So…What’s the Plan?

June 30th 2015

Four years ago I made a plan. It’s a simple plan really, spanning approximately eight years. It goes like this:

Step 1. Get a B.A. in a subject (or subjects) that I am interested in. Make sure it is broad enough to accumulate general knowledge about the world and give me a sense of what options are out there.

Step 2. Take one or two years off after my degree. Spend those years traveling and being outdoors, while still making enough money to support myself. Don’t worry about pursuing a career, just do things that I won’t be able to do later in life (i.e. becoming a diving instructor or backpacking around South America). Also in this time figure out what I want to do with my life.

Step 3. With my new found wisdom and life experience decide on a subject that I want to pursue my Masters in. Have gotten good enough grades in my undergrad to get into a good school (hopefully somewhere abroad).

Step 4. Work on my next plan based on how this one turns out.

Pretty simple right? As someone who tends to live spontaneously this is as close to a finite plan as I could get while still keeping my options open. It provides comfort, but also flexibility. And as of right now – four years in – I’m right on track. I’ve successfully completed step one: I have a combined honours degree in Political Science and International Development Studies with a 3.6 GPA (not great, but not horrible).

I’ve now moved on to step 2: discovering life outside of school. In my two years off I always imagined myself climbing mountains or bumming around Europe. Never did I imagine having a job in my field, of all places. But as it turns out, the four years I just spent slaving away in the Killam Library have actually qualified me for something (go figure!). This internship presented itself before I’d even finished my exams, and my hunt for fall jobs has already come up with a plethora of options (although applying for them is another matter). I guess as a bright eyed and bushy tailed recent graduate I am a desirable candidate for NGO and non-profit work.

Of course I should be thrilled. Isn’t this what everyone wants, to get a job in the area they studied? Even if it’s only for the summer. But counter intuitively, in my plan the express purpose of my next two years is to NOT work in my field. I want to  try all sorts of things before I have to settle into a ‘career’ or a ‘profession’ (what do those words even mean?). I’ve focused so intensively on political science and international development studies for the last four years that now I want something different. I want to get a certificate in photography, or be trained in Wilderness First Aid. I’m worried that it would be too easy to stick to what I’m qualified for and never get to try anything else.

It would be a different story if I felt that I’d found my calling – if I knew that the NGO world is for me and I never want to work in any other sector. But that’s not the case. True to form, as soon as my options start to narrow I freak out and open them up again. I’m much better at knowing what I don’t want to do than what I do. And the seven weeks I’ve spent working for Food Rights Alliance have been eye-opening to say the least.

Being here I’m getting firsthand experience in the NGO world. Every week our boss sends Jeremy and I to numerous meetings put on by various civil society organizations. There we listen to presentations and frantically take notes on taxation in the budget, seed policy, GMOs, land tenure rights, bilateral trade agreements, foreign direct investment, etc. Seven weeks in it now feels normal to put on nice clothes every day and carry my heavy briefcase to the office where I spend eight hours researching and writing, researching and writing. I’ve learned more about agriculture and food security being here than I knew in my whole life. On top of that, my co-workers are all young and smart and some of the hardest workers I’ve ever met. And my boss is an impressive woman who acts as much like our mother as she does our supervisor (last week on the way to a meeting she found out I’m vegetarian and gave me a lecture on getting enough iron). Basically, I scored.

But being here I’m also beginning to understand the reality of working for a non-profit. People don’t march into work every day holding banners and burning with a desire to change the world (don’t worry, I knew that before I came here). Instead it’s a lot of report writing and fundraising. Buzzwords like ‘capacity building’ and ‘behavioral change’ are applied to every situation. Every day is an uphill battle and at the end of it no one knows if progress has been made. And what is meant to be an hour long meeting can stretch out over two days (that might just be a Ugandan thing though. God I hope it’s just a Ugandan thing). I know that the NGO world isn’t perfect, but it’s disheartening to see how bogged down in rhetoric and procedures everyone is.

In contrast, I’m used to taking an experiential learning approach. I was raised by a facilitator who confidently marches into meetings carrying a briefcase full of balloons and gets all the men and women in suits laughing and participating. Most of my job experience is working with kids with chronic illnesses or from disadvantaged backgrounds – preparing programs and games to help them develop self-confidence and leadership skills. I know working for an NGO isn’t the same as working for a camp, but the principle of engaging people is the same, and that’s something I’m good at. I know how to get a group of people working towards a common goal, and I can do it without using projectors and spreadsheets. I guess it just took coming to Kampala to realize the value of skills I already have.

So is working for an NGO everything I dreamed of and more? Yes and no. I like the people, I’m interested in the issues, and it keeps me questioning what’s right and wrong and what I believe. But there is too much rhetoric and not enough of an experiential approach, both within the organization and in the work being done. Often meetings will end and there will be no clear tangible outcomes. You have to wade through the politics to get to the heart of the matter, and even then it isn’t clear what to do. The work being done here is very valuable and definitely has its place, but I’m just trying to figure out where I fit in it, if anywhere.

I’m not trying to say that I have all the answers – most likely I don’t have any of them. I’m just learning, and I only have seven weeks of experience under my belt. Furthermore, I know that not every NGO is the same, so I shouldn’t use this one example to characterize them all. But I am realizing where my strengths lie, and how they can fill the gaps in this type of work. I still have no idea whether the NGO world is where I’ll end up, but if it is at least I now know a bit more about what I’d be getting myself into.

For now, I’m just sticking with my plan and seeing where it takes me.


A Sensory Tour of Kampala

June 26th 2015

My small number of regular readers may have noticed that I’ve taken a brief hiatus from blog-writing. It’s not because I have nothing to say; on the contrary, for the past week or so my head has been spinning with fragmented concepts and half formed ideas. As a result I have a growing number of partially written blog posts cluttering up my computer desktop. But I can’t seem to organize them into coherent ideas the way I could when I first arrived. I think it’s partly because now what I have to write about is more than initial impressions, since after six weeks here I’m beginning to understand the underlying factors that affect the reality of Uganda. And these factors are as complicated as they are fascinating. So naturally I’m feeling a bit daunted by the idea of putting my thoughts and realizations on paper. When I’m feeling brave I will delve into these topics, but for now – to break up my writer’s block – I’m going to stick to simpler ideas.

