Monday, June 30, 2014

“Traveling Abroad Changed My Life” and the Other Lies We Tell Ourselves

Week 6
Jodi-Ann Burey
Lilongwe, Malawi

When I graduated from undergrad in 2008 and entered the workforce bright eyed and bushy tailed, I developed a list of principles to live by to guide myself through my next phase of adulthood. Rule #1: Never lie to yourself. Throughout life, there will be people lined up down the street and wrapped around corners who will lie to my face and engage with me dishonestly. I do not need to be first. If I say I’m going to run marathons, I will run marathons (I’ve completed two). If I say I’m going to go to graduate school, I’m going to graduate school (here I am!). If I’m not sure about something, I will confidently state that I am not sure. I’ve created new qualifiers for statements like, “To the best of my knowledge, I believe that…” or “Based on who I am today, I want to…”, “With all the information that I have now, I think that…” to give me some flexibility to make plans or develop opinions, but still knowing that it may change (and that changing my mind is okay). I try my best everyday to be a woman of my word, one who makes thoughtful plans and promises myself and others only what I know I can keep. 

This past week, I told myself a lie.

In Balaka, the rural district where I have been spending most of my time in Malawi, bucket baths are the norm. You go into someone’s house, there’s a small room with a toilet and a water drain in front of it. Next to that drain you’ll find a bucket, maybe two. One is filled with scalding hot water and the other with cold. Welcome to your bucket bath. 

For the record, I love bucket baths. Two weeks ago, I began writing an unpublished post titled “In Defense of Bucket Baths” where I discuss freshwater security, sustainability, body image issues and all the other benefits associated with bucket bathing. In short, it uses far less water than showers or regular baths. It’s also an intimate and unique way to engage with one’s body, which I feel could add some diversity in the way women are taught to see and treat their bodies— without judgement or objectification. I told myself that when I returned to Ann Arbor, I would start taking bucket baths at least once a week. 

That was a lie. 

I am back in the capital this week for a number of reasons: a bit of volleyball action with the expats at Kumbali, extending my visa, and implementation planning with my supervisor. After the three hour drive from Balaka to Lilongwe, I flipped on the hot water switch as soon as I got to the lodge, turned the knobs and let that glorious steaming shower water run and run and run and run. I think I took the longest shower that I have ever taken in my entire life. The amount of water I used, I am ashamed to say, would probably fill about 12 of those buckets, if not more. 

This caused me to question the anticipation that people, myself included, often have when traveling abroad. That the experience will change our lives or make some big impact on our perspectives or how we navigate ourselves in the world. So much pressure and so much expectation gets piled on top of one international trip. “You’re going to Malawi,” friends would exclaim. “Oh, it will change your life,” is often the statement that follows. 

Challenging oneself. Pushing boundaries. Learning outside of comfort zones. These are no doubt essential elements to having a life changing experience. I question though whether it “still works” when we are hyperaware of the magnitude of our experiences as we experience them. Traveling abroad can most certainly change one’s life, but that to me seems like a realization to be had in hindsight. 

I cannot confidently say that my time here has changed my life. I haven’t even left yet. I’m only half way through my internship. I haven’t even lived a life beyond my experiences here, so how could I know? Maybe in a few years, I’ll know. Maybe I’ll never know and when my kids read my journals or blog post archives, they’ll know. Either way, I don’t think I can, or should, know the impact of my experiences here any time soon. 

Perhaps we spend too much time searching for experiences that can teach us something and not enough time focusing on actually learning. Sometimes we think we’ve learned something, but haven’t had the time to apply that knowledge to say for sure. 

Most of what I experience in Malawi, I will forget. With the passing of time, details that are so clear to me now, I will struggle to recall. This may end up being a defining moment in my personal or professional trajectory, or it could just be that thing I did in 2014. I won’t know and unfortunately, I don’t think there’s anything I can do to influence the impact it will make. All I can do is be observant. Be present in my experiences in the moment. Trust that what I’ll need to stick, will just stick. Embrace the journey. 

Based on all the information I have right now, based on who I am today, this is the best advice I can give. 

