Friday, July 31, 2015

A few thoughts & stories

Living here is definitely the most unique experience I've had to date. It's full of so many challenges and surprises and certainly tested my adaptability. I feel like I could write a funny travel book just about the random things that have happened to me over the past two months. I've also become more acutely aware of how privileged I've been my whole life. Some thoughts/stories from the past few weeks:
  • A week ago I was in the field to do interviews and help sell solar home systems. I was informed of this trip the day before we left (typical). The entire three days (which was supposed to be two) I really didn't know what was going on 90% of the time. Since I didn't have a useless guard with me (a rule for white foreigners when you leave the city) a jealous villager decided to report us to the local police. Fortunately one member of our group new the head of the police and we convinced him that I was married to one of my colleagues. Then we had lunch with him. Again because I didn't have a guard we ended up taking advantage of village hospitality and staying an extra night in a lovely little traditional Somali house since apparently a large police force was on the road we were taking. A few more highlights from the trip included getting a flat tire because a nail (maybe intentionally we will never know) got stuck in our tire. I happily seized the opportunity to break gender stereotypes and changed the tire in the middle of the desert. I have to say, village life is far more interesting and I have the feeling that people are more open minded in a way and I feel more welcomed than in the city. 
  • Thanks to some very mysterious and strange symptoms I have also become very, very aware of how privileged I was for 22 years of my life to not think twice about my health. Although I've always disliked going to the doctor, for most of my life I never worried about my health because I knew subconsciously that a good healthcare was simply a matter of having my family drive me to the doctor or hospital. I visited two doctors here. One didn't even take my vital signs and even misread my lab tests (which the second doctor accurately read). It is disconcerting and makes me nervous but also extremely grateful that I did not grow up here. 
  • I feel like over the last few years there has been a flurry of discussion about how Christians are persecuted in the US. This has made me extremely angry but living here has made this discussion seem even more ridiculous. I can only imagine having to fast during Ramadan in parts of the US where one might be the only Muslim and your work schedule is not adapted to accommodate fasting. Also, all of the major holidays in the US are Christian. While on the one hand I don't think this is such a big deal, it's ridiculous to think they Christians are persecuted. I imagine Muslims would have to take personal holiday to celebrate Eid. If we are going to talk about persecution it would be more productive to discuss it in the context of places where a religious group is a minority (like here for example). While I don't feel threatened here because I am not Muslim, I certainly feel isolated and it's exhausting sometimes. So I hope this utter nonsense discussion of persecution of Christians in the US stops. 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Open minded

I've come to the conclusion that no one is truly open minded. To be open minded you would have to erase your mind from the years of biases and beliefs that you collect through your childhood and continue to form as you get older. Sure, traveling, reading, and interacting with people different than you can assist in changing your perspectives but at the end of the day I think we all gravitate towards the familiar and comfortable. I've realized this living here. I am so much an outsider. In my appearance, my language, my beliefs, and worldview. It's obvious 24/7. And frustrating. And exhausting. I have to remind myself that I wanted to be here to experience a place that is so so different from anything I've known or seen.

A couple months ago I was listening to a podcast on changing your mind and how rare it is for humans to change their mind. The podcast highlighted studies on how actually when people are presented with really convincing widely accepted facts that may contradict their worldview, they still don't change their mind. The only times that people may change their mind is when confronted with personal stories, or experiences. Living here has made me realize the truth in this. Lately, I've been getting into interesting but exhausting (and rather unproductive in my opinion) conversations with one of my sincere and sweet well educated (and relative to most Somalilanders well traveled) colleagues about Islam. He hasn't directly tried to convert me but is constantly giving me information "proving" how Islam is true. I appreciate how he's thought through his beliefs, studied other religions, etc. But the conversations are tiring. Perhaps I'm open minded in the sense that I took a course on the Quran during my bachelor with no other goal other than to learn more about Islam. Not to further solidify my beliefs or prove anyone wrong or even change my mind. The class was fruitful and the biggest thing that I got out of it was how the treatment of women and general interpretation of the Quran has changed significantly in one generation to one that in the western view is more conservative.

