by Rebecca Clayton
It’s been a few weeks since I have arrived in Uganda to work for the summer with the Center for Health, Human Rights and Development (CEHURD). It’s early days yet for all the learning still to be done, but I thought that I could sum up the first 5 big lessons I’ve experienced while here!
- Living in a country on the equator is hot.
In related revelations, I don’t drink nearly enough water at home in Canada. Turns out those two things are connected and required quite a bit of correction. But I am happy to report that I am used to the heat by now! Mostly.
- It’s okay to go slow while you adjust to new places.
I think that there is an instinct to want to move quickly and fill our days with all sorts of activities to ensure we are “making the most” of our time away, but taking my time to settle was the best thing for me to make the most of my experience. Prioritizing rest, balance and health is the best way for me to ensure I can engage fully in the work I am here to do. And as time has gone on, I have added more and more fun to my days and weekends as well.
- Human rights work necessitates a separation of your individual values and the work your do.
Last week, CEHURD hosted a Judicial Colloquium for Magistrates and other justice actors in the Ugandan legal system. It was a training day on Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights, and the work that CEHURD does to advocate and litigate in this field, particularly in the arena of maternal health. Naturally, under this umbrella is a host of controversial and challenging issues that CEHURD regularly addresses in their work, including abortion laws, sex work, LGBTQ laws, HIV health, and many other sensitive, and often personal, topics. Throughout the day, speakers and facilitators were all hammering home a specific message to the judicial actors in attendance: we are all somebody from somewhere. We all bring our own values to the table when we interact with the people around us, and without any awareness of what those values are, we risk allowing them to cloud our judgement. And when our role is to be a judge, a police officer, or any person who has a measure of control over the lives of another, that risk needs to be addressed.
I think that one of the most interesting parts of the day for me was an activity where we placed ourselves on a continuum based on our own personal beliefs in these topics. As it turns out, CEHURD employees personally believe a range of different things about abortion, sex and gender. However as an organization, those individuals advocate with such strength and commitment for Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights because they know that they are an essential component of the Right to Health. What I saw in practice was an incredibly admirable separation of individual values from the practice of human rights work. There is no denying the toll that unsafe abortions are taking on the women in Uganda, no matter what you personally might believe about it. And as an organization that focuses on human rights in healthcare, it is the health of these women that matters above your own beliefs. It was a profound moment of learning for me, and deepened my already-huge amount of respect for CEHURD and the people who work there. I hope I can continue to learn from their example about how to keep untangling my own biases from rights-based work throughout the summer and beyond.
- Bodas are a much more efficient means of transportation than cars.
There is something very satisfying about zipping around cars as they sit in a traffic jam. It’s the best way to get around in Kampala – just don’t forget your helmet!
- Lean into support systems, because you really can’t do it alone.
No matter what I might believe about my own independence, I am never reminded of my reliance on others quite so intensely as when I venture abroad. Perhaps the most recurring lesson in travelling for me is the grounding in my own vulnerability, and it seems to arise and need to be re-taught to me again and again. I am so lucky for the support system provided by IHRIP and Professor Ramanujam. I am also very grateful for the connection she provided to Arnold, a former McGill student from Kampala, who arranged for his brothers-in-law (Jacob and Kester) to pick me up from the airport and spend an entire day with me getting settled. They taught me about Mobile Money in Uganda, helped me exchange currency, get a SIM card, learn to use the boda system, get groceries, and have generally been available to help with my transition to living in Uganda. My colleagues at CEHURD have also helped me get settled, helping to arrange logistics for me, checking in on my wellbeing, and offering rides when I needed them. I have also really needed the support of loved ones at home as I transition and process my new experiences. Of course, having someone else doing their internship in Kampala has been significant for feeling connected, and exploring Uganda with Somaya has been a joy! Without all of these support systems, my experience these past few weeks would have been entirely different. It is because of them that I have felt such a sense of security, enjoyment and comfort as I settled into my new routines. So, I have been reminded by this experience once again to make my peace with being helped. Better yet, I have been reminded to lean into it. We all need help from others, especially in new spaces. Leaning into community is a part of being human, and I am grateful that this experience has served as yet another opportunity to learn that lesson.
I am deeply excited to continue to observe, research, reflect, explore, chat, connect, present, and socialize for the next couple months. It’s been an incredibly rich learning experience, and I am looking forward to where it will continue to go!