Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Year in Review - 2014

What a roller-coaster. It is always easy to look back in nostalgia which I think is quite dangerous for various reasons. 2014 has no doubt been one of the most exhilarating, frustrating and fascinating years of my still relatively short life. Many insights have been won, perhaps more so than in previous years. It has been a year of transition, both in my personal life but also academically and professionally, and I end 2014 thinking that perhaps do I finally know where things are heading. Perhaps. Definitely maybe.


The year started with wonderful food and brilliant dance moves in a small cottage in the Swedish archipelagos with some of my best friends. Definitely one of the better NYEs. I turned down a position at the UN in Copenhagen in favour of a position at the Embassy in Uganda where I co-managed Sweden's chairmanship of the donor group in Uganda's justice sector. It was an exciting month, needless to say. Once back in Kampala me and the girls and the rest of Kampala's 20-something expats went to the source of the Nile for the annual kayaking tournament. It was... wet.


The Kampala expat elite went to Sipi Falls to drink waragi and go hiking. The new intern at the Embassy, Fanny, moved in to the guest house I was staying at and ensured that the spring of 2014 was some of the most fun times I have ever had. We went to "The Best House Party of 2014" and someone snogged their boss's son. Not cool but hilarious nonetheless. We went to a football game at the national stadium, watching Uganda play even against Sudan. President Museveni signed the Anti Homosexuality Act into legislation and I got to see first hand how problematic the aid industry is. February ended with us taking the bus across the border to Gisenyi, Rwanda, where we drank an endless amount of espresso martinis , swam in Lake Kivu and went hiking in the Volcano Park.


March was a hectic month. At work I was busy planning and coordinating a network conference on mainstreaming gender sensitive approaches in our different portfolios. The conference was taking place in Kampala with 40 participants flying in from more than 20 different Embassies across the world. Needless to say I learnt a thing or two. Outside work there was a lot of partying going down, house parties to attend to, birthday parties to sing at and pub crawls to crawl through... Kampala is a good place for going out generally but March was particularly so. #rahulUG2014 was trending as we celebrated Rahul's birthday for basically an entire week, in Kampala as well as on Banda Island in Lake Vicky. Me and Fanny spent most weekends at Cayenne Nightclub, never coming back home before 7am.


April finally came and me and the Kampala girls went to Kenya to visit a friend who'd moved out there on a new contract. We started our journey in Nairobi where I was shocked by how messy and unfriendly it was compared to Kampala. We visited Karen Blixen's house before getting on the coach to Mombasa. A relaxing week followed, only interrupted by a raucous frat party where we were introduced by the Americans to frat party games such as watermelon polo and flip cup. One night we went for oysters and champers in a cave which was brilliant at the time but not as great a few hours later when I woke up from being sick (a bad oyster or two...). Back in Kampala Isabelle had moved in in our guest house which came to ensure fun times indeed, and was also the start of what has become a great friendship. I also downloaded Tinder with, err, mixed success...


May was another incredibly busy month. I was in the field for the major part of the month, first visiting the refugee settlements in Northern Uganda and then visiting institutions in the justice sector in Western Uganda. The first trip in particular was important, both professionally but also academically. My visit to the settlements gave me important clues as to what I wanted to write my dissertation on. When I wasn't travelling with work I tried to make the most of my time in Kampala with Fanny and Isabelle - lots of late nights at Cayenne and a fair bit of wining and dining. We ended the month with a weekend in Entebbe where we tried out the local nightlife (not great to be honest) and the Swedish restaurant 2 friends (a lot better). I also started working for a fintech startup in London, which made me feel a bit more connected to home. In general, I started missing Europe quite a bit and was wondering what things would be like when moving back.


June started with a field trip to Karamoja with a peace and security advisor from Stockholm head office. It was an incredible field trip, because of the projects we visited and the people we met, but also because of the colleagues I travelled with. I've been very fortunate in the people I have worked with throughout this year, which was particularly evident during the trip to Karamoja. June was also the month when Fanny finished her internship at the Embassy and moved back to Sweden. I was quite heartbroken for a bit, but then moved out of our guest house and into a colleague's house where I managed to find some peace. I was awarded SOAS' undergraduate research award to do field research in Northern Uganda for my dissertation and spent all my time outside of the office preparing for the field research. I also quit smoking (!) and started lifting weights with a PT five (!) days a week.


