Monday, June 22, 2015

Reflections from 5 days of Fasting

Fasting has always been something I meant to do. My university had day of fasting as a way to raise awareness on hunger and foster empathy. It appealed to me, but I used the excuse of being a competitive athlete to not participate. I've always managed to come up with various relatively good excuses but ultimately I just haven't wanted to fast. I'll cheerfully use pit latrines (or just pee behind a tree), sleep under the stairs, take bucket showers, sleep with cockroaches (yes this has happened), or try strange foods like live octopus or goat with the hair still left on it. But giving up eating? That is a kind of suffering I have never wanted to go through.

I was a kid who immediately got cranky without food in my stomach, who got hungry every two hours no matter how much I ate at one meal. The concept of an eating disorder I have never fully understood simply because I can't imagine restricting my eating and going hungry. In high school my dear mother prepared protein packed breakfasts for me, sent me armed to school with almonds so I could survive between classes (even though I was lucky enough to have the early lunch), and my friends used to joke at lunch that my lunch box never ended. While I care a lot about the food that goes into me, and I don't advocate for and try to refrain from overeating, I also just like eating.

So this Ramadan thing has been the ultimate challenge. At first I thought I wouldn't participate. I have an excuse. I'm not Muslim. But literally almost everyone in the country fasts, and even though I could cook for myself and eat secretly it somehow felt wrong. Plus, fasting is a practice that is in most major religions and if done right is supposedly healthy for you. So with all my excuses exhausted, five days ago I embarked on this fasting thing. Although I must confess, I'm cheating a bit. While everyone else eats breakfast at 4:30 (since we're supposed to fast during daylight hours), I eat mine around 7:30 as I'm getting ready to start the day. Also, I occasionally sneak into my room to take swigs of water since I'm afraid of getting dehydrated in the heat. And today I snuck a few cookies from my room while my stomach growled. So basically I'm not doing that great of a job of fasting. But it's still an effort.

Supposedly, fasting gets easier as you go on with it and the first few days are the worst. But yesterday I was exhausted and felt like my stomach was a bottomless pit that could never get full. I've felt like I am only getting progressively hungrier. Like most challenges I embark on, I tend to semi impulsively start then realize I don't know what I'm doing and start obsessively researching all viewpoints, opinions and research on the issue until my brain is overflowing and slightly confused. This is what happened last night. I guess you're not supposed to inhale food (as I've been doing) when you break the fast then get super full really fast and not want to eat anymore. Oops.

But, what am I getting out of all this? Besides the fact that I suck at fasting and I'm super spoiled and privileged. Well, being hungry is hard. And exhausting. And makes it difficult to focus. Since one of the purposes of Ramadan is to help people learn to empathize with those who have less, I have begun thinking about all the people around the world who everyday probably have this same gnawing hunger that I have (only probably worse). Who somehow still have to till their fields, work in the hot sun, and maybe study without getting the nutrients that a proper diet provides. I can better understand why maybe people in developed countries score higher on tests (this has nothing to do with intelligence). Food seriously makes you more focused and more productive. I've known this for a while since I have never been able to function well without a full stomach

If I'm honest with myself I don't know if I will ever fast again. Maybe my body will adjust and I won't feel like I'm shriveling up and tired all the time. Regardless, I'm glad I tried this. I'm glad I have a better understanding of what it means to be hungry and a deeper appreciation for how incredibly lucky I am to have been born into an environment where getting a good (and healthy!) meal has never been a concern. And kudos to anyone who regularly fasts and is a lot more mindful about it than me. You have my utmost respect.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Respect, Bikinis & Hijabs, and Fasting

Probably, even on a very hot summer day, wearing my bikini down the streets of most of the western cities I've lived in would draw some stares, maybe some rude comments and as awesome as I think I look in a bikini ;) I would definitely feel uncomfortable. Well I think not wearing my hijab could almost be compared to wearing a bikini in the middle of a city. While it's a lot more comfortable to not keep my head covered and personally I don't find my (infrequently washed) hair too offensive, in this setting it is. In regards to my last post I have to remind myself that religion aside, homogeneity makes differences difficult to accept or understand. My suspicion is this is more the reason for everyone dressing the same and not really tolerating someone dressing differently. Somaliland (and Somalia) is extremely ethnically, religiously, and linguistically homogenous coupled with extremely low literacy rates (43%!) and a general lack of contact with the outside world. So while feeling a bit forced to dress like people here, I am also trying to understand where people are coming from.

