Thursday, July 10, 2014

Privilege

One of the side effects of the extremely connected world we live in today, is that with a simple mouse click we can in a split second compare our lives to those of our friends. We can control what portion of our lives we display to our internet network (although with privacy issues perhaps even this is changing). Suddenly, rather than being content with the fact that we have a job, friends, health, a roof over our heads, and food or perhaps any combination of these things, comparing lives can arouse feelings of envy and make us scrutinize our own lives and choices.

I love the fact that I can use Facebook to keep up with my lovely friends around the world. I have contemplated deleting my Facebook because of privacy concerns, how annoying it is to sometimes be bombarded with political opinions, and simply the distraction it often becomes. But ultimately, I don't have an alternative that allows me to so effortlessly get a sneak peek into the lives of people I do care about a lot. I realize that perhaps even my own posts might stir envy in some people since I have had some incredible opportunities. But one extremely disturbing trend that I have observed on facebook and the internet world in general is the abundance of fundraising efforts. I think it's great that the internet and social media allows us to raise support for causes and I spent years fundraising for various projects and trips and I understand how challenging that can be. However, some of these fundraising and kickstarter campaigns I find extremely unsettling and ultimately very angering.

At the end of the day people are free to raise money and give money where they want. I have no desire to change this freedom and I know I only have control over my own actions. Most recently, I read a post about $35,000 potato salad kickstarter (that started as $10). I sincerely hope this is fake and whoever was raising the money will use the $35,000 for something more productive than making a potato salad for the first time. However, what is incredibly shocking and to me a testament to how privileged and perhaps unknowingly selfish we have become int he west is the fact that people actually gave money to this cause!

A few months ago I had to write an PhD essay about the challenges and disadvantages I have experienced through life to allow me to reach the place I am at now. I recall sitting in front of my computer staring at the screen thinking about how I could write some BS about how hard I've worked, the challenge of being one of the few females in a male dominated environment with my engineering background, or the cultural difficulties in the many places I've lived. But this didn't ring true to me. Instead I took an alternative approach and decided to write about how privileged I've been and how this sense of privilege is what has created my deep desire to extend my privilege to others who were not afforded the same opportunities as me. This alternative essay approach did not prove to be successful in getting me accepted into the program but at least I know I was authentic.

I try not to judge individual situations (but this doesn't mean I don't find myself judging people), but there is one thing that can shift my normally sunny disposition (at least I think it's sunny) to anger. One of my "privileges" has been the many opportunities I've had to see real people living in an extremely difficult conditions with very, very few opportunities to change their situation no matter how hard they work. Yes, in the developing world many, many people work incredibly hard to simply survive but this hard work without rewards life is not just for those in the developing world. I know that in my own country there are single mothers working several jobs without health insurance and barely making ends meet. There are far too many people on the streets for reasons that I am convinced are not just because they were "lazy". I can write an essay about how hard I've worked to reach the state I'm in now, and it wouldn't be a lie. I do work hard. But my hard work alone did not bring me to this place. Through no choice of my own I had a very big leg up right at birth.

I was born in a country that although has a lot of seemingly unsolvable problems, gives me free access to travel in most countries in the world. Free access to primary and secondary education even if the quality of that education is variable. Electricity, clean drinking water, good healthcare. Besides the inherent opportunities I had just through my citizenship, I was also fortunate to be born into a family with two well educated parents who deeply cared about the educational and emotional development of their children. I also was fortunate to live in cities with a highly educated population meaning that the schools I attended and the people I was surrounded by also shaped my intellectual curiosity and development. I was fortunate to have a father who worked in academia so that I could go to a high quality private university for almost free where I was given international experiences, taught to ask questions, and given problem solving skills. I was also fortunate to be born a native English speaker (although sometimes I think this is a disadvantage when it comes to language learning). By default I had the opportunity to teach English, attend university in the Netherlands without any expensive and difficult language tests. Perhaps through the accumulation of these opportunities I was granted a scholarship that has allowed me to study for free and live comfortably in the Netherlands.

