Archive | July, 2013

Architecture and Development

30 Jul

One of my goals for the JF experience was to figure out the role of architecture in development. It turns out that was a stupid goal; it’s not exactly something you can “figure out” in 3.5 months. The things I have figured out are pretty straightforward. There are buildings here (duh!). All kinds of buildings. Some are good, some are not so good, most fit into a fuzzy grey area. Most are only partly built. That doesn’t stop anybody from using them. Ok, now just look at my pictures of buildings and building-type things.

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“Adapt: Why success always starts with failure”

27 Jul

Read Me!!

27 Jul

Those born to wealth, and who have the means of gratifying every wish, know not what is the real happiness of life, just as those who have been tossed on the stormy waters of the ocean on a few frail planks can alone realize the blessings of fair weather.” ~ Alexandre Dumas

As much as I would like you all to believe that I spend each and every day being a world-changing development superstar, fighting injustice at every turn, I actually spend a lot of time just reading. (I read for an hour every evening, and whenever I’m waiting for someone/something.  The time adds up.) So if you want to try out a bit of the JF experience from the comfort of your own home, here are some excellent books I’ve tackled so far, in no particular order:

Up next: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft, and something by Malcolm Gladwell. More book recommendations are always welcome!

‘Canadian’ Food

26 Jul

As the only Canadian that my host-family has ever met, I’m playing a big part in how they will perceive Canada forevermore. I have to admit, I’m not representing Canada very faithfully. Culture is difficult to describe tangibly when you don’t have your own traditions*. Our dance, food, and clothing all seem to be either generically Western, or things that have come from other cultures. I think our jumble of cultural influences is a really cool thing, but it’s tricky to explain to people who live in a country with very little diversity (in terms of international influences anyways).

To get to the point, my host-family really wants to learn more about Canadian food, and all of my explanations have been seriously inadequate. Ugandan food tends to be pretty consistent; each meal is made up of a few types of “food” – matooke, posho, rice, sweet potato, yam, Irish potatoes, or pumpkin – and “sauce” – beans, cowpeas, soupy beef, soupy chicken, soupy pork, or ground-nut sauce. In my region, matooke is the staple and people will eat it with every single meal (thankfully, my family is reasonably wealthy and likes variety, so we only eat it twice a day).

Tricky question #1: “What is the staple food in Canada?” When I say that we don’t really have one, I get blank stares. So I’ve taken to saying Irish potatoes, rice and bread, since those are fairly common here too.

Tricky question #2: “What is your favourite food back home?” Honestly, I love fresh Okanagan peaches, but my explanation using local references didn’t go so well… “Umm, well they’re sweet like a mango, but you can eat the skin like an apple, and they have a seed in the middle kind of like an avocado. And they’re covered with soft fuzz, like a baby’s head.” If my family ever encounters a real peach, they definitely won’t know it from my description. Now I just tell people about how much I love fresh bread. It’s so much easier!

These questions were immediately followed by the expected request for me to cook Canadian food. Easy, right? Well it turns out that a lot of the things I use daily at home are not so common here: countertops, cutting boards, ovens, blenders, measuring cups, etc. This limited my options, and as Caitlin (my wonderful roommate) will tell you, I like to cook in unpredictable/creative ways when my options are limited. One day I made a pancake-peanutbutter-honey-sandwich hybrid; I cooked pancakes with banana slices, then spread peanut-butter on one, and honey on another, and slapped them together like a sandwich. The family politely ate the pan-dwiches with me, and said they were “sweet”, but they haven’t asked me to make them again.

Yesterday, I made guacamole served with chapatti instead of nacho chips. This is even less Canadian than my first experiment, but the ingredients were in abundance around the house and I couldn’t resist. According to the Picky Child Test, the guacamole was a hit! Little Peter ate about a mountain-and-a-half of it, and told Irene to learn how to make it.

I think my next experiment will involve bannock and bruschetta.

I don’t have any profound messages to end this post with. I just thought I’d share that misrepresenting Canada (in innocent ways) has been fun.

