globalization – and a few other ideas dreamed up by enlightenment thinkers – Ugandan farmers have been forced to produce cash crops at the exclusion of subsistence crops (or food crops). This has resulted in a painful irony: Ugandan farmers sleep hungry because the revenue from their cash crops does not provide them with enough income to purchase food. That is, farmers and their families suffer from food insecurity because exogenously imposed costs of living force them to sell everything they grow. More, even if farmers maintain a small surplus for consumption, they still face malnutrition because monocropping has hindered their ability to grow a variety of food on their farms.
Gone are the days of farmers living off their land.
The world has been completely turned on its head for almost all Ugandans. Less than a generation ago, the few that lived in urban areas would return from their respective villages with enough food to sustain them for weeks. As Uganda rapidly urbanizes patters of self-sufficient subsistence farming are being reversed. Now, people who live in rural villages travel to urban areas in search of food.
The FRA Secretariat Staff climbs into the van after an exhausting day of dialogues, interviews, and focus groups. Small-scale farms zoom past them as their driver attempts break the land speed record on a mud road. The male intern is overcome by the beauty of the landscape. He is still taken aback by the amount of biodiversity outside the van window. Still, as the sun sets over endless fields of matooke, beans, and cassava, both interns cannot contain their frustration with the paradoxes that characterize Ugandan agriculture:
Based on Uganda’s comparative advantages in agriculture it should be the fattest country in the world, yet the people are the thinnest. Everything grows, but hunger and malnutrition persist. There is food everywhere, but not a bite to eat.
Epilogue: Power in Context
As relatively wealthy white Canadans, everything that we say or do is contextually driven. Our thoughts about human nature, liberty, and individualism are rooted in Western political philosophy; the clothes we wear on our backs are produced in the context of a globalized world; and all of our actions, whether we like it or not, are embedded in unequal power structures that stretch back centuries. As much as Rachel and I would like to believe our actions are rooted in agency, a brief trip to a farming community in Eastern Uganda has shown us that exogenously given context plays a very important role in determining the implications of our actions.
Here is an account of our trip to the farming community. No context, just the facts:
Two interns (1 girl and 1 boy) drove to a nearby farming community to take pictures for promotion materials. They were asked to do so by their superior as she was busy with another task. Upon arrival they stepped out of the van, snapped some shots of the surrounding community, and climbed back in the vehicle.
Objectively, the facts appear to be quite innocent, if not inconsequential. After all, it is an intern’s job to complete tasks that her or his superiors do not have the time to undertake. The act of taking some pictures on behalf of an organization is then a well-suited task for a couple of interns. By doing so, their superiors have one less task to complete and the interns get to take a short field trip to a farming community.
On the face, the situation appears to be a win-win; however, when context is taken into account it becomes evident that the field trip caused more harm than good. That is, at the micro level the host organization benefited from the photos taken in the field, but at the macro level the act of taking the photos perpetuated a number of harmful stereotypes about the relationship between the global North and global South – and that alone is inherently harmful.
Here is a context-driven account of the facts:
Two upper-middleclass white Canadians (1 girl and 1 boy) step out of a large minivan into a farming community located in Eastern Uganda. The minivan is driven and serviced by a Ugandan man. He is their personal chauffer for the outing. The Canadians are interns at a prominent NGO secretariat located in Kampala, Uganda. The interns and a few other secretariat staff are on a four day exertion to Eastern Uganda to conduct dialogues with farmers. During one of the dialogues the Canadian interns are tasked by their Ugandan supervisor to take photos for promotional materials. The Canadians quietly slip out of the dialogue meeting and direct the driver to take them to a nearby village.
The two white Canadians step out of the van wearing business attire. The boy wears brown dress shoes, khaki shorts, and a dress shirt. The girl wears flats, high waist dress pants, and a matching dress shirt. They both grip expensive iPhones that they will use as cameras. Everybody else in the community is dressed in farmer’s attire: loose-fitting pants, a mud-stained shirt, and maybe an old pair of shoes. The people in the community are not poor. In fact, each farm has no less than 3 cows grazing in its fields. In Uganda a cow sells for 1 million Ugandan Schillings which is around 400 Canadian Dollars. Even still, the Canadian interns are comparatively wealthy and their affluence shows whether they like it or not.
Within seconds of the Canadains leaving the van they are swarmed by a pack of children dressed in muddy school uniforms. A few famers approach the interns and ask them what their business is in the community. The interns explain to the farmers that they were sent by a farming organization to take pictures for promotional materials. After a few more seconds of conversation the interns gain the farmer’s consent and begin to take pictures.
The male intern walks 25 metres down the road to a matooke field. Children follow him and try to jump in his shots of the filed. He has to explain to the children that he cannot take their picture: “No people, no people, just the cows and matooke”. The children look at him with disappointment, but follow him to the next field with hopes of making it into another picture.
Young children grasp the female intern’s hand as she approaches a small-scale farm. She politely realises her grip on a child’s hand and snaps a few shots of the farm.
The interns return to a central meeting place, give each other an uncomfortable look and decide to head back to the van. They got what they came for. The boy puts his iPhone in his pocket as the girl quickly shuts the van door. Children follow the van as it pulls away from the farming community and the two interns cannot help but feel uncomfortable.
The Canadians were uncomfortable because they realized the implications of their actions. They knew that the children will not remember them as two students of development who simply did as they were told. Rather, the children will remember them as just another pair of rich muzungus who parachuted into their community, took what they needed, and left. Neo-colonial patters of exploitation were perpetuated, unequal power dynamics remained entrenched, and representations of the relationship between the global North and global South went unchallenged.