Witness Uganda

Over the last couple of weeks, 3 different people from various circles in my life mentioned hearing about a musical called Witness Uganda, and thinking of me.  Based on the title, my initial thought was “oh boy, this sounds Jesusy” – but then I did a bit of research, and to my pleasant surprise, Witness Uganda is actually an inspired-by-real-life musical that wraps EVERYTHING (and more) I’ve been saying about misguided aid work in to a much more interesting package complete with absolutely amazing music and Broadway caliber theater talent.

Witness-Uganda

There were a couple of parts that got me choked up, even though musical theater does not usually have that kind of impact on me, because it was so parallel to what I experienced – the frustration, the disappointments, the helplessness, the overwhelming-ness (I know, that’s not actually a word), and the joy. He even referenced the taking pictures thing!!

What made it particularly interesting is that the storyteller here, Griffin Matthews, is not your typical Mzungu. He’s African American, which has forced me to reconsider my use of the term “white savior complex”, and think about replacing it with “first world savior complex”. Griffin points out through the musical that Mzungu, even though it pretty much translates to “whitey”, doesn’t necessarily mean white skin, but white/western cultural background.  When he points out to a Ugandan teenager that he is “African American”, the teenager responds “so does that make me African African?” This is a scenario I’ve never seen played out before that challenged my own stereotypes a bit.   Griffin is also gay, and doesn’t go through great lengths to hide that.  For those who aren’t aware – being gay in Uganda is punishable by 14 years to life in prison, that is, if you survive to that point.  He doesn’t need to go down there flying a rainbow flag and holding gay pride rallies to make a difference – instead, just by being there, being himself, and letting people get to know him, he’ll allow for minds to change on their own, which is so important. That is how so many minds have been changed here, and we certainly see the difference its made over the last decade or two.

A friend of a friend recently posted a link to a fundraiser on Facebook to financially support an American nursing student to volunteer at a hospital in Tanzania for a few weeks.  Airfare alone will cost over $1500, accommodations, probably another $500…for a nursing student who isn’t actually qualified or certified to be administering care.  $2000 would pay for a Tanzanian girl to attend a semester or more of nursing school in her own community, where she’ll probably live her entire life and save lives for years and years.   This is the huge disconnect we have between ACTUALLY helping versus BELIEVING we are helping.  I loved how Witness Uganda cut right to the chase describing this kind of volunteering – the character Joy, who runs the compound where Griffin initially volunteers, explains how she puts on her fake voice and fake gratitude (“WELLLLLLCOME!! Thank you SOOO much!!)  to the well intentioned volunteers who come and go every 4-6 weeks. The problem with this scenario, of course, is that nothing changes. The volunteers keep coming thinking they’re actually doing something good, and the hosts keep letting them believe it because the money that they bring in is useful.  The dialogue needs to change on both sides, a point that Griffin made after the show.

I won’t rehash more points I’ve already made in previous posts on this topic because I’m fairly certain I’ve beaten it to death, but the overall themes to Witness Uganda come down to the same general points – wanting to help is good, but good intentions are NOT enough.

And if you are able to catch this show, even if you don’t give a rats ass about any of these issues but just like good theater, please support it.  Griffin mentioned during his talk after the show that this musical is also providing one of few opportunities for black musical theater actors to be “playing someone other than a token or a singing jungle animal.”

http://www.witnessuganda.com/

Also, I feel like when I write about this topic I am “preaching to the choir”. If you read these posts and disagree with me, I’d love to hear from you, if you can discuss it without being mean :)

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Do-Goodyness vs. Doing Good (some thoughts on “white savior” issues in Africa)

Imagine you are a parent of school age children here in Andover. The state has a budget crisis and stops paying the teachers. Some stay in exchange for food, but the majority of them are gone. But don’t worry, they tell you, we are going to replace the teachers with 19 and 20 year old college students from Switzerland. Some of them are majoring in education, some of them aren’t, but hey, they’re really enthusiastic. These college students will come for 4-8 weeks at a time, and then leave to be replaced by new college students. Even though these eager volunteers have never been to the US before, know little to nothing about our culture, and have little to no teaching experience, we expect you to be thrilled about this and very grateful for their time. These new temporary teachers will take pictures of your children without your permission and splatter them all over the internet. They will go home and share how the experience of teaching your children changed their lives, but there will be no assessment or follow up or any sustainable means of measuring the effectiveness of this teaching on your child’s education. There will be no conversation on a long term solution that includes trained, experienced, and sustainable educators from within your community. Ask yourself if you would find this acceptable, and then consider that this is what happens all over Africa and in other developing countries.

 

I’m by no means implying that caring volunteers who are willing and excited to provide services have even an ounce of malicious intent. Quite the opposite actually, but it doesn’t always translate in the way that we imagine it will or intend it to.  This phenomenon is what I call do-goodyness. This is our genuine, well intentioned desire to do good things for the world. It stems from our heartfelt sadness and frustration at seeing suffering and violence and poverty, and our senses of justice and fairness and the belief in the inherent worth and dignity of all beings. It is, I believe, a personality trait to be proud of. Our do-goodyness motivates us to be generous with our money, our time, and often both – in support of causes we believe will reduce suffering.  But belief in doing good, and good intentions do not ensure good results.

