Sunday, March 30, 2014

Was I Completely Out of My Mind?

The Lobby of HST
A few months ago I wrote a post describing my schedule this semester.  I was questioning the fact that I might be taking on too much due to the fact that I was interning full time while still taking full time classes (among other things).

I started my internship at the State Department on January 6th.  It seems like years ago.  At the onset, I was terrified of myself and my ambitions.  I was taking four classes, working full time, organizing events for the Graduate Student Council, and trying to maintain my sanity all at the same time.  I was supposed to be finished March 14th, but in order to finish out a few projects, I voluntarily extended for a few extra weeks and now tomorrow is my last day.  In the end, was it worth it?  Was it worth not seeing my family for 3 months?  Was it worth doing homework every weekend, every morning, every evening?  Was it worth the stress and anxiety of getting things done in time?  The answer to all these questions: Yes!  It was worth every minute of it.

For the past three months I've been interning at the State Department in the Office of the U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan.  It has been quite the experience!  Despite the fact that these countries are extremely complicated, I feel like an expert on Sudan and South Sudan.  It's possible that I actually know more about Sudan now than I do about Uganda.  The learning curve at State is almost vertical.  It's so fast paced that you have to simply learn how to adjust.  You have to keep up or you might fall apart.

I've been working in the Harry S Truman Building in Foggy Bottom.  I love and hate this building all at the same time.  I love to roam the halls.  At the end of every corridor there are mural size pictures of different places from around the world.  Just walking around you feel like you are travelling.  This is one way I know how to find my way back to my office, which is right next to the UK mural.  There are also many pictures of the Secretary (John Kerry) with various heads of state and other important officials all over the world. (What I want to know is who's job it is to change all of these when the secretary of state changes.)  In addition to all the pictures there are inspirational quotes on the walls from people like Gandhi.  Sometimes I plan my route to a certain place in the building based on going down corridors that I haven't been in.  I also hate this building because even though it is laid out in a way that is supposed to be easy to navigate, it is so easy to get lost.

As I said before, the learning curve at State is steep and you often find yourself doing things that you never thought they would let an intern do.  One of my biggest tasks was research.  I was tasked with researching the Sudanese economy, their exports, and specific industries within the economy.  As a student of International Economic Relations, I found all this fascinating!  Sudan is under comprehensive economic sanctions with the U.S. currently.  This means that U.S. companies and citizens cannot import things from Sudan or export things to Sudan, for the most part.  My office knew my background and they really tried to make my internship as meaningful to me as they could.  I was actually told at one point "We never knew we had so many economic projects until you got here."

Throughout my internship I also got to go to various talks and lecture series as well as "field trips" both with my office as well as the internship program.  Below I describe some of what I found most interesting in my three months working there.

1.) "Creative Diplomacy" with Thomas Pickering--Thomas Pickering is one of the most well known and influential diplomats of the last 50 years.  He did a lecture/Q&A session on creative diplomacy.  Mostly he was taking questions about his views on U.S. diplomacy in today's world.

2.) FBI--One of the field trips through the internship program was to the FBI building.  While there I got to see agents re-certifying and I also got a chance to walk around their museum where they have some interesting artifacts.

3.) The Hill (House Foreign Affairs Committee)--The Special Envoy testified in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee a few weeks ago and I went with other people from my office to see him testify.  All of these sessions are open to the public, but I had never been before.

4.) The Chiefs of Mission Conference--This was a conference for all the U.S. chiefs of mission (aka Ambassadors).  I found myself volunteered for "mic duty", where I was tasked with passing the microphone around to people with questions for the speakers.  This sounds kind of boring, but I got to sit in on a couple interesting sessions on congressional relations and fragile states.
Diplomatic Reception Room

5.) Diplomatic Reception--My office threw a farewell reception for Ambassador Akech, the South Sudanese ambassador to the U.S., who was being recalled to South Sudan.  This was held on the 8th floor in some very elaborate diplomatic reception rooms.  While we were there, one of my co-workers gave us a tour of the reception rooms.  It's like a museum!  They had so many important artifacts, including many original works of art and the desk that Thomas Jefferson sat at when he drafted the Declaration of Independence.

We got really good seats at the University
Town Hall Meeting
6.) University Town Hall Meeting (with John Kerry)--John Kerry held a session for college students and all interns were invited.  He mostly took questions and there were a lot of questions.  It was awesome hearing Kerry speak, however being a part of the audience was embarrassing.  Many of these students clearly had no sense of the world.  I was in line to ask a question, but was never given the chance because there were about 5 times more people with questions than Kerry actually had time to answer.

7.) U.S.Geological Survey--One of my co-workers and I took a trip out to the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, VA.  I was working on some research about Sudanese gold and we wanted to get some information from mineral experts.  It was quite the adventure simply getting out there and it was nice to get out of DC for a day.

