I Prepare for a Month in Uganda!
August 15th, 2013 → Leave a comment
I booked my flight to Uganda and will be there in ALL OF OCTOBER researching a new show on the economy!
Who I’m going to be working with
I’m working with a fantastic NGO out there called the Women’s Global Empowerment Fund. They put on a theater festival for local women in Gulu (a town of about 154K people in Northern Uganda). WGEF only give microloans to women and teach them business skills, so that they can become more financially independent and self-determine their lives. They also produce a theater festival in early October that I am helping them put on. The women write the plays and perform the roles of men. The festival becomes a great source of education and empowerment for the audience and the women performing.
Uganda was in a horrible civil war and now is in recovery mode and rebuilding their economy. They undoubtedly experienced a great deal of trauma, but there is also the desire to move forward. Apparently, there are a lot of Aid workers and volunteers in Gulu.
I really appreciated that Karen, the Executive Director of WGEF has been talking to me one-on-one by Skype in preparation for this trip. She told me within the first ten minutes of meeting by phone that I was required to read “The Challenge For Africa” by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Wangari Maathai. She insisted I read books about the African economy not written by white theorists, but instead from someone living in Africa. I am also reading a book called “Poor Economics” by Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee and Esther Duflo.
On the flip side, I’ve also been doing non-required watching of reality tv to see images of the where I’ll be going. I’ve gone through episodes of “No Reservations” and “Bizarre Foods” (worst, most racist name for a travel TV show ever, btw) to get an idea of what I’m in store for. It’s very difficult for any US city to boast the culinary variety of Los Angeles, so I’m already gorging myself locally on food that I won’t have access to for my month in Africa (Asian food and anything with cheese). I’m excited to try Matooke (the plaintain staple food) and taste the organically grown produce (many of which are sold by the clients of WGEF).
I’m Going to Say Something Unpopular: Missionaries Freak Me Out
I have been watching whatever videos I could find about Gulu on Youtube. And I found one really disturbing video from a white Christian missionary who did work there. I’m not knocking my Christian friends and what good has come in their faith, but I must ask… what “service” is it that Christian Missionaries in Africa provide? Because all I witnessed them do from this video is them talking about the local people in problematic god-complex colonizing ways. For example: “I see myself as a mother figure, and I want to love on these kids so much. Their lives are so hard and I am here to give them the love they aren’t getting.”
Ugh, it just further proliferates the image of African people as dependent, starving and helpless and in need of religious solutions like Jesus instead of education, vaccines and clean water.
I much prefer the work I’ll be doing in economic development that does not see the local people as “pitiable” or “suffering.” I do not believe I am there to “save” anybody. I prefer to offer my time to aid the empowerment, self-reliance, and self-determination of people who are consistently given charity over the tools to succeed. I want to work for an organization that encourages equity between men and women. And I believe that all marginalized people will be liberated when given the tools to lead themselves towards their own liberation.
How I Decided to go to Uganda
A few months ago, I had no idea where in Africa I was going to go. I only knew “I’m going to Africa to research a show!” And believe me, I knew how dumb this sounded. Like when people from other countries find out that I live in Los Angeles, and ask if I know their friend “so-and-so who lives in Texas.”
Africa is made up of 54 vastly different countries. It’s 3 times the land mass of the United States. And unlike what most of America believes from the news– not African politicians are corrupt. There is a middle class. There are not animals roaming freely. Not everyone is starving. You don’t get kidnapped or contract HIV just walking around.
I was introduced to WGEF through a play called “Cooking Oil” that was produced with actors from Uganda and Rwanda, and presented in Los Angeles a few months ago. I was asked to be on the panel after as a community based artist. Just meeting Ugandan people working as full time actors in their country, seeing how their economic issues explored through that play, was myth-busting alone.
Working independently of a university, it was tricky to figure out “the best way into Africa.” I kept staring at a map and reading up trying to figure out how to go in. I started to treat different people to dinner from the Cooking Oil production and explain what I wanted to do. “I want to better understand the global poverty and the global economy by doing research in Africa.” A few introductions later, I met WGEF and was booking a flight to Uganda.
So far, this has been a great and educational challenge
Nothing will get you reading about the politics, conditions, and economy of the other side of the world like the prospect of having to live there.
When I told my mother about this trip, I thought I needed to clean out my ears because she said something I never thought I’d hear from her: “I am so proud of you.”
What?! Is this the same woman who told me during the middle of my Southeast Asia trip to cut my trip short and come home?
I am really nervous about this trip. The instability of the region (as compared to the US) does worry me. At this stage in my life, I have no choice but to take risks. Creatively and as a human being. I don’t really have much holding me back (just money… but isn’t it always money?). No kids. No spouse. No desk job. A few years ago when I was climbing the ruins of Angkor Wat and barely catching my breath getting my legs up the steep steps, I realized, I was not going to wait to see the world when I hit retirement age, but I was going to ENGAGE the world now, while I still have my health.
After being a self-help reading junkie for many years, I realized, I needed to just stop wishing my life would be more creative, ambitious and adventurous, and just start stepping in that direction. If you’ve read my blog the last few years, you may know how much I would complain that arts administration sucks all the joy of making the art. I complained about how hard it was to tour the same show again and again.
So I let go of all the things that emotionally tied me down. Even the theater shows I once loved so much. It’s incredibly freeing and has given me a lot of perspective on how lucky I have been to have this life.
$$ So far this has been a very expensive challenge $$
No, I’m not a trust fund kid and while I’m a self-supporting artist who is decently good at money, I was not prepared for how expensive it would be to go to a very poor country. Because things like cars or western style hotel accommodations are so difficult to find, they are also very expensive.
Here’s a peak at the expenses so far…
*$2000 Accommodations, Volunteer fee (most NGOs in Africa will charge them), and ground transport to Gulu for 3 weeks
*Flight would have been $1300 but a friend helped me figure out how to do a combo of buying Airline miles, and then using my credit card miles to cover most of that expense. So flight was more like $400.
*5 weeks of no income in the US.
I have yet to account for things like the costs of living for 2 more weeks in Africa, layover stays, lunch and dinner, stuff I have to pack to survive, and tourist things.
I was fortunate to receive a small playwright commission and some very generous donations last year towards this journey. I’ve also been saving for this trip. But I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do with my time and money than something so far from what I’ve known.
Bonus! I’m going to Istanbul!
It’s a 25+ hour journey in each direction. Three flights to get over there. And on the way over I will stop 2.5 days in Istanbul! It’s so exciting because I never thought I’d get to see Turkey out of this! I had the option of stopping in Ethiopia, Cairo, London, or New York City on the way back. I really wanted to stop in Cairo, and thought I could skirt around the multiple travel advisories that said to not go there… and after conferring with people who do live there… guess the pyramids will have to wait. I’ve heard mixed things about traveling alone in Ethiopia, so I think I will get this initial Uganda trip down and grow braver to see other parts of Africa in the future. I decided, I probably would be too exhausted (and mostly, too broke) to make any more stopover trips after this big one.
And then… this could happen