A few weeks ago, during a crackly phone conversation with my dad, he suggested that I write using my senses. What does Kampala look like? What sounds do we hear regularly? At the time I dismissed the idea, but thinking about it now I realize that the sights and smells we now take for granted are drastically different than the ones in Canada and other parts of the world. Every day here is a sensual overload. So without further ado – and to my dad’s satisfaction – here is a sensory trip through Kampala:

Sound. Unlike in Canada – where noise complaints are the fear of every socially-inclined university student – Kampala is truly the city that never sleeps (sorry Seattle). From 4 or 5am until well after midnight our neighbourhood is alive with a wide range of noises. For example, as I sit on the balcony writing this I can hear the nearby church playing generic pop songs in an incomprehensible language. There are birds squawking in the trees, a rooster crowing somewhere down the road, and men chatting downstairs in the courtyard.

Our building is particularly bad for noise. Like the Killam Library at Dalhousie, the center of the building is empty and open to the sky, with the stacks – or in this case apartments – taking up the outside. Kind of like a concrete donut. I have yet to discover the benefits of this design, but its biggest flaw is that you can hear everything going on in the building. And I mean everything. The baby on the 10th floor, the Chinese missionary church on the 10th, and something that sounds like a giant photocopier continuously churning out new pages. Children are constantly stomping up and down the stairs, shrieking as they race their friends. Their nightly games of basketball and soccer are the soundtrack to our dinners.

Most of the time this cacophony of sounds is mildly annoying. But at 4am when music starts blaring in the parking lots it’s positively infuriating. Do people have no respect for others and the fact that they might actually be sleeping? That they have to go to work in few short hours? Jeremy, Shelby and I frequently get up in the morning to recount tales of our sleepless nights listening to a chorus of dogs serenading the city. But no one else here seems to mind. The constant noise is just part of life in Kampala. And as Jeremy pointed out, the sounds are usually an affirmation of community. The children, churches, babies and conversations are signs that people are interacting and enjoying each other’s company. While in Canada we live well in communities by respecting each other’s space, here people do so by filling it.

Smell. Kampala has many smells, but the most constant one is the smell of smoke. Or more specifically it’s the smell of burning garbage. Here in Uganda, like most other African countries, it is a common practice to burn garbage in small outdoor fires throughout the day and night. I don’t quite understand the logic of this, but it means that Kampala is always engulfed in a thin layer of smoke, like the kitchen after you leave something cooking for too long (queue the fire alarm). But contrary to what you might think, the smell isn’t repulsive, but rather fairly neutral and even comforting. I can imagine that if I return to Uganda at some point in my life the smell will trigger memories of “that one time I lived in Uganda the summer after graduation”.

Taste. Kampala tastes like rolex. If you don’t know what rolex is, you’re missing out. It’s one of the most popular street foods here and throughout East Africa. By around 6pm it’s common to see vendors framing the streets, armed with dough and hot cooking plates. Essentially rolex is a chapatti (i.e. a fried tortilla-like disc) filled with a thin omelet featuring cabbage and tomato. The vendor will mix the eggs in his one cup, flip the omelet with a knife, and wrap the finished product in a bag made out of newspaper. It’s very economical, and the result is delicious! A rolex gives late night poutine a run for its money.

I could go on and on about rolex, but Kampala has other tastes too. It also tastes like a Nile Special beer: cool and light and refreshing. It tastes like the heaping plates of peas and rice that are delivered for lunch at work every day for the cheap price of 3000 shillings (just over a dollar). It tastes like the mango, banana, pineapple, passionfruit smoothies that Shelby graciously makes us for breakfast each morning (thanks Shelby!). It tastes like the chocolate muffins that we buy several times a week from the neighbourhood supermarket. And it tastes like the gelato from Acacia Mall that we get as a ‘special treat’ (i.e. two of three times a week). If you haven’t guessed yet, we really like our treats.

Kampala feels like many different things. It feels like the pain in your hand after it has been clenched around the back of a boda boda. It feels like the sweat on your neck on a particularly hot day. It feels like the small keys on my $30 phone as I try to beat my high score in snake (Must. Beat. Jeremy’s.Score.). It feels like the weight of mounds of dusty clothes as you search for gems at the Friday market. It feels like the itchiness of a collared shirt after a day-long meeting in the Hotel Africana, where we spend at least one day a week. It feels like my gritty yoga mat when Shelby and I do one of our P90X3 workouts (Tony Horton: “one more biiiiiggg gorgeous breathe!” Me: “God this guy is annoying”, Shelby: “D’you think we could still follow along if we muted it?”).

Sight. Kampala looks like a series of lush rolling hills speckled with terra cotta roofed houses. It looks like the intricately braided and ever-changing hairstyles of the local women. It looks like the oversized and slightly dirty uniforms of children as they swarm the streets after school. It looks like the large bumper stickers on the white and blue mini-taxis that clog the streets, saying things like “Trust in the Lord”, and “Use soap and sunscreen” (no joke, I saw that one on my way home yesterday). Kampala looks like the US Aid public service posters, warning against unsafe sex and urging people who are sick to get checked for TB. Kampala looks like my computer screen as I sit for eight hours a day researching and writing, researching and writing. And it looks like the inside of my mosquito net as I fall asleep at night.

Canadians, Crocodiles and Crowds

June 15th 2015

It’s amazing how much can happen in the course of a week. Even here in Uganda, where everything takes longer, we seem to do an impressive amount of fun things. As you may have noticed, my posts switch back and forth from philosophical musings on development, to narrative accounts of our experiences here so far. Luckily for you, last week was action packed so this post fits into the latter category (phew, no need to sit through my thoughts on white privilege today). So without further ado, here is my account of this past week’s events:

Rafting on the Nile
In my last post I promised you a description of our rafting trip, so here it is! Last Tuesday was a national holiday (Hero’s Day), so we decided to take a trip to the small city of Jinja, which is known for its rafting. After weeks of sitting hunched over a desk all day, I was ready to do something active. Not to mention that despite my love for big cities, they also have a tendency to make me claustrophobic. Sometimes you just need to drive to the nearest forest, take off your shoes, and run around outside, you know? (Any fellow camp counselors reading this will get what I’m saying).