And that's the truth.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

‘Kumusta’ Hello

It is over a month I have been in Tagbilaran, Bohol province. I had a chance to go on a trip traveling around Bohol with my roommate’s nieces and nephew who came to visit their aunt on the weekend. In Bohol, there is no other tourist destination more famous than Chocolate Hills. Chocolate Hills is composed of over a thousand perfectly cone-shaped hills, located in the province’s central area. The hills are covered with green grass which turns to chocolate brown during summer. It is a fascinating natural wonder; however, what I am excited most is that finally, I have seen the Philippine tarsiers, one of the smallest primates in the world, in the Tarsier Conservation Area. Tarsiers are only found on the islands of Bohol, Samar, Leyte and Mindanao. Their small size makes them difficult to spot. The name tarsier is taken from its extremely long tarsus bone. They are able to rotate their head 180 to compensate for their immovable eyeballs!  Other landmarks we visited are Blood Compact Monument, Baclayon Church, Simply Butterflies Conservation Center, and Hanging Bridge. We also drove past Mahogany Forest and took a photo shot with ShipHaus. On the next day, we spent a whole day at Dumaluan Beach on Panglao Island. It is a long stretches of powdery sand beach and crystal clear water. What I learned here is that no other souvenir is as good as your foot getting stung by sea urchin. Fortunately, I am doing fine now. Besides, we went on kayaking. I must say it was a tiring weekend but fun!
Chocolate Hills
Dumaluan Beach
I am not only on traveling, at least. This month I have visited CEVI’s branches in Ormoc and Dulag which are on Leyte Island. Therefore, it is my first experience for islands hopping. I even slept overnight on a boat. In order to go to Leyte, I and my lovely Filipino work partner, Tessa, must take a ferry to Cebu Island first, then take another Ferry to Leyte Island. During CEVI's branch visits, I have just learned that each town here in the Philippines has different styles of the Tricycle. So, I don’t miss taking photo each design I saw. I still see debris of houses, churches, and hospitals hit by typhoon Haiyan, particularly in the Dulag area. I am thankful that at least, there are Red Cross, UNICEF, World Vision, and other Non-profit organizations including CEVI helping these victims recover.

My story will not end if I have not talked about local food and desserts yet. In my opinion, most Filipino foods taste pretty much sweet, but I really like chicken adobo my roommate cooks. I definitely will ask her to teach me how to cook it before I leave. I tried a few desserts such as Halo-halo, Leche Flan and Suman Maron. Still, there is another interesting common street food here I must introduce. It is called balot, a developing duck embryo that is boiled alive and eaten in the shell. It is sold only at night along the street, so people will not disgust it while eating. Is that surprising?


Suman Maron
‘Salamat’ Thank you for reading my story and other WDI fellows’ inspiring stories 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Simple happenings in Northern Uganda

It is a very exciting time to work with Mango Fund.  The impact-investing fund based in Kampala, Uganda was started in 2011 in an attempt to fill the “missing middle” - a reference to the large financing gap left between the micro-finance organizations and large institutional lenders.  The vast majority of Uganda’s SMEs (small/medium enterprises) are left capital starved as the large banks consider them to be too risky for investment.

This past week, my co-worker Grace and I rode with Mercy Corps 12 hours north, to look at investments in Uganda's Karamoja region near the South Sudan border.  Mango Fund has partnered with Mercy Corps to assist us in identifying impactful investments in the region, and attempt to bring sustainable development to a region that has become increasingly reliant on substantial grant aid and hand-outs.  The small, modest businesses in the area rarely fit within Mango Funds' traditional portfolio, yet there is an opportunity to make a tangible impact on a place that seems removed entirely from the 21st century.  While we traveled deep into this region, Grace explained a Ugandan proverb, “we can’t wait for Karamoja to develop” - used when something / someone is taking a very, very long time.  The region is entirely cut off from the electric grid and relies on solar to power its minimal energy usage. During my visit, this energy seemed to be primarily used to watch the world cup in crowded, dimly lit bars.

Over the first few days, Grace and I conducted interviews with local businesses during the day and enjoyed intensive chess training sessions in the evening.  Grace is the Ugandan national chess champion and travels the world to compete.

Karamoja is the most remote place I have ever been, and I was eager to explore.  After finishing up with my interviews in the town of Kotido, I borrowed one of Mercy Corps dirt bikes, went off the main roads, and seemingly stepped back in time.  I placed a star on my starting location on Google-maps and cruised along a curvy dirt road that seemed to extend out towards the distant mountain range.  After riding for a bit, I stopped to take a picture of these women and their village.

When my eyes left my camera, I was startled to find a Karamojan man frantically waving his arms and sprinting towards me.  My first instinct was to jump on my bike and escape through the fields, but even from a distance I could tell he was smiling widely and seemed very eager to meet the mzungu (white man) that had improbably wandered out his way.  His steps became more cautious as he came closer, and I patiently waited for him to approach.  I introduced myself with my Karamojan name given to me earlier that day, Iriyama (the one who welcomes all) Lokiro (the one that brings the rain) - but no matter how many creative approaches I took, I couldn’t get my new friend to share his name.   After a while we both tired of the exercise and I decided I would call him George.

