Columnist Bill Newman: Reflections from Uganda after Trump insult

  • In this photo taken  June 7, 2017, children look through a tear in the tarpaulin tents that serve as extra classrooms, for a mixed class of South Sudanese refugee children and Ugandan children, at the Ombechi Primary School in Bidi Bidi refugee settlement, northern Uganda.  AP FILE PHOTO

Friday, February 02, 2018

We landed in Entebbe, Uganda, the day after Donald Trump characterized that country and others with a majority non-white population as “shithole countries.”

My wife Dale and I had traveled to this eastern African nation to visit our daughter Leah and her fiancé. Leah works in development and lives in Kampala.

Trump’s characterization apparently delighted white supremacists in America. The Daily Stormer, the American neo-Nazi website, celebrated that Trump “is more or less on the same page as us with regards to race and immigration.”

Similarly, Richard Spencer, the American white nationalist leader, insisted that conservatives should stop whitewashing the president’s obvious (and to him, praiseworthy) racism. Spencer proclaimed, “It’s obviously all about race, and to their credit, liberals point out the obvious.”

A handful (but sadly and tellingly only a small handful) of conservatives and Republicans criticized the president. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, tried to elucidate for Trump’s benefit that “America is an idea, not a race. Diversity is a strength not a weakness.” White Norwegians have no a priori claim to our nation. Trump has paid Graham no mind.

Uganda has two main newspapers, New Vision, which generally takes a pro-government stance (the government has a large ownership stake) and the Daily Monitor, which reports and editorializes more critically about those in power. While there, I read both Ugandan papers, which provided a lot of space for commentary about Trump’s remark, as well as The New York Times international edition.

Interestingly, not all the local commentary condemned the president’s characterization — perhaps not surprisingly. After all, those who criticize income inequality, political cronyism, and government failures have their eyes wide open in that country, too. But Trump’s racism still shone through.

In his column in New Vision about Trump’s comment, Dr. Ian Clarke, a physician, missionary, philanthropist, entrepreneur and mayor of the Makindye Division, one of the administrative units of the capital city of Kampala wrote, “One wonders what happened to the sentiment inscribed in the Statue of Liberty, ‘Give me your tired, your poor, ... the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.’ ” Clarke then noted, “Times have changed in terms of the American administration’s attitude to the downtrodden of the world.”

Clarke then asked whether Americans, “are lining themselves up behind Trump, like the leaders of the Republican Party” or whether they are “going to distance themselves ... and stand for values, such as compassion and human dignity.” He brought home the point that “(o)rdinary Americans will need to decide if they still want to stand for decency, dignity and respect for people.”

The question of whether ordinary Americans will stand for decency matters more than ever because the president so obviously doesn’t. Two days after his statement, when reporters asked him, “Mr. President, are you a racist?” Trump did not respond but instead, as reported in The New York Times, remained silent and “headed for the door.” His silence spoke volumes.

During our two-week stay in Uganda, we met some amazing citizens of that country. We were impressed beyond words with the extraordinarily knowledgeable trackers and guides in the national parks and preserves, who loved to bring us to — and share and teach us about — the land and its wildlife — gorillas and chimps, elephants, lions and leopards, giraffes, hippos and crocodiles and beautiful birds — really, beautiful beyond description.

We spent a day with the economic development non-governmental organization Village Enterprise, the organization Leah initially worked for in both Kenya and Uganda. Village Enterprise works with people who live in extreme poverty.

The participants in the program, all of whom were developing their own business, warmly welcomed us to their meeting where they were deciding the rules for their business savings and lending group. We watched them write their constitution. The secretary would be a person who could write. The treasurer needed to have computation skills. The president needed to enjoy everyone’s respect.

Later that day, we attended a meeting of an already existing savings group. People would bring their 200 or 500 or 1,000 shillings (10, 20 or 30 cents) to deposit in the savings box (there are no banks nearby). These people were  work ing harder than you can imagine to try to make a better life for themselves and their families in this economically poor country.

They thanked us for coming. We thanked them for letting us share the experience of watching them collectively save money that then would be lent to members of the group to finance their businesses.

Clarke concluded his commentary in New Vision by saying, “Trump is in no position to make a judgment on the whole continent, much less a country. We live in a shithole of a country according to his judgment, but I can tell him that there are many individual Ugandans who are far greater human beings than he will ever amount to.”

Amen to that.

Bill Newman, a Northampton lawyer, writes a column published the first Saturday of the month. He is director of the Western Regional Office of the ACLU of Massachusetts. He can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.