The United Nations for Dummies

August 17th 2015

Today is our last Monday at work. Looking back, I realize I’ve written very little about the actual work we’ve been doing here over the last few months. So it seems appropriate to write a post about the most recent project we were working on. Namely, a shadow report that Jeremy and I wrote on behalf of a coalition of over twenty non-governmental organizations (NGOs). We submitted it on Friday, and the report will soon be distributed to these and other NGOs, including the Uganda Human Rights Commission. Most importantly, it will (hopefully) be incorporated into Uganda’s National Action Plan (NAP), as well as being sent to the United Nations Headquarters in Geneva to be used in the second Universal Periodic Review process. Pretty exciting stuff. Especially given that I wasn’t expecting to be writing shadow reports until years down the road. So no pressure or anything.

But what is a shadow report you ask? And what is the Universal Periodic Review? Good questions. Answering these will be the focus of this post, which will require a bit of an explanation of the United Nations system. Hence the title ‘The United Nations for Dummies’. I’ve never actually read one of the For Dummies books, so they may even have one about the UN, but here’s my version anyways (disclaimer – I’m writing this without access to internet, so the details could be a bit fuzzy):

As you probably know, the UN was established in 1945. It was meant to be a sort of new and improved League of Nations. It currently has 193 member states, and as such it is one of the first examples of global governance. What is it governing? Essentially, it is monitoring human rights and promoting peace and security. Its main purpose is to set, monitor and enforce international human rights standards. To do so, the UN came up with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which outlines the fundamental rights that all people have simply by nature of being human. From there, the UN created nine covenants that go into more detail on these rights. These include the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, etc. You get the idea.

Once these covenants were created, member states have the option to ratify them. By ratifying a covenant the state in question basically says that they commit to ensuring that every citizen of that state has these rights.* And they commit to dealing with violations of these rights accordingly. So, for example, a country that ratified the Convention of the Rights of the Child would be completely free of child abuse, child labour, etc. In an ideal world.

Unfortunately, this is not an ideal world. Many states have ratified covenants but still have widespread human rights violations. Uganda for example has ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, yet many of these rights aren’t even included in their Constitution.

So, what makes a state’s ratification more than just words on paper? What mechanisms are in place to enforce the rights laid out in the nine covenants? When a state ratifies a covenant, they also agree to complete a system of reporting. Essentially, each signatory state is supposed to submit a report every four to five years on the situation of each particular human right. The report should outline what mechanisms the state has put in place to enforce the human right, and what challenges they still face. So, for example, a state that ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination would probably talk about the different ethnic groups within the state, studies that have been done examining what types of discrimination they face, and maybe initiatives like equal opportunity employment. Each reporting cycle, the UN reads these reports and from them evaluates the state’s progress. If there are problems, they may assign a Special Rapporteur to go investigate the human rights issues in the given country. Alternatively, the UN may utilize the International Court of Justice or the International Criminal Court. Sounds great right?

Wrong. Believe it or not, this system isn’t actually very effective. In fact, the biggest critique of the UN system is that it lacks teeth. Countries regularly fail to submit their reports, and they don’t get penalized for it. Further, when states do submit reports they often overstate the good and leave out the bad. States want to look better than they are, so they don’t own up to everything. Moreover, Special rapporteurs are only allowed to investigate a country with the country’s permission. So it’s all well and good to agree to these lofty rights, but if the UN is unable to enforce them then it loses all its power. And if states can’t be held accountable, then the conventions become laughable.

One way to combat the inaccuracy of state reports is through shadow reports. Like state reports, shadow reports outline the situation of a particular human right in the state in question. The difference is that shadow reports are written by NGOs and concerned citizens. Because they are not from the government they don’t have a vested interest in making the state look good. As such, shadow reports often offer a much more accurate depiction of where a country is at. For example, I once read China’s state report to the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. I was writing a paper on forced sterilizations of women in Tibet by the Chinese military, which is a wide-spread issue. But in the state report there was no mention of this attempted reproductive genocide, or even sterilizations more generally. The only thing mentioned was the One Child Policy, and it was framed in terms of its effectiveness with population control. On the other hand, the shadow reports I read gave detailed explanations of the illegal sterilization, and contained quotes from Tibetan women who had been forcibly sterilized. A much more holistic and reliable source if you ask me.

Unfortunately, even with shadow reports it is still hard to hold states accountable. Recognizing this, the UN came up with an additional system. In 2006 they implemented the first Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The purpose of the UPR is to do a holistic assessment of human rights in each member state. To do so, each state submits a report, and NGOs and citizens are welcome to submit shadow reports. It is a peer review process, so for each session three states are assigned to review the human rights situation of other states (based on the aforementioned reports). Based on these they give recommendations. Each state should consider and adopt these recommendations, and their progress will be reviewed in the next UPR.

The first UPR process was recently completed, and the UN is now beginning the second. Uganda will be reviewed for the second time in the Spring of 2016, during the UPR’s 26th Session. Further, Uganda is currently in the process of developing a National Action Plan. This was one of the recommendations given to Uganda during the last UPR. The NAP will give a holistic overview of the steps needed to improve human rights in Uganda.

This is where we come in. Food Rights Alliance (FRA) – along with two other organizations and their partners – was recently asked to submit a shadow report for the UPR and for the development of the NAP. As FRA and its partners are particularly concerned with Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCRs), these are the focus of the report. More specifically, the report focuses on the right to food, women’s rights, the rights of children’s and youth, and the right to information.

To gather information on the above topics, FRA and the other organizations held a civil society consultative meeting on Friday August 7th. In the meeting attendees voiced their opinions, while consultants for the NAP process listened attentively (at least I hope they did). Meanwhile, Jeremy and I frantically transcribed everything that was said. Later, we would use these comments to craft the shadow report.

Unfortunately I was sick in bed for most of last week, so I was working on the shadow report between naps (and no, I don’t mean the National Action Plan). Luckily, Jeremy was super understanding and more than equipped to plow ahead without me (thanks Jeremy, I owe you one!). As a result, we were able to submit the report on Friday evening, and are hoping to see it distributed in the next few days. Fingers crossed that we didn’t completely screw it up!

So there you go: a description of some of our work here in Uganda, and a detailed explanation of the UN system to boot. Wasn’t that fun?

Sorry if I put you to sleep. I promise the next post will be more interesting.
*States can also have reservations to a covenant. Basically if they agree with everything in a covenant EXCEPT one article, they can choose to ratify the covenant, excluding that article. For instance, several Middle Eastern states have reservations to the Convention of the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, because certain articles go against their cultural and religious beliefs. But states are only allowed a certain number of reservations per covenant before it jeopardizes their ratification.


My Two Cents on Poverty – Part 1

August 14th 2015

After a week of battling with Bilharzia, I’m back! (If you don’t know what Bilharzia is you should look it up, it’s gross).

Just a warning, since I only have two weeks left in East Africa the blog posts are going to be coming in fast and furious. I have a whole folder full of half written, un-posted entries to upload, and only 16 days to do it. So prepare yourselves.

