Friday, July 21, 2017

5 Years and Counting



Almost 5 years ago, after a whirlwind month of travel and leaving Uganda, I boarded a plane to Delft, Netherlands with the plan to spend two years in the country (and my master thesis in Uganda) to get my master’s degree. As usually happens, plans usually don’t work out exactly how I envision and here I am officially a resident of this country for five years. Delft in many ways seemed like an odd choice to many of my friends. Universities in the US are good, and I’d complained for years about lack of sunshine and cold weather. Why would I move someplace notorious for rainy days? When my masters started drawing to a close my friends in Netherlands feared I would leave as planned and schemed to have me fall in love with a Dutch guy. While this plan has been wildly unsuccessful, I am still here ironically enough. The first lesson of my time in Holland is that sometimes you just have to go with the flow and seize opportunities as they come along even if they don’t seem to fit perfectly with the original plan. 

A few weeks ago, I returned from a long stay in Kenya for my field research and suddenly felt like a foreigner in this tiny flat country that I have called my place of residence for that last 5 years. Although I wasn’t exactly a willing returnee, coming back has highlighted what I love about this little place (and dislike). Given the current situation in the US, I can’t think of a better time NOT to be in my country of birth and I’m immensely grateful that I have health insurance, pension, solid holiday time, and at least in the two recent elections Europe has managed to hold back far right populism. 
While some people claim that the Netherlands gets four seasons. In my time here I have mostly only witnessed two seasons: two or three weeks of warmth and sunshine, and the rest of the year rain, wind and semi cold weather. When I stepped off the plane a few weeks ago I was greeted by long summer days, sunshine and friendly temperatures (which still left many people complaining it was too hot). I like to describe these days as days where you shouldn’t make any major life decisions since the nice weather has a strong effect on decision making abilities. When it’s hot and sunny I start having thoughts about settling in the Netherlands, making blond Dutch babies, happily riding my bike everywhere, drinking beers after work along the canals, and taking winter and summer holidays in the Alps. Thankfully for the people who DON’T want me to settle here, these thoughts are extremely short lived because within a few days the temperature dropped again and the rain returned. Weather aside there are some Dutch peculiarities that I’ve come to grow fond of (and dislike). Even when I get negative and depressed, this little country has given me some beautiful friendships that I don’t plan on ever losing, and some amazing educational opportunities. 

1. Biking. This is an obvious one. Within two days in Holland I had already missioned to a nearby city after using google translate to translate Dutch bike sale advertisements from the Dutch equivalent of craigslist, then followed my instinct and handy signs to get back to Delft. While I think Dutch people are probably the only people in the world who can hop on their bikes with their umbrellas and rain gear and happily cycle into the wind and rain with a grin on their face, it is delightful to have the ease of hopping on a bike in your own dedicated lane. I bike 40 minutes to work every morning (when it’s not raining) and the ride is enough that I feel like I at least got some exercise for the day but relaxing enough that I haven’t broken a sweat and just show up in my office with a dull hint of endorphins and a clear mind. I’ve now mastered the art of carrying people on the back of my bike, lugging suitcases and many grocery bags around. 

2. My professors. The biggest reason I stayed so long is that fact that I got connected with some wonderful professors who for once really appreciated me beyond GRE scores and GPA like in the US. They have put up with my not so subtle complaining about the Netherlands, are supportive, and have mostly let me go to East Africa as much as possible (although I think it still perplexes them why I want to do this).

3.Public transport. I forgot how much I took this for granted after coming back from Kenya. It is amazing to not have to sit in traffic for hours and to be able to do work on the train and effortlessly get wherever I need to go without stepping into a car. Holland is tiny so clearly developing a public transport infrastructure is a far easier task than in the US or most other countries. But I also appreciate how cars have no status symbol affect here. People have cars as a necessity and usually buy the most practical option available. Although I’m anxious to leave already, I am not taking the ease of transport for granted here. 

