Torah with no silver lining

*Warning: The material in this post is dark and potentially disturbing. It was originally a d’var Torah that I delivered in my Bible class as a reflection on the story of the Levite and his concubine that appears in Judges 19-21. If you are not familiar with the story, there is a Wikipedia page with a decent summary (and its own fair share of problems) here, or you can read the story in the original (and translation) here.

**The Hebrew word pilegesh that appears in the text is often translated as concubine, but this is probably an inexact translation. A pilegesh was likely a wife of lower status (a second or third wife). I use the word pilegesh to avoid any unwarranted associations with the word concubine.

I want to tell you the story of Maria. That’s not her real name, but I need to change some identifying details for confidentiality. I also want to warn you that Maria’s story is not easy to hear, but I think telling it is important, both for me and for you.

Maria was born in Mexico. She got married and had a daughter who was born with developmental disabilities. Her husband abandoned them, and Maria was left trying to care for her daughter alone. Unable to support them on the money she made in Mexico, Maria left her daughter with her family and paid a coyote to take her to the United States. The coyote told Maria he would set her up with a housecleaning company. Maria planned to work for several years to make money and then bring her daughter to the United States, where she would have access to better medical care and schools that could deal with her needs.

At the border, the coyote took all of Maria’s documents, blindfolded her, and put her in a truck. The coyote handed Maria over to a pimp, who kept Maria handcuffed at all times. During the day, she was held in an apartment with several other women, and at night she was driven to motels, her cuffs were locked to the bed, and she was forced to have sex with men who came into the room. If she protested or cried, she would be severely beaten.

One day, Maria cried so much after a John that her captor beat her and then called the police on her, telling the police that she was a prostitute. The police arrested Maria on charges of prostitution. She appeared in court, where, unable to speak English and severely traumatized, her public defender entered a guilty plea. Maria was sentenced to 11 months in jail, and then was transferred into immigration custody to be deported to Mexico, which is where I met her.

At the time, I was a legal assistant at a non-profit that provided legal services to detained immigrants and refugees who were facing deportation. Maria was brought over to me by several other women I knew in the women’s block at the jail. She was reluctant to speak or make eye contact at first, and it was only after the other women insisted that I talk to her that I pulled some chairs into a corner. For a few minutes, Maria answered basic questions flatly and without making eye contact. Finally, when I asked Maria if she had children, she broke. Her story came pouring out, and I struggled to pay attention and take notes and comfort her without touching her (touching detainees is forbidden).

Over the next few months, I spoke to Maria weekly because the jail did not have a female, Spanish speaking therapist and the Warden insisted that allowing Maria to talk to me fulfilled his obligation to care for her mental and emotional needs.

I dreaded these weekly meetings. I couldn’t do anything to help Maria, I couldn’t share her story with anyone except my supervisor because of client confidentiality, and instead of providing any benefit, I was taking on secondary trauma from her story, and so many more like it that I heard every week.

I’ve talked about Maria less than a handful of times in the five years since I met her.

Should I have brought her story out sooner? I don’t know. It’s not easy to tell, and I know it’s not easy to hear.

But I believe the story of the pilegesh teaches us that we should tell stories like this. The Torah doesn’t try to sugarcoat the story of the pilegesh. It is related almost without affect– like listening to a torture survivor tell his or her story. The story does not explicitly state its moral position on the incident, and the book of Judges doesn’t tell us why the story is there. The world of the Tanach was one in which death, famine, disease and warfare were common, so we are forced to ask, “what did the authors of this story, or earlier audiences, make of the incident?” And, in my inability to guess their reactions, “what do I make of the incident?”

Here’s where I’m at with this story: We can’t hide from the ugly– we need to tell and retell stories even, or especially, if they’re hard. We need to put the ugly out there, talk about it and deal with it.

It’s certainly more comfortable to pretend these bad things never happened, that we live in a world that is, as Rabbi Lappe put it, “happy happy”. But the inclusion of the story of the pilegesh teaches us that pretending it never happened isn’t the answer. I think that the inclusion of the story of the pilegesh was a deliberate decision to force us to confront this horrifying moment in our history. Despite the lack of explicit moral judgement in the story, I believe it was included in the book of Judges because even at the time, the authors of the book of Judges recognized a travesty of justice.

