“The World is Round” – Part 2

May 27th 2015

After a few action packed days at work, I’m back! I have so many updates to share, but first let me continue my lengthy, somewhat dry musings steeped in IDS terminology (apologies in advance).

To summarize where I left off in the last post, I was talking about privilege. Here in Uganda I am acutely aware of the preferential treatment I receive because I am a mzungu*. Even in Canada I am aware that my very comfortable life comes at the expense of the wellbeing of people in far off places, as well as at home. So although I cannot take responsibility for past harms like colonialism, I can acknowledge the consequences of my current actions. In my favorite childhood movie called Ever After – a rendition of Cinderella featuring a young Drew Barrymore – Barrymore’s sassy character tells the prince that he was “born to privilege, and with that comes specific obligations”. Although my life is unfortunately very far from the fairy tale world in the movie, this particular line is very relevant to reality. The privilege I was born into comes with the responsibility to act conscientiously and do what small part I can to improve the condition of the world (queue inspirational music).

Now, time for some development theory that I think is relevant (although I’ll leave that for you to decide, if you can stay awake until the end):

In historian W.E.H Lecky’s 1869 book A History of European Morals he introduced the concept of The Expanding Circle. The Expanding Circle theorizes that “the number of people we consider worthy of our moral consideration has expanded through history, like a circle”. At one time people only cared about their immediate family, but overtime the circle expanded to include a class, then a nation, and finally all of humanity**. Lecky argues that throughout history more and more people have gone from being The Other to being part of a collective Us. This is why we see countries sending humanitarian aid to other nations in far off places. As my co-worker S said, “the world is round”. Overtime humanity’s compassion for each other has expanded to include the whole world.

At least in theory.

Now let me turn to a different but closely connected topic. Australian philosopher Peter Singer has a popular ethical metaphor called The Drowning Child. Although I disagree with many of his arguments about charity and development, this particular metaphor is relevant to the idea that we have a moral responsibility to humankind. So let me walk you through it:

Imagine that on your way to work or school you pass a shallow pond. One day you see that there is a child drowning in that pond. It would be easy for you to save that child and you would incur no harm to yourself. However your clothes would be ruined and you would be late for your daily activities. The question is, do you have an obligation to save that child?

The answer is obviously a resounding yes. The child’s safety far outweighs the cost of ruining your clothes and being late. Even if there are other people walking by who have just as much agency to save the child, this doesn’t lessen the responsibility you have to do so.*** But now let us change the scenario slightly. What if the child who needs saving is far away, say in a different country? It is equally within your means to save them, with negligible cost to yourself. Most people would say that distance and nationality should make little difference, and they would still choose to save the child. I know I would. But now let us add one final layer to Singer’s metaphor. What if we are not only able to save the child drowning in the pond, but what if we actually had a role in how they ended up there in the first place? Wouldn’t that multiply our responsibility to save them by a hundredfold? I think it would, and does.

Andrew Linklater discusses a variation of this phenomenon in one of his articles when he reconceptualises foreign aid as justice. He gives the example of aid given by Britain to Mozambique after they experienced a flood. The world saw Britain as a charitable, caring nation to take such actions. However, what people failed to realize was that Britain had been responsible for some of the deforestation in Mozambique that contributed to the severity of the flooding. So were they being charitable, or were they simply addressing the consequences of their actions? Not to sound like a broken record, but the world is round. Countries should not be meeting their aid targets of 0.7% of their GDP – which by the way most of them aren’t – simply so that they can feel warm and fuzzy inside. They should be doing so because they have a moral responsibility to address the results that their actions have on the world. In his writings, John Rawls uses a thought experiment called the Veil of Ignorance. He imagines that people have to create society from behind a veil where they are unaware of what their position, race, or tastes will be. From this position, he argues that people would choose to maximize the benefit for the least fortunate in society, because they may find themselves in that position. Unfortunately however, in reality we cannot pause and recreate society from behind that veil. In the world’s current state, we must try to maximize the benefit for the least fortunate starting from a situation of gross inequality.

Alright, I’ll stop there.

