It takes about an hour for us to drive from Mbarara to Kashongi on the days we work in the field. We get to the office at 8 AM (which is the typical time to start the workday here) and depending on our schedule might leave as early as 8:30. Half of the drive is along paved road, but that doesn’t mean it’s a smooth ride. Speed bumps and humps spill my tea all over my lap, lorry trucks full of people make us swerve around them, and boda boda motorcycles are constantly zipping around making me think at any moment that we might just crash and die (just kidding, Mom, it’s not that dangerous). Even in the back seat, I have to be attentive to the road conditions so I know when to brace myself for the bump or when to roll my window up or down, depending on the smoke and dust coming up ahead.
Lately, it’s been very dusty and very smoky. Or maybe I’m just starting to be more aware of it. The dry season is supposed to be starting/to have started, but with global climate change the seasons are not as reliable as they used to be. This is bad news not just for my laundry which might unexpectedly be rained on while hanging out to dry, but also for the crops by which subsistence farmers feed their families. There are many indirect results of these erratic rainfalls, and women are the most vulnerable to impacts in food security, water and firewood supply, and a decrease in income which leads too often to domestic violence.
There has been some legislative action in Uganda in recent years to combat climate change, such as banning plastic bags and protecting swamp ecosystems. There are not many landfills or even trash cans, so roadsides are littered with debris and small fires where people burn organic waste along with plastic and packaging. The smoke wafts through our windows as we hurry to close them. Still, the amount of trash in Uganda is nothing compared to how much we consume in the US, and even the heavy exhaust from the cars can’t compare with the number (and size) of vehicles on a Michigan road. The ecological crisis here is the result of human action on a global scale, and the health consequences are showing up first in the poorest members of our human family.
When I go out for a field day, I bring with me a large bottle of purified water, but the people of Kashongi and Kitura don’t have the luxury of spending 1,000 UGX (about 33 cents) on water every day, so they fill their jerry cans at rain barrels and bore holes and risk infection and disease. For dinner, I eat a meal cooked in a hotel kitchen on a gas stove, but in the villages women with neither electricity nor the money for gas cook in kitchen huts over wood fires (charcoal if they have more money) that fill the hut and lungs with smoke. After I finish a bag of yoghurt (they spell things British here) I can toss it in the trash can in my room, while in many communities with no garbage pick-up such trash must be burned, releasing some unsavory fumes into the air. The global health crisis is that the poor continue to be at higher risk and with less access to health care because they are poor.
Although my 2-year-old niece finds them boring, I can’t stop taking pictures of Ugandan landscapes. Every day I’m stunned by the beauty here. But I also can’t stop thinking about how many health risks I’ve learned about in school are so present in these communities (and in poor communities in the US) because of the actions and consumption of the rich. The air and skies are shared by all the world and it is really the responsibility of the societies consuming so much of the Earth’s resources and generating so much of it’s waste and pollution to take some action in order to protect the environment for us all. I’m learning every day here how complicated public health is; how solutions need to be comprehensive and arrived at with input from so many interests. All of these problems of environment and health and social justice, though, are so interrelated and are not unique to one community, although they take different shape in different contexts. How daunting to be faced with so many challenges for all of humanity to address, but how inspiring to be among people ready to work for a better world and a better tomorrow.
“The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change.”
-Pope Francis, Laudato Si