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Revisiting Hope

5 Oct

Ok, so I’m back in Calgary, chillin’ in my comfortable basement-suite-for-two and feeling contemplative. It seems like a good time to get the blog going again. Actually, I’ve been meaning to do this for a while…

Last month a good friend gave me some much-needed critical feedback on the post I wrote about “Hope“. Re-reading that post after a few weeks of being home, I have to admit that I was being pretty melodramatic. To do Harrison’s feedback justice, I’m going to revisit the subject in two ways: 1) I will try to restate the core idea of “Hope” in a more direct, less patronising way, and 2) I’ll address my tendency to attach too much “meaning” to relatively insignificant events.

1) “Hope” in a nutshell

Feelings of hope and desperation can be pretty tightly linked. Feeling desperate sucks. I feel desperate sometimes. I imagine that poor people feel desperate sometimes too.  We’re all human and we all share human emotions. Let’s try to treat our fellow beings with fairness and empathy. You never know when you might end up in a situation that makes you feel the same way.

(Yup, that’s right… I pretty much just threw the Golden Rule at you, and tried to pass it off as an original idea).

2) How much meaning can be found in a single experience (without being over-the-top)?

Harrison: “So I guess my criticism would be the tendency to make a larger point out of one’s own experiences…and I think basically everyone does this to some extent. But I feel like the JF program may be accentuating it. e.g. you are meant to find “meaning” in most of what you do, have to apply your experiences to broader concepts, etc.” 

Fair point. This is actually a criticism that comes up quite frequently when people discuss contradictions embedded in JF/EWB culture. Aggrandizing small experiences may feel good for our egos and look good in writing, but it doesn’t line up very well with EWB’s value of striving for humility.

I know that the expectations associated with the JF program did lead me to attach more meaning to my experiences than I normally would have done. I took an image of a man on a motorcycle chewing his rosary, and wrote a 1400 word, “deep” blog post. There is an entire page in my journal dedicated to my first encounter with a latrine. Hannah, Ellen and I had prolonged conversations about the implications of eating (and enjoying) Western food, in terms of international development and having an authentic international experience. Noticing other people, going pee, and eating food; it’s all pretty mundane stuff, and I found a lot more meaning in those events than was strictly necessary.

However, I do not think that this tendency was always a negative thing. I learned a lot from pushing myself to find more meaning in daily life. In some senses, making meaning out of meaningless things is one of the most fascinating things that we human beings do.  You have to admit, some neat ideas have come from relatively unremarkable experiences. Archimedes ran naked through the streets of Syracuse exclaiming ‘Eureka!’ because the level of his bath water rose when he stepped in the tub. Jean-Paul Sartre started “The Problem of Nothingness” with something even simpler; he put his hand in his pocket expecting to find 1500 francs, but in reality he found only 1300 francs and encountered Nothingness. Tiny occurrences can inspire powerful thoughts.

So what’s the difference between a profound, insightful thought and an over-the-top blog post that makes friends cringe? I think it’s kinda like laughter or saying “I love you”… if you have to force it to work, then you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

I’m sorry for forcing more “meaning” into my experience than I should have. It was inauthentic and I hope that I have not offended anyone who has actually lived in poverty. I will probably still over-think my insignificant life experiences, but I’ll try to be more mindful of how other people might perceive my ramblings.

Tada! Here's a random picture that serves no purpose, other than to make the post moderately more pretty.

Tada! Here’s a random picture that serves no purpose, other than to make the post moderately more pretty.

Have a good weekend, everybody 🙂



28 Aug

“I do believe that most men live lives of quiet desperation. For despair, optimism is the only practical solution. Hope is practical. Because eliminate that and it’s pretty scary. Hope at least gives you the option of living.” ~ Harry Nilson

If you had asked me to describe Hope one week ago, I might have described a Little House on the Prairie –style scene; a young girl struggling to find her way through a snowstorm, who suddenly spots the golden glow of a candle in the distance. Hope would be that last bit of energy that keeps the girl going until she makes it to the warmth and welcome of her family home. Once spotted, the metaphorical candle in the storm would grow ever brighter, sharing spiritual warmth even before the source of the physical warmth was reached.

After a week of encounters with corruption, bribery, disrespect, patronising lies and indecipherable political webs, I feel better acquainted with the realities of both the storm and the candle. The storm is more overwhelming than I ever imagined. The candle is smaller and harder to find than expected. In fact, half the time I was quite certain that the candle was a hallucination and that the storm was inescapable.

The AVC team had a few moments in the past week where there was literally nothing left to do but hope. In those moments I became aware of how desperate and deluded Hope feels when there is nothing else to depend on. Hope is the last thing that holds us back from giving up completely and sinking into despair, even when our rational minds know that failure is the most likely outcome. Hope alone is not pleasant and warm and glowing.

