I’ve always hated Sundays. Ever since I was a young child the anticipation of the coming week about to begin, combined with the anxiety of said week’s challenges always made me feel a bit restless. Tonight is no exception. I am about to begin yet another adventure – a big, big, slightly scary, big, adventure. In late March I – along with four other incredibly talented and intelligent students – was selected as one of Dalhousie University’s first Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Scholars. Fancy title; my Mom is pretty proud…
As I look towards the new adventures that inevitably lie ahead (writing an honours thesis, applying to laws schools and grad schools, and living in Halifax for one more year) I cannot help but reflect on the adventure I embarked on only a few short months ago.
It feels like just yesterday that I stood on my front porch in Halifax, waiting for Rachel and her mother to pick me up and take me to the airport. The previous day was, bar none, the best day of my life. The Rideau Hall Foundation and other supporters of the QES program flew me to Ottawa to attend a dinner hosted by Canada’s Governor General, David Johnston and my political hero, Jean Chretien. I had some time to kill before the dinner so, like any good nerd, I decided to spend the day watching Question Period in the House of Commons gallery. In the evening, I wined and dined with some of Canada’s most influential and well-respected people. I remember thinking two things to myself after I gave a short thank you speech to His Excellency, Mr. Chretien and the other attendees of the dinner: (1) No matter what happens in Uganda, I can die happy; and (2) Rideau Hall has not seen the last of me. I will be back.
A strange feeling came across me as I waited on my front porch. I knew that I was in for something huge, something potentially life changing; however, I also well aware of the fact that I had no idea what I was in for. Uganda was still a figment of my imagination at that point. It was a place that I read about, saw on a map, or watched in the news, but it was not real… yet.
Oddly enough, Uganda did not become real until I had already been here for a couple of days. In one of her blog entries, Rachel calls the weird phenomena that I experienced in my first few days of travel “soul delay”. Soul delay simply means that you mind has not caught up with the physical space in which your body finds itself. Fortunately, after my soul caught up with my body and I settled into a routine, Uganda quickly started to gain appeal. The nature of my work was endlessly interesting, once unfamiliar faces eventually morphed into the faces of close friends and colleagues, and daily swim practices provided a much-needed source of familiarity.
The first half of my adventure was a blur. My brain was working overtime to reconcile the seemingly constant state of cognitive disequilibrium that I found myself in. From the food I ate to the smell of the air, almost everything that I came in contact with was new and unfamiliar. To make matters worse, it was nearly impossible to wrap my head around the fact that my surroundings would characterize my reality for the next 15 weeks. Of course some aspects of Ugandan life were initially charming. I was immediately astonished by how friendly everyone was. The heavy food, boda bodas, and constant noise, on the other hand, took some getting used to.
In these first six or seven weeks, the only buffer between the familiar and the strange was Rachel and Shelby. The three of us constantly relied on each other to minimize the effects of cognitive dissonance, homesickness, and bouts of frustration. Interestingly enough, as time passed, the familiar became strange and the strange became familiar to the three of us. Our discussions eventually shifted from “man, some aspects of Uganda are weird” to “man, some aspects of Canada are weird”. Even though the nature of our conversations was dynamic, the support system that Rachel and Shelby gave me over the past few months has been steadfast – and for that I will always be grateful.
The “Seals Invitational Gala” swim meet marked my half way point in Uganda. Seven and a half weeks down, seven and a half to go. The meet was an important part of my time in Uganda for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it allowed me to share my love of swimming with people from all over East Africa. Gold medals and national records aside, the most enjoyable part of the swim meet was the time I spent out of the water, talking to swimmers, coaches, parents, and heads of state. Secondly, the meet was important because I felt like I belonged to a community for the first time since my arrival in Uganda. Every time I walked on the pool deck I was greeted with a warm hello from nearly everybody in the surrounding area. My coaches and fellow swimmers no longer saw me as a novelty, but rather as a peer and a friend. People even started to understand my sense of humor – not an easy feat. In short, the swim meet not only gave me a sense of purpose in an unfamiliar place, it also gave me a sense of belonging. And let me tell you, there is no better feeling than that.
The latter six weeks of my adventure were far less blurry and, frankly, much more enjoyable. I found it easier to open up to my friends and colleagues as I grew more comfortable with the rhythm of life in Uganda. Faces at meetings were no longer unfamiliar, names were no longer hard to remember, and matooke was even starting to gain some appeal. Two trips to Eastern Uganda (one to Soroti and one to a Kwanjula) solidified what was quickly becoming a deep admiration for almost every aspect of life in Uganda. These trips allowed me to appreciate the inexplicable beauty of Uganda: both geographically and culturally.