Anyways, before Tuesday I’d been rafting three times before: once on the Bay of Fundy when I was a teenager, and twice while I was living in Quebec. Each time was amazing, but they don’t hold a candle to rafting on the Nile! Maybe it was the size of the rapids, or the knowledge that there could be crocodiles in the water, but this trip was nothing short of intense, in the best of ways. But I’ll start from the beginning:

After a bus ride from Kampala to Jinja, we found ourselves in the middle of the lush Ugandan forest, speckled with small brick houses and smiling children. It was striking to see how lush and beautiful the countryside is, as like most big cities Kampala has very limited green space. The bus followed a very bumpy path through groves of banana and avocado trees, and finally parked outside a large thatched roof building next to the river (oh my God that’s not just any river, it’s the Nile!). Our rafting guides quickly introduced themselves, pointed us in the direction of a modest breakfast laid out, and then got us geared up in helmets and lifejackets. Jeremy, Shelby and I were then paired with another group of three and ushered into a raft with a Ugandan guide, although his accent was distinctly Kiwi (many of the people who work at the rafting company are from New Zealand).

Within minutes we were out on the water learning how to steer the raft and what to do if it capsized. Our guide explained to us the plan for the day: 8 rapids in total, most of them class 4, punctuated by a lunch break on an island and a few places where we could swim. Satisfied that we had all the information we needed, we began paddling our way to the first rapid (Class 5 – the biggest rapid you can legally go on). Shelby and I had opted to sit in the front, so we were instantly doused in liters and liters of powerful Nile water. Our little raft rose and fell in 10 foot high swells, with our guide yelling at us the whole time to “PADDLE HARD!” or “GET DOWN!” When we’d made it through the rapid, we looked back to see our Ugandan safety kayaker effortlessly doing flips and spins through the rushing water. We later found out that she is set to compete in the world championships for kayaking held this year in the United States.

Rinse and repeat seven more times and you have our day! The rest of the rapids went pretty swimmingly (haha get it, because we were swimming and rafting on the Nile?). It was exhilarating to be tossed around on the river, paddling as hard as we could to stay afloat. There were only two times that I was genuinely scared, and that’s when our raft capsized. The first time I was able to swim out from under the boat pretty easily, and I kept my grip on both the safety line and the paddle.

The second time however was on the last rapid, and as soon as we flipped I was sucked into a vortex of kicking legs and rushing water. After what felt like ages I managed to surface, but only had time to spit out my mouthful of water before getting tossed back under. I finally emerged about 40 meters down the river, my paddle nowhere to be seen. Shelby was spluttering next to me, and we grabbed for each other’s hands. We were both a little shaken, but it only took a few minutes for us to start laughing as we drifted down the now calm river. Poor Jeremy seemed a tad traumatized though, and he informed us that he is “not a thrill seeker” (I’m willing to bet that he does a very good Eyore impression. Am I right Jeremy?).


IMG_0774   Rachel

The Uganda vs. Botswana football match
On Saturday Shelby, Jeremy and I decided to go see the Ugandan football team take on Botswana. Ugandans love their football – most are ManU fans – so we knew it would be a good game. Sure enough, from the minute we left our house on Saturday afternoon the energy was palpable. Whizzing through the city on our bodas, every second person on the street was wearing a Uganda jersey (good thing we bought our own a few days before). When we drove through city center there were vendors selling flags, whistles, hats, and so much more. By the time we got close to the stadium all of our fellow boda riders seemed to have some sort of noisemaking instrument – they were blowing horns, whistles and even banging drums. The energy and noise only escalated when we got to the stadium.

It was the first time I’ve ever seen Ugandans be early. We arrived a good hour and a half before the game, but already the line to get through security went out the main gates. After being jostled through we picked up some popcorn and our favorite local beer (Nile Special), from one of the vendors lining the inside of the fence. Our treats in hand, we mounted the steps into the game.

The Mandela National Stadium is probably the biggest arena I’ve ever seen. It’s a huge concrete structure that looks like a cross between the Coliseum and the Killam Library. Its capacity is just over 45,000, and for this game the stands were at least 75% full. The three of us stationed ourselves right in the middle of the Ugandan side, and contentedly sipped our beers until the game began.

The Ugandan Cranes are not known to be a great team (although I’m sure they could put the Canadian team through their paces – sorry guys). In the newspaper we’d read that they’d only won 58% of their qualifying games so far for the 2017 AFCON qualifiers. But in my inexperienced opinion they were pretty darn good! Other than my brief but fairly successful high school career as goalie, I have very little knowledge of football. So my jaw would drop every time the Ugandan goalie booted the ball ¾ of the way down the field.
As it turns out, the Ugandan team may not be the best in the league, but they were better than Botswana. They won 2-0, to the immense excitement of the crowd who showed their support by dancing and making as much noise as possible. By the end of the game I was nearly deaf, but I was almost as thrilled as the other supporters. What can I say, the energy was contagious!

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Luckily for us, the excitement didn’t end after the football game. When we got home we were greeted by big hugs from none other than fellow Canadians Erica and William! They had flown in from their home in Rwanda for the weekend, and had somehow managed to follow my questionable directions to our doorstep. Erica is something of an adopted sister to me ever since she started looking after my sister and myself eight years ago. So needless to say I was overjoyed to see both her and her husband William. We spent the evening making food and swapping over a year’s worth of stories. It was so good to talk to people who not only understand our cultural background, but who have also known me for years. By the time we went to bed it felt like we’d had a good dose of home. And when they left yesterday afternoon, they’d convinced us to come visit them before we leave Uganda. So stay tuned for a post on our upcoming trip to Rwanda! (Hopefully)

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Free the Nipple
Although the following anecdote can’t be described as an event per se, it was such an interesting exchange that I have to include it here.

Let me ask you a question: what happens when one of your co-workers in Uganda stumbles across an article about the Free the Nipple campaign and shares it with the office? A whole lot of heated, culturally layered debate, that’s what. Jeremy and I were sitting in the office when our co-worker piped up about the article. The other Ugandans in the office started laughing and writing it off, but more liberal-minded Jeremy and I started questioning. Why was it so funny for women to want to be able to go topless? Why shouldn’t they? The conversation escalated until voices were raised and people were talking over each other trying to make their point. The participants: Jeremy and I (defending the nipple), two other women (falling somewhere in the middle), and the office’s resident lawyer, who was strongly opposed to the idea.