Stories like this make us question the essential nature of human beings, and force us to consider the possibility that we are capable of true evil. What does it mean that humans can deliberately inflict suffering on other humans? Am I capable of this kind of evil? How do I recognize early enough that someone has this evil in them, and what do I do when I see it?

I was confronted with these questions every day in my job in DC. In addition to working with women like Maria, I worked with many inmates who were in solitary confinement. Most of my clients who ended up in solitary were torture survivors or had been child soldiers in Sierra Leone, South Sudan, El Salvador, the Congo, Cambodia and other countries that have recently experienced civil war and genocide.

I had almost unrestricted access in the jails I worked in, and inmates in solitary are not allowed out of their cells even to receive legal counsel, so I was allowed to visit them in their cell blocks. Week after week, I kneeled in front of the food flap of my clients’ solitary cells, trying to listen to their stories of torture over the screams of the other inmates in the solitary cell block, in the desperate hope that we could find them legal relief from deportation. It is brutal, physically grueling, emotionally draining work that often ends in defeat. There is no silver lining for this work, no reward and no thanks.

I almost never talk about this because retelling it sucks. I don’t like revisiting this chapter of my life, I feel uncomfortable with the ethical and theological questions it gives me, and I often assume that no one wants to have this kind of suffering thrust upon them were I to open up. I also don’t know what to say to the inevitable question, “so what can I do about this?” I don’t know what to do, and I’m not sure there really is anything to be done– or at least, anything that feels effective and important.

The story of the pilegesh records two different responses to trauma. The priest has a much more intimate and personal connection to the tragedy, and his response is rash, drastic and hard to bear. Yet after he sends out the pieces of the corpse, he disappears from the story, and we lose his voice. B’nai Yisrael, who are drawn into the issue by a sense of moral outrage at what has happened in their midst, respond by launching a massive, societal campaign to eliminate the aggressors and make change. But their motivation flags, and they want to give up when they don’t see immediate results.

I can identify with both of these responses, and I feel lost. What does the Torah want me to do when I encounter injustice? How am I supposed to respond to pain?

My instinct is to draw inwards, to remove my voice and try to cover over my feelings. For lack of a good response, I opt for no response.

But then I read the story of the pilegesh, or the Akedah (binding of Isaac), or other stories of boundless pain in the Tanach, and I recognize that the Torah doesn’t shy away from being honest. Talking, being open, might be the right response. Retelling these stories, reliving them together, makes them more human. It’s exactly in inhabiting the pain together and supporting each other in it that we can make these stories stand for something, and that we can light the fire to change the way things work.

This is exactly what the incident of the pilegesh did for B’nei Yisrael– it woke them up to how low they had fallen. The story of the pilegesh is a call to honesty and to justice. It’s devastating to read that it took literally receiving a piece of corpse for B’nei Yisrael to recognize that they were a broken people, but it worked.

These aren’t the stories we want to tell. We don’t want to have to admit that the world is this way, and we see the reluctance of B’nei Yisrael to admit that there was this evil in their midst in the story of their battle against Binyamin– they know instinctively that they need to punish the people of Gibeah, but they don’t want to have to deal with the consequences. They’re sustaining heavy casualties, and the idea of killing their brothers because of the evil they committed is repugnant to them, so they cry out to God again and again, begging God to let them give up the fight. But God urges them onward.

It’s so hard to acknowledge pain in the world that can’t be fixed. After everything I’ve done, I still can’t understand how humans can cause each other so much pain. I have such a hard time wrapping my head around this evil that I avoid it. I don’t tell stories of my former clients or my work because I don’t know if I am making anything positive out of them.

I think the lesson of the pilegesh is that we can’t assume that everything needs to be for the better. We live in a complex world where some things don’t have a silver lining. But there is something powerful in being able to say, “Yes. Sometimes, the world is evil. There’s some real shit out there.” We need so badly for the world to be fundamentally good that when we see evil, it feels like an existential threat.

