I’m safely in Kampala, Uganda, and I finally made myself sit down to piece together some of my thoughts from the past three months for my (late) Quarterly Report– somehow I’ve finished half of my Watson year already! Yeah, it’s long, but you should read it anyway! More thoughts on my experiences in the last three weeks to come…
Quarterly Report 2
Halfway—it’s hard to wrap my head around. The last three months have been an amazing and rich time, full of experiences I never dreamed of having: everything from watching giant kites soar in celebration of Día de los Santos to watching desert rally racing to attending two Siwan weddings to witnessing a revolution in the making. I’ve learned how to weave brocada patterns, make recycled paper beads, stitch traditional Siwan embroidery designs, and make palm-leaf baskets. I’ve flown from Guatemala City to Miami to London to Cairo, back to London, and finally here to Kampala by way of Addis Ababa.
My last few weeks in Guatemala were full and wonderful. I traveled to Baja Verapaz with two of my great friends, facilitators at Oxlajuj B’atz’, to participate in a Mayan healing and medicinal plants workshop. I felt confident and passionate presenting the results of my interview study in Xeabaj II, though the group’s response reminded me that there are no quick solutions to the enormous challenges they face. Most of all, I felt contented, comfortable and at home—and that feeling helped me realize that it was time to move on.
After a lovely long weekend with friends in London (including a trip to the British Museum that spurred my interest in Ugandan barkcloth!), I arrived in Egypt feeling ready to dive into a new adventure. My first day in Cairo, I got an email from an old friend asking me if I wanted to come with her to Siwa, Egypt’s westernmost oasis, that day. I only hesitated for a second before saying yes. What a lucky decision that was!
Siwa Oasis is a huge expanse of palm and olive trees, home to 23,000 people of mostly Berber origin who speak Siwi. Until about 30 years ago the town had little contact with the outside world. Women play a very limited public role—after marriage, it is rare for them to go shopping or work outside the home. As Siwa changes rapidly and the lucrative allure of tourism increases, many people delight in the influx of motorbikes, cell phones, and other consumer goods, while just as many people lament the erosion of cultural integrity. (Sometimes, people lament the erosion of cultural integrity while riding motorbikes and talking on cell phones.) For me, the combination of conflicts between cultural integrity and capitalist development progress narratives, along with the unique position of women in Siwan society, inspired endless questions and curiosity. I was also completely captivated by the Great Sand Sea’s endless dunes stretching for miles—I’ve always loved wilderness, and this was an entirely new landscape of inspiration. I made contacts with several organizations—a community development and cultural heritage preservation association, and an artisan training center for young women. My three-day trip became an eight-day odyssey, and when I finally left for Cairo, I promised to return to Siwa to follow up with the organizations and learn more about Siwan culture.
Back in Cairo, I was excited to be offered an internship at Fair Trade Egypt, a well-established fair trade organization that markets products from more than twenty producers throughout Egypt. In my afternoons with FTE, I learned the story of each of their groups and got a glimpse of the coordinated effort needed to run a successful fair trade business. I also studied Egyptian colloquial Arabic and spent lots of time wandering around endlessly fascinating Cairo. By the time my family arrived for the holidays, however, I was ready for a break. Sitting in an office in front of a computer all afternoon didn’t fulfill me; I felt disconnected from craftswomen and unsatisfied with my project’s progress. I hadn’t made anything with my hands in a month. I was making good friends, but I didn’t feel as though I had found a community. And while I love Cairo and all its complexity and mass of humanity, I was feeling worn down by the sheer amount of energy needed to get around and accomplish basic errands.
With time to reflect while soaking up the awe-inspiring creations of the ancient Egyptians, I decided to go back to Siwa. Outside of Cairo, I was even more aware of the challenge of accomplishing my project and connecting with people across a language barrier. While I know enough Arabic to get around, I am frustratingly unable to make nuanced conversation. Even breaking my thoughts into simple questions proved difficult. Not knowing a language is a humbling experience—I often felt stupid and paralyzed because my level of fluency was, at best, that of a small child (probably more like the family pet….). It took me some time, but I realized that there are other ways to connect with people and make friends. My acquaintances are remarkably hospitable people, but I realized that I had to reciprocate their generosity by finding ways to share about myself. I started bringing my Siwan embroidery and photos of my family and friends everywhere with me, to illustrate my project and provide conversation starters.
