A Note on Fragility and Hope
Do you ever have a picture that stands out in your memory so vividly, it’s like you can see it in front of you even when it’s not there?
Usually, when I travel and take photos — no matter how many — there’s a small handful that stand out in my memory before I even upload them to my computer. It’s been over a year since I came home from Uganda, and for some reason, one particular photo has been stuck on my mind for the past few weeks.
Without even looking at it, I can visualize it perfectly. I’ve been wanting to share it with you all, but I haven’t been able to decide the way in which I want to tell you the story.
I went to Uganda to work with Suubi Medical Centre. The center is funded by Msafiri Tours, and because the company is based around teaching tourists about Ugandan culture in a way that also fosters its growth, the founder allowed me to explore and discover Uganda on my own terms. I learned that in Uganda, there are three main forms of healthcare: 1) district hospitals, which have the best resources but are often very far away, 2) local hospitals, which have decent resources but can still be very expensive (despite the fact that the government claims that they’re free), and 3) privately funded, small medical centers, like Suubi, which usually have the least resources but can often offer the greatest care at the lowest cost. As a journalist, I never wanted to get just one side of the story (the medical center’s), which is why I spent several days introducing myself to and interviewing people in the local hospital as well.
I was essentially given open-access to any section of the hospital, a privilege a journalist in the US would only dream of. On my first day in the hospital, I met the family of a small child who was covered in burns and bandages. I was pushed along through the hospital by the main coordinator so I would be able to see each wing. But the child stood out in my memory, and I returned to the hospital a few days later looking for her. When I got there, she was gone, and so was her family. I asked passing doctors and nurses if they knew where she went, but nobody seemed to remember her (even though it had only been a few days). Finally, a nurse came up to me and said she knew the little girl I was talking about — and so bluntly told me the child had died.
I asked if they knew where her family was and I was told that they would look at the records. It took several hours to figure out the her family’s name. When we finally did, I was told that because the child had come in with such severe burns, they hadn’t bothered taking down detailed records, knowing she was so close to death. Her name, which meant Queen in her family’s Ugandan dialect, had been scribbled down in a notebook with her incorrect gender (she was written down as being male), and her birthday (she was two years old). In addition, her surname and hometown was written, and that was enough for me — I was in a car to her town (about an hour away) that same day, still unsure of whether or not I would find her family again.
By some miracle, we found a man who knew her family. The girl’s mother was staying with her parents, as her whole house had burned down to just the framework. The man got into the car with my group — we squeezed six people into the five seats so he could direct us. When we arrived, she was laying down in a room on her own, but she remembered us and agreed to talk. She explained that her husband had accidentally started the fire which had caused her to lose her child and home. Since the fire, her husband had fled. My translators later explained to me that nobody would ever know if her husband had set the fire intentionally or accidentally, but because he had been the one who started it, he would be persecuted by the police if found. She had lost everything, but explained to me that even though she couldn’t see hope, she still had to go on.
My trip to Uganda was a search for hope, perhaps even my own search. Prepared as I felt, I went in as a westerner, and it didn’t matter that I spent my collegiate career studying works by scholars like Gayatri Spivak or Peggy McIntosh. I ended almost every interview asking the people I met whether or not they had hope for the future. I don’t know if this was right. I also don’t know that it was necessarily wrong. But I think it has been the greatest struggle I’ve faced when I’ve gone over my videos and photographs again and again and again. I don’t want to present something to you that is less than the truth and it’s been impossible to remove my bias from their stories.
The truth that I found, in my very limited time there, is that many Ugandans don’t know the meaning of hope, at least not in the way we (as westerners) understand it. I learned that “suubi” means hope — but when you ask Ugandans to think about the future, it’s almost as if they give you an answer they know you want to hear. But I think at the end of the day, they’re focused on surviving. It’s hard to think of a brighter future and hope for it when there’s a very real chance that your house could burn down, your baby could die and your husband would flee from the police.
On one of my mornings in the hospital, I spent it in the maternity wing. It was there that I witnessed several women, each lined up on stretches, ready to give birth. They were monitored closely by nurses but it was clearly a race to the finish — whoever was ready to give birth first would be given priority.
I took this picture that day. I don’t know the baby’s name or even gender, much less his or her story. All I really know is that he or she is just a few minutes old. My time in Uganda was so limited, and I wasn’t able to talk to everyone I wanted to. But this is one of my favorite photos I took, perhaps because it conveys a sense of hope in a place that felt so raw to me.
When I sat down to tell you the story behind this photo, I didn’t intend to tell you this one. But I guess that’s the story I know.
My time in Uganda was a mixture of joy and sadness. Perhaps as vividly as I remember my trip, I remember the months following my return home and how absolutely drained I felt. Before Uganda, going through photos from a trip had never been so daunting. But every time I’ve gone back to my computer, I go back to Uganda, and I’m just as confused as ever about how I want to share their story, my story — our story.
I guess in the end, it’s all just a mixture of joy and heartbreak. Of black and white, truth and opinion. And by some miracle, there’s this fragile connection holding it all together.