Now sure, I can approach my life from a different angle and think about the fact that I worked during my education so that I had to take very few loans. Or the hundreds upon hundreds of applications I filled out often to be disappointed by rejections when some of my counterparts seemed to be just handed opportunities. Or the fact that I have self funded most of my travel opportunities when some people can go on all inclusive holidays with their families (not that I want to take all inclusive trips anyway). I could compare myself to many people and easily wallow in self pity. By material standards, there are many people more well off than me. But the reality is that I make up a very small percentage of the world's population and most of the world will ever have the same opportunities I've been granted. Often I feel guilty about this fact. What did I do to deserve this privilege? Nothing really.

But rather than feeling guilty about privilege I was granted by birth, I feel angry, angry that people are giving money to potato salads (among other things) when $5 could provide health insurance for a year to a Rwandese. Giving money is difficult and we want to know where our money is going but what if instead of throwing our money around to things that make no difference in the world, we thoughtfully considered how we can share the privileges we've been granted and perhaps alter the life path of just one individual.

Disclaimer: I do not want people to feel guilty by reading this post. I trust that most people are thoughtfully considering how to spend their money. But I would like those of us in the west to at least recognize our very privileged state and reconsider how we view our lives, "problems", and how we spend our money. This is a good reminder for me too, since I will stress out about where I WANT to live and WANT to do and not recognize the fact that actually being able to choose my job or place of residence is a huge privilege. While the American in me supports people trying to pursue their goals and dreams and not accepting things the way they are, I also believe that we can choose to be happy and content in whatever job or place we are in. 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Falling in love in 4 weeks

Moving to Amsterdam may have been a huge mistake. Yes, I'm back in the Netherlands and after weeks/months of room searching I am now living in a city that has effortlessly snagged the title of my favorite city/favorite place I've ever lived. Considering that I live in a very quiet (ie slightly dull) part of the city, am currently swamped with thesis writing, got my wallet stolen upon stepping off the bus into my new neighborhood on the first day (it's really actually quiet and safe, I promise!), and have had some bad luck with bikes since returning it is quite impressive that I suddenly find myself in love with this city and am on the verge of becoming as arrogant as all the other Amsterdammers that I used to make fun of before I lived here. Before moving to this fabulous city, I would find myself a bit irritated with the comments from Amsterdam residents along the lines of: I would never live anywhere else in the Netherlands, no Utrecht is boring there's nothing going on, ehhh den Haag is too posh, Rotterdam is ugly, sure that city is nice but it's not Amsterdam. Yep, Amsterdammers are snobs about their city. Yet as I discovered this morning volunteering at a home for the elderly and helping with a quiz (all in Dutch) about Amsterdam only 4 in 10 people living in Amsterdam were actually born in this city. So what is all the hype about?

I feel that I do have some qualifications to promote this city since I lived/traveled quite a few places (if I may be a bit arrogant for the moment). But I must state two potential biases in my analysis (the word bias only reminds me of my thesis that I'm procrastinating on at the moment): 1. It's World Cup season which means all of the Netherlands is decked out in orange to support their dear and incredibly awesome team. This makes the atmosphere in this city even more electric. 2. It's summer in the Netherlands which is the rare two months out of the year where the sun is generally shining more often than it's raining. This means all things outdoors for the city's residents, a long with multiple festivals every weekend.

Buuuut, biases aside this city is still pretty amazing. So why am I so in love with this city and feeling utterly horrified of the thought of moving ANYWHERE else in the world (extremely shocking I know!)?

1. The diversity. In case you didn't know, Amsterdam is home to 174 nationalities. This is almost as many nationalities as countries in the world. Although to me New York feels more diverse (150 nationalities) simply because I think there are more numbers of each nationality represented, in Amsterdam everyone is just living together. While there are more immigrant heavy neighborhoods, there really isn't a part of the city that isn't diverse. Add the thousands of tourists who swarm this city all months out of the year and you can expect to hear many, many different languages walking around. It's like visiting the whole world by just walking out your doorstep.

