Working in a country, any country, that is different from the place you spent the majority of your time growing up is difficult in a variety of ways. Barriers impose themselves in the strangest of fashions, meticulously working into routines you once knew so well.
At times, I find myself continuously hitting these barriers with the ineffectiveness of someone ramming into a cement wall. I try, I change, I alter and yet… somehow, there is an inconsistency that is not necessarily obvious, but always present.
That’s not to say any culture, any way of doing something is right or wrong. It’s to say that people as a whole, while strung together through basic similarities, are vastly different.
I’ve noticed something while working in Uganda, which is the unparalleled emphasis on human connection. A meeting may take three hours longer than initially planned due to the necessity to introduce, meet, evaluate, make friends with those who you share your work hours. A party with those you don’t know quickly transforms into a gathering with fast friends. Even when far behind schedule, tea breaks are a necessity – in the morning and afternoon, a welcome break from endless work. If a family member of a coworker dies, the entire program attends the funeral because here, where you find your coworkers, you find your second family.
And People say hi to you. All of the time. They literally cross the street to wish you hello.
I love interacting with others. And while I boast an incredulous amount of incurable awkwardness, listening to people talk, especially those who I have developed close ties with, is something I could do for hours. Part of the reason I chose to work in this field is how incredible the simple act of connecting with another human can be.
At home in Canada, I was lucky, I worked with a great group of hard workers in a small program where meetings were interactive and all input was considered valuable. That’s a rarity, I’ve found. A majority of people I have met and worked with throughout university, not that I enjoy generalizing, have propelled forward on their own principles, seeing the world around them as stepping stones to a final goal.
The problem with calculating every meeting, every person, every piece of work as a piece of a puzzle limits you to an image that is inflexible and when one piece falls to the wayside, what you had crafted as the perfect image of your life remains incomplete.
What I’ve learned is that the people that surround you and the interactions you have with them are immensely important. What people and their life experiences, their skills and their presence can teach you far outweighs anything you can read in a book or study in a classroom. The reality is, no one person knows everything and to attempt to succeed without learning from others is to miss a vital part of the equation to success.
Maybe taking the time to listen, to communicate results in a slower rate of achievement, but I would think what it offers is an end result that is far more representative of a whole group of people and not a select individual.
Let the people you meet impact you. Human connection while messy, insane and chaotic can simultaneously be phenomenal, intriguing, a lesson learned.
“We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow [humans]; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.”
“No matter what else you might feel or think, it’s working, flawlessly, magically, and without exception. Your thoughts, beliefs, and expectations are the sole cause of the effects of your life. And while this may give you pause and have you wondering why you’ve not yet met with some of the successes you’ve sought, let it also empower you as you remember that the floodgates must fly open and be revealed at the precise moment you release whatever else you might have felt or thought about it not working.”
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. No, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us most. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, exceptional? Actually, who are you not to be? Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine. We were born to make manifest the glory that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people the permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
“Stop waiting for the perfect moment. It will never arrive. There are no perfect moments. We choose our moments and I want you to start choosing yours and start choosing now. Time will not wait for you and I don’t want you to miss out on your life because you’ve been patiently waiting on the sidelines thinking you have to stay there. You don’t have to sit this life out, your life out. You have a whole field in front of you for you to discover and run around in. It is there for you, let your feet press down on the earth and then start running, start discovering, and never stop.”
I’m sitting at my computer, reeling from a week of traumatic events that hit a little too close to the two places I call home, a little pressed for words but feeling an overwhelming desire to communicate what it is I’m feeling.
When I decided to move to Kampala, I, along with all of my close friends and family members began to think in measurements. How long would I be away? How much would I spend a month? Would others visit? More importantly though, for the first time in my life, I began to measure risks. I measured them in the form of dangers I may encounter, opportunities I may lose, and financial burdens I may develop. I measured them in terms of not seeing my family, in terms of maintaining a relationship and preserving my friendships.
In general, moving from the safe haven that was the small-town-feel of big-city Ottawa was a decision ridden with uncertainty.
I knew Kampala would be different than home, that was a given. Living in a developing country while fascinating and intriguing and thought-provoking is simultaneously challenging and hazardous and intimidating. Though a lot of fear stems from stereotypical assumptions about what it means to live and work in a developing country, there are certain aspects that one would identify as holding more risk than back home: taking a motorcycle taxi on roads that don’t seem to hold traffic regulations, walking down the street as the sun sets, putting your trust in complete strangers.
