Lake Victoria, from Such Great Heights
There is something significant about ascending in an airplane, traversing clouds high above automobiles, roads, bridges, buildings and even large bodies of water that seem to shrink below into perfectly colored and organically ordered shapes and colors. It helps me return back to myself, as I truly am.
Perhaps It is the ability to look at the world, almost in retrospect; as if to see the posturing and false-desires that help me fit in with society down below, and realize that often those below whom I try to impress or win over, know little about myself in particular.
It is also in these privileged moments of reflection and vision from above that help source and grow new ideas that improve the life I will lead when my plane lands. Taking a step back and looking down is a great way for my brain to re-comprehend something I thought I understood, and now undersetand better.
My father adores the adage that we must take time to sharpen the saw, or the blade will grow dull. Unfortunately, that time for many is a privlege not often afforded.
Being high above in an airplane flying from Philadephia to Cleveland after a thirty-six hour series of drives with new South African friends coming from Murchison National Park in Northern Uganda, south-bound six hours on bumpy roads in safari jeeps to Kampala capitol city – Africa’s “Pearl” as Churchill named it – on Airbus rides in and out of Doha, Qatar, and on then to the United States, allows me the priviledge of not being connected to the electrostatic plasma of society in which standards are localized, desires and norms regionalized and aspirations often swayed by marketing campaigns. From up here, I have a few moments to breathe deeply into who I am as I look out the plastic-thick window and better understand what I am good at, who I am, and what I want.
This is a privilege not afforded to all, and I recognize that.
Perhaps it can be compared to moving away from home to discover and go through a metamorphoses of truth, and become truer to the self. Then, upon returning to family and friends months or years later, the pulling and re-molding by our societal groups of that lived past with their desire to return us to the “old self,” as if the new one be the farce. That free self one can become away in new settings is part of that reflection.
Though, moving away from home is in itself, another form of travel privilege.
Edward Mugerwa from Mulago Hospital Transportation Logistics wing of the Administration Offices, became both a friend and a sage of advice for navigating the wildly overcrowded streets of Kampala and its neighborhing cities like Lubowa where the Joint Clinical Research Center (JCRC) is located and Case Western works on both HIV/AIDS and Rheumatic Heart Disease research, among a myriad other things. Edward’s jovial laugh and nods assure mutual understanding of any given subject, and his language and culture lessons, I would find to be a sort of a Uganda-norm. Warmth, welcoming, hospitality, free rides given just because Dr. George Abongomera or Dr. Grace Mirembe were going in that “general direction.” After truly convincing Edward I wanted to learn phrases in Luganda other than to speak the beautiful Muganda women and merely use it to my own advantages, and that I had an growing desire to better understand culture, business, and how to deal with the agreeability of people who denounce firing employees, infrequently say “no” and respecting the idea of ego and family to the greatest extent possible, he began to convey to me a sadness that I believe lies nascent in many who work with foreigners.
Not an anger, but a sadness.
Edward spoke to me several times on our trip about such matters of the luck of our birth that I refered to earlier in this article of Airplane travel – because international travel is exactly another one of those privileges. It is though perhaps that the ascent in an Airbus is a metaphor for the mere concept flight confers: the opportunity for advanced learrning and new perspectives many will never come to know.
Edward asked me why I thought other Ugandans did not travel north of Kampala six hours and deep into the natural wildlife preserves of Murchison National Park, located on the Nile River in Northern Uganda near Sudan. He knew his answer to the question had everything to do with economics. However, it was more of a style of conversation that exposed both hapiness that foreigners could see his country for more than just being linked to dieseases like HIV or West Nile, and to culture above and beyond Banana-Matoke and singer-songwriter Chamelon (who is by far my favorite travel re-discovery); Edward expressed sadness that only well-to-do foreigners ever get to see some of the beautiful things in their own backyards.