I found it much easier to make connections with artisans in Siwa’s small-town environment: I attended workshops for Siwan women who were learning to design patterns and make ceramics using local clay; I hung out with other young unmarried women at the artisan training center; and I learned traditional Siwan embroidery and palm-leaf basketry in the homes of my friends’ families. I made wonderful friends, and talked to lots of thoughtful people who are working to build consciousness about the value of balance between the indigenous way of life and sustainable forms of development and modernization.
In Siwa I was amazed every time someone eagerly agreed to teach me their craft. I think I’m able to make such connections with women because I’m interested not just in buying, or admiring, or even studying their handiwork, but in learning how to make it myself. Women opened their homes and their lives to me, the strange foreigner with incomprehensible hair, often sharing meals and stories as well as their expertise. Despite my strangeness, my desire to learn enabled me to participate in an exchange of knowledge that, for generations, has taken place between female family members. I am so happy and grateful for people’s willingness to accept me entering into that space.
However, there were times when I had a hard time accepting elements of Siwan and Egyptian culture. I missed the strong, dynamic, outspoken women who were such forceful public leaders in Guatemala, and struggled with accepting that Siwa is a place where women play very little public role and have few educational opportunities. But my confusion and doubt was productive—after experiencing the domestic space where Siwan women do lead, I began to think in new ways about how they are community actors. I had to revise some of my expectations in order to get to the point of appreciating this, but this year is about learning different ways to understand community.
The environmentalist aspect of my project continues to be on the periphery of my explorations—though I did have the opportunity to visit two inspiring projects, one in Guatemala City and one in Cairo, which both utilize recycled craft techniques to support successful income generation projects for women. In Siwa, I also gained some insight into a holistic environmentalism that predates the current obsession with eco-consumerism (a trend I find problematic to begin with). The traditional Siwan lifestyle relies on a symbiosis with the environment, in which people use available resources to sustain their existence in startlingly resourceful ways (I’ve never seen so many uses for the various parts of a palm tree!). The health and survival of the community is directly linked to the careful stewardship of the environment. I admired my Siwan friends’ respect, even reverence, for their natural surroundings and the richness of the oasis’s resources. One of the goals of my project is to dig around buzzwords like ‘sustainability’ and ‘women’s empowerment’ and learn what these concepts mean to people who may think about the world in a very different way from me. In Siwa, I was able to push my understanding of both of these ideas, to encompass new kinds of social relations and forms of community.
In Egypt, I talked to many people about their thoughts on their country, government and future. As the tide of unrest rose in Tunisia, these conversations became more frequent and more intense. I listened as my friends’ words changed tone, from wistful admiration of the Tunisian protesters to pride in the bravery of growing numbers of Egyptians who took to the street, standing up to the repressive state security forces. I gathered that many, many Egyptians, representing a diverse cross-section of Egyptian society, are tired of the rampant corruption that saps the government of integrity and effectiveness, tired of police brutality, fed up with lack of freedom of expression and assembly. They’re very, very frustrated by the absence of response to the poverty, joblessness and lack of education that keep Egypt from realizing its potential.
As the revolution unfolded, I realized with some surprise how personally and emotionally invested I feel in the developments in Egypt, how inspired I am by witnessing some of that struggle, in a country that is not my own. But maybe Egypt is a little bit my own, or maybe some part of me belongs to Egypt. As I move from place to place, I feel more and more like I’m carrying pieces of places with me. Guatemala, Egypt, now Uganda— my mind is full of people and places that are alive to me in a way that no news broadcast can convey. This year has given me more faith in humanity, more reason to believe in social change, more empathy and interest in the stories and lives behind international headlines.
Now in Uganda, I am feeling for the third time that flood of sensation and information that accompanies my arrival in a new country—an almost breathless feeling as my mind races to process my past experiences and absorb the new ones. I’m excited for more questions, more doubts, more adventures that are impossible to anticipate now… but no more State Department warnings, please!