4. Proximity to travel. I realized the other day how easy it is for me to get anywhere really. Traveling within Europe is a breeze (even if I feel bad for exploiting cheap inter-European flights and destroying the environment). Within minimal time I’m in a new country with a new language, food and culture. But even travel outside of Europe is easy. Flights both to North America and Africa are relatively affordable and there’s almost no time difference between Europe and most African countries. More importantly I get 42 plus days of holiday which makes international travel easy.

5. Rotterdam. I already blogged a few years back about falling in love with Amsterdam. An event that ironically enough happened in the warm summer months (yes later the honeymoon phase quickly wore off). But now (although I’ve been gone for most of the time) I’ve officially been a resident of Rotterdam for approaching two years. Because Rotterdam was mostly destroyed during the second World War it does not have the charming crooked houses lining canal streets that Delft and Amsterdam have, but it does boast some unique design and architecture. Rotterdam is equally diverse to Amsterdam but feels more integrated. It also lacks the disturbingly annoying numbers of tourists that Amsterdam is flooded with nearly all times of year. Rotterdam also is full of things to do, hipsters, good coffee, beer and food, and I love its proximity to Delft where I work. 
 
I recently returned from Turkey for a wedding and when I passed through immigration the immigration official grinned at me upon seeing my resident’s permit and said “welcome home”. His words startled me and also made me realize that even though I’ve lived in this country for 5 years I really can’t call it home. When I’m out of the Netherlands and coming back I don’t say “I’m flying home” but rather “I’m going back to the Netherlands”. Given that I don’t consider where my parents live home either this question of going back home is a perplexing one. Holland inspite of its ease of life, and the length of time I’ve lived here (it will be almost the longest I’ve lived in one place when I finish this PhD) is not home. Perhaps this is due to three things I very much do not like about this little country: 

1.   Scheduling. While working with dependable and organized people is pleasant in a working setting I do not appreciate scheduling my social life weeks or months in advance. Receiving birthday invites months in advance panics me and I usually end up forgetting them. This scheduling habit also perpetually makes me feel like asking for favours would seriously inconvenience people and disrupt their perfectly arranged lives. I’ve managed to mostly avoid Dutch scheduling by having international friends and non-stereotypical Dutch friends but it can also make it easy to slip into the rut of being perpetually anti social. 

2. Weather. I don’t need to say much else here. No Holland does not have four seasons (although apparently the lack of seasons is also due to climate change now) and yes when it’s nice it’s lovely but that only happens about two weeks out of the year. I keep more or less the same wardrobe in my closet for the whole year with the occasional moments where I need extra thick coats and gloves or the very rare moment I bare my legs. 

     3. Lack of raw nature. Being in Kenya on the coast or just running in the forest park that became my go to place for long runs in Nairobi filled a hole that my life in Holland left. While there are beautiful cities and coastline in Holland too, it’s a small, densely populated and flat country. It’s difficult to be in a place that’s truly remote and it lacks the raw and rugged mountainous nature that I grew up with in the US and love about the African continent so much. Going back to California to see my family always reminds me of this gap and I think it’s a big reason I have a hard time imagining myself settling in the Netherlands. My childhood was filled with weekend spontaneous trips to lakes or rock climbing in the mountain in my backyard in Arizona. Family vacations were backpacking in remote places, or playing in natural pools in rocky formations and canyons. 
 
Five years is a long time and it’s been full of ups and downs and lots of wonderful stories and memories. Who knows where I will end up after this PhD is over (or if I’ll even stay in Holland for the remaining duration of the PhD). But certainly this tiny flat country will carry a special place in my life wherever I end up next. J

Friday, June 2, 2017

Ashamed to be American

The PhD, the chaos of life and all the craziness that has happened in the world over the last nearly two years since I last posted has caught up with me. But the news I woke up to this morning hit me like a punch in the gut this morning. I've refrained from writing about Trump, both before the election and after. I must confess his election was not only a shock to me but the fact that the community I grew up in (white evangelicals) played a pivotal role in electing him. I think before this election I cared about politics loosely. I naively thought that we could come together with differing views and brainstorm solutions. Although in my short voting history I've never voted republican, I've still considered myself an independent voter, so I've never demonized republicans as I see many hard core liberals do. I remember in September 2015, being in Rwanda and getting asked if Trump could really become president. I very confidently assured the Rwandan man that this could never happen. Americans are not racist or misogynist enough to let him get nominated and win. But the 2016 election really made me question how well I even know my country. I've spent the last 7 years seeking to show my non American friends a different side of the America they read about in the news. But when I saw Donald Trump get nominated and then elected I had to confront the depressing reality that problems with our political system aside, Americans had elected this man. A man who has never hidden who he is: misogynist, racist, self centered, bigoted.