So far this post has been very theoretical, so let me now ground it in my current experiences here in Uganda. As a visitor in this country, I can’t help but wonder what I can do to better the situation around me. The Canadian International Development Agency, aka CIDA (RIP), used to fund organizations like Canada World Youth that would send Canadian students on experiential learning programs abroad. The costs of these programs were included in the annual budget for foreign aid. Similarly, I am here in Uganda because the government is funding me as part of their development strategy. So both for my own peace of mind and to best utilize the government’s money, I can’t help but want to have the most positive impact here that I possibly can. I am a person who likes to help, no matter where I am or who I’m with.

But now for the hard part: what does that helping look like? For the next three months does it mean paying a higher price for things at the market so that the hardworking vendor’s can pocket an extra few shillings? Does it mean giving the children begging on the street a few bills and hoping it doesn’t get taken from them by the people who they report to? I find it hard to believe that my money is all I can give, despite the common assumption here that all mzungu’s are wealthy. I know that I have many valuable things to contribute, but it is hard to identify what they are and how to utilize them. They say that knowledge is power, but I feel like the more I learn about these complex issues of inequality and poverty the more my hands are tied. I want to do the right thing, but the more I learn the more it seems like every option is wrong.

Moreover, how much should I assume that I can realistically do? I am a twenty two year old student who is here in Uganda for three months working as an intern. Despite the preferential treatment I have been given, my power is very limited. In a work setting, anything I have been included in is more for my benefit than for the organization’s. And to play devil’s advocate to my former discussion of cosmopolitanism, why would I assume that it is my responsibility to do anything? When people think of this continent they picture starving children and people dying of HIV/AIDS. The image is one of helplessness. But in the two weeks that I’ve been here this seems so far from the case. People here are alive. They have normal concerns, like what to do on the weekend and whether they are doing a good job at work. As one MP said in a meeting last week: “we have problems, but we are not dying”. There are hundreds of Ugandans working to solve Uganda’s problems, and doing a good job of it considering what they’re up against. So what gives me the right to swoop in and assume that I can do a better job than them? And furthermore, why would I be trying to change a country I barely know, when there are scores of issues back home? It is a neocolonialist idea to think that foreigners can do a better job of solving a country’s problems than the people who have grown up there.

Now here’s another question: why do so many people from the Global North assume that people in the Global South want to be like them? In the GMO meeting last week that I mentioned, a few MPs referenced the issue of obesity in America. They used it as a cautionary tale of what they do not want for Uganda. Interestingly, they talked about obesity with the same tone of fear that we in North America would talk about HIV/AIDS on this continent. Yes, both are pressing health issues. But the media presents us with one angle – mere snippets of a much larger story, presented out of context and coupled with fear tactics. I hate that more often than not media corporations only show the negative side of the equation, because it assumes a lack of agency and flippantly disempowers a continent of people in the eyes of the Global North. It is actively perpetuating stereotypes that I’ve seen firsthand are not necessarily the case.

So, to conclude.

This post has been long and rambling, so if you’ve made it this far I applaud you. When you boil it down, what I’m trying to say is this: I think Lecky’s idea of the Expanding Circle needs to be challenged, at least to some extent. Yes, in theory we feel responsibility for the state of humanity, but in practice we still put up walls and create divides between each other, both at home and abroad. Sometimes we see the drowning child and dive in to save them, but other times we just continue to walk by – if we don’t break the surface of the water than we won’t have to deal with how deep it is. The pond looks shallow: give money to a country in the Global South and you can make a difference. But in reality the issues run much deeper than that. Wanting to help isn’t enough – you have to know how, which is something I’m still trying to figure out. But as Linklater explains, it’s everyone’s responsibility to do so.

It is true that the world is round. But unfortunately, despite my good intentions more often than not I feel like all I am doing is going in circles.
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*A Swahili word that originally meant ‘dazed’ to refer to the confused looks that European settlers had in colonial times. Now however it is used to refer to white people – we hear it at least five times a day. It is not meant in a negative way, but merely as a way to identify us.
**One argument is that we are now expanding to include the whole animal kingdom. Therefore The Expanding Circle argument is often used by animal rights activists.
***However what may occur in this case is a collective action problem when everyone expects someone else to act and therefore no one does. But that’s getting off topic.

