June 1994 Dark Days
Examinations are once again upon us. I know this, not only because I have set a good many of them, but also because a pall has descended on this once sunny corner of the world. If that gloomy Jesuit Gerald Manley Hopkins had been sent to Uganda rather than Dublin, I’m convinced that his gloom and doom sonnets wouldn’t have seen the bright light of day. Well maybe the odd sad verse might have cropped up around exam time, but nothing as serious as “cliffs of sheer” and the like. The gloom on campus is almost tangible and it brings me back to the heat-wave days of the Mays and Junes of the past when I too tried to cram a whole year’s work into a meagre week. Everywhere you go, you find students hunkered down over books and pages and pages of joined up that they have to convert into RAM.
I’ve been teaching applied ethics this last semester and I think I’ve frightened a good many of my students with my frequent calls for better treatment of the planet and all its inhabitants. You see, in Africa, rural living is a lot more simple than rural living in Ireland. You grow a lot of what you eat and all your kitchen waste goes back on the compost to assist the next lot of food to be planted. Since you don’t have big supermarkets to shop in, you don’t have the plastic bags, neither do you have the tinned stuff, and you certainly don’t have the packaged frozen stuff. If you do buy a soft drink, it comes in a returnable bottle rather than a throw-away can. Bottles that are non-returnable are recycled many, many times for all sorts of liquids. (I wonder what my empty Waragi bottles are being used for now?)
All this is great and I’m now trying to get our students to practice the rural environment protection that was second nature to their fathers and mothers by being careful about what they throw away. Of course, we have migrated to ball-point pens and other useful implements like that, and we tend to use rather a lot of batteries for radios and cassette players, so these things have to be discarded appropriately. My class has few problems with those sorts of issues. But in our local village the people simply put all the household rubbish on the compost heap as they have done for centuries. The problem here is that in the old days you would come back from food foraging with the goodies wrapped neatly in a banana leaf or stuck nicely on the end of a spear. Nowadays, we come back with food wrapped in black plastic bags.
And this is where the problem starts. Now we all know that a cheap plastic bag has no nutritional value for the soil, and when it is thrown in the shamba (the garden where food is grown), it creates its own environmental damage. An even bigger problem presents itself when cattle graze on the rubbish heaps and ingest the plastic. They die, yes, die. While my students recognize the seriousness of this particular problem, they have few answers. Perhaps a complete ban on plastic bags, I dare to suggest? Too radical, they say, they are really useful things and anyway, carrying your food in a plastic bag has a lot to do with image: you get kudos because it means you can afford to shop in shops rather than having to grow the stuff yourself.
But where my class seriously started questioning my sanity concerned the whole area of animal treatment. Now in Uganda most of the meat for the market is born and grows up in the west of the country in Ankole around Mbarara (lovely word that – one of my visitors decided it was “umbrella”). But because there is no abattoir in the west, cows have to be transported to Kampala for the chop. That in itself doesn’t pose any particular problems – at least not for carnivores – but it does for the bovines being transported. It’s commonplace to see twenty or more beasties crammed into an open truck while their minders ride along on their backs. Bovine legs and horns (and Ankole cattle have serious horns) frequently get stuck in the bars on the side of the truck or in each other, and raw fear can be be seen in their big sad eyes as the truck makes its often slow, bumpy way to the capital city. Personally, I can’t bear to look, but then I’m squeamish about those sorts of things.
But that’s how it is, my students tell me. Maybe it is, I say, but it doesn’t have to be that cruel. Their big eyes look at me without comprehension at this point. Although, in a country where kids are dying at an alarming rate from treatable diseases, my worries about cows appear insignificant. Get a grip, I tell myself!
Where I haven’t gotten down on my back with my legs in the air concerns the previously mentioned Buddhist-like advice about snakes (“if you meet ’em, kill ’em). “But snakes are dangerous, they bite. We have to kill them”, they say. “But why?” I wail. “Because it’s better to kill it before it kills you”. “But do they always kill you?” “Well …. em … no, but they could”. “Right, but do they?” We’ve gone around in circles on this one and neither party is conceding defeat, at least not yet. I blame the bad PR in the Book of Genesis myself because I’ve noticed that they do, in fact, tend to slither away when people come near them.
In order to provoke my class even further, I asked them about insect rights. “Yeah … well …. they do have rights and they’re important to human beings. Take bees: they give us honey and spiders eat other insects”. Smug, satisfied smiles all around. “What about mosquitoes?” I asked with a wide nasty grin in my head if not on my face. Mad giggling erupts here, quite lengthy mad giggling. John McEnroe style “you cannot be serious” from just about the whole class. “They give you malaria; they can give you cerebral malaria, and that can kill you”. Point taken and I concede their arguments. So when a snake comes my way, I’ll back off. But when a mossie starts singing into my ear, I’ll swat it without too much regret.
The result of all this unfamiliar discussion has confused my class. They will have to do some serious thinking outside the box and try to cram possible examination question answers that they think I’ll want to read and, even more importantly, reward with good marks. That’s why they’re all of a sweat. The downside of all this is that the exam scripts have to be marked before I can make the annual pilgrimage back to the Emerald Isle for scholarly activities, retail therapy, pub visits, and family catching up.