O – Diary #15

Diary #15
2nd October 2012
“Both sides now”?

Where is Joni Mitchell when you need her? Recuperation from malaria has one or two tenuous benefits. What one is recuperating from is closer to the fevered frontal cortex, but a smattering of reflection never goes amiss. And anyway I’ve run out of Podcasts.

I’m trying to work out what it is that makes this culture so hard to “mesh” with. The very notion that it should be anything else is, of course, quite presumptuous on the part of our well-meaning aid worker man. No doubt my culture is something of an enigma, too, but that hasn’t stopped our parasitic man in Kampala from giving it a crack.

Peter lent me an interesting book by an academic, Eric Dudley, called The Critical Villager. Poor Eric gets carried away in a flood of his own terminology at times but he does make some good points about the ways that well-intentioned assistance in developing cultures, “aid”, can be non- or counter-productive. So, as you can imagine, I was keen to plough on; goodness, my third book in as many months!

He explains that many “big ideas” fail in their execution because there’s a vital ingredient missing in the local culture, which he calls a “background deficit”. This will be something we unreasonably assume is present because it’s so ingrained in our own culture.

Take the veggie patch I helped Ayubu build (or was it the other way round?) To my credit I DID ask not only “how can we solve this problem (of lack of flavor in their food)?” but also “what could stop this herb garden from solving the problem?” There are loads of potential threats! The most likely, I figured, was that we would grow the herbs fine but that the maid just wouldn’t want to threaten her traditional cooking skills by entrusting my supposed culinary knowledge to her recipes. “What do you mean you put chopped up smelly leaves into a perfectly good dish of tasteless maize gruel? ”

As it transpires, even as the parsley and sage are poking through the rich volcanic soil, already there is a more terminal challenge rearing its head than even Mariam’s reluctance. Wild chickens. I don’t mean to say they’re any more savage than your average brood but they do wander around the village systematically, scratching away at the soil like warring invaders, a sort of War of the Worlds meets Chicken Run.

So my natural concern was to protect our crop of questionable value from the ravages of these pests. You understand, don’t you? Maybe some netting, even a mosquito net (i thought that was a good solution, and cheap too) or even…. chicken wire? And I could tell Ayubu was troubled by this whole concept, making copious excuses for procrastinating or altogether abandoning the protection project. But there you are, I’d overlooked a background deficit, a vital piece of the Ugandan cultural jigsaw. He simply doesn’t appreciate the destructive power of a herd of poultry, and I use the collective noun advisedly, hell-bent on wreaking environmental destruction in the name of a grub or two. Never faced it before. Not in his genes. It won’t be a problem! And maybe he’s right, but I don’t think so. In any case shouldn’t we reduce the risk? Well no, another jigsaw piece… Things Going Wrong is just part of life here. You don’t avoid problems, you cope with them after they go wrong. That’s actually a major attitude problem that I think needs addressing. (Saying that, at least they have compulsory 3rd party car insurance, but that’s another story.)

But there’s another reason Ayubu doesn’t want to protect his herbs. I should have picked up on it when the construction project was complete and we stood back with passing friends to admire the wonky brickwork in all its 3rd World glory…. status. In The Critical Villager, status symbols are often the downfall of a well intended Big Idea. To Ayubu, the status of a brick construction, even 3 bricks high, would doubtless be diminished by covering it with anything that might prevent the passing admiration of perceived permanence.

So I’ve learned something. Now iron work is also well-regarded here so maybe a wrought iron poultry shield will be a more appropriate solution. And this sort of discovery is so enlightening! Can you imagine the thrill of seeing a problem and its solution through an alien’s eyes…..?

I can’t stop there, because the more I think about background deficits the more occasions I recall which at the time perplexed me, which now I might now approach quite differently, more appropriately and with better results.

Lying here today, fast asleep and with a soaring fever, why did Mama come in and say in a commanding voice “Sim, you are asleep”? Well of course I am, I’m sick as a pig. At least I WAS asleep, thank you for waking me up. They just don’t “get” that it would be kinder to let me sleep.

What’s the “BD” here, I mused, after recovering from the shock of consciousness. Why don’t they get that? I can only assume they’ve never been treated like that themselves. They’ve always been awoken rudely to get back to their chores. It’s a delicate question to tackle directly so you have to make assumptions like that and then put them to the test on a separate occasion. And you can’t assume that everyone will comply to the same set of norms either.

And I’ve only just finished chapter 1… stand back!! As for “meshing”,  this has to help. I guess everything, even recuperation, has two sides. I feel blessed to be at least temporarily on the other side of this one.


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