The power and importance of telling stories like Maria’s, like my time working with clients in solitary confinement, like the pilegesh, is that if we can name them  and face them, we can transform them. Being able to lean into the ugly is a show of strength against it. It’s telling the ugly, “I know you’re here, and I know you are real. But I am not afraid of you”.

This approach is so  hard. Most days, I can’t do it. I don’t even want to try. I want to cry out to God, and I want God to tell me that it’s ok, that I can stop fighting. But I know God won’t answer me that way.

Still, I’m here. I’m trying to turn my pain into words and to turn those words into Torah. I might not get it right every time. But Torah is eternal. And that means that if we don’t know what to make of the story of the pilegesh today, it will still be there tomorrow.

May we be able to face tomorrow unafraid.

 

 

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Though the Gates May Close

When I returned home from Uganda, I had every intention of writing a blog post entitled “While the Gates Are Open”, in which I would process what I had seen, learned and experienced in the field and connect it somehow to beginning my spiritual preparation for the High Holidays. Yet every time I sat down to write, I found myself unable to write more than a few trite-sounding sentences.

“Okay”, I told myself, “you will write it in the Yamim Noraim”, the spiritually charged 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. That’s when tradition holds that the “Gates of Prayer” are most open, so what better time to try to make myself heard? But again, my efforts to write were not fruitful.

“Fine”, I reasoned, “I’ll do it during Sukkot. Some say that the gates of prayer stay open until Hoshanah Rabbah (towards the end of the holiday). My themes will still resonate”. Well, that too didn’t work.

So here we are. The chagim are finally over, the gates are closed, and our fates are sealed. I’m so tempted to let the emotions and lessons of the summer sink under the weight of classes, extra-curricular activities, social obligations and all the other things that fill my life in New York. But I will not. My mind has not quieted, and though the gates of prayer may have closed, I will not hesitate to throw myself against them and hope that doing so will at least make me a better development practitioner, a better Jew and a better person.

I’ve written on this blog many times about how hard it is for me to face extreme poverty, and how much it grates against my craving for fairness. In fact, during my first week in Uganda, I wrote about how lucky I felt to be well-educated, to have access to medical care, and generally to be a citizen of the developed world. I tried to turn my bout of amoebas in to a reflection on leveraging my privilege to engage in work that I find fulfilling but also extremely challenging.

IMG_0023

Though I may have hoped that those amoebas were going to be the only time my luck and immune system would be tested, it turns out I was only just getting started. A month and a half later, right after returning from my second trip to the rural areas where I was conducting research, I came down with bacillary dysentery. After spending several days in the hospital in very bad shape, it was decided that the best course of action would be for me to return to the United States for further treatment and recovery. In some ways, this was a huge relief. Being so sick while alone in a very foreign country was terrifying; I was in pain, I knew I couldn’t take care of myself, and I was so scared of getting sick again. However, leaving early was jarring and disruptive to the mental journey I had prepared myself for. I found it very hard to process my experiences in Uganda in large part because I didn’t get what I was expecting out of the summer.

Back in Chicago and later New York, my body slowly got stronger but my mind was in turmoil. I was not just frustrated that I didn’t get the summer I hoped for; I was angry that such a bad thing could happen just by chance.

Or not by chance. I wanted my illness to be just a stroke of bad luck, but I found this view very hard to hold on to as I prepared for and then sat in services during the High Holidays. So many of the key prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur seem to push us to see the twists and turns of our lives as divinely ordained. I am willing to accept that my life is in God’s hands. I know what I’ve done wrong this year and every year, and I accept that perhaps I needed a wake-up call to bring myself back towards a life of joy, gratitude and kindness. But now, this felt not just personal, but universal. Even if I deserved what I got, I am not willing to extrapolate this to a global scale.

When I was sick in Uganda, I felt helpless. I thought I was doing something good for the world by being there. I tried to be careful with what I ate and drank and touched, and I got sick anyway. Having lived in regions where poverty is rampant and in some of the richest areas on the planet, how am I supposed to believe in a God of Justice and Mercy? I can come up with no answer that satisfies. As CS Lewis says in A Grief Observed, ““Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about [God]. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.”