George pointed at my bike and then out towards the mountain.  We understood each other for the first time, a good first step.  I nodded in agreement and pointed for him to jump on the bike behind me.  After a while, he managed to clamber on behind me but insisted on reaching around me to grab both handle bars.  I shook my head in disagreement – trying to explain that we couldn’t possibly drive while he held the throttle.  I pointed for him to grab the metal backing on the seat, but he disagreed and opted to hug me firmly across my chest.  We were finally ready to go.  I started the bike and headed in the direction of the mountain.  The path that started off relatively smooth quickly turned rugged.  George began to hold me so tight I could barely breathe and he laughed wildly as we splashed through shallow creek beds and swerved through the thorny underbrush.

A short time later I hopped off to photograph a picturesque village with the mountains as a backdrop.  It became clear that George didn’t necessarily have a destination in mind and he sat confidently and patiently on my bike. Some local children had worked up the courage to approach and introduce themselves by 
smiling and taking turns bouncing down on one knee in front of me in what seemed to be a sign of respect.  I kneeled in response and paused to take their picture while on the ground.  I then showed them each the picture and slowly zoomed in on each of their faces.  For the second time on my journey, I was startled as they started screaming in delight and rushed to line up and pose for a picture again.  The kids and I continued to giggle as we practiced our new game of posing for a picture, rushing to view the picture, and screaming in delight during photo viewing.  During these few minutes, George had begun curiously tampering with every button, knob, and lever on the bike.  I, unlike George, am no motorcycle mechanic and when I returned, I had no clue how to start the altered bike.  People frequently talk about how dangerous the Karamoja region is, but this was the first time I felt vulnerable.  I was now on foot in rugged terrain several miles from our small Karamoja town with no water and completely reliant on my GPS.  I did have my small “dumb-phone” with a bit of service, but I was very intent on not calling my hosts at Mercy Corps to come rescue me.

George astutely realized he had done something wrong and insisted on running and pushing my bike as I sat and steered.  The photo-kids loved this idea and they pushed George while he pushed me.  Our conspicuous parade attracted the attention of all that we passed, and several others came to join.  We continued along for some time until we hit a large creek bed & I hopped off to ford the stream.  I think at this point my friends tired of me and when I looked back across the stream, everyone had mysteriously disappeared.  In what will ultimately be an anticlimactic ending to my afternoon adventure, I hopped back on my bike, located the emergency cut off switch that George had engaged, and cruised back to Kotido, Karimoja.  

I had thoroughly enjoyed my afternoon adventure and continued my explorations whenever possible as I traveled throughout the region:

Locals of Abim are convinced that “Chief Rock” (seen above right) cannot be climbed. Many have attempted the feat and all have either perished or mysteriously disappeared. I have obtained permission from the clan’s elders to one day try my luck and disprove the myth.

Above is a picture of David, my quiet, mysterious 10 year-old guide that I met on my way to hike a mountain and scope out the "Chief Rock" above.  David and his friends hunt for birds and snakes in these mountains with their homemade bow & arrows.  On our long journey through extremely dense brush and over large rocks, David drank no water and wore no shoes (he now owns two pairs for being a fantastic guide).

Kids that I met during a meeting with an agricultural business in town near the Sudanese border.

When returning from our agricultural visit, I persuaded my Mercy Corps friends to take a detour.  We drove through the remote Kidepo national park and took a game drive until we were surrounded, and then pounded, by a heavy storm.

We stayed for several days in the town of Kabong, a rock climber’s paradise.  Regardless of my discretion, most climbs ended in the town pausing to wave and call out to the “crazy mzungu”.

I continue to ride out and wander whenever possible.

Thank you for reading!

Until my next tough week on the job ;)


Greetings From the Horn

 Upon landing in the thin air of Addis Ababa and taking that first breath of fresh air after a long flight, one finds it even more challenging to the lungs by perhaps the most lax emissions environment I have ever experienced. The dry mountain air seems almost schizophrenic as you walk through cool, fresh breezes into dusty patches of African sun. Smells of coffee, spices, fresh injera and seasoned meats fill the main streets of my small “off the beaten path” neighborhood. One is instantly reminded not to breath too deeply as it only takes a few steps off of those main streets until a less welcoming scent begins to permeate the air. A scent that seemingly begs you to acknowledge the stark economic disparity that is the reality of Addis Ababa. The lights of Bole, the cathedrals, the architectural relics of Menelik and Haile Selassie; each part of the beautiful face of a city seething just below the surface. Of a people so purely Ethiopian, so charismatically Habesha, that they are at the cusp between prideful acceptance and (perhaps revolutionarily) demanding more.

