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?

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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.

Strange Encounters

June 10th 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://endhumanitariandouchery.co.nf/

http://www.africafornorway.no/

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8GZjZTZrWA

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

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

“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.

“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)