Going with the flow

My rotation period of the internship is coming to an end and I just hit the seven week mark in Uganda. Time is flying but also seems to go by in slow motion at times, since nothing happens on time or quickly in this country. For most of my rotation I’ve seen the rosy side of relief and development: projects composed of only national staff that focus on empowering people to become the change in their country, but most recently I shadowed a project that exposed the complex, political, and sometimes harmful side of development work. Lessons learned/recap from the past few weeks:

-I’m more German than I thought, but also teaching in Korea was in many ways good prep for this experience. In Korea, on a “typical” day I would experience several schedule changes, unexpected class cancelations, and last minute staff dinner invites. I learned to be prepared for anything at a moment’s notice. Generally, it was assumed that I somehow intuitively knew about the schedule changes and events, which only added to my frustrations. My frustrations in Korea however, paled in comparison to the lack of structure in Uganda. While in Lira, I fully practiced the motto of “go with the flow”. I never knew where I would be going on a particularly day, leaving at 9:30 meant leaving at 11, staying in the field (ie bringing all my stuff to stay in a village for a night or two) on Monday meant staying in the field Tuesday or Wednesday, and days when I could have been shadowing a project with only the slightest bit of communication between different projects meant staying in the office doing nothing. After spending my undergraduate career, strategically planning my days to maximize efficiency and use of time, Korea and Uganda have been  learning experiences in slowing down, being prepared for anything, and realizing that it’s okay if I don’t get as much done in a set amount of time that could be done.

-All of Uganda (or at least all the places I’ve been) are at least at slight altitude. I’m using this fact combined with the general hilliness of this country as an excuse for my subpar running habits in this country.

-Dousing food in artificial chili sauce is one method to make bland food taste slightly more delicious.

-Chicken gizzard is reserved for the guest of honor. I wish I wasn’t so honored in this country.

-Botswana spoiled me in terms of game watching. The high concentration of animals in small areas means guaranteed suburb animal sightings. Camping in Kidepo National Park in northern Uganda near the Sudanese border as an Easter getaway was beautiful but it was not as easy to spot animals. However, we did see our share of zebras, giraffes, a couple elephants, deer, and some lions. I guess I’ve just become a safari snob.

-Having white skin in pretty much any country outside of Europe, North America (not counting central America), means getting ripped off and taken advantage of. There are many days where I wish I could just paint my skin black and fit in.

-While the UN Millennium Development Goals sound great in theory, development is so much more complex and political than simply stating that poverty will be eliminated or decreased by a certain year. Spending a few days in the Karamoja region of Uganda confirmed some of cynicism of aid. This region, while very dry (especially compared to the rest of Uganda), has been receiving food handouts from the UN World Food Program (WFP) for the past forty or so years—a whole generation of people only knowing that their food comes from food trucks. The Karamojong are very similar culturally to their neighbors the Turkana in Kenya (where I worked with EWB in 2008), but somehow seem to receive far more aid. Turkana is much, much drier and desolate than Karamoja and although both places have seen more drought and extreme weather in recent decades due to climate change, Karamoja has received the aid (or so it seems). My week in Karamoja was largely uneventful since SP was waiting on budget approval from WFP (that they submitted back in September—another problem to working with a huge funding organization like WFP). Samaritan’s Purse is part of a government and WFP sponsored project that is encouraging the Karamoja to develop sustainable livelihoods and work for food.

Learning about the project was fascinating, slightly depressing, and has been prompting me to ask questions about development work. At the end of the day, development work is extremely complex and filled with theories and solutions that often do more harm than good. The challenge of working in Karamoja has led me to choose it as my final placement for my internship.

-In light of my upcoming departure to remote and luxury-less Karamoja, I’ve been getting my fill of semi fast internet, ice cream, and spicy and varied food. I’m also scheming how I can creatively cook with my soon to be limited ingredients. Bring on the cooking challenge!

While Ugandan food has yet to fully grow on me, Uganda as a country is growing on me more each day (as if I didn’t love it from the beginning). I love the hospitality and friendliness of Ugandans, their overall honesty in comparison to many other countries, the weather, and the hills and mountains. I’m trying not to get too attached and connected since my time is so short, but as usual a part of Rachel will be left in yet another country.

Here are some interesting recent (and a bit older) articles on the situation in Karamoja:






Carbs or Cafes?

Food.  Critical to survival, also a hobby for me.  One of my favorite aspects of traveling is immersing myself in the local culture and food. In my early stages of expathood I was the (probably obnoxious) person who refused to eat anything familiar, went out of my way to try strange foods that might frighten the not so “culturally sensitive” as myself. In Germany, even as a vegetarian I was horrified at some of my roommates purchasing airy unsubstantial white bread and “American” (ie processed) cheese to make grilled cheese sandwiches. Neither of these so called food items were part of my diet in the US, but more importantly why would you seek out American foods when you’re living in Germany?! I was creative in sampling the local cuisine even though the bulk of German food revolves around meat.

On short term trips I enthusiastically ate everything put in front of me (goat stew that still contained goat hair? Yes, please–but maybe not so enthusiastically). Whole fish in Nicaragua (shocking to some Americans but quite common in most parts of the world)? Sticky rice dipped in pig’s blood and fish skin in Taiwan, smelly durian fruit in Indonesia, eel in Japan, everything was fascinating for my curious tongue. In Korea I scoffed at the foreigners who frequented Itaewon (the foreign part of Seoul with expats in abundance) to get their hamburgers. Korean food was tasty and healthy and part of the whole living abroad experience is fully integrating myself into the local way of life. Of course I’ll try live octopus!

Pride comes before the fall. Living in Germany and Korea, I made a point of stepping out of the comfortable expat bubble of familiar culture and foods. If I was the only white person in the establishment=success (see “stuff white people like”). Well, Uganda has changed that. I was enthusiastic about my matooke (boiled mashed green bananas), poshyo (some kind of mostly flavorless starch that is gradually growing on me), “irish” potatoes, millet, sweet potatoes, rice (notice the carbs trend), beans, and often unidentifiable meats for a while. Then, I started frequenting “expensive” cafes when I could find them, to get my salads and sandwiches. I was not a minority in these establishments. My best friend has become chili sauce to douse my flavorless food with spice. Guess I’ll stop judging the expats who require their familiar foods. I’m probably not as cultured as I once claimed to be. But I won’t stop eating whatever is put in front of me. Even if it’s chicken gizzard.

Side note: Uganda has made me miss Korea for the first time since leaving. Cheap, delicious, convenient food whenever I want. Life was easy!