As for Habesha people, what could I possibly do but sing their praises? Gracious and welcoming in every situation, guests are always taken care of first and respected in the highest. I end up wondering when or if the guest label is going to wear off!  At times it feels like a barrier, an invisible veil separating myself from next level of companionship and cultural richness that “guests” don’t get to experience. I feel it lifting at times; when I’m no longer offered the sugar first, when I get laughed at for something that isn’t simply pronunciation based, perhaps I feel it most when I am no longer warned that what I ordered may be “too hot for a ferenji.”
The work is great. Coming into the office everyday to be served the warm caffeinated beverage of your choice? How come nobody told me about that perk? (Not to make you jealous, but it happens at 3:00 as well)

From first arriving at the GETF offices in Arlington until this very morning, I am continuously motivated by the energy of those around me. There is spirit amongst all in the field of WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) that connects them to a common goal. I feel thankful to be part of that team.

Monday, June 23, 2014

How do we help?

Rwanda, like the other countries my fellow WDI interns are working in this summer, is a place with great need, a place where daily life for many bears none of the ease we are used to in America. The signs of hardship here can be deeply graphic. People here tend to talk about the 1994 genocide in the vaguest of terms, and yet each day on my walk across the bus station, through the market, and up the stairs to my office, I’m confronted with beggars whose bodies bear heart-wrenching evidence of the atrocities: amputated legs, missing hands, swollen feet, scarred faces . They reach their hands up, calling out, “Sister, please” as I walk by. While walking downtown with a friend, we were surrounded by a group of young children, maybe five or six years old, who followed us down the street, saying “Madam, I am suffering. Give me money.” And one evening last week as I was walking home, a teenage boy began walking along side me, asking me if I knew of anywhere he could get a job and whether I could give him even 50 francs ($0.10) so he could buy food to eat that night.

Like most people here, they assume that since I’m a light-skinned foreigner, I am wealthy – and by the standards of living here, I am, despite the fact that back home I’m a student with no income and plenty of debt. So far, I’ve responded to these requests the same way I would at home – I keep walking, maybe averting my eyes or shaking my head and saying “sorry” as I continue on. At home, I rationalize these choices through my (intermittent) volunteer work and support of organizations that provide services to those in need. The logical side of me rationalizes that giving money to one individual isn’t going to solve the real problem and that established organizations have greater capacity to address the root causes. Somehow, here that distinction doesn’t sit with me quite as well. I could very well have spared the money the teenage boy asked for, or handed over the orange that sat in my bag. And yet I didn’t – why, I’m not exactly sure. It’s partially the lesson that’s been deeply engrained in me during my previous travels – if you help one person, you’ll be surrounded by others expecting you to help them as well. There is certainly an element of fear about putting myself in a situation that spirals out of control, but I think there’s something else at work as well.

There was a recent article in the New York Times about Honolulu’s response to a growing homeless population. Many of the policies focus on moving the homeless population out of the prime tourist area of Waikiki: a twisted version of the old saying “Out of sight, out of mind.” Like Honolulu, Rwanda is also struggling with how to address the needs of its people while creating an environment that appeals to tourists, one of the country’s target growth sectors; while I haven’t read much about the policies here, what I’ve heard suggests that they share some commonalities with those in Hawaii. As I read the NYT piece, I found myself agreeing deeply with a quote in the article from Jerry Jones, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, who asks, “Have we gotten so out of touch with reality that our first reaction to people experiencing destitution that it spoils our view of the beach?” – how can it be that even in America, our response to homelessness is to simply move the homeless to some place less intrusive, as if it the situation is their fault alone? And yet I recognize the tension between my reaction to the article and my silent wishes that I could just walk to work without being asked for money by the destitute of Rwanda , that the need here didn’t confront me so directly, or even that I could truly believe that I don’t have the capacity to help , which would allow me to go back to the plausible deniability I’ve established at home.

That last one is a strange thought for me to have: I’ve always thought of myself as a compassionate person, thoughtful about how I choose to help, but certainly eager to help when I have the power to do so. There are two things that have defined my path in life for just about as long as I can remember: finding the right person to share my life and create a loving family with (I love you and miss you, Tyler) and working in a career that allows me to improve some corner of the world, to make life better for someone. That second goal is part of what drew me to a WDI internship in the first place: I wanted to have the opportunity to use the skills I've acquired in grad school improve lives, to make a difference. And my work here does do that: over the next month and a half, Nuru will provide clean, affordable lighting to 20,000 households and establish 130 village businesses in rural Rwanda that will provide a sustainable source of income to their communities – impressive numbers to be sure. Yet, given the depth of need that confronts me each day, it feels insufficient. 