After the two trips out East, my fellow Scholars and I decided to venture south of the Equator. Our week in Rwanda remained an undisputed highlight of our time here. Rwanda was a particularly enjoyable experience for me because of the diversity of experiences that were packed into a few short days. The airport fiasco(s), for instance, tested the strength of my relationship with Rachel and Shelby… as well as my sanity. Fortunately, all relationships remained intact, although the latter might still need some time to recover. Additionally, museum visits, music festivals, cocktail parties, brunches, and afternoons spent at the lake presented me with a much needed break from life in Kampala.
I got in a little rut after I returned from Rwanda. Life in Kampala was still great, but nothing could beat a mini-summer vacation in one of the world’s most interesting countries. Thankfully, the rut was short lived. After a few days of weakness, my Scholars and I pulled up our boots and approached the last few weeks of our internships with vigor and gusto. Okay, maybe just vigor. The last few weeks of my experience in Uganda were particularly interesting on the work front. Rachel and I were assigned a number of fascinating tasks and were given a little bit more responsibility in the process. Under the helpful guidance of our colleagues, we were able to complete all of our assignments and learn a great deal about the state of Ugandan food security in the process.
It is difficult to quantify exactly how I feel in this moment. I suppose melancholy is the best word to describe my attitude towards leaving Uganda. On one hand, I could not be more excited to go home. Rather, I should say home(s). My first home is in Winnipeg; it will always be home no matter where I go. As I write this post, I am constantly distracted by the thought of sitting on the deck at my family cottage, eating a bowl of chips and dip after a relaxing day on the beach. My day dream then carries me back to my family home in Winnipeg where my mother is making homemade pizza while my father and I get into a heated discussion that will inevitably annoy my mother. My brother and I later go out for an evening of antics while my parents stay up and worry. Classic.
My second home is in Halifax. My daydreams about university life are slightly less “Somewhere That’s Green” and a little bit more “Tom Green”. I find myself constantly reminiscing about evenings spent at the “Nuthouse”, long swim practices, even longer swimming parties, and the countless days spent studying in the single best place on earth – my room.
On the other hand, I cannot honestly say that I am ready to leave Uganda. If my friends and family were here, it is likely that I would stay forever. Uganda’s sheer beauty could keep me here for years on end. Like I said, it is the Garden of Eden. But even if I were blind I would still want to stay in Uganda. The people who I have met over the past three months are some of the kindest and most caring souls on the planet. Colleagues, teammates, and random acquaintances welcomed me in as one of their own from the second I set foot in this country – and for that I will always be thankful. Those who say that Canadians are friendly the friendliest people in the world have clearly never been to Uganda.
It breaks my heart that I will have to say good bye to my friends and colleagues in a few short hours. Although I plan to be back at some point, I am deeply saddened by the reality that things will never be the same. Never again will I walk into the office and hear “Wasuze otya, Jerimiah?!” At lunchtime, I will no longer be able to have cross-cultural debates with my colleagues or see how much rice I can eat before passing out. I will not get to watch the sunset every evening during swim practice or do another hard set with my Ugandan teammates. Even more upsetting, the delicious break teas at the Hotel Africana are a thing of the past. No more samosas, African Tea, days spent at the office, or hours spent at the pool. And do not even get me started on the weather. Let’s just say that I will miss the warm Ugandan sun every single second that it dips below 20 degrees when I am back in Canada.
Over time, I have come to love the nuances of life in Kampala: the exchange I have every morning with a local shopkeeper (and her cute baby); the constant flow of boda bodas that speed towards me and say, “YES! We go?!”; the feeling of triumph I get after stomaching enough carbs to kill a small cat; the surprised look people give me when I greet them in Luganda; the constant flow of “Hello Je-re-my” that meets me at the pool; the taste of a greasy Rolex after a long day. Heck, I have even come to enjoy being called a “muzungu” the odd passerby.
All of these things I will dearly miss: friends, colleagues, teammates, weather, Rolexes. However, there are two other elements of Ugandan life that will make my departure especially difficult to stomach: Rachel and Shelby. These two girls have been my rock over the past few months. When I was sad, they picked me up; when I was angry, they shared in my anger; and when I was happy, they only raised me higher. In an earlier blog entry I said that my time in Uganda would have only been a third as good had it not been for Rachel and Shelby. But upon further reflection I think my statement is in need of revision. In hindsight, I realize that my time in Uganda would not be anything without them.
