Everything here is completely different from everything back home. It all makes sense in its own way, of course, but that can’t keep things from being pretty overwhelming sometimes. You realize pretty quick on arrival that your cultural references are invalid, your sense of humor is off, your speech is a little too fast, and your voice is entirely too loud. It’s okay; you start to pick things up, if you pay attention. Interactions get smoother. Still, you can’t really be the person you were back home, and that takes a lot of energy. I do love the drain, I think, and I am learning so much from putting in all this effort, but every once in a while I feel the intense need to turn off all my overworked sensors and forget where I am for a long second.
Hellooo, Mr. Tolstoy.
Since I first touched toe to African soil I have tumbled through Infinite Jest, The Four Loves, Winter of Our Discontent, The Road, War and Peace, Striving for the Wind (a famous Kenyan novel), Atonement, and The Great Gatsby. I don’t think I’ve read so many pages in so short a time since those endless middle-school summers when life revolved entirely around the pool, the blacktop, and the sunny armchairs in the living room—and it feels great. I won’t lie, it was difficult to pick the habit back up at first, and I honestly don’t know if I could have done it without the help of the late Foster Wallace’s impossibly engaging prose, but as soon as the groove was got-back-in I’ve had to fight to put down books and actually get my rear end in bed at night. Right now I’m 150 pages from finishing Sometimes a Great Notion, and Ken Kesey is threatening the education of my students at every turn.
“So, uh, today is silent reading day, kids! Teacher Samuel has…business…to attend to.”
As it turns out, my students are safe from this threat, because silent reading would actually be impossible in my English classes; the children don’t own any books. Most of them don’t even have the one book required for class, a two-dollar abridged copy of Oliver Twist. Alex and I have been making 100 copies of each chapter at a time, because otherwise there would be 8 or 9 kids sharing a book. Ugh.
I understand I might look insensitive here, but almost every single one of these kids (and certainly everyone in the Boarding School) could scrape up the money to buy a copy of Oliver Twist, and they also have a library to raid. The problem isn’t funds (they are all paying to constantly text on their cell phones), it’s a complete lack of desire, and a relative lack of consequences. Past Senior 2, literature becomes an elective. All you have to do is learn enough of the character’s names to score above a 40 on your final exam, and you never have to read a novel again. Oh goodie. At the same time, few of the teachers read (I haven’t caught one at it yet), and parents don’t really either, laying a foundation of exactly two positive literary role models: Alex and Sam, the Bazungu Brothers!
To make myself feel better about this trash-seeming-talk, every Ugandan I’ve spoken to agrees that there is a serious problem with the reading culture here, the heart of which is that there isn’t a reading culture here. Reading isn’t seen as a societal imperative or mark of intelligence as it is in (parts of) the States; our friend Ronald, one of the most intelligent and worldly Ugandans I’ve met, who oversees all of Father John’s projects, called us ladies when he caught us nose-deep in novels before rosary. Because, you know, books are for girls.
Which would be great, because then at least books would be for someone.
I learned after my last bout of righteous indignation that it does not pay to get upset about these cultural differences, so instead I chose to investigate the matter with Alex. What we have gathered about Ugandan anti-literacy stands as thus:
First of all, none of the myriad local tribal languages of Uganda had a written system before colonization. Thus, no history of writing/reading, and when writing/reading is introduced, it is done so by foreign invaders with moustaches, monocles, and safari hats.
Second, most Ugandans, urban and rural, have a distinct lack of decent lighting in their homes. This means that during the dark hours—about the only time family members young and old aren’t desperately trying to make ends meet—reading is close to impossible; at the very least it is wrecking your oh-so-necessary (because glasses are hella expensive) vision.
Third, community engagement is paramount in Ugandan culture, and reading is a necessarily solitary endeavor. As mentioned in a previous post, alone time is not a recognized concept in these parts. Solidarity was vital on the savannah, important in villages, and still highly valued in the city. Kids who don’t want to spend the appropriate time with others are considered a little off-kilter, and the nerdy kid who goes off to read constantly can become a downright pariah. Would you read if it meant everyone thought you were broken? Honestly, I don’t think I would have.
So it turns out that there are really legitimate reasons for the state of Ugandan booklessness. The problem is, the more and more I read, the more and more I realize how important novels are to me becoming the kind of person I want to be.
Lev Tolstoy wrote over 500 characters into the pages of War and Peace, and many of the characters go through serious change at some point (a million points) in the novel. As I read the book, without really thinking about it, I was constantly finding those pieces of characters that I wanted to emulate and those that I wanted to avoid, those that I already exhibited and wanted to magnify, and those I exhibit that I would rather went away. Tolstoy gave me a million facets of personality to play with, and it immediately changed how I’ve interacted with people here. And that was just one book!
The best part is, a great author won’t just do that with characters, he/she’ll do it with places and truths and dreams and goals. The more you read the more evidence you have to base your choices around. I know most of you probably understand this already, but it never really hit me deeply until now just how important this evidence is.
To be fair, it is entirely possible to get all of these things from the people around you. Parents and leaders can teach you morals and positive traits and the proper ways to live; the problem is, they only have so much experience themselves. And without different concepts to test against, ideas very quickly become dogmatic and stifling. If I have the desire and time I can read books from all over the world, from every age, and in this way receive the choices of the whole world. What if the tenets of a Zen Buddhist best fit my existence? Or the actions of an Ivanhoe? How about the deep thoughts of the Brothers K? These are things you cannot get from a grandma who also did not read. They are also things that you can’t get from all the politicians on T.V. who hoard power and money and prestige.
Ugandans are reaching out and connecting with others at an unprecedented rate these days. Through T.V., radio, and the internet they are starting to absorb the culture and ideas of places around the country and world. There is incredible potential here. The problem is, I don’t think there is enough substance in these visual-and-auditory level ideas to allow their responsible, proper, informed use. To use something responsibly, properly, and informedly you have to think about it. And to think, truly think, and to have the symbols and ideas and substance with which to think, you need to read. In any case, reading is pretty darn helpful.
I’m doing my best to help my students enjoy the books and poems we’re reading in class, but I understand from my own time as a snotty kid how difficult that task can be. I am left hoping hope that the path Uganda’s careening “development” takes will open up a lane for reading culture (hurray for electric lights!), and that the internet and T.V. won’t step in to completely block the path. Thankfully, as a warrior in this battle, it isn’t too hard to find good resources; I’ll just go read a book about it!