On Not Stealing Struggle: A look at Asteya



uganda chapel

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 Asteyaor 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.


Holy Week in Uganda

uganda sunriseSunrises in Uganda happen suddenly. Here on the equator, dawn is dark, turning pink at the eastern corners at the sky at 6:00, 6:30. Then morning wakes up in a flash of pink light  at 6:45. With it comes Ugandan life. The monkeys climb trees back down the hill to campus and the campus cat meows and stretches at my window. The palm trees are a silhouette of morning promise, and one woman at a time, the campus fills with people.

Sometimes nothing else seems to happen in Uganda quickly. When I order smoothies and coffee with the students at the Uganda Studies Program, a study abroad branch of Uganda Christian University, it takes thirty minutes to get our drinks, no matter how busy the canteen. Ugandan students, plumed in pencil skirts and ties, might wander into class twenty minutes after it starts. Hellos and goodbyes, handshakes and bows extend to everyone in the room. We have to drive slowly in Mokono, the city where UCU is based, because so many potholes and ridges and gulleys fracture the road, and so many taxis, Kenyan fuel trucks and boda-boda’s (motorbikes) compete for space. Were I a Ugandan woman, I would navigate all this traffic as I walked from my house with no indoor plumbing to a well, carrying a yellow jug for water. Then I’d wash my clothes by hand, scrubbing one piece at time.

But I am not a Ugandan woman. I’m an American woman, learning how American college students experience Africa over a semester. What I learn is Uganda, and Ugandan people are beautiful, hospitable, and kind. What I learn is that terrible things can happen suddenly in Uganda, and take thirty years to fix. In the American students’ cross cultural practicum class, they debrief the trip they took to Gulu, northern Uganda, the previous weekend. Joseph Kony (remember Kony 2012, and Invisible Children?) warlord of the LRA and self-described messiah, abducted thousands of women and children in this region to be his sex slaves and soldiers. Now those women and children struggle to exist in communities that don’t really want “Kony’s children” or “Kony’s wives” living among them. Helping them exist are organizations like Amani, where women come in to sew Fairtrade products. As they sew, they tell their stories of being abducted at age eight or nine, enduring tortured lives as wives and concubines to to the soldiers, and eventually bearing giving birth to their captors’ children. As the women sew and the students listen, the women create an economic future, and release the demons.

The students also visited organizations like the Recreation Project, created by a Colorado man who had worked in a displacement camp as a psychologist. While there he found his American response and training–“just tell your story”–wasn’t helping the kids get better. So he created a program that would allow kids to experience childhood for the first time. They can ride a zip line, participate in a ropes course, and learn agricultural training. The last is something 80% of Ugandans need to financially survive, but a generation of children were living in the bush as LRA child soldiers when they should have been learning how to farm. The Recreation project tries to teach this to them. The organization also created a parent-child group, where mothers and their child soldiers can learn to talk to each other.

“What about the Women’s Advocacy Network?” the professor asks.

“I was afraid you were going to ask that,” one of the students says with a pained face.

“You mean it gets worse?” I say.

“Oh,” they sigh again.

The Women’s Advocacy Network advocates for women who have been victims of war crimes, and it is made up of some of the most prominent, abused women the LRA abducted and tortured since 1986. When they escape or are set free, their hard lives are not over. They struggle to find work and financial support, often leading them into bad relationships and further abuse.  Most would agree with one woman who said, “I’ve endured the worst.” The students can barely speak of the torture these women shared with them.

“All explanations [of suffering] must proceed from a sense of failure,” Denise Ackermann, South African feminist theologian writes in After the Locusts: Letters from a Landscape of Faith. The American students cannot explain LRA violence in Gulu or the suffering they continue to witness in Mokono. One student visits her Compassion child, learning the little girl has sickle cell, and is always sick. Another writes about visiting a child with cerebral palsy, whose father abandoned the mother and three children after the disabled child was born. The boy lies alone on a blanket most of the day while the mother goes looking for food, and hard knot sits in his stomach where the food doesn’t digest. Another student works at an NGO designed to protect street kids. During the election, a local toddler is a victim of child sacrifice, allegedly for peace during the elections.

The students share these stories, perhaps remembering the American lives and supermarkets they are returning to at the end of April, perhaps thinking of their own suffering. “Do you feel more at peace or are your hearts heavier?” the professor asks the students towards the end of class. “Heavier,” one student says. “Kony is still alive, cutting off elephant tusks and selling them.”

“We must remember in order to redeem. Otherwise there will be no justice,” Ackerman writes of her childhood in apartheid South Africa. The American students remember the looks on women’s faces as they recall the terrorism on their bodies; they think of children abandoned by relatives or maimed by disease. I think of Joseph Kony slaughtering elephants to sell to smugglers, and remember photos of white CEOs posing with dead rhinos and lions. Destruction come for us all, but it can feel like it lingers in Africa.

That I traveled to Uganda during Holy Week, a week of so much promise mixed with horror, is not lost on me. I would always prefer to skim over the gospel descriptions of Jesus’ torture and look away from the women lugging their burdens of water and children. If I don’t look, I don’t have to imagine myself under those burdens, that whip, flail, cross, and I don’t have to struggle with the failure of words.

Looking away, however, is how I abandon redemption and justice.

Looking away, however, is how I miss the monkeys tumbling in a tree and the lizard scurrying across my TV cable. The cat’s invitation to scratch her ears. A stranger’s beautiful smile. The whole sky flashing a sudden resurrection pink.