Mid-Placement Retreat

11 Oct

Only 15 days left to apply for the Junior Fellowship program! Here’s the third post of my 1 Image, 3 Sentences countdown series. If you have any questions, feel free to post in the comments below, and I’ll reply a.s.a.p.

View at Sipi

 

Halfway through the summer, the whole Agriculture Value Chains team piled into a mini-van and drove to a resort near Sipi Falls (the most ridiculously beautiful place EVER). It was fantastic to get together with the EWB crew and relax, do some hiking, drink some good coffee, and talk about important EWB-type things. Also, I learned that when you stand really close to a waterfall, it feels like you have thunder inside your ribcage… and you get drenched in waterfall-spray.

The Falls

Ok, I lied, there are two pictures and 4 sentences in this post.

If you’re interested in the Junior Fellowship program, be sure to check out http://juniorfellow.ewb.ca/

 

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The Master of Agriculture

9 Oct

Only 17 days left to apply for the Junior Fellowship program! Here’s the second post of my 1 Image, 3 Sentences countdown series. If you have any questions, feel free to post in the comments below, and I’ll reply pronto!

Joseph Kasakende

This is my host-father, Joseph Kasakende, who is currently completing his Master’s of Agriculture. He has worked as an agricultural professional/consultant for more years than I’ve been alive, owns a farm supply store, and has his own farm of 50 acres. I find his passion for agriculture and community development to be so inspiring!

If you’re interested in the Junior Fellowship program, be sure to check out http://juniorfellow.ewb.ca/

Cheers to Great Coaching

7 Oct

It’s that time of year again; EWB is recruiting new Junior Fellows! Since applications are open until October 25, I’ll be doing three super short posts every week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday), for the next 3 weeks. Format: 1 picture, 3 sentences. Feel free to post any questions in the Comments below, and I promise I’ll respond ASAP.

Leanne

 

This is Leanne, who was my super-duper, kick@$$, rockstar coach. She should get tons of credit for the success of my placement, since she set up my work, arranged for me to stay with a welcoming AND strategic family, made sure all of us JFs were safe and sane after arriving, then coached me all summer… and she worked tirelessly to make sure all of us made it home safe and sane too.  Leanne was an exceptional mentor, role model and friend for me all summer, and I miss her a lot.

If you’re interested in the Junior Fellowship program, be sure to check out http://juniorfellow.ewb.ca/

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 🙂

Hope

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.

The ‘Real’ Junior Fellow

22 Aug

I am a Junior Fellow. After a rigorous application and interview process, I was selected for my outstanding leadership qualities, my extreme intellect, and my exceptional ability to connect and empathize with people. After months of carefully directed personal growth, I arrived in a developing African country and immediately dove into the complexities of creating systemic change. Within a week, I had settled in with a host family in an impoverished, isolated village that remains untouched by Western influence. I was deeply moved by the kindness, nobility, and strength of these people who remain cheerful in the face of extreme poverty and institutionalized injustice. I was consumed by a deep, insatiable curiosity about my new community, so I immersed myself in the culture by becoming fluent in the local language, acquiring a wardrobe of traditional clothing, and helping everyone with their daily chores (like washing clothes by hand, cooking over an open fire, carrying water for miles from the nearest well, building mud huts, etc.)

Of course, all of these things challenged me, but I adapted quickly and soon it was like I had lived in this place my whole life. I found that my dedication to family life paid off for my work; the depth of my integration in the community allowed me to create social change in ways that no other foreigner had been able to in the past. I was never lonely because each day was filled with deep, life-changing conversations with Dorothy figures. I rarely had interactions with other expatriate aid workers because I was more content spending time with locals. However, in the few conversations I shared with other mzungus I was able to completely alter people’s perspectives on foreign aid, global systems, and the role of NGOs in development.

Rather than taking any vacation days, I took three days off work to simultaneously battle malaria, bedbugs, a rampant hippopotamus, and an existential crisis. I came out of the experience a stronger, more soulful person, and dove right back into my work to make up for lost time. Throughout all of this, I was able to stay in close contact with my university chapter, family and friends back home, and was able to challenge Canadians’ stereotypes about Africa and poverty. To wrap up my placement, I gave a stunning presentation and written report to EWB and our partner organization. Then my coach and I worked together to completely revise our Venture’s long-term strategy (based on insights from my powerful on-the-ground experience). I will return home to become president of my university chapter, recruit a new Junior Fellow with even more potential than myself, and act as a perspective-altering coach for countless Chapter members. I know, from both my overseas experience and from my passionate commitment to EWB, that I will never be content unless I dedicate my life to social change. When I graduate next year, I will apply to work for a few years with an African Venture, while also publishing a groundbreaking collection of memoirs, stories, and critical essays based on my JF experiences. 

