Wednesday, October 29, 2008

crY when the cutting edge bleeds

There are stories I am afraid to tell.

I wish I could tell you it's been all sweetness and light, working to try to empower African communities. I wish I could tell you that I achieved all - or at least part of - what I set out to accomplish. I wish I could tell you that I clearly see the lessons in whatever these trials and ordealswere supposed to teach me.

Were I able to find nuggets of wisdom in the wreckage, I would want to share them in a way that inspires others to do better, to be smarter, to achieve more. I fear sometimes, that I might never find them.

And yet, there is the painful process of sifting through the mess of memories that my mind's eye is compelled to try and do. I lie awake nights imagining where to begin, and how to combine the memories of magical experiences with an acceptance of how things changed... of how my understanding of what I was up against changed... of how I changed. Writing is a tool that can help me with the sorting through. But I fear sometimes, that I won't tell the stories right.

At the gut of it all, I fear that the failures are all my fault. It was egotistical of me to think that my social experiments could offer value, to people I was presumptuous enough to think I could help in ways I thought were important. Who was I, after all, to think that giving the community control would be empowering?

One of my biggest AHA moments - when I finally started to realize just how off track I was - came after years of trying to convince the Life in Africa community (mostly craftmakers displaced or otherwise affected by the war in Northern Uganda) that they could design, manage and control their own activities. The thing was, they didn't actually want that level of control, and it took them a really long time help me understand why. One woman finally explained to me they were willing to ride on the metaphorical Life in Africa bus, to wherever we were going. But if they were supposed to build the engine and drive it too, I needed to realize that they simply didn't have those skills.

Few in the community I was working with had the basic literacy and numeracy skills required to manage community programs, and most who did have those skills weren't necessarily in a position to handle the responsibility well. That left very few people capable of getting the work done. When the community did take control over activities that I initiated, it got me in trouble more than a couple of times. Does their inability ever stop being my responsibility? On the flipside, at what point does advising the community from experience become dictating what they should do?

I sometimes fear that I'm no better than the decades of colonalist-minded fools who came to Africa before me, with their misdirected intentions of "developing" other human beings to fit successfully into a foreign values system. Some have argued that a mistake the colonialists made when they left in the 1960s was not leaving a strong enough capacity behind for the former colonies to manage their own governance systems. When I think about how Life in Africa Gulu fell through mismanagement as I pushed them to become more independent, I feel guilty. I should have known.

It's also true that in post-colonial times, well intended Western "charity" has created many new monsters in Africa, and brought out the worst in some monsters that were already a part of societal mentalities here. The best of my efforts to fight against the charity mentality were simply not strong enough. At the end of the day, an offer to work together with others to create a community-based social enterprise they would all own could not compete with charities offering ready-made free services.

Participating in professionally managed foreign charity programs is far easier, less time consuming and more immediately gratifying than participating in building and owning community operated services. From a consumer point of view in the charity driven economy they know, I really can't blame them for comparing. Why did I ever think that community owned and operated would be better? I know there were once some lovely, lofty sounding reasons. Whatever they were, though, they weren't good enough to convince the average Life in Africa member that a community owned and operated social enterprise was something they really wanted.

What they really want, more than any one thing as a united community, is charity to help pay for their kids' education.

Building the capacity to raise the money themselves is a nice idea, but would take too long. Meanwhile many of their children are growing up without consistent access to a structured learning environment. This is an urgent problem, that resurfaces every term when it's time to pay school fees, and causes persistent chaos and heartbreak at the family level. The amounts that Ugandans pay to educate even one child are high compared to average local incomes, and the vast majority of families have more than one child. Many have taken on caring for the children of relatives who have died.

Knowing that the school fees were there would GREATLY stabilize their lives in so many ways. I get it. I see it. I cannot deny that the need is very real. After all these years of me trying to fight against the charity mentality, the truth is there is no group I can think of who really needs charity more than these war-affected Ugandan women, for the purpose of giving their kids a better chance than they had.

After trying so hard to encourage them to define themselves as a community of purpose, I've no choice but to accept what they choose to become. It's painful for me though, to know that what remains of the innovative social enterprise ideas that Life in Africa pioneered, is a group that thinks charity is really the best thing for them after all. Maybe I was just wrong.

