Any Westerner with a sufficiently developed conscience could easily develop a guilt complex while living in a country like Uganda. So I’m not sure whether the compounds that most of us live in are supposed to help guard against (among other things) that guilt, or to add to it.
Our compound is by no means an island, cut off from the rest of Uganda: the smells from the surrounding area are still potent; the sounds still drift in at all hours of the day, and unfortunately, well into the night; electricity still goes out often and unpredictably. Also, bear in mind that it’s not just paranoid or privileged Westerners who inhabit compounds such as ours; there are also many Indians and members of the Ugandan middle class.
Nevertheless, life inside a compound is probably not what you would imagine when you think of urban African living — and this isn’t just another situation where Western stereotypes of Africa are outdated or unfounded. In truth, our neighbours who don’t live in compounds live in one-storey brick or cement houses with corrugated aluminium roofs, and they make do without uniformed guards. Because their dwellings are smaller, they tend to spend more of their time outside.
I guess I’m not sure whether there’s anything wrong about our current setup. Many of our Ugandan friends seem to think it’s a necessity for us. But in some ways, we’re just making substitutions to the arrangement that suburban Americans have:
- They have a long wall, made of distance, separating them from people they find threatening or different; we have a tall wall, made of cement
- US suburbanites have high tech security systems; we have a human security guard
- Americans can remain blissfully ignorant of the effect their lifestyle has on the environment if they live far enough away from the landfills and coal-burning power plants. We can remain ignorant because we don’t have to burn our own trash.