Secondly, this post needs a disclaimer: I wrote a version of it a month or so ago, and then revamped it this week to submit as part of the course I’m taking while I’m here. Given that it’s for a course, it’s a little bit dry and has a lot of academic references. So I won’t be offended if you fall asleep. Also, it’s completely based on my subjective opinion as I muddle through these issues. And even though it’s referring to the Ugandan context, these same questions could be asked about anywhere in the world.

So without further ado:

Approximately half of all human beings alive today are living in severe poverty. According to the World Bank, severe poverty is defined as living on USD 2 or less per day. And on each of these days there are approximately 50,000 deaths due to poverty related causes. Therefore, poverty is arguable the greatest killer in the world.

Uganda as a country is no stranger to severe poverty. In fact, it is the third poorest country in the world. Jeremy, Shelby and I regularly see young children begging for money on the streets, or women selling mangos, hoping to make ends meet. On our visit to a school a few weeks ago – which is located in Kampala’s biggest slum – we learned that the children used to leave school at noon to go beg for their lunch. It was only after the school was given money for a lunch program that the students would stay the whole day. Such is the reality of life for many Ugandans.

Many believe that severe poverty is a violation of human rights. At the organization I work for here for example, access to affordable food in adequate quantities is seen as a fundamental right. The staff there work tirelessly to ensure that Uganda moves towards food security for all. If a person is too poor to buy food, then that poverty also falls under the category of a human rights violation. According to scholar Elizabeth Ashford, the prevalence of people who lack basic necessities is the largest scale deprivation of human rights the world has ever seen. And almost anyone would agree that depriving a child of food, water, housing, or education because she lacks funds is wrong. So, although this argument could be elaborated upon, in the interest of time and space I will hold that severe poverty is a human rights violation.

Having made the above claim, the issue then becomes how to enforce this right. Thomas Pogge succinctly explains that rights have corresponding duties. These rights are only plausible if the duties attached are plausible as well. Unfortunately, it is clear that “it is not plausible to hold everyone responsible for supplying basic necessities to all other human beings who need them”. Therefore, does the human right to be free from severe poverty become void? Or do we give it our best shot, knowing that one life saved is better than none?

More importantly, in the above instance who is ‘we’? Who is responsible for making sure all human beings do not live in severe poverty? As Pogge puts it, it is not clear what human rights bind other agents to do or not to do. Ashford would take a different stance, saying that the responsibility to implement these rights lies largely with the citizens of affluent countries. She says there are two concepts of human rights: institutional and interactional. Institutions can create laws protecting human rights, but people must be the ones to implement these laws.

The problem is that in this globalized world it is hard to distinguish who has done what. How do I know whether my actions as a consumer have led to the death of a person, or people? The diversity of causes makes it hard to assign responsibility. Moreover, the causal chains do not fit our conceptions of human rights violations. For example, we have no language to penalize omissions. What punishment befits a company who pays its employees too little? If an employee dies due to poverty related causes, is that the fault of the company? Similarly, can the affluent be called violators of human rights for not helping someone living in severe poverty, through no fault of their own? There are no clear answers.

One set of guidelines for taking responsibility would be the ‘concentric circles model’ of obligations to others. Essentially, this model states that we have stronger responsibilities to people closer to others, and weaker ones to those further away. In the innermost circle is our family, followed by our friends, then a circle with our compatriots, and finally the rest of the human race falls into the outermost circle. Although W.E.H Lecky’s theory of the Expanding Circle holds that throughout history our circle of responsibility has expanded to include the entire human race, the concentric circles model claims that this responsibility is not evenly distributed. We have more obligations to those closer to us – our compatriots – than to people in other parts of the world.

I could argue for both sides of this theory. On the one hand, it is too easy to run to the developing world in order to ‘help’, and as a result you ignore the problems at home. The problems at home are harder, because as a local you understand the complexity of them. Which is the very reason why locals should be the ones to address them. No one understands the problems of a place like the people who are from there. Which is exactly why foreigners proposing shallow solutions to problems in the Global South can be problematic.

On the other hand, I agree with all of scholar Gillian Brock’s arguments for why the concentric circles model is not valid. For example, she questions the idea that we have more responsibility to our compatriots because we owe them a debt of gratitude for shaping who we are. If this is true, she says that we only owe gratitude to the small group of people who impacted our lives – teachers, friends, etc. She goes on to argue that owing responsibility to our compatriots due to our shared history is no longer valid. In an increasingly globalized world, people can share a history with cultural or religious groups that are spread across national borders. Therefore responsibility to others should be spread out as well. Through these arguments, Brock convincingly entices the reader to adopt a more cosmopolitan view.

Although Brock outlines many valid counterarguments to this theory in her article, she fails to discuss what happens when we are not surrounded by our compatriots. According to the concentric circles model, what rules apply when our compatriots are far away and our non-compatriots are close? Here in Uganda we experience this every day. We are close to the usually distant ‘other’, which according to the concentric circles model – and our morality – puts us in a good position to help. People have the right to be free from severe poverty, and we have a responsibility to others, so does that mean we have a responsibility to help alleviate their poverty? In theory, it would seem so.

But enough theory. I could spout philosophy all day and I would still feel unprepared to face the poverty I see on the streets every day, both here in Uganda and in Canada. So let me move away from the philosophizing and give some practical examples from our time here in Uganda:

The first time I was faced with severe poverty here was when a young mother approached me on the street. She came up to me, holding her baby, and started speaking to me in broken English. I smiled at her and tried to understand what she was saying. Eventually, I figured out that she was asking me to sponsor her baby. Having only been in Uganda for a week I had very little idea of what sponsorship meant. But I politely told her that I am a student who does not have the means or the connections to provide sponsorship. She did not seem to understand however, and eventually I was pulled away to go find a boda boda.

The second time I was directly approached was outside Acacia Mall. The mall is one of the nicest in Kampala. It is a hub for foreigners, and as such we always feel a bit weird going there. On this occasion we were waiting for our boda after a trip to the gym. A crowd had gathered to watch a traditional dance performance going on on the steps, and we contentedly watched from a few meters away. As we were chatting, a group of school girls were walking past. When they got close, one broke off from her friends and stopped in front of us. She asked if we had any food to eat, and when we said no she asked if we could buy her something. In our confusion we told her we were sorry but we were waiting for our boda. She walked on, and we were left to muddle through what just happened.

I was a bit stunned by the layered interaction that had just occurred in a matter of seconds. My immediate feeling was guilt. Here I was, working at an NGO that promotes the right to food, and I had just denied a sixteen year old girl a meal. I felt like such a hypocrite. How can I claim to want to do good and help others, when I had just turned down a direct request to do so? True, we were waiting for our boda, but I had used that as an excuse to avoid navigating the difficult ethical pathway that would have followed. I had taken the easy way out, and I felt ashamed.