The cutting edge of change bleeds with unsuccessful attempts to make an impact on societal mindsets...

I sometimes fear that my heart has bled dry.


Monday, October 27, 2008

a sincere ThAnK YoU to the Blogging Buddha!

Yowza! I'm blushing...

This blog has won a prize!

pArtY @ christinaswwworld has won first prize in the Blogging Buddha's Small Blog Big Heart blog contest! The winners were decided upon mainly by these criteria: innovativeness, age of the blog (new blogs are given more points than more established ones), presence and absence of ads and affiliate programs, the usefulness of the blog, regularity of posting, etc.

I've been following the Blogging Buddha's ethical online money making tips over the past couple of weeks. If you are learning to blog, it's quite an interesting read.

It's an honor to be recognized. Thanks so much Buddha!

Friday, October 24, 2008

dAncE! Street art from Zanzibar

The day after we came back from Lake Bunyonyi last week, the kids flew off to play on the beach with their dad in Zanzibar. Lucky dogs - Zanzibar is another place that I'd call one of the most beautiful places I've ever visited. The people there live very basic, relaxed lives, but they are not poor like in other parts of Africa. The swahili culture and food are just lovely, and the beaches are to die for. I'm sure the kids are having a great time.

I bought the painting above years ago, somewhere on the street in Stonetown (Zanzibar's capital). It hangs on our living room wall, and seems to be smiling at me today. I'm happy dancing with them because the boys are coming home tonight. Yippee!

I was recently asked about selling African artwork online. I must admit I've been out of that loop for a while. If anyone knows of any online marketplaces for art, I'd be really happy to know about them! I wonder how much my silly dancers from Zanzibar would fetch.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

AdvEntURe @ Amasiko Community Based Eco-Camp, Southwestern Uganda

View from the Amasiko peninsula, Lake Bunyonyi (Uganda)

Uganda's Lake Bunyonyi has got to be one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Sprawling through valleys created by southwestern Uganda's very old volcanic mountains, it's said to be Africa's deepest lake. Mountains caught in the middle become islands, large and small. I've been told there are over 100 of them, mostly family owned and terraced to grow crops which are ferried by canoe to a small dockside market near the main road to Kabale, South Western Uganda's largest town.

My family has a decade of gorgeous memories from weekends spent at Lake Bunyonyi. It was the ladies in these mountains who originally inspired what would become the Life in Africa logo, almost 10 years ago, and there is an energy there that calls us back every 2-3 years. We've stayed at many places on the lake. This past weekend, we visited the future site of a wonderful community based eco-tourism project that our old family friend Wilfried van der Veen is developing there.

Wilfried, his his adopted daughter Viona and his partner "Nice" (pictured above, that's her real name!) have spearheaded the establishment of an Association for community development called Amasiko, which means "hope" in the local Bakiga language. So far, the association has purchased 12 small lakeside agricultural plots at the tip of a peninsula in Lake Bunyonyi, easily accessible from the main road to Kisoro - a popular gorilla tracking destination at the Rwandan border, about 60 km away. Since kids under 15 aren't allowed on the mountain gorilla trips, the site could offer families an affordable place to stay where parents could safely leave their kids in a supervised eco-learning environment, while the grown-ups spend the day tracking in Kisoro.

Abroad, the site could be promoted as an organic retreat facility for groups and/or individuals who participate in alternative communities of practice like ECOlonie and others in Europe which Wilfried has ties with. The plan is that proceeds from the eco-tourism and organic farming activities will not only sustain the site's operations, but also finance additional projects in the neighborhood that they will invite the local Bakiga community to design. Friends in Holland have established a foundation that can help raise additional funds for community-developed projects. What Amasiko needs most right now is to get the eco-tourism site ready for visitors and volunteers.

Identifying a source of funding for some basic construction has been Wilfried's main occupation for the past year or so. After a recent trip to Europe he's hopeful but still essentially empty-handed. This week, he's taking up residence at the site to start planting some organic plots and doing what else he can to the landscape, until his promising leads on funds for construction start to come through.