*Yes, First Nations people have quite a variety of cool traditions. But I cannot claim, say, Cree culture as my own.

Not My God

22 Jul

As the traffic in Wandegaya comes to a halt, a man on a motorcycle casually puts one foot to the pavement. He absentmindedly chews on the plastic rosary that hangs from his neck, as he waits for the intersection to clear. A woman in neat business clothes stands on the median. She preaches in Luganda to the traffic, the Bible in her hand acting as punctuation for her gestures. She directs her passionate tirade at the man on his motorcycle, and he gives her a look that expresses everything: “Can’t you see that I am Catholic too?  Don’t you know that everyone here already has a faith? Stop wasting your time.” Traffic begins to flow again, and the woman’s voice is drowned out by the noise of people moving on with their lives.


“Julia, come. I’m scared,” Irene says as she pulls me away from my work.

Before I know what is wrong, I hear sobbing and gasping through the wall. Sounds of anguish that seem to have no beginning and no end. Irene nervously leads me around the corner, into Fiona’s bedroom. The girl, normally so strong and full of joy, lies shaking in the fetal position on her small bed. My eyes automatically scan the room for hazards and examine her body for signs of injury, but thankfully there is nothing to be seen. Her cries crescendo to a point where inhuman wailing is mingled with too-deep gasps for air. Irene rushes to fetch Grandma from next door, leaving me alone with Fiona’s suffering and my own feelings of powerlessness. I carefully reach out to place a hand on Fiona’s shoulder, and begin to mutter reassuring words. Fiona doesn’t seem to notice, but the reassurance is mostly for myself anyways.

 The next instant, Grandma appears at the door. She carries herself with an air of authority and ancient wisdom, so I am certain she must know the cure for whatever is wrong with Fio. The old woman walks in, examines Fiona as if this is an ailment she knows well, and then begins to administer her remedy; she kneels to pray. I had forgotten that Grandma makes her living by travelling around preaching and “saving” people.

 Within minutes – as if they instinctively knew something was wrong at home – the whole family has gathered. As I watch my family praying to dispel the evil spirits that have taken hold of Fiona, I feel a profound appreciation for the power of Faith in situations where there seems to be no other answer. But I still wish that they would call a doctor.


I asked him if he could define the religion of the forest more closely.

 He said, in a precise academic way, “We cannot call it a religion. It is a set of beliefs. We don’t pray to God because in our understanding God is not accessible to humans. It [he meant the idea of God] has many other problems and has no time for humans.”

– The Masque of Africa, V.S. Naipaul


Sunday morning. I sway and clap along with the church choir. I am the only foreigner amidst a sea of penitent Ugandans, but for once it is not the colour of my skin that makes me feel like an alien. It is my disbelief that sets me apart. I am humbled by the strength of this community, and wonder if it is yet another act of privilege for me to choose spirituality over organised religion.

 Giant murals of The Last Supper, St. Peter, and The Virgin Mary look down upon the service from above the altar. “Who painted you?” I think, as I examine their distorted proportions and garish colours. “Why are you the only other white people here?”

 In Rome, I saw the same subject matter painted by the master artists of the Renaissance. Their works were rendered with so much inspiration, it felt as though the heavens might open at any instant, with angels and saints waiting to welcome us into their transcendent realm. Here in Kalisizo, twenty foot tall, white-skinned angels seem more oppressive than inspiring.


 And now, though the name was given her by her father, she felt a love-hate for the name Susan.

“I feel that it is so much part of the colonial experience, which was not pleasant. When a person or race comes and imposes on you, it takes away everything, and it is a vicious thing to do. Much as I think the West and modernity is a good thing, it did take away our culture and civilization, and even if it is gentle it does make us doubt our roots. For example, the missionaries brainwashed you into rejecting the gods, and imposing their own ideas, dogma and doctrines, saying that theirs were the best. There was no two-way dialogue and them trying to understand how our minds and heritage or culture worked. I feel that people had a civilisation. It was different but it was their own. I taught myself to write in Luganda.” After writing her poems in English. “I feel humiliated that the school did not teach us our mother tongue.”