 

Often, these truly well intentioned thoughts and actions can end up being condescending, patronizing, or simply not helpful or sustainable. When an American or European who has never stepped foot in an African country or maybe went to visit for a couple of weeks decides he or she knows what people in Africa need, there is very often a lack of research, evidence, data, and knowledge of cultural, economic, and environmental nuances. We tend to approach perceived needs in Africa from our own paradigms and perspectives instead of theirs,  or from the limited vantage point of an outsider – and this is a problem.

 

The most obvious and widely known example of this is the “Kony 2012″ campaign.  To keep it short, this was a white American man’s attempt to demand US involvement in the capturing of the leader of a guerrilla army, guilty of murder, rape, and a laundry list of other human rights atrocities. In the “viral video”, he focused on Kony’s time in Uganda, despite the fact that it was widely known Kony and his army had left Uganda for the remote jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo years prior.

The attention this video received did more harm than good.  First of all, it oversimplified the conflict to a borderline offensive degree. From watching that video, you would get the idea that Kony’s army was full of monsters, and the Ugandan government was “the good guys”. Kony IS a monster, but his army is made up of young boys, some of whom have been kidnapped, some of whom volunteered because the alternative was watching their mother or sister be raped,  who have and will continue to protect him with their lives. Many of these boys have escaped and have been rehabilitated. They’re not all monsters. It wasn’t mentioned in the film that capturing Kony would undoubtedly result in killing a bunch of children. Additionally, the film fails to mention that the Ugandan Army also uses child soldiers and along with the Rwandan army, took an active role in genocide in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Basically, this was not the simplistic “good guy vs bad guy” scenario portrayed in the film.

Perhaps more damaging than the oversimplifying of a tremendously complex civil situation was the evoking of pity for Uganda. In the same year that Lonely Planet named it THE  top travel destination on Earth, this video was released making Uganda look like a war-torn, unstable hell hole. Parts of it may be, but this would be like showing foreigners a dumbed-down 20 minute film about the current conditions in Detroit without clarifying that it wasn’t representative of the entire United States, or even the state of Michigan.

 

Again these are hypotheticals, but imagine if after all of the work we’ve done for marriage equality in the last 10 years, a very vocal group of Swedish folks decided we weren’t doing a good enough job, and started a campaign using pictures of sad looking Americans, taking sound bites from Michelle Bachmann, and thoughtfully commenting on how sorry they felt for us and our backwards ways, encouraging action from other countries to “help” us backed by a melancholy soundtrack. And what would the civil rights movement have looked like with the involvement of foreign troops?  We are quick to look down upon some of these countries that seem to be in a constant state of war, but how did this country look less than a hundred years into independence?

 

When Americans or Europeans decide they can “fix” an issue in Africa, very rarely do they understand the cultural and social and economic nuances of the region or country or people they want to fix.   Another example:  one morning when I was in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I woke up to see a donkey grazing on the grass in front of my window. After nearly a month in the country, this was the first time I’d seen a donkey. Where did he come from? I asked.  From a European NGO (I forget which country) a few years back, I was told. A thoughtful visitor had observed the women in the region hunched over from carrying supplies and crops to and from the market and decided to donate donkeys, so that they could carry the heavy loads instead of the women. Only, they failed to consider the expense of feeding and keeping a donkey. It ended up being more of a burden than a blessing for most, and a lot of the donkeys ended up being eaten.  My friend in the yard was one of the lucky ones, I guess. That was a little anecdote I only know about because I happened to see a donkey in the middle of the eastern Congo and ask about it, and you know honestly, I probably would have heard a proposal to give donkeys to farming families in the Congo and thought it was a great idea. Because I don’t actually live there.    Similarly, TOMS shoe donation program has been criticized by some for not taking in to consideration that by handing out free shoes to everyone in a village, they could be decimating the income of those who make, repair, and sell shoes in the community. Do they do more harm than good, or more good than harm? Its hard to say without research, and that research doesn’t seem to exist (I lean towards more good than harm in this case, but I see where the critics are coming from). 

 

Alternatively, Pigs for Peace is a microfinance group based in DRC, created and led by Dr. Nancy Glass, a professor of nursing at Johns Hopkins University. Pigs for Peace provides a woman with a female pig as well as training on caring for the pig and veterinary services. When the pig gives birth, 2 piglets are returned to the program – one as repayment and one as interest. Those piglets are then given to women in the village, and so on. The pigs provide income and food for families, and also build a sense of community and responsibility in regions devastated by rape and genocide. Dr. Glass conducted extensive research and consulted Congolese health, agriculture, and microfinance experts in order to design a program that is culturally appropriate, sustainable, and has measurable, beneficial outcomes. Pigs for Peace didn’t just seem like a good idea, it was evidence based, and continually assessed for effectiveness. This is transcending dogoodyness into doing good. Though we won’t all have NIH grants and resources from Johns Hopkins, this type of progam can and should serve as a model for all interventions in developing countries.

So it may sound like I’m being a bit of a downer here – don’t go to Africa to volunteer unless you’re an MD, phD, or can commit to a year of work, but thats not really what I’m getting at.  This is more about awareness of how to channel our “do-goodyness” in an effective way, because I doubt anyone who goes through the effort of getting to Africa wants to be patronizing, but often we are.