I have a lot of faith in Wilfried. I've known him for 10 of the 19 years he's been in Uganda. He was actually a good friend of the kids' dad in grade school. Shortly after we moved to Uganda, their parents ran into each other randomly in Holland after years of not keeping in touch, and discovered the coincidence of their sons both being in Uganda. Wilfried showed up at his old friend's office unannounced within a couple of days, and has been like a part of our family ever since. Like me, he loves to explore the cutting edge of new ideas in holistic approaches to development. What he's shared with me from his experiences with alternative community building techniques like appreciative inquiry, and personal healing approaches like The Journey have had a major impact in shaping some of my own project ideas.

Wilfried first came to Uganda as an agriculturalist, so when N. and I needed help with a plan for developing our farm project, we hired him as a consultant. I knew his report was good when we then traveled to Thailand to witness sufficiency economy based farming methods practiced by the Asoke communities there, and saw some of Wilfried's key recommendations in practice (like planting a biofuel producing hedge-crop called jatropha, for example.) While he was with us at our farm, we also talked a lot about his plans for Amasiko. It was always clear to me that there were a lot of parallels in terms of what we wanted to accomplish. Now that I've been to see what he's got to work with, I find my mind involuntarily puzzling through ways that I might get more involved. Ally? Promoter? Investor? Partner? Any of the above is fine with the kids, of course, as long as we also get to be occasional visitors. They had a great time!

In How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, David Bornstein concludes that all of the truly innovative social entrepreneurs he studied had a very personal story that led them to discover the unique impact they could make. That's the part that anchors my faith in Wilfried. His vision for the ultimate impact he's out to make with Amasiko is about helping troubled girls, and it comes through his personal story as Viona's adopted dad.

Though Wilfried has never fathered a child, circumstances brought the orphaned Viona into his life about 10 years ago and gave him the chance to excel at fatherhood. By engaging Viona in his life as an active explorer of innovative personal healing and community empowerment approaches, he has watched her blossom from an orphaned, abused and withdrawn child into a hopeful, intelligent and outgoing young woman with extraordinary insights into other people's needs. She's now in Senior Secondary school (S5) and has plans to study social work in the Netherlands. The Amasiko project is her dream too.

When the full scope of Wilfried and his daughter's dreams come to pass, the Amasiko Community Based Eco-Camp will offer a haven where orphaned or abused girls and young women like Viona was can come for a while to work, receive hands on training in sustainable living and hospitality skills, heal their emotional wounds, and come to life - as adults at peace with themselves and well prepared to make an impact in their own homes and communities, wherever they later go.

As it happens, life's circumstances have also brought an orphaned girl into my own care. Through my experience with her and with some of the children I've worked with through Life in Africa, I have also seen first hand how culture and traumatic circumstances clash very often in the lives of girls and young women in Uganda, to quash any sense of self they may have once had. Wilfried and Viona's compulsion to help girls in emotional challenging circumstances find the best in themselves is something I can really relate to. It's a great idea.

The more I think about how this project fits together with my own passions and convictions, the more excited I become at the prospect of investing of myself in it in some way. What shape and form that might take is what remains to be puzzled through - Wilfried and I talked a lot last weekend, and my still head reels with ideas. I somehow doubt this will be the last time I talk about it here.

Meanwhile, should any of you party guests be on your way to Uganda an want to pay the Amasiko Community Based Eco-Camp a visit, let me know and I'll do what I can to help arrange it!

To you, Wilfried, Nice, (and Viona who we didn't see this time) thank you for an absolutely wonderful weekend, and hats off for your family's vision and meaningful dedication to creating such a very special kind of "hope" in your little piece of heaven on earth. From the bottom of my heart I wish for you nothing but blessings and success in achieving your beautiful dreams.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

a pArtY welcome to new voices in the blogosphere

It's Blog Action Day today - bloggers around the world are asked to post about poverty. I tend to write about poverty quite a bit anyway, so instead of trying to synthesize all of my thoughts on the subject into one post, I've been working on something a bit different today.... I've pulled some new voices from my world into the dialogue.

I'd like you to meet the ourwwworld team - a small global group of new bloggers in your sphere, who are learning together how to blog sustainably and hopefully raise funds for Life in Africa. After a month of practice blogging about the google trends, they've now each got a new look (me too, did you notice?!), and have started posting some great new and original content to their blogs.

