I (and most people I know working in international development) have always struggled to figure out what my role should be as a foreigner. It is a very sensitive issue – how to avoid imposing your own norms, how to avoid creating a system of dependency, how to ensure you are not taking away opportunities from local people. I do believe I can play a role (otherwise I wouldn’t be here), but that is why I have always been most interested in capacity building – supporting others to help them grow their skills, create their own opportunities, take on greater leadership roles, increase their resources. Even still, there are limits on what I can accomplish as an outsider.
On a complete irrelevant note, I visited another waterfall last weekend (Sipi Falls – the big tourist destination around here). I figure I can’t make all my posts about hikes to waterfalls, but I couldn’t resist sharing a little taste. Parts of this hike may have been even more treacherous than the last. It involved a very rickety ladder build of old nails and logs that went down at approximately a 90 degree angle. Before we began, our guide warned us that the side rails were broken so we should not hold on there, that it was even longer than it looked, and that it was very slippery (we were doing this hike right after a rain). About half way down, he warned us to avoid a certain step since the nail had come loose. We all managed to survive though and the view was incredible! I am still very sore from all the hiking three days later though…
Just behind my house is a beautiful mountain range. It makes for a great view from almost anywhere in town. The closer you look, the more waterfalls you see, but there is one that is particularly eye-catching. Last Saturday my co-fellow Tracy, her boyfriend Andrew, and I decided to attempt to hike up to it. We left on foot from our house and started on a windy road toward the mountain.
At first it seemed quite easy – it was a large dirt path, easy to walk along that weaved through a small town with a few little shops scattered along the way selling vegetables, eggs, oil. Soon enough though, our legs starting becoming all too aware of the upwards slope. For some reason, the waterfall, which we could see from a distance, didn’t seem to be getting any closer.
On we go. The steep rock path in the mountain not so slowly transitioned into batting our way through dense vegetation on a still steep and windy dirt path that sat a few edges from from an increasingly steep cliff edge. We continued on grasping to plants and rocks, hoping the rocks on which we jumped or clasped were securely set in the soil. We were doing fairly well (with a few breaks to catch our breath) until we got to a point where there was a rock jutting out over a reasonably sized whole in the path. We were so close at this point. I could almost feel the mist of the water. We couldn’t turn back now. Deep breath. Don’t look down. Hug the rock. Step over. Done. Made it to the other side.
I meant to start this blog earlier and write about all my initial experiences. I really did. Somehow four weeks have already melted away since I arrived in Uganda and it never happened. Oh well, I guess I was just too busy experiencing new things, starting a new job, and adapting to a new culture.
I’m not really sure where to go from here, I meant to write about my training at Yale before leaving, my first impressions upon arrival, the organization I’m working for (Spark MicroGrants), my onboarding at my new job, and my first community visits. There’s so much that has already happened that I don’t think I can catch up. Let me just try to share a few of the highlights:
Attending the launch of a community project
The community selected a boda boda (motorcycle taxi) project in which they used their grant money to purchase two boda bodas and hire drivers. The project should help provide much needed revenue to their community as well as help connect them to other areas. It is a very remote community – to get there we had to take a matatu (shared mini van) for about an hour followed by a boda for another hour or so through windy mountain roads. When we got as close as we could with the boda to the community, we were met with singing and dancing by many of the women who led us on a little hike down to their village. They rolled out the red carpet (and by that I mean laid down palm leaves) and sang and danced the whole way down. While the event went on a little longer (and by a little longer, I mean a LOT longer) than expected, their excitement and pride was palpable. I can’t wait to see how the project does over the next few months and visit again soon.
Testing out a new activity in a community
A big part of my job here is to develop tools and resources to support communities who are developing income-generating projects. One of the activities that I have been working with our team to develop is a specific mapping of the communities in which community members physically map out all the current resources in their community that may be relevant when determining objectives to achieve the goal of increased incomes. We tested this out for the first time recently in one of our new communities. The community really seemed to understand the worth of the activity and it did appear to unearth some new, relevant information that may help inform their objective setting and ultimate project choice. Apart from the actual results, the best part was seeing community members working together so well and to see women being so involved. Women were often taking the lead (and to be honest, the groups that were predominantly women came up with some of the best and most comprehensive maps!), but were also displaying such wonderful collaboration – happily passing the marker amongst themselves so everyone could participate. Community-building is one of the main goals of Spark (possibly considered even more important than the actual results of their projects) and it was so wonderful to see this community exemplifying that value.
The boda rides up in the mountains
I NEVER thought I would say this. The first time I road a boda (motorcycle taxi), I was clenching onto the back for dear life and counting down the time until I could get off. As I’ve gotten more and more used to the acceleration and turns, however, I’ve become more and more comfortable. Now, instead of keeping my eyes glued to the road in front of me, I can appreciate the scenery around me. And it is breathtaking. Winding through the mountains, surrounded by greenery, fields, and more waterfalls than I can count, with a soft wind blowing on me is nothing short of magical. It is in these moments that I am in awe of my life and so very contented to be doing what I’m doing. A boda ride after the rain on the muddy and slippery roads, however, is a whole other scenario. Don’t expect me to be swooning about those experiences any time soon.
A week ago, I want to catch up with some other Global Health Corps (GHC) fellows in the town Jinja. This was perfect for me as it is about the half-way point between Kampala (where most fellows are based) and me in Mbale. The transit there was surprisingly smooth and only took two hours. It is a gorgeous community right on the source of the Nile River. About 10 of us ended up going and it was wonderful. The river looked more like a lake and was beautiful. We hiked down a steep, slippery path to a rope swing and everyone jumped into the Nile for a swim. We went on a sunset canoe ride and then out for the night to a bar for drinks and dancing. It was so refreshing (even after only 2 weeks in Mbale) to have time to swim, relax, and spend some time with the other fellows.
Other experiences so far have included: going to a club in Mbale to celebrate a colleague’s birthday (yes, we do have a club. We even have two!), drinks at the local resorts that have beautiful views of the mountains, awkward name games in the office upon arrival that ended in me needing to jump around trying to depict a “crazy cabbage,” having two teenage girls joining me for a portion of my jog (while wearing skirts and flip-flops) and taking photos of me, candlelight cooking, having a swarm of small children in one of our communities come up and suddenly all begin petting my head (apparently upon the command of one of the mother’s to go touch the muzungu (foreigner) hair), and hiking up to a beautiful waterfall on my way home from the field one day.
There’s so much more, but I think that’s all I can share for now. I promise to try to actually maintain this space both to share with others and, really, for myself to be sure to remember this experience.
Until next time!