2. The size. Amsterdam is super super small both population wise and in land size. I think there are only around 700,000 people living here (probably depending on how you count the city limits). I live "far" (ish) from the city center yet I am pretty much a 20-30 min bike ride from anything I want to do that's outside of my neighborhood. Although Amsterdam is the largest city in the Netherlands because of it's small size it has a very neighborhood feel. My housemates know everyone living in our building and when I step outside my door I feel like I'm part of the neighborhood. Each neighborhood has it's own market (weekly or more often) including organic markets! And finally because Amsterdam is so small, you can be cycling in the midst of the craziness that is the city center and then suddenly find yourself in the Dutch countryside. Plus, you're super close to one of my favorite airports in the world where the rest of the world is waiting to be explored!

3. Its beautiful. There's a reason why tourists flock to this city. With its canal lined streets (yes Delft was also beautiful) and its often crooked old narrow houses shoved together so neatly, you often feel like you've stepped into another century. Although I live not so close to the city center I do live in the oldest part of the city actually. Near where the East India Trading company was. I can cycle 5 minutes to a line of extremely old houses along the water and feel like I'm in a time where people paid for their beer with the fish they caught that day, where everyone knows everyone and people gather in the evenings to catch up on the local village gossip. Yet all this is in the Netherlands' biggest city!

4. The life. Amsterdam may be small but it's not short on things to do. It's incredibly frustrating to be locked inside most of the time writing my thesis because literally every weekend there seems to be multiple festivals. Its also the only city (in my food obsessed opinion) where you can find nice food. A few weeks ago I was in food paradise at a food truck festival in one of Amsterdam's many parks. I even got my fill of long lost kimchi.

5. The parks. In general the city is dense and crowded (at least if you're near tourist invested central station) but there are no shortage of parks and green spaces that are currently being thoroughly enjoyed with the fabulous weather we've been having.

6. Biking. This is obvious since it is the Netherlands but where else in the world can I literally bike EVERYWHERE? Amazing.

I actually feel depressed at the thought of being forced to leave this city if I don't manage to find a job or PhD within a reasonable radius of it. Maybe I'll start hating it once the endless rain starts again? Apologies in advance to anyone who has to be the recipient of my newly acquired arrogance. I know there are a lot of other nice places in the world that I'm sure I would also be happy living in. In the meantime I'm going to try and finish up this stupid (well actually I like it a lot) thesis so I can go play outside and enjoy this amazing city.  

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Favorites

Nothing fancy or deep or funny just some things I'm enjoying at the moment and looking forward to over the next few weeks!

  • The lovely people at my office and how funny, friendly and kind they all are. I realized the other day that I actually almost never spend any time with white people haha (don't worry I'm not predujiced, it's just how things have turned out this time around). We all know Africans can dance and my colleagues know how to have a good time! As ridiculous as I probably look I just join in the fun and enjoy laughing with them at Dutch dancing (since it is a Dutch NGO)! The endless smiles and laughs at the office never cease to put me in a good mood when I arrive and leave the office. 
  • The utterly perfect weather of Mbarara. Not once has it been too hot or humid or too cold! The sun shines every day and most days there is shower to freshen things up a bit! 
  • Ugandan pineapples
  • The two dresses I designed, purchased Ugandan fabric for and am having tailor make for me here! Hopefully one will be my outfit for my thesis presentation! 
  • I'm looking forward to playing in a football tournament on my office's team against some other businesses in Mbarara tomorrow. I will probably be both the only Mzungu and female. If nothing else, I will provide entertainment for the onlookers!
  • This Thursday Rebecca (my best friend and sister that I never got) arrives from Rwanda! It has been a year since I saw her last and I can't wait for a weekend of adventures. We will leave Uganda together to visit her little village in Rwanda before I head back home (yep, I'm embracing the term) to the Netherlands. 
  • On the topic of home, I finally found what seems to be a perfect room in Amsterdam! Looking forward to gezellig dinners with my new housemates, cycling in Amsterdam Noord, commuting to work, and exploring the awesomeness that is Amsterdam. 
  • I'm REALLY looking forward to biking again (both as my primary mode of transport and for sport)!
  • The color run (with friends and one of my new housemates!) 
  • Also this blog post about home that describes my feelings more beautifully than I will ever be able to. 
  • Proper cooking again and going back to a diet that does not consist of primarily flavorless carbs! 
  • Possibilities of several visitors this summer! 
  • Swimming outside this summer!
  • Running in peace without comments, whistles and people following me. 
Fijne weekend allemaal! 