On my way home I unpacked the complex dynamics of that brief interaction. My IDS background immediately kicked in: first, I thought about the impact buying that girl food would have had. For example, it might have reinforced the stereotype that all foreigners are wealthy. Stereotypes go both ways – just as people from North America tend to think the whole African continent is starving, people here think everyone in the West is rich. For instance, people have been shocked when we tell them that there are homeless people in big cities in Canada and the United States. So what this girl asking for food probably didn’t realize was that Shelby and I are students with debt who worry about money every day. The cost of living is much higher in Canada, so even though we are relatively rich here, back home we technically live below the poverty line.

That being said, even I, a poor student, have enough disposable income to go to a spinning class or buy a gelato. I have never gone hungry because I couldn’t afford to eat, so I can’t understand what it would feel like. So even though I do not think of myself as having much money, I can afford luxuries that many people here would not even dream of. So I do not blame the girl for approaching two foreigners as her best bet for a free meal.

Next, say I had bought the girl food (as I had been tempted to do). Then the question of dependency would have been another thing to think about. If I had gotten that girl something to eat, it would have reinforced the belief that every time she is hungry she can find a white person who will feed her. While that may not be a problem in such a small example, on a larger scale there are huge negative repercussions of countries relying on foreign aid. Recognizing this, Rwanda for example has stopped accepting foreign aid. Instead, it has imposed a small tax on its citizens that goes towards development initiatives. This example is empowering, but there are many instances where countries are overly dependent on foreign aid from the West. Therefore, even in a small scale example, dependency is something to consider.

Further, would buying food for one girl then morally obligate me to buy food for every child who asks? That solution is not sustainable for me or them. For me because I would quickly run out of money, and for them because each child would get one meal and then go hungry the next day. I have a good friend who lives in Rwanda, and her response to children begging is to tell that that she “is not a bank”. This may seem cold, especially coming from someone who has committed her life to development work. However, she explained that she does many good things for her community. For her, that is a better way to help than to give money to kids of the street. It is more sustainable and she knows it has an impact. Therefore her decision to not give money to street children is justified.

Still, I would have liked to make sure that the girl did not go to bed hungry. The fact of the matter is that I can argue the theoretical pros and cons of helping that girl all day, but that doesn’t change the fact that in the moment I stood there paralyzed. I can write about what I should have done, but the fact remains that I didn’t do it. My university education has taught me to think critically about the issues in the world – so much so that I cannot look at a scenario without seeing the potential negatives. As such, no solution looks perfect. But unfortunately, this results in not doing anything. I know that when you give to charity often your money goes to the wrong place, but that does not necessarily mean that you should not give. IDS students are often paralyzed by their fear of doing something wrong. Of doing ‘bad development’. But then the problem is that we end up doing nothing.

I said no to the girl asking for food because I didn’t know what damage I would do by saying yes. But even though I am reflecting now, it doesn’t change the fact that that girl went to bed hungry. If I could have prevented that, wouldn’t it be worth the risk that she now might think of Westerners as being rich? I can hear philosopher Peter Singer’s voice in my head saying “if you can prevent something bad from happening at the cost of something less bad, you should do it”. For once I completely agree with him.

To be continued

A Week in Rwanda

August 5th 2015

Until recently, I knew Rwanda only as a country that had suffered a brutal genocide. During my degree I learned about the Belgian occupation of Rwanda, the practically indistinguishable Hutu and Tutsi tribes, and the hundred days of conflict in 1994. In International Development Studies classes the Rwandan genocide is used as a prime example of the harm caused by colonialism. Meanwhile, in Political Science classes professors describe the genocide as a failure on the part of the international community. They talk about the limited definition of genocide under the International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, as well as the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. With all this emphasis throughout my degree, I felt like I knew a lot about Rwanda. But after visiting the country I realized that my education had taught me about Rwanda as if it was frozen in time.

Our trip to Rwanda was a bit like a tour we went on on our third day there. The tour was of the home of President Habyarimana. For those of you who haven’t taken a social science degree, President Habyarimana ran the country in the time leading up to the genocide. He was responsible for creating Hutu youth militias. While he was in power Tutsis were routinely killed, although not on a grand enough scale to be termed a genocide. Instead, “genocide was being rehearsed” (to quote a haunting panel at the genocide memorial in Kigali). On top of that, President Habyarimana condoned the making of a ‘Death List’ naming all the Tutsi’s he and his followers wanted to kill. This was later used to target people during the genocide.

Needless to say, President Habyarimana was a pretty horrible guy. Interestingly though his house was presented completely devoid of his history. There was no mention of his crimes. Other than a few photos from the genocide, during the tour we were given only facts about each room and what it was used for. For example, we saw President Haryarimana’s staircase with the built-in alarm system, the shelf for guns hidden in his sons’ bedroom, the secret escape route, the safe full of money in his bathroom, and the room he kept for his witch doctor. Outside his house, we saw the pool reserved for President Habyarimana`s 19 meter long, albino python. Clearly President Habyarimana was a paranoid, superstitious dude.

Most interestingly, in the president`s complex there were the remains of an airplane. This was the plane that he died in after it was shot down by a still unknown person. Chunks of the plane’s broken carcass are scattered in the president’s yard, where it landed after being shot. The whole thing was eerie in its entire decomposing splendor.

As usual I’ve gotten carried away telling a story and have lost the main point. What I`m trying to say is that Rwanda is much like the president`s house (minus the albino snake). Like the tour of his house, many things in Rwanda aren`t talked about. If you didn’t know its history, modern day Rwanda would seem like any other up and coming middle income country. Our experience was full of clean streets, cute cafes, and sunshine.

Kigame is Rwanda`s current president, and at the time of the genocide he was the leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). He has officially been president of the country since 2000, and is currently in the process of amending the constitution so he can remain in office. Many outside of the country refer to him as a ‘benevolent dictator’, although few inside would dare. It is under his rule that the word `genocide` is not used, and mourning is restricted to April through June each year.

I’ve heard many opinions on whether Kigame’s strategy of sweeping everything under the rug is good for the country or not. On the one hand, it won’t do to dwell on events of the past. Rwanda has to look forward and focus on where it is going rather than where it has been. And under Kigame, the country has become a model for the rest of East Africa. The streets are clean, people obey the laws, and Rwanda has the highest number of women in parliament in the world. Corruption is none existent. Kigame successfully took a country that was crippled by colonialism, torn apart by ethnic divides, with 2/3 of the population displaced, and turned it into a peaceful, functioning society. Obviously he didn’t do this single handedly, but still, kudos to him.

On the other hand, Rwandan society seems repressed. Like a pot about to boil over, the events of 1994 can’t be forgotten – and nor should they be. Kigame’s strategy of keeping the genocide quiet may have helped the country move forward, but it also may have prevented the citizens from grieving properly. In his rush to build a better country, did Kigame fail to respect the needs of the population? One of Erica and William’s friends put it well: he said that Kigame was the right person at the right time. Rwanda needed leadership like his in the post-genocide period to help get through it. But now, 20 years later, his style isn’t what the country needs. Kind of like how some leaders are only good in times of war, Kigame was only good in a time of crisis. Now however it seems as if new leadership is needed.