 

A woman named Mindy Budgor recently published a book titled “Warrior Princess: My Quest to Become the First Female Maasai Warrior”. Mindy is the daughter of millionaires in California, and after making her own millions, felt bored and unfulfilled, so she treated herself to a 3 week safari in Kenya. While on Safari, she was saddened to discover that in the Maasai culture, women cannot be considered warriors. So she took it upon herself to show those backwards Maasai that women can be warriors, and writes that after months of intense sessions with a personal trainer back here in the States, she returned to Kenya wearing “Under Armor and pearls” and red Chanel nailpolish that made her feel “fierce”. She speaks of herself as though this was an act of selflessness for the women of the Maasai.

The fact is, its not our role to decide what an African country needs. It is our role to observe, to listen, to be aware.  The amount of condescension, paternalism, colonialism, and downright narcissism wrapped up in this one story dizzying. Not to mention the cover of her book – a white woman wearing expensive gold jewelry and holding a Maasai spear wearing Chanel nail polish, is incredibly exploitative and offensive.  I don’t blame Mindy Budgor for her initial thought (yay womens rights!) – or even her incredibly cliche reason for going on safari in Kenya (because all of the Gucci and Prada in the world still left her feeling “empty” – yawn). Where I do fault her is making the trip, engrossing herself in a foreign culture, and still believing she had the authority to push her agenda on a people she has no actual expertise in or connection to who did not seek or need her help.  The fact that she has the audacity to refer to herself as a “Maasai Warrior Princess” after spending 3 weeks in a village would be funny if not so horrifyingly patronizing.

 

I know this is an extreme example, but it epitomizes the problem with well-intentioned charitable work in Africa.  It is incredible that so many of us have had the privilege of global travel, and even better that xenophobia is quickly becoming outdated as more and more people leave their comfort zones for foreign lands.  Curiosity of the unknown and unfamiliar is part of our human nature, and the curiosity is mutual… when I visited a women’s co-operative in Burundi, a few young girls timidly asked if they could touch my hair. That being said, there is a respectful way to participate in and contribute to life in Africa. Calling yourself a warrior princess and exploiting an already exploited people for your own personal fulfillment/agenda isn’t it.  

In response to the book, a ACTUAL Maasai woman had this to say: “We are not looking for a spokeswoman. Mindy does not represent us. She does not understand our struggles and cannot speak for us. We have a voice, and we stand up to speak for what matters to us: education for our girls, equal opportunities and economic empowerment for our women, decent healthcare, and clean water.”

 

If you want to go to Africa, by all means go. I would shout it from the rooftops, GO!!  But do not go because you want to save people and you think you know how. Go because you want to. Go because you are curious. Go shop, eat, drink, take tours, meet people, ask questions and be an observant visitor, because that’s what you are. Contributing to local businesses helps reduce suffering in Africa in the same way it reduces suffering here. When you want to take pictures, ask permission, and if they ask for money in exchange, give them some. Go without an agenda except to see and hear, taste and smell.

Truly ending colonialism means African people get to decide what African people want and need. We need to be asking the right questions. Who is running this organization, where is it based, what is the source of funding, is it evidence based, is it sustainable, is it focused on providing goods or services, or training people within the community to provide goods and services, etc. When you want to help, seek out businesses and organizations created by and run by people who are actually from the countries or communities they are trying to aid. Look for organizations that do not take foreign undergrad volunteers because instead they hire and train community members.

Research has shown that community-directed health interventions are far more sustainable and successful than those that rely more heavily on foreign involvement. This is Paul Farmer’s model that has been immensely successful in Haiti and other countries.  This is why I have remained involved with Dr. Shungu and UFAR.  I lucked out, because I was so naive at the time I started working with him to the issues I’ve just discussed, but UFAR was formed by a Congolese microbiologist, who in addition to actually being Congolese, met with ministers of health, local doctors, and community leaders all over the country to make sure he had a comprehensive understanding of what was needed before he got to work. The success of his mission lies almost entirely in the hands of trained local community health workers, providing education and empowerment to men and women who will live their entire lives in these communities – not Americans who have come for a visit.

My role in this organization has been to raise money and awareness. What happens with that money is not, nor should it ever be, up to an outsider. When I went to DRC last year, I went with a very different perspective than I did on my first trip. I went to observe and witness the work that had been done and the work that still needs to be done. Ironically enough, that led to conversations about things that I actually CAN do to help, now that I have training and experience in a specific field.  It also led to a different experience because I allowed myself to be a tourist and not a volunteer. I shopped to my heart’s content, went out to bars, listened to live music, drank the local beers, and made a couple of great friends.  One of those friends stands out as a particularly great example of my overall point. Lawerence formed an organization called Green Youth Conservation Uganda. He’s a young, educated guy who’d be best described as middle class. He needs tents, because he takes local kids on camping trips to encourage a respect and appreciation of nature. No one needs to feel sorry for him, he’s awesome and successful. It would be a shame to see money and resources go to an American, even with the same goals, when it could be going to him.