On Wednesday of this week, a local Ottawa bus collided with a via rail train on a route I have been on, on a route that people I love frequent daily. Six people died, others scarred with physical and emotional injuries. As I reached out to ensure everyone I knew was okay, the scale on which I had based my risk measurement shook and shattered.
Ottawa was home. Ottawa was safe. Bad things don’t happen at home.
Today, in Nairobi, Kenya, a place that feels worlds closer than Canada right now, a terrorist attack on a shopping mall has left at least 30 dead, many injured and hundreds reeling from shock. Immediately, again, for the second time in a week, I reached out to those I know in Nairobi, those very likely to frequent an upscale mall like Westgate, to find out they were safe.
Again, I heard the words: “Everyone is safe.”
I found relief in this, but it was temporary. Not everyone is safe. Everyone I know is safe.
The reality is, everyday, all over the world, terrible things occur. Everyday we choose to leave our homes, to take on tasks we believe to be a mundane part of our daily rituals: boarding a bus or shopping at a mall. We don’t measure these as risks because in our minds they are simple aspects of being alive and should we begin to acknowledge them as more than this, what should that mean for the way we look at and live our lives?
This week I’ve begun to realize that measuring a risk is the definition of uncertainty: it is to make a graph without all of the variables, to take part in a conversation without knowing the language. We can’t measure risk because risk is in every thing that we do, every action that we take. To risk is to be human.
On Wednesday, I sent all of the love and hope that I had to my home in Ottawa. Today, I sent it to Nairobi. Now though, tonight, I feel the need to send it all over the world, knowing very well the little impact it can or will have. I send it because all over the world, people are leaving their homes in despite of the risks they face or the tragedies that may occur.
Today, I was asked if I was considering coming home early. And while my heart aches for everyone I love across the world, I know that the safety we place in our home is really only a reflection of the comfort level we feel there.
Because those “bad places”, the places we think hold so much more risk that we think for some reason it’s calculable, well those are people’s homes and that comfort we feel so strongly, so tangibly that we can almost clutch it in our hands, they feel it too.
Eight months is an odd length of time. It’s not quite a year, but it is sufficient to feel, in certain moments, like a lifetime. When people ask me how long I’ve been here (this question is usually the instant follow-up to introducing yourself in ex-pat life), I’m often compelled to say “month and a half, but feels like three years.”
It’s not that I don’t enjoy my time here, because quite honestly, there’s no where else I would rather be and I’m incredibly fortunate to have an opportunity to explore my passions and the world simultaneously at such a young age. It’s just that when you’re in a place for a predetermined amount of time, it’s easy to be very conscious of the date, of how much time has passed and how much is left.
After arriving in Kampala, I struggled between getting comfortable in a place that was temporary (I am constantly battling my desire to buy a blender and insisting that eight months is not enough time to buy appliances, which is ridiculous) and living in the moment in a place that, like it or not, is my home for the next little while.
Recently though, I’ve found myself saying home and not meaning Ottawa, not meaning Canada, but meaning my home atop the little hill in Mengo, Kampala. In this revelation, I started recognizing things I have been doing that, despite my “home is Ottawa” mindset, distinctly mark an established routine and well, life, in Kampala:
1) I bought a bed set: I feel the need to emphasize how huge this is by indicating that I spent my first month here in fear of the blanket I was provided with (it was brown.. and not naturally) and shivering under the thin piece of fabric provided by Ethiopian air.
2) I can give directions: Albeit, not greatly. But I can direct a boda driver to my home, or a taxi driver to my favourite breakfast place. When driving, I no longer feel like I’m passing through a sea of unknown, instead, there are fleeting moments of recognition.
3) I go grocery shopping: Initially, I maintained my stand point that I would eat corn flakes and soy milk everyday and that would be that. Who needs vegetables, or you know, nutrients? Not me. Recently, I’ve established a routine of actually buying food that will maintain my health, and caring about what I’m eating. As someone with a million and ten food allergies, it’s been a vicious battle and often times I lose, but it’s a learning process that has led me to some incredible finds like all natural peanut butter (there is a god) and home made salsa! I have yet to use my stove (fuelled by a huge gas tank in my kitchen), but this is mostly out of fear than inconvenience and cooking with a kettle is surprisingly versatile.