So there we were, yelling about the sexualization of nipples over our lunch of beans and rice. Now I’m not going to lie, the fact that it is not socially acceptable for me to take off my shirt in public has never really bothered me. I’ve never really felt that my rights are being curtailing in this area. But I also recognize that my discomfort with removing my shirt in public is the result of my socialization into thinking it’s inappropriate. Similarly, the fact that a woman’s boobs are seen as mystical and erotic body parts has more to do with societal constructs rather than an actual psychological predispositions.

Psychology aside, it was fascinating to see how much culture influences logic. In Canada it is commonly accepted that the sexualization of boobs, gender as binary, etc is all a social construct. But here many people feel that these things are part of our nature. Furthermore, there seems to be a belief that culture is static and can’t be changed. I’ve grown up in a country that is relatively accepting of all people and beliefs, but in Uganda these liberal ideas are not often introduced or fostered. As such, the positions we took in the argument were very much steeped in our cultural understandings. Nature versus nurture, am I right?

Point being, I never thought I could learn so much about culture by talking about nipples.

Strange Encounters

June 10th 2015

As you may have already read on Jeremy’s blog, yesterday we went rafting at the source of the Nile! I have my own version of the events typed and ready to go, but I’ll wait to post it until I have the pictures to go with it.* For now though, I want to talk about a strange encounter that I had before we got in the rafts: an encounter with my former self.

Let me back up a bit. Yesterday I woke up at 6:30am in order to be ready for the rafting bus to pick us up at 7:10. When we boarded the bus, still rubbing the sleep from our eyes, we were struck by a funny sight: the bus was full of a dozen white girls. Jeremy and a few Ugandans were the only outliers, since everyone else was an average height, average weight, dirty blonde, sports bra-wearing, slightly sunburnt white girl, with her unwashed hair thrown into a messy bun. Essentially, they looked just like me and Shelby.

A few minutes after we’d plunked ourselves in our seats, we discovered that the girls not only looked like us, but the majority of them were 20-22 year old Canadians. Go figure. But even more coincidentally, they soon told us that they were in East Africa on an Operation Groundswell trip. Now those of you who know me well know that this is the same company that I traveled with to Peru the summer after my second year. And, even more coincidentally, I only chose Peru after the trip to East Africa I was meant to be on was cancelled due to a lack of enrollment. Crazy! What are the odds that I’d run into members of a trip that I was supposed to be on three years ago, with an organization that only has five staff and does two East Africa trips per year?! Not very high, I’ll tell you that much.

So for the purpose of this post, I’m going to say running into them was fate. Hearing them talk about their experience so far, I was transported back to my Operation Groundswell trip. Except in hindsight vision is 20/20, so I saw it in a completely different – and much less flattering – light.

It was the summer after my second year of university that I decided to go to Peru. At that point I’d taken one full year International Development Studies course and had decided that it would be my second major. I liked it because it dealt with global issues, with the purpose of creating positive change in the world. So when I decided to go to Peru it was because 1) I wanted to travel for an extended period, and 2) I wanted to get some real experience in the field of development to know firsthand what the challenges are. I knew a little bit about the pitfalls of voluntourism** so I was determined to do it right. Unfortunately, due to limited time – I had a job starting in June – I was unable to go on a more extended trip, which might have been the more ethical thing to do. I also chose to go with a group instead of going alone, which was good for the sake of my comfort, but maybe not as beneficial from a development perspective. Still, I was confident that I could find a way to still do some good.

When I found the Operation Groundswell website, I liked it for several reasons. Firstly, it was a small, Canadian-based organization started by students with the mindset that development trips shouldn’t break your bank account. They gave a detailed explanation of where my money would be going to, and they had a fundraising component which would go towards buying the materials and making a donation to all the projects we’d be working on. Secondly, all the organizations we would visit were created and run by locals, and our role would simply be providing manual labour. Thirdly, they made no big claims about changing the world – the idea was that we would be backpacking for our own personal gain, but we would be doing so as ethically and sustainably as possible.

Luckily for me, everyone on my trip was a development student. My trip leaders were also well versed in the issues with development – they made sure we read books like Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America before our departure, we took a week of intensive Spanish classes upon our arrival, our leaders had regular de-brief sessions with us during projects, and they were incredibly respectful and mindful of everyone we encountered. For the last few days of the trip we had a ‘disorientation’ session, and when I returned to Canada I took an experiential learning course to reflect on my experience (it was actually from a student in that class that I learned about this internship – funny how things work out).

In Peru I had no illusions about saving the world, but I was also fairly certain that because of my careful choices and my trip leaders’ diligence I hadn’t caused any harm, and had maybe even had some mutually beneficial encounters. But talking to the girls on the rafting trip yesterday, I was forced to once again look back at my experience with a critical eye. I still maintain that my time in Peru wasn’t necessarily BAD – I certainly gained a lot, and at the very least our donations went straight to the local organizations – but I know the practice of voluntourism isn’t something I’m proud to say I’ve participated in. Especially after hearing those girls say things like how they saw the “real Africa” because they visited a slum. Even a five minute conversation with them made me uncomfortable.

Now one reaction would be to sneer condescendingly at these twelve girls, disgusted by their ignorance to the glaring flaws of voluntourism. But then I realized that these flaws were only glaringly obvious to me and my fellow scholars, as students of International Development Studies. I’ve spent the last four years studying the ins and outs of development – learning about the problems with voluntourism and the detrimental mindset that the Global South needs “saving”. But when I was nineteen and signed up for Operation Groundswell, I wasn’t too far off from where they are now. True, I’ve never owned a piece of Lulu Lemon clothing in my life, or gotten an inaccurate tattoo of a world map on my feet, and I’ve never said something about getting to stay with “real Africans”. But I may have been similarly smug about seeing a different side of Peru because we spent some time with a family in the Patchecutek slum outside of Lima.

So am I somehow better than those twelve girls? No, most definitely not. More educated on development issues maybe, but not better. I think they probably think they’re doing really great work. They genuinely want to help. Little do they know that the well they built probably needed to be redone by locals after they left. Or that the mindset of “saving Africa” is robbing the agency from a whole continent of intelligent, creative people. But that’s not their fault – like any of us they’ve most likely grown up with the rhetoric that Africa needs saving, and that the problems on this continent somehow happened in a vacuum, instead of being created and perpetuated by people in the Global North.