I encouraged the ourwwworld team to post for Blog Action Day, and here's what they had to say:


Awakening, by Grace Ayaa (East Africa)
"...When I look at Africa, most of its land is fertile and very good for any kind of agriculture , but there are the people who are going hungry and have to live on handouts. It puzzles me a lot. So I feel that the agricultural sector should be the most looked at area. lots and lots of food should be grown by a family to feed themselves and then the surplus sold ." full post


Darkness2Light, by Norbert Okec (East Africa)
"If a child in a poor nation gets infected with some disease but the parents, friends and neighbours are all convinced that the child is sick because he/she climbed a mango tree belonging to the local traditional healer/spirit medium.... and the poor child dies do we say that the child died because of the disease or because of lack of correct information?..." full post

In Search of Mindfulness

In Search of Mindfulness, by Linda Nowakowski (S.E. Asia)
"...There is enough food in the world to feed every person. That is a distribution problem. If you look at the wealth in the world, I suspect that there is enough wealth in the world to eliminate poverty as well. It's a distribution problem." full post

Kireka Concerns

Kireka Concerns, by Peter Ndelo (East Africa)
Remember I mentioned we're all learning to blog? Well, Peter posted his thoughts at the Blog Action Day website instead of on his blog :-) "poverty is lack of knowledge, ability, cooperation and spirit of helping each other to come out from this problem. No body wants to be poor but how can one come out of this?" You can see the full comment here, and as soon as Peter gets it moved to his blog I'll edit this bit and put a link here.

Shawnstudio, by Shawn Kelly (North America)
"...bottom-up strategies seem to me the only way to create real change, as it has now been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that top-down economics leads only to disaster. The battle is exponentially more difficult in Africa, where government corruption is the norm and enriching oneself at the expense of the citizens has been the prevailing leadership strategy for decades." full post

Please join me in welcoming the ourwwworld team officially to the blogosphere! The revamping of their practice blogs has been a joint effort - the team wrote the words, and I got to enjoy the diversity of perspectives and personalities while I did some decorating. Be sure to visit their blogs to see what they are planning to write about after Blog Action Day is over. These 5 people are among the top 10 people I'm closest to on the planet these days - I think they're all very interesting individuals with worthwhile things to share, and I think you will too.

Monday, October 13, 2008

a ToASt to my good friends @

Life in Africa community members at WE Center Kampala pose after receiving their Kiva loans (May 2006)

As I wrote in an earlier post, working online from Africa has brought me into contact with amazing people who are developing new systems and ideas that offer hope for better times ahead.

The folks I've had the pleasure of working with at are an amazing group of really dynamic people who are doing just that. Since I first met them in early 2006, they've made incredible strides in achieving their team's far-reaching vision for building a grassroots driven credit system for the world's poor.

Just think for a minute about how cool that is. At the same time as "extending credit to the poor" is being blamed in some circles for bank failures in the USA, my friends at Kiva have successfully created a whole new "system outside the system" for delivering credit to the poor in countries around the world. It occurs to me we ought to start paying closer attention to what this kind of system can teach us about lending to the poor without exposing unwitting investors (and national economies) to the risk.

Microfinance is a set of credit delivery and risk management systems that does not rely on traditional banks or banking structures, and it's already in place in many countries. 2006 Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus started what's become the global microfinance movement when he founded the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh over 30 years ago. The Kiva team's innovation lies in effectively using technology and social media for engaging the global grassroots in making more lending capital available to the microfinance industry worldwide.

Unlike sub-prime lending banks, Kiva's lenders aren't losing money. Ordinary people like you and me are lending to the poor through Kiva, and getting their money back. One big reason they don't make money though, is a complex set of SEC regulations that won't allow the US based micro-lenders to earn interest. That doesn't mean that loans to the poor through Kiva are interest free. Micro-borrowers in Uganda pay interest rates ranging between 15 and 40% per annum. Local microfinance institutions who disburse and collect Kiva loans get to keep 100% of the interest they charge, and that works for everyone involved - Kiva's growing number of members willing to lend money at 0% interest shows that earning profit for investors is not necessarily a requirement for making credit available to the poor. (US regulators, take note!!)

