Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving from Uganda

I LOVE Thanksgiving. Always have. Something about the cold weather, lots of family, delicious food, and lack of overt commercialism (at least in comparison to some holidays) have always endeared this holiday to me. And I really like the concept of taking some time to think about the things that we are grateful for in life. We should do it more than one day a year, but it’s nice to have the reminder…

I also like Thanksgiving because I’ve done something different almost every year so I’m not as concerned with specific traditions and places. And while every Thanksgiving has been different, they have all been fun and unique and special in their own way. From eating Gran’s rolls in Houston to playing tag football in Chagrin Falls to swing dancing and karaoke-ing off a big meal in New York, the common denominator of all of my Thanksgivings have been that they were shared with people I love and care about.

While this years Thanksgiving will likely be extraordinarily different from those in the past, I think it will probably also be a lasting memory. I will be eating a traditional Thanksgiving meal (but with some Ugandan additions I’m sure!) with a large group of friends and acquaintances from all over the world. And while I’m sure it will be a lovely meal, I will also spend some time thinking about those I love who I’m not sharing the holidays with. So to all of you out there reading, have a great day and eat a lot of turkey and know that someone in Uganda loves you and is grateful for the role you play in her life ;)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Africa in 30 Seconds or Less…

While truly appalling that a certain VP candidate who was potentially a 72-year-old heartbeat away from being the leader of the free world was unaware that Africa is a continent and not a country, the truth is that many Americans have embarrassingly little knowledge of Africa. Myself included! And in some ways, you really can’t blame us as our public education and media are typically lacking in Africa-related information. So in honor of our collective ignorance, I have decided to give you—fair readers—a 30 second lesson on Africa. If you know these things, please don’t think of this post as an insult to your intelligence; rather give yourself a pat on the back and know that you are in the minority.

Lesson number 1 (this is for you Ms. Wasilla…): Africa is NOT a country. In fact it is 53 countries with hugely diverse populations, governments, languages, races, religions, cultures, histories, and landscapes.

Lesson number 2: Africa is ridiculously large. So when you send me an email that says, “hey, I’m going to be in Mali—how hard would it be for me to come to Uganda for a few days?” it would be a little bit like popping in on someone in Los Angeles when you’re traveling from Paris to New York. Kind of ridiculous, but hey, if you want to try, you’ve got a place to crash in Kampala!

Lesson number 3: Africa is not all desert savannah or tropical rainforest. The range of landscapes in Africa are truly staggering, ranging from dry desert to subarctic mountain ranges. (Fun fact about Uganda—it actually contains almost all of the different types of landscapes—from the Rift Valley grasslands in the East to the volcano-strewn tropical rainforests in the Southwest to the glaciers of the Rwenzori Mountains and basically everything in between)

Lesson number 4: Africa is not purely a land of poverty and conflict. While there are some terrible and seemingly intractable conflicts going on in Africa, it is not all war and ugliness. It’s a bit of double edged sword in my opinion because so many of these conflicts are so ridiculously underreported in the West, but at the same time, the only news we ever DO see of Africa is about diseased children, political corruption, and bloody warfare. But Africa is not all starving children and huts and wars, it is also a land of vast wealth and modernity. One thing many African economies do lack is a thriving middle class but this is on the rise in many places, including Uganda.

Lesson number 5: Tribalism is NOT an “African problem”. While tribes are an important part of African politics, there is very little difference between a tribe and an ethnic group or any other marker we identify ourselves with in the West. Many people think that problems in Africa are a direct result of ancient tribal loyalties, and are thus unsolvable, when in reality the majority of African tribal conflicts are a direct result of colonialism and divides that were intentionally and unintentionally put in place as a method of control. While it may sound like I’m being overly PC, the term “tribe” or “tribalism” is often value laden and carries a negative connotation when the truth is that identity is complex, in Africa and throughout the world.

Lesson number 6: Africa is NOT solely what you see in the movies. So much of media (especially entertainment) coverage of Africa is nature and wildlife focused. When humans are included, they are often particularly exotic groups like the Massai of East Africa, Ashanti of West Africa, or the San of Southern Africa. Or they focus on African characters who are simple, primitive and helpless OR ruthless and corrupt dictators. While I love and respect Out of Africa, The Gods Must Be Crazy, The Constant Gardner, Hotel Rwanda, and The Last King of Scotland for what they are, these movies should not by themselves be considered an accurate representation of Africa and must be considered in the context in which they were created. For example, I would hate for someone to watch the movie Giant and have that form their opinion of Texas and Texans. While a great movie, it encapsulates the Texas experience about as much as The Lion King gives you insight on Africa.