Mohammed Ali once said, “service to others is the rent we pay for our life here on earth”. Those girls are simply trying to do service, but are maybe approaching it from the wrong angle. But on that note, what is the right angle? In her article entitled ‘The Problem with Little White Girls, Boys and Voluntourism’, Pippa Biddle explains how as a 19 year old she realized how silly it was that she had flown to a developing country to build a house – despite having no expertize in the field – when there were many highly trained carpenters and stonemasons in the village who could have done a much better job. Similarly, in Peru I struggled to strip bark from a log, and then watched a local Peruvian man do it in a fraction of a second. Pippa Biddle makes the point that often, the best way for the white, middle class development worker to do development is to not be there. In her case that meant working with a camp in the Dominican from behind the scenes. She says she would much rather have the children there look up to a local counselor who they look like and can relate to, rather than a foreigner who will leave in a matter of months. This is a hard pill to swallow for those of us who like to travel and be engaged on the ground, but this probably just shows the level of selfishness associated with development work – at least in my case.

Finally, the sense I get is that often people doing ‘good’ development work look down on those doing ‘bad’ voluntourism. This is true in many situations in life – people judge others for being ignorant, but then often don’t do anything to reach out to that person or meet them where they’re at. It’s not fair to those girls to judge them for their actions but then not give them the chance to learn more. If people had scorned me for having been a voluntourist I would never have learned about all its flaws, or what to do better. Not that anyone really knows how to do better. But I think a start would be counteracting the stereotypes that Africa needs saving, or that the West is somehow better than the rest. To watch some awesome clips from people who are already doing this, check out the links below:

To conclude, I hope this post doesn’t sound too holier-than-thou. These are just my musings from yesterday’s encounter with twelve slightly exaggerated versions of my 19 year old self. I’m definitely much different than I was then, but I’m sure I still have many blindspots.
*The pictures were being sold for an outrageous price, so as poor but resourceful students we haggled with the camera guy and decided to split the diminished sum between the six of us in our boat – one girl took the pictures, so we’re waiting until she can find an internet café to send them to us.

**Voluntourism is the act of going overseas for a volunteer placement and to travel. Usually the placements are short term, sometimes over a March break or a Christmas holiday. Trips like Habitat for Humanity, Me to We, etc. are perfect examples. The issue with voluntourism is that such short term projects are likely to do more harm than good, since unqualified young tourists just swoop in, get an ‘authentic’ experience that makes them feel validated and then leave. It also might perpetuate the negative stereotypes that the visitors have about the country because they aren’t there long enough to understand the local dynamics. Although the trip members undoubtedly learn a lot, the communities rarely benefit. Furthermore, people pay ridiculous amounts of money for these trips, most of which goes to the organization that’s sending them and not to the people in the place they’re going. Very few of the organizations are actually locally based, which reeks a bit of neo-colonialism. I could go on, but you get the idea.

Highlight Reel

As of this Wednesday we’ll have been in Uganda for a whole month! Or 29 days to be exact.* So I figure it’s about time to take off my social justice hat for a minute and fill you all in on what we’ve actually been up to. I’ve already mentioned a few things like meetings and trips to the market, but here’s what I’ve left out:

TEDx Nakasero Women
Two weekends ago we were invited to TEDx Nakasero Women. A few days beforehand I’d been talking to one of the facilitators at the conference we were at, and he mentioned that he was one of the organizers. Excited that I had some TEDx organizing experience myself, he eagerly invited us to the event.

The event was held in the Uganda National Cultural Centre, in a cool space on the second floor full of pillars and staircases. The theme of the conference was ‘momentum’, so all of the talks were loosely connected to that topic. The speakers ranged from the Editor in Chief of a local newspaper, to a South Sudanese refugee, to a former Director of the UN-FAO in China, Mongolia, and South Korea. And all but one speaker were women. Of course as is always the case some talks were better than others, but the overall message was inspiring, and we left satiated.

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The Airtel Africa Mashariki Half Marathon
Before you ask, no, we did not run the half marathon. Not a chance in hell. What we did do was the 10k. At 5am last Sunday Shelby, Jeremy, and I were lacing up our running shoes and rubbing our eyes as we stumbled outside to wait for our friend to pick us up. When the gun to start the race went off – over an hour late – the sun was just peaking over the horizon, and the three of us and about a hundred Ugandan, Kenyan, and Rwandan runners took off.

Now, before last Sunday I’d never run 10k consecutively in my life. My running career ended after winning a few first place medals for 400 and 800 meter races in sixth grade (might as well stop while you’re ahead right?). But recently, anytime I’ve tried to run for even twenty minutes I’ve gotten bored well before the allocated time is up. So the thought of doing 10km was daunting to say the least. Especially with no training, and in the Kampala heat.

Luckily for me, I had my own personal motivator/coach/cross country runner there to spur me along. For the first half every time I got a stitch or wanted to walk after a hill Shelby would jog beside me and make sure I started running again before a minute had passed. Even when she saw someone she didn’t know walking she would cheer them on until they started running again. With her help, by about 3km in I had found my stride. Aside from the last kilometer (which all seemed to be uphill) the rest of the race was kind of enjoyable! At least now I can say I’ve done it.

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A day at the beach
This past Wednesday was a public holiday called Ugandan Martyr’s Day. As we’d been warned against going to the Martyr’s shrine just outside the city, we opted instead to take a trip to the beach! Such a Canadian thing to do right? But as it turns out, Ugandan’s love the beach too (although their beaches are on the lake, not the ocean). In fact I think they do beach days better than we do at home: as we lay on the sand, respectfully keeping to ourselves, all the other beach goers were in the water dancing and playing together. There was even a makeshift game of tug of war at one point! It was amazing to see people who didn’t know each other from a hole in the ground happily hanging out as if they were one big family. It was like all the social conventions broke down: couples were cuddling, people were drinking beer, and women were even wearing bikinis (although not the string ones we’re used to in Canada). It was like a spontaneous, all ages beach party. It just goes to show that sometimes all you need is snacks, sand, and sunshine.