At President Habyarimana’s house his history almost became more obvious by its absence. Similarly, while we were in Rwanda the genocide felt like the elephant in the room (I say that quite literally, since in President Habyarimana`s bedroom there was a coffee table made of elephant skin, held up by stuffed elephant feet). Although the genocide isn’t discussed in Rwanda, evidence of it can`t fully be hidden. For example, there are still visible bullet holes in the sides of the Rwandan parliament buildings. They eerily stare at you as you whiz by on a moto. There are also interesting laws, clearly meant to combat any residual divisions between people.

The best example of these laws is something called Umuganda. Umuganda is essentially a 1984 style community work day that happens on the last Saturday of every month. Each community comes together to work on a project to better their area – be it picking up trash or paving a road. Sometimes the work day is concluded with a community meeting, where information is disseminated, community issues are addressed, etc. During Umuganda people are not allowed to use cars or motos, and if they are not participating in the work day they must stay inside.

In theory I’m all for community work days. The community gets a face lift, important issues are discussed, and you get to know your neighbors. So I’m not totally against Umuganda. But I don’t like the idea of it being enforced by law – in an ideal world, people would show up for a community work day because they want to, not because they have to. Also, apparently only one member of each household has to attend, so often people will send their guards or housekeepers. It seems to defeat the purpose of community building if the whole community doesn’t attend.

But before I go off on a tangent let me wrap this post up: I was comparing our trip to Rwanda with our visit to President Habyarimana’s house. What I remember from his house is all the interesting things in it, set against the backdrop of his notorious life. Similarly, our trip to Rwanda will be remembered not for the country’s turbulent history, but as a holiday from our normal lives. For me, the word ‘Rwanda’ no longer conjures images of machetes, mass graves, and Romeo Dallaire, but rather memories of clean streets, friendly people, and delicious pancakes (thanks Erica and William!).

Musings on Time

August 2nd 2015

Over the past three months I’ve developed a whole new understanding of time. In North America ‘African Time’ is a common term used to refer to the way time is understood in this part of the world. I don’t love this term, but for the purpose of this post it holds some value. I can’t speak for other African countries, but in Uganda being on time is a foreign concept. Meetings often start two hours late and no one blinks an eye. The phrase “I’ll be there soon” means nothing, since people can arrive anywhere from 15 minutes to three hours later. Time is inconsequential.

When we first arrived, this way of operating drove Shelby, Jeremy and I crazy. In North America being late is frowned upon. For casual hang outs with friends, there is an unwritten rule that a person can be up to 10 minutes late without being considered rude. But when it comes to a formal appointment like a meeting, if a person arrives late it is seen as a sign of disrespect. The person would be labeled as flakey, unreliable, and flippant. As a result, people make it a habit of arriving early.

These two opposite understandings of time boil down to different cultural values. In North America, we value punctuality. We are slaves to time – constantly trying to keep up, saying there isn’t enough. Productivity is highly valued. Here however, productivity is valued in a different way. There is an understanding that the meeting will start when people get there. What would be the point of starting beforehand? It is a people-centered approach – time doesn’t drive people; people drive time.

As a kid, my mom put her own spin on ‘African Time’. That is to say that she always approached time as fluid – something to be shaped and molded according to our will. As someone who hates to be rushed, I would freak out when I felt I didn’t have enough time to get everything done. Similarly, my sister couldn’t handle the pressure of the clock’s constant ticking. In response, my mom would tell us to take a breath and slow it all down. “We have all the time in the world”, she would say. “If you don’t think you have enough, make more. You are the master of time.” She meant this in an abstract way of course, but as imaginative kids we believed that we could literally slow down time. And in a way we could. By adjusting our relationship with it, time expanded and contracted according to our will.

Now, back to the Ugandan context: as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Amartya Sen has a Nobel Prizing winning theory of development as freedom. In a much less scholarly addition – and in light of my musings above – I would argue that development is also about having access to free time. Let me explain:

For many East Africans, their days are spent taking care of their basic needs: earning enough money, using that money to get food, seeking out water, etc. For example, when we were in Rwanda we drove past many women and children carrying buckets of water on their heads, taking it back to their village. This is a popular image shown in North America. Stories are told with horror of people in Africa walking many kilometers to get water, often without shoes. It is meant to inspire sympathy, and paternalistic pity. But being here, this image is one we see almost every day. It isn’t seen as a hardship, it’s just a necessary part of a person’s day.

After driving past several women carrying buckets of water I vocalized my thoughts and we got into a discussion about it. I explained how something seemed off about pitying people who are taking care of their basic needs. Walking 5 to 10 kilometers isn’t ideal, but it doesn’t seem like the worst thing in the world. In response to this, Erica and William helped me flesh out my half-formed thoughts. Erica pointed out that while walking that far to get water isn’t a huge problem in itself, the opportunity cost of it is. That is to say that the time spent gathering water could have been used for other purposes. In other words, by spending their time taking care of their basic needs, these people are losing to opportunity to develop in other ways. This fits with Maslow’s theory of a Hierarchy of Needs: people can only focus on higher level needs – like intellectual endeavors – once their basic needs are taken care of. Because rural Ugandans and Rwandans often have to use their time to farm enough food for their families, they are unable to pursue other endeavors. And this curtails their potential.

Many Ugandans provide for all their basic needs, which is both empowering and limiting. In North America we would generally see it as the former, while here people would probably see it as the latter. For example, many North Americans – myself included – idolize the ability to provide for yourself. Words are used like ‘sustainable’ and ‘self-sufficient’. But many Ugandans may see this same situation as being limiting and taxing.

This of course leads to a discussion of division of labour. Because of the division of labour in a globalized world, people and countries produce based on their comparative advantage (thanks Adam Smith). For example, one person may contribute to society by being a lawyer or a doctor, and in return their basic needs are provided for. I have never had to grow my own food because there are farmers who take on that role. I don’t know how to cut my own hair, because there are hairdressers who do that. The dentist knows everything there is to know about teeth, so I don’t have to worry about that either. Everyone is taught to specialize, and in that way the collective burden of ‘life upkeep’ is lightened. We are not individually self-sufficient, but our lives are also easier. We have time to pursue other interests.

In this way, access to free time creates a hierarchy. Even though I’m a relatively poor student without many qualifications, I am high up on this hierarchy because I have the luxury of time. Although our regular boda driver is equally as smart as me – which is obvious just from the way he talks and conducts himself – a combination of factors means that his time has to be used to attain lower level needs. Because the combination of factors I was born into means these needs are taken care of for me, I have the time to focus on self-improvement through intellectual endeavors (like spending hours sitting in a café and writing this blog post).

