how to eat an elephant.

For all of you who read the title and gasped, have no fear. I don’t condone, in any way, eating elephants in the literal sense. So you can relax, tell your heart to start beating again. I rode an elephant in Thailand and think they are some of the most amazing, intelligent, sensitive creatures on earth.
The type of elephant I’m talking about eating is actually a big project. We’ve all run into them before: assignments, jobs, tasks, goals, etc that just seem absolutely overwhelming. Well let me just say, when I’m done here, I’m going to be able to give one hell of a talk on how to take on projects you don’t feel ready for.

I should have expected it really. I know myself well enough to know that I’m a master at biting off more than I can chew. A perennial over-achiever. Addicted to the thrill of not knowing whether or not I can pull something off. Committed to being over-committed. A professional at fitting 10 lbs of sh*t into a 5 lb bag (as my dad would say). So I really shouldn’t be surprised when I look around and find myself hip deep in a project of proportions I’ve never before attempted. It’s definitely the biggest elephant I’ve ever tried to eat, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little scared.

I remember being a sophomore in high school – just laying the foundation for what would become a lifetime of being over-involved. I was in the car coming home from school, and my dad was driving because I didn’t yet have my license. Sitting in the passenger seat, I distinctly remember suffering the first waves of stress and anxiety: am I going to be able to finish all my homework and go to basketball and manage the new member list for International Outreach and get in my service hours for IB/Service Club and on and on….Honestly, I don’t even remember the things I was stressed out about. Undoubtedly, they were mere shadows compared to the bigger and more vital things I’d take on later in college and life, but to me at the time, they were of huge importance. I was scared. Just like I am now. And my dad gave me advice that rings as true now as it was then: start with one thing. Focus on it. Complete it. Move to the next thing. Move from task to task until you’ve done all you can do for tonight. Then go to sleep.

I’ve never gotten better advice on how to deal with a big project or problem. It helped me deal with the stress of beginning to take personal responsibility for life and my place in the world when I was in high school, and it’s going to help me now as I attempt to craft my life and career into a message that’s worth the world’s attention.

Step 1: Make a list
Step 2: Make lots of lists
Step 3: Make sure you break down your list items into quantifiable, complete-able tasks
Step 4: Then start checking them off, baby. One by one.
Step 5: Sleep**
Step 6: Repeat

(**This step may, in extreme circumstances, be replaced by a high coffee intake, thought this is not advisable too many days in a row…It could lead you to do things others will find questionable, like balancing pillows on your head while parading around your apartment in your underwear saying, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” Not that I know from experience or anything.)

I’ve come to accept that the type of fear I’m feeling now – when you’ve got a lot riding on your shoulders, and you’re pushing yourself outside your comfort zone – isn’t my enemy. It’s what drives me to make those lists. It motivates me to be creative, innovative, and persistent in checking off those tasks. And when I can go no farther and fall into sleep (hopefully), it’s what gets me up early the next morning to start again. I might be scared of what I’ve begun. I’m afraid that I won’t have what it takes to complete it successfully. Am I too young? Too inexperienced? Too naive? Maybe. But one thing is for sure, they’ll never be able to say it’s because I didn’t work hard enough.

So I’m off to make lists. I’m off to answer emails and read curriculum and design M&E. I’m off to write grants and network and plan. To make timelines and budgets and workplans. Then I’m off to sleep before I get up tomorrow and do it again. And again and again and again, because the people I’m working for are worth it and the good things that could come of my success are too great to not give it my all. I might be afraid, but I’m going to try to bring fear along as my friend instead of desperately trying to leave it in the half-unthought thoughts of near sleep. Together, we’ll make it.

Have you ever faced a project like the one I am? What strategies did you use to combat the anxiety and self-doubt that comes along? I hope that my philosophy sounds like a sound one. I’d love to hear your input, and if you’re busy eating your own elephant, know that you’re not alone in the struggle. We’re all together in that one thing at least – the ways we strive to make ourselves better people and the world a better place. We all get scared sometimes, but that shouldn’t be enough to stop us from dreaming big.

Dream on. Struggle on.