 

In the end it all comes down to the Golden Rule. We should not find behaviors acceptable in Africa that we would not find acceptable here simply because the people are poor and there are fewer laws to protect them (getting permission before photographing children is a prime example of this). Start conversations with asking people “what can I do to help?” instead of telling people what they need. If you have an agenda, no matter how noble you think it may be, set it aside, because people from Africa are not different from people from Boston, or people from Spain – the poverty and unrest that exist within the continent do not permit us to decide or pretend to know what is best for its people. If you want to help, push yourself transcend do-goodyness to doing good.

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A response to my last post worth reading…

I mentioned my friend Lawerence from Uganda in my previous post about well-intentioned but poorly executed volunteering in Africa. Well, he read my post, and here is his response. If you didn’t take what I had to say seriously, please give this a read. He deserves to be heard.

(edited lightly for punctuation)

“You are very right Amanda, we have a number of project in the country funded from USA and Europe but you find that a project come in and most of the money is wasted in buying very expensive cars, renting expensive hotels to suite their comfort and at the end you find that the entire fund goes back to the very people donors send us to manage it. yes its true that we have needs, but we need the donors to look into what we want to do than what they want us to do reason being we live here and we know the problem and where it comes from so we think we can handle it better than some who has just has started or heard about it.most people from Europe and states when they live here for a month or two,and visit places around they really think they know more of africa and our problems and they keep on misinforming others about africa and our cultures which is not really fair. they should give us a chance to try fix our selves than just coming up with their ideas which can not develop or help us. For example when a white man came to africa, all africans knew about the tropical african medicinal plants and how to use them and treat themselves. they used them for centuries but today some one has to clear a big part of land to sale fire wood and get money to take his wife or child to the hospital where they can buy western medicine and thats what they call fixing our problems. they made everything we believed in bad and what they introduced good. and this is where everything started from.

 

That last sentence is particularly important.  Another well intentioned (but maybe not?) African charitable gone wrong took place decades ago when Nestle donated formula in several extremely poor regions of Africa and handed out propaganda against breastfeeding. The result: babies dying from cholera and other water-borne diseases. Because you have to mix formula in water, and much of the water in Africa is not safe for a baby’s immune system.  We convinced vulnerable people that BREAST FEEDING was bad, but mixing formula with TOXIC WATER was good. Think about that.

For more info on Nestle: http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/nestle-baby-milk-scandal-food-industry-standards

 

To learn more about Lawerence’s efforts to improve the environment and environmental education in his community, check out their website here:

http://greenyouthconservation.org/index.html

 

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Africa and New Colonialism

I’ve wanted to write this for a long time. Usually though, I just end up angrily venting about what I’m about to write to my husband or friends who I already know agree with me. It occurs to me that saying these things to people who already know them to be true is not very helpful, but I’ve struggled with how to put this in writing – talking about being condescending – without being condescending myself.  So this will probably be a work in progress that I would really appreciate feedback on. Bear with me.

I’m not going to get in to a long drawn on lecture on the colonization of Africa here. If you’re interested: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colonisation_of_Africa. Needless to say it is a long, messy, violent, and tragic history that has had lasting and ongoing implications.  White people took slaves and natural resources and brought diseases and Bibles. It is widely acknowledged that “we” are at least partially responsible for the current state of affairs on the continent.

Fast forward to the 2000′s, and our liberal, educated generation hears about this history and sees the ongoing unrest and suffering. We are shown devastating photographs of sad, dirty children. We are told about how poor and uneducated “they” are. We enthusiastically participate in charity targeted at helping them.  It is nearly always well intentioned, but good intentions do not ensure good results.  Often, these well intentioned thoughts and actions are actually a condescending, patronizing new form of colonialism. When an American or European who has never stepped foot in an African country or maybe went to visit for a couple of weeks decides he or she knows what people in Africa need, they are actually (and probably genuinely unknowingly) belittling the people and cultures they believe they are “saving”.

The most obvious and widely known example of this is the “Kony 2012″ campaign.  I’ll elaborate on the details of this later (for now I’m concentrating more on my point), but basically, this was a white American man’s attempt to demand US involvement in the capturing of the leader of a guerrilla army, guilty of murder, rape, and more human rights abuses than I could list here. In his “viral video”, he focused on Kony’s time in Uganda, despite the fact that it was widely known Kony and his army had left Uganda for the remote jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo years prior. The attention this video received did more harm than good.  First of all, it oversimplified the conflict to a borderline offensive degree. From watching that video, you would get the idea that Kony’s army was full of monsters, and the Ugandan government was “the good guys”. Kony IS a monster, but his army is made up of young boys who have and will continue to protect him with their lives. Many of these boys have escaped and have been rehabilitated. They’re not all monsters. It wasn’t mentioned in the film that capturing Kony would undoubtedly result in killing a bunch of kids. Additionally, the film fails to mention that the Ugandan Army also uses child soldiers and along with the Rwandan army, took an active role in genocide in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Basically, this was not the “good guy vs bad guy” scenario portrayed in the film.

