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I can hardly keep up with all the news these days. It was easy enough to follow along with Tunisia, then Egypt, during their protests and movements for freedom. But now there’s just so much going on that my head is spinning. Protests and uprisings in Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, and Iran among others. Elections in Uganda. Not to mention the usual American mess of politicking and budget crises.

On the Ugandan election front, everything seems to have gone as expected. Museveni was announced the winner of the presidential election, with 68% of the vote. That number does seem suscipiciously high to me, but with all of the vote-buying/patronage maneuvers he did in the months leading up to the election, I am not surprised that he emerged ahead. And of course, there were some additional voting irregularities. Clearly, it would be inaccurate to call the election a great example of democracy in action. One bit of good news from Uganda is that, as far as I can tell, there has been no violent reaction to the election results. Things seem to be returning to normal in Kampala. I’ll be continuing to monitor things there, but it looks like this will have come and gone fairly quietly. The status quo holds in Uganda tonight.

On the other hand, it appears that the Arab world and north Africa are exploding in revolution. Libya has particularly grabbed my attention. Perhaps this is because Gaddafi has been such a proponent of the United States of Africa. Perhaps it is because there is a Muammar Gaddafi road in downtown Kampala, as well as the beautiful Gaddafi mosque. In any case, the response to the uprising against the  “King of Kings” is exposing Gaddafi’s worst dictator-qualities. While not too much information is available, it is clear that the regime has no problem using brutality to silence the protests. For about an hour tonight, I listened to Muammar Gaddafi’s son ramble on, taking on the role of victim and blaming everyone from the US and UK, to other African immigrants, to drug-users for the uprising. His words seemed completely divorced from reality.

So tonight, while Uganda has chosen the status quo, Libya and others are giving revolution a try. Both have the potential to be dangerous. I’m hoping tonight that true democracy wins out in both cases – peacefully and as soon as possible.

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Tomorrow the people of Uganda go to the polls for their second multiparty presidential election in thirty years. Museveni is polling well ahead of his opposition, but anything could happen. Will Ugandans, encouraged by the revolutions elsewhere on the continent, in Tunisia and Egypt, vote for the opposition, and for a change in leadership after 25 years with Museveni? The opposition is split between seven different candidates, with perennial candidate Kizza Besigye leading the way.

While this article lays out the broad context for tomorrow’s elections, this one puts forth the theory that, if nothing else, this election will be cleaner than past elections.

“The money flowing into Friday’s election suggests that the NRM believes it can no longer resort to the kind of thuggery it has used to win elections in the past. In 2006, for example, leading opposition candidate Kizza Besigye was repeatedly arrested and his supporters beaten by official security agencies as well as un-uniformed goons who were later alleged to be government agents. In part because of international pressure, Tumushabe points out, as well as the example of the International Criminal Court indicting politicians in next-door Kenya for instigating election violence, outright physical coercion is mostly off the table.”

The article also suggests that the opposition has a better chance of success than they’ve been given credit for. The real uncertainty will come if it’s clear an opposition candidate has won. Then what? Protests or riots? No one can predict.

Adding to the day’s election news is the recently-revealed Wiki-leaks cables that draw a connection between the anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda and the political motives of the ruling party. This is a theory Jon and I have long held – that Museveni and the NRM had planned all along to use the bill to shore up popular support for their party, and possibly to use it to discredit opponents. To Museveni and his political allies

If you’re interested in following the events real-time in Uganda tomorrow, check in with a favorite Ugandan blogger of mine on her Twitter account, where she’ll be tweeting the day’s events.

Uganda, you are in my thoughts tonight. Praying for a peaceful day for you tomorrow.

Throughout the fall, our friends Michael and Gabrielle spent much of their time in kitchens and delivery trucks, visiting food stands and local markets.  In doing so, they were able to highlight some interesting angles of the local and community-oriented food scene in DC.  After spending time interviewing and writing, taking photos and creating video slide shows, some of their work is now online on The Atlantic’s food blog, and more of it will be posted soon.

Take a look at what they’ve created, and learn a little bit more about food in Washington, DC.  I’ll post links to other articles as they become available.  Enjoy!