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Because the beach was right next to the airport, there was even an old abandoned airplane! Apparently it had been there since Idi Amin’s time.

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A trip to the nail salon
Some of the women here have the most amazing nails. I know that’s a weird thing to say, but you’d notice it too if the lady giving you change at the grocery store had bright blue talons, or the woman sitting across from you at a meeting had gold toes. So when Shelby’s co-worker told us about a local salon, we eagerly decided to give it a go. And as usual, something as simple as getting our nails done become a full day Kampala experience. To try to paint you the best picture I can, given the thousands of miles between you and Kampala, I’ll start from the beginning.

Step one: getting there. We waited for our boda driver to come for over an hour. True, we should have given him more notice, but by the time he arrived we were cranky – I guess we’re still getting used to Africa time. When we saw his huge smile though we quickly got over our frustrations and hopped on.

The best example I can think of to describe being on a boda is to compare it the a ride at an amusement park. For most of it it’s fun – the wind whipping through your hair, the world flashing by – but there are also those moments when you’re hanging on for dear life and trying to calculate the odds of you making it to your destination in one piece. Throw in several hundred other bodas and imagine yourself in the busiest part of town and you’ve pretty much got our ride to the nail salon. At one point I even had to get off in the middle of a traffic jam and hop on another boda, since two riders on one boda is frowned upon.

Eventually we arrived at the mall with the nail salon which is located in the heart of Kampala. Our boda driver gave us a lecture about keeping our valuables close and calling him before we left the mall so he could pick us up. In most places a lecture like this would seem overbearing, but in this case it was comforting. He waited until the man from the nail salon came to find us before he drove off, which we were very grateful for.

The man took us into the depths of the ramshackle mall and into his cramped little salon. When we arrived there must have been ten people in the space of a large bathroom, including two babies, several staff members, and a bride and her bridesmaids. We plunked ourselves down and began what turned out to be another hour long wait before someone was free to start on our nails. We didn’t mind though; we were transfixed by the amazing hairstyles being fashioned into the women’s hair, and the effortless combination of Luganda and English being spoken by the staff. Every now and then vendors would come into the salon peddling peanuts, hair accessories, or shoes. At one point one of the other customers even had lunch delivered from a nearby restaurant. It was pretty wild – by the time our nails were dry we’d had a fully immersive cultural experience.




A night out in Kampala
I know when you read the words ‘night out’ you instantly think of clubs, short skirts and bad decisions. But don’t worry, Saturday’s night out included none of those things:** just a few beers, some new friends, and Indian food. Our co-workers took us to a beautiful outdoor restaurant where we were soon joined by their friends from other Kampala-based NGOs. After a delicious meal and good conversation we headed to a second bar, aptly named Fuego after the fire pits scattered amongst the tables. We stayed there chatting and sipping beers until about 1:30am, when we crammed a few too many people into the vehicles and the designated drivers drove us home. By the time we got home I was exhausted, but it was a well needed night to rewind and chat after a long week at work.

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A visit to Gadaffi Mosque
On Sunday afternoon, after a chill morning catching up on work at home, we decided to check out Gadaffi Mosque. It’s a huge structure about a thirty minute walk from our apartment, and the view from the top of the tower is supposed to be one of the best in Kampala. And it definitely was. After being draped in veils and climbing a few hundred stairs, we could see the whole city laid out below us, going for miles in each direction. What a view!

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Next the guide took us into the main prayer room of the mosque itself. It was a huge room with arched ceilings and an elaborate carpet covering the floor. We sat in there for about half an hour listening to him recount the history of the mosque. When he sang the prayers inscribed on the walls of the room the acoustics carried his voice into every corner. It was a pretty surreal experience.

**Except maybe the bad decision to sit too close to the singer at the restaurant. He was horrible.
*I only know that because I’ve been taking malaria pills every day since two days before I left. They come in packs of 12, and right now I’ve finished two packs, plus 5 pills. So (12×2) +5+2-2 = 29. I like simple math.

Trading in Rhetoric: When David said no to Goliath

June 6th, 2015

Everyone knows the biblical story of David and Goliath. It is the classic example of the underdog rising up to beat the unbeatable opponent. Even though it occurred in Israel thousands of years ago, people still use David and Goliath’s battle as a metaphor for beating the odds. Heck, Malcolm Gladwell even wrote a book with that title. Unfortunately however, stories like that of David and Goliath rarely actually occur (why do you think we’re still using an example from thousands of years ago?). In the real world David often takes a good beating from Goliath and goes home to skulk and lick his wounds. End of story.

The United States of America likes to see itself as a modern day David equivalent. They started off as the underdog: a British colony inhabited by settlers who came to the ‘New World’ in search of a better life. After years of being under Britain’s thumb, they finally gained their independence in 1776, and have since risen to become a superpower. The Little Americans Who Could beat the big bad British Empire. And with independence, the American Dream was born. No longer did your class determine your place in life – if you were a mechanic but wanted to be a lawyer, you could do it! If you were a high school cheerleader, you could one day become President! (Yes I’m talking about you George W. Bush). If however you were a slave – taken from your community in Africa to come be beaten to death in the ‘Free World’ – you pretty much had to stay a slave. Darn. Sorry fellas, better luck next time.

But I’m getting off track: Although America may have started out as a modern day David, it is now most certainly a Goliath. Fast forward past the abolition of slavery, a few World Wars, the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War, and you have the global hegemony that America enjoys today. That’s the funny thing about success: you may start out with your whole image built around being the underdog, but once you’ve worked your way to the top, fighting tooth and nail, you earn the ability to do to others what was done to you when you were at the bottom. The oppressed become the oppressors, and the cycle continues, despite your promises that you would never sink to that level. Power is a funny thing.