What I’m trying to say is that time is powerful. Access or lack of access to it can define a person. I hire the boda driver because I have the time and the means to pursue an education and travel to foreign places, while he drives the boda because his time has to be spent providing for his family. Time is a tool, and it dictates what people can do.

But as they say, power corrupts. Time is powerful, and in my experience most North Americans have corrupted their use of time. We have the luxury of free time, and we are at a loss for what to do with it. For me at least, before coming to Uganda I spent my time carelessly – I binge watched Netflix, I browsed Pinterest, I napped daily, and I regularly thought I deserved a day off. Although I had a job and five courses, I still had copious amounts of free time. My basic needs were – and are – delivered on a silver platter, so I am left with blank space. Space that I fritter away. Time is a luxury, which is something I didn’t appreciate or even recognize until I came here and saw that not all people have it.

I’m being hypocritical. I’m talking about the value of time, but meanwhile I’m wishing it would speed up. With only a month left in Uganda, I want to use my time well. But like Jeremy talks about in his recent blog post, we’re all a bit burnt out. I’m saturated with experiences, and like a heavy sponge I don’t know how much more my brain can hold. I don’t want to leave Uganda, but I want to be home. Every morning I wake up and take my malaria pill, and I see how many there are left. Right now the two and a half packs seem to be taunting me, representing a barrier between me and my friends and family back home. The time is crawling by, and I’m not appreciating it even though I’ve just spent the last 1000 words ranting about how important it is. My mom taught me how to slow time down, but how do I speed it up? And then I feel guilty for wanting to. I know that when my time here runs out I’ll be incredibly sad to leave. Time is funny that way: when you have a lot you want less, but when you have less you wish you had more.

If you’ve stuck with me this far, I want to apologize for this choppy, incoherent, stream-of-consciousness post. As usual, thoughts that make sense in my head become scrambled when I vomit them onto paper. But what I’m trying to say is that being here, I’ve discovered the value of time. Having time is rare, and therefore it must be coveted, and used well. Bertrand Russell said that “time you enjoy wasting is never wasted time”. While I agree with this statement, I feel a responsibility to appreciate the fact that I have time to waste. I have the freedom to do what I choose with my time, and this is powerful. Even the fact that I can call time my own shows how incredibly lucky I am. Time drives people, and people drive time.

Does that make sense?

Tying the Knot, Ugandan Style

July 19th 2015

Yesterday Shelby, Jeremy and I had the good fortune of going to a traditional Ugandan wedding. Or actually a kwanjula as it’s called, which means introduction. We went with our bosses, and on the drive out to the bride’s village they explained how Ugandan weddings are long, drawn-out affairs. The kwanjula is one of the last steps in the process, and it’s when the groom is introduced to the bride’s family. Later, after several weeks or months have passed, the couple will have another ceremony in a church. Our bosses explained that both ceremonies are legally binding, however the former constitutes a polygamous marriage, while the latter makes it monogamous. Many Ugandans – especially those who live in rural areas – will only have the first ceremony, since the practice of taking many wives is very common here. For this couple however the church ceremony is planned for next weekend, which will bind them exclusively to each other.

The man getting married works at another NGO, so we’d met him on several occasions at workshops and conferences. However, we really don’t know him too well, but because we’d never been to a kwanjula he graciously allowed us to take three of the coveted seats. Just another example of Ugandan generosity. Needless to say we were extremely grateful, since it turned out to be a pretty wild experience.

From the beginning we instinctively compared the kwanjula to the weddings we are used to. But the similarities ran out very quickly as we were thrown into a world of colourful dresses, foreign tongues, and chickens. So instead of trying to find similarities, here are some of the key differences between a traditional Ugandan wedding and a typical North American one (from my limited experience):

1. It’s not really about the bride and groom. In North America, the wedding is all about the two people being joined in marriage. This is true to some extent here, but it seems to be just as much about the families. In Uganda the wedding symbolizes two families coming together as one. Yesterday this was reflected in the fact that the groom was given almost no preferential treatment, and instead sat at the back on the gathering. In fact, the bride didn’t even appear until halfway through the ceremony! And even when the bride and groom were finally introduced, the host listed each of their lineages in great detail.

The purpose of sharing the lineages was to emphasize the importance of family, as well as showing that the bride and groom come from completely separate clans. As I mentioned in my last post, it’s taboo to marry within your clan or your mother’s clan. Luckily, in this case the bride and groom even came not only from different clans, but from completely different kingdoms. The groom was from Acholi, while the bride was from the neighboring kingdom of Busoga. This meant that the wedding took place in two different languages, with a mixture of different customs. But more on that later.

2. Ugandan weddings have much more dancing. True, at receptions for North American weddings people bust out their most embarrassing moves. But that all happens after the official wedding has taken place. In Uganda however most of the kwanjula involves music, dancing and clapping. In fact we were even criticized when we weren’t clapping enough! A DJ played throughout the ceremony, and there was even a bubble machine. The masters of ceremony also spent most of the time making jokes, even during the more official parts of the proceedings. All in all it was a much livelier affair than our typical serious North American ceremonies.

3. Ugandan weddings aren’t very private affairs. North Americans generally have relatively small families, so weddings can be pretty intimate. Here however that’s out of the question, since people usually have upwards of five or six siblings, meaning that they have even more aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. This means that even a wedding with just family would probably have double or even triple the amount of people a North American wedding would have. Moreover, by the end of this wedding the whole village had gathered around to watch. Hundreds of children and teenagers formed a circle around the perimeter of the tents, wanting to witness the exciting event taking place in their village.

4. PDA is a no no.
Even though it’s their big day, the bride and groom never kiss in a Ugandan wedding. I’ve noticed that here in Uganda women and men rarely exclusively show attention to each other – it is rare to see a couple holding hands for instance. However, this doesn’t mean that affection is frowned upon. On the contrary, Ugandan’s are all about physical contact – it’s normal to hug someone you are meeting for the first time, and handshakes often last whole conversations. Moreover, men holding hands is a regular sight here (somehow it isn’t associated with being gay, which is interesting given Uganda’s strict anti-homosexuality laws). But when it comes to weddings, the bride and groom can only hug each other. Anything more intimate is not fit for public.

5. There are way more chickens. More on that later.

Finally, unlike short and sweet Canadian ceremonies, traditional Ugandan weddings last for upwards of seven hours (or at least this one did). Add on the eight hours we spent in the car driving to the bride’s village, and you’ve got a pretty full day! I’ll give you a summarized account of the events, just in case anyone plans on doing their own wedding Ugandan-style:

Before the wedding started the groom’s side convened at the headquarters of his NGO to get dressed. A few weeks beforehand Shelby and I had gotten traditional dresses made for the occasion (called gomesi), while Jeremy had purchased the customary long dress worn by men on formal occasions. A the NGO the women lined up to get help with their dresses, since the pleats and sashes made it a two person job. They accented their outfits with expensive looking earrings, necklaces, and towering heels.