July was the month of visitors and lolidays. I took my first visitor across the border to Rwanda, back to Gisenyi where I was in February. We went to Kigali and visited the genocide museum and left with more questions than answers. Most of the week was spent listening to jazz and playing cards. Then Zemika came, which resulted in safari and a trip to Lake Bunyonyi, which is probably the single most beautiful place I have ever had the pleasure to visit. We were conned to our last penny by the local pygmies and in spite of this we had such a great time giggling and discussing everything from the aid to the fashion industry. When I wasn't out travelling with visitors I did my very best to prepare the research I was going to undertake for my dissertation. There was a fair bit of anxiety involved in this but with support from great colleagues I managed to pull through.


August started with a field trip to visit prisons, police stations and courts in central Uganda in order to evaluate Swedish support to the institutions. As always I met some great people and had quite a few eye-opening experiences. Back home I went to the source of the Nile to do some white river rafting. I spent all my free time writing interview guides for my field research, which was undertaken at the end of the month. Although I had lots of experience from being in the field previously it was entirely different to go out on my own, not representing the Embassy but only myself. I stayed in the UN compound and had lunch and dinner with the only expat humanitarian throughout my stay and got to hear fascinating stories from Darfur and Dadaab alike. Visiting the refugee settlements and chatting to the members of the refugee and the host communities, on my own, was an experience like no other. The research was a success in that the situation was exactly what I thought it'd be - but the opposite. A bit of a cliff hanger, but I'm hoping to publish the results in 2015...


September came and it was time for me to leave Uganda, to leave the Embassy. Needless to say I cried like a baby on my last day when having to leave the people that had become my family and my home away from home. My boda driver Salomon took me to the airport and I struggled realising I was leaving. I remember being so overwhelmed by the food selection at the food court in Doha that I ended up not having anything at all. After not having left East Africa for nine months I was back in the world of mass consumption. It was a bit of a shock. Back in Europe me, Fanny and Isabelle had a reunion in Copenhagen with lots of great food and drink. I went for country walks with my father and for oyster dinners with my mother. My 25th birthday was celebrated on the Swedish countryside with my best friends and I felt nothing but pure joy. I moved back to London after not having been for over a year. I went to Royal Albert Hall for a gig with Jo Rose, the singer songwriter who helped me mend my heart. September ended with a group of us flying out to France to celebrate Kirsty's birthday with an almost obscene amount of food and drink.


Uni started and I was so incredibly excited and could not wait to start writing essays. In the beginning of the month, that was, by the end of the month I was exhausted and couldn't wait for reading week. I started getting settled in my new flat and fell in love with our house cat. Isabelle came to visit and reinvigorated my love for her and heated debates. October was also the most cultural month of the year - I went to a public talk by Owen Jones at the LSE, I watched the opera show of Franz Kafka's The Trial at the Royal Opera House, I went to one of Simon Amstell's gigs, watched John Cooper Clarke at the Royal Festival Hall and went to a gypsy gig in Limehouse. Most likely did my exhaustion not only come from my academic work but also from being out and about five nights a week. I also gave London dating a chance which resulted in some great anecdotes for everyone involved I think...


November came and with it reading week. Me and Ingrid went to Budapest to enjoy its history, food and culture. A great place to visit, particularly when on a bit of a budget. Back in Britain I visited the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford Uni to discuss future endeavours and I decided that although being old enough to know that it doesn't really matter, I'm still young enough to think let's give it a go... I cut a destructive relationship loose and instead focused on another relationship in my life which has become increasingly important. Most evenings and weekends were spent working on my dissertation as well as other essays and deadlines which seemed to be never ending. I cried down Skype to my father, which apparently one never gets too old to do, and I was advised to visit the "help station" at uni, and so I did and would recommend others struggling to do as well.


I finished three essays and thought I was going to cry of exhaustion. Instead I slept. I went to a wedding for the first time and had such a great time. Me and Claire visited the Conflict, Time and Photography exhibition at Tate Modern, which shook me to the core. Sadaf brought me along to the wonderful Nordic Yule in Shoreditch and I remembered what it was like having a life outside work. I thus took up dating again and found it part amusing part depressing. I saw a fling from the past and decided it was best left there. I celebrated six months as a non-smoker and bought myself a ludicrously expensive bag for the pennies I'd otherwise spent on fags. I flew back to Sweden for the holidays, Norwegian lost my luggage (yet to be found) which spurred a quarter life crisis. Luckily heaps of great food and drink, family and friends were waiting back in Sweden. I sent off my MSc applications and started considering moving back to the lands of Scandinavia.