I don’t want to believe in a God like that, nor do I want to live in a world where people get sick and die because they have the misfortune to be in a place where there is no running water or sanitary waste disposal system or adequate nutritious food or any of the many other causes of infectious disease and premature death in the developing world. It is precisely because I find the imbalance of global resources so unfair that I want to be a development practitioner, and I try to think of my studies and professional experiences as my avodah, in the double sense of work and worship, towards making a more just world. My focus now is on how to live with the spiritual anger that I have over this injustice, and how to make it productive. As Rabbi Alan Lew writes in This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, “Spiritual practice won’t change what happens. Rather, it will help us to experience what happens not as evil, but simply as what happens.”

So, though the gates may be closed, let my prayers for a world with less suffering mix with my work to find solutions to alleviating this suffering, and let them come before the God of Justice and the God of Mercy.

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City Gal

After eight weeks in Uganda and two field visits, I am starting to feel more comfortable and have been able to start thinking more about the place I’m in, instead of feeling like I’m in survival mode just to find my way around. As I’ve mentioned, I’m based in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, and have been doing some work in a rural area a few hours outside the city, where people are mostly subsistence and small-scale farmers. While Kampala certainly has very poor areas, including many slums and informal settlements, on the whole the city is fairly nice. The infrastructure is good- we have reliable electricity, running water, and decent roads (though there seems to be a national obsession with speed bumps that I cannot understand). Additionally, Kampala is an expat’s paradise, and just about anything you can imagine is available if you have the money to pay for it. There are gorgeous malls with salons and movie theaters, fancy cafes and restaurants, and supermarkets full of imported foods. While these amenities are far outside the price range (and geographic range) of many of Kampala’s residents, they do exist.

The question is what does this mean for Uganda, and for poverty reduction in general? My first impression of Uganda is that it is “less poor” than Nepal, and I know this impression was largely based on the quality of life I found in Kampala. I recognize that there are major differences between my experience in Kathmandu and in Kampala. In Kathmandu, I lived in the slum area in which I worked, and therefore was much more aware of the issues facing Nepalese residents of Kathmandu; in Kampala I live, work and socialize in the upscale areas of the city, where NGO workers and foreigners abound. Nonetheless, the difference between the two cities is striking, and the average quality of life for a resident of Kampala seems much higher than the average quality of life for a resident of Kathmandu.

Street near my apartment in Kampala

Street near my apartment in Kampala

But once you get outside the city, the difference between the two countries becomes remarkably small. The villages I visited in Uganda were very similar to the villages where I worked in Nepal. The houses, fields, schools, cooking sheds, eating utensils, one-stop-shop shacks in the center of a village—everything in rural Uganda looks exactly the same to me as what I saw in rural Nepal. Aside from my shock at the aesthetic similarities between two such different countries, I am frankly shocked to find such similar living conditions in these two very different places. It’s not just the geography and culture and people that are different—the history of foreign involvement in the country (colonial, post-colonial and through foreign aid), the agricultural system, the linkages to market economies, the political situation—everything is so different, yet the daily lives of small-holder farmers in rural Uganda and Nepal seem so similar. I had figured after arriving in Kampala that Uganda was “more developed” than Nepal, and was quite surprised to find such similarities between the two countries outside their capital cities.

So, where is the “development” that I see and live with in Kampala? Does it make a difference for a country if the capital city (or another big city) has a higher standard of living? In some ways, I expect a “trickle-down effect” from the development in Kampala. If the country has been able to raise living standards and establish such a high degree of order in the capital, then I take it as an indication that they have the capacity to do so around the country. There’s some development logic to this argument: we talk about the need for stronger markets, better market linkages and more efficient infrastructure in order to bring “development” to a country. Governance is often a major issue in implementing, scaling and managing these types of infrastructure projects. So to see a country with strong markets and infrastructure in the capital city should be very encouraging for the development of the rest of the country. It was with this assumption that I felt shocked to find such similar ways of life in rural Nepal and Uganda. Kampala seemed to have the very things I thought were necessary for strong economic development, yet there was no evidence that this type of growth was reaching beyond the capital.

