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Blog post: Poor and Rich People

“Just pay, and it’ll be over,”

says the police officer.

We stifle a response. It’s unjust, but we get no choice. Our driver is adamant. When we don’t yield to his outrageous demands, we’ll be taken to the bureau and miss our flight home. Angry and disappointed we give him the money he wants. It won’t put us out of pocket, but our trust has been shaken. We thought we had paid our driver well and that he liked us. When we walk into the departure hall we turn our heads and see that he gives the officer a bundle of bank notes. They’ve been in cahoots.

Our days in Uganda are over. The difference between us the rich and Ugandans has mattered all the time. What they make in a day, is little more than a tip to us. The Ugandans know that. We realize that a small sum of money can effortlessly get rid of their problems. And it’s often tempting to do so.

Take Enoch. He’s an intelligent, ambitious young man, who’s put his heart and soul into the project. He lost his brother in a car accident and became responsible for his seven children. His brother too was involved in our project, and our group felt a responsibility for Enoch’s financial problems, which the accident had caused. We wanted to help him, raise the school fees for his foster children.

Enoch mentioned the amount needed, but didn’t lighten up when we told him we’d be willing to pay it. Actually, he needed more, because he had to pay school fees every month. And, it wasn’t about seven children, but nine. Because, in addition to his brother’s seven children he also had the care of others.

In the end we passed an envelope around, so we all could make a contribution. When we gave it to Enoch, his face was inscrutable. I had expected him to voice his gratitude, but he didn’t. I felt a little ashamed of my expectation, because what did our gift really mean for our own situation. Nothing, The point is that we had hoped to solve a problem with our gesture. That was being simple minded: Enoch still had a problem.

And then there was Flora. A farming woman who had lost eighty percent of her livestock to the pocks. She told us the entire story and we expressed our sympathies. “What now?” she asked. She expected that the interested white people, who spent all afternoon talking with her, whom she had served tea, would help her. We felt embarrassed. Our project is namely based on the equal exchange of knowledge, on not on gifts of money from us.

Uganda’s teeming with development workers and NGOs. Small wonder that Ugandans expect help from muzunges (white people). When we met a white man or woman, nine out of ten times it was a volunteer participating in a project, such as orphans, elephants, cranes, chimpanzees, HIV patients, child soldiers, the environment, etc.

I sometimes found it hard to acknowledge that I too was committed to preserving something, namely biodiversity and the Ankola cows in particular. As if our project lost meaning, because there were so many others. Because of Flora’s question, we decided to give everyone we visited a small amount of money, as compensation for their time.

That wasn’t enough for the farmer who had offered us yoghurt in his traditional hut, and from a traditional pot. This meeting overwhelmed us; it felt so authentic. The farmer knew that and asked us for some money for his wife. I answered that our co-ordinator would settle the financial part, but that I had brought a souvenir from the Netherlands. I then gave his wife a tin decorated in an old-fashioned Dutch way, full of candied waffles. I expected her to share it with her numerous children. But no, she ate the waffles, straightaway and down to the last crumbs, all by herself.

I think there is no sense in helping these people. They can do everything by themselves. We’ve met so many intelligent, skilled, idealistic and hard-working Ugandans. The only thing that can really help them make progress, is self-confidence.

Robert, a Ugandan in his mid twenties, also involved with the Ankola breed, told me he considered himself a conservative man, because he wanted to hold on to what is old. That made him unsure of himself. “But I’m right,” he said. “Old breeds are important for biodiversity. It’s modern to see them like that. These people fully agree with me.” He beamed looking around the circle.

Emanuel was a rich farmer, proudly showing us his ample livestock. As a child he enjoyed honey every day, from a honeycomb he’d found at the back of his parental home. Now he can’t find honey anywhere. Where are the bees?, he asked himself. We told him that we hadn’t seen any insects on the cowpats and that we feared this was due to the poison used to spray the cows and protect them against ticks. He agreed.

“But what am I to do?, he asked. “The ticks make my cows ill.”

“I have a prescription for medicinal plants,”

said our Indian colleague Dr. Nair.

Emanuel listened with interest to Dr. Nair and became enthusiastic. He now wants to start a school, teaching farmers about these herbs.

We also organized a day on medicinal plants. Three farmers were asked to bring herbs which they knew how to apply. In the end everyone who’d been invited brought a bunch of plants. It turned into a long, but inspiring day! These people know more than they realize.

It’s hard to row upstream. The whole world wants more. More production, more money, more status. We in the Netherlands want that too and the consequences of that urge, are far-reaching: we’ve lost the far bigger part of our biodiversity, and the life in our soil is not doing well. But we are rich, and that’s what Ugandans want to become too.

And then Dick came along, a progressive farmer. With the discipline he applied when he was a colonel in the Ugandan army, he’s now working systematically on raising milk production to the max. He uses Holstein Frisians to do this. An imported breed, common where we come from. This cow produces much more milk than native breeds, but is not equipped to handle Ugandan conditions.

As a result Frisians are often ill and need a lot of antibiotics. These antibiotics often end up in the milk, which is a threat to public health. On top, the antibiotics are also a threat to Dick’s wallet. In the past months he’s seen his profit being spent on this expensive medicine! Dick therefore had a willing ear for other production methods. He’s now investigating the financial feasibility of a more organic way of operating.

Will the tide turn? We have a dairy farm in the Netherlands and want to switch from the usual to organic. Our experiences in Uganda have contributed to that. The experiences of the farmers over there, were so similar to ours.

People in Uganda and in the Netherlands who want to solve problems in an environmentally friendly manner, have it hard. Every big company and organization advises: monoculture, high production, pesticides, antibiotics, etc. If you want to do things differently, you can’t do that on your own and you must get organized. Sharing experiences with colleagues from other countries inspires and empowers.

The stories of Ugandan farmers have strengthened our resolve and enriched us. We want to commit more to biodiversity over here, on our own cold mudflats. We want to rally against the cry for ever-higher milk production. We want more, that’s true. We want more biodiversity, because that also makes us rich.

Janna van der Meer, April 9, 2015.