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Culinary Catastrophes

The last few blog posts have been a bit too serious for my liking so I think it’s necessary to have a more light hearted interlude (although still a serious matter in my opinion). For those of you who know me well, you should be aware that Rachel and food have a very close relationship. I think my love of food was sparked around the same time as my love of travel. I was also blessed to have a mother who cares deeply about the environment, health, and what that means for the food we put in our bodies. I blogged about food the last time I was in Uganda because it became a HUGE source of frustration for my slightly snobby taste buds.

I do not consider myself a picky eater. I will willingly eat whatever non-meat food item appears on my plate (and even meat when I’m forced to be culturally flexible). That being said, I’ve discovered in my old age that I feel a lot better emotionally and physically when I eat quite frequent small portions of a whole-grains plant based diet with a plethora of delicious spices and flavours. I’ve also learned that I go through spicy food withdrawal if I don’t get a nearly daily dose of spiciness.

Recently a friend of mine sent me this gem of a buzzfeed list that fairly accurately describes my relationship with food (as long as the said food is healthy). This list was particularly valid when I was in my crazy running stage of life and therefore needed frequent calorie boosts to make up for all the calories I lost when I destroyed my muscles every day. Unfortunately, my food life in Uganda does not fit any of the above descriptions. I am all about adapting and attempting to be a local as much as possible. But Ugandan cuisine seriously fails to inspire or fulfill my nutritional needs. While I also find Dutch food uninspiring and bland, at least I can find anything I could want in a supermarket and most of my cultured friends will begrudgingly admit that perhaps Dutch food should not make it into any list of popular international foods.
Let me describe a typical day here:
Around 7 am: wake up make myself a hearty bowl of oatmeal/porridge (I will never get sick of this for breakfast) with some tea and fruit on the side.
Just before 8: walk to my office.
Between 9 and 10: depart for the field (depending on how efficient things are on a particular morning, but the word efficient doesn’t really exist in Ugandan vocabulary)
Between 10:30-12: Rachel starts to get a bit hungry. Ignore it knowing that it will only get worse and you won’t see food until 4 at the earliest.
1 pm: Sneakily eat a small snack (so that I don’t have a share it with the driver and my translator, evil and selfish I know).
3 pm: Yep. Starving and tired. How are the driver and intern just fiiiiine?
3:30 pm: If I haven’t given up already, conduct one more interview then insist on heading back to town (this usually involves around a one hour plus drive back).
Around 4-4:30: arrive at the one restaurant in town that still seems to have food (since they make all the food at once in the morning then run out at the end of day). Conversation with the waitress:
“Do you have beans?”
50% of the time: “They are not here.”
“Do you have gnuts?” (the only other vegetarian protein option)
50% of the time: “They are not here.” OR no response then 15 min later: “Gnuts are over.”
“Fine. I’ll have a chapatti.”
This is where I resign myself to eating the oily flatbread that offers no nutritional value.

If I’m “lucky” a bowl of beans and a huge plate of white rice awaits me. Upon its arrival I promptly ask for the chili sauce and pour half the bottle into my beans to the horror of my Ugandan co-workers. This still fails to fully give the food flavour. 

Because I am usually afflicted with low blood sugar and very grouchy during this time, talk is limited and when the conversation turns to Ugandan food and questions of whether I have tried matooke (boiled mashed bananas with zero flavour) or other local “specialities” (I had tried every single Ugandan food within about a week of my first visit since there is absolutely no variety), it is all I can do to politely respond through clenched teeth: yes I have tried matooke. It was not my favourite.

Although I’ve spent a decent amount of time in this country, it is a constant source of frustration that given how fertile the land is, Ugandans continue to “nourish” (if that is the best word considering that SO many people develop diabetes later due to the very carb based diet and love of sugar here) themselves with a startlingly limited variety of food and virtually no spices. Food wise, I can hardly wait to get back to my quinoa, greens, whole grain bread, larger variety of veggies, buckwheat, loads of bean varieties, nuts, and a pantry full of spices to satisfy my culinary creativity.


Happy first King’s day in a while to all my friends in the Netherlands! Someone go eat a nice meal for me please!  