Something most of my recent friends don't know about me is that my parents actually voted republican for most of their lives. Now they have altered their views largely as a result of living abroad and realizing how behind the US is in many respects, and by reading data and multiple news sources voraciously. I have so much respect for especially my mom in this regard. It's an example to me too and for anyone on either side of the political spectrum. Even when my parents probably considered themselves republican, they never demonized the "other side" and their lives were an example of seeking to care for those less fortunate, engaging with and loving people who didn't share their views. I think this example is what has helped me when I make my voting decisions.

Now the US, a country with the largest GDP in the world and the highest CO2 emitter has pulled out of the Paris agreement. It's difficult to describe the emotions I feel at the moment, I think about the Ugandan farmers and small business owners I interviewed for my master thesis who cited climate change as one of their biggest challenges in recent years, I think about the many people suffering from increasingly severe droughts, I think about the next generation of children. While there are many reasons to be optimistic--city level initiatives, or the statistics that show that the majority of Americans support action against climate change, or the fact that the overwhelming majority of the world is committed to the Paris agreement--as an American I'm deeply saddened and crushed. One of the things I've missed most about the US and felt most proud of as an American is our innovative spirit. The many people willing to do something different. We have so much to be proud of throughout our short history, but this is not that moment. My country has become one where we were willing to elect government officials who won't take a stand against climate change, racism, bigotry, poverty and income inequality. A country that many scholars argue became great BECAUSE of immigrants and yet we turn away those fleeing war because of their nationality and religion even though we were founded on the basis of separation of church and state. A country where Christians are willing to vote for a man who stands for all these things because of the small chance that he might overturn abortion even when statistics consistently show that where abortion is increasing is in countries were it's illegal but there's minimal access to proper education and healthcare for women. Even when statistics show a link between poverty and abortion and we are unwilling to take action against rising income inequality. A country where we refuse to address the issue of gun deaths, but will do anything in our power to stop terrorism even though these deaths per year are minimal in comparison to the number of people who die because their child accidentally shot them, or people who die from heart disease or cancer.

So my faint hope today is that we won't let this continue. Young people need to get out and vote and stop letting their parents decide their future, that Christians would stand up for the poor, the refugees, and our planet and that we would let go of our ideologies and work together. Trump's decision is a dark moment in our history and I can only hope we will learn from our mistake and not let this continue.  

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Capabilities & Uncertainty

I've been back in the Netherlands for close to two weeks now and while I still have some serious adjusting to do with regards to the weather, I've been feeling so full of gratitude lately. Earlier this week I went for an evening run (in the cold) around a lovely lake and giant park near where I'm staying at the moment. Living in Somaliland and enduring the torture of randomly running laps around a hotel compound has left me lacking in my usual fitness. But this particular run I felt mentally and physically strong. I felt appreciative for simply having my mental sanity back and for having healthy legs and a beautiful green place to run.

About a month ago the usual Rachel came back. It hit me this week because I realized I only truly felt like myself when the combination of being busy with things I love, receiving email confirmation of my PhD contract finally, and booking my flights back to Holland all came together. In other words, for the first time in far, far too long some certainty. Friends started discussing plans to visit me, and I could feel comfortable buying things like a year museum pass for Dutch museums. Now I'm back to my usual flurry of activity. Working long hours, signing up for courses in my free time, attempting to continue studying French, and filling up my weekends with networking events and work on my business.