Officially two weeks into my stay here and I have to confess it is definitely the hardest place I've lived so far and is stretching the limits of my adaptability. Which I'm happy about. A part of me is envious of people enjoying Northern Hemisphere summer BBQs, long days, summer dresses, swimming, and cold beers but I'm also thrilled to accept the challenge of living in this hard place for four months and be doing work that I truly invigorates me. Energy poverty is so severe here and sometimes I get a shiver down my spine in excitement that maybe my work is actually helping. So I've decided to treat this experience a bit like I did my marathon training. Lots of people thought I was crazy to do a marathon. It's not necessary to be fit, takes up a lot of time, and is just plain hard and painful. But it was a challenge, an obstacle to overcome and a growing process to commit to something that was difficult. Although this last year has been super frustrating and uncertain and if I could go back I might have made different decisions, it feels so satisfying to finally be getting my hands dirty, helping make an impact, and just being busy, even if I'm broke and getting paid almost nothing.

So although Somaliland is a difficult place to live as a women, there are lots of things I love (and some I hate). I love:

  • That I can get away with washing my hair once a week. Since water is brought in with a truck and is expensive I feel washing my hair infrequently is further justified. Plus I've always read that overwashing stimulates oil production so it's really a triple win. 
  • How cheap things are here. I can get a cup of coffee for 30 cents and nice meal plus fresh juice for $3-4. 
  • How respected I feel. I know this sounds counter-intuitive but it's a semi myth I want to dispel about Muslims. I really believe that all religions at some point or currently have been abused to put down women and promote a patriarchal society and certainly "respect of women" is viewed a bit differently than how I would define it in the west. But from what I've heard rape is relatively rare here and on a personal level all my male colleagues really, really value my ideas and opinions. They are always treating me kindly and making sure I am taken care of (sometimes difficult to handle since I'm overly independent haha). Also, Somaliland has a very high number of women in government. Women can drive and more and more women are getting educated. So while it's not perfect and I could also tell some negative stories, I don't think it's fair to say that Islam is a religion that puts down women or all Muslim countries do not respect women. There is also a generation gap in many countries due to the increasingly more conservative interpretations of the religion. 
  • The constant sunshine. While this means that mid day can get a bit hot (low to mid 30s C, high 80s-low 90s F) especially wearing so many layers it makes me happy to wake up to the sun every day. 
  • How relaxed and friendly people are. I've never quite been able to explain how significantly less stressed I feel in African work environments although perhaps they are less efficient and less gets done at the end of the day. But I think the combination of how people are prioritized here, the nice weather, and the flexibility of time makes even working long, long days less stressful. 
  • 24 hour internet. One of the (few) perks of living in the same house as my office is that I have 24/7 internet access and it's pretty fast too! This is a first for me outside of the west. 
  • Not getting cat calls on my runs. I've sadly only run twice so far here and running means wearing long pants and small scarf, then putting on a bag dress (as I call the dresses here) and hijab to walk down the road to a hotel compound to run laps. Then taking off some of the layers and running around the hotel. Thankfully, no one stares or makes comments or tries to run with me like in other African countries. Which is a huge pleasure! :) 
  • My colleagues. It's so exciting to work with people so passionate about making a difference their country. 
So while I am sure I will be happy to move somewhere else at the end of my four months, there are lots of small things I appreciate and I'm grateful to have this opportunity to live in such an unknown place with so much room to make a difference in the energy sector. 
Organic yogurt made in Hargeisa! Another thing I love. Although now I have no fridge...

Finally, in reference to the fasting part of the title. Ramadan officially started today and as another challenge and sign of respect I am attempting to mostly participate in the fasting. This means no eating or drinking during daylight hours. As I discovered perhaps I am lucky to be living here during Ramadan rather than the Netherlands that gets something like 20 hours of daylight in summer! For any of you who know me well, I generally function best eating every 2-3 hours and I am certainly not trying to lose weight. So this next month is definitely going to be challenging!

Friday, June 12, 2015

Tolerating intolerance?