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“The World is Round” – Part 1

May 24th 2015

Zig Ziglar once said, “Among the things you can give and still keep are your word, a smile, and a grateful heart”. Since arriving in Uganda, everyone I’ve met has given the two former things and much more, while in return I have given the latter. In many cases people here have devoted their time and their energy to ensure that we feel safe, comfortable, and welcomed. This weekend was no exception: on Friday night a co-worker invited us out to a bar to hear some Ugandan music. Over Nile beers (delicious) and a few games of pool (we lost), we talked about music, relationships, gender equality, and Uganda’s laws against homosexuality. This morning the same co-worker picked us up at 6:30am to attend church at his local parish. The church was a large brick structure with narrow wooden benches – a simple space with just the necessities, but our voices quickly filled it with music as we sang the many hymns that Jeremy, Shelby and I struggled to follow. Afterwards our co-worker, S, took us back to his home and fed us tea and sandwiches while his young nephews ran around in the background. There was a constant flow of cousins, brothers and sisters in and out of the house, which added to the atmosphere of warmth and closeness that enveloped the neighborhood. From what I could tell it was the ultimate example of a close knit community. When we left, S gave us each an avocado picked from the tree outside and invited us back next weekend.

The whole experience reminded me of something S had said at the bar on Friday when we’d thanked him for being so welcoming. He told us that his father would always say “the world is round”. It is a sentiment akin to karma, or the phrase “what goes around comes around”: the idea that your actions now will inspire similar actions in the future. To me it also seems to embody the closeness between people that we somehow rarely feel. The world is round meaning that it is contained, and we are all part of the same cycle. Maybe it sounds cheesy, but that quote stuck with me, as will our experiences today.

Now onto a heavier topic: let’s talk about privilege. It’s something that I’ve been acutely aware of since arriving in Uganda. No one in the top economic and social percentiles of the world’s population can ever truly ignore it, but often privilege is merely one small thread in the midst of a tumult of other thoughts and concerns in peoples’ daily lives. For example, when passing by a homeless person on the street you may briefly have the thought “I’m glad that isn’t me” – but that is quickly replaced by lists of errands or other irrelevant to dos. Here though, faced with a constant stream of good wishes from people like S, I can’t help but wonder what we’ve done to deserve this? Not to be cynical, but people here don’t know us, so they have no reason to be so open and helpful.

That said, I do believe that the reason people here are so friendly has very little to do with who we are and instead a lot to do with the quality of their characters’. From our boda driver who always picks us up with a big handshake and an exuberant smile, to the owner of the guesthouse who calls a few times a week to make sure we’re ok; the Ugandans who we have come into contact with are generally just good people. But while this weekend’s events occurred because Ugandans are inclined to be friendly and welcoming, there have also been many times in the past week or so when we’ve received preferential treatment. And yes, to put it bluntly it is because of the perceived privilege that comes with having white skin.

I’d like to stop here and take a minute to say a few things: Race is a sensitive topic, so I apologize if I manhandle it in the next few paragraphs in an effort to sort out what I think. In a world of political correctness there are so many pitfalls that can quickly label you as racist, homophobic, sexist, etc. Sometimes the simple misuse of a word can overshadow your good intentions. So please know that these next few paragraphs are well intended and are written in an effort to give an honest account of my experience here so far. There are some tough questions that I’ve been asking myself lately – things that I am mulling over and have not necessarily come to terms with fully yet. What follows is just my attempt to reconcile them internally, and now externally to you.

So to continue: Jeremy, Shelby and I are a visible minority here. As Caucasians, there are associations connected to the colour of our skin. It is because of this that half the congregation came up to shake our hands after church today. It is the same reason why on our third day of work we were privy to a meeting with members of parliament to discuss the proposed GMO bill (more on that later). Now one could argue that this latter example happened because we won a prestigious scholarship that has allowed us to travel here and work for an NGO, and as an intern at said NGO a meeting with MPs is part of the parcel. But I don’t think it’s that simple. For instance, the only reason we won the scholarship was because we (and our parents) had the means to send us to a good university. I was raised in a comfortable, well off setting, and because of that, this scholarship and many other opportunities have made themselves available to me. I recognize that this privilege is something I have that many others don’t.

