Everywhere I go in Uganda, I notice the animals. They coexist with the people in almost all environments. I see chickens pecking out their breakfasts even in among the shops in the city suburbs, where you would not expect to see chickens on the busy streets. I see goats and sheep, cattle, and a few pigs. I even saw rabbits yesterday grazing happily in some tall grass under the watchful eye of a teenage boy. In a long, hard rainstorm today, I watched a small black goat, which had been left out, balancing atop the rock to which he was tied in order to stay above the pooling water and calmly chewing his cud. But of all these creatures great and small, I pity the ducks the most.

It seems to me that Ugandan ducks are not living typically ducky lives. I have seen many Ugandan ducks of all varieties, but I have never seen one in or near any source of water.  These poor birds are “dirt ducks.” They seem to live and die like the chickens all around them, sadly pecking out their existence in the same red Ugandan dust, but waddling clumsily after fallen tidbits instead of darting and scratching for seeds and bugs like the more agile hens, chicks and roosters on every side. They are literally ducks out of water, and I am sad every time I see one.

We were returning from a rainy day of church-plant training out in the villages along the very bumpy and muddy Kamili Road, the one we have affectionately dubbed the Wages of Sin Road for the punishment we take as we ride over it. As we passed through a small village, I witnessed a truly pathetic sight – a duck had waddled out into the road and stood transfixed in front of one of the rain-filled pot-holes that had temporarily become a miniscule pond on the side of the narrow dirt track. We drove up to him and around him, and he didn’t seem to notice us as we passed. He just stared at the tiny little pond, almost wistfully, I thought.

I imagined the mental process running through his primitive duck brain as he stared at perhaps the largest body of water he’d ever seen all in one place at one time – “I know this thing; I think I’m supposed to do something, but what is it? Should I launch myself into it? Should I walk in it? Should I eat it? What am I supposed to do? Something about this thing is important, but what is it?” We left this heart-breakingly indecisive little duck behind us as we continued on our way, but I couldn’t get him out of my mind. His condition seemed so hopeless.

Ducks are water birds, you see. They are created to be water birds. Living without water to swim in, unable to dive down to feed off the plants and small fish living at the bottom of lakes and rivers, barely eking out their meager “duck-ity” while standing in dry, red dust up to the tops of their webbed feet, competing with their much faster and better-adapted chicken brethren for every scrap of food – this is no life for a duck. It seems tragic to me.

You are surely asking about now why I am going on so much about mere poultry. Surely you’re wondering whether my gears are all meshing properly.  I think I’m okay. I’ve asked the same question as I realized how riveted my attention has been on these poor, deprived animals. I pondered this and came to an unpleasant and startling realization, a sobering discovery of how my brain is functioning as I go to and fro in this beautiful land.

I am daily looking at difficult things, humans who suffer under poverty and unemployment that breaks the spirit, untreated medical conditions that leave permanent scars, shortening or devaluing lives that were created to live in the image of God. I see joyful orphans. I see a consuming poverty that eats at the souls of a beautiful, sweet, and able people. These things I can see.

But I talk about the ducks. The ducks without water. I know what I’m doing when I do it, and I also don’t know, but I only don’t know because I don’t want to know. There’s a lot here I don’t want to acknowledge. So I tell you about the poor ducks instead.