Sudanese Embassy
8.) The Sudanese Embassy--I sometimes got to take a trip to the Sudanese Embassy (which is right near Dupont Circle) to drop off visa applications or attend meetings.  I especially enjoyed sitting in the waiting room and watching Sudanese TV in Arabic (although I didn't understand a word of it).

These were not all of the events and experiences I had working at State, but they were some of the best.  In general, no week was the same.  It was such a dynamic environment to work in.  I often felt like I was being pulled in ten different directions, but at the same time it wasn't like I was being asked to get ten different people coffee.  All the work I was doing was, on some level, important, and someone had to do it.

I don't think anyone who has not worked at State can understand just how substantial these type of internships are.  I didn't fully understand it myself until I did it.  In fact, I applied to do it all over again in the Fall.  I never thought I would enjoy and feel so fulfilled at an unpaid job, especially after having so many good paying jobs.

I also loved the fact that I got to wake up with the Washington Monument every morning.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Movie Review: Girl Rising

Happy International Women's Day!!

Anyone who knows me well enough knows that I am a huge advocate for women's empowerment and, more specifically, girls' education.  This all started when I was in Peace Corps, mostly because I worked at an all girls' school and I saw the ability of some of my students, as well as their dreams and aspirations.  I also got to see, first hand, how women in a country such as Uganda were treated.  How they often weren't given the same opportunities as men and how this contributed to the structure of society.

This week I went to a film screening on my college campus.  The film I saw is called Girl Rising.  This is a movie that I heard about a few months ago and ever since I heard about it, I've been dying to see it.  However, it isn't like a regular movie in theaters.  There have been selective screenings around DC, but every one I found I couldn't go to (usually because I had class).  So when I finally found one I could go to and it was right on my university's campus, I couldn't pass up the opportunity!

Girl Rising tells the story of nine girls in different developing countries throughout the world.  Some of these girls have been through tremendous amounts of hardship.  They have experienced natural disasters, sexual assault, arranged marriages, child slavery, and other unthinkable injustices.  Despite the hard lives that they have had, they tell their stories about how they were able to rise above it, become educated, and gain support from those around them.  Each girl was paired up with a writer from their country, who helped them write and tell their story.  The film also provides a multitude of statistics about the disadvantages that women have in today's world.

Certain parts of this movie really took me back to my life in Uganda and my students.  I was really touched by these stories and the fact that these girls had the courage and the will power to tell them.  I really don't think I can better describe this movie.  I don't care who you are or what you think, everyone should see this movie.  It will change the way you think about feminism and women's empowerment.  Feminism is unfortunately often thought of as a negative thing, imposed on people by dominant, outspoken women.  However, when I speak of feminism, I'm simply talking about equal rights.  In the U.S., women have fairly good lives.  Everything isn't entirely equal across genders, but I know how much worse things can be.  I think this film portrays feminism and gender equality in a way that no one can really argue with.

However, as with almost everything in this world, there are criticisms for Girl Rising.  The film only shows girls with stories that ended on a somewhat positive note.  They didn't show the number of girls who die of HIV or other diseases.  They didn't show those who are victims of sexual assault and never seek help.  They didn't show those girls who never overcome the struggles of child slavery or arranged marriages.  And I even though I know this would have been extremely difficult to portray, it would give a much more well rounded picture.  This film also doesn't tell most of the stories in the voices of the girls themselves.  I would have much preferred to hear their voices (voiced-over, of course), so that you could get a better sense of who they really are.

In general, I think this film was incredible and as I left campus that night all I could think about was how much I just wanted to see it again!  It also made me realize how much I miss my students.  I wish I had kept in touch, but at the time I left my site, I was so fed up with the administration of my school that I didn't want to keep ties.  However, now I'm seeing the downside to that.  I may never know what happens to my best and brightest students.  There is one in particular that I might try to contact.  This could end up being extremely difficult, but before too much time passes, I feel like I should try.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Homosexuality and Human Rights: Uganda Taking Steps Backward

I often wonder what it must feel like to have been a Peace Corps volunteer back in the day in a country that I couldn't fathom Peace Corps operating in today.  For example, I wonder how RPCVs from Afghanistan or the DRC feel today, first looking back on their service and contributions to that country, and second looking at where that country is now.  I can imagine how disheartening that must be to see a country that you put so much of your personal efforts into digress when it comes to things like economic development and political stability.

I often times refer to Uganda as "my country".  Obviously, I'm an American citizen and (don't get me wrong) I am true and loyal to Uncle Sam; however, I've never spent so much time outside the U.S. as I did when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Uganda.  For two years, I felt like I put an immense amount of effort into bettering that country.  For this reason, I often feel like it is my country, in the same way someone would feel ownership of a big project they are working on.  When the outcome is successful, you feel good, and when things digress, you don't feel so good.