It is reminiscent of transportation-related projcts I worked on in Detroit – many Detroiters never have the true opportunity to leave the city, much less the region. Major reasons include issues of economics, but also that of experience and understanding how to fall into the world of exploration that some of us have had the privilege of being encouraged by family, friends, teachers or others with opportunities to unfold onto us. Taking Detroiters just to neighborhing Cleveland for one single day in 2010 – pastors, legislators and citizens, on a bus my last organization, The Metropolitan Organizing Strategy chartered – showed them the power of Cleveland’s Regional Bus Rapid Transit Authority and was enough to excite and galvanize a small team to organize, grow and eventually lobby and pass legislation in 2012. Detroit is now already laying ground for a rail line, receiving the federal grant money it deserves for new buses, and according to plan should see bus rapid transit lines in the next five to ten years spur throughout the city, and soon the four-county region.
A galvanized group of Detroit Transportation Advocates I organized with, from 2012. Having traveled and seen another working system, met with Detroit/Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano to move policy forward in the region. After travel, it was so much easier because mindsets were changed, and energy was high.
But it required the luxury of travel. The opportunity. The privilege to reflect, and see how others design their circumstances and lives differently, if they can.
It is a fundamental piece of the research project that took me to Ugandad in the first place. Case Western has trained over one hundred doctors in Uganda, from the village-cities of Mbali, Mbarara and Gulu to the massive metropolis of Kampala. More importantly, it has flown Ugandan to Cleveland tens of doctors including Dr. Emmy Okello, Dr. James Kiyama, Dr. Isaac Ssambulya who is on campus now and in January, Dr. Juliette Ngarwa. Evidenced in my qualitative research, part of the most important thing they take back to Uganda when they return beyond a surgical cardiovascular expertise, is the new perspective of how another country does interventional cardiology, runs reasearch programs, writes grants and fastidiously accounts for strategic planning and strategic budgeting.
It is the luxury of travel for these doctors, paired with six-to-twelve month periods of the most greulling medical education you could imagine alongside Drs. Daniel Simon, Marco Costa, Robert Salata, Chris Longenecker and others at CWRU and University Hospital in Cleveland, that allows these Ugandan medical professionals to think differently, strive for above average results, and reconsider their own standards and work ethics.
To reflect, in a new setting of international travel, learning and growth.
Edward sat on a bench with me and CWRU’s Dr. Steve Morris, and stared out almost blankly into the Nile river on which we had set up camp just oustide of the Murchison National Park ferry that took us into Northern Uganda. He expressed his confusion with the world, and how some have everything and others have so little. He laughed at times that those with everything often spend less time smiling and typicaly do not dance as well! But he said, “I wish my family and friends could see the Nile like I am, and like you are, Mike. But they have neither the time nor the money to do so. Mzungo (white foreigners) that come here just seem to have it so easy.”
He was not complaining one bit, but stating a fact.
Edward became a friend, but he was first assigned to Dr. Steve and I as a driver. He was truly shocked, and even expressed it, that we wanted him to join us on all of our outings, be it on a day-long boat ride to Murchison Falls, or on several safaris where we saw Lions, Antelope, Elephants, Giraffes, and my favorite, Warthogs. He was supposed to eat on another campus of the camping area, but I could not accept that class-stratification that many foriegners enjoy about the expat-life. And it was not necessary. We ate together, and he taught us more in those three days in Northern Uganda than we had learned about detailed, cultural Ugandan life in the week before.
I never would have met Edward had I not had the privilege of travel.
While there was a strong sense of communication with us by the end of the week, having driven just Edward and I, and occassionally Dr. Steve or Dr. Chris Longenecker, close to thirty hours over the south and the north of Uganda, Edward reassured me both loquatioiusly and in his subtle responses, that I must continue taking this privelge of travel and reflection, and never forget how powerful it is. It must be used for good, and reinvestment.
The Nile River, Uganda
I missed a week of classes, countless Brazilian Jiu Jitsu lessons, study time and preparation for the mid-term examinations I will be taking tomorrow and Wednesday, but to whine or complain about being overworked could not come close to accounting for the learning, growth, reflection and better understanding of myself I have had with the privilege of travel.
I could take pictures of trees all day.