Happy 2013 and what a glorious day to be alive!
Since I first learned about the Mayan calendar in sixth grade, I have lived in perpetual fear that 2012 would be my final year. And what a waste that would have been! After 17 years of schooling, I have finally ventured out into the “real world,” and if that world had suddenly collapsed seven months into my journey, all of that education would have been a waste. I might as well have skipped school and braved the world at an earlier age.
Now my decision to keep studying seems to have paid off. It looks like the Mayans were wrong – or perhaps they just miscalculated by a few weeks and the apocalypse is still lurking around the corner.
Regardless, I am ecstatic to be alive and I enter 2013 with renewed zest and urgency. The five months I have remaining in Uganda will fly by and there is still much to be done. I am currently working on two primary research projects: examining newspaper coverage of the Ugandan military since 1998 and exploring the media’s coverage of homosexuality since 2005.
Meanwhile, I hope to write more this year (for this blog and various publications) and to conduct more side projects. I want to take up boxing at a local gym, play more Ultimate Frisbee, and improve my soccer skills (which won’t be hard to do, since those are currently nonexistent). I will travel around East Africa, climb mountains, and explore several religious texts (including the Bhagavad Gita, the Analects¸ and the Quran).
Perhaps my most ambitious goal is to read 40 books in 2013. This will be tough for me, since I have a habit of buying more books than I have time to read, but at least I got a head start by finishing two great ones on the 30-hour trip from Austin to Kampala. I read Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity and Melissa Fay Greene’s Praying for Sheetrock.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers reveals the ambitions and struggles of slum dwellers who live next to Mumbai’s international airport. Their entire economy is based on that airport. While the luckiest residents might land a job at a nearby hotel, most people gather and recycle discarded trash. For boys as young as five years old, foraging for trash in a crowded city is incredibly dangerous, but the dollar that they can earn goes a long way toward supporting their families.
Boo exposes the vulnerability of these foragers, many of whom don’t survive past their tenth birthdays, as well as the growing disparity between Mumbai’s rich and poor, but she also describes the hopes and ambitions these residents have. They dream about a brighter future where they can have a job and move out of the slum, but because of structural obstacles and socioeconomic inequality, there are only three paths to prosperity: education, entrepreneurship, and corruption.
Education is the steepest road to climb. If a child scores almost perfectly on national exams, she will get a scholarship to a public university. For slum dwellers who can’t afford private tutors and need their children to earn extra money, this is virtually impossible.
Entrepreneurship is a surer path to take, but it’s tough to be an entrepreneur with no education, capital, or relationships with other businesspeople. Many of the young foragers are amazingly creative in how and where they gather rubbish (they might give folks in Silicon Valley a run for their money in a creativity contest), but unfortunately, entrepreneurship in trash collecting won’t make them millionaires.
And as in Uganda, corruption is one of the easiest paths to financial stability. Boo’s most interesting insight is that many of the NGOs that claim to help the slum dwellers actually exploit them. As seen in Slumdog Millionaire, kingpins and queenpins sometimes convince children to beg or steal for them. More elaborately, middle-class entrepreneurs have established NGOs and solicited donations abroad to “save the children” in India. Once a year, donors from Europe and the United States visit the Mumbai slum and are greeted by dozens of children who thank them for clothing and education. At the end of the day, the donors return to their four-star hotels, the children each receive a kilogram of rice, and the head of the NGO goes home with $10,000 of donation money—none of it to be used on any programs in the slum.
As you can imagine, few of the slum dwellers were able to achieve their dreams and the book was fairly bleak as a result. Nevertheless, these were still important stories to hear–especially for those of us who frequent international airports. As we drop $1,000+ on international plane tickets, we never know who is making a living on discarded water bottles.
Like Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Praying for Sheetrock reveals the complex obstacles in the long, hard struggle for socioeconomic justice. Set in a small Georgia town that was virtually untouched by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, this nonfiction book describes how a community fought for equal rights with the help of public interest attorneys in the 1970s. For a future law student who is passionate about social justice, it was an inspiring tale, but one that was neither simple nor ideal. There were no landmark court cases or moments of triumph, and even today, economic power is still vested in the old white families of the South. But through trial and error, fits and starts, a few brave individuals made slow and incremental changes that fundamentally reshaped the balance of power.
Despite the inspirational story, the book ends on a somber note. The main protagonist—the black leader who repeatedly takes a stand against discrimination and is eventually elected to become county commissioner—is arrested in a drug bust. As the town’s economy dried up, some of his closest associates entered the drug trade, and over time, the leader’s resistance to it grinded down. He never sold any drugs himself, but he was still present and complicit when a friend of his sold three kilograms of cocaine to an undercover cop.
I enjoyed this book because it shows how individuals can create socioeconomic and political change without glorifying, victimizing, or condemning anyone. Just as villains can change their minds and join the cause of good (as many white segregationists did during the Civil Rights Movement), so too can heroes make mistakes.