A Year Abroad

China, Uganda, and Rwanda

ISP and the Last Month

The last month, my month of independent study, went by so fast I’m surprised I don’t have whiplash. Somehow, inexplicably, I’m back in Kampala and only a day away from the completion of my course. For those of you going ‘wait, Lily isn’t due back for another two weeks,’ you’re not wrong. Shortly after arriving in East Africa, I decided that I wanted to travel around after the program ended. It became clear very early on that while I would be in Uganda for over a month and in Rwanda for over two months, I wouldn’t have the free time to see much of either country. So while my compatriots head back off home, I’ll be staying. I’ll be staying because I can’t imagine leaving.

Of course, I will leave. In just over two weeks I’ll be on a plane back home. Although that isn’t much time and despite how quickly the rest of my three and a half months have gone by, going home seems far off and distant. I can’t really explain how ‘normal’ Rwanda began to feel. After living in Rwanda for a month with my host family I lived in Rwanda for another month, mostly in Kigali and mostly on my own, conducting research into the role of media in peacebuilding. I made phone calls, set up interviews, I wrote a big-ass paper, and then I presented it. Nearly all of those things are things that terrify me. I hate talking on the phone, I hardly ever feel like I have questions to ask, I’ve never written more than a 15 page paper, and I HATE public speaking. I never imagined that I’d want to peruse scholarly research to any ends other than graduating college and then maybe getting my masters. The biggest surprise of this program may be that this little taste of research has left me craving more. I didn’t feel too awkward calling people I didn’t know, after the first two interviews I found it was no longer nerve-wracking, I finished the paper with copious amounts of coffee, and once I got past the first two minutes of the presentation, the last 15 were a breeze.

We’ve had a lot of end-of-the-program processing in the last week, probably more than I’d like. It is hard to say how I’ve changed or will change as a result of this experience. I don’t really feel qualified to say just yet. Most things people said, gaining confidence and independence they didn’t know they had, were things I felt I got out of China. That is the benefit of studying or living abroad, figuring out how to do things without the support network you’re accustomed to.

I don’t know what I got out of East Africa other than a desire to come back. The issues we studied, the involvement of the LRA in Gulu and the genocide in Rwanda, are things that really matter to me now, in the selfish way where they matter because I now know people that directly feel the impact of those events. But maybe, maybe other things will matter more too. Maybe things happening in far off places will matter not because I know the people it is happening to, but because they are the people I have yet to meet. They are the potential, they are the future. I don’t know them now, but maybe someday I will. I guess I feel more connected to things, if I had to put it into words.

There is this idea in psychology and peacebuilding called the ’sphere of concern’. Basically, it says you’ll do anything for the people in your most intimate sphere of concern. Most times that means your family. Broaden that a little and it means that for your close friends, there is nothing you wouldn’t do. For other people you know, you might do something. For your country, maybe a little less. For the rest of the world, not all that much. For those inside your sphere of concern, the level of self-sacrifice is inspiring. For those outside your sphere of concern, the level of apathy is depressing.

Uganda and Rwanda are outside our sphere of concern. During the genocide in Rwanda, the international community didn’t intervene because Rwanda posed no tactical significance. In Gulu, where the LRA terrorized the population for years, even in the capital no one was overly concerned. For us, these are far away places. When they are out of the news cycle, there is nothing to remind us of the ongoing problems.

And there is more to say, so much more to say, but I’m distracted right now. I’m sitting in the hotel in Kampala, having reunited with my friends from the other group for the first time in a month, and I’m listening to beautiful church singing. Tomorrow, I’ll be saying goodbye to these friends, but for today we can have fun and remember the incredible journey we took together. The first days, in this same hotel, we all felt completely overwhelmed and confused as to why we thought coming here was a good idea. Now, with confidence, we set off to the markets of Kampala today, then the airport tomorrow, and then the rest of the world after that.

I would have thought, after seeing the aftermath of so much death and violence, that I’d have a more negative view of the world. I think I might be more optimistic. Our failures show where we could succeed next time. If we widen that sphere of concern, we could do so much.


1 Comment

    Will Dickey

    Hi Lily,
    I’m very proud of you and what you’ve been doing over the past few months. You are an inspiration. Hope to see you soon.

    Prof D.

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