One of the seven hills of Kampala

One of the seven hills of Kampala

It certainly seems to me that a lot of this growth is driven and sustained by the NGO and expat communities in Kampala, not by the government of Uganda. NGOs are certainly doing excellent work in the country (I’m interning for one, I clearly believe in the cause), and I am not opposed to NGO workers being able to live comfortably in the country where they are posted. But I do have to wonder about the scope and scale of good that is being done with so much money. I’m not sure that the situation would be any better if NGOs were to fund the government of Uganda to run projects themselves, so unfortunately this post is something of a rant without a suggestion. But I do know that is seems unfair that people who have money are able to create a comfortable life for themselves in Kampala while essentially leaving the rest of the country behind.

In Nepal, poverty was everywhere, and though I wrote about the difference between what poverty looks like in Kathmandu and in the rest of the country, the reality was that it was always clear to me that Nepal was a poor country. In Uganda, the differences are actually more striking, and feel more unfair. Maybe there really are differences between the two countries that I don’t notice (certainly possible), and maybe they are on different trajectories because of the differences between the capital cities, and if I were to return in 10 or 20 years, I would notice a major difference between rural Uganda and rural Nepal. As usual, I don’t have an answer, just a question I want to continue to ask as I become a development practitioner.

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A Tiny Fish in a Great, Big Sea

It seems I alternate between working with small, grassroots organizations and big organizations with connections to government and a broad impact. Those who have been reading this blog for years will remember the frustration I felt in Jerusalem, when I wanted to see the direct impact of my work and felt frustrated by the slow (though major) impact that comes from working with a major institution. On the flip side, there is a clear thread in my posts from Nepal of the frustration I felt at having such a limited impact on one small community, especially because I saw such major, societal-level problems all around me.

I feel very fortunate, this summer, to get to experience both the high-resolution close-up of fieldwork and a taste of the bigger picture that comes with interning for an internationally renowned organization. My time in the office in Kampala has afforded me the opportunity to become familiar with the work of Bioversity, not just in Uganda but around the world. The scale and scope of what they have done and the generosity, kindness and patience I see in my colleagues as they work with participant households makes me so proud to be an intern here.

A household in Kiboga

A household in Kiboga

Through my frequent visits to the field, I get to be reminded of why this work is so important. Bumping around rural villages (where I feel like the Pope or the Queen of England as I wave to all the people staring at me as we pass), I get to be a part of the everyday life of a rural Ugandan, even if just for a few moments. While I certainly don’t have the same sense of what daily life is like for Ugandans that I did in Nepal, where I was embedded in the community, working with the same people every day for months, I am treasuring the glimpse in to life outside the Kampala expat bubble that I get on these visits to the field.

Data collection in Kiboga

Data collection in Kiboga

Perhaps because of what I learned during the year at school and read in countless books and articles and reports, I am noticing more than ever the intricacies of daily survival for subsistence farmers in rural Uganda. The amount of labor that goes in to living, day to day, is staggering; the battle for survival fills me with gratitude for my life in the US (and in Kampala), and reminds me of how far we still have to go. It is a feeling I experienced many times in Nepal—how can this place be the same ball of rock that I came from just a few weeks ago? How are we all on the same planet, yet basically unaware of the lives of those who don’t live close to us? Is it really possible that in this one world, there are people who eat whatever they want whenever they want, who put pills in their bodies to fix anything that goes wrong, who spend their time sitting in comfortable buildings and thinking about abstract ideas and problems at the same time that there are people who dedicate their entire day to finding food to eat, preparing it and battling the exhaustion and frequent illness that comes from inadequate nutrition and constant disease?

The ironic thing is that the more I learn and the more experience I gain, the more I feel like a very tiny fish in a very big sea. Yes, change is slow, and yes, no one can do everything all at once. But the magnitude of poverty and the number of “interventions” we would need to implement to bring people on this part of the planet to the same standards that we enjoy on another part of the planet feels so crushing as I sit in the yards of people’s homes as we interview them about how they feed their children. Sometimes, instead of feeling empowered to make change, I feel the hole getting bigger and bigger in front of me.

