One important lesson I learned in primary school (and from watching Pocahontas): when you stick a flag on something and then lay a symbol of your country on it, you have claimed that land in the name of your country! By that measure, I have been colonized in the name of Ghana! Oy. Today was the last day of anti-corruption and good governance training at ILI-ACLE. The Ghanaian participants kindly summoned the [female] ILI staff, including us lowly interns, place a Ghanaian kente cloth around our necks and planted Ghanaian flags in our fists. There was a small what-who-me? moment when they called me up to the front of the room, but it was super nice of them. I’m pretty stoked about my piece of kente cloth.
This last week, maybe last two weeks have just been some of the craziest and in some ways most incredible of my life. I’m not entirely sure I can do justice through writing to any of them, so this update is more bits and bobs, snippets extracted from my exhausted, overstimulated mind from the last few weeks.
On whitewater rafting in the River Nile: How am I supposed to explain paddling into a giant green wave on the Nile River, watching the wall of water crash over me, knowing full well that I can’t swim (Mom, don’t freak out, I had a life jacket and a helmet and was with a professional rafting company.) I would point out which one is me, below, but I’m covered by a giant white wave. So assume that beneath that white wave is a tiny pink head. That’s me. More pictures and such may come later.
Working Group meeting in Acholiland: Or wandering around Gulu (with maybe an accidental detour into the wilderness—oops), talking to people in Acholiland, including children (but not Invisible ones), and working with lawyers, mediators, people in the field who are genuinely devoting their lives on helping this war-torn population. Not through charity, spies, or guns, but by resolving land disputes, advocating for the rights of women, widows, and the elderly, and providing mechanisms by which displaced persons can maintain a post-war livelihood (from what I heard, general consensus here is that the U.S. spies to find Joseph Kony is a joke. Americans want justice, but Ugandans seem to just want Peace. Stability. Security. A comfortable life for their children.) Or how can I explain what an incredible opportunity it was, traveling to Gulu alone to THE representative of my NGO to the Northern Uganda Land Platform meeting? (For all the material I devoured that helped me NOT sound like an idiot during this meeting, I really have to thank some of my favorite econo-blogger–Texas in Africa, Chris Blattman— this collection of essays, and my friend Akhila, for well-informed reactions to and resources about the Kony 2010 debacle.)
My personal life and marriage: Or how strangely uncomfortable it felt, that the last few weeks contained a disproportionate number of incidents with men, even in semi-professional contexts, asking less-than-welcome questions about my (or my friends’) relationship statuses, views on sex and marriage, and then expressing desires for American women—again, Mom, don’t freak out, it was totally fine, they were joking. Everything I’ve read/heard of women-traveling-in-developing-world (blogs, academic pieces, travel journals, personal accounts, etc.) mentioned some sort of solicitation of marriage/sex. I (erroneously) assumed that it didn’t apply to non-white women, mixing in an urban, educated crowd.
But I think, there remains this stereotype about Americans and their lose morals, their liberal views on sex, their distaste for “traditional” family life. And just as I can’t get away from being South Asian in the U.S., by virtue of my skin color, I can’t escape being American here in Uganda, by the sound of my accent. And perhaps it’s just genuinely questioning on something a man doesn’t quite understand about American culture. (But seriously, it’s not like I’ve managed to figure out dating properly in my own country/culture. How am I exactly supposed to explain courtship to someone else?!)
And about ethnicity – so I maybe have shared this story already, but one of the WEIRDEST things I’ve found in Uganda is I’m ethnically ambiguous here. Uganda, and East Africa in general, has a significant South Asian population, mostly Indians. I live with an Indian family. All my life, my skin, my hair, my face, everything about me screams “INDIAN!” Except that one time in 5th grade when some lady randomly started speaking to in Spanish BUT NEVERMIND THAT – I can’t generalize for all of Uganda but most native Ugandans I’ve spoken to seem to think my ethnicity is one of the following: Chinese, Taiwanese, Filipino, Japanese, Thai, Mongolian, Vietnamese… And one guy told me I was white. It’s only the Indians who recognize me as their own. Can anyone explain this to me? Anyone?
On photography and human zoo: The last two weeks, more so than the first two weeks, have been filled with holy-sweet-religious-figure-I’m-in-freaking-AFRICA moments. And I’m so, so fortunate that I have to opportunity to travel widely, not just for tourism, but for work, school, or family. And express my gratitude, I do try to capture as much of this experience as possible, in a tangible form. I want to be able to share everything I see, do, smell, taste, hear (well… maybe not everything. Just the good stuff) with my family and friends. I want to remember later what I perceive now. Photography is one tool to do so. I’m not a great photographer, by any means, but I do try to tinker with my camera settings and capture what exactly I’m seeing, exactly as I see it. Sometimes, this means photographs of people.
But working and traveling with people who are experienced in the field of development and culturally well-exposed means that I don’t often have the opportunity to take these shots. These people, as a whole, are focused on engaging and blending into the communities. Photography, by its very nature, requires stepping out. I had a conversation with a colleague, where she described her distaste for the stereotypical pictures of bouncing African babies, characterizing the practice as treating the locals like a human zoo. I know there’s a fine line between perception and exploitation but where is it? And so long as I always ask permission before taking pictures of people and/or their work, what is SO WRONG with taking a moment to record the memory, after I’ve had a moment to enjoy/perceive it?