A Return to Loveliest Insanity

Dearest Friend,

I’m so sorry for being gone so long. Time got away from me, and before I knew it, I hadn’t written anything in months! I’ve missed you, and so many things have happened since we last spoke. In July, I left Uganda and GWED-G with many tears and “I’ll miss you”s and looks over my shoulder. I was initially supposed to visit Nigeria before going home but had visa troubles, so, much to my parents’ shock, I marched up on our Wisconsin porch a few weeks early. I won’t go into detail about their reactions, but let’s just say that my father isn’t often speechless and my mother’s bladder control isn’t what it used to be. Words can’t describe how wonderful it was to see their faces, feel carpet under my bare feet, eat my mother’s lasagna, and introduce Tucker to the United States! That’s right, my four-legged shadow crossed the pond with me. We’d become inseparable in Uganda, and there was no way I could stomach the thought of leaving him behind. One 10 hour bus ride, 2 flights, one layover, and three hours in the car later and Tucker was home! As I predicted, everyone instantly fell in love with his sweet personality and snuggly nature…well, almost everyone. The cat wasn’t terribly thrilled.

The rest of July, August, and September passed in a flurry of coffee dates, dinner dates, TV marathons, new-job prep, dog walks, roadtrips, and packing. I hadn’t come all the way home just to smell the roses, after all. I landed myself a new job! You’re talking to the newest US Country Director of Children of Rural Africa (CorAfrica). Actually, you’re talking to the only US Country Director in CorAfrica’s history! They’re a fantastic organization, founded by a Nigerian Catholic priest named Peter Abue, that runs education, health, water, and economic programs in SE Nigeria (now you see how Nigeria fits into all of this). They’ve got a great group of volunteers and staff both here and in Nigeria, but they saw the need for a more established US office that could spearhead fundraising, communication, and strategic development efforts – so they hired me! Over the next two years, it will be my job to generate resources, strengthen systems, implement initiatives, and in all ways support and grow this inspiring organization that is already doing so much good. When I wasn’t talking in funny voices with my Mom, running around Milwaukee’s nightlife with long-unseen friends, or catching up on Bones, I was getting ready to take the plunge into my new adventure with CorAfrica. Which brings us to October….

Ladies and gentlement, I’m happy to report that I am writing to you from my very own studio apartment in New York City. Queens, to be exact. A neighborhood called Sunnyside, which I’m finding to be charming and full of life. With the exception of a stingy superintendent who edged toward irate today when I locked myself out of my apartment (to be fair, the guy did have to climb in my kitchen window from the fire escape), everything has been wonderful. I’ve gone running several times without getting lost. I’ve done the laundry, figured out how to work the oven, found a few good grocery stores, and unpacked all the boxes. It feels empty without Tucker, who will join me in late November, but my neighbors are welcoming and the family-run cafe across the street serves massive, steaming bowls of lentil soup for just $2.50 each. What more can you ask for?

Unfortunately (or if you’re my superintendent, maybe it’s fortunately), my grounding is only temporary. This Saturday, I’m headed to Nigeria for five weeks in order to turbocharge my work with CorAfrica. The job officially started September 1st, but I won’t be able to get going full steam ahead until I get on the ground, meet people, and see the state of things for myself. Nigeria’s not a terribly nice place to be right now….while the country has done a remarkable job eradicating Ebola within its borders, the rest of West Africa is still in extremely dire straits. Boko Haram continues to cause┬ámayhem in the north, and upcoming elections have everyone a bit on edge. I’ll be in the Southeast corner of the country, though, and we’re not expecting any hiccups. After a few visits to the Nigerian embassy, several encounters with a rather surly visa processing agent, and a bit of hair-pulling over the out of date information on Nigeria’s immigration website, I’ve got my visa! All systems, go!

Now that I’m getting back into my blogging groove, I’ll be sure to keep you posted about life in the Big Apple and my blunders in getting acquainted, my trip to Nigeria, working with CorAfrica, and probably anything else that pops into my head. Again, so sorry for the gap in correspondence, dear friend. Just know that I’ve missed you, and I hope we can go back to being on regular speaking terms again. I’ll certainly do my best on this end.

Goodbye for now from Sunnyside.

Emi

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the two way connection between wings and bravery.

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying: sometimes you have to just jump and grow wings on the way down. Something along those lines, at least.

I think it’s very true, more now than ever. I’ve done things outside my comfort zone before, but never to the extent of these past few months. I’ve ridden elephants, killed cockroaches, made my way in new cities where no one spoke my language, gotten tattooed in Bangkok, gone dancing in Ugandan clubs, learned to speak (some of) a new language, said goodbye to friends and loved ones, and made new friends. It all required a certain level of bravery, I suppose. I had to be brave to try so many new things and go my own way. It wasn’t only bravery, though. Thanks to parents and friends who helped me grow into a confident woman, I also trusted my own ability to grow wings.

When I moved to Uganda, I was not equipped to deal with life here. It wasn’t that I was inept or didn’t have the ability, but no one could be fully ready for a country they’d never even visited before. I didn’t have the tools to succeed, and I knew it, yet I was still brave enough to force myself to move anyway – new job, new home, new city, new country, new continent – only 2 months after graduating from college. I promise this post isn’t just about tooting my own horn. I might have been brave then, but I’m braver now. I was wondering how that could be, but I think the path to more bravery is quite simple. You need to be brave enough to take that first leap, but when you find that you easily grew wings during the fall, it gives you enough courage to take the next, bigger leap.

Bravery isn’t about being born without fear. It’s about taking small step after small step toward self growth. When you realize you can handle risk and uncertainty, you are emboldened to be even braver. You need enough bravery to push you off the ledge, but then the wings take over. You grow them, glide on them, and they take you to new heights. Then you jump again, because you’re more sure than ever of your ability to fly. Risk and bravery form an upward spiral, and the best thing is that there’s always a higher ledge.

Here’s to the next cliff.

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.

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.