FRIDAY 15 January
The story of 2020 was one of constriction, isolation, a space socially created around each of us for survival. Enter January, 2021, and vaccines and hope and . . . . elections. America imploded with a mob taking the 2nd amendment right to bear arms to its logically unintended extreme: if we don’t like the government other people voted for, if we feel it is illegitimate, then we are revolutionary heroes for storming the Capitol. And just as we were watching new depths of self-serving justification and hearing speeches about accountability . . . . Uganda went full lock-down mode.
Because Thursday, 14 January, we had our own elections. In our case, a handful of opposition candidates are challenging the ruling National Resistance Movement. We have a 35-year incumbent whose vision for a thriving economy and self-determination now feels to a generation born long after Amin and the bush wars as if he is just holding onto power for power’s sake. Perhaps after watching even America fail at running a credible election, our president here in Uganda simply put up a total firewall. On Wednesday we noticed slowing of the internet, and all our friends said, just use a VPN. We do a lot of patient care communication by What’s App. By evening we were cut off completely. No internet-based anything: no loading pages, looking up references, sending emails. No imessage, what’s app, facetime, Facebook messenger. No news.
Thursday, the election day, was orderly in our district. We did hear of someone accused of preparing to stuff ballots, but the military came to his house, he let them in, they searched and confirmed it was all a big rumour, and the election went on. Our community centre across the street is a polling station, and we saw people lining up dutifully all day. A friend told me she stood in the rain for 4 hours for her turn. There were temperature checks, hand washing stations, masks required, and devices loaded with all the voter data to check ID cards and photos against the database. There were clearly visible ballot boxes. It all seemed very organised.
At first the lack of internet was just annoying and left us a bit incredulous. By the 24 hour mark I bought airtime to use straight cellular phone time to make voice calls to our moms and the couple of kids we could reach, saying we are fine but you won’t hear from us for a while. We aren’t receiving your messages or emails and don’t feel bad when we don’t respond. Now Friday at the 48 hour mark I am calling my mom in NC to hear what AP and Reuters are saying about the Uganda election: that the opposition is crying foul, that the police and military are patrolling the streets, that the incumbent president is well ahead in early results. We have twice called friends in America to ask them to email people whose previously-set meetings we are now missing. We are dreading the eventual return of service with the dam-burst of back-logged work.
But in the meantime, at least we CAN for now still use voice calls, even if they are expensive and hard to hear. I just walked down to talk to a team mate . . . we do so much team communication by text chains. Someone wanted to bake and realised her recipe was online, I threw in my opinions of ingredient quantity. I was dosing morphine for a child with severe pain from sickle cell and second guessing myself on no-references-available medication writing. I wanted to communicate with our surgeon in Kampala and a neurologist in Mbarara. Not yet. We went to see a sick neighbour and Scott did an ultrasound, then told him he needed to look up something in a 20-year-old text book that we would usually just use our on-line references to consider. Meanwhile I see mingling in yards, kids riding bikes, and realise for most of Bundibugyo the presence or absence of connection to the wider world is not much of an impact.
No news is good news, is an army-family mantra. If you’ve not heard anything, it’s all OK. However that assumes that “no news” is because nothing is happening, not because you’re cut off from hearing it. As a person whose five dearest humans live very very far away, whose moms could have any number of medical crises, whose job involves mentoring and supervision by internet-based mechanisms for multiple teams across East and Central Africa, whose organisational role connects us nearly daily with many continents, whose last conversations with one team involved rebels invading a fairly nearby town and last conversation with another involved some looming potential crisis . . well, it’s hard to feel that no news is good.
As Scott reminded us, when we moved here in 1993, this was our life—no email, no internet, no mail, no phone. We had a radio to call a MAF plane in an emergency. When we were attacked by rebels it took days to reach safety and send a fax. When my first niece was born it took days for us to get a fax delivered to a post office hours away. Oh, how our expectations have changed!
So, back to 2020 . . trying to embrace this little window of world-quiet. Of not-knowing. Of living on our small radius of what we can see and touch and hear.