When I reflect on this last year (and really the last two years) it feels a bit like I was wandering through a maze in the dark. A maze that never seemed to end and one where I was constantly bumping into brick walls and taking wrong turns. There were numerous moments where I thought I saw the light and was out in the open heading somewhere. Like when I made the hard decision to come back to the Netherlands in February from Rwanda after the PhD funding was approved. Only to find out three weeks later that it was delayed. And delayed again. And I was left jobless and homeless with no certainty about the future. Or when after weeks of frantic applications, networking, emailing and accepting any work I could find in order to feed myself I finally got (a rather bad if I'm honest) job offer in Somaliland. Only for the process to be delayed until the last minute, having to cancel my flight while waiting for the visa and not fully being mentally prepared to live in a place that is so incredibly isolating and restricting for a western woman. Somaliland isn't actually a place that generally comes to mind when what you really need is some financial and physical stability and the support of friends and family... Which I learned halfway through the experience.

Throughout all of this, outwardly I kept my cool. In the occasional moments when I would explain what was going on to people around they would respond in shock, sympathy, confusion and admiration over my seemingly chilled and relaxed attitude. Well, truthfully this was a facade. Inside I was sad, frustrated, uncertain, tired, stressed and simply tired of all the rejection of the last two years after so much hard work and determination. Instead these feelings took root in my head, made me develop strange obsessions and worries and I suppose contributed to the fact that I have probably been sick more in the last year than in my entire life combined. Not to mention strange things like having half my face swell up from a pimple that got infected, getting an infected cyst under my armpit, unexplained tingling and swelling and too much weight loss :(. Stress and moving and uncertainty has a strong effect on the body, I learned.

It feels now like I'm looking down at the maze I just made it through. From a higher vantage point where I can see all the wrong turns I made, the stumbling in the dark, being completely alone and feeling lost. I can laugh at some of the crazy thoughts and obsessions I had, but unfortunately when you're in the midst of the maze you can't see the end or the  route you need to take. So I think I picked up a few bruises along the way from bumping into walls and dead ends.

Right now I'm swimming in theoretical abstract literature related to my PhD topic (maybe I will lose my mind again haha). But there was something that made me think during one of my readings. A famous development economist Amartya Sen has analyzed development from the perspective of "capabilities" and he defines it as "the expansion of human capability to lead more worthwhile and more free lives". Absence of choice and opportunity was a bit how I felt this whole year. Applying to jobs I was extremely qualified for and getting no response, putting my heart into PhD applications with the full knowledge that I would be successful at the program only to get rejected, feeling obliged to stay in the Netherlands with not the best job offer due to visa issues and worry about money. You begin feeling dejected and stuck and in the end a bit like you're a puppet being strung around in different directions. I can imagine that growing up in poverty is a similar feeling. Being unable to feed your family, having your livelihood and food supply depend on unpredictable weather. Finding joy and community in the midst of uncertainty is hard, but I'm so grateful for the random people these last few months who perhaps unknowingly kept my spirits up with their unexpected comments telling me how inspiring I am. I've always known who I am and now I also know a bit more where I'm heading which is something to be extremely grateful for. :)

Friday, October 9, 2015

Self-forgiveness

Pride comes before the fall. A saying that has been drilled into me from a young age but perhaps I never felt its truth until the last nearly two years. For most of my life I've managed to come across at least as a pretty capable person, enthusiastically (stubbornly?) tackling whatever challenge came my way, managing my time, and relishing in being in new environments. I recall secretly getting annoyed or laughing at people who struggled with the transition away from home to university (super mean I know). Or not understanding how someone could be homesick moving halfway across the world... Or people who struggled to manage their time and could only take on a few activities at a time without getting stressed. Well done Rachel for judging... Well I have my limits too. And now I think these people who I maybe judged a bit handled their struggles and feelings better than I have in the last nearly two years of instability. But like I blogged about before I guess for some of us stubborn members of society it takes living through what someone else might have experienced to finally have empathy. ;)

Well now I am learning to practice a little self forgiveness as well. I know I am myself again because over the last month when Rachel came back in full force, I have been overly critical of my own mistakes and decisions and stresses and insecurities over the last year. I listened to a podcast recently about forgiveness and something that really hit me was not the concept of asking someone you may have wronged for forgiveness but also forgiving yourself. More importantly how even the action of forgiving yourself can allow you to start on a clean slate even if the person you hurt doesn't necessarily forgive you. So as I welcome the old but also more empathetic and wiser Rachel back into my life, I'm practicing giving myself some grace. Whether or not I handled everything that was handed to me this last year and half perfectly A LOT did happen and even people who enjoy traveling, new places, challenges, and at least THINK they are stubborn, capable, rational (debatable after this last year), and determined have their limits. I guess I found mine.

