Crossing the divide between “us” and “them”
Two and a half months ago, I stepped out of the blazing sun and into a cramped dark shelter that was constructed out of mud and rusted sheet metal. My eyes adjusted to the windowless room and I followed directions to sit on a three-legged stool that elevated one foot from the dusty floor. I looked around the room at my hosts; directly in front of me was a man dressed in dirty military garb with black boots taking long drags of his cigarette. The man to his right was pouring himself a drink that, judging by his demeanor, was alcoholic. A third man was standing by the door and held the equivalent of an American machete in his left hand. I sat in silent fear that day, right in the middle of an active African warzone thousands of miles away from my cozy home in Wayland, Mass.
This summer I spent five weeks living in Uganda, alongside the people and immersed in their culture. I spent half my time living in the northern district of Gulu and the other half in the capital of Kampala. Uganda is a gorgeous country and was often referred to by Winston Churchill as the, “Pearl of Africa.” When our plane touched down, I was blown away by the lush green landscape (expecting the orange landscape depicted in “The Lion King”).
However, despite its beauty, Uganda is the stage for a gruesome civil war that has lasted more than 20 years, leaving the people that are still alive scarred, both physically and emotionally.
Uganda is home to the child soldier war model, a concept fathered by a native named Jospeh Kony stategizing the kidnapping of children between the ages of five and 12 and forcing them to become ruthless soldiers. This is done through fear and brainwashing as commanders of Joseph Kony’s army create “kill or be killed” scenarios which force the children to murder others in their village who are unfit to serve. These people include, through accounts that I have heard, their cousins, their aunts and uncles, their own mothers and fathers, and their own brothers and sisters. I think this is where we can admit that there is something horribly wrong.
I think that as Americans, or maybe just as humans, we are extremely good at ignoring things that are wrong. I can say this with confidence because I have spent the last 20 years here as a citizen of both the United States of America and of humanity. Take Ibuprofen for instance – the drug that we have created numbs a headache, which is a symptom, but does not cure the root of the illness. When we ignore the root of the illness, sometimes our bodies heal themselves. Sometimes it doesn’t cure. After spending time in Africa with people who have had their lives broken to pieces and their families destroyed, I remembered thinking when I was in America that this was just another problem that would fix itself if I just ignored it. I was completely wrong.
Why had I never gotten on my feet to help before? I heard about what was happening and how desperately they needed aid, both material and emotional, but why had I never given out of my abundance to keep an ex-child soldier alive? If my next-door neighbor’s house was broken into, their parents slaughtered and everything burned, I would give the survivors anything they needed.
Why then, when Katrina hit, did I not have a similar impulse to stand and help? Maybe it was because there were other people helping, or maybe because it was all the way “down there” or any other excuse that would allow me to maintain my comfortable life “up here.” When it came to my learning of the Ugandan situation, many similar excuses played out. “I’m sure some other organization is intervening, why should I go? For heaven’s sake, they’re not even American,” I found myself saying.
Some of the greatest problems in humanity have come out of the mentality of there being an “us” and a “them.” As I sat with ex-child soldiers, responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent people, who have repented of the life forced upon them, this distinction became blurred.
Two and a half months ago when I was fearing for my life in that shack in the middle of the African bush, I heard the words that would answer many of my questions.
“Thomas,” the man in the military uniform said as he put his hand on my shoulder. “Thank you for traveling this far for us, my brother.” There is no “them,” there is only “us.”
I challenge you as a citizen not of Amherst, or of Massachusetts, or of America, but as a global citizen, to stand to your feet and help those in need. For more information and ways to help, visit www.childvoiceintl.org.
Thomas Moore is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.