Day 3

I’m not a huge New Year’s Resolution maker.  As a teenager, I used to make a big deal out of each new year.  I’d write a reflective entry about the prior year, and document my hopes and predictions for the coming year.  I’d also make a long list of vague resolutions.  And I would forget about them all by the next week.

I’ve found that I’m better with implementing small new actions in my life.  For instance, when I was in high school, I kept a journal where I wrote about where I saw divinity each day.   This journal was inspired by Matthew 25: seeing divinity in the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned.  The journal was centered on the idea that every human is valuable, and that even the tiniest creations are worth noticing.  I wrote in this journal every single day for about three years – remarkably more sustainable and meaningful to me than any New Year’s Resolution ever has been.

In the same spirit of adding a small practice to my daily life, I’ve decided to do 365 days of photography in 2011.  I have noticed in the past that I become much more conscious of and connected to my surroundings when I carry my camera.  What does the light look like in this place, and at this time of day?  What details surround me?  Where are there surprising patterns?  Who else is sharing this space with me?  How can I capture these many things?  With all of my traveling during the past couple years, I’ve had the opportunity to take lots of pictures of some truly incredible sights.  But I want my photography to be an artistic outlet, not just snapshots.  I want to get better with the technical aspects of photography, and more creative and gutsy with my subjects.

So, 2011: 365 will hopefully push my photography to new levels.  And, I suspect, it will give me the chance to reflect more consistently on the places and faces in my daily life.

Currently, I’m just hosting the project on my Flickr account (do visit!).  I may at some point bring the project to this blog, or maybe not.  And, I’m sure there will be more than an occassional dud published.  But that’s ok!  I’m excited to see where this project leads me in the new year.

Well, our final Mitchell reflections have been posted – marking the official end of my year in Ireland.  As always, check out my fellow scholars’ reflections about the year and our time on the Emerald Isle.

*******

I’m famously terrible with goodbyes. I get teary in the days leading up to a big goodbye, and everything sets me off – the mere thought of a final farewell, the symbolism of a sunset, etc., etc. It’s a bit of an embarrassment when I find myself reduced to tears so easily. So I knew that my last month in Ireland would be rough: many opportunities to publicly humiliate myself with goodbyes to the Mitchells, my Irish friends, and #24 The Waterfront (our lovely home in Galway on the River Corrib).

The Mitchell goodbyes went better than expected. After a great week of activities – meeting Irish President Mary McAleese and receiving our class rings, becoming one with nature at Glenstal Abbey, participating in Listowel Writer’s Week, and enjoying time in the beautiful Glin Castle – we had one last big group hug in the parking lot of the Limerick train station. I held back my tears and laughed at the antics of the group as we said our goodbyes.

Saying goodbye to Galway and my friends there was another story. Once, in the days leading up to our departure, my husband Jon just said the word cry and I burst into tears – apparently unable to stop myself. As we packed up our belongings (…miniature Eiffel Tower from Paris, leggings I purchased at Dunnes for only €3, books on gender and economic development…) I thought about the many things I’d miss about Galway. First and foremost, my friends Laura and Avril, who share my interests and now know my quirks enough to tease me mercilessly; not to mention the community of friends I’ve built over the past year. But also: the swans, the Saturday market, the guy on Shop Street that sculpts a sleeping dog out of sand, the habit of taking tea four times a day, the discussions of local politics and the recession on Galway Bay FM. After days of preparations, Jon and I gathered our things and boarded the train. I thought about the loss of our happy little Galway life as we pulled out of the station and began to miss Ireland even though I was still within its borders. Just as expected: at least one public show of tears.

*****

When we arrived back in the United States, my dad welcomed us home with bottles of Guinness. He wanted us to have a little piece of Ireland when we returned. Over dinner with my grandpa and grandma, we cracked open the bottles and poured them the proper way. Grandpa took a couple of sips and asked, “Do any of you actually like this stuff?” He was right: Guinness from a bottle is not as good as it is from the tap. This was not a surprise, but Grandpa’s comment made us all laugh. The funny interaction between an American and something Irish reminded me of all the other interactions between the two cultures that I’ve seen over the past year.