Ok, so what does all that have to do with being in Uganda? Quite a bit actually. But let me rewind to what got me thinking about all of this in the first place: on Thursday Shelby, Jeremy and I had the good fortune of being invited to a Regional Stakeholder Consultative Meeting on Promoting Pro-Development Investment Policies and Agreements in the East African Community (EAC).* Quite the mouthful of a title. Essentially, the meeting was to discuss trade between Uganda and other, more developed countries (namely the United States and countries in the EU). Now, my knowledge of trade agreements is fuzzy at best, so for most of the day-long meeting I was frantically typing down things I didn’t understand, hoping that they would formulate themselves into coherent ideas later. But no such luck. So please take the following explanation of international trade with a grain of salt, and if I butcher it I apologize:**

Over the last several years East Africa has had a spike in economic growth. In fact, of the top 20 fastest growing economies in the world, three of them are in East Africa. This region is resource-rich and as such it possesses valuable commodities like minerals that can be used in cellphones and computers (odds are at least a small percentage of your smartphone originated in East Africa). Naturally, countries that don’t have these resources want to get their hands on them. One way to do this is through foreign direct investment, or FDIs. Basically an FDI is exactly what it sounds like: a foreign country invests in a country they are interested in, which in theory gives the former country the resources they want, and the latter country’s economy is boosted and more local jobs are generated.***Because these are desirable outcomes for a country like Uganda, for the past several years the Ugandan Investment Authority has been promoting FDIs.

To take it one step further, now Uganda is looking into signing Bilateral Investment Treaties (BITs) with the US and countries in the EU to help facilitate FDIs and other types of trade between the nations. The idea is that the US and the EU will have access to the resources they want, and Uganda can grow its economy with the hope of becoming a so called developed country. It’s a win win right?

Wrong. To see why, let’s go back to the story of David and Goliath: Goliath was bigger and stronger than David, and no one could argue that it was a fair fight. But because it’s a story – and maybe Goliath was having an off day, slept on the wrong side of the bed or something – David miraculously won. But that outcome was very, very unlikely. Probably about the same likelihood of an average American winning the lottery, and therefore reinforcing the idea of the American Dream. So let me propose a different course of action: What if instead of choosing to fight Goliath, David had turned it down? What if instead he politely said, “No thank you, you’re much bigger and stronger than I am, so I’d be a fool to think I could beat you. I’m no gambler, so I think I’ll need to hit the gym for a little while longer before I’ll be ready to fight. Maybe throw a few extra protein shakes into my diet, or do some crossfit (even though it seems a bit like a cult).Either way, I’ve clearly got some work to do, so why don’t I give you a call when I’ve bulked up a bit?” This scenario wouldn’t have been nearly as exciting, but it definitely would have increased David’s chances of winning in a fight against Goliath.

What Food Rights Alliance, SEATINI, and the other NGOs were arguing for at the trade meeting on Thursday was essentially a version of this alternative scenario. They saw right through the presentations by the sleazy reps from the Ministry of Trade who advocated for BIT agreements with the US. In 2008 the East African Community (EAC) signed a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement with the US where parties undertook to monitor and promote bilateral trade and investment between them, and now they want to move forward with this Investment Model Treaty. The EAC wants to take on Goliath, but SEATINI, FRA and the other organizations want them to wait. They want them to wait because while FDIs are fashionable, there is no evidence that they actually help a country develop. Sure they boost economic growth, but depending on the sector there are often very few jobs created, and those that are created are low level, low wage jobs.

Furthermore, foreign investors have their own agenda. They aren’t interested in helping Uganda develop; they’re here for inputs, markets, and cheap labour. Their interests are governed by the logic of capital accumulation. The reality is, they’re here to purchase Uganda’s raw materials at low prices, take them back home to process, and then sell the products for much higher prices. And what does Uganda get in return? A bit of economic growth, and the hope that by doing business with developed countries they will develop. Sounds to me like the US is getting tangible materials, and all Uganda gets in return is rhetoric and ideology – their very own American Dream. But ideology won’t feed people, and neither will rhetoric.

Back in the day Britain wanted America to sign a Free Trade agreement, but America said no. They recognized the need to protect their agrarian economy, because as a Professor of Political Science said at Thursday’s meeting, “free trade is not for the faint hearted”. Instead of accepting Britain’s offer, America invested in themselves and overtime their economy and their power grew. Then, years later when they were strong enough, they went back and re-tabled the idea of free trade with Britain. In this case David did exactly what Goliath didn’t want him to do: he waited until he was strong enough to fight, and then he won.

Now America is Goliath and the EAC is David. Goliath is asking David to fight, and it looks like David is going to fall for it. Unless the NGOs represented on Thursday can get their voices heard:**** they recognized that despite what it looks like, the EAC is actually holding all the cards. They have the goods, and all America has in exchange is some money and a dying idea that they’ve been peddling for decades.

My mom, a facilitator, says that you always have the most power before you sign a contract. That’s when you still have room to make requests and hammer out your terms. Similarly, the EAC is in a powerful position right now. As one representative at the meeting asked, “is one of the barriers to Uganda’s development not having a trade agreement with the US? Is Uganda losing by not signing the agreement?” The answer is no, they aren’t. Uganda has what America wants, and they can choose to give it to them or not. And as the professor of Political Science pointed out, “if trade and investment treaties are the answer, then what’s the question?” The proposed trade agreement says it will protect investments in both territories – but Uganda doesn’t have any investments in America, so really what it is saying is that Uganda will agree to protect America. Seems a bit counter intuitive given that Uganda is the one that needs protecting.

As the same Professor stated, “salvation never comes from overseas”. Therefore, it sounds like it’s time for Uganda and the EAC to invest in itself. If it develops a strong industrial base then it can process the raw materials found in this country, and therefore be able to provide for themselves and sell the resulting products at higher prices. As Obama said, “markets make good servants but bad masters”. Signing this agreement would put the market in the driver’s seat, and Uganda’s development would become a mere footnote on the agenda, instead of the main focus. Uganda has only been independent for roughly 60 years – if it waits about 140 years more, it just might be ready to beat Goliath.
*Our boss told us she had asked if she could “bring her children along” to the meeting (i.e. me and Jeremy). For a woman without children she is one of the most motherly people I know – especially when it comes to teaching her children lessons. Many a meeting has been punctuated by a teachable moment where she tells us and our co-workers how to chair a meeting, how to secure funding, etc.

** This explanation is essentially trade of dummies. Not because I don’t think you can understand the complexity of trade agreements, but because I don’t. In this case I’m the dummy.

***For a more detailed explanation of FDIs please toodle your way on over to Jeremy’s highly informative blog. He does a great job of explaining it.

****Sitting in Thursday’s meeting and listening to the brilliant people around me defend their country I couldn’t help but feel warm and fuzzy inside. Is it possible to feel patriotic for a country you aren’t from?

