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(The New Vision – Monday, January 14, 2013)

KAMPALA, UGANDA ✦ There are six of us around the table. We’re disturbed and talking about how to help. The place where we work and live and have friendships and worship with others is under attack.

Through 2012, this place, an educational institution, became, as one Ugandan said, “a den of thieves.” Then the new year had barely arrived when a campus home was broken into and robbed while its Ugandan family slept.

One of the six, a woman, half laughs that thieves aren’t bright enough to kidnap children. Another woman says don’t laugh, it could happen. A man tells how his laptop was stolen while he went for tea. Another tells how his vanished after thieves entered his office posing as maintenance. Another wonders why workers disciplined for stealing were rehired.  Nepotism and collusion among guards and porous borders and security’s leadership are questioned.

Then there’s the employee who stole cash. He confessed it when caught, but, months later, still has his job because he’s since denied it to a senior manager. That money originated from international donors. A woman at the table says such crimes are tolerated because they’re hidden, while pregnant girls at this Christian institution are summarily dismissed.

Of course, this institution is fighting a larger milieu. Transparency International ranks Uganda as the most corrupt country in East Africa and more corrupt than 129 other countries worldwide. Most of Africa’s 54 countries fail this coalition’s pass grade.

“I’ve lived here for years, but I’ll never understand this,” I recently said to a Ugandan colleague. He told me that I simply don’t understand this culture’s hidden mechanisms.

He and I were talking about responsibility. After several homes in one exposed area of the above-noted institution were robbed, my family requested that one of its many guards patrol this area at night. Despite one recent theft from our own vulnerable home, and our repeated requests, no guard was provided. A week later my home was robbed again.

A guard was then finally given. But compensation to help pay for losses, requested because of how administration’s slow response factored into the second theft, was denied. Its top leader said the institution felt no responsibility. It was not the thief.

I wonder, though, if there is not a longer view, one that considers sins of omission as much as those of commission. This view says, “All this is my fault.”

A good leader said this once. “All this is my fault.” He was General Robert Lee, who led the South to defeat in America’s civil war. Was it all Lee’s fault? No. But by not denying his own role, he helped bring healing and faith in tomorrow.

I suppose this is an outdated way of seeing the world and our place in it. It is a view that is too foreign and unrealistic for our nature. Some of us could blow up the planet, then stand with our hands in our pockets and look the other way. How did Eden go? Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent, the serpent blamed God.

Even so, I wonder if this “all this is my fault” response is really the only chance that any of us have.  This is because we will always pay for what we do or fail to do. Life itself teaches us this truth.

Any nation, or any institution, or any common man or woman on the street, pays by what we have allowed ourselves to become, and we pay by the lives that we lead.

About Thomas Froese