Ok, now I’m gonna drop this tired snowstorm-candle-thingy and get to the point: Maybe this week I got a glimpse of what extreme poverty feels like. For a few days I was forced to feel what it’s like when the systems you are meant to trust and rely upon are actually working to exploit you, and you are left with no good choices. Every option costs more than you can afford, and so each decision becomes a pricey gamble. All that’s left is to pick the least-bad option and Hope that it won’t ruin you. But Hope still barely restrains the lingering, inescapable fear that things might never get better and you might be stuck in this place forever.

To rely upon this desperate form of Hope is exhausting and demoralising. It’s not fair that this might be the only kind of hope that some people have ever known.

Right Brain Ramblings

12 Aug

I really never planned on sharing this, but it’s been a while since I posted anything, and I’m too low on energy to write anything more for a few days.
A message from the right side of my brain

This is the result of an exercise one of my architecture profs encourages us to use, for helping to find clarity when you can’t seem to sort out your thoughts: Write to Draw, Draw to Write

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.

Missing My Invisibility Cloak

1 Jun

“Mzungu! Mzungu! How ah you?!” That’s the cry that follows me everywhere, as if I were a celebrity … or something not quite human.

In Canada, and even in Europe, it’s always been so easy for me to vanish when I feel the need to be alone. My “Invisibility Cloak” is a subtle behavioural defense against unwanted attention; with glazed eyes, slightly stooped shoulders, walking slowly and not making eye contact, people who see me lose interest immediately. In this mode salespeople leave me alone, awkward acquaintances don’t notice me, and sometimes even friends pass by without a second glance. When you look similar to most of the people around you, it’s easy to make yourself appear unremarkable.

Unfortunately for me, in Uganda I can’t avoid attention because there’s no way to hide my glowing white skin. I will always stand out as a Mzungu. My skin colour marks me as a foreigner, and comes with complicated privileges and stereotypes. I hope to challenge some of those in time, but right now I just wish that I could blend in.

More Than Words

22 Feb
Last week, I wrote a pretty lengthy post about capitalism, but I’m still sceptical about a lot of modern socio-economic practices, so I thought I’d do a bit of comparative reading. I read a chunk of the “Communist Manifesto” by Marx and Engels, since that seemed like an obvious contrast. And, just out of curiosity, I also read some of Mikhael Bakunin’s writing on Anarchism ( I highly recommend reading both!)
It was pretty cool to be able to compare Capitalism with Communism with Anarchism, and each reading challenged my values and assumptions in different ways. I found that all three readings were highly persuasive and pertinent to current political movements. Each author had their own proposal for driving societal change, but many of their values and goals were similar. Although discussions of left-wing vs. right-wing policies tend to be highly polarized, the truly powerful discussion points come from the areas of commonality. I could summarize each work, and draw out a comparison of similarities and differences, but I’d rather just show you:
(For those unfamiliar with Wordle: relative size of words = frequency of the word in a particular text)
Wordle created from text sample of  Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations"
Wordle created from text sample of Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations”
Wordle created from Ch.2 of the “Communist Manifesto”
Wordle created from text sample of  Mikhail Bakunin's "Where I Stand"
Wordle created from text sample of Mikhail Bakunin’s “Where I Stand”
Here’s what I see when I look at these graphics together:
Each writer has their own favourite ideas and words, which are repeated frequently, and therefore dominate our understanding of their work. But, if we look at the less pushy underlying themes, there are a number of shared trends in their ideas and values. For instance, the words society/humanity/mankind  appear with moderate frequency, alongside the words development/progress/improvement  in all three works. This shows how, as a part of their proposals for new economic and social orders, each author expressed their concerns for the greater well-being of society. Another trend worth noting, is the way in which these works discuss society in terms of  resources and control, with words such as: capital, property, ideas, labour, people/man, equality, freedom, organization, division, production, and exploitation. These are all words of power and ownership, but not explicitly “money”; it is as if each author tacitly acknowledges that what a person can buy (money) is not nearly as important as what a person controls (power).
All three works propose that there will be greater stability and contentment within a society, if members of the society are provided with equal opportunity, are able to meet their own needs as a result of their own labour, and are allowed to contribute in the ways they are best suited to. When there is extreme disparity of opportunity, power, and wealth within the hierarchies of a society, it is detrimental to the progress of the society as a whole, and creates instability and the desire for revolution.
These conclusions are necessarily over-simplified, but I want to emphasize that all of these men had similar goals and hopes for humankind. What distinguished them were the methods that they advocated for, and the words that they chose to express their ideologies. The three philosophies have been implemented in various powerful ways throughout history. They have motivated and influenced many people, and are still quite relevant today, but they have also led to some terrible outcomes. They show the great power that words can have, and are proof that rhetorical flourishes can change the course of history. However, the real-world outcomes of these ideas remind us that persuasion is not equivalent to proof.
We are at a point in history where we need to move away from paradigms of ideology and subjective values. In the 21st century, big ideas need to be supported by data, not just eloquent arguments. This is especially true for development work, where the livelihoods of vulnerable communities are at stake.
This is a topic for another post, but I just want to touch on why using data and scientific thought processes are EWB-relevant and important for international development: 1)Data can help us to understand the complex systems we operate within, and reveal unexpected relationships and power dynamics. An interesting example of this is “The Network of Global Corporate Control“, which examines how the structure of the control network of transnational corporations affects global market competition and financial stability. 2) Evidence-based decision making allows us to design more effective solutions based on past projects and experiences, so that benefits are maximized, and harmful failures are minimized. For an example from the education system, check out “4 surprising lessons about education learned from data collected around the world“.
To sum up, I am finding it useful to read the works of political theorists from the past because it challenges my assumptions, provides insight into how our existing systems were formed, and highlights important lessons we have learned since the initial ideas were put forth. All three of these works were fascinating to read, but they also reminded me of why it’s important to look further than the eloquent opinions of privileged, white men, for facts and alternative perspectives.

