Ever since my first trip to the African continent I have devoured every resource I can get my hands on regarding history, development, policy, economics and all of the other complexities that surround development in general. More recently I’ve spent the last few months (or really since I left Uganda the first time and saw how severe their electrification problem is) filling my brain with numbers about electrification, policy, too many impact assessments of rural electrification projects, microfinance, impact evaluation methodology, and statistics. Without realizing it I approached my research here with a rather aloof and scientific perspective. I poured over my questionnaire to figure out precisely what data I would need to make valuable conclusions about electricity access and economic well-being. But now that I’m here and I’ve spent a good portion of the last week driving through the hilly green western Ugandan countryside to rural areas lacking grid access, I realize that I failed to remember how in your face poverty can become. It’s easy to pour over numbers and theories and get excited about new ideas but sometimes this all becomes irrelevant when you sit in people’s homes and find out precisely how difficult their situation is and how so many people really are stuck in a poverty trap (to quote the book Poor Economics).
Three days of interviews and it’s already started to feel like something I could do in my sleep. I diligently fill in the boxes in my stapled questionnaires, probing when the information I receive seems unclear. But still I find myself startled and saddened. During one interview with a woman who does not have solar energy, I inquired about how much she pays to charge her phone. She told me nothing. When I asked my translator to ask why, he calmly responded that the community helps her because she is in poor health and has no money. She was merely forced to start her business because she could no longer work on her farm. Most of the businesses I have surveyed run a loss every month. Their weekly turnover (if above zero) is often equal to what I might spend on a beer.
My life in Uganda this time around is worlds different than my last Ugandan experience. The region I live in is lush with rich soil that allows even the poorest to subsist off the land. I live in a huge house with a large yard with a lovely older British couple. Even when I run through hilly (and 1400m altitude!) Mbarara I am not (often) greeted by the constant “Mzungu how are you?” that I was during my runs in Moroto. The weather is beyond perfect—sunny and cool. My spotless new office is entirely run by professional and friendly Ugandan staff and powered by solar power although grid connection exists. But in spite of how nearly perfect life is here, I am confronted daily with the realities and limitations that poverty brings. The people I interview (with and without electricity) work extremely long hours only to run mostly unprofitable businesses. Yet there is often no other alternative for them. The income disparity in this country is unavoidably obvious and makes me wonder that perhaps if the income disparity that we have in the US was equally in your face to most people, then we would choose to do something about it.
Although life is not easy for people in the villages and it’s easy for me to sit through the interview brainstorming how their business might be made to be more profitable; these villagers have a much deeper understanding of the natural world than the western world. Unlike Europe and North America where we have created an artificially perfect environment where we can have whatever food we want whenever we want it, regardless of seasons, drought or weather, rural Ugandans have seen climate change (that was caused by our behaviours in the west) affect their daily lives. These Ugandans may not have even finished high school, often may not even be able to read, and unfortunately have little political power. But they are not debating whether climate change is real because the reality of it has changed their livelihoods. The fact that climate change comes up so frequently during my interviews is perhaps even more saddening when I know that my country has indirectly caused this disaster that is now impacting those most unable to cope with it. Sitting in front of people barely able to support their families makes the useless debate and stubborn unwillingness to change in my own country sickening. Although the comfort filled life in the west is certainly easier, I think rural Ugandans are blessed in a way they don’t realize through their intimate knowledge of the seasons, weather patterns, and their dependence on nature and its resources.