(After a two year blogging break, I have moved the band home to the United States, specifically to a neighborhood on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. and started a new job based in DC where I support economic development, agricultural transformation and conserving the enviornment across Sub-Saharan Africa. Today, I send my first post from Kampala, Uganda).
In 1997, I was working as consultant at Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC) in Washington D.C. in the government services practice. I was assigned to the team that worked for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) team and our job was to prepare “proposals,” for different USAID missions around the world that had put out “requests for assistance,” in sectors like Privatization, Micro Finance, and Water Sector Reform. In the late 90s, USAID didn’t accept proposals by email, rather, proposals had to be delivered to the mission by mail to receive a time and date stamp that proved they met the deadline. My job on one of these proposals for the USAID mission in Egypt was to “tailor” the resumes of our proposed staff to the requirements of the job. Other team members wrote the technical proposal, explaining our approach to privatizing state owned assets in Egypt or the management plan for how PwC would insure quality oversight. I also specialized in assembling these 200+ page books for final printing. I was part of an elite group of young new employees who knew how to use the car-sized photocopying machines that could print double-sided and bind with a giant black plastic spiral–a huge step up from the bulky three-ring binder. Today, the millennials play that role in the office knowing how to share Google calendars with staff inside and outside the firewall and can navigate the software to add a color printer when one of ours inevitably goes down.
When it was clear we weren’t going to make the deadline, the project manager offered me an opportunity of a lifetime. “Amy, would you like to hand deliver the proposal to Cairo next Wednesday, the day before the deadline, we won’t finish early enough to send it DHL.” Deliver a proposal I wondered, it sounded like delivering a pizza or a bag of Boston Chicken for that matter which had been my first paid job in high school. I jumped at the chance to take this international flight and wondered where I would go after I made the delivery? Should I take a cruise on the Nile, ride a camel around the pyramids, visit Luxor? I realized this would be my one and only opportunity to travel internationally for work so I would have to run hard and fast.
Having grown up in a decidedly upper-middle class family in Wheaton, Illinois, I am not sure where this scarcity mentality crept in or why I thought this would be my one and only international work experience. Luckily, an older colleague sat me down and explained this would not be my one international flight, that there would be many many more. I wasn’t sure she was right, but I suspended my disbelief, and delivered that pizza.
This morning, I am on my first work trip to Sub-Saharan Africa in what has been a two-decades long career in international development. I reflect back on my concern that I would only take one international trip for work during my career. My colleague had been right. I went on to spend seven years working for PwC, the UN, and USAID on financial sector reform in Bosnia, then became a career foreign service officer and spent three years working on agriculture and energy development in Pakistan, five years in Colombia on rural development, and most recently two years covering regional connectivity in Central Asia from Almaty, Kazakhstan. I have become professionally fluent in Bosnian, Urdu, Spanish and Russian. My children were both born in a Colombian hospital. Fifty-some countries later, I am about to land in Entebbe, Uganda to spend a week working with colleagues and government representatives on national agriculture policies and then a week in Dakar, Senegal meeting the 100+ person team of USAID staff and contractors that work to reduce poverty by 20% in our target countries and to reduce the debilitating effects of malnutrition through our foreign assistance programs. I guess you can never know, especially at age 24, how your career or life will unfold.
Getting assigned to a country in USAID is a bit like playing musical chairs. I work in the area of economic growth and the environment, each year about fifty of the 250 of us, stand up from a proverbial seat, and everyone does a little professional jig, and then takes a new chair in one of the recently vacated seats.
I have been avoiding Africa my whole career. I found a seat in Europe, South Asia, South America, and Central Asia, but never bid once on an assignment in Africa. I have done advanced degrees in Human Rights and Democratization in South Eastern Europe and Public Policy in South Asia. I have never taken a class on Africa. In fact, only recently, have I started to read African memoirs like Trevor Noah’s, Born a Crime, Dayo Olopade’s Bright Continent and a novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah.
Living as an expatriate in other countries I assumed I would stick out more as a white, blond, American woman in an African country than I would in the other places I have lived and worked. While I did pass for a Slovenian in Bosnia, the Colombians, East-Asian Kazakhs, and South Asian Pakistanis all let me know within an hour of arrival that I couldn’t blend in and go by unnoticed. Maybe I was intimidated by scale of the need in Africa. We recently assessed which countries globally are most in need of food security assistance, and while Bangladesh and Haiti rank highly, more or less then next 18 are in sub-Saharan African. Maybe I was kept away by some of the stereotypes about exposure to disease like Ebola, Yellow Fever, and HIV/AIDs that have crippled the continent.
Whatever the case, this plane is about to land in Entebbe, Uganda and I will spend my first week in Uganda with my boots on the ground. As has been the case with every life experience I have lived, read, or studied, getting to know the reality and people first hand changes everything.
As I stood in line in Brussels, Belgium boarding this flight, I took in the passengers on the line. Half the line was people who looked like me. I don’t know if they were tourists, officials from international organizations, or researchers. I am traveling with two female colleagues both in their mid-forties like me, and both who have also juggled heaven and earth to leave their three-and-four-year-old toddlers with a hodge podge of partners, nannies, and relatives needed for the global community of Jet Lagged Moms to be on the road for two weeks—my longest trip away from my cherubs. The other half looked like people I had seen before in DC—women getting their braids done on H street, young men in v-neck shirts and jeans carrying a heavy duffle bag of things they sell by the white house, older men in brightly colored ethnic shirts my like my African-American friends wear at Third Street Church of God during Black history month.
Before I land, here is my list of assumptions that I look forward to disproving over the next two weeks about life and work in Uganda and Senegal.
- I assume that on the continent, people won’t refer to Africa as a monolith, but will talk specifically about where they are from or the country or region in which they are working.
- I imagine it will be boiling hot and I will have packed all wrong.
- I imagine I will fall in love with the people we will meet on the field trips in rural Uganda and Senegal and return highly motivated to fight for every dollar of development assistance that is politically vulnerable these days in Washington.
- I wonder if I will drink beer out of a bucket like I once did on a safari in Zimbabwe.
- I will Skype with my kids every day
- I will read more reports and books during these two weeks than the rest of the year combined.
- I will learn the countries that constitute East and West Africa by heart (do you know them? Note to self, order wooden Montessori continent puzzles for the kids.)
- I will see many women wearing babies on their backs with multi-colored cloth.
- I will be more convinced than ever about the intersection of bio diversity, natural resource management, climate change and human development.
- I will spend a night dancing.