More damaging than the oversimplifying of a tremendously complex civil situation was the “pity” factor placed on Uganda. In the same year that Lonely Planet named it one of the top travel destinations on Earth, this video was released making Uganda look like a war-torn, unstable hell hole. Parts of it may be, but this would be like showing foreigners a 20 minute film about the current conditions in Detroit without clarifying that it wasn’t representative of the entire United States, or even the state of Michigan.  Ugandans spoke out in tremendous numbers against the video, fearing the damage it would do to their tourism economy and that the new attention would reignite the conflict, but it was too late.  Interestingly, most of the positive coverage of Kony 2012 comes from Westerners, and most of the negative coverage from Africans. Who should we be listening to?

Imagine if the push for marriage equality in the United States was led not by Americans, but by a very vocal group of Swedish folks who showed up here one day, posting pictures of sad looking Americans and thoughtfully commenting on how sorry they felt for us and our backwards ways.  Be honest with yourself. How do you think that would have been received?

That is exactly what happens when Americans or Europeans decide they can fix Africa.  Very rarely do they understand the cultural and social and economic nuances of the region or country or people they want to fix.   Another great example:  one morning when I was in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I woke up to see a donkey grazing on the grass in front of my window. After nearly a month in the country, this was the first time I’d seen a donkey. Where did he come from? I asked.  From a European NGO (I forget which country) a few years back, I was told. A thoughtful visitor had observed the women in the region hunched over from carrying supplies and crops to and from the market and decided to donate donkeys, so that they could carry the heavy loads instead of the women. Only, they failed to consider the expense of feeding and keeping a donkey. It ended up being more of a burden than a blessing for most, and a lot of the donkeys ended up being eaten for dinner.  My friend in the yard was one of the lucky ones, I guess.

That was a little anecdote I only know because I happened to see a donkey in the middle of the eastern Congo and ask about it, and you know honestly, I probably would have heard a proposal to give donkeys to farming families in the Congo and thought it was a great idea. Because I don’t actually live there.  Therein lies the reason I was nervous about sounding condescending when I wrote this – I’ve been guilty of “new colonialism” thinking myself.

The first time I went to Africa, it was the fulfillment of a dream that I’d had since I was 10 and a Maasai warrior had visited my elementary school to tell stories. When I had bombarded him with questions, he told me to come visit him some day. This was a childhood dream that was based more in Indiana Jones fantasy than reality, but it had stuck through the years. It seemed all the more relevant with my undergraduate major of Public Health and interest in Dr. Paul Farmer. I was naive, and eagerly took the trip to Tanzania believing I could help people with my college class knowledge and eager desire to help. It took about 2 days to get a reality check. The best way for me, an inexperienced college kid, to help people in Tanzania was to buy stuff. No one cared why I was there, but they sure cared that I was there – walking through the markets, staying at a hotel, eating, drinking, and hiring tour guides and taxi drivers.  I had some very frank conversations with folks I met there, and it became very clear to me that a lot of Tanzanians are well aware of the fact that they are recipients of “charity” from untrained wide-eyed college students who want to “experience” life in another culture and “help”.  The true motives of most of these trips are clear when you read the posts on college and “voluntourism” blogs – lots of “it changed MY life”, “it opened MY eyes”, “It gave ME a sense purpose”.

Me. Me. Me.  Let’s be honest. This isn’t about responding to an acute need with evidence-based, well researched and coordinated action to benefit a population in need. Its about having an adventure with a self serving purpose of helping people you feel sorry for and taking pictures in exotic locations with exotic looking people and because another trip to Cabo isn’t going to look awesome on your resume.

Like I said, I was guilty of this line of thinking myself even though I wasn’t aware of it until I was faced with my own preconceived notions of what it meant to be an American in Africa and stereotypes of life in Africa. So when I say all of this, I say it without judgement of people who are still thinking this way, but in hopes that it will lead to some reconsideration.

Which is why this article made me sick to my stomach and kicked me in to gear from venting to writing:

http://shine.yahoo.com/secrets-to-your-success/how-did-this-california-girl-become-a-real-warrior-princess–183524755.html

The fact is, its not our role to decide what an African country needs. It is our role to observe, to listen, to be aware.  The amount of condescension, paternalism, colonialism, and downright narcissism wrapped up in this one little article is dizzying. Not to mention the cover of her book – a white woman holding a Maasai spear wearing Chanel nail polish (because, she says, it made her feel “fierce”) is incredibly exploitative and offensive.  I don’t blame Mindy Budgor for her initial thought – or even her incredibly cliche reason for going on safari in Kenya (because all of the Gucci and Prada in the world still left her feeling “empty” – yawn). What I do blame her for is making the trip, engrossing herself in a foreign culture, and still believing she had the right to push her agenda on a people she has no actual expertise in or connection to other than noticing that they look cool.  The fact that she has the audacity to refer to herself as a “Warrior Princess” after spending 3 weeks in a village – wearing Under Armor and pearls – would be funny if not so horrifyingly patronizing. The fact that many people would put Mindy and I in the same category – privileged white women who spent time in Africa – makes me a bit queasy.  If there was an “eye-roll” font, this paragraph would have been written in it, and bolded.