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bring your passion along

You don’t always have to follow your passion, but whatever you do, by all means bring it along. – Mike Rowe, Dirty Jobs

I was reminded of this quote by my father in an email recently, and though I don’t often need reminding to be passionate, it was timely advice. It was timely because I’m doing lots of administrative, supportive tasks for my internship right now, and though I’m extremely happy to be doing them, it’s good to remember that being passionate about something also requires holding yourself to a certain standard. It would be easy for me to get through the work I’m being given, not really giving it all of my attention, looking forward instead to the months to come when I’ll be doing more active field work. That’s a cop out though. I love and am inspired by the work GWED-G does every single day. I am beyond privileged to be here, learning from them, and being passionate about my work also requires that I strive for excellence. I might not be passionate necessarily about annual reports or internal databanks or fundraising campaigns individually, but it’s essential that I bring my passion along when I’m doing those things. They contribute to the strength and efficacy of the organization as a whole, and with that in mind, nothing less than above and beyond will do.

GWED-G is headquartered in Gulu town, which is an interesting place. It is dusty, usually hot, sprawling, spread out, obviously underdeveloped, pot-holed, worn, poor, and completely street-light free. For me, it was love at first sight. There’s something about the city that pulls you in. Though the effects of the recent war are evident in the lacking infrastructure, abandoned buildings, and poverty, there’s such a gritty, earthy beauty about the city as a whole. There aren’t many buildings over 3 or 4 stories here, and the effect on your view of the sky is amazing: it always seems too huge for reality. There are no streetlights to speak of, and at night there simply isn’t much light at all. Combined with the potholes, it makes for risky strolling when you’re out without a light, but it also means that the stars shine here like nowhere else I’ve ever seen. The people pull you in and make you fall in love for all the same reasons. The kindness and openness I’ve received, the polite greetings and warm welcomes, despite the trauma people have experienced humbles me. They have a way of making you want to give everything you have in pursuit of justice, reconciliation, and reconstruction. I was toast from the moment I stepped off the bus. I’m here for 6 months, and during that time, every last drop of energy, creativity, and passion I have is theirs. What else could I do? I’m bringing my passion along, and I have a feeling that my heart will never be the same.

My biggest project currently is raising $5,000 by the end of October to bring a freelance media team from the US to cover the work GWED-G is doing. The guy is a good friend of mine, and the last documentary short he worked on was nominated for an Oscar. He’s offered to do the project for free – they’re donating the equipment and their time, but we still need to foot the bill for flights, in-country transportation, food, and accommodation. For that, it will cost $5,000….and it’s my job to get it.

Oh, $5000? Ok, no problem. Be right back.

Oh wait.

$5000 in two months….whew. Ok. Now that I’m over the initial anxiety of raising that much money that quickly (there was plenty of anxiety), I’m getting down to work being obnoxious. Emails and Facebook messages galore! I’m sure there is a person or two out there just shaking their head at me and my crazy quest, but I’m hoping that the majority will be with me on it. It might be ambitious, but I believe whole-heartedly that it’s worth the trouble, anxiety, and effort. GWED-G is changing lives, and people need to know about it. Above all, I believe that people are basically good, that humanity is a beautiful thing, and that evil, violence, and cruelty come from not nurturing that basic human beauty enough. GWED-G is working to change the tide in Northern Uganda toward love, peace, and protected rights. There is no higher calling, and they need a bigger spotlight. I’m going to give it to them…..as soon as I can raise $5000. Ha.

If you’d like to join me in my quest to give greater recognition to these people who work every day to banish the bad and nurture the good, please visit my Indigogo campaign page. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

blackout.

Two days and counting without power in Gulu.

I try to imagine how people would react in Wisconsin if the power all of a sudden went out without explanation and stayed out for over two days….also with no explanation. There would be an uproar, total madness, people would be furious, they’d threaten to move, they’d probably blame Walker. The usual. Here, it’s pretty chill.

(this morning)
Me: power still out?
Doreen the housekeeper: ya.
Me: …..when do you think it will come back on?
Doreen: not sure. hopefully soon.

That’s the extent of it. No one calls the power company or complains to the media. There’s just no power, and everyone has to suck it up. There’s a generator at the office so that we can continue our work, but fuel is running a little scarce as the blackout stretches on. We went a few hours without the generator this morning until fuel could be fetched from a gas station further away from Gulu.