This post title maybe sounds slightly offensive (for the politically correct American in me) but it was the best I could come up with because the topic of tolerance has been on my mind. Tolerance is a word that has been floating around the world lately, as we try to figure out how to maintain our identities, beliefs, convictions whatever, while still allowing and respecting others who to hold different beliefs and lifestyles than us. It's tricky really, particularly for me as I roam the world. On the one hand I deeply want to integrate and get to know a culture without offending someone. But on the other hand I feel that it's really important to share who I am and my culture and not lose my unique identity in the new place I live. It's a very difficult balance to strike. I like to blend in. Perhaps it's why I don't like being in small places where without warning people who know me might see me and I might be forced to say hello (sorry haha). I want to see people when I want to see them and be invisible all the other times. ;) So maybe this coupled with my desire to meet locals, learn and appreciate as much as I can about a place, and not offend people is what drives me to do my best to learn and adapt when I move somewhere new. Mostly, I think this is a good thing. But already a week into living in Somaliland I have felt conflicted in my desire to adapt.

In all the places I've lived (outside of the western world) I have made an effort to modify my dress to fit a bit more with the local customs. This meant in Korea I didn't show my shoulders often and I had indoor shoes. In rural Africa this mean wearing long skirts and dresses. None of these changes were difficult and I didn't feel like I lost my style or who I am. When I came here and first came in contact with another American girl who has done a fabulous job of integrating into Somali culture and dress, I discovered that at least I would need to cover my head if I wanted to go out. Overall I've taken this in stride. It's only 4 months and I would much rather be able to go out without being judged and feel like I'm respecting the culture than do what I want. However, there is a part of this adaptation that irks me. Not the fact that wearing a hijab is a bit uncomfortable in the warm climate here. I am not an expert on Islam although I did take a course on the Quran but I do know Muslim women who keep their heads uncovered. I also know that Muslim women in any major US or European city can keep their heads covered if they so wish. Even though wearing a hijab is not part of the local religion or culture. I have also learned that wearing a hijab is not part of the original traditional dress here.  I realize that even the west has a long ways to go when it comes to tolerance and there is certainly still far, far too much discrimination against Muslims in my own country (which I do NOT tolerate). But part of the reason for the hijab is to set Muslims apart (as far as I understand). The problem with this is that I am not Muslim. While I fully respect those who chose to wear the hijab as a sign of their faith or as a way to be close to God, or whatever other reason, I do not have these beliefs; therefore in a way I find it intolerant to expect everyone regardless of religion to dress a certain way.

Anyway, I still will be wearing my hijab but I am still asking myself the question of how we can use travel to begin to foster MUTUAL respect between cultures. Both the host countries and the visitors. I'm not quite sure how to go about this but I do hope that as more foreigners come here maybe people can begin to understand the effort we are making to respect the local customs and understand that we will be different and that's okay.

This post has gotten far too long so I will leave you with some pictures of our field visit yesterday. A kind old man bought me tea, a woman gave me a spicy rice dish drizzled with camel milk and little children shyly attempted to practice their English with me. All while selling lanterns to communities who are completely off the grid. I am thoroughly enjoying the experience of working with a start up that is working in a literally brand new market. Over the last week it hit me how this opportunity has literally tied together almost everything I have done since graduating high school. EWB, Uganda, Cameroon, my studies, research, everything. It's exciting to finally be doing work that is meaningful. I will blog more about the energy situation here later. It's a fascinating case study.

Saturday, June 6, 2015


In case you missed the memo, after a very, very crazy, unstable, and generally not great last year I have somehow found myself in Hargeisa, Somaliland working for a start up that sells solar lamps to off grid communities. Sadly enough one of the aspects of moving here that I looked forward to most was simply the chance to sleep in the same bed for four months.... Small luxuries.