All this being said, my true point of this post is to put out my thoughts on Uganda's most recent anti-gay law.  The entire time I spent in Uganda, this bill was always on the table for the parliament to pass.  And because of this, it always made us (volunteers) feel like we were in a bit of limbo.  The U.S. government had threatened to pull out all foreign aid if it was ever passed and Peace Corps is a foreign aid program.  So based on this one bill being passed in parliament, we knew that it could cause us to be pulled out and potentially sent home.  And as much as volunteers may complain about their host country, no one wants to involuntarily leave without being able to finish up projects and properly close out their service.

Normally when the topic of homosexually is brought up in any context (in the U.S. or internationally), I usually take a very indifferent approach.  I never understood those who are so greatly opposed to things such as gay marriage.  If it isn't affecting you, why should you be so against it?  However, I'm sure the same could be said of the rights of minorities back in the 60s.  People generally oppose what they don't understand or what they don't want to understand.  For me, I never saw any reason why I would oppose the rights of gay people, however, as a straight woman, I also never felt the need to be a big advocate of it (until now...)

To give you some more background on what is currently going on in Uganda right now, Parliament passed an anti-homosexuality bill in January of this year, at which time it was sent to the President for his signature.  At first, it didn't seem that President Museveni was going to approve of it.  I think that maybe he saw the consequences that would be imposed on Uganda by the international community, however, the Ugandan people put a lot of pressure on him.  This led him to shift his standpoint (probably partly in lieu of the 2016 elections).  He called for a panel of experts to research the "issue" and determine whether or not there is a genetic basis for homosexually.  (As a side note, I feel that this is part of the problem with developing countries.  They think they need to reinvent the wheel after it has already been done).  Basically, the ministry of health hired these scientists who (after a few weeks) came out with a report; however, the report was based on research that was poorly cited, misinterpreted and sometimes not cited at all.  When the Ugandan government is looking for a specific outcome and they hire people to produce the outcome, what do you think that outcome will be?  It's going to be whatever the government wants it to be.  This is corruption at its finest.  Meanwhile, in the U.S., researchers at Northwestern University came out with a study that reports the exact opposite of this Ugandan panel of experts.  So, based on his own "evidence", Museveni signed the bill into law.

This law, although not as harsh as its original proposed version, still allows for people to be put in jail for simply being who they are.  It also allows the government to imprison those who know someone who is gay and does not turn them over to the police.  This is such a basic violation of human rights, that I can't even fathom what Uganda's Human Rights Report is going to look like next year.

Once the bill was passed into law, the Red Pepper, a Ugandan tabloid, reported the names of suspected homosexuals in Uganda.  However, this is not the first time this has happened.  In 2010, another tabloid that no longer exists printed a similar list of known homosexuals.  And only a month later, David Kato, one of the biggest LGBT advocates in Uganda was killed.  Keep in mind, this was before this law was even passed, so I don't think things going to get any better now.

For obvious reasons, the international community and many foreign governments are outraged.  This is a blatant violation of human rights occurring in a country that receives a huge amount of foreign aid.  Some countries, including Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands, have already cut some of their foreign aid programs.  The U.S. has yet to cut any aid, however, President Obama has made it quite clear that the U.S.-Ugandan relationship has become strained.  President Museveni doesn't seem to care, making statements saying that Uganda will develop without foreign aid from these countries.  I find this most interesting because Uganda gets a large amount of funding for antiretrovirals (ARVs) for those living with HIV.  It appears that the Ugandan government is more interested in ridding its country of gays than saving the lives of over a million of its citizens from dying of AIDS.  This is a blatant disregard for human life.

The bottom line is that I'm one of those RPCVs who is becoming disheartened by my former host country.  I feel that when it comes to human rights, Uganda is moving backwards instead of forwards.  This is particularly discouraging because I put so much of my time and effort into trying to make a difference there and yet it is still dragged back down by such close-mindedness.

Note: I've posted below many of the articles that I've come across that reference this subject (most of these are from the last few weeks).  Most of what I wrote here is based on my own personal knowledge of the subject (acquired partly from reading these articles), so you may not find every single detail cited in these articles.  But if you would like any further reading on this topic, these are some good sources.

Uganda President Signs Harsh Anti-Gay Law

Museveni Seeks U.S. Advice on Homosexuality

How Museveni Used Junk Science to Pass Uganda's Anti-Gay Bill

Museveni Responds to Obama on Anti-Gay Bill

Uganda Tabloid Prints Names of People it Says are Homosexual

Day After Uganda's Anti-Gay Law is Signed, a Tabloid Publishes Names

LGBT Ugandans Attacked, Killed as Tabloid Lists 'Top 200 Homos'

Several Countries Cut Aid to Uganda Over Anti-Gay Law

Ugandan Government Shrugs Off Aid Cuts Over Anti-Gay Law

Gay Not to Be Encountered: Culture Minister