Shortly after moving to Uganda 10 years ago, the first website I ever built at was an attempt to do something very similar to what Kiva has done. While I received more professional recognition for that project than I ever imagined possible, I wasn't able with the means I had available to grow the concept to a larger scale. I can tell you first hand that the challenges involved in doing what Kiva does are numerous and complex. My hat goes off to the Kiva team for how well they have managed to handle those challenges so far. I feel honored to have had the opportunity to be a part of Kiva's exciting ride.

Years after my early attempt at online micro-lending died down, I'd started a new Life in Africa community project that would offer microfinance and other income generating opportunities to members. In late 2005 I was trying to reach someone at PayPal to discuss options for sourcing loan funds through our website with Paypal from Africa. I put out a call on my online networks requesting a connection, and someone put me in touch with Premal Shaw. The first time I talked to Premal by phone, he was still with Paypal/Ebay working on developing their microfinance marketplace venture that would launch 2 years later. The second time I talked to Premal - just a few weeks later - he had become the President of a new organization called Kiva.

Although LiA was not a microfinance institution but a community based social enterprise made up of craft-makers, we were invited to become an early Kiva field partner and allowed to experiment with community guaranteed lending. Instead of sourcing loan funds for our borrowers at, we sourced the funds for 135 Life in Africa member loans worth $37,700 through Kiva. Kiva's active press and marketing strategy meant all we had to worry about was getting the loan applications online, and our loans were typically funded within 4-12 hours of being listed. (Collecting the payments, of course, was a whole other story.)

While access to the loan funds was a huge benefit to the LiA community, what I personally enjoyed most about working with Kiva was the opportunity to get to know, brainstorm and innovate with the amazing Kiva team. Premal Shaw, who I finally got to meet in person when I visited the Kiva office in San Francisco in mid-2006, is simply one of the smartest and most sincere people you could ever hope to meet. Founders Matt and Jessica Flannery visited LiA a couple of times. How I envy their solid commitment to the Kiva cause as a couple. Jessica is a humanitarian sweetheart; Matt and I developed a mutual admiration for each other as renegades out to change the system. Chelsa Bocci, Kiva's partner relationship manager, is an incredibly diligent young woman whose love for her work shines through in what she does. Working with Fiona Ramsey, Kiva's lively press manager, we even got to participate in a couple of exciting film projects.

My favorite was this piece that PBS Frontline did, which even got shown on Oprah when Matt and Jessica graced her stage, making LiA's Grace Ayaa a TV star! Like the WE Center Gulu film I posted earlier, I love this video because it captures the spirit of what the WE Center Kampala community was like at the height of activity, before so many things changed. It also clearly demonstrates the amazing power of the Kiva concept. (The piece was so well loved by PBS viewers that they showed it about 10 times).

Maybe because the Kiva crew knew that I was open to letting all kinds of opportunities play out on the LiA stage, there were other opportunities that came about for the community as the result of our Kiva connection. A lovely pair of researchers funded by Microsoft's Digital Inclusion Program (friends of Matt) spent some time with us that was both fun and educational for the members who participated. Jessica Flannery came on a non-Kiva related visit once, and brought a whole busload of fellow students from the Stanford MBA program with her for a one day planning workshop with LiA members called "Planning the Life We Want." We also had really great experiences with some of the top class Kiva Fellows who came to meet and report on our members' loans. All in all, just a great partner to work with.

Unfortunately, sometime after the PBS film was made, there was a split within the LiA community that resulted in some difficulties collecting the loans. Although the community repaid Kiva for 100% of the funds that members borrowed, many former members still owe the community for repayments made on their behalf. Sometime along the way, Kiva also made a strategic decision to start partnering with larger microfinance institutions with 1,000 borrowers or more. The LiA community was too mired in sorting themselves out as a community to consider growing to that scale, and the metrics they had to offer as a community based social enterprise simply couldn't rate well in Kiva's partner rating system. In late 2007, the community leaders decided to put the LiA microfinance program on hold. A necessary decision, but sad to sever what had been a wonderful partnership with Kiva.

I will always be 100% grateful to Premal, Matt, Chelsa, Fiona and the rest of the Kiva team for allowing me to experiment with community guaranteed microlending on their wonderful platform. When I look at all they have achieved with it toward developing a new global system in such a relatively short time I am filled with awe, wonder and (ok, I admit it) a tad bit of jealousy. Kiva has brought microfinance into the mainstream of social media in ways I used to lie in bed dreaming about at night.