I’m not sure how I’m going to deal with these situations going forward – I don’t think my heart can bear continuing to walk by without responding, and yet I’m conscious of the fact that simply throwing money at these situations also won’t really help. So I’m posing the question to my fellow interns and other readers of this blog: How do you handle these situations? How can we help in a responsible manner? And how do we manage the heartbreak of knowing we can never help everyone? 

My Love Affair With Soccer/Football (the real one)!

This pizza menu that has English Premiership teams as
the names of the pizza made my day( please note
Manchester United is the most expensive and
probably the best, rightfully so)
Anybody who knows me well , knows that I have two great loves in my life, Dance and Soccer/Football. To avoid confusion, in this post I am choosing to call it soccer instead of football. I am a  huge huge soccer fan( not to be understated), and I love the game like it’s my job! I like to think I am too much of a “lady” to actually be a fanatic, but when my friend retells the story of how she thought I was going to fight this one Romanian guy at a bar, I think I am bordering on fanaticism a bit, perhaps. The 2010 South Africa Soccer World Cup is still one of my best vacations ever! I think my goal in life is to be rich enough that I can take a whole month off during soccer world cup years and sit in VIPs of every game there! I am kidding, I actually have other dreams and ambitions, like you know, saving the world and stuff, but probably just so people can play soccer and I can enjoy it! I had never taken the time to reflect on my whole soccer fanaticism thing until this summer when I found myself hustling each day to watch the Brazil Soccer World Cup, at odd hours of the night in a foreign country!

my latest Manchester United Jersey
Soccer and I have a love affair that people I meet and none of my friends have ever been able to comprehend, “especially” for a girl! I try to be offended by this slightly sexist view of my soccer fanaticism, before I realize that I happen to be the only girl amongst a bunch of guys, waiting for my favorite sports bar in Chicago, Fado, to open at 7am,  so I can catch the first English Premiership game of the day. For my team, the red devils aka Manchester united, I have been known to brave a lot of things including the cold, sleep deprivation and hangovers!

Watching the World Cup in Addis, thats Ryan Giggs
commenting for SuperSport on there!
Who is he you say,
only one of the greatest footballers the English
have ever had and a proud red devil
 I was exposed to soccer at a very young age, being it’s the most popular sport in Africa. My family circumstances really led me down this path of no return. Being the last of 5 children in my family, by the time I grew up everyone was gone from the house. I only had my parents as my pseudo siblings, especially my father who I adored and loved everything that he loved, including soccer. With a house almost overrun by women( 5 women and 1 guy), he was only too happy for the company and a child he could treat like a boy. I remember first falling in love with the local team that he worshipped in our local league,  Dynamos “DeMbare.” My first live soccer game was one in which Dembare thrashed some menial team 5-0, and the euphoria in the air from the game had me hooked. This turned out to be my one and only live soccer game in Zimbabwe, because a few years later there was a stampede at the local stadium when an altercation between the police and some losing fans got out of control, and 13 people were killed. 2 of siblings were lucky to escape with their lives, but my mother forbade any of us from ever going to a live soccer game again.

 If you count my high school boyfriends up to now, I look like a serial dater, but that’s only having me as a girlfriend in high school was completely useless. I cared more about arguing out the game and placing bets on soccer games with a bunch of boys than about holding hands and whatever people did in high school! My relationships consequently lasted not more than 3 months each time, oh well, high school!

As you can see one of my favorite pastimes is
taking pictures
of myself in Manchester United jerseys
I then moved to the US and in my first few years I felt deathly deprived of soccer. Being an avid fan of the English Premiership, I found myself in the wrong time zone for all my games and in a country where nobody cared about my beloved sport. As the months and years went by, I felt like a piece of my world had been taken away from me. At that same time, I was also fighting being culturally changed by America. I woke up one morning and I had dreamt in English instead of my mother tongue and it terrified me! It became so important for to me to keep pieces of my old self intact, especially my love for soccer. Everybody in my dorm remembers my first college boyfriend, as Nancy’s football player, but I never once showed up for his games because I was determined to not be sucked into anything American. In fact, one of our biggest fights was over him ditching our plans for a superbowl party! Never mind that super bowl parties are now some of my favorite parties of the year and, I actually cried when the Bears lost to the Packers last season.

