It’s the first Sunday of 2011, and I’m sitting on a balcony in the Ntinda section of Kampala, Uganda, watching lizards skitter up the crumbling concrete wall across the way, contrasting my coffee-drinking leisure with the sweat of the young man washing — forever washing — one of the four-wheel drive vehicles in which my hosting organization ferries around guest academics. It’s another in an endless series of beautiful days — for the moment, the Ugandan battle over whether gay and transgender people have a right to exist is being fought in court, with words rather than blunt instruments. Though it’s Sunday morning, the air is alive with sound: men joking or arguing, Gregorian chant from the church beyond the palms, a truck loaded with construction materials rattling over the rutted dirt road whose reds — brick red where damp from a brief night rain, and pale and dusty red in the sun — echo the red-tiled roofs of the wealthier residents’ houses. The Kampala that’s always visible in the distance, sprawled across the hills, is a weave of roof red and jungle-foliage green, human growth (people pour in daily by the hundreds from the impoverished countryside), and lively shreds of the chimp-haunted forests destroyed to build this city.
By American standards, Uganda is struggling. Most of its national budget is supplied by foreign aid; most of its rural inhabitants live in poverty, without power or running water (though often with cell phones), fighting to survive treatable diseases. Literacy is low. Families are decimated by AIDS, and traditional values and communal relationships are eroded by the constant lure of the city. Democratic institutions are tenuous at best; civil and regional war are recent memories and none-too-distant threats.
And yet, this country is humming with hope. The Ugandans I’ve met see their country growing before their eyes, buildings rising, new ways of life taking shape. The nation is so new that a Kampala radio station has a daily feature, “That’s so UG,” to highlight common behaviors that unite and define its multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, far-flung (thanks to the paucity of roads) inhabitants. Ugandans are acutely aware of what they lack compared to older, established, “developed” nations, but for those I’ve spoken to, Uganda’s unfinished state, for all its problems, represents possibility: not a broken world they must repair, but a world that they are creating. I saw that excitement — the excitement of being, as our sages put it, God’s partner in Creation — in Sarah Kihika, who quit a booming civil law practice to become a human rights lawyer, working to create a Uganda, a world, based on human dignity by defending the rights of poor women and, despite considerable danger to herself, people even more marginalized: the gay, lesbian, transgender, and intersex Ugandans who are routinely ostracized, beaten, and killed — as was her friend and fellow GLBT activist David Kato, on January 26, 2011, a year after his picture was published by an anti-gay newspaper. I saw this excitement also in George — I didn’t get his family name — who gave up well-paying work in South Africa to buy a few hardscrabble acres with the goal of improving local agricultural techniques and creating new markets for produce so people won’t have to leave the tradition-nourishing countryside to make a living. I saw it in the Lantern Poets Meet, a group of fifty young poets who debate the merits of one another’s poems as though the future of Ugandan poetry depended upon them (it may well). I saw it in the nun who heads the literature department of Makerere University, which she has committed to the mission of documenting Ugandan traditions and folklore before they vanish — not merely for preservation, but so that the traditional wisdom they contain can be used to give a truly Ugandan form to a nation being flung into the future by the brainless hands of capitalism. Each of these pioneers lives as though their country were in their hands. They feel it growing in them and through them, through the national hardships they have chosen to face and the determination with which they face them.
Visiting here at the end of one bad year for America and the beginning of what promises to be another, it was hard not to feel challenged and chastened by these Ugandans’ dedication to tikkun olam. The contrast between their down-to-earth determination to create the kind of country they want to live in and the despair I had carried with me from the United States was sharpened by the diatribes of one of my fellow visiting academics. A dispirited, broken-hearted leftist briefly buoyed by the election of Obama, his only hope for America now, he said, was that it would soon complete its “suicide.” The America he described is not only broken — it is only what is broken: bad economy, snarled political system, incoherent leadership, diminishing civil liberties. For him, America, both as idea and reality, has irrevocably failed.
Though his diatribes seemed extreme, his despair was all too familiar. Throughout the blogosphere, progressive commentators describe the first two years of Obama’s presidency as years of dashed hope, disappointment, defeat, and despair.
In Uganda, where they have national health care but no doctors in the free hospitals, word that tens of millions would now receive quality medical treatment would be hailed as a historic breakthrough. Sarah Kihika and other members of the Coalition of Constitutional and Human Rights — which recently persuaded a court to grant an injunction against a national newspaper that published a list of names, photographs, and addresses of gay, lesbian, and transgender people, including David Kato’s, under the front-page headline “kill them!” — would hail the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the Obama administration’s executive orders granting GLBT partners visiting rights equal to those of heterosexuals in hospitals that receive government funding as great leaps forward. Struggling Ugandans would celebrate the news that the support for the long-term unemployed had once again been extended as a desperately needed act of social justice.
In the past two years, despite devastating economic collapse and vicious Republican resistance, the Obama administration has made unprecedented progress on health care, investment in green energy, financial reform, GLBT rights, student aid, women’s pay equity, and other issues — progress that should have progressives rejoicing in the victories, some large, some incremental, on innumerable fronts. Instead, most of us seem to ignore, belittle, or deride these achievements. They were too long in coming, we say; they don’t meet the need; they are watered-down by the compromises necessary to enact them; they don’t include elements, like a public health insurance option, that would make them better.
Yes, yes, yes, and yes. But at the beginning of Obama’s term, progressive commentators worried that neither Obama nor the Democratic majorities in Congress would have the vision and courage to spend their political capital on progressive legislation. Now, in retrospect, we should be applauding the fact that they did. Obama, simultaneously criticized for not leading at all and leading in the wrong direction, took one unpopular stand after another, even as his once-historic approval ratings sank below 50 percent. House Democrats took vote after vote that left them exposed to an angry, Tea-Party-leaning electorate; even Senate Democrats managed to overcome internal divisions and unprecedented minority party obstructionism and pass what political historians agree is an extraordinary amount of progressive-leaning — and progressive-inspired — legislation. Rather than applauding their courage, political skill, and achievement, the Left has responded with disappointment and feelings of betrayal.
This response, combined with a Republican surge fueled by reactionary outrage at the very progressive achievements the Left derides, makes it even harder for Obama and the Democrats to lead this country forward. It is our job as progressives to be dissatisfied, to relentlessly push our country toward shared prosperity, equal opportunity, and social justice. But while dissatisfaction with the present keeps us pointing toward the future, dissatisfaction alone cannot drive us forward. We also need to tell the stories of our progress — the triumphs, however incremental, that can feed hope, kindle determination, and keep us slogging, despite disappointments and setbacks, along that long curve of history Martin Luther King Jr. saw bending slowly but inevitably toward justice. Our failure to tell ourselves and our fellow citizens the many true stories of our country’s progress toward a better future represents a deeper failure, a failure that threatens to cut off the Left from the grassroots forces on which all progress depends. It is a failure of belief in America, in the patience, strength, and nation-building resilience that is demonstrated daily by Americans living on, or over, the edge. In this age of unfettered corporate political participation and full-throated right-wing fantasy, we cannot allow our short-term disappointments to identify progressive values with despair. If Ugandans kept telling themselves how far away they were from where they need to be, rather than how far they have managed, against enormous obstacles, to come — if they trumpeted their defeats and bitterly denigrated their victories — neither they nor their country would have any future to build. If Americans cannot embrace progressive values without giving up faith in ourselves and our country, those values will be left to rot on the vine — because without that faith, neither we nor our country can survive these hard times.
But here’s the good news from Uganda: like theirs, our country isn’t finished; through each of us and all of us, generation after generation, America is growing.