Thursday, August 30, 2012


So a lot has happened since I last wrote on this blog. In case you missed it, I was in Uganda for five months, left end of July, spent a week in Turkey, two weeks in the US on both sides of the country, and am now settling into life in Delft, Netherlands for two years to study Engineering and Policy Analysis. It’s a bit much for me to wrap my mind around, let alone the few people who attempt to keep track of me.
I’ve been trying to come up with an adequate blog post that sums up my Uganda experience (read more about it here) and introduces my new life in the Netherlands. I always seem to find perfect words and ideas while running, but when I get back I either forget what I was going to write or lose interest. But I had the beginnings of an idea during my last run in the US almost two weeks ago.

Expectations. Even without trying, all human beings have expectations. Expectations of themselves, of others, of experiences, of food (at least I do!), of their countries. When I interviewed for Peace Corps and for my internship with Samaritan’s Purse I was told and told myself to eliminate any expectations I had for the experiences. Working in a developing country is never as “feel good” and romantic (or as “roughing it”) as the media presents. I knew I was not going to be anywhere close to “saving the world” by spending five months in Uganda. I wasn’t going to be close to even scratching the surface of the many overwhelming problems that face Uganda and its people (and what gives me the right or skills to “save” a place anyway?). I felt confident as I went through my SP orientation. I don’t care what strange foods I eat (how many people have eaten live octopus anyway?), where I lay my head, I’m not afraid of new languages, I’d been living away from my “country” since graduating anyway, and I can deal with sticking out like a sore thumb twenty-four seven after living in Korea for a year. Of course five months isn’t long enough to see real change and it’s also not long enough to create community and fully settle in. I was convinced that I had no expectations of my Uganda experience. I would not be disappointed. I was going to learn and grow and discover how better to use my passions and skills in the developing world, while living in a beautiful place.

But the truth is, I did have expectations even if they took a different shape than perhaps many people heading to the developing world. I did not want to be surrounded by foreigners (even if they were wonderful and inspiring), I did not want to be living somewhere with 24 hour power (even if I was lacking a lot of other amenities), I did not want to be given different treatment and benefits than the national staff that I was working with, I did not want to only speak English and feel like I could not easily attempt to learn the local language. My expectations of my Uganda were connecting with Ugandans, feeling like human beings with them, not feeling like I was living a completely different life. While I secretly knew it was unrealistic, I wanted to be staying with a host family, becoming Ugandan, getting compliments like I did in Korea saying that I was one of them. Even if I did not save starving children, I wanted to connect in Uganda.

When I came back to the US and the developed world, I felt ashamed about my experience in Uganda. I knew that five months was not long enough to see any impact in the work I was doing and I felt okay about that as frustrating as it still was. But I wanted to share real human interest stories, I wanted to show photos of me connecting with locals, doing things that would be strange for my culture. But when I look at my photos, I see myself with muzungus (white people), people who are amazing and inspiring and who I plan on being friends with for a long time, but people who are also culturally similar to me, who I can effortlessly communicate with, who I don’t have to explain myself to. I feel uncomfortable when I think about how well I was treated by Samaritan’s Purse compared to the national staff (a fact I can justify but still not shake the uncomfortable feeling). I can think of a million excuses why it was difficult to connect with the local staff—culture of Karamoja versus the rest of Uganda, different economic and educational levels. I can think of a things I could have done to connect better—regularly attending a local church, bringing cookies to the office more often, inviting my staff over for dinner (almost impossible since I didn’t have my own kitchen or place). I have analyzed how I didn’t feel like the real Rachel—the one who gets a thrill out of strange, awkward, and new situations and conversations,  enjoys trying new foods, puts herself in potentially dangerous situations, and enjoys being “the only foreigner around”.  In the end, the more I analyze and think about my experience I feel regret, too many “if onlys”. Of course I will return to Uganda and likely have a very different experience, but I think the only regret I can really indulge myself in is regret for having prior expectations.

It is impossible to know what each new place, job, trip will bring as much as we try to anticipate and prepare ourselves. As much as I thought I was prepared with no expectations, I had unknowingly high and nearly impossible expectations of living like a local and immersing myself in Ugandan culture. So instead of filling my thoughts with regrets, I can only take my Uganda experience for what it was and know that no matter how many expectations I had and the disappointment and regret that I feel, it was a place where I learned and grew, and a place that I was meant to be at this time in my life.  
I wonder if this Kenyan donkey has expectations?