me at the 2010 Soccer World Cup
I have acclimatized to American sports, I even call soccer football now,  but my American friends still do not get my beautiful game at all. I was so glad to be in Africa this summer where people are as crazy about it as I am, and I do not have to explain to them the wonder behind 20 men chasing around a ball for 90 minutes. A true soccer fan knows it’s not just about what’s happening on the pitch(which in itself is pure magic, the skill, the intelligence in the strategies, everything),  but all what is transpiring with everyone else in the stadium or bar. Soccer is more than just a game. Soccer fans are some of the most emotionally attached sports fans out there, sometimes getting ugly to the tune of the shooting death of the Colombian player who scored an on-goal to get Colombia eliminated from the 1994 world cup. Outside of the ugliness, what the world cup brings every four years is a platform for millions of people across the world to identify with each other on a level that they never do otherwise. Those 90 minutes, that sometimes do not produce a goal, are a platform on which the world sets asides its differences and become one in the name of the beautiful game. A ceasefire was brokered in the civil war in Ivory Coast after their team qualified for the 2006 World cup and the country icon Didier Drogba begged the opposing sides to lay down their arms.  Soccer fans like to call the game a religion, and indeed the stadium is our church and in Sweden, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is their god!
King Ibrahimovic, the Swede who is
 one of the greatest footballers of this age!

Vuvuzelas all day!
Soccer is more than just a game for me too, for personal reasons. The physical distance between my family and I over the years, has also meant a chasm between the life my family lives and can comprehend in Zimbabwe to the one I have built for myself across the globe. It has become especially hard since I switched my career plans from the traditional physician track that I was on, to something that my parents are not even sure I am going to get a job with. After they had spent years telling everyone that I am a doctor in America, the meaning of this MPH/MBA business, and worse working in Africa, where I am supposed to have escaped completely eludes them. My parents used to hang onto every word I said on the phone to them, asking me to describe everything in detail so that they could somehow feel a part of my world but lately our conversations have been reduced to hearing the other’s voice, an finding out if the other is alive and in 5 minutes we are done, unless I bring up soccer.

You just need to ask my father if he watched the last game and it launches him into a full-on analysis of the game and the blunders that the referee made as well as how he could have strategized the game for our favorite team. I sit back and listen contently to his excited voice and I am taken back to 12 years ago when my dad and I would be on the edge of our seats yelling at the TV and my mum would in turn be yelling at us to just go into the TV and play the game ourselves! My family and I might have lost years and some emotional connection to each other but we still have soccer. Every soccer fan has a beautiful memory attached to the game in this way, that’s why soccer is called the beautiful game!

To lighten up the mood, here is John Oliver’s take on the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the issues in Brazil concerning it, but also a reflection on why soccer matters to the world!

                                    John Oliver’s rant about the World Cup

Lastly I am going to make a few calls regarding the World cup. My money is on the Dutch or the Germans taking this one! Brazil does not stand a chance! In addition a quick shoutout to my fellow red devils reading this and if you have the bad taste in life to bleed blue (Chelsea), our friendship is over before it even started!
All about the Dutch at the 2010 Soccer World Cup
Bleed red, through and through!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Mumbai Greets!

      First 2 weeks in Mumbai greeted me with a warm welcome. The city has many facets and my experience here definitely opened my eyes to a stage where various societies from different economic levels are cohabiting in a rapidly moving city and nation. Prior to coming to Mumbai, I sought out my Indian friends at Ross for some survival tips – transportation (rickshaw), dress-code, areas to stay, temperature etc. I was glad to have done that. This is something which I've treasured being a Rosser, being able to reach out to other Rossers at any time and vice versa. That being said, rickshaw has been my best discovery thus far. It is small, affordable, and gets you to places quickly (15Rs minimum for a little over 1km ride)
A typical scene of Bandra station during peak hours

Gettin' off Ladies Coach, hard to notice but I am in the crowd!
     A visit to Mumbai will not be complete without trying out the local public transport system. My travel to Krishi Star office begins with a rickshaw ride to Bandra station, then a train ride to Sewri, an industrial town 4 stops away. With as little as 1Rs, one can travel on a train. Because it is so affordable to anyone, the train, with its rustic metal design is serving beyond its capacity. I felt lucky to be able to get onto the Ladies Coach, signified by a traditional Indian woman pictorial drawing on the coach’s door. It is almost always less packed and safer. In the men’s coach, especially class II, there is absolutely NO room to breathe and packed like sardines especially during peak hours. Local riders swiftly hop on and off the train, even when it hasn’t come to a full stop. As one local said to me, “you don’t have to use much energy because you will be pushed down by the crowd’. After several rides, I quickly learnt how to hop on and off as well. It’s a good skill to have especially when there is no warning or announcement to signal that the train is starting soon.  
Railway communities

     With the hustle bustle of the evolving city, one can’t help but also notice the poor and unfortunate city dwellers. Along the railways, I observed multiple communities, some large and some small, all depending on the railway and river for their livelihood. In art, one seeks creativity in search for work none like the others. Here, creativity works by helping to fulfill basic needs like shelter, food, and other basic necessities. The more I observe, the more I wonder “how do people in these communities make a living?” Hopefully my journey forward will offer me a glimpse to understand more of the creative ways that allow these communities to flourish.