The three of us have been attached at the hip since day one. Hundreds of smoothies, eggs, batches of fudge, movie nights, and dead rats later, I can honestly say that I would not have had it any other way. Sure, at times we might have gotten a little tired of each other, but at no point did I regret having these two girls by my side. I especially did not regret their presence last night, when we ate an entire box of ice cream to celebrate Shelby’s birthday. Yes, we pigged out in public, and yes people stared – but holy shit was it ever worth it. My parents never gave me a sister, however, if they did, I can imagine that she would be just like Rachel and Shelby.
It is difficult to assess what kind of impact my time in Uganda has had on me. I know that when I get home I will be ambushed with the classic, “How was Africa? Did it steal your heart? Did it change your life?” If you ask me this question, please know that the well-rehearsed, 30 second response that I will give you is not a true reflection of my time here. The fact of the matter is that I do not know how Africa was, I do not know if it “stole my heart”, and I certainly do not know if Uganda has changed my life. If you want an honest answer to these questions, ask me in 10 years’ time. By then I should know whether or not Africa has “changed” me.
I cannot say whether or not my time away has changed me, but I can say that it has shaped me. My short time in Uganda has definitely provided me with much needed perspective, practical experience in a field that I am interested in, and a new approach to the way I interact with others. My mind is sufficiently broadened and my wallet is sufficiently empty. However, at the end of the day I am still Jeremy. I am still an impatient, type “A”, worker bee who finds comfort in getting things done early.
Uganda has not changed my personality. If anything, it has entrenched it. Even still, that does not mean that Uganda has not shaped the way I operationalize my personality. For instance, I am much better at not letting my impatience get the best of me. Okay, maybe not much better. Even still, I have learned that sometimes my best option in a given situation is to take my hands off the wheel and see how things play out – even if it drives me crazy to do so. In that regard, it is difficult to say if Uganda has fundamentally changed me. I am, however, confident that the lessons I have learned here have shaped the way I act on certain aspects of my personality.
Finally, after reading my countless rants on the pitfalls and potentials of development work, a lot of you might be wondering if my perspective has shifted on where I see myself in the world of development. In my first blog entry, I said that I saw myself as a ‘learner’. Indeed, I still agree with my earlier assessment of my place in the world of development. That said, my time here has been characterized by two other acts besides learning: understanding and doing.
A book I recently read said that places in the so called “developing world” need understanding from the “developed world” far more than they need foreign aid, official development assistance, or a rich philanthropist. I have come to agree with the author of this book after spending some time in Uganda. A lot of the world’s problems would be solved if we all pulled our heads out of our asses and tried to understand (as opposed to undermine) people from unfamiliar places. And no, CNN, World Vision infomercials, and We Day are not valid basses of understanding in case anyone is wondering. I am not saying that I completely understand Uganda. Nevertheless, after a couple of months I feel that I have begun to scratch the surface.
More, the world of development would be a very unproductive place without ‘doers’. I have already gone on several rants about my opinion on the best practices for ‘doing’, so I will spare you. What I will say is that my time here has allowed me to ‘do’ development in an ethical and productive manner. Therefore, in light of my time here it is safe to say that I fit in the world of development as a ‘learner’, ‘understander’, and occasional ‘doer’.
Well, it looks like we have nearly reached the end of the road. I would like to take a moment to thank everybody who supported me through my adventure. Firstly, QES… thanks for the scholarship. You guys rock, don’t ever change. Next, I would like to thank everybody who stayed in contact with me over the past few months. Your emails, facebook messages, comments, and other communications made me feel close to home in a faraway land. Moreover, I would like to thank my Ugandan colleagues, teammates, and friends for their steadfast support and kindness. Not only have you made Uganda a place that I will miss dearly, you have made it a place that I can call home. Finally, I would like to thank you, my readers, for joining me on my adventure. Without you, there would be no me. If you have read every entry, congrats. You have successfully endured 80 109 words (or 141 pages of single space, size 11 Calibri font typeface) of monotonous ranting and raving. If you have missed a couple, shame on you.
Now, sitting here at my desk in Uganda, I feel ready – petrified, but ready. I have a thesis to write, a season with the Dal Tigers to absolutely annihilate, and a thousand applications to fill out. The future looks bright, but more ambiguous than ever. Even still, whatever happens in these next couple of months, good or bad, will be a learning experience and that is enough for me.
I’ve always hated Sundays because anticipation and anxiety make me restless, but maybe a bit of restlessness is just what I need right now.
Over and Out.