A ToASt to you, my good friends at Kiva! You are amazing. I am very sorry that I didn't get to spend more face to face time with you this year as planned, but I'm still with you in spirit and continue to be duly impressed at what I'm seeing from afar. Wherever I end up next, I'll be rooting for you. Keep doing what you do... and let's show those US bankers and regulators a thing or two about what it takes to lend to the poor, shall we?!

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a ToASt to Stacey Monk @

Let's ToASt to hope for turbulent times


Thursday, October 9, 2008

Happy 46th Independence Day Uganda!

The little white guy at yesterday's preschool gala is my Benjamin. He's 4 and loads of fun.

Today (October 9) we all got to take a day off to celebrate 46 years of Uganda's independence from British protectorate rule. Uganda was never actually any nation's colony, but the colonial powers put Britain in charge. The Brits pulled out 46 years ago today, but later helped Idi Amin get to power. That always kinda made me go hmmm.

This morning the president (who they say paid parliamentarians about $3,000 each to change the constitution so that he can stay in power for life) made a speech about how Uganda will be fine even though the rest of the world is falling apart. In the afternoon, we went to a barbecue with Ugandan friends... and talked about the rest of the world falling apart. I held a captive audience when someone asked me to try and explain how America's housing crisis came to be. They were stunned at the whole subprime mortgage story.

Keep in mind, Uganda is very much a cash economy. Here, when you build a house, you pay in cash. You might be able to get a loan if the property has commercial value as a high end rental, but the norm is to build a house in stages, as you amass the money to do it through other projects or salary savings. Maybe a microloan that you have to pay off within a year. Mortgages are just not that common.

Uganda also has a housing crisis right now, but it's different. There has been a building boom in Uganda over the 10 years that I've been here. Kampala and other major towns are sprawling out into suburbs with homes valuing in the $200,000 - $1,000,000+ range. Some people say there is a lot of dirty money here driving that boom that people have laundered through the construction industry. There is also a huge expat community of people working for embassies, international organizations and non-profits, who demand and will pay top dollar for homes that are well finished with indoor plumbing, built in closets and a fenced in garden. Anyone who has had big money to invest in real estate is investing to reach that high-end foreign market.

I have a feeling, however, that the foreign donor community may be cutting back in the years to come. Meanwhile, there is an urgent housing shortage for the urban poor. Nobody has been building houses for the average Ugandan, who earns $2-4 per day.

Something I find really ironic is that in many of the peri-urban neighborhoods where those gorgeous homes are, there is no infrastructure. Outside the gate of a wealthy Ugandan's million dollar homes in a neighborhood of million dollar homes, there are very often dirt tracks with deep ruts and potholes that require all terrain vehicles, plus bad water and electricity systems that are overstrained from urban expansion and unreliable. You have to have an alternative power supply to keep your fridge on when the power goes off (at least weekly for several hours at a time), and you have to have a water tank that will hold at least a 3 day supply of household water (though sometimes that's not enough, so it's also a good idea to have a borehole somewhere within a mile or so, so your housegirl can go and fetch some in a 20 litre container that she'll then carry back on her head.) So even though there are all these amazing houses in Uganda these days, the infrastructure to support the neighborhoods they are in is of the same quality as you find in Uganda's slums. I guess no one can say the government has favored the rich in that domain.

Property taxes are one of the few taxes that are regularly collected by the Ugandan government, but one thing the British did not leave well in place when they left Uganda was a good tax collection system. The British were the ones who introduced taxes, of course, but I guess it really didn't matter to them whether the Ugandan government would be able to collect taxes or not. Idi Amin used to collect them randomly - one time he kicked out all the people from India without letting them take any possessions with them. He then paid his army with the Indian community's abandoned stuff.

The current regime is not quite that bad, but corruption and fiscal impropriety are rampant. The president - who the Brits and the Americans (including me) used to love, btw - has entrenched himself for another one of Africa's long politcal hauls to get an aging megalomaniac out of power. He's got what I've heard described as the largest, best trained and best armed personal protection force of any president in Africa (rumor has it, many of the new traffic police on Kampala's streets are actually elite forces in duty disguise). He's making sure that nobody can throw him out, but after 22 years in power, the average Ugandan is still dirt poor, and even the wealthy ones are living in slum-like conditions. There's got to be someone who can do better than this.

