Sorry for the delay. This week has been a whirlwind of: breakfast meetings, lunch meetings, working teas, rolexes (not the watch), MPs, NGOs, CSOs, MDGs, SDGs, PPPs, BITs, FTAs, FDA, ODA, trade policy, tax policy, agriculture policy, environment policy, policy policy, workshops, conferences, samosas, dialogues, fairs, and plenary discussions. It has been a week of: hotel lunches, Korean BBQs, spotty wifi, secretariat work, boda bodas, night clubs, swim clubs, “dead food”, smoothies, bad cell phone reception, reading, writing, editing, rereading, rewriting, and reediting. Since Monday, my boss has sent me to: a two day long regional workshop on Sustainable Agriculture and Environmental Management, a meeting on domestic tax policy put on by SEATINI, an Action Aid meeting on agriculture, a two day long Civil Society Organization (CSO) fair, a meeting on how bilateral trade and free trade agreements impact the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and a meeting to discuss a World Bank project proposal. I have eaten no less than 25 samosas, 20kgs of matooke, 10kgs of rice, and 13 mangoes. I have also drunken my weight in African tea.
It is safe to say that I am getting some serious exposure to the insane world of the NGO. However, after only six weeks on the job, I would hardly call myself an expert; in fact, I don’t think I even qualify as a beginner. If the NGO world is a ski resort then I am the guy on the bunny hill, inching down the slope while six year-olds zoom past him. Hey, at least I am on the hill! Hopefully in 8 weeks’ time I will be ready to jump on the ski lift and navigate steeper slopes, but for now I will embrace the thrills of the bunny hill… “zooooom”… damnit, there goes another six year-old.
Fortunately, I have gained some insights during my short time on the slopes. As such, I have decided to compile these insights into a short ‘how to’ guide for those interested in strapping on the skis and giving NGO mountain a whirl. I’m sure the guide will grow as my Scholars and I continue on our adventures so what follows is a small taste of the lessons I’ve learned so far. While I would like to expand on each lesson in full, for the purposes of this entry I will limit my insights to lessons learned from meetings, and provide some brief anecdotes along the way.
Lesson#1: Meeting Times
- The 9th law of thermodynamics dictates that every meeting you attend will start no less than 30 minutes late. This law is contingent on you arriving on time or early for the meeting. The 10th law says that meetings will only start on time if you plan to arrive late.
- There will always be at least 1 keynote speaker who does not arrive at the meeting until after lunch.
- No matter when they start, meetings will usually end at least an hour later than scheduled. That is, if lunch is at 1:00pm, plan to eat no sooner than 2:00pm. Pro tip: there are usually a few samosas in on a table in the hall way. If things get urgent, subtly sneak one or two, chew fully before reentering the meeting and don’t look any staff directly in the eye. They know what you did; you know what you did.
- Morning and evening tea will never take place within an hour of their scheduled time unless the chairperson is hungry.
- If you are driving to a meeting in rush hour, do not expect to arrive until at least noon.
- If you are taking a boda boda in rush hour, god save you. Wear a helmet. Please, wear a helmet.
Lesson #2: Meeting Food
- If you are at a breakfast meeting, you are in luck. Chances are that you have arrived long before most other attendees and will be rewarded for your punctuality with an endless stream of eggs, bacon, sausages, toast, fresh fruit, and African tea. Although you have to get up a bit earlier than you might like for breakfast meetings, a stomach full of free and delicious food outweighs any fatigue you might feel.
- Morning tea will always consist of samosas, chapatti, or both. If it is self-serve, take advantage; don’t be afraid to eat 1 (or 5) more than socially acceptable. After all, it is 11:45 and tea was supposed to be at 10:00. You deserve a treat for waiting so patiently while the chair of the meeting gave her/his subjective opinion of the presentations for the past half hour. If the hotel staff is serving then you better smile really big and quietly beg for enough food to sustain you until lunch.
- Lunch: steamed rice, matooke, groundnut sauce, Irish potatoes, cabbage salad, beef/fish, and a 300ml bottle of pop. There are few constants in our universe; the lunch menu at meetings in Uganda is one of the few. Some physicists are still trying to hammer out an equation to fully explain why, so for now we will just have to accept it for what it is.
- Evening tea: same as morning tea. I suggest you eat a big lunch as the 3:00pm tea break usually occurs around 5:30pm.
- Do not put more food on your plate than the overweight MP who is in line in front of you. After all, it is his embezzled tax money that is paying for the meeting, not yours. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you!
Lesson #3: Religion
- 98% of the meetings you attend will start with a prayer/devotion. Learn the songs, live the songs, love the songs.