Hopefully I am preaching to the choir as I think my friends and family who read this blog are generally more informed than most. But as I said, Africa is not a topic covered in significant detail in American education or media, and when it is, it is often laden with stereotypes and misconceptions. It is hard to not buy into these stereotypes (I find myself doing so at least once every hour!), so hopefully we will all take the opportunity to step back and question those assumptions when we can…

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Work, Travel, Repeat

So again, I apologize for my blogging absence. I’ve been working a lot, entertaining friends and colleagues, and working some more. And once it’s been a while, it’s hard to get back into blogging because I feel that I have so much to catch you up on. But it’s a bad excuse, and I’ll be better… I promise. Anyway, because it’s been so long, this blog is going to be a bit of a brain dump, so sorry for the lack of creativity and cute stories—you’ll get the facts and you’ll like it. ;)

Anyway, life has been good. Busy, but really good. Two weeks ago my colleagues from Harvard were in town, so after working our little behinds off for a week, we relaxed a bit by traveling to Kibale National Forest in Western Uganda. Kibale is a rainforest dominated by primates. While the forest has 13 varieties of monkeys, the star attraction are the common chimpanzees. We spent one morning tracking these creatures, and were not disappointed. Though my neck was a bit sore from looking up in the canopy all morning, it was worth it to see these ADORABLE and funny creatures in their habitat. Best part was Jillian getting pooped on, but that’s a story for another time. Check out some photos courtesy of Jillian my coworker who has a far better camera than I…



After returning from Kibale, I worked like crazy for a week until my friend Gwen from grad school arrived! Gwen is working as a community development specialist in Afghanistan and therefore is required to take R&R (rest and relaxation) in region every couple of months. So lucky enough for me, she decided to rest and relax in Uganda!

We had a great time. After relaxing and seeing Kampala for a few days, we headed east to Jinja to raft the source of the Nile. Now I have been rafting on several occasions in Colorado, but it was NOTHING compared to this rafting. There were a few times where all I could see was a wall of water and I was pretty sure I was going to wash up in Ethiopia or Egypt somewhere. Fortunately between death-defying waterfalls and breathing in half of the Nile, there were some nice calm places where we drifted along lazily past Ugandans washing their clothes and probably wondering why the mzungus were so crazy as to attempt such a river in such a small rubber boat. We also got to see some beautiful birdlife and on one occasion, an adorable river otter! Luckily we didn’t see any of the Nile’s more dangerous residents—the hippos or crocs…
After surviving the Nile, Gwen and I headed up to Murchison Falls National Park, where we went on a game drive and saw tons of antelope, hartebeest, giraffes, warthogs, cape buffalo, monkeys, and elephants (but unfortunately only from a distance). I also saw a pack of lions sunbathing in the grass, but everyone else in my car (and the park for that matter) maintains that it was in fact a lion-shaped termite mound. Whatever, it was a lion to me! After the game drive we hopped on a boat to check out the park’s river residents. We saw HUNDREDS of hippos and several frighteningly large crocodiles (one in particular that was about 15 ft long—eek!) We also cruised to the bottom of Murchison Falls, which is actually two lovely waterfalls that come together in a notch in the rocks and let loose into the Nile. Really spectacular!


The next morning we awoke early to head off on a hike around the top of the falls, which was even more gorgeous than the bottom. After jumping around on the rocks for a bit, we loaded up and headed back to Kampala, stopping briefly for lunch and a few impromptu electricity interviews with local business owners in Masindi (apparently I never stop working…)

After returning to Kampala, we spent a few days relaxing and enjoying Kampala’s many eateries. After attending Jillian’s cleverly named Kampala-ween party (as Sarah and Bristol Palin--I was Bristol), Gwen returned to Afghanistan. I miss her already, but had a great time and lots of fun memories (and pictures!).

For more pics from our adventures, see http://picasaweb.google.com/courtneywbabcock13/GwenRaftingAndMurchisonFalls#

Yes. We. DID!!!!

I really didn’t intend to use this blog as a political platform, but I am too excited to not say something publicly. This morning at 7am Kampala time, Barack Obama was declared the 44th president of the United States. As a liberal democrat, I am ecstatic about this outcome. As a strong advocate for civil and human rights, I am delighted about the giant step my country has taken in electing our first African-American president (it’s about damn time!). And as an expatriate living abroad, I am for the first time truly proud to be an American, and it’s a GOOD feeling! I know this sounds cheesy (and it is!), but I really am so excited about the prospects for the next four years. And while I am not so na├»ve to think that things will change overnight, I finally feel that at the very least we have someone in office who represents most of the issues I am concerned about and is committed to bringing about some very necessary changes in my country.

I celebrated this momentous occasion with a huge group of American, British, Canadian, Kenyan, and other expatriates. Many Ugandans were also in attendance, and most of the crowd was actively supporting Obama. Being away from home on such a happy day wasn’t easy, but it was nice to be able to share my nerves, anxiety, and eventual tears of joy with other individuals who were equally elated at the results. I was also interviewed with two of my friends for the local Ugandan news, and while I’m sure I’ll come off sounding like an idiot, I’ll post a link once I get it.

Anyway, enough politics—the silly stories will return soon I promise!