I've never thought that all Muslims are terrorist or even that the religion is about terror. I was fortunate to spend a good portion of my life in an area that has the largest Muslim population in the US so perhaps this experience helped form my feelings towards the religion. I don't like how to me it still seems to be a very patriarchal religion in many, many countries, but I also know that other religions were equally (and still are) patriarchal. Still I realized living here that probably even if I was given really, really convincing "facts" about how Islam is true, I would likely not convert. I think all of our "worldviews" have intellectual cracks in them no matter how hard we try to fill them in. I'm less interested in facts but more interested in experiences. I've enjoyed learning about the practices of Islam and have tried to gather from my colleagues how these practices make them feel and influence their life. This is more valuable to me than trying to convince me how right they are. Just like I have no interest in pushing my ideas on them. And I think ultimately these kinds of conversations in general are more productive than different groups studying what they want in order to justify their worldviews. Everything I read and take in, I will read with the lens of being female, American, well educated, white, Christian, middle class, feminist, environmentalist, and I suppose well traveled. If I'm honest with myself no matter how hard I try to be open anything I experience or read is going to be filtered through the worldview that I collected over my life. And the same goes for someone from here.

So perhaps being open minded is not so much just about being open to new information (that most of us will often reject if it conflicts with what we already think), but simply having open hearts and open ears. To new people, new experiences, and listening to the experiences and lives of the people that we meet.

Friday, July 10, 2015


I realized over the past couple of weeks that I am really not a bucket list kind of person. I've never made a bucket list let alone set New Years resolutions. It might seem contradictory since I've been super lucky to travel a lot, and I'm a very goal oriented person. But truthfully everything I have done has simply been because I seek out opportunities and seize them when I get the chance. Last year I never would have guessed that I would be fasting for Ramadan (done with that experiment for now) or wearing a hijab everyday. 4 years ago I never could have guessed that I would end up being an official resident of the Netherlands for nearly 3 years (soon to be four more since I finally got and accepted my PhD offer). If I were to make a bucket list, it would literally change daily since the more and see and experience the more things I think I would like to do and see. But I've never felt pressure to complete things off a list. I just go with the flow and walk through any doors that are open along the way. Anyway, some bullet point adventures/thoughts from the past couple weeks.

  • About two weeks ago I had the "opportunity" to drive across the desert on non-existent roads to nearly melt in desert heat near the Djibouti border. The last time they made this trip they got lost in the desert because literally everything looks the same and there aren't convenient roads or street signs to direct you. And when I said drive, I meant literally drive. Yes I drove without my license in a big four wheel drive truck across the desert mountains. It was great fun besides my strong desire to throw my hijab out the window never to wear it again.

Early morning light in the desert after driving all night.

Melting in the early morning near the Djibouti border. People literally do nothing during the day but lay in the shade in water soaked clothes to withstand the heat. Thankfully, Hargeisa is not this hot and has a cool breeze.

Too hot to wear the hijab properly. Sorry. Taking a break from driving duties. No Somaliland is not like Saudi Arabia where women are not allowed to drive.

  •  My conclusions from two weeks of fasting: I can see the value in trying to develop empathy for people but I don't see the point of empathy if it's not translated into action. Like what if when I fasted the food I'm giving up got given away to people who are hungry not by choice? Also, I think fasting has to be super intentional and come at a time when you are focused on fasting and your reasons for doing it. Not when you are busy with work and can't halt normal daily activities. While I like the idea of Ramadan and that everyone is "suffering" at the same time, as a non-Muslim I feel that fasting should be more intentional and suited to the individual. The biggest conclusion is that my body can't take it. I guess I burn off food quickly yet can't eat a lot at one time. Not a good mixture for fasting. 

Breaking the fast.
  • Mobile money is amazing. Surprisingly, although Somaliland is certainly undeveloped it is easily (at least in urban areas) a cashless society. I literally simply bring my phone with me everytime I want to make purchases. I get the merchant number from venders, type in my pin code and the amount I want to transfer and voila the merchant has received the money. This type of payment is so convenient and makes a lot of sense in a place where dollars are mostly used (Somaliland shillings are only used for small payments) and the banking system is not well functioning. I am very curious to understand why mobile money is widespread in Somaliland yet not as much in places like Uganda and Rwanda that are more developed. 
  • I have to confess. Living here as a woman is super hard, perhaps harder than I expected. Although the bag dresses (think a giant piece of fabric sewed up on either sides with holes left for the arms and head) are actually more comfortable when it's hot, I feel invisible. I've never been one to dress provocatively but part of me wouldn't mind if someone was checking out my butt because my body shape is somewhat visible. While I don't have any desire to flaunt my body, I like it and don't feel like hiding in clothes that make it impossible to know whether I'm male or female. Perhaps if I felt that dressing this way was a way to get closer to God and I grew up like this, I would feel more comfortable. But right now, this experience is fully stretching my adapting skills and comfort zone. 
  • Finally: the big news. I accepted a PhD position on frugal innovations in Africa for four years in the Netherlands. Thankfully, I will be spending a big chunk of those four years in Kenya and Rwanda. It is both comforting to have some certainty in my life but also frightening that I have just fixed the next four years of my life. Yikes.