- The other 2% will save the prayer until just before tea time.
- If you want to fit in, I also recommend bringing your bible and pick out your favorite verses beforehand. You will be asked to reference your bible several times throughout the prayer.
- The priest/pastor/bishop to civilian ration will be no less than 1:7 at any given meeting. At least one priest/pastor/bishop will fall asleep during the meeting 100% of the time.
Lesson # 4: Greetings
- Everybody introduces themselves at the beginning of a meeting. It does not matter if there are 3 attendees or 300; you will be passed a microphone and are expected to let the chairperson know who she or he is up against. If you want to mess with people, say one sentence in a British accent and the next with a Norwegian twang. Most attendees will assume you are from either: Denmark, Finland, Norway, Germany, or UK. Might as well cover all your bases early on.
- Somebody will always have a cooler title than you so don’t try to upstage them. Just say “Intern, Food Rights Alliance Secretariat” and then pass the microphone to the Human Rights Astronaut Business Lawyer of the Sea sitting next to you.
- If you shake somebody’s hand, expect to hold that person’s hand for the remainder of the conversation. At first it is weird, then comforting, then something that you look forward to.
Lesson #5: Speaking Times/Questions
- The 11th law of thermodynamics tells us that if a presenter is given X amount of time to present, she or he will present for no less than 5X. i.e., Px ≥ 5X à P10MINUTES ≥ 5(10) à P10MINUTES ≥ 50minutes. I am in social sciences, okay!?!
- The chair will usually abuse her or his position by adding highly subjective/inflammatory statements to their opening and closing remarks. If you want some good entertainment, look at the reactions of the panelists during the chair’s summaries. MPs will always shake their heads in disapproval, Cabinet Ministers and high ranking bureaucrats are stone-faced, and Civil Society Representatives are grinning from ear to ear – unless they are from the private sector, then they roll their eyes.
- Questions/plenary discussions will take at least twice the time they are given in the schedule, but that is okay because they are the most entertaining part of the meeting. There will always be one or to CSO representatives that decide to use their time with the microphone to grace the room with a drawn-out lecture on a topic that has little to do with the one being discussed.
- Realize that an on time schedule is an ideal that is meant to be attempted, but never achieved.
- The chairperson will always ask the room to keep questions brief.
- Questions are never brief.
Lesson #6: Meeting Places
- Hotel Africana: the rooms are air-conditioned and there are usually enough water bottles for all. The note pads are only eight pages long so be sure to bring six or seven backups with you. Wifi is spotty and the people at the business center will only give you the password if you greet them in Luganda.
- Pope Paul: best tea snacks in Kampala and always more than enough water. Wifi is non-existent so bring your modem and a prayer if you want to use the internet.
- Lavanda: looks can be deceiving. The rooms are stifling and the lunch/tea is not self-serve = you will never be full. Wifi is the best in Mengo!
- Hotel Metropole: the Cadillac of all hotels. If you manage to score a breakfast meeting there, then you better call your parents and thank them for giving you life. Excellent wifi AND air-conditioned.
- Any secretariat: no food, no wifi, maybe tea.
Lesson #7: Patience
- Meetings can be stressful, especially if they start two hours late or if lunch is not served until 3:30p, but never lose sight of the fact that you are very lucky to be there in the first place. VERY LUCKY!
- Remember: things might happen at a different pace than you are used to, but don’t let that deter you. Your focus should not be on when the meeting occurs but rather what you can take away from it.
- If you get worked up: slow down, grab a samosa, write a blog entry, and take a minute to reflect on what you can do to understand the environment you find yourself in.
Lesson #8: An “Insane” Conclusion
I heard a few fellow swimmers singing “My Favorite Things” from “The Sound of Music” as I stumbled on the pool deck shortly after 6:00 this morning. A grin immediately appeared on my tired, windblown face. I approached them and asked why they were singing a song from “The Sound of Music”, especially this early in the morning. The other swimmers thought that waking up to swim so early was nothing short of insane. They said that a happy song helped them through the painful few minutes between arriving on deck and diving in the icy water. The coach then walked on deck and the songs came to a sudden stop. All I could do was smile as I stood on the starting block, listening to my coach read off warm-up while watching the sun rise over the hills of Naguru. I finally found something that a Ugandan deems insane, but is completely normal (if not comforting) to me: Saturday morning practice.
While abroad, travelers often find the local way of doing things to be insane. My time in meetings and at the pool has taught me that Ugandans are not insane, I am. After all, who in their right mind eats lunch at 12:00 noon or readily dives in a pool at 6:30 on a Saturday morning?
See you around,