“Asteya translates to “non-stealing” and reminds us that we have all that we need; that we should act from a place of abundance instead of scarcity.” Coral Brown, Yoga Journal
I would have been very content in Uganda had it not been for the women. I would be wondering at the colorful roadside shops and the overpacked taxi buses, and then I’d see them walking along the margins of the busy red-rutted roads, lugging a yellow tank of water. I would be laughing at the monkeys in the trees, and then notice women peeling potatoes behind the student cafeteria, a charcoal fire burning beside them where they would cook hundreds of meals for the students. Even when I was in their homes, listening to the husbands and male visitors chat, the women’s absence pestered me as I ate the watermelon they had diced and the curry they cooked. When we left the homess, the women waved goodbye, then hurried back inside to wash dishes with the water they had fetched earlier in the day.
In March 2016, after enduring three flights and a twelve hour layover in two days of travel, I settled down for a week at Uganda Christian University. I was there on a research grant to interview and observe the American students studying abroad there, and while I had never thought of Uganda as a place where I could happily live, within a few days I was smitten with the relaxed beauty of the country. Sure, the main highway through the country was a two-lane road clogged with potholes, but on the campus where I was staying, the red dirt paths were fine for walking. The water never got warm in my guest room, but it was so hot outside that I didn’t care. I swallowed pills to prevent malaria, wore light skirts to the sweltering classes and practicums, and ate inexpensive, tasty meals every day. The Ugandans on campus smiled at me as I asked questions, and the Americans grinned as they shared their Ugandan culture shock. Monkeys played in the trees, and some of the American families at the campus invited me over for dinner to their cool, clean houses. The internet was inconsistent, but it worked, and I enjoyed every visit I made to practicum sites and classrooms. I could have lived there pretty comfortably, if I could have forgotten that most of the population was not living comfortably at all.
I watched the women from the inside of the van where I was being driven to or from the airport, to or from an NGO serving abandoned children, and their struggle irritated me, similar to the irritation I feel when I see a homeless person, or kids walking to school through rough neighborhoods. These people made bad choices, the industrious American inside of me says, trying to ignore the Holy Spirit whispering there but for the grace of God go I. Uganda magnified this feeling, because being comfortable, at least in my sense of the word, meant either being very rich, or white. I was both.
The more the women bothered me, the more I caught myself trying to believe that they probably liked walking to get water, or that they were so used to it they wouldn’t want to live differently. Or maybe they had done something to get in this situation and they could choose to escape it. My logic was ridiculous. I won’t pretend to understand infrastructure in developing countries, but Uganda (as also Flint, Michigan) is a clear reminder that hard work and industry will not route a water pipe or a paved road to a family’s home, even if that family owns their own business and puts all their children through college. Usually the job of fetching water also goes to the women and female children, as does the job of building fires, selling snacks, washing clothes by hand, and raising children. Their discomfort reflected back my privilege. I didn’t like how that felt, so I simply minimized their struggle. It felt like stealing.
In yoga philosophy, the third yama or restraint is Asteya, or non-stealing. This past month in my yoga teacher training we were to meditate on this yama and think about what it means to our lives. I thought about how my use of time steals sleep and energy from myself. How my schedule steals time from my husband. How my propensity for running late steals time from other people. I had lots of personal conviction about Asteya, but nothing stuck like the images of African women carrying those yellow jugs, Michigan families holding signs reading FLINT STILL DOESN’T HAVE WATER, African-American families in New Orleans pointing to their abandoned home, and African-American parents everywhere mourning the deaths of their children–and the dismissive comments we can find under each photo:
“Well, if they worked a little harder . . .”
“Well, if they hadn’t broken the law . . .”
“Well, why don’t they move somewhere else?”
As if industry can make clean water materialize in your neighborhood. As if not using a turn signal or listening to loud music means you should die. As if hard work can hold back a hurricane.
We do this all the time, even to people we love. One of my students lost a close friend in a mass shooting. Three months after the event, her father asked her why she wasn’t “over it” yet. A woman in my community was brutally raped in her home a few years ago; shortly after the fact some people in the community began trying to frame the assault as somehow “consensual.” When I was going through my divorce, I heard a family member say that I probably left my husband because I couldn’t handle getting yelled at occasionally. This logic comes at the expense of other people’s dignity. When we try to minimize the suffering of others, or even blame them for their suffering, we are robbing them of their sorrow and struggle so that our abundance makes us feel less bad.
And we do this the most to people who already have a difficult life. I was riding in a taxi back to Entebbe airport when I looked at a woman on the side of the road and caught myself minimizing her hardships in order to feel less bad about my indoor plumbing. I tried looking away, and realized that approach was doing the same thing. No one in Uganda was asking me to carry water, but just to realize the miles are long, the water is heavy, and the jug will be empty again tomorrow.