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Expectations Revisited

Just after moving to the Netherlands I wrote about the faulty expectations and the disappointment I felt about my last Ugandan experience. Even when I think about it now I feel ashamed at how disconnected I was from the local community. Since my time in Uganda this time around is so short, I came into the country with the idea that I would simply make the best of the time, get the research I need done, and see what comes of it all. I had no expectations of making new best friends or getting overly attached. All of this has been successful so far, but what has been most rewarding about the past two or so weeks is how incredibly easy it has been to connect here compared to Karamoja. This connection has made me feel SO much better about the disappointment I felt leaving Karamoja and made me realize that perhaps the lack of connection I made with Ugandans last time was not entirely my fault but more the culture and environment of the region I was living in.

Last Friday I was invited by the Ugandan general manager of our office to a party/sort of church service in his village. I went with some other friendly staff members for a very long day of speeches in Runyankole (that I have almost nonexistent knowledge of), lots of Ugandan food (NOT my favorite, more on this later), and later some drinks and more food at his home. Although I was the only white person there (win in my book!) and I mostly had absolutely no clue what was going on (apparently it was a 50th wedding anniversary celebration for his parents) it was a fun day! Being free to drink beer also aids in the connecting with locals process.

Most of the Ugandans I've met this time around are some combination (or all of the above) of very smart, well educated, and well traveled. This had made for some very interesting and open conversations. The last time I was in Uganda I was very reluctant to bring up the homosexuality bill (which at the time had been pushed aside) but now that Uganda is all over the news it has been very easy to bring up the issue. Which is probably one long term positive aspect of the bill. Now people are talking about it, activism can breed and the whole world is aware which will hopefully all bring change. What is frustrating is that the media has honed in on Uganda when in reality most of the continent shares similar sentiments only with slightly less harsh punishment. A few of the things I've gathered from my conversations and from my previous stay in Uganda:

  • The anti-gay sentiment prevalent in this country I really think is more related to culture than religion or outside influences. Most of the people I speak with aren't particularly religious and don't support the bill per se but rather say that people should be able to make their own decisions. However, they share the concern that homosexuality will spread which they find disconcerting. The last time I was in Uganda I had a hunch that most of the uncomfortableness that Ugandans (and perhaps most Africans) have about homosexuality is how theoretically same sex couples cannot bear children. Fertility is so incredibly valued here. Recently a very smart man asked me if I wanted children. I answered directly and said I don't know. Certainly not anytime soon and it's not on my life to do list. He was a bit shocked and replied: I've had a name picked out for my first child for the past five years. I have yet to meet a Ugandan no matter how "progressive" or educated or empowered (to use Western vocabulary) they may be who does not have eventual plans for children. Conversely, in North America and Europe I know many people you have no plans for children. I'm not suggesting that Africans change to become more western but their love of children could explain some of the attitudes towards same-sex relationships. 
  • Another issue that was brought up is the fact that most (perhaps almost all?) secondary schools here are separated by gender. During the hormone filled teen years apparently this can bring about some experimentation. 
And... the rest of my post didn't get saved and I don't feel like rewriting it all. So I'll conclude with this: Ugandans (rightly so) don't want to be continuously pushed by the west to accept western culture and values. What is difficult is when culture becomes intertwined with human rights violations. Gay rights aside we have a lot to learn from how Ugandans prioritize people, relationships, and community. I am very far from adapting here but spending time in Uganda has forced me to slow down my usual hyperactive self (I now have the reputation of "running" from the office because apparently I walk super fast) and take a bit of a breather. And here are a few photos of the past few weeks: 










Saturday, April 19, 2014

Job searching? Or room searching? There seems to be no difference

There seems to be no difference between finding a room in Amsterdam and applying for jobs. Both require top notch networking skills, strong motivation and determination, obsessive checking of job or room websites, an outstanding cover letter, and perhaps references. Seriously. I've lost track of how many messages I've sent to prospective housemates only to be mostly drowned out by the hundreds (or thousands perhaps) of other desperate room seekers, or ignored because I cannot meet the housemates in person, or simply ignored for no reason, or in the best situation realize that I will be miserable or in a super boring neighborhood far from where I will work. The few skype "interviews" (because that's seriously what they often are) I've had have often involved people rigorously questioning me on my music and movie taste and my social habits.

