Looking at human rights in a different, mud-soaked, context

Posted: September 21, 2007 in Blog

I can’t say with certainty exactly when it was during this most recent trip north that I thought back to the debate over human rights that we had in Toronto before the 10 of us journalists headed-off for our various posts throughout Africa.

It might have been in the hospital where we met a young boy who had been shot in the abdomen by cattle raiders. His friends hid him in the bush so no other raiders would find him while they went off to get help. All in all, it was four days before he finally made it to the hospital, and we met him a month in to his stay— three surgeries later, still in hospital and almost surely physically disabled for life. He won’t be of much to use to anyone when he is released, and he knows this so is in no rush to be discharged.

Just as likely, it could have been in the very next building at the hospital, when we toured the maternity ward and I asked the doctor there how many of their premature babies survive. “Between 10 and 20 per cent,” he said— this, in the hospital to which premature babies in a region of nearly one million people are sent.

Mostly, I think it was a few days later as we toured flooding in the Teso region to the south of Karamoja. We took a drive to one of the IDP (Internally-Displaced Persons) camps that have been affected by the floods. (They have been grouped together in a camp because it’s more secure against the threat of Karamojong warriors raiding cattle than if they were scattered about the region). There, we met dozens of wonderful people who were more than happy to show us their homes— and I use the word ‘homes’ strongly, because I made the mistake, while crouched inside one man’s mud hut looking at his water-soaked mud floor and the one white tarp that constituted the entirety of his furniture, of asking him whether he was worried whether his ‘hut’ would collapse because of flood damage.

“This is my home,” he answered, in a friendly, but very direct way. To him, this was no ‘hut’. “If I lose this, I lose everything.”

I was staring at everything he owned. This soggy mud hut with cracked, and cracking, walls, a grass-thatched roof and a white tarp he somehow found in an attempt to stay dry at night since his dirt floor now squished underfoot.

It must have been then, though I didn’t realize it at the time, that the debate we all had in Toronto about human rights came back to me.

Amongst other things, we talked, and argued, about the notion of universal human rights and the tricky case of westerners ‘imposing’ their notions of human rights on nations that may put different weight on what we think of as being rights that should be available to all.

There is a lot of legitimacy to these debates— many cultures view things like gender rights, religious beliefs and democracy differently than you or I. But none of that mattered in the flooded IDP camp.

This isn’t right, is all I could think as we toured that camp. Their health centre hasn’t had medicine in weeks; their latrines are overflowing so the bush is being used as the bathroom; their well was surrounded by standing water that had no place to go because the ground was already so saturated with water— not a good thing when that water can so easily become contaminated by livestock droppings, among other things.

What I was seeing was beyond any abstract debate about human rights. These peoples’ lives were being put at risk because they lacked such basic things that you, me, nearly everyone, takes for granted. A few sandbags, a shipment of the most basic medications, a bit more food so that they could have more than just one meal of beans a day and the ability to better-construct their homes and these people would be able to cope. They’d still be heavily affected by the flooding, but they’d at least manage okay, and probably come out of it without any of the dozens of diseases and viruses they’re now being exposed to.

The part that put me over the edge? The roads to these camps are in terrible condition— flooded, muddy and difficult to cross because of the flooding. We got stuck several times in an over-sized Land Cruiser (always helped out by villagers who dug and pushed until we were on our way again, in return for a few thousand shillings). The only roadwork going on is being done by local villagers who are putting logs and rocks on the road to give vehicles traction in the mud. They ask passing vehicles for a donation for their lunch that day because no one is paying them to fix the roads.

The district has a road crew, and the vehicles needed to fix the roads. But when we visited the officials there they explained that the vehicles were sitting idle because the government hasn’t given them money to put fuel in them. That was the only thing that was stopping them from doing basic repairs that would make these isolated communities reachable.

I’d like to someday have another crack at that debate we had back in Toronto. Given a chance to do it over again, I would throw away all the laws and documents and UN declarations that are so often used to argue for or against the notion of universal human rights.

Instead of declarations, I’d use concrete examples. Like how that boy should have a right to graze his cattle without fearing raiders who will shoot him; or how a pregnant mother should have access to even the most basic medical care to give her child a chance of surviving; or how the people in that camp have a right to more than one meal a day, dirt floors that are dry and maybe, just maybe, something more than a white tarp to keep them dry in bed when it does rain.

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