I feel so corny thinking of the famous Jewish saying from Pirkei Avot, “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Avot 2:21), because it feels like exactly what I am supposed to remind myself when I feel hopeless about the rate of progress. I have to wonder, however, if Rabbi Tarfon (to whom the saying is attributed) ever tried to travel from one of the richest cities in the world to do tikkun olam (aka development work) in a rural area in Uganda. My soul, in fact, feels perfectly split. I want so badly to work constantly, in the most remote, poverty-stricken areas, to do more, better, faster for the people I have met here in Uganda and over the last few years. And, on the other side of my soul, I want to throw in the towel, forget all I’ve seen and learned, and build for myself a stable, easy, comfortable life close to the people I love. Of course, I will do neither.

Though I wish I could do more, I know what we are doing is very good, and that it will create positive change. I cannot un-see the places I have been, and I cannot pretend not to know possible ways to help them. Wherever I go, I will always carry with me the people who opened their homes and their lives to me, and I will feel compelled to do everything I can to repay their generosity and openness with what I am learning as a development practitioner. And I know that I’m not the only tiny fish swimming around in here. Talking to my classmates, who are stationed around the world working on issues of governance, climate change, health, education, economic development and so much more, reminds me that I am part of a school of fish, and I feel a little better. Eventually, slowly, change is happening. Or, as Nemo says, “Just keep swimming”.

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Muzungu

Last week, I had the opportunity to spend three days in Kiboga District in central Uganda, where the Ugandan research team I am working with conducted day-long meetings with each of the three farmer groups in Kiboga (two experimental groups and one control group). Though the region is only about 120km from Kampala, the villages are very remote. Two of the villages are located in the hills, accessible only on a dirt path, while the other village is a bit closer to the main road.

In each of the villages, we held the farmers meeting by the school because it was the most convenient location for all the women in the groups. Due to the remoteness and poverty in the region, many of the children had never seen a white person before, so my presence was quite the spectacle. While we were not using the school or even working inside it, naturally all the children in the school could see me through the window, and were endlessly curious about the muzungu (white person) outside.

At the first school, in Ssinde Village, the headmistress spotted me and asked me to come to each of the classrooms so the students could meet a muzungu. Though this was not the purpose of my visit, I figured it would be quick, and obliged. The headmistress announced to each class that President Obama had sent me to their school to give them gifts and take them with me to America, and she asked me to introduce myself and tell them what I brought them (all this was done in Luganda, so she translated). I tried to explain to her that, in fact, I had not come to visit them but rather to observe the farmer meetings and therefore had no gifts. This was not well received– she insisted that next week I would come back and bring them gifts and be ready to take the children who were interested in going to America.

After my illustrious introduction, the headmistress asked me to stand in the middle of the students, and then invited them all to come touch my arms so they could see what my flesh felt like. Once she discovered that I had a camera, she wanted to take pictures of the children touching me, so they could prove they had touched a muzungu. The children also asked me, through her, what I ate that made me so white. I was in such shock and on the verge of tears that I didn’t know how to respond to her and agreed to the spectacle. The children gathered around me, wide-eyed, and began to grab at my arms.

All eyes on me

All eyes on me

And I hated every single second of it. I wasn’t often treated this way in Nepal, and I didn’t think of myself as being in any way similar to the tourists I imagined sought out these kinds of experiences. I was there to work with members of the community and learn a little about them and their struggles to feed their young children as part of my training to become a development practitioner. While I never thought I was an “insider”, I also didn’t think of myself as being the same kind of “outsider” who comes to countries in Africa seeking exotic experiences like this. Yet here I was, the dead center of attention as dozens of children gathered around me in silence, staring.

Day 2, and the children are a bit more friendl

Day 2, and the children are a bit more friendly

The next two days, I tried to engage with the kids, but they didn’t seem to want to play with me, just to stare at me. I was so foreign to them that even the sound of me laughing caused them to back away. I eventually did get them to warm up a bit by taking pictures of them and then showing them, which they enjoyed. Yet at no point did they ever start to get used to my presence or ignore me. I was not a muzungu; I might as well have been an alien.

