Life

‘For Purple Mountain Majesties’ — A Traveler Looks At America

I spent the fall of 2005 in East Africa, much of it in Uganda. Hurricane Katrina had just ravaged New Orleans, leading Kanye West to conclude “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” on national TV. I’d traveled quite a bit during Bush’s first term and the early days of the second Iraq war, but I’d never witnessed anti-American sentiment like I did in the post-Katrina era. The feeling expressed to me, over and over, echoed West’s comments in a gentler key:

“You Americans. You’re not taking care of your own.”

For the first time in my life, I felt embarrassed of my country. I promised to sew a maple leaf onto my backpack (the vagabond’s equivalent of “I’m moving to Canada!”). I made a concerted effort to seem as un-American as possible. “Well, my father is actually Italian” I’d say, insufferably. When I met other travelers, I wedged my political leanings into the conversation early and often, so everyone would know I was one of the good guys.

Meanwhile, I fell desperately in love with Uganda and its citizens. I admired how the people were both tough to charm and genuinely warm; funny and kind and big-hearted. Even the most mundane conversations were peppered with laughter and platonic friends of all genders held hands when they walked. This, I decided, when an elderly woman took my hand to lead me toward a shop, is how the world should be.

In the throes of my Uganda affair, I spent a lot of time at the country’s equivalent of the DMV. I was buying a car and needed to get a driver’s license — which meant classes, a written test, and two practical exams. One day, waiting for my instructor, I started a conversation with a handful of taxi drivers. We leaned against the concrete office, radiating afternoon heat, and argued about whether 50 Cent was a good rapper.

After awhile, I asked one of the men about the government.

He offered a wry smile. “You should not ask me that, I could be part of Mister Museveni’s taxi service.”

The other men in the group chuckled. I recognized the name of Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, but felt left out of the joke.

“Seriously though,” I tried, “what do people think of –”

“I am telling you,” the man said firmly, “do not talk to people about the president, unless you are speaking in the home of a friend.”

Over the course of the next few weeks, I traveled the country at the wheel of a used Nissan Patrol. I saw the impenetrable jungle and rare mountain gorillas at Bwindi, the climbing lions of Queen Elizabeth National Park, and the sandy islands of Lake Victoria. I ate the most perfectly ripe mangoes I’ve ever tasted and drank Bell Lager at roadside huts. Roasted goat served with chipati quickly became one of my favorite meals.

But during these travels I also saw Uganda’s clay feet. On November 14th, Museveni had his only competitor in the upcoming presidential elections jailed for treason. The arrest led to riots and claims that the leader was a dictator. The accusation wasn’t baseless: Museveni had promised to impose a term limit on himself, then rescinded that promise; he’d bragged about international leaders fearing him, leading countries like Denmark and the Netherlands to put a freeze on vital donations; he’d even threatened to shut down the newspapers.

I also learned of the country’s brutal attitude toward homosexuality (an animus imported by American evangelicals). The gesture of male friends holding hands on the sidewalk became much less potent when male lovers couldn’t share the same freedom.

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Before leaving Uganda, I went with a friend, Juma, to the town of Gulu, to deliver sports equipment to the Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps there. The camps were the result of raids in the area led by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and warlord Joseph Kony (subject of the famous Kony 2012 viral video). In Gulu, we worked with the “Night Commuters” — children who walked several miles each evening to sleep in a fenced-off compound, so that they’d be safe from rebels.

After walking with the children to their base one night, Juma and I traded a few drinks. He was heartbroken over the state of things in the IDP camps — people living in fear, disconnected from their homes, relying on aid to survive — and the government’s underwhelming actions to fight the LRA. He began to rant about the president and the election. Then he exploded, “And just for saying this around the wrong person, around a boda boda driver, I could be taken and not come back! My wife would not be able to locate me!”

Boda bodas are motorbikes, often used as taxis in East Africa. In that moment, I finally understood what the taxi drivers had been talking about. ‘Museveni’s taxi service’ were police informants, colluding with the government like a loose spy network. Building steam with each sentence, Juma — who is 6’4″ and built like a fullback — looked ready to explode. Then his eyes caught on his wife and he forced himself to calm down.

“But I love Uganda,” he said, breathing slowly and delibrately. “This place is my home. It is not just about the government; a country is about much more than that.”

The words struck me, and they’ve continued resounding for the past 11 years. I never mentioned putting a Canadian patch on my backpack after that day. It felt silly, childish. Throughout Bush’s presidency, I’d been letting one element of my country, the part that rubbed me wrong, define my relationship with my homeland. I’d been acting ashamed of the United States — where there are no secret police, no armed rebel militias abducting children, no geniune fears of a dictatorship (then or now).

Juma’s revulsion at Uganda’s government took nothing away from his love of Uganda’s wild spaces. They weren’t mutually exclusive. “A country is about more than that.”

In the days since Donald Trump’s election, I’ve heard people say, “I’m moving!” and “This isn’t my country!” and “I’m ashamed to be an American!” Whether you agree with the sentiment or not, you have to admit that the post-election fears come from a genuine place. The anguish is real (even if you don’t think it’s earned). But I’d offer this to people who are worried about Trump’s America: “Your home is about more than the government.”

Your home is a land where the majority of people want background checks for guns and equal marriage rights. Your home is the land of Alaska’s vast wilds, New York City’s electric energy, and Portland’s unabashed weirdness. Your home is wonderfully creative, and incredibly diverse, and so-damn-beautiful that it will make your teeth ache.

Does that mean I think you shouldn’t be mad about the election? Of course not. The right to protest is another piece of the puzzle that forms this nation. It’s vital and would still be vital if things had gone the other way. Nor am I implying that you can’t love your country and feel wretched about it — anyone who’s ever had a breakup knows all about the comingling of love and hate. When you realize that things aren’t binary, it opens up a million shades of gray.

As Walt Whitman, the father of American poetry, wrote:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself;
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

These words bear repeating. We are large. We contain multitudes.

We live in a nation that makes reality TV stars world famous. But we also live in a land where true creative geniuses rises to the top. We are the people of sugar water served in horse buckets. But we’re also the country where a Korean-American can turn fusion into a phenomenon, then go on to change the fast food game forever. Ours is the land of polluted rivers and of protected mountain streams. We are purple mountains majesties and we are unbridled materialism. We are awesome, except when we are awful.

And when we catch glimpses of ourselves that horrify us, we are lucky enough to have choices. We can leave. We can hole up and disconnect. We can fight for change. We can tune out. We can self soothe. We can march. We can do a little bit of all everything.

As I learned in Uganda, if you want to be a part of a large-scale society, with a central governing body, you will not find an eden on this earth. You will find only complexity and contradiction. And you’ll have to decide, for yourself and your family, when enough is enough, when too much is too much, when you have been pushed too far. It’s happened before in this country; it will probably happen again one day.

Until, then, it’s worth noting — for anyone upset about this election, or the next one, or the last one — “It is not just about the government; a country is about more than that.” We are large, we contain multitudes. Yes, this nation has the capacity to break hearts, but it also has the capacity to mend them.

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