On a flight this morning from New York to Chicago, I was seated next to a couple heading to visit their son. It was snowing, and I mentioned that I hadn’t yet seen snow in New York this winter because I’d been traveling so much. They asked where I was coming from, and when I told them I’d just been in Uganda, the man laughed and said, “You must be hungry.”
I didn’t know how to tell him that I’d eaten better in Kampala than I do in New York — Greek salads, macaroni and cheese, malai kofta, apple pie. I didn’t know how to erase this image of Africa he seemed to have, where people scramble for the few grains of rice that drop off a passing World Food Program truck or where babies bathe, if they bathe, in bracken water collected in a filthy ditch.
It’s not that he’s entirely wrong, which I think is why I have trouble describing Uganda to someone who’s never been there. Parts of the country, those scarred by conflict or disease, provide perfect footage for World Vision’s sponsor-a-child commercials: children sitting naked in the dust, huge families crammed into too-small huts, sons lost to war and daughters to malaria.
At the same time, Kampala is a bustling city, constantly under construction, where you can procure everything from a new Land Rover to a margarita. I am frustrated that people cannot seem to hold both these images in their minds, the same way that they somehow reconcile urban homelessness with Trump Towers and the Chrysler Building.
Even those who have seen both sides of Africa struggle with this, with how to present the realities of extreme poverty and shiny new Mexican restaurants without either feeding stereotypes or wrongly glossing over the problems that do exist. Life in much of Africa is still a struggle for existence, a struggle against hunger and sickness and violence. The same thing can be said of much of America: though civil wars may not regularly threaten our society, gang wars do (Rev told me this week that he’s afraid I’ll die in a drive-by shooting), as do food shortages and a lack of affordable medical care. In both cases, though, glittering skyscrapers and fancy hotels make up a regular part of the landscape. So why is one dichotomy so much more acceptable than they other?
I wish I had known how to explain this to this couple. I’m not sure how much good it would have done, though — as we were getting off the plane, they started harassing an elderly man who was having trouble getting out of his seat, blaming him for holding up the line. “Old people should stay home,” the woman muttered to her husband. It is perhaps not the best sign of my character that, in my exhausted, jetlagged state, I seriously considered kicking both of them.