In a further attempt to delay posting a deeper reflection on my time in Uganda, and to divert attention from such absence, I offer up a post with the potential to rile up my readers back here in the US of A.
As I’ve written before, I think it’s a little disingenuous for anyone who has traveled widely outside their own country (especially if much of that travel has been back and forth between the same two countries) to use the word “shock” to describe the process of acculturation that follows one’s return to one’s home country. Nevertheless, the experience of living in a different place for an extended period of time does allow you to see things in your own land with new eyes, and in the few days since I’ve returned to the US, I’ve been noticing things that I hadn’t before. Or rather, thinking about those things differently.
Therefore, the research question: Do Americans like each other?
My methodology is a haphazard mishmash of observations and unscientific samples I’ve gathered.
I begin with an experience I had just a little over two weeks ago (documented in fuller context here). As we were driving in the Pokot borderlands straddling Kenya and Uganda, we packed, at one point, 15 people into a Land Rover. Earlier, there was a man with one of his sheep in the back.
I found the ride a little uncomfortable, but that could be because the roads on which we drove could be charitably described as “rugged.” Conversely, all the Africans in the car seemed to be having a blast – singing and shouting as they bounced around. One man was having so much fun that he declared (according to our friend Michael) “I will take this car all the way to where it stops.”
Now I pose this riddle: How many Americans could you have fit into that Land Rover?
The answer is one, maybe two. Any more passengers than that and they become uncomfortable (This is not a commentary on obesity).
The other night, I was riding in my parents’ car to an event that had a defined start time. We had already had a slight setback and thus my dad was driving at a speed sufficient to overtake other vehicles. I had been noticing earlier in the day (or was it the day before?) how many cars on the road here have no one other than the driver in them. So, as we overtook other vehicles, I decided to count how many single-occupant cars we had to pass before we came upon a car with at least two people inside. The answer was six. In other words, only one in seven cars had anyone other than the driver in them. Not a scientific sample, but will anyone dispute that, as a general rule, Americans drive alone? Do they not like each other?
In Uganda, the minimum number of passengers a minibus taxi must have before it will start driving is 14. In the US, I’ve seen quite a few empty minivans (similar in size) being piloted by lonely souls, whose solitariness one can only assume is voluntary .
One might suggest that the difference between the two is purely economic — that Americans can afford to drive their own cars alone, and therefore do. But Americans have choices with how to spend their disposable income; it’s just that they almost all choose to buy enough cars so that no one has to ride together.
After all, even those Ugandans wealthy enough to own an automobile will still usually drive with members of their immediate family, and often take on board their carless friends, extended family and colleagues.
Separately, why are there several lanes in American supermarkets devoted to the prevention of human-to-human contact through the use of computerised check-out systems?
Let us move beyond Americans’ economic choices into the realm of the political. In the aftermath of yet another tragic gun rampage, American politicians refuse to contemplate any but the most token of gun control legislation. Some have even re-upped their commitment to Americans’ individual right to buy the most deadly weapon that their station in life allows.
Why do so many Americans remain adamant about their right to own guns? A visceral response might invoke the word “freedom.” This is spurious, of course. Once again, Americans, like everyone else, demand some freedoms but not others. Why is there a lobby in America devoted to the freedom to wield weaponry but not to the freedom to produce, distribute and consume methamphetamine?
Or, if we are really to interrogate the premise of American’s amicability toward each other, why is there not a lobby devoted to striking down oppressive ordinances that infringe on American’s right to have as many people living on their own property as they desire?
Certainly there is no single reason for some Americans’ insistence on the right to have guns, but in light of the above, I can’t help but wonder if one significant cause is a deep and abiding suspicion of their compatriots.
I end this enquiry in the same manner I began — with an anecdote:
Faith’s colleague and dear co-fellow Agnes was overburdened with a task that required her to work from home late into the night. As she sat up working, she got very lonely. She went to wake her mother (with whom she still lives — further evidence?) so that there would be someone else who was conscious in the house. Her mother happily obliged, and sat next to Agnes, quietly reading while Agnes continued to work.
How many Americans, when confronted with a task that makes great demands of their mental faculties and concentration would happily welcome, much less actively seek out the company of another person, even one engaged in that same task?