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.

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!).

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.

IMG_4069

IMG_4072

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.

IMG_4095

IMG_4105

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.

IMG_4120

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.

IMG_4125

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_3881

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.

IMG_3989

IMG_3979

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.

The Other

July 3rd, 2015

After the attack on the Twin Towers on September 11th, George W. Bush addressed the people of the United States with a question. He asked, “why do they hate us?” In this case ‘they’ referred to the Middle East, and ‘us’ referred to the US. This simple question carved out a divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’, where the latter is to be feared. This mentality has led to the War of Terror.

The idea of there being a ‘them’ separate from ‘us’ has been around for centuries. The root of the idea lies in philosophy, with a concept known as ‘the Other’. In fact, many philosophers theorize that the development of self-consciousness is reliant on the existence of the Other. Hegel wrote about it in a passage in his Phenomenology of Spirit, where he describes the encounter between two previously un-self aware human beings. Later, Sartre wrote about how the world is altered at the appearance of another person. In Africa there is also a similar concept, called Ubuntu. Without getting into too much detail, Ubuntu means “I am what I am because of who we all are” (I won’t say more because I know Jeremy is planning to write a post about it). Essentially, these ideas of Ubuntu or the Other explain the distinction between the self and other self-concious beings.

The concept of the Other has also been applied on a larger scale. Hegel and Sartre saw the Other as anyone outside of the self, but in modern day social sciences the Other is viewed as anyone outside of a chosen religious, ethnic, gender, or socio-economic group. And it is when this wider scope of the Other is employed that we get into trouble. Throughout history differences between people have caused wars, genocides, and endless suffering. In colonial-era Canada policies of assimilation were imposed in order to ‘whiten’ the population – i.e. wipe out the First Nations people because they were seen as lesser. The Rwandan genocide came about because the Belgians created a hierarchy where the Hutus were on the bottom and the Tutsis were on top – a hierarchy that was reversed and led to rebellion after independence. The whole notion of imperialism is hinged on the process of othering, whereby the perceived weaknesses of one group are emphasized as a way of stressing the alleged strength of those in positions of power. For some reason people have always acted like ‘different’ is synonymous with ‘less than’. We seem hardwired to separate people into groups, categorizing who is worth more and who is worth less based on attributes like skin colour or religion. We focus on our differences rather than our similarities, to the detriment of all.

So why am I thinking about all this? Let me tie all of this philosophizing to my current experiences in Uganda:

In my seven weeks here I’ve come leaps and bounds in terms of acclimatizing. When I first arrived I didn’t speak a word of Luganda. Crossing the street was an event in itself, and I couldn’t have found a place to get food if you paid me. Now however I greet my boss with a confident “wasuze otya”. I loop in between cars and bodas without blinking an eye, and Shelby and I make regular trips to the market to see our favorite vendors. I don’t even get hungry waiting for lunch anymore! (which is quite a feat given that it usually arrives between 1:30 and 2:30pm). With this new found comfort here, I sometimes have to remind myself that my current routine isn’t how life has always been.

But no matter how comfortable I get, I am still perceived as the Other. As far as the locals are concerned, I might as well have gotten off the plane yesterday. People on the street still stare, vendors still try to overcharge us, and bodas still line up in front of us every time we leave the house. Despite having seven weeks here under our belts, it’s assumed that we just arrived. And fair enough – we look out of place. It is clear just by looking at us that we are from somewhere else. No matter how comfortable I feel, my skin colour betrays me: for better or for worse, I am a foreigner.

Let’s skip to a little flashback: last weekend Jeremy, Shelby and I ventured out of the city for a hike in the Mpanga Forest Reserve. After navigating the taxi park and finding a suitable matatu – a kind of communal taxi or small bus – we found ourselves in the lush forest 35km outside the city. Our hike was about 6km in length and featured hundreds of different butterfly species, a centipede, and the largest fig tree I’ve seen in my life. After the hike we strolled down a wide dirt road in search of the drum-making village we’d been told was close by. Our leisurely walk took us through a small community on the edge of the forest, made up of tidy brick houses with bright blue doors and immaculately kept gardens. Between the houses were plots of corn, potatoes, and other vegetables I couldn’t identify. Cows grazed on the side of the road and chickens clucked in the yards.

2015-06-28 12.12.552015-06-28 13.00.06

2015-06-28 13.42.20     2015-06-28 13.21.06

Throughout the walk Shelby and I stopped every now and then to take pictures of the surroundings. It was one of the few times we’ve been out of the city, so our eyes were greedily taking in the new landscape. But as we walked through the community the comedy of it struck me. I was taking pictures of these people’s houses like they were the most interesting things I’d ever seen, but for the community members this was just the place they live. I imagined how funny it would seem if foreigners did the same thing in a Canadian suburb: walking through the quiet streets taking pictures of the immaculately groomed hedges and the matching garages. Here Shelby and I were intrigued by ‘the Other’, but for the community members this was their normal. Why would we want pictures of their normal houses and their ordinary gardens?

As we continued walking children of all ages stopped their tumbling to wave at us, their faces cracking into huge smiles exposing white pearly teeth. Yells of “hi mzungu!” followed us as we passed. In response we would smile and wave back, equally enthralled by their abundant energy and contagious laughter. As usual, the attention made us feel like we were in a zoo, with the whole community coming to gawk.

Yet again I was struck by how the way I was perceiving the situation probably went both ways. I realized that if we were in a zoo, then so were the people in the community. They probably had foreigners walking through and gawking at their lives all the time. There were only three of us rather than a whole village, but we were looking at them with equal amounts of interest and curiosity as they were looking at us. It was as if we were on either side of a glass, with both groups pressing their noses against it to get a better look. And it was unclear who was in the zoo and who wasn’t. We were both the Other.

In these innocent, brief interactions the concept of the Other was stripped of all its negative connotations. The differences between us and the children weren’t points of contention and conflict, but rather sources of curiosity. Throughout history differences have ripped apart nations, causing endless sorrow and suffering. But in this situation differences were something to be marveled at and appreciated. The Other wasn’t a way to understand oneself or seen as a threatening entity – rather the Other was a passing oddity, a point of fleeting interest.

In his writings, the Lithuanian-French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas flips the common perception of the Other on its head. Instead of the Other being lesser than, he sees it as superior and prior to the self. He also claims that it infinite – there will always be an Other. The truth is, people will always define themselves in terms of how they differ from the people around them. But this act of distinguishing doesn’t have to result in conflict. As Edward Said explains,

“To build a conceptual framework around a notion of us-versus-them is in effect to pretend that the principal consideration is epistemological and natural – our civilization is known and accepted, theirs is different and strange – whereas in fact the framework separating us from them is belligerent, constructed, and situational.”

On that walk I realized that who the Other is just depends on where you’re standing. I was equally as exotic to those children in the village as they were to me. Seeing them as lesser because they were different would have been just as absurd as them doing the same to us. In this context we are the foreigners – the Others who will always attract attention because we look different. But if these same Ugandans who stare at us came to Canada they would have the experience of being foreign. The Other isn’t a static, external entity. Rather the Other is fluid and ever changing. In some contexts we are the ‘us’, while in others we are the ‘them’. And the groupings change based on what attribute you identify with. So it’s impossible to objectively say who is the Other and who isn’t. Walking through that community last week I realized I was both at once: I was the ‘us’ and I was the ‘them’.