Professor Richard Pierce
Chair, Dept. of Africana Studies
The juxtaposition of the majesty and horror in Uganda struck me almost immediately. I was overwhelmed with the splendor of the environment and institutions and the horror found in the ravages of poverty. For those of you who have traveled in developing countries, the story I relate will not surprise. While there are some very privileged few who drive fine cars or who have traveled the world, they travel in their cars past people who make their homes out of mud and their roadside stands out of scavenged waste. They drive by children carrying heavy containers filled with water. Everywhere we went, we found need. But we also found great joy. The people were happy. The people welcomed us, and although they had little, they shared what they had with us. Like visitors to any foreign country, I have been transformed by the visit. Unlike some who travel to Africa to see lions, tigers, and bears, oh my, we saw humanity.
It is tempting to believe that need is omnipresent, that it will always be among us. While we often use the words interchangeably, with seeming indifference to meaning, there is a difference in the meaning of the words poverty and impoverished. Poverty means to be without; impoverished means to make poor, to deprive. We must examine our society’s structures and institutions to learn if they cause others to be impoverished and, if we find that there are active agents, then we must be willing to act. But before we act we must believe. We must believe in the things that we do not yet know are true.
Each of us at Notre Dame, whether we accept it eagerly or reluctantly, is part of this nation’s educated elite. With our position among the educated elite comes a responsibility to examine critically the structures that make up our society. We have the opportunity, nay the obligation, to question whether structures very familiar and perhaps comfortable and profitable to us should continue to exist. That is what we are doing with the Millennium Village Project. We are questioning the structures of society to determine those that have contributed to harm. At times we may think that this burden is too heavy or unfair; well, it is, but having walked among the villagers, fairness is not a concept I feel comfortable discussing. When faced with burdens or challenges, I remember what my grandmother told me years ago when I would begin to offer a word of complaint about some task or chore. She would say, “You don’t have to, Honey child, you get to.”
We must renovate this world. It may seem hopeless, but we must have faith. It occurred to me that my Ugandan hosts retain hope and faith amidst much despair and that is why they are so willing to participate in the Millennium Village Project. If the Ugandans have not lost hope, then we should not be willing to forsake ours. They believe their lives can be better and they are working to make their faith a reality. I cannot ask that you sojourn to Africa or to some other developing region in our world, but I ask that we open ourselves to the wider world. A world that is smaller than that taught in geography classes, but larger than that found in our television screens. Tradition is blind to change but our society is ever evolving with a grip on its past and a questing hand exploring the unknown. There is comfort in gripping on to the past for it promises security and permanence and it has stood the test of time, but too firm a grip will root us to a past that for some was uncomfortable or stifling. Be courageous and have faith; your moorings are sound. Honor, courage, virtue mean everything. Whatever wealth or power we attain must serve those qualities and if not, then our wealth and influence are wasted. We must believe in honor not because we may find truth, but because the search makes us human. Travel well as we have.