     One of the highlight of my visit is to the Mount Mary church here in hillock in Bandra overlooking the Arabian Sea. It is over century old but still maintain its architectural beauty. Although I am personally not a Christian devotee, I took the opportunity to pray for the poor and also health of my family members. Best time to visit is sunrise or sunset. A short walk from the church will take you straight to the coast overlooking the sea.

Mount Mary Church
Segue into a different topic:   Temperature...
With an average temperature of 35C (95F) and higher at mid-day, the city is patiently waiting for the arrival of the annual monsoon around this time of the year. Word from the locals is that it is arriving rather later this year, perhaps due to climate change. As a native of the tropics, I expected myself to get acclimated to the weather much easier. And of course, as life always taught me the hard way, the reality always bites. True enough, 2-weeks after my first day here, I had fever and throat infection, and had to go to OPD. But lucky enough, my apartment is 10 minutes walking distance away from Lilavati Hospital (a famous hospital for Bollywood stars, I later learnt) to get help. 
Note to future interns:
In every one of my post, I will try to include one note for future interns. This way I can keep track of them and make sure to pass it on. For this week:
1. Always know where the closest hospital / clinic is
2. Absolute requirement:  Small change (common response from rickshaw to foreigners- No Change!), Cold water(to cool down), Honk resistance (people here honk a lot!)

“You’ll Have an Easier Time”: Reflections on Being Black and American in Malawi

Week 4
by  Jodi-Ann Burey
Balaka, Malawi

I had great hesitation to post this reflection because it gives insights into a very personal and specific experience that I know does not represent the “average” experience abroad. But even “average” itself is a coded word that is inherently exclusive and keeps the experiences of people of color on the margins. I also hesitated to post it because I fear it may breed resentment among some who, because of the color of their skin, cannot share the experiences I have had. Despite all this hesitation, I am choosing to share my experience because it is just that— my experience. This is my lens. I am offering this to you all, not to represent the experiences had by all black people, or people of color, or people who share the same skin color with those within the country where they travel, but instead it’s an offering of nuance and complexity. It is my hope that you walk away from this post with a more opened mind and a more robust understanding of how different people can experience the world in different ways.
"Three Generations"-- Picture of the Week

“Mwadzuka bwanji!”
“Good morning!”

Besides learning how to say thank you in Chichewa, zikomo kwambiri, I figured learning how to say good morning, and the appropriate response, would be a good way to break the ice with my Malawian office mates. As the intern sent here to perform an organizational assessment of the field offices, it’s important that I’m friendly with the staff since there’s some unspoken anxiety about why I am here. The idea that I am here to help and not to be a spy, has to be emphasized during each meeting. 

“Mwadzuka bwanji!”, however, has taken on new meaning outside of just making nice at work. Whether I am on my morning run, which more often than not ends up just being a walk— a terrible reality that doesn’t make the fact that I’ve already registered for the 2014 Detroit Free Press Half Marathon in October seem like a good idea— or on my way to the store or to lunch, I am greeted with “Mwadzuka bwanji!” or other versions of it wherever I go. Even more often, the men and boys who ride these bicycle taxis ring their horns, look at me and say, “ Madame….” and continue to converse with me in Chichewa. Assuming they’re asking if I want I ride, I motion “No” and they easily continue on their way. 

The only paved road in Balaka

It’s been a few days of this now and I’ve finally realized that people are assuming that I’m Malawian.

On the surface, being a black skinned foreigner has its perks. When I walk down the road, people don’t pay any attention to me. Children don’t follow me or come up to me to practice their English. Going to the busy markets is a breeze. I don’t get followed or aggressively solicited by vendors. I’m a foreigner hiding in plain sight. Even when they do find out that I’m from the States, people seem to be open with me, ask me a lot of questions about my experiences and are even more curious about my Jamaican background. Most importantly, I always get charged the local price. (This is a far cry from my shopping experiences in the States, where I am approached regularly by fellow customers who assume that I am an employee.)

Women in the lodges allow me in their kitchens to chat, make my tea or roast the peanuts I purchase at the market. I’ve been invited on weekend errands in the local markets. Zabi, the woman who owns the restaurant where I have lunch everyday, invited me to stay at her home in Blantyre for the weekend, cook local food for me and show me around.