As someone who wants to fix things, I struggle with this privilege because I don’t think the solution is for me to feel guilty for a position in life that I was born into. I could just as easily have been born to a poor rural Ugandan farmer instead of a middle class Canadian couple (bear with me here). Similarly, there is a long history of colonialism on this continent, all enforced by people who I happen to share a skin colour with. Although some people may disagree with the following statement, I don’t think it would be productive for me to feel personally guilty about what people who share my skin colour have done. However, knowing that I had no say in what men and women with whom I share small amounts of DNA did a few hundred years ago is different than ignoring the fact that it happened. Whether it is fair or not, there is a history that I represent because of the colour of my skin. And whether I feel direct responsibility for that history or not, I must acknowledge the underlying power dynamics that it has created.

Furthermore, while I may have had no control over colonialism, I am responsible for my actions now. One of the things that I’ve learned in my four years at university is that my relative wealth and happiness comes at a cost. Unfortunately, in its current state the world is zero sum – for one to win another must lose. I don’t believe it has to be this way, but right now my lifestyle in Canada exists because there is exploitation elsewhere in the world. Child labour allows me to buy clothing very cheaply, and my old laptop will probably be shipped to a country in the Global South where it will leak toxins into someone’s drinking water. As S said, the world is round. My actions in Canada affect people halfway across the world, and without knowing it I have the power to harm someone I’ve never met. Not to sound preachy, but whether we like it or not we have some measure of responsibility in the inequality that our lifestyles perpetuate. And although that’s a hard pill to swallow, it’s much easier than being on the other end of the equation.
(To be continued)

Why did the Canadians cross the road?

May 21st, 2015

Put on your party hats and blow up the balloons folks, because yesterday was our one week-aversary of arriving in Uganda! I can say with complete confidence that the Rachel who got off the plane a week ago is not the same girl as the Rachel writing this blog post now. It feels like we’ve been here for months, but that can probably be attributed to the fact that we’ve done so much, and the learning curve has been so steep. Boy, has it been steep. I’d like to think that it will become more of a gentle uphill slope the longer we’re here – you know, the kind that gets you a little short of breathe by the end, but you never quite break a sweat. However, I’m sure that goal is still a long way off since Jeremy, Shelby and I still have a lot of learning to do. But for now I’d like to celebrate this small milestone by sharing seven things we’ve accomplished in the last seven days:

1. We found and moved into an apartment.
Unlike in Canada where these things can take months, in the span of a week we went from tourists living in a guesthouse to rent-paying tenants of a lovely apartment in a neighborhood called Mengo. Check out my last post for pictures of our new digs!

2. We started work.
On Monday I started work at the Food Rights Alliance here in Kampala. I’ll save the details of the internship for my next post, but so far I’m loving it! Stay tuned for more info.

3. I rode a boda boda and didn’t die.
Boda bodas are a cross between a motorcycle and a scooter. They are Kampala’s cheapest and fastest form of public transport because they can zip in and out of the city’s unbelievably congested traffic. Unfortunately, they are also notoriously dangerous. Everyone who has been here told us that if we had to ride them we should buy our own helmets and only ride with drivers who we know so that they will drive slowly and safely. So of course for my first ride I did none of those things. It was yesterday, and we were running late for an early morning meeting so we didn’t have time to call our reliable driver. And because we were late we also didn’t have our helmets. So when I hopped on the back of a rundown old boda with a driver I didn’t know and my hair whipping in the wind I felt like I was inviting my own death. But despite this, I couldn’t help but love it! The wind felt so good and it was exciting to zoom between cars as they idled in traffic. After four more rides in the last twenty four hours I think it’s safe to say that it’s my new favorite form of transit. But don’t worry mom, dad, and anyone reading this from the QES II program, from now on I’ll stick to the rules.