Finding a room in Mbarara on the other hand was quite possibly the easiest thing I've ever done. Send one email to a Dutch contact here with no response, email the general manager of the NGO I'm working with, and send an email to an old friend from my previous stay in Uganda. A few days later I had several options that are super cheap, giant and well equipped. And now that I'm here I've had multiple staff members offer me their spare bedrooms. Incredible. Maybe will just stay here and commute to Amsterdam? I might save money and stress...

I like to consider myself pretty well connected so I started with my own social network but recently have gotten quite creative in expanding my network to find a room. Perhaps I can put this room search process on my CV? My networking skills should be pretty top notch if I ever find a room! 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Blessing in Disguise

Ever since my first trip to the African continent I have devoured every resource I can get my hands on regarding history, development, policy, economics and all of the other complexities that surround development in general. More recently I’ve spent the last few months (or really since I left Uganda the first time and saw how severe their electrification problem is) filling my brain with numbers about electrification, policy, too many impact assessments of rural electrification projects, microfinance, impact evaluation methodology, and statistics. Without realizing it I approached my research here with a rather aloof and scientific perspective. I poured over my questionnaire to figure out precisely what data I would need to make valuable conclusions about electricity access and economic well-being. But now that I’m here and I’ve spent a good portion of the last week driving through the hilly green western Ugandan countryside to rural areas lacking grid access, I realize that I failed to remember how in your face poverty can become. It’s easy to pour over numbers and theories and get excited about new ideas but sometimes this all becomes irrelevant when you sit in people’s homes and find out precisely how difficult their situation is and how so many people really are stuck in a poverty trap (to quote the book Poor Economics).

Three days of interviews and it’s already started to feel like something I could do in my sleep. I diligently fill in the boxes in my stapled questionnaires, probing when the information I receive seems unclear. But still I find myself startled and saddened. During one interview with a woman who does not have solar energy, I inquired about how much she pays to charge her phone. She told me nothing. When I asked my translator to ask why, he calmly responded that the community helps her because she is in poor health and has no money. She was merely forced to start her business because she could no longer work on her farm. Most of the businesses I have surveyed run a loss every month. Their weekly turnover (if above zero) is often equal to what I might spend on a beer.

My life in Uganda this time around is worlds different than my last Ugandan experience. The region I live in is lush with rich soil that allows even the poorest to subsist off the land. I live in a huge house with a large yard with a lovely older British couple. Even when I run through hilly (and 1400m altitude!) Mbarara I am not (often) greeted by the constant “Mzungu how are you?” that I was during my runs in Moroto. The weather is beyond perfect—sunny and cool. My spotless new office is entirely run by professional and friendly Ugandan staff and powered by solar power although grid connection exists. But in spite of how nearly perfect life is here, I am confronted daily with the realities and limitations that poverty brings. The people I interview (with and without electricity) work extremely long hours only to run mostly unprofitable businesses. Yet there is often no other alternative for them. The income disparity in this country is unavoidably obvious and makes me wonder that perhaps if the income disparity that we have in the US was equally in your face to most people, then we would choose to do something about it.


Although life is not easy for people in the villages and it’s easy for me to sit through the interview brainstorming how their business might be made to be more profitable; these villagers have a much deeper understanding of the natural world than the western world. Unlike Europe and North America where we have created an artificially perfect environment where we can have whatever food we want whenever we want it, regardless of seasons, drought or weather, rural Ugandans have seen climate change (that was caused by our behaviours in the west) affect their daily lives. These Ugandans may not have even finished high school, often may not even be able to read, and unfortunately have little political power. But they are not debating whether climate change is real because the reality of it has changed their livelihoods. The fact that climate change comes up so frequently during my interviews is perhaps even more saddening when I know that my country has indirectly caused this disaster that is now impacting those most unable to cope with it. Sitting in front of people barely able to support their families makes the useless debate and stubborn unwillingness to change in my own country sickening. Although the comfort filled life in the west is certainly easier, I think rural Ugandans are blessed in a way they don’t realize through their intimate knowledge of the seasons, weather patterns, and their dependence on nature and its resources.