4) I played hide and seek with a cockroach, and won: Okay, more accurately, my security guard won. I screamed like someone in mortal danger, equipped with a bottle of bug spray and a plastic cup (my hope was to trap the monster underneath and drag it out of the house) and jumped every time it so much as flinched. After I opened my front door, my security guard nonchalantly dragged it out of the house and stepped on it (I should mention all while laughing hysterically at my expense). Note: spraying inordinate amounts of bug spray in a small apartment where the windows are barred shut may lead you to think you’ll die of toxic inhalation by morning.
5) I went to zumba: After weeks of “yeah, yeah, let’s check it out next week”, a few of us finally made our way to Cheza which is a beginner’s zumba class in the city. It was hilarious, and fun, and… a place of self discovery. Like, maybe, just maybe, I’m not a natural hip shaker, especially when the instructor yells “shake it harder” over and over and the only thing this inspires is shaking from laughter.
What I’ve been thinking as of late is that it’s okay to be conscious of time in a place that is strange and feels innately polar opposite of home. It’s easy for your mind to wrap itself up in counting days and concerns about what to do next. Something my lovely friend Savannah reminded me about, though, is that a year ago, we would have killed for this opportunity and now here we are in it, living it. This is what I have always wanted to do, so while it feels like eight months is too short of a time to call a place home, it’s also too long of a time to do anything but live in the moment.
“Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, maybe you should set up a life you don’t need to escape.”
“People who really want to make a difference in the world usually do it, in one way or another. And I’ve noticed something about people who make a difference in the world: They hold the unshakeable conviction that individuals are extremely important, that every life matters. They get excited over one smile. They are willing to feed one stomach, educate one mind, and treat one wound. They aren’t determined to revolutionize the world all at once; they’re satisfied with small changes. Over time, though, the small changes add up. Sometimes they even transform cities and nations, and yes, the world.”
I have spent the better part of the past four years being told the two fields I desire to work in are unemployable, dwindling fields with not a lot of prosper. I’ve been told I will work for almost, and sometimes actually, nothing to gain the experience to maybe, hopefully, one day make a modest pay check to pursue work that I am passionate about.
I’ve wanted to make a career out of writing for as long as I can remember. When I was younger, I used to write all the time. Since we moved around so much, it was the easiest way to keep me entertained: pen, pencil, maybe a few markers. Born into a family of journalists, it seemed natural for me to pursue a degree in journalism. Going into university, I saw it as a winning combination that could appease my love for writing and insatiable curiosity about the world.
My interest in global affairs and international development stemmed from a few alternative spring break trips I participated in throughout my university career. On these trips, I visited places where the culture, language and quality of life rocked my very understanding of the world, my understanding of privilege and just how much had been afforded to me.
These trips, my love for writing, these were all catalysts for me pursuing dreams in careers where mentors indicate there are few jobs and fewer opportunities. I believed them, I didn’t know better not to.
What I have learned, in my very short time working, is that there is a difference between finding opportunities and making them.
If you want success, if you want to do work you love, you have to be ready to sacrifice: time, money, comfort, everything.
You have to be ready to move across the world, to work outside of the established 9-5 office hours, to put your heart, soul and energy into something that may not work out, but hell it’s worth the shot.
You have to be willing to volunteer, to make a name for yourself, to expand your network, to educate yourself not for a piece of paper, which you can wave around boasting higher education, but for your own betterment. Read books, research, learn from experts.
You have to relentlessly pursue opportunities that were never there to begin with, create your own work, develop a project, offer your services, whatever they are, to new organizations in hopes that as they build, you will become a fundamental part of their workforce.
Maybe, maybe pursuing a career that doesn’t produce a lofty pay check, or incredible benefits is naive, a statement of someone too young to know about the real world. Maybe it means I will spend a lot of my life moving homes and challenging my limits. What it also means though, is that every day I wake up enthralled with the work I am doing. It means that sometimes, on the very best of days, I would be willing to do work unpaid because the satisfaction it brings is my own definition of success, which is worth far more than a six-digit income.
You can’t wait for success, you’ve got to make your own.
“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering known struggle, known loss and have found their way out of the depths. These people have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep living concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”