 – The Masque of Africa, V.S. Naipaul


 Irene took me to see an inter-school festival. We would have to sit through the Bible reading and adjudication before we could watch the main event: traditional dance. The organizers insisted on seating me at the front of the audience, in a big chair, while Irene squeezed into the crowded bleachers that filled the back of the room. I don’t know who they thought I was, but I did not deserve this honour.

 I will admit the bible reading bored me and I was struggling to stay awake. But a change in atmosphere brought my attention back. A girl was being tested individually on her memorization of a passage. I did not need to know Luganda or the Bible to tell that she was struggling. She stuttered, and fidgeted, then froze. An adjudicator prompted her with a question and the whole room was silent in anticipation of her answer. She hesitated, then murmured an uncertain response. The entire audience burst into laughter.

 The red, blushing glow of shame pushed through the darkness of her skin, but she managed to blurt out the right answer and hold back her tears. My heart thudded with anger at the crowd, and empathy for the girl. I do not believe that the Bible was intended to be used as a means for publicly humiliating children.

 As the girl left the room, one of the teachers sitting in the row behind me leaned forward and asked, “Do you know how to read the bible?”

 “No,” I replied bluntly.

 “Are you Muslim?”


 “What is your religion?”

 “I have no religion. I believe in morality, and in treating all beings with love and respect, but I do not believe in religious institutions,” was my response. I tried to be diplomatic, but was still feeling charged with anger. Some of the teachers had been the ones to laugh the loudest at the little girl’s mistake.

 That was the end of our conversation. The teacher didn’t care about how reading Conversations With God changed my worldview. He didn’t care that I cried when I saw Michelangelo’s Pieta, and when I heard the choir at New College Chapel. He didn’t care that the cathedrals of Florence and London and Vienna fuel my love of architecture. He didn’t care that my atheism is one of the most carefully considered aspects of my identity. We could have shared common values and beliefs beyond the confines of his Catholicism, but all that mattered to him was the fact that I could not read the Bible. And for once, I was not in the mood to compromise my beliefs in order to forge a fleeting friendship.


When my host-father is feeling particularly affectionate or proud, he will say to me: “Now you are a Muganda woman,” or “Now Julia is a Catholic.” These praises seem to be interchangeable. He thinks I should get baptized while I am in Uganda… Maybe I should. It would make him so happy. And it would be a satisfyingly ironic twist in the complex dynamics of religion in Africa.

Linguistic Efficiency

18 Jul

Ugandans use the English language very differently from Canadians. This is one thing that reminds me, on a daily basis, of how much I will never fully understand about the culture I’m surrounded by. I’m at the point where I understand most statements, and am appreciating how much can be said with so few words… but I do take a few extra seconds to translate things inside my head. Here are a couple of quick examples:

Ugandan: Juli, help me smear.

Canadian: Julia, could you please help me by spreading peanut butter on the pancakes you made yesterday, while I prepare our tea?

Ugandan: Noodles.

Canadian: Come prepare the instant noodles that Bridget sent you as a present from school (which you forgot to eat yesterday when I told you to). We will eat them with supper.

Ugandan: Extend!

Canadian: Could you please squeeze yourself into this tiny corner of the car? We need to fit in two more people, and you’re taking up far too much room.

My Canadian brain misses all of the excess words that we use. But a small part of my brain seems to be learning Ugandan English too… Slowly slowly.

Intentionally Awful Posting

13 Jul

This happens every time I have a blog: I put up a few well-written posts, people compliment me on my writing, then I set weird expectations for myself and feel like I can only post if I’ve come up with a literary masterpiece. I need to get over my perfectionism. So, here’s an randomized un-edited post, full of bad pictures and nothing worth reading. Higher quality posts coming soon.

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* If anyone can guess what’s happening in 4 or more of these, I’ll bring you back a giant pack of Garden Tea + ginger + Masala spice, and we’ll have a Ugandan-style tea party