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


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


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.

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.  

Friday, August 7, 2015

Energy in Somaliland: A country of contrasts

One of the most interesting parts about living here is how full of surprises life can be. On the one hand it's clear that the country is developing, particularly in regards to infrastructure. Even in the capital city the roads are horrible and unorganized and once you leave Hargeisa in most places it's just off road dirt "roads" through the desert and mountains. There are villages scattered about but often it's just a vast expanse of scrubby landscape dotted with dry mountains. You'll see the occasional camel or herd of goats but not much else. However, I also have the fastest internet of any of the place I've been in Africa and it's cheap (more on this later). Maybe this is simply because everything costs less here but it's actually possible to have unlimited internet at home versus simply paying for data as you go. Although I'm here to provide electricity to the many, many people here who live without it, I also have the most reliable power of any place I've lived in Africa. It's a strange and often perplexing place of contrasts but one thing that is clear is the immense need and brand newness of everything in regards to business and policy.

I spent much of last year researching the diffusion of solar energy in Uganda (and to a lesser extent East Africa and Cameroon) and energy policy in sub-Saharan Africa. Here there is virtually no literature on the subject and virtually no energy policy. While energy policy in some of the other African countries I've visited is limited and often in my opinion more a formality than a targeted approach to addressing the massive energy shortages facing this continent, there is policy. Here with a brand new government fighting for investment and international recognition coupled with a severe shortage of technical expertise, there is literally nothing. The electricity grid (which seems to primarily reach only the two major cities for the most part) suffers from around 40% losses. For non-technical people reading this there are three parts to receiving electricity in your home. First generation at a power plant, transmission (where many of the losses occur), and finally distribution to your home. The last two parts are typical referred to as the grid. In most grids losses of 6% are normal and unavoidable. But here the losses are insanely high and probably a contributing factor to the crazy high electricity tariffs (the highest in the world at $1/kWh).

Even without a technical background a casual observer could see the problems in the electricity grid here just looking at the jumble of wires making up the "grid". As I've been doing market research the energy companies here don't seem to have much of a strategy either as tariffs are random. In some low income parts of the city the tariffs are fixed which means for some consumers they are consuming far more power than what they're paying for and for others they are under consuming. In a quick survey of small businesses just in my neighborhood, the tariffs are across the board. From fixed per month or day fee to $0.80/kWh, while most ordinary households are paying $1/kWh. It's a mess.

In East Africa, countries have come a long way in developing rural electrification plans, renewable energy policy and although it hasn't been fully successful its existence has attracted funding by the World Bank and other international organizations. The potential for wind and solar here is huge. Somaliland has some of the highest irradience values in the world and on the continent (for comparison solar irradiation values in the Netherlands vary from a low of less than 1 kWh/m2/day in winter to a high of 5 kWh/m2/day in the middle of summer). Somaliland the values range between 6 and 7. Besides solar it is constantly windy here and with the large expanse of desert large scale wind farms could be possible with some initial investment.
Map of insolation values in Africa.

Even with the potential, policy constructions like feed in tariffs are largely impossible here simply due to the massive grid losses. Yet the way I see it I don't see this changing in the near future because there is no investment and virtually no technical expertise. However, all these factors are why solar in rural areas is booming. Even in the most remote place people know about solar and are willing to pay for it. These are people who get most of their income from relatives abroad or in the city (this is where most of the flow of money in the country comes in) but they can and will pay for solar products. With no grid in the foreseeable future solar makes so much sense. During my thesis I tried to prove the economic impact of solar energy on small businesses which is very difficult to prove, but when I see how thrilled an entire village can be when first turning on the lights from our solar home systems, the economic impact seems irrelevant. For us in the west, it's hard to imagine life without light and this is the strongest argument for bringing solar light to rural areas.

Small business owner with one of our solar lanterns. Most of our clients are women.

Installing solar home systems in the village.

Small business owner.
Sometimes the potential but also problems facing this unrecognized country are overwhelming. It's a place that could be a model for a country with an energy system built entirely from renewables, but unfortunately moving this direction will require significantly more investment and expertise and that is severely lacking at the moment. I hope that Somaliland moves towards renewables and not the seemingly easy route of just building more diesel power plants.