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!).

The Tyranny of Airport Security

July 29th 2015

*BEEP-BE-BE-BEEP! BEEP-BE-BE-BEEP!*

I roll over and fumble to silence my unnecessarily obnoxious alarm. I peer at my phone’s tiny screen: 5am on Thursday morning. Blearily, I role out of bed and trip over piles of clothes to reach the washroom. After splashing my face I stumble back into my room – slightly more alert – and start haphazardly tossing the clothes into my backpack. I guess I’ll worry about outfits when I get there. Who packs the night before, am I right?

The reason for the early morning and the last minute packing is that today Jeremy, Shelby and I are finally going to Rwanda! My amazingly awesome, fun, cool friends Erica and William happen to live in Kigali, and they graciously invited us to come visit. So, at precisely 6am, we load our bags into the taxi waiting outside.

In Canada, a 6am ride to the airport would probably mean seeing a few other cars, and maybe some early morning joggers. But not in Kampala: in the 45 minute trip to the airport we drove through markets already bustling with people, while kids in uniform trekked to school on the dusty road. I guess now I know why it’s always too loud to sleep in!

After navigating the busy markets we arrive at the airport two and a half hours before our flight. We congratulate each other for being so on the ball. Heck, the security hasn’t even opened yet! Little did we know what we were in for. Here’s the breakdown of our airport adventure:

7am – Once the security opens, we stroll over to the check in counter. We’d been told that we had to apply for a visa three days before departure, so on Monday evening we dutifully filled out the online form (alright, mayyybe I did mine Tuesday morning. Always the procrastinator). Anyways soon after, we received an email asking for our letter of invitation, so we hastily messaged William and he whipped one up. I updated my application, and Wednesday night my visa was confirmed. Perfect. At that point Shelby and Jeremy hadn’t gotten their visas yet, but we figured it was no big deal and we could take care of it at the airport. But boy were we wrong.

Fun fact: Canadians are actually the only people who have to do the online application before going to Rwanda. We are the only ones who need a letter of invitation from someone within the country. Why? Because after the Rwandan genocide the Canadian government pissed off the wrong people by harboring some suspected perpetrators. Even though Rwanda no longer has DCO status, these potential perpetrators had their Rwandan citizenship revoked, and faced persecution if they returned. So, Canada took them under their wing. Much to the disgruntlement of the Rwandan government.

Of course we didn’t know any of this background when we showed up at the airport. All we knew was that the airport staff wouldn’t give Jeremy and Shelby their boarding passes until they saw their visas. Which they didn’t have. We tried to explain that they had applied three days beforehand, and even gave them the two tracking numbers. The airport staff took these, and went to make some calls to Rwandan immigration. They told us to wait…(famous last words).

7:30am – We’re told to keep waiting. Our flight doesn’t leave until 9:30am, so no rush. The airport has free wifi, so everything is fine.

8am – The airport staff ask for our letter of invitation, which they scan and send to Rwandan immigration. They say they’ll hear back soon. We’re feeling optimistic.

8:30am – The man who was helping us tells us his shift is over, but that he’s told his co-workers our story and they’re looking after it. He wishes us luck.

8:45am – The new staff member comes and asks us for Shelby and Jeremy’s tracking numbers. We explain that we’d already given it to the guy before. This gets us nowhere, so we give it to him again. We’re back to square one. The man asks to borrow one of our cell phones since his is out of phone money, and he makes a call. He hangs up, looks at us, and casually tells us that the visas won’t be processed until tomorrow so we’ll just have to fly out then.

I’m sorry, WHAT?

Obviously, at this point we’re trying to stay calm but we’re more than a little panicky. What does he mean we can’t fly out until tomorrow?! Our flight leaves in less than an hour!

We get the number the man had just called in order to speak to the Rwandan side directly. The man on the other end tells us there is nothing he can do, but he can give us the number of immigration. He hangs up. He hasn’t given us the number.

The airport staff tells us that our best bet is for me to get on the flight and to try to reason with immigration when I get to Kigali. “Great”, I think “I’ll just hop on a plane and leave Shelby and Jeremy behind. THAT makes sense”. Also, that’s a telling sign about Entebbe Airport if the best way to get something done is to go somewhere else…

Alternatively, we’re told to go to the RwandAir office and cancel our flights. We can rebook when they get their visas. Grudgingly, we head up there to do so, but we haven’t given up yet. We start calling everyone we think can help: Erica, William, the Canadian consulate, the guy with the immigration number. No answers.