Generosity Day!

15 Feb
Hey internet people, maybe you’ve heard about it already, but there’s this movement to re-boot Valentine’s day, called Generosity Day. I’m a pretty big fan. If you haven’t heard of it before, I recommend checking out the Facebook page, or Sasha Dichter’s blog.
Also, I really enjoyed the post Parker Mitchell – one of EWB’s co-founders and ex-CEO – wrote about generosity:
I place a lot of value on generosity, and I try to practice being generous wherever I can. Today I did some little “generous” things, and was feeling pretty darned good about myself. Then something happened to shake me out of my self-congratulatory little bubble: someone did something really generous for me. This got me thinking, and I realised that the things I do are usually small, ordinary, and done for personal friends. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything you could call extravagantly, unexpectedly generous.
Backstory: The other day, I posted about Generosity Day on the Facebook page for a class, since we had been discussing secular holidays that day. The post got exactly two “like”s: one from a really close friend, and one from the quiet, thoughtful fellow who always sits at the front of the class. I was a little bummed that nobody got excited about it, but then I got back to fantasizing about how I was going to smile at everyone I passed on February 14th, and brighten up the world. What I never expected was for a simple “like” to become something more…
Today I got an e-mail from my Imagine campaign page, saying that Quiet, Thoughtful Fellow – let’s call him Michael – had donated $50 to my fundraiser for Engineers Without Borders.
Maybe it’s because I’m still a student, and money isn’t something that I have in excess, but $50 is a pretty significant sum in my mind. $50 from a relative stranger was something I would never have expected. I’ll admit that I was confused, and suspicious, and a little uncomfortable, until I connected the dots about Generosity day. Then I had a moment of silent awe. I felt as though Michael had found one of my most vulnerable points, cracked open my shell, and slipped a warm, fuzzy teddy-bear inside, before I even had a chance to notice. It was profoundly weird, but also heartwarming in a way I can’t explain.
To put this in context, let’s go back to December… Engineers Without Borders plays a huge role in my life, and I pour a lot of passion into the organization, so I thought I would use EWB’s holiday fundraising campaign as a way to share some of that passion with family and friends. I made myself pretty vulnerable by sending out personal emails, writing about my hopes and dreams for the world, and by asking for donations in lieu of Christmas presents. Some people gave so much (measured in both money and thoughtful responses) that I felt both humbled and loved. But, at the same time, a number of my closest friends decided to give nothing: not a dollar, not a cent, not even two minutes of their time to read it over. That was also humbling, but in a more painful way.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that Michael’s donation means more to me than he could possibly ever know. To have someone who’s practically a stranger say, “I don’t know you, but I support you and your vision for the future. Here’s some money because I believe you can make it happen,” is a like receiving a thousand hugs with a cherry on top.
Now the stakes for next year’s Generosity Day – and every day in between —  have been raised. I’ve felt how powerful an extraordinarily generous act can be, and I want to pay it forward. I want to go out of my way to do kind things that are creative, personalised, and completely un-called for. And, of course, I’ll keep my eyes open for ways to return the favour to Michael.
Thank-you, Michael, for making this day more meaningful than all of my Valentine’s (aka Singles’ Awareness) Days combined. Happy Generosity Day, everyone!!