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. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Back to the land of Bodas

Greetings from sunny and green Kampala! I’m currently sitting on the patio of a Dutch owned café called Brood (which means bread in Dutch). I can never get enough of the Netherlands no matter where I go apparently. After a very hectic past few months of stress and preparation when it was finally time to leave I suddenly found myself sad to leave the tiny country I now call home. But now that I’m back in crowded, lively, sunny, and friendly Kampala, it all feels right. Although I’ve already noticed some changes (cleaner streets, a few additional traffic lights that no one knows how to use, and some sparkling new malls) in this bustling city, in many ways it feels like I never left. I visited my old office on Friday and yesterday went to my favorite café/art gallery/restaurant to enjoy the peace of their garden seating area. My Ugandan accent (those of you who have heard it know what I mean) and my hard bargaining skills seemed to instantaneously return as soon as I set foot in this country. It feels perfectly natural to engage in friendly banter with the boda (motorbike taxi) drivers to convince them to lower their price. The process is not even about money, it’s simply the fun of bargaining and engaging in friendly conversation. And since these rides are often harrowing and potentially life threatening because they involve weaving in and out of the endless lines of Kampala traffic perched atop a motorbike without a helmet, I suppose I shouldn’t be willing to pay a high price anyway.

For those of you who are a bit unaware of my coming and goings over the past few months (understandable since I’ve been doing a lot of plane hopping recently) I am in Uganda for the next 5ish weeks to survey small enterprises that have purchased solar home systems from the NGO that I am working with for my thesis. I am going to attempt to draw out the causal link between electricity access and business economic performance. In between sleeping at a lot of different very hospitable friends and doing research, I also had a job interview for a research position at an energy research center in northern California (Arcata to be more specific—more well known as the pot capital of America) working on off grid lighting. As far as I can tell the job is about as perfect as could be, but now that the possibility to leave my life in the Netherlands (particularly) since I’m moving to Amsterdam when I get back gives me a horrible feeling in my stomach every time I think about it. So for now, I’m not thinking about it and just waiting to see what happens. But this job means that after four years of globetrotting I might be (temporarily) back in the US.

Presently, I am going to make the best of my time in the Pearl of Africa. It seems I always choose to come to this country when it is making world headlines. As I hope you are all aware, Uganda recently passed a very upsetting anti-gay bill (not to mention an anti-pornography bill that also includes women wearing skirts above the knee). Already on my taxi ride from the airport and strategically asked questions to my taxi driver about the bill, trying to draw out more information as to what the actual support for the bill is in Uganda (so far it seems overwhelming) and figure out why these attitudes exist in such strength on this continent.

Perhaps being a very frequent flyer is beginning to pay off because all of my recent flights (at not extra cost) I have managed to sit in economy comfort with lots of leg room. This upgrade proved very fruitful this time around because I sat next to a man who was a prosecutor during the Rwandan genocide trials and who was traveling back to the country to speak during the 20th anniversary of the genocide. He was extremely well traveled and knowledgeable and ironically will also be in den Haag end of next month!

Tomorrow I’m off to Mbarara in the west via the Ugandan post bus! It’s nice to be back in a more independent setting and be free to go, meet, and do what I want! 

Sunday, March 16, 2014


You can tell that I'm busy because the frequency of my posts has suddenly increased. I'm currently sitting in the central library in den Haag staring out at the sun shining on the streets and observing the people going about their Sunday afternoons on bikes and on foot. As soon as the sun peeps out from the sometimes seemingly endless blanket of grey, Dutch residents immediately can be found wandering the cobbled streets, cycling as a family, shopping, sipping a drink outside a cafe. Right now I'm super jealous. Unfortunately, my to do list does not complete itself magically when the sun pops out.