Trip to the Market

These boys INSISTED that I take their photo!
Zabi told me that the 15 year old waiter, who had been serving me lunch all week, said to her, “Ma, there’s a woman who keeps coming here and she doesn’t speak Chichewa! How is that possible?” He was totally perplexed. It’s like he wasn’t able to fathom that I could be black and American and traveling to his district all at the same time.

Digging deeper, my ability to “blend in” here has a tragic underbelly— Malawians’ limited exposure to black Westerners. (Perhaps this is also true with other African countries, but because I haven’t experienced this firsthand, I cannot make this generalization.) There are grave inequalities stratified across race and class in the United States. This may present a structural limitation on the ability for people of color to travel to remote places in the Global South. It may also be possible that first or second generation immigrants of color travel to their familial origins instead of other places. Perhaps it’s this idea that our parents have already migrated from the Global South, why voluntarily return to the dirt roads and cold water bucket baths? Why aren’t there more black Westerners traveling to the Global South? This is a complex question with layers of complex answers.

Scalding hot bucket bath- my evening ritual
Prior to my departure for Malawi, a peer commented to me that because I am black, I would have "an easier time”. I didn’t think much about this comment, particularly since I myself had been mulling over how my complexion would impact my experience. I just filed it in the back of my head under the heading, “Think about this later.” 

Well, I’ve thought about it and here are my conclusions:

This assumption that the color of your skin can make your time in another country ‘easier’ or ‘harder’ completely undermines the practiced skill of connecting with others across difference. In the case of my “blackness”, it also assumes that blackness is homogenous and in its homogeneity creates an identity strong enough to unite ALL black people, despite different experiences and understandings of race specifically, and a different cultural experience in life overall. This assumption also highlights how “blackness” is othered in the United States. That it’s something that stands out. That it must be named. Categorized separately. The Black Church. The Black Community. The Black Experience. Black History Month. And while on the subject of history, why is it that American history textbooks have separate chapters, and more often just paragraphs, about the histories of and contributions from black, latino, asian and native american people? Because whiteness is invisible. It is people of color who must be named. 

In Malawi, blackness… well, blackness just is. 

"A Fellowship of Women" 

Surely, I have experienced a lot of access here but it is unfair and plainly inaccurate to say this is solely due to my skin color. There are more plausible factors like friendliness, curiosity about people and open to deeper discussions, or having patience for conversing with someone who struggles with English. Perhaps it is that I am a young woman traveling alone, which makes it easier to have extended conversations with strangers. Maybe it could be my fierce independence and my discomfort with having people wait on me. Perhaps it’s the part of me that rejects my Americanness and the presumption that American women can’t do anything on their own— “No Mercy (the lodge cook), I will scrub my own clothes in the bucket and hang them on the line, thank you.” Perhaps there’s something about performing some of those chores manually that remind me of the stories my mother tells me about her own childhood. Maybe my doing them changes how others engage with me here. Perhaps, for just once, my race doesn’t matter as much as we’ve been taught in the States that it should. 

In Malawi, foreigners are referred to as “mzungu”, which directly translates to “white person”. What do you call me? What do you call a black person? Munthu. In Malawi, I am referred to as a “munthu”, which directly translates to “person”. That’s it. No special qualifiers. No special classification. No hyphenations. I’m just a person. 

To be called a “person,” a whole person, is not only historically significant, but frees me to just be Jodi-Ann. A person who has interests, ideas, and contributions that have nothing to do with the color of her skin. In Malawi, my blackness becomes invisible. Now, this isn’t to say that “blackness” is a burden, per se. While it is important to me, I must also recognize that race is indeed a social construct and its importance is part of that socialization.

This also isn’t tit-for-tat. My black skin privilege in Malawi isn’t some kind of “ha ha ha, in your face” thing or revenge for my inability to access white skin privilege in the States. 

This is, however, my attempt to locate my racial experiences in Malawi within the broader context of my everyday life in the States. 

This is me. 

This is me taking refuge in the fleeting breath, this small window of opportunity for the color of my skin to not be the only thing people see. 

This is me, holding on to the quick snap of the fingers of the story of my life where my “blackness” isn’t the most captivating thing about me. 

This is me, reveling in the chance to explore who I am for myself and have others experience who I am without the cloak my “blackness” blocking their ability to see me. To really see me

Where will my thoughts go now that I don’t need to wonder why the city buses in Ann Arbor fill up every morning save the one empty seat next to me? 

I’m really not sure, but I’m excited to find out. 

Obligatory selfie in my new chitenje