Fasting for the Constitution

June 1st 2015

On Friday morning all I managed to eat before rushing off to work was two bites of toast with nutella. At the time it seemed insignificant, but I would soon come to regret my flippant disregard of the saying “breakfast is the most important meal of the day”. Little did I know that those bites of toast were the only food I would eat for the better part of the day.

For our second week at work Jeremy and I had been tasked with helping our boss facilitate a five day training session for an NGO called the Central Archdiocesan Province Caritas Association (CAPCA). The aim was to help them develop an advocacy results framework, a behavioral change tool, and a monitoring and evaluation framework. This work was punctuated by regular breaks for tea, snacks, and large lunches that kept me full until bedtime. So when I ran out the door on Friday morning leaving my breakfast half finished, I assumed I would be happily full within the hour. Unfortunately for my stomach – but fortunately for my personal development – at about 10am we received a call from Shelby telling us that her boss had asked if we could represent our organization, Food Rights Alliance, at parliament for a meeting with the Parliamentary Committee on Legal and Parliamentary Affairs to propose constitutional amendments.

That was a lot of information in one sentence, so let me slow down a bit. As Jeremy explains in his blog post (link here:, constitutional amendments happen very rarely. Even in Uganda where they are somewhat frequent, the chance only comes around every ten years or so. So the fact that they are making amendments now is big. Very, very big . As green, wide-eyed Political Science students, this was the opportunity of a lifetime. Luckily, our presence at the meeting would benefit everyone since no one else from the office was able to attend, so within an hour we had hopped on a boda boda and were speeding towards parliament along with Shelby and her boss. Two rounds of semi-thorough security screenings later, we found ourselves mounting a flight of winding stairs lined with faded pictures of the Queen playing croquette, and the leader of the opposition standing in front of a class of uniformed children. After correcting several wrong turns, we arrived outside a crowded conference room, our hearts in our throats. Since the meetings were running over two hours late and there was no waiting area, we were squeezed onto a row of chairs framing the room. There we waited and listened as numerous stakeholder groups presented their proposed amendments to a row of five or so MPs who weren’t holed up in budgetary meetings somewhere else in the building. Since the meetings were running late the chairman of the meeting announced that they would be working through lunch. Jokingly he explained how we would all be “fasting for the constitution”.

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Let me pause here and give you a bit more context. I already mentioned that the purpose of the meetings was to get input from interest groups regarding what constitutional amendments they want to see. These amendments will specifically focus on social, economic, and cultural rights. Without getting into too much detail, on January 3rd 1976 the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights came into force as one of nine similar agreements created by the United Nations to govern the global enforcement of human rights (along with political and civil rights, the rights of the child, the elimination of racial discrimination, etc.). This particular covenant enshrines the right to safe employment, access to adequate healthcare, the right to housing, sanitation, food, etc. Uganda ratified it in 1987, meaning in theory it should be working towards the full realization of these rights. However since 1987 Uganda has not submitted a single report to the United Nations – something which they are required to do every five years. Furthermore, despite having ratified this international covenant, these rights are not protected under the Ugandan constitution. Therefore the fact that they are now taking steps to include these rights in their constitution – again, in theory – is both very exciting and long overdue. And as an NGO that advocates for the right to safe and accessible food, Food Rights Alliance has a vested interest in ensuring this happens (hence our presence at the meeting).

So, back to the story. As we sat in that crowded, sweaty room, our stomachs growled but we were listening raptly to the conversations between the other NGOs and the members of parliament. Each organization made valuable suggestions, often very much in line with the ones we were hoping to propose. The MPs seemed receptive, although how receptive they actually were remains to be seen. At one point however a discussion started around budgetting. One NGO had suggested included the right to food in the constitution, to which the chairman of the meeting replied that Uganda does not have the funds to make such a promise.



What did he just say?


That was one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard. My blood started to boil.

Ok, calm down. Let’s think this through.

He said Uganda doesn’t have the funds to promise its people the right to food. True, it is the third poorest country in the world. Although culturally and geographically rich, 37.7% of Uganda’s people live in extreme poverty (i.e. less than $1.25 USD/day). With a GDP of 21.49 USD in 2013, it is true that the government here has very little money.

That being said, since arriving in Kampala I’ve seen more police officers and military personnel than I’ve seen in the rest of my lifetime. They flood the streets like a colony of ants. In 2013 Uganda spent 1.9% of it’s GDP on the military – that’s almost double the percentage of what Canada spends. Moreover, in 2005 the World Bank estimated that Uganda is losing $300 million per year through corruption – much of it at the highest levels of government. This is such a problem that countries like the UK, Denmark, Ireland and Norway have all suspended aid to the office of the prime minister.

So in this context, is the issue actually that Uganda doesn’t have enough funds to promise to feed its people, or is it that the funds are being improperly allocated?

It blows my mind that sitting in the Ugandan parliament a well-educated constitutional lawyer would seriously say that Uganda can’t find money to feed its people, and not a single MP would speak up to disagree with him. Isn’t food the most important right of all? Moreover, isn’t Uganda called the food basket of East Africa? Food Rights Alliance lives by the slogan “food first, everything later”. Sitting in that meeting I could barely think because I was so hungry, and I had eaten a mere six hours before. Yet only a few kilometers away there were people who hadn’t eaten in days. In his casual dismissal of the right to food due to budgetary restrictions, the chairman was saying that these people’s needs aren’t even a priority. In Uganda’s Vision 2040 the aim is for the country to go from a low to middle income country by 2040. But how do they expect to meet this goal if they won’t give people the right to food? How can they expect people to survive – let alone contribute to the economy – if they are starving? And moreover, how can a panel of presumably smart, compassionate people seriously refuse to even TRY to feed the country they took responsibility for?

Even though my hunger that day was eventually abated by a few much needed veggie samosas, it seems unlikely that the people of Uganda will have the same luck. At the beginning of the meeting the chairman joked that because we were skipping lunch we were fasting for the constitution. But in the context of his dismissal of the Ugandan people’s right to food, I doubt he understood the irony of his words.

NOTE: Although what I’ve described in my post is shocking, it is not uncommon for countries to fail to allocate enough of the budget to the direct benefit of its people. So called “developed” countries are often equally at fault for similarly harmful decisions.