So starting from January 2014 here are some numbers (that are allowing me to forgive myself a bit for my mistakes). Ironically enough I was lamenting how "stable" 2015 was appearing to be at the beginning of this year. Quite the opposite! I think it wins for most unstable year of my life! Be careful what you wish for...

  • Number of addresses (including times I was merely using a friend's address for mail): 4 
  • Number of times I packed and unpacked from moves or long trips: 9 (ish)
  • Number of continents visited/lived in during 2015: 3
  • Countries lived in (by lived I mean more than 3 weeks) in 2015: 4
  • Number of different beds/apartments/couches slept in during the months of April and May 2015: 11
  • Number of job applications/networking emails: way too many to count
  • Hours spent obsessing about my health and looking up diseases on webmd: too many to count
  • Number of times on antibiotics in 2015: 3 (more than my entire life combined I think) 
 Being financially independent with almost no income is hard, moving a lot is hard, not knowing your future is hard, saying goodbye is hard and all in all change and uncertainty have a strong physical and emotional effect on the body. Switching climates, countries, continents and cultures so so many times in a short amount of time is also hard even if it's something you mostly enjoy. Watching old houses where a large part of your life was spent be sold, seeing loved ones hurting and growing old, all these things are hard and put an emotional but also physical toll on the body no matter how tough you are. Yes, there are choices I have made that make my life path maybe "harder" and less certain than others but I also did my best to make choices that were best for me professionally, and practically. I chose to stay in the Netherlands because it was the only job offer I had and it meant guaranteed health insurance and at the time it seemed like the most stable choice. I chose to go to Somaliland because it was the only job offer I had and it fit well with my professional goals.

I am so fortunate in many, many ways and although I can look back on the last two years and see how I could have done things differently I also feel proud of how I came through out and what I had to deal with. And on a larger scale my heart goes out to the refugees that are flooding into Europe. I can't compare my relatively easy life to theirs but I've now had a small taste of what it feels like not to know where you will be even a few weeks in advance. To be far from family and not feel like you have a safe place to go back to. To have zero financial stability and have to depend on your sheer thriftiness to stay financially independent. I know how humiliating it must feel to know that you have skills and education yet not have any opportunities, not be able to save for the future and maybe have to depend on others. So I'm thankful that I'm through with this phase and that I came out wiser, and more empathetic and I'm forgiving myself for the mistakes I made.

Mostly importantly, I'm grateful for the generosity of friends taking me in when I couldn't afford to stay in my apartment (just writing that is humiliating for me :( ), for encouraging me, and for the few people who took the time to notice that although I was smiling and optimistic on the outside, inside I wasn't holding things together as well. Thanks!

Monday, September 21, 2015

100 posts and life lately

So apparently this is my 100th post. It only took 6 years of very, very irregular blogging to reach this stage. I don't have anything significant to say other than the last 6 years of life have been very fully of interesting adventures, people, and learning experiences.

I am not in Somaliland anymore although I still have lots of thoughts and stories that I could still blog about. It all feels like a foggy (kind of bad) dream. It didn't take much time to readjust to washing my hair regularly and happily leaving it down, wearing jeans, showing my elbows, wearing a bikini and shaking hands with men. So I guess this confirms that I probably did a poor job of integrating and didn't stay long enough. Currently, I'm enjoying Kigali, Rwanda, a place that surprisingly snuck its way into my heart this last year or so. I've suddenly found myself overwhelmed with the process of starting a business (I have no idea what I'm doing even though I thought my courses, internships, and summer schools on entrepreneurship prepared me), taking on side projects and lectures, finishing up reports from my job in Somaliland and relishing in the perfect weather before going back to Holland. A week ago, for the first time in more than year I woke up feeling energized, refreshed, excited, busy and ultimately like the Rachel I've always known. It was a great feeling after more than a year of foggy confusion, anxiety, instability, stress and uncertainty. :) So a bit of what I've been up to these past few weeks since leaving Somaliland.