Once everyone was clothed, one man introduced himself as a teacher from the region. He explained that he spoke the local language and knew the customs, and therefore he would be leading us all through the ceremony. The bride’s side had a man playing a similar role, so they did most of the talking during the wedding.

After getting our directions we drove to the bride’s family home. Here weddings start with the groom’s side – us included – lining up outside where the introduction will take place and asking to be let in. At this point women dressed as nurses came up to us and pinned little bows to our clothing, while a woman dressed as a doctor pretended to take our pulse. Since none of this happened in English, it was only later that we found out they had been ‘checking’ us all for diseases before we could come in, since we were infected with the disease of love. Ugandan humor I guess.

After we were seated and declared disease-free, everyone stood to sing the Ugandan national anthem, and the anthem from the bride’s kingdom. A prayer was said, and then the bride’s family members were introduced. This process took about two hours: between commentary from the ambassadors, lines of women in matching dresses would dance in, kneel and introduce themselves, and then be given ‘appreciations’ from the groom’s side (i.e. envelopes with money). At one point Jeremy was even picked to help distribute these.

After the introductions, the bride herself finally appeared. After dancing in in an elaborated sequined traditional dress, she was seated on a small platform in the middle of the three large tents. The bride’s paternal aunt then danced her way in and started searching for the groom. After finding him seated at the back of our tent, she pulled him out and brought him to his bride. At this point there was a lot of commentary in Luganda, pictures were taken, and a basket of fruit and flowers was presented to the couple. The groom’s sister’s also knelt before the bride and welcomed her into their family, telling her how much their brother loved her and how excited they were to have her as a sister.



Once the sisters were done the bride danced out, and it was time for the groom’s side to pay the bride price. Ugandan society is very patriarchal, and as such there is a practice of the groom paying the bride’s family in gifts (like a reverse dowry). Apparently it varies from kingdom to kingdom, but it’s acceptable to give anything from Bibles to cows. In this case the groom’s family had brought a truck load of bags and baskets filled with various types of food and drink. There was also a cow, a goat, an armchair for the bride’s father, several live chickens, and a suitcase the groom had packed specially for his bride, filled with keepsakes from his childhood.

The gifts are traditionally presented by the women from the groom’s side, who carry the baskets in of their heads. This was something Shelby and I had been dreading, since we’d never carried anything on our heads in our lives. Luckily, the women made sure we were given light baskets, and we made it through without dropping anything. It’ll still be a while before I can carry a basket on my head without holding on, and while wearing four inch heels like the other women were, but I think I did well for my first try.

Once the gifts were presented, the bride’s father sat in his new chair and blessed the couple. At this point Shelby’s boss leaned over to me and whispered how she despises this patriarchal custom. She explained that since men often have many wives and even more children, it is the mothers who raise the kids. As such, she said it should be the mothers who bless the marriage, not the often absent fathers. But instead, the bride’s mother spent the whole ceremony in the kitchen preparing dinner. Hmmm.


Shelby’s boss also frowned on what followed: the groom gave one of the bride’s brothers a chicken. She explained that the chicken was in exchange for the bride – not a very fair trade if you ask me. But as unfair as it is, this is apparently one of the most important parts of the marriage. She explained that in the church ceremony – when the brother gives the bride away – the priest will ask whether the exchanging of the chicken took place. If not, the marriage is not legitimate. No chicken, no wife. At this point I felt like someone should have been whispering into a walkie talkie: “The chicken is secure. Repeat, the chicken is secure”.

After the chicken successfully changed hands it was time for food. Traditionally the groom eats in private with a few members of his party. As the token foreigners, Shelby, Jeremy and I were ushered into a dark room with mats on the ground to join the groom’s private dinner (more undeserved special treatment). There the bride’s aunts served everyone heaping plates of matooke, rice, potatoes, cabbage and beef. The groom was presented with a full chicken – see, told you there were lots of chickens! – and told to eat it all. He laughed and did his best, but the chicken was soon passed around the room.


After eating, everyone went back to their seats to witness the couple’s official engagement. Since this couple is having a church wedding as well, the engagement was a promise that that would come (like a proposal in North America). The groom gave the bride a ring, and a priest made a speech about living life in the image of Jesus Christ (I zoned out a bit for that part). Then the cake was cut, confetti popped, and music began to play.

At this point it was close to 7pm, so we were glad to discover that all that was left was to greet the newlyweds. A congo line formed under the stars as the guests danced their way to the bride and groom. In typical welcoming Ugandan fashion, when we reached the couple they gave us huge hugs and thanked us for coming. Even though I’d never met the bride before that moment, she beamed at me and pressed a favor into my hand (it was a box containing an apple, a keychain and a candy). I smiled back, awed by her hospitality on her big day.

Finally we stumbled past the tents, quickly changed out of our sweaty dresses in the middle of the parking area – no shame – and were bundled into the car in no time. Four hours and one very close bet later we were back in Kampala, the excitement of the day having drained us of all our energy. Needless to say it was definitely an experience I’ll never forget.

A Day at the Center of the Earth

July 11th 2015

When I say the center of the earth of course I don’t mean the scorching hot, inaccessible, molten core of the planet. Rather I mean the topographic center – the halfway point between the North and the South Poles. In other words, the equator.

Kampala sits about one degree above the equator, which explains its tropical weather and the lack of seasons. There are actually only ten countries that the equator runs through, as 79% of the others places at zero degrees latitude are in the ocean. So the fact that the division between the Northern and Southern hemispheres is only an hour’s drive from Kampala is pretty cool. Obviously we had to experience it for ourselves, so today we took a field trip to the center of the earth.

In Uganda the equator is marked by a giant white spherical sculpture off the side of the highway. A line runs across the road showing where one hemisphere ends and the other begins. A few feet on either side of the line there are wide basins set up, with one also straddling the line. The purpose of these basins are to show how water spins clockwise on one side of the line, and counterclockwise on the other. To demonstrate this, a local man filled the basins with water and then placed a flower in the center. As the water drained through the hole in the bottom of the basin the flower twirled accordingly. After demonstrating this phenomenon in the basins on either side of the line, he filled the one directly on the equator. Unlike with the other two basins, when he placed the flower in it the water drained out, but the flower remained still. Yup, definitely on the equator. There was only the different of a few meters between the basins, but gravity worked differently in each one. Science!


IMG_3908 IMG_3914

After hemisphere hopping and snapping the above pictures, our co-worker took us to his village a few kilometers away. After several minutes on a bumpy dirt road, we arrived at a lovely brick house which we soon learned was where he grew up. His mother – a school teacher and mother of ten – came out to greet us. After introductions were made our co-worker and his mother proceeded to show us around the complex, which turned out to be far more inspiring than your average house tour.

First, our co-worker and his mother showed us the livestock. Behind the house and the various adjoining mud buildings there were pens full of pigs, ducks, chickens, and a dog. They explained that the latter was for security purposes. There was also a stall for cows, but they were out grazing in the fields. After that they took us through their extensive gardens. In the space of about fifty meters they were growing sweet potatoes, corn, chili peppers, coffee, cassava, beans, five different species of bananas, and avocado, orange, passion fruit and mango trees. There was even a neem tree that they explained was used to cure colds, and a tree with leaves whose sandpaper-like texture made them ideal for scrubbing pots.