People say that there wasn't as much poverty 50 years ago as there is now in Uganda. Maybe it's because the British were better administrators. Maybe it's because Africa has never really been independent, but has remained a battleground for foreign interests. Maybe it's because the Ugandan successors of the British decided to fill their own pockets with tax money instead of investing in things like public infrastructure.

So I don't know. 46 years later, was independence worth it?

My 4 year old and his friends sure thought so yesterday! I guess that's got to be good enough for me.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

LeArNiNg about blog building communities (MyBlogLog, BlogCatalog, Entrecard)

Community members at Life in Africa's webbed empowerment center in Gulu (Northern Uganda) see their own pictures online for the first time, using a locally built solar powered computer (2006).

While it sometimes feels like I've spent far too much of the past 10 years online, it's only now that I've actually tried to start a blog. So here I am a newbie once again. Luckily, I am not alone. One of the things I've always loved about the online wwworld is the strong sense of community that you can find out there, if you just know where to look. Over the past week I've been exploring a number of communities for bloggers. I'm excited about what I see.

I am accustomed to online communities where you become a member, log in and participate at that community website. Blog building communities, where people are helping each other to learn about and improve their blogging techniques, seem to be a little bit different. With nifty little web 2.0 tools called "widgets" that you install on your blog, participating in blog-building social networks means signing up for a bunch of services, and installing the community's activity and functionality right on your own blog. The whole blogosphere itself is an online community, and your blog is your main profile.

At I was able to find other bloggers with interests similar to mine by using search tags. Searches on Africa, social change, social entrepreneurs and sustainable living brought up long lists of people who I checked out, then added to my contacts. When logged into MyBlogLog I now get a feed that tells me what stories my contacts dugg, blog posts they've published, and pages they've bookmarked at various sites. One of my favorite features at MyBlogLog is the connector tool, which finds your contacts on other sites like digg, delicious and twitter, so that you can easily add them to your networks at those sites as well. While you can also join individual blog communities at MyBlogLog, there is no feed that tells you when something new has been posted, so I've yet to fully understand why that function is there. Following the online activity of other bloggers in my contacts, however, has been a really great learning experience so far, and I like the widgets (you can check 'em out in the bar down the right side of your screen).

MyBlogLog and both offer widgets for showing who has recently visited your blog. They only track their members' visits, though, so while I am actually only using the MyBlogLog widgets so far, I went ahead and signed up for BlogCatalog as well, knowing that my picture and a link to my blog content will appear on sites I visit that are using that widget. In addition to tracking visitors, also offers groups and some promising discussion boards that I've yet to delve into. All in all, it looks to be a helpful group of active community members with a lot of information to share. Some groups in the BlogCatalog community are also working together, through group and reciprocal bookmarking, to increase the visibility of each others' blogs.

By far the most innovative blog building community I've found in my bounce around the blogsphere is The entrecard community offers a very interesting incentive structure that encourages bloggers to visit, participate in and advertise on each others' blogs. There are also active forums where community members voice their opinions about how the system is working, and help each other learn to blog better. The range of topics people are blogging about at entrecard is impressive and neatly presented (I'm in the expats category, in case you wondered). The community population includes both newbies to the blogging world like me and more established bloggers who receive thousands of visitors each day.

I must say, visiting other blogs through these blog building networks been a very enriching experience so far. Bloggers are an expressive community of ordinary people from everywhere, and all walks of life. Everybody is struggling to get a handle on the new technologies (whew! it's not just me!) I'm learning a lot, and am getting myself psyched up to join in and initiate some discussions.

Paying new attention to the blogosphere, I have been particularly touched by the number of senior bloggers out there who are sharing their fabulous perspectives on life. Work at home moms are also blogging in abundance - women with voices, hobbies and opinions as unique as their individual personalities. And it's no surprise that there are LOT of bloggers talking about politics and economics right now. My favorites are the eco-bloggers, who seem to be emerging as a formidable force in the blogosphere, at all of the blog building communities I've mentioned in this article. If YOU have a blog (or are thinking of starting one) by all means look me up and let's connect at any or all of the blog building community sites above.