9am – The Rwandan immigration number is texted to us. Jeremy calls – the woman on the other end doesn’t speak English. I call – I get far enough to learn that the lady on the other end is named Gertrude. She asks what I want to talk to her about.

Ok, so wrong number. Jeremy is pissed. I’m pissed at him for being pissed. Shelby quietly hands us chocolate. We try to breathe.

9:15am – Our flight leaves in 15 minutes. Erica calls me back. I tell her the story, explaining how for some reason it’s going to take a whole extra day to send an email, and in the meantime we’re stuck at the airport. She’s apologetic and confused (in the background I can hear W swearing). Erica tells us William will go to immigration and try to get the visas fast tracked.

9:36am – We cancel our flights. The man at the desk tells us it’ll cost us each USD 100 to rebook them. Our blood temperatures are rising – we don’t have that money to spare, but what can we do? We go back downstairs and wait for William to call.

10:09am
– William calls. Good news! He kicked up enough of a fuss to get the visa process sped up. They should be emailed within half an hour. Phew.( It isn’t until later that we find out that he accidentally – and then purposefully – told immigration that there were three kids stuck in the airport in Kampala trying to get on a flight. Whatever works right?)

When William hears about us having to pay a fee, he says he’ll head to the RwandAir office in Kigali to see what he can do. We wait for him to call.

10:48am – The visas arrive via email. No word from William, but the next flight to Kigali leaves at noon. We have to act fast if we want to get on it. We decide to go try to get on the next flight, and pray that William gets back to us before we have to pay.

10:51am – We ask the man at the RwandAir office if we can get on the next flight, and he responds by making two unrelated calls and sending three emails. Finally he looks up and tells us that the gates have already closed for the noon flight. He says they close at 11 – it’s 10:58.

At this point I’m mad. Through clenched teeth I tell him there must be something he can do. He looks at my red face, picks up the phone, says a few words, puts it back down. He says we can make it but we’ll have to run! No mention yet of the extra fees.

11:02am – We’re back at check in, showing the new woman there the visas on Jeremy’s computer. She sees that he doesn’t have the official copy, and instead only a screenshot that says ‘approved’. She tries to tell us it isn’t sufficient. She calls over the manager. Having witnessed our whole fiasco, the manager looks at the screenshot, looks at Jeremy’s shaking hands, and decides to let us through. We rush to the baggage drop area, where there’s a line.

11:16am – I have my ticket and my bag has gone through. A police officer cuts in front and gets his ticket. Jeremy and Shelby step up to get theirs. The system shuts down. Great.

The two staff casually sit back, calmly debating what to do. We tap our fingers – our flight leaves in 45 minutes. The next one won’t leave until 5pm. After what feels like hours, they each pull out manual boarding passes and start laboriously filling them out. The woman ‘helping’ Shelby asks her the same question four times.

11:25am – Tickets are done, bags are checked. William calls: he just talked to the manager on our end, who told him the ‘Morgan girl’ had just gone through. He apologized about the confusion, and said we wouldn’t have to pay a penny (or in this case a shilling).

11:39am – We’re through security. We’re at the gate. She’s taking our tickets. She’s motioning for us to board the plane. All seems to be in order. Do we dare congratulate each other or will that jinx it?

In some sort of airport shuffle, the lady who had been checking Shelby in is also collecting our boarding passes on the plane. No wonder she wasn’t in a rush! Given the lack of emphasis on time here, all the airport staff must have been bemused by the stressed, red faced mzungus who were kicking up all the fuss.
We’re on the plane. The pane is taking off. We did it!

8:30pm – We’re sipping cocktails at an art gallery overlooking the hills of Kigali and recounting the morning’s adventures to Erica and William’s friends. Everyone laughs, and we chalk it up to just another travel adventure. What a life!

In conclusion, here are the lessons I learned from our airport fiasco:
1) Don’t piss off the Rwandan government.
2) Show up five hours before your flight.
3) William is the best person to have in a pinch.
4) Don’t take no for an answer.
5) Always have chocolate handy.

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!

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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.

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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!
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*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.

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.

Highlight Reel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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