I know this is an extreme example, but it epitomizes the problem with my generation and well-intentioned African voluntourism.  It is incredible that so many of us have had the privilege of global travel, and even better that xenophobia is quickly becoming outdated as more and more people leave their comfort zones for foreign land.  Curiosity of the unknown and unfamiliar is part of our human nature, and anyone who is cynical about the desire to experience the exotic is being dishonest. The curiosity is mutual… when I visited a women’s co-operative in Burundi, a few young girls timidly asked if they could touch my hair. That being said, there is a respectful way to participate in and contribute to life in Africa. Calling yourself a warrior princess and exploiting an already exploited people for your own personal fulfillment/agenda isn’t it.

If you want to go to Africa, by all means go. I would shout it from the rooftops, GO!!  But do not go because you want to save people and you think you know how. Go because you want to. Go because you are curious. Go shop, eat, drink, take tours, meet people, ask questions and be an observant visitor, because that’s what you are. Contributing to local businesses helps reduce suffering in Africa in the same way it reduces suffering here. When you want to take pictures, ask permission, and if they ask for money in exchange, give them some. Go without an agenda except to see and hear, taste and smell.

Truly ending colonialism means African people get to decide what African people want and need. When you want to help, rather than paying an American or European voluntourism company or donating to an American or European run NGO, seek out businesses created by and run by people who are actually from the region they are trying to aid. Look for organizations that do not allow foreign undergrad volunteers because instead they hire and train community members. Research has shown that community-directed health interventions are far more sustainable and successful than those that rely completely on foreign involvement. This is Paul Farmer’s model that has been immensely successful in Haiti and other countries.  This is why I have remained involved in the NGO I originally volunteered with.  I lucked out, because as I said – I was naive at the time to the issues with foreign-led NGOs, but this organization was formed by a Congolese microbiologist. In addition to actually being Congolese, he met with ministers of health, local doctors, and community leaders all over the country to make sure he had a comprehensive understanding of what was needed before he got to work. The success of his mission lies almost entirely in the hands of trained local community health workers, providing education and empowerment to men and women who will live their entire lives in these communities – not Americans who have come for a visit.

My role in this organization has been to raise money and awareness. What happens with that money is not, nor should it ever be, up to an outsider. When I returned to Africa last year, I went with a very different perspective. I went to observe and witness the work that had been done and the work that still needs to be done. Ironically enough, that led to conversations about things that I actually CAN do to help, now that I have training and experience in a specific field.  It also led to a different experience because I allowed myself to be a tourist and not a volunteer. I shopped to my heart’s content, went out to bars, listened to live music, drank the local beers, and made a couple of great friends.  One of those friends stands out as a particularly great example of my overall point. Lawerence formed an organization called Green Youth Conservation Uganda. He’s a young, educated guy who’d be best described as middle class. He needs tents, because he takes local kids on camping trips to encourage a respect and appreciation of nature. No one needs to feel sorry for him, he’s awesome and successful. It would be a shame to see money and resources go to an American, even with the same goals, when it could be going to him.

I don’t quite know how to wrap this up. This is obviously a work in progress. My main point is that I know that no one goes to Africa because they want to be condescending and patronizing, but we do it all the time, and we have a tendency to reward it and praise it. Be mindful of your intentions. If you have an agenda, no matter how noble you think it may be, set it aside, because people from Africa are not different from people from Boston, or people from Spain – the poverty and unrest that exist within the continent do not permit us to decide or pretend to know what is best for its people.

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You mean you…DON’T like the irridescent pastel tulips? Huh…

Holy S*%#. We own a house.

I have not felt very eco friendly the last few weeks. I’ve been knee deep in cardboard boxes, bubble wrap, paint, paint brushes, plastic drop cloths, and trash trash trash.  Also allen wrenches. Because Ikea.

What the flying f am I supposed to do with 8 identical allen wrenches? Does anyone out there weld? Can you make a sculpture with them or something?

Anyway.  My most favoritist favorite part of our new house, other than the toxic mold-fiberglass insulation-and-rotting-wood situation that was going on in the garage (blog post for another day), was the downstairs bathroom.

This is what it looked like the day we officially owned the place:

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Just like a spa!  Or something…

Then I started unscrewing and ripping and scraping stuff, which was very satisfying.  Something that has always bothered me about home renovation shows – pretty much everything on HGTV – is the smashing. I mean, I get it.  Smashing stuff is awesome. But taking a sledgehammer and a crowbar to perfectly good cabinets, etc just because they are out of date or painted an ugly color or don’t quite fit the look you’re going for seems wasteful. It seems wasteful… because it is. Unless you’re taking out cabinets that are moldy, radioactive, or used to hold decaying things, someone can probably use them. I took the out-dated vanity down as gently as possible, cleaned the mirrors, and left it out on the curb. Someone took it within 2 hours. More of a passive satisfaction than smashing, but worth it!

We took the light fixture and a bunch of copper wiring from around the house to Scrap It at Minichiello Brothers in Everett.  My husband described this place as a playground for grown up boys because there is a giant mountain of cars and ovens getting picked up and dropped and smashed with heavy machinery.  Even though every dude working there looked like Vin Diesel without a dentist and sounded like they were … well… from Everett, they were very helpful and nice and gave me $9, which is 9 more dollars than I would have had if we just smashed everything and threw it away.