4. We became experts in pest control.
In our excitement to move in we failed to realize that we are not the only tenants in this three bedroom apartment. We also share the space with beetles, cockroaches, fruit flies, an army of ants (RIP), and even a gecko. As I should have known from living in Singapore, these critters are just part of the package when you live in the tropics. And unluckily for me, the ones here also seem to have good taste. When I drew first pick of all the bedrooms I didn’t realize that the largest one came with the caveat of a cockroach the size of a lime crawling through my toiletries, and a gecko living behind my toilet (I named him Gordon). We effectively exterminated the cockroach, but there are sure to be more. I guess if we have to live with them maybe we can convince them to cover part of the rent?

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5. I successfully accessed my money in time to pay said rent.
By no fault of my own, for the past four days I’ve been unable to access my money. No matter how many ATMs I went to, phone calls I made to my bank, or panicked emails I sent to my mom, I had no success until yesterday evening. One of the other scholars had the same problem. Finally, last night we were able to take money out in time to pay our disgruntled landlord. Although it seems trivial now, at the time it was terrifying to have no way to access my money and no one on this continent who could help.

6. I started learning how to speak Luganda.
Although the official language of Uganda is English, there are hundreds of other languages and dialects spoken across the country. Here in Kampala the most common of these is called Luganda. Today a few of our co-workers started teaching Jeremy and I their native tongue. And just in case you ever have use for it, you my dear blog readers (hi mom) can learn too! Here’s what I know so far:

Yee = Yes
Nedde = No
Osivyeotya = Good afternoon
Wasuze otya = Good morning
Olagawa = Where are you going?
Obeere bulungi = Goodbye
Gwe ani = Who are you?
Nze = I am

7. We learned how to cross the road.
Sounds too simple to be on this list right? Wrong. Here in Kampala there are no lanes, no stop signs, no traffic lights, and no crosswalks. Occasionally a traffic police officer will stand bravely in the middle of a busy intersection and direct traffic, but other than that it’s a free for all. Bodas and cars zoom past each other with only a hair’s width of space between them. Any pedestrian wishing to cross has to take their life into their hands to do so. But in our case our hands are already full since Shelby, Jeremy and I instinctively grab on to each other every time we risk a crossing. Although we’re getting better, I’m not ashamed to say that I’ll need the handholding support for the foreseeable future. Like the chicken in the tired old joke, we really are crossing the road just to get to the other side.

From one country of Great Lakes to another

May 16th, 2015

We now have three days in Uganda under our belts! We arrived late Wednesday night after an exhausting 24 hour journey crossing the Atlantic Ocean and traversing three continents. Upon our arrival we were greeted at the airport by a man who we’ll call R, who we have quickly come to know as our driver/tour guide/friend/life saver. After packing our bulging luggage into his small car, tetris-style, he drove us to Visitor’s Village – our guesthouse in Kampala, the capital city. There we were greeted by the friendly owner, we’ll call him E, who we have since discovered is the most welcoming, hospitable person any of us have ever met. He set us up in our beautiful accommodations were we quickly passed out from exhaustion.
The next day we awoke to a beautiful breakfast of fresh fruit, fresh juice, omelets, toast, and tea with Ugandan mint leaves. It is hard to describe how we felt sitting outside eating this luxurious meal, surrounded by lush trees and flowers, with tens of species of birds chirping in the background and the sun warming our backs. Any anxieties we had were quickly soothed by this peaceful scene, and for that we were grateful.
 
That day and the one that followed were a blur of logistics. R drove us to the bank to take out Ugandan shillings (1 dollar Canadian = roughly 2500 shillings), to the mall to get cell phones, modems for the internet, mosquito nets, and helmets so that we can safely ride boda bodas (or motorcycles), which are the city’s fastest and cheapest form of transport. We also went to the head office for Food Rights Alliance where myself and Jeremy, one of the other interns, will be working starting on Monday. There we met our boss – a confident lady with brightly coloured nails – who graciously welcomed us to her organization and explained some logistics of our first few days. From there we went to three different apartments, one of which we will move into tomorrow (stay tuned!). Needless to say it was a hectic two days, in contrast to the Ugandan way which I get the impression is much more laid back (upon hearing how much we’d done yesterday E threw up his hands in surprise). So to unwind from our 48 hours of logistics, last night we went to a wonderful three hour dance performance featuring dances from all over East Africa. There was drumming, singing, and some of the most athletic dancing I have ever seen. Upon hearing we were from Canada, the host also told a story about his dance troop arriving in Halifax for a performance in January and experiencing snow for the first time, with very comedic results. My thought was that it is amazing how you can be in Uganda, and within two days meet people who have been to your small coastal city halfway across the world. That’s globalization for you.
 