It didn’t take us long to realize that we’d stumbled into every sustainability or IDS students’ dream. We couldn’t help but be awed. Not only was there an incredible variety of plants, but the small farm was clearly being masterfully managed. Different types of crops were planted side by side to enrich the soil, and all the fruits had been collected so there were barely any rotting on the ground. Even more impressively, our co-worker’s mother told us that the household rarely has to buy food, since they grow enough and enough varieties to sustain themselves. She explained how they would save enough to eat, and then sell the rest. Since her children are all grown up and she is the head of the local school, she had hired a few workers to help with the weeding and harvesting.

Not only was the small household completely self-sufficient, but they let nothing go to waste. For example, behind the house there were two huge metal drums used to collect water during the rainy season. Moreover, the long grass that was growing sporadically is dried and used to make brooms. There was even a biogas system, where cow dung was processed to produce gas. Afterwards the manure was used to fertilize the gardens, or even to enforce the walls of the older houses. That’s a pretty impressive list of uses for cow poop if you ask me.

After our brief tour I found it hard to imagine a more sustainable, self-sufficient, or well managed plot of land.* To top it all off, after the tour we were ushered inside to eat a huge lunch made of food grown right outside the door. The only things purchased were the rice and the pineapple for dessert. It was all delicious of course, and we were left with full bellies and food for thought (sorry, I had to).

But our lessons of the day didn’t end with agriculture. As we waited for lunch we learned that our co-worker and our boss are actually cousins. Moreover, the other intern who had come with us on the trip is said co-worker’s nephew, making our co-worker’s mom his grandmother. This discovery started us off down a whole line of questioning into the nature of Ugandan families. Through about an hour of listening, we learned that they are complicated. Here’s why:**

Firstly, being an extremely patriarchal society, it’s common for men in Uganda to have multiple wives. This means that most people have many half-siblings, multiple grandmothers, etc. Furthermore, women seem to have anywhere from four to twelve children each. So one man can have upwards of thirty or forty children. There are several reasons for such large families: partly for security in case children die young, partly to have many hands to help out, and partly because contraceptives aren’t always widely available. Furthermore, even when contraceptives are available many Ugandans are very Catholic and therefore choose not to use them. Also, men often discourage women from taking them, or women will have had a bad experience with one type and therefore swear off all of them. Either way, the result is many children.

But I’m getting off topic. The point is, the large nature of Ugandan families means that people are raised with a strong sense of community (going back to the idea of Ubuntu discussed briefly in my last post). And as if a typical Ugandan’s family tree isn’t complicated enough, there is then the matter of clans. During our pre-lunch conversation I learned that Uganda has 52 clans which have existed for centuries. Each clan has a totem – for example our co-worker’s clan is represented by the mud fish. You may never eat the animal that is your totem (so you better hope it’s not a chicken or cow). You also can’t marry someone from your clan since they are probably related to you by blood. Even though these rules aren’t written down, they are common knowledge and seem to carry the weight of any law.

The clans also make up kingdoms. I’m pretty sure Uganda has five kingdoms, the largest of which is called Buganda. In fact, Uganda was named after the Buganda kingdom. Buganda has eighteen counties, one of which includes Kampala. Bugandans speak Luganda, which is the most common language in Kampala. However, different regions have different languages, making traveling within the country very confusing.

Naturally, each kingdom also has a king. The king of Buganda lives in Kampala, and his palace is near the city center.*** The king is not a political figure – rather he represents the epitome of Buganda culture. However, he arguably has more sway over the people here than the president does, and therefore his power is not insignificant. This is despite the fact that the kingdoms were only recently reinstated, after being abolished by the president who preceded Idi Amin. Yet despite its 30+ year hiatus, Buganda seems to have stayed incredibly strong. This is in part due to its rigorous structure, whereby there is a representative of the king in every community. Even when the British arrived to colonize the area, they were impressed by the incredibly structured ruling system. In fact, they were so impressed that they didn’t even attempt to dismantle it, and rather sought to manipulate it from the inside.

Finally, one of the most interesting things I learned about Buganda is the way they choose the heir to the throne. Our co-worker explained that the heir can be any of the king’s children, and the eldest child is not allowed to take the throne. Furthermore, the heir is chosen in secret. In fact, the heir’s birth is never even announced. This is because once he is chosen he is sent to be raised by a family who the king trusts. He us raised as an average Ugandan, and isn’t told that he is heir to the throne until the king dies. Pretty exciting right? The purpose of this secrecy and false identity is for the king to be raised like a commoner, so he can understand his people. That way when he has to rule them he’ll know firsthand about their problems. Sounds like a pretty good system to me!

Alright. I’ll stop there with the history lesson (partly because it’s getting late here, but mostly because I’ve run out of facts). I hope you’ve enjoyed my summary of what I learned today as much as I enjoyed learning it. Thanks to today’s lessons in history and agriculture I’ll be going to bed saturated and exhausted – and not only because I spent the day in two hemispheres!

*In my limited experience, the only thing that wasn’t amazingly managed was the building where the cooking was done. Smoke billowed out from charcoal fires, which is known to be a key source of respiratory diseases in the so called Global South.

**As usual, please note that my knowledge is limited so the following account might not be entirely accurate. This is just my understanding of Ugandan culture from what I learned today.

***One of his daughters is actually on Jeremy’s swim team – small world.

Elitism and the Expat Life

July 8th 2015

Being abroad can be hard. Navigating a different culture can make you feel confused, lonely, scared and at times make you homesick for things you never thought you’d miss (like proper garbage bags to keep out fruit flies for example).

Here in Uganda I’ve luckily had minimal bouts of homesickness, but this isn’t the first time I’ve dealt with the roller-coaster of emotions that come with being an expat. When I was nine years old I made the bold decision to move to China with my dad – and for weeks I cried every night because I missed my mom. Years later, at age 15, I chose to leave my friends and high school in Canada and transfer to an international school in Singapore. For months I would message my friends regularly to tell them how much I missed them. In both cases I took a leap of faith, and it paid off a hundred fold. I learned that the pros of living abroad far outweighed the cons.

Still though, there were times that I wanted nothing more than to be home. When you go abroad you are thrown into a new reality. In this reality very little is recognizable – the people look different, the landscape is different, the food, clothes, and the way people interact are all different. The simplest tasks become difficult. For example, going to the grocery store is a multiple step process: first you have to figure out how to get there, then decipher what foods they offer and convert the currency to dollars in your head, then navigate the checkout, sometimes in a foreign language, and finally find your way home. In Beijing going out to eat meant learning how to pronounce what was on the menu, ordering it without confusing the waitress, and then learning how to eat with chopsticks. Essentially, when you’re abroad so much energy is expended on basic upkeep that you fall into bed exhausted well before your usual bedtime. Foreign places are draining.

