About Me

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I teach abroad and continue to pursue the life I was given as if it was my last. Many people think it is. In my spare time, I enjoy lapping up ice cream, reading spy novels, and euthanizing manta rays.

Saturday, June 25, 2011


Mangoes dropping like raindrops.
Children sit under the tree with sticks, awaiting a gust of wind, a fleshy piece of fruit. I come home late in the evening. It's dark. There are women and men in my yard. "Good evening, sir."
What the hell are you doing??? Oh....the mangoes, I think to myself, walking up the patio step and toward my front door.

I smell the foul odor of rotten mango pits, flies swarming in our pea patch, the buzzing droning out the caws of the weavers and kingfishers.
Bats shriek through the night. They are everywhere on campus this month. They hover, they dart, they swirl, but don't attack.

I have finished my final meeting with colleagues and counterparts at the university. Handed in grades. Submitted final reports. Relayed comments and concerns for next year.

I have tried to understand these people I live amongst better the past ten months. It's trying. I'm always going to be an outsider. I'm always going to be viewed differently. Maybe there's a lesson in there for me, though. Maybe it's a feeling everyone should have once in their life. I'm a target. My skin color means something to each of them. I mean something to each of them. They won't communicate what, but after ten months it's fairly obvious.

I have fought privacy, calm, and contentment with Dan. And lost. He does not get it. He never will get it. He is a prisoner in his own meager existence, struggling to make ends meet, to have a roof over his head. His fear is so great of losing that home, losing that identity, he will sacrifice the wishes of his benefactor in order to ensure it. He cannot alter his raking, his hoeing, his slashing, his digging. He must work at seven in the morning, he must wake me up each and every morning. He does not understand that it affects me. My happiness. My sleep. He will never get it. To him, if the place is not military clean, military ready, the fear expands. The fear that someone will come and take away everything he has built.
"They watch me."
"Who Dan? Who watches you?"
There is nobody. There is no big brother, no camera. Camera? They'd be lucky to get a sketch artist to draw the scene. Camera....but Dan is petrified. And conditioned. That's what poverty, fear, the military, and a village upbringing will do to a man.
"I can't leave the compound if there is something out of place, sir."
I look around. It's pristine. There is absolutely nothing wrong with how the compound looks. Three leaves fall from a gust of wind. Dan quickly is out of his hut to pick them up. He hovers, he paces, he dwells. I cannot have a moment alone, out on the patio, drinking my morning coffee, reading an email, doing anything, without seeing him around.

I learn Dan has been charging rent to one of my students who lives with his daughter in the shack behind Dan's shed. Making ends meet. Maybe it's a mutually beneficially relationship. Maybe she's getting a deal. But it's not Dan's place to let. Dan stays for free. Dan stays for free in exchange for upkeep of the compound. If anything, he should be petrified of the university estates finding that out. Not worried sick of keeping the place spotless. The rest of campus is a veritable ghost town compared to our area. But one day, any day, somebody could come and sweep all that out from under Dan, take everything away, force him out. Of course you would worry about that. Of course you would plan for that contingency, squeeze as much as you possibly could without leaving yourself vulnerable. So why should I care? Why does it matter?

In the end, Dan is not unlike me or anyone else. He needs a place to sleep. He needs some food. He needs to care for his family.

In the end, these children don't hover to annoy me. They do it because they're hungry. They want to eat. They want a mango. There is nothing vitriolic in their aims.

Dan wants to please me. He sees dollar signs in the efforts to keep our place clean. Wouldn't I do the same thing?

I respect his work ethic. Many here do not have it.
Many simply have their hands out. Give me money, mzungu. Buy me fruit, mzungu. I've heard them all. They are conditioned to ask before doing. They have been given something and now expect it to be given again. Is it laziness? Brazenness?

I ate dinner with the Dean of Arts and Sciences on Tuesday, met a former MA student of his who had returned from Sweden. "We are lazy. Look at the way we walk. Look at how slow we are. Look at how little we do and yet ask for so much. It is laziness." said the student, a very likable young man who had strong opinions.

I sat and listened.