But besides staying put for a while, it is exciting to have the opportunity to be in this little known place even if it is hot wearing a hijab and lots of layers everywhere. Two days in and I've already absorbed lots of information. I hope to keep this space updated more regularly with stories and observations. A bit from my first days:

  • FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) is extremely, extremely common here. Something like 90% of women here have it. 
  • Somaliland is not a recognized country although they have their own government complete with a parliamentary system, elected president and government ministries. 
  • Before coming here I had read that most of the money/economy in Somaliland comes in from Somaliland's diaspora population (Somalilanders living abroad). After two days this has become more evident to me. I guess in summer the diaspora comes back so in one evening hanging out with an American Somali (lander) I met three Dutch (I can't get away from the Dutch apparently) Somalis, and people speaking perfect British English. It's an interesting demographic. Life is cheap here but everything seems to be internal since they can't really export anything. 
  • The landscape reminds me of Karamoja, Uganda and Turkana, Kenya. Semi arid, with scrubby, thorny bushes. Camels and goats are all over since the people are pastoralists.
  • In many ways I feel like I am in any African country (if I'm going to generalize..). People are warm and friendly and life is colorful here. Time is laid back, and people have large families. Even though only my face shows I still stand out and people are keen to practice their limited English on me with frequent greetings of "how are you?" Apparently there is an equivalent word for mzungu here but I haven't mastered it yet. 
  • Another change will be the work week. Fridays here are like Sundays in other countries. However, unlike the west, Friday is the only day off. So that means 6 day work weeks. 
  • Internet is relatively fast here and easy to find. 
  • While it's clear that Hargeisa is developing and is lacking proper infrastructure, it's easy to find nice food and coffee, and even stores seem to sell a relatively decent selection of items (for very cheap prices). I'm still a bit confused how this can happen since most other African countries I've visited are not actually that cheap if you choose to live a more "western" lifestyle. 
  • In two or so weeks Ramadan will start and I'm not sure how this will affect my working schedule. Pretty much everything closes down during the day so I will definitely have to be cooking for myself. 
 That's all for now. Hopefully I manage to write more coherent and interesting posts in the future!


Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A belated Women's Day Post

A first discovered Women's Day living in Uganda back in 2012, a country that in my opinion has a long ways to go when it comes to fully recognizing the full worth of women as equal human beings. I am reminded on a daily basis how incredibly fortunate I am to have been born a woman in the US and in my particular family. I was encouraged and had the opportunity to get an education without any pressure or obligation to marry and start a family at a young age. I could pursue my goals, wear what I want, earn money for myself, and speak my mind. And when I get frustrated with the way we still have to come as a world when it comes to women's rights, I have to remind myself that I am one of the extremely fortunate ones. I did not have to worry about being married at 15, exchanging sexual favors to pay for school fees, missing school due to menstruation, or the burden of having no control over when or how many kids I want to have.

However, I was still born a woman in a largely man's world. I grew up in a family of four boys which perhaps shaped my choices and development in both positive and negative ways. For the first years of my life, I was a "typical"girl: wearing dresses, pink, playing with dolls. But doing all this while stubbornly determined to keep up with the boys, play in the mud, and exert my strong will whenever possible. I remember getting angry when I discovered that realistically most of the boys I played with would someday be stronger and faster than me due to simple biological differences. I grew up in many ways a very traditional home environment. My mother stayed at home after having kids and my dad was the provider. All of our close family friends had a similar family structure. I recall wondering if this was my destiny and if it was I wanted no part of it. I went through a phase saying I would never get married or have kids if it meant losing my identity (as I perceived the tradition of changing my family name to that of my husbands). I also made a pact with myself to never get married before 25. Fortunately, my parents never pushed or expected me to follow this "traditional" trajectory and eventually I discovered that there were other alternatives.

I remember the happy surprise I felt when I discovered my track coach in high school was a very happy stay at home dad. I was happy to meet women who didn't change their names when they got married and it was a relief to meet women who had both careers and families. However, so many other small incidences shaped my perception of what it meant to be a woman. Discussions in high school English class about literature and assumptions made by teacher that women are not good at math, are more emotional and therefore can write better. Taking stupid online quizzes about how "masculine" or "feminine" you are and being informed that I am more masculine simply because I am not afraid of spiders, don't enjoy spending all my free time shopping, and generally take less than 15 minutes to get ready in the morning. This stupid quiz then earned me the reputation of being a "man". Being told my last year of my bachelor by the dean of engineering that I should go to grad school right away before I start having kids and have to stay at home. Being told that if I dressed a certain way guys would notice me more.