Back to the bathroom.  I gave myself a budget of $300 to make this bathroom less tulipy and embarrassing. That obviously means the pink tiles and vanity aren’t going anywhere for a while, but everything else was fair game.

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So with the following, I made a new bathroom:

- 1 gallon of paint, Harmony from Sherwin Williams. Very low odor and supposedly zero VOCs. On sale for $40.

- mirror, from Ikea $40

- wall sconces, from Ikea $29.99 each

- shower curtain and hooks, from Homegoods, $24.99 and $9.99

- shower curtain rod, from Home Depot, $29.99

- privacy film for the window, from Home Depot, $24.99

- shower head labeled “eco solutions” that supposedly saves water (?), from Home Depot, $12.99

- recycled jersey bathmat, from West Elm, $29.99

- recycled wood toilet seat, from Home Depot, $24.99

- electrician to rewire behind the wall for the new lights, hard to put a price here because he did a bunch of stuff for us all over the house, but I will say he was great. His name is Joe Distefano and if you need an electrician in the Boston area, look him up or ask me.

Still need:

wall storage, new sink faucet, new shower faucet, new towels , a new high efficiency toilet

And now it looks like this:

(Shep approves.)

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So that’s it! I’ll post another picture when I’m totally done. But I did promise I’d update this blog more, and I was also marginally proud of myself with this mini-renovation, and I really wanted an excuse to do something that was not unpacking boxes for a few minutes.

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Some stuff happened…

…since I last posted here, over a year ago.

- I became a master (okay well, I got a piece of paper that said I had earned a master’s degree)

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- Which allowed me to get a job, a full time one, that pays bills

- I turned 30…uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhgggg

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- I got married (that was fun)

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- I spent a month in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with stops along the way in Burundi, Uganda, and Ethiopia (that was also fun)

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- We bought a house!

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We started packing this week, which got me thinking about wasty-ness again because the temptation is so strong to just throw away EVERYTHING (almost) and start over in the new place. Also boxes, more boxes, and stuff to protect fragile stuff. Also, my friend Brian (hi Brian) has been bugging me about how lame I am for never updating this blog. 

I did my best to keep the wedding as green as I could, it wasn’t perfect, but that’s the whole idea behind me writing this – being a normal person with a normal budget – it’s very difficult to live a low impact life. I do think it continues to get more and more accessible, but our culture continues to make a wasteful, disposable life with little regard for human or ecological impact easier and more affordable than the opposite.

I will try to update now and then, at least to talk about the wedding and moving.

In the mean time, the best eco-conscious decision my husband I have made lately is to sign up for Boston Organics

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Every Friday we get a green plastic bin dropped off at our apartment filled with organic fruit and veggies. We’d talked about joining a CSA before, but with how often we eat out, how picky some of us (me) are about some vegetables, and our busy schedules, we were afraid it would be too wasteful.  We’ve had some heated discussions before about trying not to waste food.

You go to the grocery store on an empty stomach with a lot of grand ideas for the week ahead. You pick up onions, peppers, jalapenos, tomatoes, herbs, etc. You make one great dinner, on say, Tuesday.  You still have a bunch of produce and you have every intention of using it, but then you make plans with friends on Wednesday night. On Thursday night you come home from work completely exhausted and would rather stare blankly a wall for half an hour than cook dinner. Weekends are… weekends. Monday comes back around, and the left over produce looks wilty and blehh. You go buy more. Repeat cycle.  Until you just give up all together and get way too much takeout.

BUT! When the bucket-o-produce is dropped off at our door, its like getting a package in the mail – we have to open it right away to see what we got – and start eating it.  We’ve been eating way more veggies, trying more creative recipes, and feeling a stronger obligation to make sure that we don’t waste it.  When you do find yourself wasting stuff (we wasted some plums… and we did feel bad about it, SORRY PLUMS!)

Imageyou can put whatever you don’t eat on a “no” list and you don’t get it anymore.   The green bins (which they pick up every week) also mean a lot less plastic grocery store bags.

Hopefully I will actually update this blog again. If you know me in real life, please harass me about it. Even if you don’t care, it still might be fun to bug me, right?

 

 

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Nothing says “romance is in the air” like….a pigeon pooping on Gramma!

Okay, no death threats after my last post, so I’ll give this another shot.

I’m going to start with my biggest pet peeve in wedding trends: using animals as decorations or props.

Butterfly releases…

Dove Releases…

Fish Centerpieces…

NO. Just…no.

The irony is that most of the people who do these things tend to say things like “I love butterflies!” or “I’m doing this because I love nature and want to incorporate it in to my wedding!”  I consider this a case of being misguided more than anything else. I don’t think there is ever an intention to cause harm to these animals, but the truth is – it does cause harm. Its also completely, one hundred percent unnecessary.  Your wedding, your marriage, and your future as a family will not be altered in any way because you let some white pigeons out of a cage after you said your vows. The pigeons don’t give a crap about you or your wedding, but they do crap while they’re flying…so watch out.

In the interest of actually hoping this post will help someone reconsider the decision to use animals as props, I’ll offer some alternatives along with explaining why using real animals is a bad idea…

Fish Centerpieces:

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Here we see a beta fish in a vase with floating candles over it.  How modern and edgy!  Do we care about the fact that flames consume oxygen, which the fish needs to be able to breath? Do we care about what happens when the candles melt a bit more, and hot wax drips in to the water, maybe landing on the fish and possibly heating up the water to an uncomfortable or unlivable temperature for the fish?  Just a few things to consider.

