Dr. Ruby Dunlap’s Uganda Fulbright Blog
“Newtonian mechanics is satisfactory,” says Polkinghorne, “for largish objects moving at ten miles an hour, unsatisfactory for the same objects moving at a hundred thousand miles a second.” “Kuhn dismisses as an irrelevancy the well-known fact that Newtonian mechanics is the slow-moving limit of Einstein’s mechanics. Yet to physicists this relationship would seem to be important, for it explains why classical mechanics was so long an adequate theory and why it remains so for systems whose velocities are small compared with the velocity of light.” (One World The Interaction of Science and Theology, pp. 14,17)
Probably Newtonian mechanics sufficed for explaining the movements of your vehicles on ice and snow this winter in the U.S. The reports about your winter have been remarkable, especially since, while the Equator crosses southern Uganda, the elevations are high enough to make it balmy most of the time. Some days have been downright chilly, a few hot in the afternoons. Mornings in paradise are almost always perfect mornings of comfortably cool freshness. And the look from our “tree house” apartment is always one of lush rain forest. Here is a photo from the family home in Ohio where I spent my teen years and one from where we are living now to show the difference this winter. We also see monkeys in the trees around our house, unlikely in either Ohio or Tennessee.
Polkinghorne, a scholar possessed of courteous British understatement, writes that Kuhn subsequently modified the extreme edges of his theory of “paradigm shift.” While it is true that shifts in understanding occur, often acquired by exchanging one metaphoric model for another, continuities often remain among the shifts which are dismissed at the cost of intellectual integrity. In any case, Newtonian and quantum mechanics do not change just because one is on one side of the planet or another. Rats may grow huge in Uganda (here is one we found dead on campus a couple of weeks ago with Dad’s foot beside it to show its size); they are still rats. Animal behaviors do not change; the story that follows could have happened in any number of places including my hometown, Mt. Juliet, Tennessee.
We were wakened recently one morning by the sound of a cat screaming, a small, greatly distressed cat below our second story window. We aimed our flashlight out the window; a large cat was attacking a very small one. With the light shining on it, the large cat ran away. As dawn came, we heard a frantic mewing. Bob said there was a mother cat with three kittens below; the other cat had attacked one of the kittens. When it became light enough to see, we found a white cat who growled and hissed and three kittens, snowy white and fluffy, who spat like frightened kittens do. One of the kittens was injured in its hindquarters, the victim of the mauling we had heard earlier. It attempted to follow its mother and siblings but was always left behind, its back legs flopping as it struggled to keep up. I rushed to get some warm bread and milk, watered with copious tears. Cats for me are one intense connecting point with nature; seeing this injured cat-child cry pitifully as it tried to follow its mother was more than I could be philosophical about.
Giving due acknowledgement to a sense of proportion (Bob reminded me that there are plenty of children in Uganda in this kitten’s situation), suffering children were at that moment abstract; the kitten was very concrete. It is probably an instance of God’s severe mercy that all the cats hissed, growled and put as much distance between themselves and me as they could. The bread and milk remained untouched even over the next hours. A Fulbright colleague, Dr. Carol Larroque, is now experiencing what happens when one gives one’s heart to a dog or cat in Africa and then has to return to the U.S. She is taking three Ugandan kittens back to New Mexico with her at huge trouble and expense. The cat and kittens outside our house yesterday relieved me of any such decision.
There is a tall tree (see photo) near our house which houses a splendid kite nest. (A Ugandan kite is a hawk much like the red-tailed hawks in Tennessee.) In the afternoon, Bob saw that hawk flying back to its nest. In its talons hung a snowy white thing.
One might reference “the circle of life” for explaining such an observation. I rather reference a line from a friend’s poem: “wrecked creation’s universal groan.” The two paradigms are not necessarily mutually exclusive. But there is something in me which strongly protests the philosophical shrug entailed in the notion of “the circle of life.” Every last nerve of that kitten protested as well until finally silenced by a fellow predator.
The will to live is in an asymmetrical relationship with the will to give oneself as someone else’s meal. (How is that for understatement?) If one must die for another to live, it is with protest and groaning in ecologies bloody in tooth and claw. And yet we, too, must live on the lives of other living things, whether plant or animal. The principle is not changed by one’s position on this planet. Ultimately, as fellow expatriate and Canadian journalist Tom Froes observes in his book, Ninety-Nine Windows, we are all beggars starving for the same broken Bread.
My search since arriving in Uganda has been for insights into things the same and things different and how should one think about same and different as one stumbles across them? What has surprised my expectations and what surprised the expectations of my students as we interacted? I have cited examples from physics and animal behavior as things which are the same regardless of environment. What about the domain of human suffering?
More than 30 years of providing nursing care for citizens of the United States have taught me at least one thing: Americans are well represented among the world’s sick, weak and broken people. My professional clinical work has been divided among emergency department, surgical intensive care and home visit nursing. In each of these, I have cared for sick or injured Americans, often disabled with chronic illness and carrying that burden laden with others such as poverty and isolation. My experiences have contributed to the shaping of a certain perspective on the human condition, one that cuts across cultural and socioeconomic categories. The unqualified notion that all Americans are healthy and wealthy (and many think themselves wise) contrasts sharply with these realities of the sick room.
A few weeks before leaving for Uganda in the summer of 2009, I made a clinical house call to an older, middle-class woman of Northern European ancestry. Stories like hers I have heard many times but this time it was her story and I was her nurse clinician. Tears have no color, an observation often made but worth being regularly reminded of. Grief from the death of a son to HIV employs without regard to human background around this planet. Americans suffer and so do their families with them. Being (relatively) rich in resources, material as well as human, does not spare Americans from the daily care and stress over sick and sometimes dying family members. Perhaps the comments from me which have elicited the most surprised responses from my students have been comments like these: Americans suffer, too, and their suffering resembles the suffering of Ugandans. It seemed to surprise my students that there was more to America than a simple power gradient with American might at the top of it. It was worth exercising their empathy muscles uncharacteristically from Africa to North America since the dominant paradigm motivates the reverse.
American families care for their sick as do Ugandan families. With the inevitable shrinking of the healthcare economic pie, American families are likely to have to take on more and more of both the direct care and the cost of care of their sick and injured family members. Ugandan families already do considerably more than American families in providing for their sick. For example, American families might assist with changing bed linens for their loved one in the hospital. In Uganda, it is more common than not that the families have to provide bed linens, food, and medicines for their hospitalized family members. Hospitals often do not provide these. Ugandan hospital patients might be assigned a spot on the floor if the available beds have been taken. Ugandan families wash their loved one’s bed linens by hand and hang them out or lay them out to dry around the hospitals.
The calculation of resource rich or resource poor depends upon what it is one is calculating. A Ugandan patient on a mat on the floor, surrounded by loving and attentive family members might be the rich one; an American patient, surrounded by the best that money and technology can afford, cared for by highly educated hired help, but otherwise alone, might be the poor one. Care quality for the whole person ultimately may not consist in the abundance of material possessions at hand although some minimum of supplies and equipment also is necessary for care which proves adequate and care which is not.