Whether or not to do lists complete themselves, I'm becoming increasingly convinced that our current western society has some things wrong and specifically my natural personality needs to be kept in check. I put a lot of pressure on myself and don't have a clue when to do stop getting involved in things. Recently, if I find myself in a moment where I allow my mind to wander, I immediately find myself running through my schedule and the many things I need to complete. I wake up in the morning and my first thoughts are the things I want to complete for that day. I feel gross, guilty and unproductive if I don't exercise. I want to be there for all people even if I'm finally honest with myself and realize that I'm not actually that close to them. I feel bad if I haven't contacted my faraway friends recently (the definition of recently has become more flexible). I worry about my Dad eating bad and continually refusing to learn how to cook. I think about how much money I should be saving and how much I've spent over the last month. I feel helpless when a friend is stressed and I feel like I can't do anything to help. I worry about my Mom selling our house and settling into our new place of residence in California. Occasionally, I think about whether or not I can finish the food I've bought for the week (or more like a few days) and stress about the possibility that I might have to throw bad food away (fortunately my obsession means this almost never happens). I constantly review the recent purchases I've made and analyse whether or not they were necessary and wonder if I am being too caught up in consumerism. Then I often rush back to the store to return items I deemed unnecessary.

BUT, in spite of all these thoughts running through my mind, I wouldn't say I'm a worrier. I know most things are out of my control and usually don't stress about them. However, shutting off my hyperactive body and mind and simply relishing the moment is nearly impossible for me (and I suspect many people in our non-stop western society). For me it's forcing myself to talk with a friend without feeling impatient about the things I need to do. Or going running or biking and letting my mind go blank. I think we spend so much time thinking and planning that we completely forget to just STOP and enjoy the sunshine, or the beautiful people around us, or a delicious carefully prepared meal with people we care about, or the glorious (to me at least) feeling of pushing my body to max and simply coming home exhausted and relishing in that happy endorphin filled exhaustion.

I'm not sure where I was going with this post besides procrastination from working, but wherever you are and whatever the weather just STOP and ENJOY the moment! 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Intentionally creating more stress for myself

Well the last month and half has been a bit of crazy, awesome, comforting, tiring, and rejuvenating weeks of hopping continents and spending a lot of time in airports. Going through security, boarding airplanes and lugging suitcases around has become second nature to me that I could probably do it all in my sleep (which is actually quite useful since traveling also often involves large time changes). Life has pulled me in a lot of different directions the last year or so (both literally and figuratively) and lately getting away (or perhaps running away) has helped me deal with things. Last week I was randomly in California swimming every morning in the heated outdoor swimming pool that my Dad's new university/workplace contains, this weekend I was skiing in the Swiss alps and yesterday I was cycling along the the VERY windy north sea. I am very, very sorry about informing almost no one of my whereabouts and the fact that I was in the US for two weeks. I very rashly booked a free flight with frequent flyer miles and just left to spend two weeks working on my thesis in a mostly sunny, wine filled, and family filled hideaway.

I REALLY really should be doing other things right now but I recently diagnosed myself with being chemically dependent on stress (it's real thing apparently) and seem incapable to accomplishing anything without limited time and extreme pressure. Yep, super healthy behaviour I know. Here are some random thoughts and links from the past month or so:

  • Roads in America are unbelievably wide. Was this normal to me at some point? What is most frustrating about this is how much freaking space there would be for BIKE LANES!!!!!! Why does this not happen? I totally get the practicality of driving in the US because distances are so much further. But this is not always the case and the most polluting part of driving is simply when you start up your car. So it makes SO SO much sense to walk or bike for short distances. Rant finished. 
  • Americans are delightfully friendly. It catches me off guard. I don't expect random strangers to chat with me and sometimes I want to be left in my own little world but it's also kind of nice to be noticed. 
  • On the flip side it's REALLY nice to run in peace and not get honked or yelled at. Thank you Holland!
  • I would really like to be paid to create delicious things. 
  • California is really, truly the best state in the US. I don't think I will ever change my opinion on this. Somehow no matter where I go in the state it feels like home. 
  • Swiss villages in the alps are so picturesque that they almost seem unreal. 
  • Being near the ocean or on a mountain is so healing. 
  • Even when I semi-intentionally ignore human beings and feel like I am better off doing things on my own, my good friends come back and remind me how many wonderful, thoughtful, non-judgmental, and supportive people I am blessed to have in my life. 
  • 26 really feels old, primarily because I have now lost my European youth discounts. Thanks to the new Dutch drinking laws (18 and older now), I still get carded here. Sadly three years ago I was insulted when carded and now I secretly love it. 
  • Directly after graduation there was a rush of people who got engaged, which I found surprising. Now a second rush of late 20s early 30s friends getting engaged. It still feels weird to me but congratulations to anyone who is reading this and recently got engaged! (And please invite me to your wedding so I can party with you ;) )
  • I have never been particularly fond of the French language (sorry French speakers) because unlike most of the rest of the world instead of finding it beautiful and romantic, I find it snobby and nasal. However, I have now realized that I seriously need to learn French, seeing as most of the places I've been in the last year required French and not being able to at least slightly communicate with people in their native language is incredibly frustrating. Some jobs may elude me due to my lack of French skills. I will always prefer the directness and down to earth nature of Dutch and German but French I'm going to attempt to master you!
  • Mexican food is excellent. Yet another reason California wins. 
  • Nederland: stop criticizing the perceived backwardness of America. There are places in the US that are more progressive than Holland. For example several American states have adopted the practice of composting. 
  • The more you learn, the more you doubt. As confusing and slightly scary this can be, I think its necessary to embrace doubts and not ignore them. 
Greetings from windy but sunny (ish) Holland! Back to dreaming of (sadly) and working on rural electrification!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Another side of my favorite continent

