Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A short history

Somewhere between my obsession with Gucci handbags and my hate of consumerism, I fell in love with Africa.

Maybe I felt that it was the best match for my personality: forever caught between the past and future, precariously balanced on the tight rope of indecision, flickly looking for the next best thing to pull me out of despair. We were kindred spirits, Africa, and I, both misunderstood and on a whole too complicated to fit neatly into any box.

We became soul mates the moment I touched down in Tanzania, 5 years ago in my multi-pocketed khaki pants and hand sanitizer, my long hair neatly French-braided in case of what? In case it got in the way of my saving the world, I suppose.

I went to Tanzania with an undefined mission. I wasn't silly enough to think I could save the world, but I was certain that I could make a difference in at least one person's life, and I felt that if I could do that, I could go back to the U.S. and be 'fulfilled' in some way. Maybe apply what I had learned to a successful future in stock-trading or work as an economist in Washington. After all, I never felt that NGO's and AID were the answer to the developing world's "problems." Little did I know that instead of me saving Africa... Africa would save me from an ordinary life, and through that I would never feel that home was anywhere else.

In the last 5 years my experiences, in a nutshell, have included: working in a mother and childrens health clinic in a rural village where I did everything from mop up blood and weigh children to council women on AIDS awareness and deliver babies. I've put out fires, both literally and figuratively. I've grown too attached to too many children in orphanages and learned that I don't have enough tears in my body to do them justice. I've spent long hours in the office working on grants, I've rolled in the grass with sick kids. I've heard stories from little girls that would break your heart but also ones that would make you smile at the triumph of the human spirit. I've been stuck in the mud, and I've waited in line at the bank. A lot. I've listened to old men talk about why femaile circumcision is virtuous but I've also heard old men talk about the importance of educating girls. And I've been thanked time and time again. For what? For just being here.

It took me a long time in this part of the world before I ditched my safari gear in exchange for some heels and dress slacks. Even longer for me to trash my hand sanitizer (the answer to Africa's woes can not be found in pocket-sized cleaning products), stop brushing my teeth with bottled water and slap on some mascara and lip gloss once in a while. In other words, I've found a balance. I've realized that I don't have to forsake everything I was, everything the "first" world helped me become to be here.

Flash forward five years and for better or worse, I've lost a bit of my naive idealism and gained a healthy dose of 'This Is Africa-ism' (TIA). I relate this feeling to the kind where you have no words left, and you just want to put your head on your desk and make the world disappear. It happens at least once a week for me. Most of this is caused by exhausting cultural misunderstandings that range from minor annoyances to the ever-dreaded "WHAT AM I DOING HERE?" feeling that grips your chest in a vice as you anxiously try to figure out if it's all for naught.

It's not all for naught. An entirely too laughable and easy to remember mantra I repeat to myself on hard days. I've been extremely lucky in the past year or so to find a project in Uganda that suits my need to balance business ethics and the entrepreneurial spirit with a non-profit platform. CAMARA
is an Irish organization that sends refurbished computers to schools in Africa (Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Rwanda, Zambia and Tanzania). We focus on using computers running Linux Edubuntu as a tool for education. We feel education is the biggest force in the fight against poverty, and I'm proud to be a part of it. I'm currently in the midst of setting up African Headquarters in Kampala, which I feel is appropriate, given the energy surrounding technology here. And it may sound cliche but every time I see a teachers face light up because she's learned how to do a lesson plan on an excel spreadsheet, I'm thankful I'm here (even if I can't get Reese's Peanut Butter cups).

So, this is me finally giving into the idea of starting a blog. For a long time I wondered why anyone would want to hear what I had to say. After all, I've had my share of friends and relatives eyes glaze over at the mention of Africa. But I've decided I'm no less remarkable than anyone else out there with a blog and a story. I want this blog to give me perspective and encourage conversation. I want to know why people are interested in Africa, and why they're not. I want to know how donor drain is affecting you, about emerging technologies, about open-source software and how you feel about 'development.' And yes, sometimes I'll even want to know about the newest Gucci handbags.