"I disagree. It is not just laziness," said the Dean. "We are not exposed. You, you have been to Sweden, to Norway. You have seen Europeans. You have seen how they live. How they must work for what they get. I, I too have seen. I lived in Indiana for four years. I saw how my fellow students worked at night to pay for the classes they took the next morning. People in America work two jobs. They have to. They have to. They know what it takes to survive. They know sacrifice."

I have many thoughts on the matter. I have seen. I have watched. I have witnessed. For ten months. "What do you say, Matthew?" the student asked.

"Well, everyone here needs money. But nobody has been taught or shown how to work for it. Or not many. They don't see dividends from school, so they quit. They don't see dividends from their toil, so they quit. People give them money, so they wait. They wait and ask for more. What else would they do? You two have been exposed. You have seen some of the world. But you are the exception..."

It's such a long road ahead to educate and expose Uganda. People aren't learning from their parents or teachers, so they stop seeking education. They stop learning. They quit. The lucky ones have been to Kenya, seen a bit of another culture. Precious few have ever been outside the continent. Seen efficiency, seen a first world country. See what they are missing.

They say God will save them, bless them, provide for them. They make excuses for their situation, their work ethic, their position, laying it at God's table. He'll save them. He knows best. Praying takes care of all the deficiencies, problems, inadequacies.

Or maybe there is a lesson still to be learned. Responsibility. Accountability. Reliability. People laugh at the term African time. It is a punch line. It's also symptomatic of something bigger. People are late or absent and it's a punchline. No, it's an issue of responsibility, accountability, reliability.

This morning, as I type this, I spot my boda boda driver zooming by. A fairly inane tidbit if you don’t consider this: three weeks ago I sold him my Nokia phone for about half the price I should have. I knew he needed one to continue getting business. The day he brought the money over he was about $10 short. “I’m going away for a couple weeks. Can you pay me the difference when I return?” I asked naively.
“Yes, sir. I will bring it for you, sir.”
When I returned and called him, he told me a) he no longer had the motorcycle at his disposal, and b) he couldn’t pay me. “I’m leaving in a week,” I told him. “Please either pay me, give me a boda ride of equal value or return the phone.”
The line went dead and he never answered another of my calls. This morning, when I saw him driving, he immediately turned his head, drove to the other side of the road, and pretended our eyes never met. He will not pay me back. He will not call me back. I will not see that phone again. No accountability. The funny thing is, all year, when I rode behind him and we chatted, he talked of going to America, saving money, getting away from Uganda. I told him to start saving his boda earnings. Save every week. When he’s saved 2 million shillings (about $1,000) I told him to let me know. And now, after ten months, he can’t even pay back the $10. He does not how to save. Nobody has taught him. He doesn’t get the concept.

Maybe it’s me being 36. Maybe it’s me being the outsider, getting flossed time and time again, learning my lessons on the street, from hustlers and cons, urchins and street peddlers. Or maybe it’s the truth.

I must try to convey the good as well. There are students who seek me out, jump at the chance for a scholarship or learning opportunity. And there are many. Our e-learning program is starting in the fall. I nominated seven of the brightest students to apply for acceptance. They registered an email account, have responded to correspondence, checked in with me and the embassy, are following through. They get it. They will succeed.  They have strong ideas, intellectual thoughts, a strong work ethic. Their struggle is how to connect into a society that values those ideas. Find their niche. Here it's not easy.

I could go on. I won’t. My energy needs to be put to better use. How to solve these problems. How to re-focus my goals on teaching these students study skills, life skills, in addition to the writing skills they must improve upon.  As it is now, these concepts are glossed over, ignored, avoided. In class, at home, in the office. And it's leaving these people behind. It's slowing down progress, change. It's retarding growth. It's creating malaise, indifference...to politics, to education, to basic means of living. God does not pave roads. People do. God does not create jobs. People do. Ideas stimulate growth, commerce. But if those ideas have no forum, have no voice, they disappear or worse - are never formulated in the first place. Thinkers become despondent, frustrated. If they're lucky, they get out, find a way to succeed in another community. Another country. Leave and don't ever look back. 

Who is going to teach them? Who is going to change this? Fix this? Care?



  1. Matt, you skillfully articulated the problem!

  2. I love the cell phone story. I've been there and done that. In Africa. It's poignant, true, and pathetic all at once.