My status as a muzungu cannot have been just about race, but place. Yes, my skin looked different, but more importantly, I was completely out of place in their villages. In these villages in Kiboga, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was experiencing another world. How could my world be big enough that I was able to show up in these villages, yet the world for these children was so small that they had trouble comprehending that I was a human like them? My appearance in these remote villages seemed to throw these two completely opposing worldviews in to an uncomfortable shared space.

Where do I go from here? Maybe this week when I go back to Kiboga I will be greeted with slightly less shock, but I still will definitely be an outsider, and though my world will continue to overlap with theirs, there is no chance that their world will ever really encounter mine. And while I can provide these very small glimpses of this other world to the world I come from, I can’t really communicate what this place is like to you, reader, nor can I communicate my world to the people in the village. So where is my place, exactly? And, more importantly for the next few months, how can I best use my place at the uncomfortable intersection of these two worlds to make a difference?

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Luck, or Really, Why am I Here?

Seven days after arriving in Uganda, I contracted my first (and hopefully last) stomach bug of the summer. As I laid on the floor of my bathroom all night in pain, I was flooded with memories of all the times I felt this way in Nepal, and hoped this wasn’t going to be my new normal here too. As in Nepal, there was no point in trying to figure out what made me so sick, as the options were endless. Better to just trust that, so long as I kept myself hydrated, eventually my immune system would win out (and if I wasn’t better in a few days, there is a nice medical facility a few minutes from me). And so, lying on the cold floor of my bathroom taking sips of water with Gatorade powder I had brought from the US and willing my stomach to keep them in, I started to feel pretty lucky.

Not, of course, lucky to have caught a bug that seemed to demand exclusive tenancy over my entire digestive system, but lucky for just about everything else. I was lucky to have a bathroom attached to my room, lucky to have access to clean drinking water and Gatorade powder to keep myself hydrated, lucky to have a roommate I could call to help me to a medical facility if I got any worse, lucky to have access to a medical facility that would be able to provide me proper care, lucky to be able to pay for this facility. On an even bigger scale, I was lucky to know that I needed to stay hydrated, to know that Gatorade or just water with sugar and salt, would keep my system going while this bug thing worked itself out, and lucky that eventually I would be going back to a place where brushing my teeth and showering and cooking food were not likely to make me this sick. And really, I am pretty lucky to be in Uganda in the first place.

Before I got sick, I had been thinking that perhaps I was having such a hard time adjusting to being here because I didn’t have a good sense of why I am here. I didn’t know what I wanted to get out of my 12 weeks in Uganda, and I didn’t know what I wanted to contribute. I was comfortable with my life in New York, so I failed to see why I needed to make a change. Going in to all the other amazing opportunities I have been a part of around the world, I knew what I wanted—to meet new people, to learn about a place I had never been, to donate my time to something I felt was important, and to have new adventures. Somehow, these feelings were missing when I shipped off for Uganda. During my year in school, I seemed to have lost track of why I was there. Development started to be about policy briefs and problems sets and brown bag lunches. I lost the sense of urgency and injustice that propelled me to apply to the program more than a year ago when I was still in Nepal.

Writhing in pain on the bathroom floor, it came back to me. This is so unfair! I hate that I am susceptible to disease just from brushing my teeth or washing my dishes, and I hate that millions more people are even more susceptible. It is so unfair that in August, I get to go back to my home in the US and not think about these things any more, and that I will leave behind a country that has generously hosted me and allowed me to make it my home. Sure, I am working on a project that I believe is doing an amazing job addressing some of the causes of malnutrition in a way that is making a difference in a serious, long-term way. I’m trying to be realistic about the impact I really can have in such a short time, especially given my lack of understanding of the local language, culture and history. While I certainly hope I can contribute to the research and bolster the long-term local staff who are conducting the research and running the project, I don’t for a moment think that I am, in this short summer in Uganda, doing all that much to reduce malnutrition.