Ok fine, no candles:

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Whats the problem here? What are you, some PETA nutjob?   Well, who is taking all of the fish home after the wedding? The average wedding has 18-20 tables. Are you absolutely certain that 18 or 20 people, after drinking for the better part of the day, and maybe staying at a hotel for the night, want to take home a new pet, and properly care for it?  Are you providing a way to properly transport the fish on the way home? Because that vase doesn’t have a cover.  Are you sure that your 9 year old nephew (or your jolly drunk cousin Jimmy) won’t decide that its funny to share a beer with the fish? Or dare someone to swallow it and joke about the “sushi appetizers”?  Yes, I see your eyes rolling, but I was at a wedding where both of those things happened to the goldfish centerpieces.  You wouldn’t put kittens in cages on your tables and expect your guests to take them all home to care for them properly, would you?  So why are fish different?  Yes they’re small, yes they’re affordable, yes they look cool – that doesn’t mean its right to use them as a decoration with no regard for their well being.

Alternatives:

It turns out, fish look even cooler when there is no possibility of them floating upside down in the vase by the end of the night.  Here are some great non-living fish as wedding decor:

Orchids that look like betas, on a string to suspend them in a vase of water:

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Origami Koi! Aren’t these amazing? Here is the source for this idea, they sell a DVD if you wanted to DIY: http://www.origamido.com/e-gallery/advanced-origami/slides/03_Koi.html:

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Hanging origami fish.  This picture is from my friends’ Ray and Cantor’s wedding. Not only do they look great (we actually brought one home and have it hanging in our living room), they are extra eco-friendly, because they can be made with repurposed magazine pages.  They were also really easy to make.

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As a final option, if you are SO obsessed with fish that you will absolutely die if you don’t have live fish at your wedding, have one, at a central table, like next to the guest book or by the seating assignments. Don’t put candles in the vase, and have a person assigned in advance who will be taking the fish home in a container with a cover.

Butterfly Releases:

Butterflies are shipped in envelopes, like this:

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They can’t fly, they can’t move their wings, they can’t move at all.  The fact that this is how butterflies arrive to you to release for your wedding should be enough to convince you its a bad idea, especially if you actually like butterflies. But in case that’s not enough, once they arrive, you have to pick them up out of those envelopes by their wings – which are incredibly delicate and easy to break. The oils from our fingers can also harm them.  If you picked it up carefully enough not to kill it (that is, if it survived the shipping to begin with- which some don’t), there is a good chance it is stunned and in shock, and will just fall to the ground when you let it go.  This will lead to one of two possible fates for your pretty butterfly: getting stomped on by a guest, or getting snatched by a bird (nom nom).

Cruelty aside, butterfly releases also potentially mess up breeding and migratory patterns, spread disease, and introduce species in to regions they shouldn’t be in.  Here is a great article from the North American Butterfly Association: http://www.naba.org/releases.html.   The key point the article makes is that you’re only “releasing” butterflies that are captive because you ordered them.  The notion of doing it because you like butterflies doesn’t even make sense.

Alternatives:

Here is a great blog post from Crafty Moods on how to make a butterfly garland. They look gorgeous! I bet you could even attach them to a neat, vintage-looking fan to have the effect of them flying at your ceremony

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And here are some really neat centerpieces using faux butterflies, found at: http://www.gigisgoneparental.com/2011/07/baby-shower-inspiration.html

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And finally, if you live near a zoo with a butterfly garden, you can get photographs taken there surrounded by real butterflies who are cared for by professionals and not stuffed in envelopes. For my fellow Massholes, we even have: The Butterfly Place, which actually hosts weddings!

Dove Releases:

Dove, in terms of the type of bird released at weddings in the US, is a fancy name for a white pigeon.  First of all, lots of people are freaked out by birds flapping over their heads (my mom is one of those people, Hi Mom!)

Even according to the professionals who release them, many things need to be considered before releasing doves at a ceremony.  For example, they can’t be released after sunset, and they can’t be released in rain or bad weather (which in New England, is pretty much unpredictable).  While it seems there are plenty of reputable people who take good care of their birds, there are also those who don’t. If you’re not an expert, you’re taking a risk that the doves you are releasing are being cared for by someone who knows what they’re doing.   If this is something you feel strongly about, please read some info here.

Despite the fact that it appears dove releases can be done humanely, I still don’t quite get why we need to use live animals as props… that, and there is no way to promise the bird doesn’t fly right out of the box and go <<FWAP>> head first in to the glass door next to your ceremony space. Or poop on someone’s head.

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Alternatives:

everything related to birds and birdcages is very trendy right now in the wedding world. Just google it, but here’s one cute bird themed wedding without using real birds from Prima Donna Bride:

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If you have any other ideas for alternatives, please post them!  I’d love for people to stumble across this post while searching for information on using live animals in their wedding, and change their minds because there are so many great ideas out there that completely eliminate any chance of being unintentionally cruel to animals.

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