A roller-coaster indeed, one of the most challenging and rewarding years of my life. Great as it's been, however, I am very much ready for 2015. Leaving 2014 behind will be almost as great as welcoming 2015 which I'm convinced will be the best year thus far. I will finally be graduating from SOAS - long overdue - before leaving London and moving on to greener and greater pastures. I can't wait. Bring it on!

Friday, 16 May 2014



Screen shot of Google image result, search term "refugee camp"

Screen shot of Google image result, search term "refugee camp uganda"

There are two things that are evident from the above screen shots - 1) Google image search gives you pictures that are fairly in line with reality, and 2) refugees living in Uganda tend to be better off than refugees in other countries.

Needless to say, when speaking about quality of life in relation to situations caused by forced migration everything is somewhat relative. The members of the refugee community in Arua town that I have come in contact with over the past few days haven't exactly been delighted with their situation - perhaps especially as they are now back in the settlements where they lived prior to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement which put an end to the civil war between what is now South Sudan and Sudan - but nevertheless they live in conditions that plenty of Ugandan nationals do. They do not live in tents provided by UNHCR and their freedom of movement is not legally restricted by their host government. Rather do they live in mud huts - often not that different from how they lived in South Sudan - and they have legal access to land on which they can farm. In fact they are according to the Ugandan constitution legally entitled to a plot of land in order to enable self subsistence farming. Obviously the fact that few South Sudanese are traditional farmers tend to complicate the livelihoods of the refugees that have recently arrived from South Sudan but luckily the international community has offered a hand or two in assisting the initial farming. Shame just that the rains aren't coming... Anyway - point being that had it not been for the fact that I knew that I was in a refugee settlement yesterday I would never have known. It looked just like any of the plenty Ugandan villages one crosses by when going for a drive out on the country side.

Interestingly, many of the members of the refugee community that I spoke to said that they didn't want to go back to South Sudan. Apart from feeling a lot safer in Uganda, their children are also legally entitled to primary education (although they had had some problems with paying the examination fees, which are 1500 Ugandan shillings per child - a full £0.30) and the local schools have as of yet not turned away any children from the refugee community, even though there has been an influx of about 15000 people to Arua since the crisis started in South Sudan mid-december last year. But even though the refugees deemed their life to be somewhat better in one of Uganda's refugee settlements than in South Sudan, there are obviously still problems that they face in their daily life. Access to soap, for instance. And the inability to independently uphold one's human dignity. Although the international community has excelled in providing nutrition (although it wasn't great when WFP had to halve their food rations for a few months due to inadequate funding), WASH services and non-food items the question of human dignity - which of course is one that is difficult to define - is somewhat tough to tackle. Whilst in theory and legally having access to society, these people have no access to the capitalist society. They are falling behind. Somewhat heartbreakingly this situation is probably worse for the lower middle class of South Sudan which had some financial means in their native country and now have lost whatever capital power they had. The line between humanitarian and developmental work becomes somewhat blurry when the worst storm has passed. That said food insecurity is likely to be looming over the now food secure refugees once there is a new influx of South Sudanese to Arua.

All of this made me think about what me and my countrymen would do if the Russians decided to invade (it's something we've always spoken about, a sort of legacy from the Cold War era - "The Russians are coming!"). Coming from a knowledge economy through and through I don't have any particular skills that would be useful if I was to be settled out in the countryside. Obviously the South Sudanese economy is far from a knowledge one, but nevertheless most of the South Sudanese have about as many farming skills as me and my mates. None.

The overall objective of Sweden's humanitarian aid is "to save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain human dignity for the benefit of people in need". I do believe that Sweden and the international community in general save lives and alleviate suffering for the benefit of people in need, but the question of maintaining human dignity is far more complicated than either and both of the above mentioned issues.

Puppies in Rhino refugee settlement.
The kids had named them Baby dog and Toby(!). No joke.