There’s no generator at the house, but that isn’t as much of an inconvenience here as it is in the United States. Food is bought, cooked, and eaten mostly in the same day, so there isn’t a lot in the refrigerator that will spoil. Showers are cold even when there is power, so lack of hot water isn’t something we notice. The toilets are latrine-style – no worries there either. We all have flashlights, candles, and headlamps to light our way when the sun goes down. It just is what it is. Instead of watching Spanish telenovelas (with poorly dubbed English superimposed) after dinner, we’ve taken to singing Christian songs. Pamela’s brother is a well-known pastor in the area, and nearly everyone here is Christian, so we’ll pack about 7-10 people in our living room and while away the time in song. Someone brings a guitar, and that’s all we need. I’m even learning a few songs in Acholi! There’s something very unique about having your friends and co-workers around you, singing praise in the candle light, and I find myself not missing the TV much.

The only terrible thing about the blackout is that I missed skype calls with my family and my two best friends. I was looking forward to seeing their faces. We have so much to catch up on that by the time we do eventually skype it’s going to take all day! Whining won’t do much good, though. There’s always tomorrow. If it weren’t for the communication difficulties, I honestly don’t think I’d miss having power very much.

and my Acholi name is…

It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve only been in Uganda for 4.5 days. It feels more like a year, but I’ve discovered that tends to be the way of it when you’re in a new place and constantly bombarded by new sights, sounds, and smells all day. Meeting new people is more tiring than you’d think, and when those new people have an entirely different culture than you, complete with a different way of speaking, greeting each other, and interacting, you find yourself on constant alert. You try to soak everything in and learn it all at once so that you can interface with people as naturally and appropriately as possible. Add starting a new job on your first full day in a new city, and you’ve got me: tired, worn out, slightly shell-shocked, and blissfully happy.

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It would be difficult to describe to you how I came to feel so at home here so quickly. Indeed, looking back, it’s difficult to explain to myself. It might have something to do with how people greet each other here. Whether you’re a stranger or an old friend, it’s very much the same. People clasp hands, or arms, or hug, and they maintain the contact for at least a full 60 seconds, all the while inquiring about your health, family, travels, and work. I’m learning Acholi greetings right now, and there are a ton of them because people are constantly greeting each other and asking after each others’ health. When I walked into what would be my home for the next six months for the first time, I think I heard “you are most welcome” about 50 times. That routine was then repeated on my first day at work. People say it all the time, to everyone. When I came home from work today, I was greeted with “Emi! Hello, you are welcome.” For someone who is as comfortable with personal connection and loves hugs as much as I do, this is heaven.

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It might also have something to do with the people I’m living with. Pamela Angwech is the matriarch of the household, the executive director of GWED-G (where I work), and a total bad-ass. She’s one of the strongest, warmest, most capable people I have ever met. She has a way of making you totally terrified of her and 100% comfortable around her at the same time. She inspires incredible loyalty. Her nephew, Prince, who lives with us, is the most charming 5 year old you could ever meet, with just enough mischievousness to keep life interesting. The people at work act like a family. They play and joke and laugh and support each other constantly. The are the best of friends, and the club isn’t exclusive. If you’re there and you work hard, you’re included. The best part is that they aren’t just family, they are an incredibly talented family. Everyone is so wise and skilled and experienced that they leave me in awe. I’ve already learned a huge amount, and I’ve only been to work for 3 days. I think my head might explode from the awesomeness after 6 months.

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Then again, it could be the physical beauty of my environment. The red earth and all-encompassing green go together in perfect harmony. Long-horned cattle graze lazily by the side of the road as I walk the 5 minutes to work. People pass with a gentle “apwoyo” (casual greeting), and the sun sheds a soft light over the whole scene. It takes my breath away. The office is settled in a spacious courtyard where people are always coming and going past the baby blue gate.

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Pamela has selected an Acholi name for me in honor of starting my culture and language lessons tomorrow. I am Aber, pronounced “abey”, which means ‘beautiful one.’ It’s fitting, I think, because I feel beautiful here. Happiness and fulfilling work coupled with the best of company and good friends is always a recipe for someone who radiates joy. I won’t act like there weren’t a few moments of discomfort or awkwardness. There were times I felt very alone without my traveling companions, and I was nervous. But overall, that’s how I feel these days, radiating. Uganda has that effect on me, I guess.