SUNDAY 17 Jan
Day 5 of disconnection taken to a next-level.
Positives: finding out how frequently we turn to a phone for an answer. A spelling or definition, a dose, an historical fact, a location, news, a disagreement settled, a curiosity satisfied. Listening to birds, quieting one’s mind, sending prayers.
Negatives: never knowing if our extended families are fine, or just incommunicado. Thinking about the work piling up. Missing deadlines. Missing faces.
Our incumbent president won, of course. We actually do not doubt that result. There was a dignified ceremony run by the electoral commission and televised on Ugandan TV on Saturday afternoon, giving all the vote tallies and percentages, publicly stamping the papers saying Museveni is not only the president he’s the president-elect. The countryside sings his praises. Today we visited one of our young doctors, and his mother gave a speech: Amin threw out the Indians and Europeans. Museveni brought them back. Because of this mission (us), my orphan son got scholarships, training, discipline, opportunity. Thank you God, thank you Museveni. He is seen as the source of electricity, roads, hospitals, development. So the idea that 58% of the voters (who were only half of those age-eligible to vote) came out to support him is not shocking. The fact that the main opposition candidate garnered 35% IS surprising. Museveni usually wins by much higher margins. So yes, there is a young contingent that is ready for change. Uganda’s next task is to figure out: how do we get that change without violence or implosion, how do we move beyond one man’s vision and rule after a generation? It will not be easy. And 5 days of no internet does not build confidence.
We miss communication; and we hope it is back tomorrow.
TUES 19 Jan
Yesterday late morning, working in NICU, suddenly my phone started buzzing. Nearly 300 emails pouring in, dozens and dozens of texts. HOORAY. Uganda still has social media shut down, but the internet is back up. And those who can manage a VPN can connect on what’s app too . . .but the choke on it is enough of a deterrent to make it unlikely to be used for mass mobilisation (having an internet-capable phone, paying for data, paying for a special tax the country imposes to use social media, getting a VPN, all mean a significant barrier as intended). Also, as noted in the newspaper today, culturally people here expect to be paid to show up for a candidate, so it would take a LOT to get them rallying at this point.
We were practically giddy getting home. Sure we didn’t get to have lunch til almost 4, but we watched some news and checked some web sites and had a family FaceTime and texted others, and by 7 we were were on a Leadership Foundations Round Table with 11 other Sergers. HOORAY.
Truth be told, the tyranny of demands can make the accessibility feel over the top at times, but when it is gone, we realise just how far we are from many of the people who occupy our hearts. Being an Area Director located in a very small place on the Uganda/Congo border rather than in a hub city . . . is possible only because of internet. Being a human who supports her family from a distant village is also only possible because of the internet. So I for one am glad to be turning the corner back to “normal.”
SUNDAY 24 Jan
And here we are at the end of the week, a blur of meetings and calls once we were back in range, the week that was our turn to not only lead the book study and business for team meeting but also prepare a prayer time; the week that it was not only our responsibility to prepare the fire and oven and dishes and space but also make all the dough/sauce/toppings for our weekly pizza night. The week that another round of elections went by, this time for our “governor” (LC5 in the ascending hierarchy of local councils elected by the population), which ended in a surprise upset, nights of loud music, days of processions in the streets. The week that patients and workers started coming back to normal levels at the hospital (not that we ever noted a lack of patients, but the workers were thin on election days). The week we lost our tiniest preemie, but revived the second-smallest who presses on. The week we learned of more stresses and traumas for our teams, had more phone calls, more prayer. The week we woke up in the night to an hysterical sobbing call from a dear friend who thought her 2-year-old was dying, and rushed the child to the hospital for oxygen. The week a CSB teacher’s illness turned into a community panic about witchcraft. The week only half our CSB seniors returned to school to finish a delayed 3rd term preparing for national exams (but as of today, we are only missing a handful).
But also the week of America’s inauguration, the week that we hope our country turned a corner towards reaffirming democracy and the value of laws, balances, institutions instead of one dominant personality.
Our team book study? Surprised by Hope. Seems like a good title for 2021.