Not to mention that you are the target of stares and comments every time you step outside your house. Because you are equally as foreign to the place as it is to you, you attract a lot of attention. In Beijing my sister, our quasi step brother and I would constantly be approached for our picture. People would touch seven- year-old Lucy’s red hair in awe as she stood stock still, waiting for it to be over. Similarly, here people yell “mzungu!” when we pass, and in Peru they call foreigners “gringos”. Sometimes you just want nothing more than to blend into the crowd.

Surrounded by all this foreignness it is logical to look for something familiar. A person who speaks fluent English for example, or a pirated DVD of a Hollywood movie, or even a block of cheddar cheese in the supermarket. Any small thing to anchor you to the reality you’re used to. This is why I make it a habit of travelling with some small comforts from home: a bag of David’s Tea, my favorite ginger candies, and letters written by my friends and my mom. These objects become lifelines, allowing me to explore and enjoy the unfamiliar while still retaining some measure of comfort.

In this context, it’s no surprise that expats often seek out Westernized hang out spots. In Beijing for example we had a tradition of going to our favorite neighbourhood French restaurant once a week to get steak or creamy carbonara. Once in a while we’d also treat ourselves to a slice of decadent peanut butter pie at the American –run Grandma’s Kitchen. In Singapore, my friends and I would drink beer at the foreigner-dominated Holland Village on Friday evenings, and play pool on the weekends at a Westernized mall. These expat havens complimented trips to the Chinese opera, meals at hawker centers, and rickshaw rides.

Here in Kampala Shelby, Jeremy and I have found our own expat getaways. For example, once in a while we’ll go out for pizza at a nearby hostel or buy ice cream cones after work like we would do in summer in Canada. Moreover, Shelby and I regularly attend a spinning class at a nice gym, and on Saturday the two of us treated ourselves to a day by the pool at an upscale country club.

But at what point does this search for comfort take away from the experience? And is there a point where it becomes unethical?

I’d be lying if I answered no to these questions. I always feel guilty when I ask the boda guy to take me to one of the upscale malls, or a movie theatre. The fact is, even though these places can provide comfort, they can also feel like too much of an escape. It seems to counteract the point of traveling if you spend your time away seeking out the comforts of home. Why not just save yourself time and money stay in your hometown? One of the reasons for traveling is to be exposed to new places and experiences – something that eating burgers every night and living in an air conditioned mall will not accomplish.

A second reason to avoid binging on Westernized locales is that they often seem inauthentic. They’ve usually been built for foreigners, not for locals. Let me give you an example:

When we first arrived our friend/tour guide took us around to spots he thought we’d be interested in. Of these spots, one was the Commonwealth Resort: a luxurious hotel/country club on the shores of Lake Victoria, frequented by diplomats and heads of state. We were wowed by the extravagance of the facilities, but it also felt a bit hollow. It was all too well maintained, posing a sharp contrast to the chaotic streets outside.

In contrast, after the Commonwealth Resort our guide took us to Gaba Beach – a local market and port for fishermen and small passenger boats. Here there was life and noise and haphazard stalls everywhere. People were practically on top of each other as they squeezed their way down the crowded dirt path. Although far less serene than the resort we’d just come from, Gaba Beach felt authentic. We finally felt like we were in Uganda.

But I wonder if we’re also kidding ourselves to seek out an ‘authentic’ experience. Isn’t it a bit of a condescending farce? When we went rafting on the Nile one of the girls from Operation Groundswell said something I’ll never forget: she said that she’d seen “the real Africa” because they visited a slum. That phrase made me cringe because 1) she assumed the slum represented the whole of Africa, and 2) she was commodifying the ‘authentic’ experience. It is now becoming increasingly popular to see the real Global South by volunteering in remote villages and living without running water or electricity. Afterwards people go back to their home countries and smugly talk about the hardships they endured as part of their ‘authentic’ trip. So even if you avoid the expat hubs, will you ever truly get the authentic experience of living in said country? And is it just some new brand of consumerism to seek this out at the expense of local communities?

But that’s a topic for another time. Let me move on.

A final danger/unethical factor of overfrequenting Westernized locales is that it stinks of elitism. Only foreigners and rich Ugandans can afford gelato at Acacia Mall or can regularly attend a spinning class. Shelby and I felt a pang of guilt as we splashed in the pristine blue pool at the country club on Saturday, because we knew that only a small fraction of the Ugandan population could afford to be there. Even if it’s not our intention, by going to Westernized places we automatically surround ourselves with the rich. And that’s an icky feeling (not that there’s anything wrong with rich people, but I’d like to operate in a more varied social milieu. Especially as a very non-rich, Mr. Noodle-eating, recent university graduate).

I keep asking myself: is it fair for us to go to all these upscale places while Ugandan children are selling bananas and corn in the street outside, struggling to survive? Are are we supporting class divisions by frequenting places that are relatively expensive? (Although still far cheaper than in Canada) It’s obvious when you’re entering a foreigners hub because the percentages of Caucasian faces in the crowd shoots way up. It’s like there’s a semi-permeable membrane at the doors to Acacia Mall that lets in everyone who grew up using dollars, but only some who grew up with shillings. This division based on income and country of origin (to some extent) makes these places slightly uncomfortable for all sorts of reasons.

But then I wonder; if accessibility is the root of it than where do you draw the line? Even in Canada there are many people who can’t afford to go to the hot yoga classes I go to, or the coffee shops I frequent. So should I stop going there? Probably not. And to use an even more extreme example, many Ugandans can barely afford to feed themselves, but that doesn’t mean the three of us will stop eating to make it fair. So where’s the line?

I think ultimately it comes down to a matter of degree. Sometimes we treat ourselves to little tastes of home because we need a break from the exhaustion of navigating a foreign place. There are things like spinning classes that may cost a bit more, but that we know are good for both our physical and mental health. And our weekly trips to get steak and carbonara in Beijing didn’t take away from the view of the Great Wall from my window, or my weekly Mandarin classes. But does that mean we should spend our Saturdays here in Uganda lying by the pool at the country club rather than exploring the city? Obviously not. Or at least the time we spend exploring should far out-way those token poolside afternoons. Not only to avoid the threat of elitism, but also to enrich our own experience here.

Before going to the pool on Saturday we went to the big, very well-stocked grocery store in Acacia Mall. There we saw a young blond women picking out peanut butter and red wine. Later we spotted that same woman at the country club eating lunch. My first reaction was to judge her for spending her Saturday in a Westernized bubble. But then I realized that Shelby and I had been to all the same places that day. The realization made me feel uncomfortable.

So maybe it’s time to tone it down a bit. I won’t deny myself the occasional trip to the movie theatre, but I’ll try to keep that and other homey indulgences to a minimum.

Along those lines, if you need me I’ll be drinking Nile Special or haggling over the price of matooke.