By the way, you don't have to own a blog to be a member at MyBlogLog or BlogCatalog. You can also use these sites to find and follow great blogs in all kinds of categories. And if you have a photo uploaded to your profile, you will undoubtedly send smiles to the bloggers you know or follow, who will really appreciate knowing you stopped by.

Related posts:

There will be ThiNkiNg and LeArNiNg

Monday, October 6, 2008

fAsHioN: creative cultural content for a cool cause

Zarina was my housekeeper for 8 years here in Uganda.

She's a widowed mother of 3 who was very down on her luck when I met her. In the early days of Life in Africa I wrote many stories about Zarina, and the things I was learning about Uganda through the lens of her life. She also became involved with various Life in Africa activities over the years, especially whenever I was in the mood to experiment. She was one of the first borrowers in the two loan programs I developed. In 2005 I made her a "star" in a mini fashion show online.

I created Zarina's fashion show as an example of how we can think about combining popular cultural content (like African fashion) with promoting a cause (like donating used football clothes to The Kids League). What eventually became the Life in Africa fashion4football campaign included a community fashion event, an online fashion show that featured many Kids League parents, and the delivery of over 40 bales of used playclothes and soccer uniforms to the Kids League Foundation in Northern Uganda and groups in the region that they introduced us to.

While it was probably one of the most unusual campaigns I've ever sunk my creativity into, it was really a lot of fun. Zarina had a ball choosing clothes from her own wardrobe and changing her hairstyles. It was also a lovely way to collaborate informally with my good friend Trevor Dudley, Founder of the Kids League Foundation and another Ashoka Fellow.

I've spent the past few days digging Zarina's fashion show out of the LiA archives, and have dusted it off and updated it for your entertainment.

I hope you enjoy seeing it as much as we enjoyed creating it:

Related posts:

yummy TrEaTs galore, and fits of global fAsHioN

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

ThiNkiNg: life after Africa

...out into the great global unknown.

Lots of friends have written to ask what's next on my horizon. Many have assumed I'll be headed back to the US. No, that's actually not the current plan.

As long as the boys are young (my youngest is 4) our decision on where to live will be shaped primarily by the desire to maintain my childrens' relationship with their dad. He and I have lived separately for many years now. We currently live in separate countries, but have managed to keep up a frequency of contact that keeps him as a very strong presence in the kids' lives. He's a really good dad, so I feel it as a responsibility to the kids to take his location and travel connections into account. He's Dutch, not American.

He and I share an interest in possibly living in Asia someday, and the kids are onboard for that as well. Two months ago, I had thought I might try making something work in Thailand (where I spent 6 weeks earlier this year) as a next place to live for a while. While the boys dad would be agreeable to finding a way to make that work for a few years (he even flew there for a short vacation to check the place out), I worry recently that the Thai political climate is becoming rather unstable. What's more, the organization I'd hoped to attach myself to is very involved in the ongoing political protests. Without abandoning the idea of returning to Thailand for a longer period some day (I would really love to go back there), it just doesn't feel like right away is the best moment to make Thailand our new home.

On to plan B.

After his current post in Ethiopia finishes next year, the kids' dad has a professional obligation as EU diplomatic staff to return to Brussels for 2 years before he can get posted abroad again. So the kids and I are now thinking we might head back to Europe to cool our heels for a while in the Western world, and plan for a move to Asia (or somewhere equally "exotic sounding" to the boys) after 2-3 years when their dad has more options available.

That gives us a where, leaving what shall I do with myself still up in the air.

Since I was young I've imagined that I would probably get a PhD when I was in my forties. Here I am at that stage of life with a blank page to write, and - right on on cue - there's a quiet place within me after 20+ years of international living that thinks further study is definitely a good idea. Maybe I'll cook up a way to build some field study in Asia into PhD work in Europe... I don't have all the answers yet, and I am surprisingly ok with that.

In fact, I think I am rather enjoying the opportunity to reinvent myself, knowing that my professional future is still likely to be longer than my professional past. It occurs to me some might call this a mid-life crisis, but I don't feel like I am in crisis. I do feel that I am changing, and I'm excited for that change... aware and appreciative of the process, and grateful for this moment in time.

Plans continue to evolve.