Now my initial reaction to these experiences was a stubborn determination to do what I want and break as many stereotypes as possible in the process. I bull headed charged forward with my professional and academic goals, ignoring any men who wanted to do "gentlemanly" things for me, getting angry with people who were following the stereotypes, dressing how I wanted to and ignoring how this might affect positively or negatively the way I was perceived by men. If a woman chooses to be a stay at home, I think her choice should be validated and affirmed. If a woman chooses to never have children. her choice should be validated and affirmed. I realize now sometime in the not so distant future I would like to have a kid and sacrifice some of my goals to raise this kid. I realize now that maybe I can be accomplished and independent but also let someone else into my life to do things together.

However, whether you're a woman born in the US, Uganda, South Korea, or Egypt our world has a long ways to go in validating women AND men as individuals with different interests, goals, skills and talents. So yes, I will still claim the title of feminist because I want to see a world where women are not viewed as a risk to a company since there is mandated paternity and maternity leave, where women can feel confirmed as stay at home moms or working full time engineers. A world where men can feel validated as stay at home dads not just CEOs of big businesses. A world where boys can play with dolls and not be called "girly". A world women and men can choose when and who they marry. A world where everyone has the option to get an education. Ultimately a world where men and women can make the choices that allow them to be fully themselves and contribute to society in that they are best suited for.

Happy Women's Day!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Perfect Imperfections

I grew up used to being late to things, impromptu unplanned outings and vacations, long road trips in a full size van stuffed with entertainment for my hyperactive brother(s) (ie toothpicks, aluminium foil, glue, paper), living in a house full of noise and mess and chaos. When I grew older I became determined to reclaim my German roots and create some semblance of order in my life. This meant an obsession with being on time, writing things in my agenda, calculations, plans and excel spreadsheets for my budget and life decisions (however, I still couldn’t bother to keep much semblance of order in my personal space…). Given these compulsions it would seem unlikely that after my first visit to the African continent I would fall deeply in love with the red dirt, unorganized rhythm, sense of time, chaotic transport, and lack of plans. I stubbornly told my mother as a young child that I would not go to a developing country (horribly embarrassing to admit now) and just wanted to live in Germany. My stubbornness extended to wanting to learn German instead of the more practical language Spanish that I started with. Oops. Well go to Germany I did and now it’s northern and perhaps equally organized neighbour (I will stop with comparisons there…). I do love both Germany and Holland!

I guess there are some aspects of childhood no matter how hard you try to reject them that just stick. Now I appreciate my family’s flexibility when it comes to trying new things, random and sudden adventures that are organized in the spur of the moment rather than months in advance, willingness to impulsively plan surprise parties for dear friends, and give of time and resources without the need to meticulously arrange every detail far in advance. Maybe it’s the fact that I was nearly born in Zimbabwe or my family’s still close ties to the continent but at nearly 27, I can’t seem to get “Africa” out of my blood. 

I’ve lived in the same country (officially) for 2.5 years. This is a new record for me. And not long ago I started thinking that maybe I could call this place “home”. For two years I was theoretically fixed (but that didn’t stop me from leaving the country as often as possible) to being in the Netherlands but it’s rather shocking that I have lasted as long as I have in this country. It is a well-documented fact that I hate being cold. Like really hate it. Sure, I can tolerate the cold. I spent the majority of my life in the Midwest which has a climate of temperature extremes, no mountains and long months of cold and grey. So in some sense the Netherlands has a significantly milder climate. But more important than the miserable weather, I’ve begun to the hate the aspects of the Netherlands that I first fell in love with. 

I moved to the Netherlands after 5 months in Uganda, which even by African standards is not exactly known for its organization. The first few days of orientation at Delft were a bit of a shock to me. I recall examining the carefully planned program that was split in 20 minute blocks. I scoffed at this level of detail, “how on earth would they stay on schedule?” But miraculously the schedule was followed perfectly. I received invites to parties months in advanced and began feeling stressed at the thought that I should be planning my social life that far in advance. Quickly I learned that if I wanted Dutch friends to show up to my events I had to also plan months in advance. Now many aspects of this organization were extremely appealing. Meetings start on time, people complete tasks on time, train delays (although often frequent) are unacceptable and cause often excessive amounts of stress—everything is highly functional. Education is affordable and mostly accessible to all, healthcare is mandatory and although the Dutch complain about rising costs due to the privatization of insurance it’s still extremely affordable when compared to the US, transport is reliable and easy to use, there is a highly developed network of cycling paths, I can find all the food I want in the supermarket, people speak a high level of English… Essentially it’s “perfect”. But sometimes this perfection is maddening. (sorry Dutchies, I really do love your little country). 