  • Running around trying to pay the right fees, go to the right people, and fill in the right paper work to register my business. Although apparently it's super easy to get a business started here there is still bureaucracy and mostly nothing is clearly listed online. So I feel confused 90% of the time. 
  • Discovering how computer illiterate I am. We got a group of Carnegie Mellon University Rwanda students to help as build an app for our business as part of their studies, which is super exciting (we even got the only female in the entire graduating class) and I realize how clueless I am about programming and computer related jargon and skills. But it's great because now I have the chance to learn. 
  • Learning about all the tools Facebook and social media has to offer for marketing. Another thing I've been clueless about. 
  • Taking on extra projects like giving a lecture on my thesis and energy in Africa for CMU (as a distinguished lecturer apparently), and pitching an idea completely last minute for a friend in a funding competition. Like I said Rachel is back! 
  • Meeting new people and getting exhausted networking and arranging meetings. 
  • Enjoying the perks of havin an oven and blender in my new house. 
  • Happily running in the sunshine through the hilly and clean streets of Kigali most mornings. 
  • Eating giant avocados. 
  • Rationing my consumption of the most delicious burritos (seriously who would have thought they'd be in Kigali)
  • Studying French with a cheap private tutor. 
  • Learning more about Rwandan culture.  
  • Reading books on entrepreneurship and attempting to fill my brain with new knowledge that allows me to at least pretend I know what I'm doing.
Things I HAVEN'T been doing (and should be) include searching more diligently for rooms and apartments in the Netherlands (I go back in two weeks :( ), thinking about my upcoming PhD, focusing on finishing a report for the start up in Somaliland, and going to the pool more often.

Back to work! 


Saturday, August 15, 2015

Comparison

This post has nothing to do with Somaliland but just some things I've learned over the last year and half of instability. A while back a friend of mine posted a quote on comparison and it has only really sunk in now.
http://flickofapproval.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/quote-roosevelt-comparison-joy1.jpg

I'm super super guilty of comparing my life to others. Most of the time it's comparing my situation to those seemingly less fortunate than me. Which might seem like a good thing since it helps you realize how privileged you are. But the problem is, if you just aren't feeling great comparing yourself to someone who seems really happy with nothing is only going to make you feel worse.

The last year and half has been super frustrating. I like to think of myself as a positive person. I like to charge ahead and am usually undeterred by set backs. This is something I have prided myself in. I like the feeling of being in control even if things don't go perfectly. But this semblance of control slowly started deteriorating this last year. It felt a bit like I had a strong wall of confidence up and small things that went wrong started chipping away at it until I felt like I was left with nothing but to start comparing myself to people around me. Stupid. And unproductive. Numerous failed interviews, rejections from PhD programs, a badly sprained ankle that meant no running (my mental outlet) and an often overwhelming fog of uncertainty about whether I had made the right choices in the past and the direction of my future choices. Instead of the usual Rachel who is always optimistically moving forward towards SOMETHING I felt lost in a cloud of uncertainty and failed plans.

One of the problems with social media is that it allows us only a glimpse into people's lives and makes it extremely easy to fall into the trap of comparison. I found myself envying people with stability-home ownership, regular jobs, life partners, pet ownership. When I felt bad then I would stop and start comparing myself to people who live in villages and don't know where their next meal will come from. Momentarily I would feel grateful but then I would either feel guilty that I wasn't helping enough and even after years of hard work I had nothing to show for it, and simply feeling bad that here I was slightly depressed when I had so much to be thankful for.

Even now as I feel the clouds starting to lift and plans starting to materialize, part of me feels like the last year was a waste (something I hate!) and I have become overly critical of some of the decisions I've made. But here's something I finally realized. I think the last year and a half, even with all it's ups and downs, uncertainty, deep frustrations, and mistakes, was a gift. Why? Because now I know what it feels like to be deeply uncertain, to feel down and not really want to get out of bed in the morning, to live off of very very little money, to experience rejection and acceptance AND the danger of comparison. I think we can be sympathetic to individual stories while fully living and experiencing our own unique story.