For the first time in a while there are actually a million things I could blog about. Specifically, the many images, stories, laughs and lessons learned from my recent trip to Cameroon for two weeks. Our team will be hopefully be updating our team blog soon (you can read more here) assuming my slightly exaggerated and attempted humorous writing makes it past the engineer in our group who prefers the literal at the expense of funny. Of all my short term and long term trips in the developing world, this trip was by far the best. That is a bold statement for me to make seeing as most of my undergrad was spent falling in love with places after two weeks with other groups of mostly equally motivated students in our feeble attempts to "save the world". I also must add that I may have found something that I am most passionate about and could really see myself doing as a career. This is an equally dangerous and bold statement since most of my life, I have different ideas what I want to be when I grow up on a nearly daily basis. After the extreme stress and frustration that resulted from working with the founder of the start up we're partnering with, the success of our trip came as a pleasant surprise.

I have slightly avoided blogging in general this semester because I've felt that my attitude about life and especially Delft has been generally negative for various reasons but this trip was a nice refresher after the nearly burn out busyness and stress of the past semester. More importantly, it gave me a deeper appreciation for parts of my life in Delft and the people that I've been blessed to meet. Although I went to Cameroon confident about my experience in Africa and short term trips and with the same sense cynicism that I haven't fully been able to shake since Uganda, the trip brought many pleasant surprises along with many expected experiences.

1. Like all the African countries I've visited, Cameroon was a country full of color, life, and laid back people. Although I speak almost nonexistent French, conversation with the people we encountered who spoke English was effortless, funny and open. A stroll through any village and town and we were greeted with the constant signs of life. People running their shops, music flowing from open windows, people dancing, groups enjoying a beer outside, motorbikes loaded with food and other random supplies to be taken on bumpy and dusty roads, women carrying exorbitant loads on their heads without breaking into a sweat,  we children returning from school in their smart uniforms, and boys playing football with anything that remotely resembles a ball. Quite unlke organized, quiet, and generally dead Delft, there was no place we visited that lacked signs of life. Living in a remote village, unconnected to the grid and with limited supplies did not deter its residents from having a good time. And in the big city life was even more exuberant: listening to fabulous live music at one of Yaounde's many cabarets and dancing with the locals on stage was a pleasant change from Delft and its rhythmically challenged engineers.

2. Unlike Uganda, Cameroonians do not associate alcohol with the world's greatest sin (this may be a bit of an exaggeration). Enjoying a beer or a sip of whiskey (at practically all hours of the day) was part of life for all classes and genders and professions (we even enjoyed some fine French wine at the local priest's house) in Cameroon. I'm sure this enjoyment of drink may carry its own set of problems, but I did not observe any excessively drunk people, and appreciated how both genders were able to enjoy a beer or two. Beyond drinking, women seemed to have a more prominent place in society than simply baby producers and cooks. However, given the comments from one of our local guides about how I was slowing down the group on the walks (even though I was walking faster than most of the boys) and the need for me to do the cooking, Cameroon still has some work to do regarding gender equality.