Sometimes I just feel like hanging out and calling friends the day of and going somewhere. Sometimes when I see the immaculate gardens where I picture a kind old Dutch man or women carefully trimming every leaf, I want to get shears and make it a little less perfect. Sometimes when people complain how someone is 5 minutes late, I want to shake them. Sometimes, although I dearly love my agenda, I want to rip up my agenda and others and tell people just to go with the flow. Sometimes I just want people to understand how someone might think or believe differently than them. Ultimately, because everything is so functional and organized I feel like I’m stuck in a perfect bubble with no room to make an impact or really enjoy life. 

So here it goes: I have loved my time in the Netherlands. And I appreciate the organization. But, unless something drastic happens (never say never) I think I will lose my mind in the greyness and perfection if I choose to call this place “home”(but I will still probably be living here for some time). Apparently, the chaos of my childhood is too deeply engrained in me for me to survive in a perfectly functioning society.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

2014: Learning to be vulnerable

I’ve always liked to think there are few things that intimidate or frighten me. Hopping on a plane to an unknown place to stay with strangers in a country where I don’t speak the language generally makes me excited. Navigating public transport and haggling to make sure I get the local price is an adventure. And trying new foods that I don’t know the name of or are still moving when I eat them is a hobby. I’ve never paid much attention to security warnings and tend to trust my intuition rather than what I read from the news or US travel warnings. So perhaps on this measure I might be a brave person. But 2014 (because this post is a very belated new years post) brought lots of scary and intimidating changes and adventures and I often felt more unsure of myself than ever before.  2014 landed me on my favourite continent unexpectedly a record three times; trips that eased some of my restlessness and discontent with living in the Netherlands but also brought about the realization that I really cannot live long term in this tiny flat country I’ve called home for the past 2.5 years (crazy long!).  

Although being in new environments, traveling, and trying new things generally is quite comfortable for me, and regardless of how stressed or unsure I am, putting on a smile and plunging ahead with whatever I am focused on is easy. But leaning in, being vulnerable and admitting that maybe I’m just a bit anxious about things or can’t quite do it all, is difficult and scary. Investing in a community, staying put, and being “comfortable” or maybe even following the status quo is utterly frightening.  And this is the biggest lesson 2014 brought. 

The start of 2014 was quite typical for Rachel, overwhelmingly busy organizing contacts, conducting literature review  for my thesis and finishing up the final courses for my master’s degree. I had no time to think about where I was heading or what I was doing. Between courses, moving out, traveling to Cameroon, then starting my thesis, traveling to Uganda, moving in, months of data entry, an unexpected trip to Rwanda, failed job applications and interviews , the first half of 2014 was perpetual motion without a chance to catch my breath. But by September with a degree in hand, only a part time job offer, no certainty about my future and the deep let down that comes from months (years) of non-stop stress and action, I felt a bit lost. For years my life was filled with productivity and my ability to fill up every spare moment so that I could fit it all in, and suddenly I had much needed time on my hands but nothing to fill it up with. I wish I could say that I used this time productively: to learn French, read, learn new things, fill out loads of applications, train for something. But somehow the months flew by and I am only left with the feeling that I accomplished nothing. 

Currently I’m at a crossroads where I have to make some big, big decisions about where I will be over the next coming YEARS, but in spite of everything,  2014 taught me to occasionally lower my smile when I really wasn’t feeling it, let people care, and instead of constantly giving, let people give to me. Being vulnerable is a risk. For me it’s usually easier to shut down, close people off, and continue with my perpetual motion. But sometimes, opening up and taking the risk of letting people in is worth it and leaves you more full than simply filling up life with outside things.
I wish I had a clear picture of 2015, I wish I had clear plans and knew the direction I’m heading. I wish I knew that the direction I’m heading will help make an impact on the world. I wish that I was starting new, being in a new place with new people and a new culture. I wish I felt the stubborn determination and certainty that usually characterizes my personality and my decisions. My instinct is to run, start with a clean slate in a new place. Maybe that is what 2015 will bring, but right now I just don’t know. So instead I’m attempting to lean in, be present, and maybe be a little vulnerable from time to time.