As for today’s activities, our jet lag and our busy schedule caught up to us, so we decided to take things at a slower pace. We started the day around noon by driving to a nearby resort to catch a glimpse of Lake Victoria. It is one of the Great Lakes in the region, and it feeds into the Nile. You can also take a boat from Kampala and cross the lake to Tanzania or Kenya – two trips that I hope to make sometime in the next three months. From there we drove to Gabba Beach, which provided a stark contrast to the resort. While the latter caters to diplomats, expats, and heads of state, Gabba Beach is a bustling local market and fishing village. Where the resort had been quiet and well maintained, the market was noisy and in a general state of disarray. The resort had been picturesque and felt out of context, but the market was messy and authentic. Although we blended in at the resort, Shelby, Jeremy and I much preferred the market. It was one of the many examples of the discrepancy between rich and poor here in this country, which I will talk about in a different post.
 
Although there are many other anecdotes from our first three days here that I can tell, I’ll leave it for now and get some rest before our busy move in day tomorrow. Until next time!

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Pilot

May 13th, 2015

It hit me when I sold the couch. I was standing in the rain outside my garage in downtown Halifax, helping a friendly British woman load my couch onto her friend’s trailer. It had been a staple in all of my student apartments over the past four years, and before that it sat in the living room in my childhood home. Needless to say the couch and I had history. But it wasn’t the only sentimental piece of furniture I’d sold that week. In the proceeding month I’d posted numerous Kijiji ads, gotten several vaccinations, bought plane tickets, and a whole slew of other logistical things. In the marathon of planning that leads up to any big trip my focus was on ticking things off my to-do list rather than thinking about the big picture. The weight of the various things to do obscured any view of WHY I was doing all of this prep. But selling the couch was the last thing on my to-do list. And that’s when it finally hit me: I’m going to Uganda!

Now, eighteen hours later, I’m sitting on a flight from Brussels to Entebbe, which is the third flight I’ve taken today. Looking out the window I can see the Sahara desert sprawling out below me with no end in sight. The plane is flying parallel to the Nile, and for the better part of the last hour my nose has been pressed to the window trying to take it all in. But before I get too excited, let me back up and explain some context. Several weeks ago, I was selected to participate in the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Scholarships Program. The purpose of the program is to:

“Increase collaboration between Canadian universities and Commonwealth country partners, via student scholarship placements, to lay the foundation for the next generation of entrepreneurs, public servants, community leaders and academics with innovative minds and a sense of commitment to Canada and the Commonwealth.”

The program is currently in its first year and was created in response to a recommendation by the Queen herself. It is administered by Community Foundations of Canada, the Rideau Hall Foundation, Universities Canada, and the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFAIT). Dalhousie University was one of the lucky schools across Canada to have received funding to send students on international placements. As a result, this summer five students will be going to work abroad: one to Barbados, one to Tanzania, and three of us to Uganda.

For the past few weeks we’ve been attending pre-departure training sessions to prepare for our in-country placements, where we will be working for 90 days.The three of us going to Uganda will be interning for two NGOs that work to address issues of food security within the country and the region. As food security is a topic that I’ve become very interested in the last few years, I couldn’t be more excited to get hands on experience in the field. Moreover, as I am a Political Science and International Development Studies student, this internship will utilize the skills I’ve learned thus far in my degree. Not to mention that I’ve never been to any country in Africa, which in itself will be an incredible experience!

All that to say that as I stare out the window at the continent far below, I can’t wait for the adventure to begin.

Link to an article about the QES II Program: http://cfc-fcc.ca/news/news.cfm?intNewsID=2222