So I'm going forward with the end of this year and it's new adventures with the attitude of gratitude. If I could choose I would not repeat a lot of this year and if I could go back would make different choices. But I'm grateful that in the grand scheme of things if this is the worst I have to go through I have so, so much to be thankful for. I can better empathize with people, who like me this past year, don't have their act together. And that's okay.



Wednesday, August 12, 2015

An Islamic State?

Living here has really forced me to examine a lot of what I think and know and most certainly stretched my mind. The past few days I've been able to have some very interesting, somewhat disturbing and eye opening conversations. As I've mentioned before this is probably the most homogenous and isolated place I've ever lived. And perhaps more broadly speaking arguably one of the most homogenous and isolated places on earth. What is fascinating is that many Africa scholars argue that one of the reasons for the conflict and slow development on the continent is due to the long lasting effects of colonization and how it ripped apart traditional structures, and drew up arbitrary country boundaries that do not take into account the mix of cultures and languages across the continent. Uganda is a good example of this, with roughly 42 languages. While I agree in part with this argumentation, it is also more complex. Somalia is religiously, ethnically, and linguistically homogenous yet has been fraught with conflict for most of its history.

I just finished reading the book Guns, Germs, and Steel, an excellent read that seeks to argue how environmental factors are what caused different societies to develop differently and ultimately aid in allowing certain societies to conquer others. The book made me think about Somalia and its unique tribal system. In my limited understanding tribes were historically your "people" who looked after you and provided some loose sense of governance. This system perhaps worked because of the harsh geography and limited resources that make up the Somali territories. However, tribalism is still active today even though as an outsider I don't see any obvious cultural or other differences between the tribes. When I was in the field last and we mysteriously found a nail in one of our tires, one of my colleagues (who is from the the east of Somaliland) immediately felt the nail was intentional (certainly quite likely). However, another of my colleagues (from the west and near the village where we were) was more skeptical and felt it could have been accidental (also probable).

All of this is connected to recent conversations I've had with locals, Somali diaspora and foreigners about forming a Somali government based on Islam (in other words an Islamic state). As an American my immediate reaction was shock when one of my colleagues (born and raised here) who I deemed open-minded expressed support for this form of governance. While in practice I think religion has become too intertwined with politics in the US, I firmly support the notion of separation of church and state. We had a lively discussion around the idea of a successful Islamic State where I argued that in my opinion there haven't been any successful examples of this form of governance. However, it seems there is widespread support for this idea at least among (male) native Somalilanders. A female Somali diaspora friend of mine stated that of course the idea is supported by men because it does not affect them in any way.

There seems to be widespread consensus that ISIS is wrong, but there is also this underlying sentiment of people wanting to preserve their culture (which is being lost) and avoiding western influence. I get this. But I also find the idea of a government based on a religion (which like Christianity has many different interpretations and seems to be evolving over time) unsettling. In my mind it only creates the opportunity for religion (which can be a beautiful thing) to be exploited for power. More importantly, Somaliland is already extremely isolated and with an extremely low literacy rate so I asked the question: is it worth further isolation (even if it means avoiding western influence)?

If I think about my own identity and how it's evolved as I've traveled and seen more, although it's often left me feeling a bit stuck between worlds and not fully understood, I also think it's shaped me mostly for the better. While I often get jokingly accused of not being American, being influenced and shaped by the many places I've lived and people I've met in my view has only strengthened some of the positive American traits I have and hopefully made me a more informed citizen. I suppose I am more American than people give credit to me in that I have a strong belief in diversity and how it can strengthen a place and in the separation of church and state. I acknowledge that religious beliefs influence how a person votes and lives their life (which is not negative in my opinion), but I would never want a government to tell me how to believe. I hope Somaliland one day soon gets international recognition and that they figure out a way to govern themselves that allows their dying culture to flourish without causing isolation and violence. What this will look like, I don't know.