What I am hoping to do is rekindle the fire. I came in to the program in August of 2014 full of anger at the injustice of the world, and brimming with hope that, with a little refinement, I would emerge after two years with skills and peer networks to actually reduce some of the inequalities and suffering I had seen in Asia. Clearly, this fire is hard to sustain, and easy to forget. It hasn’t slipped my mind that just five months ago, upon my return from El Salvador and Nicaragua, I wrote that the greatest takeaway from my trip had been a renewed sense of urgency about what I want to do, and that feeling managed to slip away again during the spring semester. I plan to have a long career in this field, so clearly I need to find a way to balance the urgency I feel in the field with the system I want to work with in the US. But, I know I still talk about Nepal all the time, and will always carry those experiences and stories with me. So, here’s to more experiences and stories from a summer in Uganda. I look forward to sharing them with you over the coming months!

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Another year, another new place

Another year, another new home. This time, Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. My first time in Africa, but clearly I’m no stranger to living abroad (for those keeping track at home—USA, Spain, Israel, Nepal and now Uganda).

Ever since choosing my graduate program, I have been looking forward to heading back out to the world for the mandatory 12-week summer field project. However, when the time came to buy a plane ticket to Uganda, I was overcome with dread and resentment. I left New York quite literally kicking and screaming, and cried more in a one-week period than I did in the entire year prior. This was pretty surprising to me, because I don’t even really like New York, and I thought I was so excited to live somewhere new again! Usually, within a few months in a place, I am itching to get somewhere new. I loved the thrill of figuring out a new language and a new culture and a new place and new friends, and found it very convenient to leave just as I needed to get serious about my life in that place. I was drawn to my academic program precisely because it offered me the chance to always be moving.

Turns out, burnout is real. So many years of moving every 4-12 months finally took their toll, and the prospect of one more move nearly broke me. After eight different cities in as many years and a passport that had literally no blank pages, I simply could not muster up the energy and excitement to do it all again. I like my life in New York, and I didn’t want to pack it back in the same two bags that have been following me around the world and take them somewhere new again. For the first time in memory, I felt comfortable where I was. I didn’t want new friends or new adventures or new stories to tell at the dinner table. I just wanted to enjoy what I had. And yet, heading abroad for the summer was not optional, so I finally bit the bullet and headed off.

If I left the US kicking and screaming, I arrived at the Entebbe airport after more than 65 hours of travel hell so happy to be done moving, I nearly cried tears of joy. Just like when I arrived in Nepal, I had almost no idea what to expect from Kampala. And now, here I am.

Where am I exactly, and why?

Map of Africa with UgandaSome basics on Uganda: Located in East Africa, Uganda is bordered by on the east by Kenya, in the north by South Sudan, and to the west and south by the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Lake Victoria. It is home to countless species of animal, including many of the popular safari animals (so maybe I can go on safari!) and is well known for significant populations of mountain gorillas and chimpanzees. The equator runs through the northern part of the country, so the temperature is relatively stable and wet—currently the average daily temperatures are in the mid to upper 70s. Uganda made the news decades ago because of dictator Idi Amin and the brutal years following his exile. International news coverage of Uganda was again focused on violence in the 2000’s because of the presence of the Lord’s Resistance Army, but currently the LRA is not present in the country and Uganda enjoys stability and peace. However, poverty is still endemic, and “development” is a long ways away for most of the country.

Not, however, in my neck of the woods in Kampala. I live in an apartment with my own giant bedroom and bathroom (quite a change from my New York digs), and I have access to all of Kampala’s expat delights within a few minutes drive. Unlike Nepal, where I was living like a local among the locals, here I am living a life of relative luxury—supermarkets full of imported foreign goods (we have truffle salt in the apartment!), a housekeeper every day to wash our dishes and do our laundry, access to malls and fitness centers that put US facilities to shame, and so much more. I already feel pretty weird about the way we (the other white expats) live here, so expect more posts on that as the summer progresses. For now, however, it has made my transition so much easier, and filled me with optimism that this will actually be a fun and enriching summer.

About the work: I’m interning at an organization that focuses on agriculture and nutrition, and I will be working on a data collection survey to assess farmer satisfaction with a crop diversity program that has been in place for a few years. I will be designing a survey, implementing it in different villages and evaluating the results. Totally up my alley- I get to use my anthropology background, do some fieldwork, practice my data analysis and dip my toe in the nutrition field. I can’t wait to really dive in (today was my first day of work) and start learning. Stay posted for updates and the inevitable stories and musings that come with being in an unfamiliar place!

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