3. In many ways Cameroon fit the stereotypical western image of Africa: red dusted hills dotted with bright banana and palm trees, dusty and bumpy roads, children everywhere, women carrying water on their heads, and vibrantly printed clothing. But Cameroon also had relatively good roads (better than Michigan in most places), a very large highly educated population (unfortunately no jobs), and many extremely wealthy and motivated entrepreneurial people (our hosts) who firmly believe in their country. Cameroon was the first francophone African country I've visited, and the difference between French and English colonization was very apparent. The French language has infiltrated seemingly all areas of the country (even English speaking Cameroon--English and French are the two official languages). While it was quite common in Uganda and even middle income Botswana to find people in rural areas with no grasp of English, most people seemed to have at least a decent level of French in all areas we visited. And even the local dialects contained French influences. More importantly, a common theme during our interviews (particularly with government officials) was that in many ways the French still have 70% of the control in Cameroon and their control is a big reason why Cameroon was recently rated the most corrupt country in the world. Unlike the English, the French did not simply pack up their bags and leave when colonization ended. A significant portion of their economy is based on resources gained from their ex-colonies and they will influence investors, contracts, and policies in their favor. One of our hosts even claims that western media is influenced by the way the French portray Africa. He made the bold statement that Ghadafi would still be in power in Libya and there would have been minimal violence if the French had not interviewed and portrayed him as such a bad guy. Obviously there are biases both ways, but it was interesting to see how different the politics and business climate was in a former French African colony.

4. This trip knit together my often seemingly pointless studies with my deep desire to somehow aid in the development of Africa (a very broad and bold statement, I know). Working for an NGO and doing seemingly meaningless and fluffy projects that to me seemed to not require the need for an inexperienced naive white person to manage, made me quite cynical towards development work in general. But living in Uganda also planted the first seed of my interest in rural electrification and seeing Africa's electricity network develop in a sustainable way. Off grid solar lighting makes SO much sense in sub-Saharan Africa for so many reasons: economic, logistics, environmental and social. Being able to have the freedom to create our own project without the confines of faculty chaperons, release forms, and bureaucracy was delightful. We were friendly and assertive and in two short weeks made a plethora of useful contacts, conducted numerous interviews and ultimately developed a surprisingly comprehensive picture of the electrification situation in Cameroon and the potential for small solar lamps. It has been a while that I have felt so motivated and passionate about something. My work in Cameroon means very little in terms of credit for my master's program so it is now difficult to detach myself from doing more research and sending more emails to gather more information. Unfortunately, now that I am passionate about the project again, I also have to remind myself that it is not my business and sadly I am doubtful that the business will be successful due to the person running it. Ultimately, if anyone is hiring some kind of solar consultant and needs me to travel to a country for weeks or months at a time to do in depth research and interviews, I am very very much on the market!

Finally, one of the biggest reasons I have felt rather trapped and negative about life in Delft, has been because of the people. After a lovely year of exploration and meeting loads of new people, I came to the sad realization this summer that although it is generally very easy for me to meet people and make new friends, in the end there will always only be a few people who you are close to. Delft is not Valpo or Korea or Uganda, where my friendships and interactions were mostly filled with open, well traveled, and dynamic people that I felt completely comfortable with. I didn't think about who I was or what I was doing, I just lived. I didn't think about what information I shared or how certain activities I would only do with certain people. Unfortunately, Delft is not quite the same and perhaps the feeling of not being fully comfortable with the people I often interact with has also led me to scrutinize my life choices and question the direction my life is going. But Cameroon and my wonderful team helped reinstate my appreciation for the few people I do really care about in Delft and in the Netherlands. People who don't find my life crazy or shocking or question my choices. People who instead question what gets me excited and passionate. People who I can have deep conversations with or simply be completely silent with and not feel awkward. Ultimately, these kind of people are not necessarily found after years of friendship but rather flit in and out of life. So instead I'm going to focus on these friendships rather than stressing about my life choices and how certain people judge them.