I am a Junior Fellow. But this is not me. This is a single story of what the JF experience could be. I think that elements of this story are probably true for every JF, but I also feel that this story excludes the nuances, hardships and failures that make each JF placement unique. Yet this story is what people, including myself, have come to expect of all Junior Fellows.

One of our first assignments for Foundation Learning was to watch and respond to Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk about “The Danger of a Single Story”. This is a great talk, which highlights how damaging it can be if we never question our own assumptions or seek out varying, genuine perspectives. I believed that the point of the assignment was to challenge our preconceptions of African people. However, I wish that I could have seen then how this talk could be used as a mirror to look more deeply into the single story that was surrounding my own life.

Before I delve into the dangers of this particular single-story, I should explain the realities of my JF experience. By every measure that should matter to me, I have had a successful placement. My work has led to better results than I ever expected. I’ve achieved nearly all of the learning goals I set at the beginning of the placement. I feel that Ugandan culture has changed my understanding of the world. I’ve had good relationships with my host-family, coach, work-partner, fellow JFs, and other AVC staff. I’ve stayed mentally and physically healthy, and still challenged myself to engage with uncomfortable situations. Most of all, I’m eager to keep contributing to EWB as a Returned Junior Fellow.

Now here’s the problem: throughout this challenging, educational, perspective-changing, love-filled experience I have been plagued with overwhelming feelings of guilt and inadequacy. Let’s call these feelings ‘The Ghost of Junior Fellows Past’… actually, I can’t be bothered to type that out again. What’s a really short name? Let’s go with Jane.

Jane represents the “ideal” Junior Fellow from the beginning of the post. Jane is a legend who inspires countless students across Canada. But when you get to know Jane a bit better, you realize that she’s completely over-the-top and generally unhealthy. Jane has been haunting me all summer, and her specter-ly mission has been to evaluate my every action and decision. When my actions line up with her ideal, she tells me that I’m being a fantastic person. When I do something that strays from the ideal, she is there nagging me, whispering, “You’re not a real Junior Fellow. You obviously don’t care enough about people living in poverty. You will make no difference in the world. All of your EWB friends will lose respect for you. You’re just another naive volun-tourist looking to pad your resume. You are a fraud. Just go home now.”

Where do these warped thoughts come from? Some of the feelings of inadequacy come from unrealistic standards that I’ve set for myself, but others come from outside expectations. We have been repeatedly told by our Program Manager, “The only expectation is that you will become your best, but not for yourself. Become your best to best serve humanity.” However, I have never felt that this is actually the only expectation, and other JFs have said the same.

When “your best” and “to best serve humanity” are implicitly being held in comparison with mythic characters like Jane and their legendary actions, it’s almost impossible for any human being to feel like they are enough. This is the danger of having a single Junior Fellowship story. The problem is not that there aren’t enough JF stories out there; I think the problem is that only one specific kind of JF story is perceived as “real” or “right” or “good enough” or whatever…

For years I have loved hearing RJFs’ stories about their most interesting, exciting and life-changing experiences. They definitely influenced my decision to apply to the program, and I am happy that I did. I will probably tell a lot of similar stories, and might end up perpetuating this single-story. But I will also remember how hard it has been to overcome my feelings of inadequacy, so I will try to also share the stories of my own imperfections and shortcomings. I’d like to ensure that future JFs know that it’s okay to be human.

When I come home, I expect that I will be bombarded with that ever-dreaded question: How was Africa?

If you ask me that, I will share a fun tidbit about my summer and move on. But if you really want to talk, try asking me about something unexpected. Ask me why I didn’t live in a village, didn’t learn the local language, and didn’t buy a wardrobe of “cultural” clothing. Ask me about how I did not get sick. Ask me what I think of the shopping malls in Kampala, or the hilltop café in Masaka, or my host-mother’s favourite TV show. Ask me about my most boring day, or how useless I felt after being stood up for meetings for three days in a row.

I have had a fantastic experience as a Junior Fellow this summer but I think that it’s only fair to let you know that I’m still human. And I’m just as open to talking about the lacklustre parts of the experience as am to talking about the exciting parts.

Love,

Julia

P.S. I’m looking forward to seeing y’all in Alberta soooooon!

Farmer Group Finance

21 Aug

 

So, you’re a farmer in Rakai District, and you’d like a bit of money to buy a spraying backpack and some pesticides because you’ve got a nasty ant infestation in your coffee trees. You’ve only got 3 acres of land and farming doesn’t provide a very steady income, so the bank won’t give you a loan. How do you get the money without having to go around asking relatives for loans? Join a Farmer Group, of course!

 

Check out the infographic-y thing I drew to explain Farmer Group finance to some friends… and, as always, feel free to get in touch if you have questions!

Jjongoza Farmer Field School