By Chlöe Shahinian
I’ve known since the beginning of my internship that I wanted the focus of my second blog post to be about my experience in Kampala, and Uganda more broadly, but the longer that I lived in Kampala, the more difficult it became to pinpoint a place to start. It seems impossible to describe all the local differences that I found myself adapting to. When I would speak to friends on the phone in the early days of the internship, they would always ask me “how’s Uganda?” I found myself prepared with an extensive list of all the new discoveries and experiences, however recently, in response to the same question, I nearly always just found myself saying “it’s Uganda!” My biggest internal revelation happened several weeks ago when I realized that I became quickly frustrated when my boda boda (motorbike) driver stopped to wait at (one of the few) red lights in the city. “Every other boda boda is just going through the intersection,” I would think, “why can’t mine?” It seems nearly unthinkable that before this summer I had never even ridden on a motorbike at all (or thought about casually blowing through red lights).
Getting around by boda, was one of my best discoveries of the trip, even if my coworkers remained surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I think it’s just something about the wind in your face, (never in my hair though, because I always wore a helmet), and the sounds of traffic all around that make it feel like something akin to a theme park ride. However, Kim, the other McGill Law intern in Kampala, and I quickly learned that Kampala traffic is no joke. Firstly, there are the potholes which I can definitively report put Montreal’s to shame. Large enough to seemingly swallow a boda, cars and bodas alike do whatever they must to avoid them, often at the cost of moving directly into opposing traffic. Secondly, there are the speedbumps, sometimes they’re so large that going over feels like you’re being shot into the air, and sometimes it’s several series of small ones that make your teeth clack together in your skull. (I also can’t forget about the potholes on the speedbumps, as one co-worker jokingly reminds me). Lastly, there’s the traffic, or the “jam” as locals call it. Let’s just say that I’d never gotten stuck in a roundabout before coming to Kampala. This is why the boda is essential, it allows you to stay in movement while you weave between or beside stuck cars. In the early days of my internship, I would grip onto the bar at the back of the bike for dear life with both hands and almost have to close my eyes when my driver would move onto a patch of asphalt so thin on the side of the road that I couldn’t believe we didn’t topple into a ditch. As time went on, I became more comfortable on the boda (i.e., I often only gripped the back bar with one hand) and spent much of the ride darting my head back and forth to observe the hustle and bustle on the side of the road or trying to spot the most awkward objects that others were carrying on their bodas. Some top sightings included: a flat-screen TV (in box), a flat-screen TV (out of box), three (live) pigs, a weedwhacker (held upright), and a car windshield. Being back in a car, driving on the right side of the road no less, will certainly feel different after twelve weeks spent on the back of a boda. However, my hair will be happy to be free.
Not only was I lucky to have Kim, who graciously acted as ‘debriefee’ for all my new experiences in Kampala, but I was also grateful for my Strategic Litigation (SL) team colleagues at the Center for Health, Human Rights and Development (CEHURD) who greatly assisted me throughout my time in Kampala. It was not uncommon for a morning at the office to begin with a catch-up of ‘Chlöe’s new experiences,’ be it my boda driver running out of gas on my commute home and us needing to walk to a gas station or a new Ugandan food dish I had tried. It is the kindness and generosity of my colleagues which helped me adapt to my new life in Kampala so quickly – things as simple as helping me learn basic phrases in Luganda, informing me of the fair prices for different fruits, or teaching me about the features of my cellphone plan. Outside of the SL team, I loved getting to know everyone at CEHURD and learning about the work of the various other teams at the organization. Importantly, interning with the SL team at CEHURD not only strengthened my legal skills, but it has also given me a better sense of what it means to practice law at an NGO. At CEHURD, the SL team works in partnership with other teams, including Finance, Communications, and Monitoring and Evaluation, in order to implement programs and activities. Nowhere were these connections made clearer than at our staff retreat in Fort Portal in the second to last week of my internship. As one of the retreat’s two official note-takers, I was tasked with closely documenting all the program and project discussions which occurred throughout the retreat’s meetings. It was truly energizing to see staff be so engaged in all of the organization’s work, even if it may be a project that they’re not assigned to. To me, this reinforced that CEHURD is a family, one which I was so privileged to be a part of these past twelve weeks.
Prior to departing for my internship, when speaking with the program’s other interns I would jokingly say that I hoped for the internship to be transformative, hoped for myself to be transformed. What I’ve come to realize, and which in retrospect I should have always known, is that you don’t wake up one day feeling transformed. In fact, each day in Kampala I still woke up with the sense of being ‘Montreal Chlöe’ transplanted in Kampala. However, transformation does make me think about that quote from John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, about how you fall in love like you fall asleep: “slowly, and then all at once.” That’s the best way that I can think about my own transformation this summer. At no point did I definitively feel a sense of being transformed, but when I look back at who I was when I arrived and who I feel that I am now, I do think I’ve changed. It’s apparent in subtle ways: my open-mindedness, flexibility, and adaptability, as well as how I respond in situations that previously would have wrought anxiety.
This internship was difficult, and it was also immensely rewarding, and those two things are deeply connected. As a creature of habit, who rewatches the same comfort shows, goes to the same restaurants, and even has a favourite law library study carrel, moving to Kampala for three months was far out of my comfort zone. Importantly, I could not have done this without Kim, who often seemed to be infinitely more courageous than me and who motivated me to seek new experiences and try new things. However, when the new environment became overwhelming, I thankfully discovered that I can be a creature of habit in Kampala too, and I would be remiss not to mention my Kampala comfort restaurant, Cafesserie. I would also think back frequently to the moment in the Fall semester when I made the decision to accept the internship and told myself to be brave. I don’t think that Chlöe could have expected all the things that current Chlöe has seen and experienced, but on days when I felt anxious or homesick, I thought back to that Chlöe, and her excitement and enthusiasm, and used that to strengthen my own confidence in my internship experience.
Here’s to a great summer. Here’s to a hard summer. Here’s to a once in a lifetime summer.