We do not know what poverty is in the United States.
We went to Africa to help animals, but what I saw when well beyond the animals. I got in late at night. Ellie and Moses picked me up at the airport with my two fifty pound bags of supplies. I didn’t look at much in the dark. The next morning we changed money from four of my crisp $100 bills into Uganda shillings. Because of the exchange rate, I was a millionaire until we stopped at the first craft shop! All of the items were handmade. Not because they were artistic, but because they could not afford imported plastic. Hand-carved ebony, soapstone, horn, and hand sown items stripped me of my millionaire status. The courtyard was dirt. I don’t remember seeing doors in the tiny stalls.
The capital city had traffic just like ours. The difference was that most of the traffic was botabotas or motorcycles. (Botabota came from the motorcycles that were rented from southern border to South Sudan border.) A few people wore helmets, but most did not. People rented a ride on the back to wherever they were going. Although there might have been some logic to the traffic patterns, I didn’t see it. They drove on the wrong side of the road, passed on both sides of the van, and there were only two traffic lights in the entire country. People sold hand-sewn handkerchiefs for 1000 schillings to us through the windows. (We bought five.)
Leaving the downtown area, we started to see a lot more of the poverty. Shacks made way for the ten-foot huts with grass roofs. There would be a single door of tin or curtain. They were made of a pole and handmade bricks and then plastered with mud or mud and animal dung. Inside the huts would be a dirt floor and a couple of curtains to make compartments. Furniture of the huts we visited consisted of a couple of chairs and a coffee table. Sometimes the chairs were plastic lawn chairs. Sometimes they were a sofa. Across from the table was a place on the floor for the owner to sit. Sleeping would be on a papyrus mat on the floor. There would be no electricity or water. I gifted my solar light charger to the owner of a hut. She was extremely grateful! (I’m not sure where the bathroom was, but public restrooms were very limited in their facilities.) Virtually all of the people we saw lived in these huts.
If there was a family dog or cat, it was not like ours. All of the dogs were basically 35 to 45 pounds with short hair and stick-up ears. They wandered in and out of the huts if they were family and stayed out if they were not. Most were not. Dogs were kept for hunting or protection. If they came too close to the cooking fire, they had a habit of throwing boiling water on the dog to keep it out of the food. Food was what was left over or what they could catch. Dried silverfish is sold at the market to add to food for people and pets. There was no kibble available for sale in all of Gulu. Rich people could travel the six hours to Kampala and buy some there.
Our guide was having some issues with nightmares that were not stress related. When we asked about his food intake, he said he ate some posho (maize meal) or ugali-like millet dish and matooke (steamed/mashed banana) for breakfast. For dinner, he had cassava (a root plant that looks like a cross between a giant sweet potato and a turnip) and beans. If there was enough money, they had beans or groundnuts (peanuts) for lunch. I really think Hassan’s blood sugar was dropping while he slept because he didn’t get enough to eat.
Cassava is a plant we saw growing all over. It was a bushy four-foot plant. The giant roots or tubers were boiled or sun-dried and ground and served with millet seeds. The leaves of the Cassava were also eaten, but not often by me; they had a very bitter taste. The first night we had carrots with cassava in a peanut sauce. Reminding them that I was allergic to carrot meant we didn’t see carrots again except at the buffet in the city, but I think they were common. We were at a vegetarian guest house, but meat was expensive and rare in our area.
We may have seen the only fat pet in all of Uganda. We went on a house call for a cat with a swollen belly. His mom made sure to tell me that she would be back in California later this month and could pick up any meds that we needed. We were all afraid he had Feline Infectious Peritonitis. Turns out the black and white cat, Isaac, was beating up the yellow cat, Precious, and eating all the food. Now he only had to look at her, and she would leave the food bowl. We talked to the mom about some alternative feeding methods that don’t involve bowls and required exercise.
The dogs that we saw in the huts were the Companion Dog Project dogs. PTSD victims were paired with dogs through The Big Fix and then trained over a period of twenty weeks of classes. These dogs were more like ours, but not entirely. These were still more reserved. They don’t run up to you. I didn’t get any dog kisses. And I didn’t see the Wow-You-Are-Finally-Home wag. They would sit quietly at their owner’s feet as a sign of affection. Maybe they didn’t have enough energy to be exuberant. There was a cat that jumped into my window and slept on my feet. I’m not sure that he needed companionship as much as he wanted warmth.
We were there to take care of the animals, but I think it is hard for people to take care of animals when they cannot feed themselves or their children. People are learning that dogs and cats can be trained and be useful companions, but they first must be able to feed themselves. It is impossible to force our standards on them when we don’t truly understand what poverty is.