There was the time, a couple weeks before we left Galway, that I checked my email and received a poem. Avril, who was sitting beside me, exclaimed, “I LOVE this poem!” The poem was one about summer by Carl Sandburg, a poet I have come to love from living in Chicago. Avril read it aloud, her Donegal accent filling the room, and I reflected on the beauty of finding an Irish friend who appreciates a Chicagoan’s poetry as much as I do.

I remember another time, months earlier, when my classmate Grainne happily informed me that her uncle was also from Chicago. “Maybe you’ve heard of him?” I laughed, reminded of the many times that Irish friends have asked me hopefully if I know their cousin who lives in Idaho, Pennsylvania, or Texas. “Chicago’s a big city, Grainne!” She defended herself by responding, “Well, he’s involved in politics. He’s worked really closely with Governor Quinn.” Oh, I thought, that’s different! It turns out that Grainne’s uncle is well known in Chicago, and Grainne was quite knowledgeable about Chicago politics. I would have never expected that one of my Irish classmates would have hosted the future Governor of Illinois at her home in County Mayo – but, she did!

I think back to an American Bluegrass festival held in Galway, conversations about American politics with the parents of Irish friends, and the time I explained the meaning of Thanksgiving to my classmates. In the US, I’m bombarded by Irish flags hanging over pubs in every city I visit and the ubiquitous Claddagh rings on women’s fingers. We spend our time reconnecting with friends and family, and talk to them not just about the ancient beauty of County Kerry, but also of the immigrant communities that we encountered in Galway, how the Irish educational system is different than the American one, and our peers’ viewpoints on social issues like gay marriage.

*****

As all of the thoughts of the connections between the US and Ireland flash through my mind, a truth emerges. Ireland has become a part of me more deeply and permanently than I expected. When I took the train out of Galway at the end of June, it didn’t represent the end of anything. My relationship with Ireland, as well as the other Mitchell Scholars, is far from over. It’s just beginning.

In addition to reading and relaxing post-thesis submission, I’ve been messing around a bit more with my photos and flickr account.  I just revisited this recent photo, from our quick trip to the Art Deco District in Miami Beach, and I’m sort of in love with the colors.  Enjoy!

the Leslie Hotel, Miami Beach

Since we left Ireland, my life has been sort of a big, beautiful blur.

Leaving Ireland was, as expected, nearly impossible to do.  Saying goodbye to our idyllic lives by the sea and our lovely group of Irish friends was really, really sad.  We tried our best to keep our chins up and to enjoy every last second – all the while working on our theses and packing up another year of our lives.  We did take some time to check a couple of things off of our list, including spending an afternoon at the historic Tigh Neachtain pub with friends.

A perfect June afternoon at Tigh Neachtain

After a teary goodbye at the Galway train station, we were off … on our way to our whirlwind tour of America.

First stop: My hometown of Mahtomedi, Minnesota.  We made it just in time for my dear friend Hilary’s wedding, and spent the week both working on schoolwork as well as catching up with family and friends.

We had a lovely time with family, and loved seeing Grandma M and her newest quilts.

Next: Rockford, Illinois.  This time, Jon’s family and friends (and don’t forget those pesky theses).  We crammed a lot of quality time in with parents, grandparents, and our adorable little nephew.

Ryne's got a golf club in his hand - he LOVES to play golf!

Next stop: Chicago, Illinois, for a very quick hello & goodbye to our dear friends Becca and Sam. As luck would have it, we’re finally in the US  just as they’re on their way to South Africa for a year.  Good thing we have that wonderful kind of friendship that you can just pick right up where you left off.

Becca & Sam, Lauren & Jon reunion

Next? Naples, Florida, and then the Everglades, and Miami, Florida.  Jon and I were so excited to visit my mom’s new home in beautiful Florida.  Moving to a warmer climate has been one of my mom’s lifelong dreams, and it’s been so much fun for me to see her in her element in Florida.  Unfortunately, we STILL (!) had thesis work while we were visiting the tropics, but at least we could escape our punishing academic work by going to the beach.

Miami beach.

Well, we’re not done quite yet.  Next, we spent a week in Washington, D.C. We got to attend an annual Mitchell Scholar party and officially started the job search by doing informational interviews.  In between, we visited with friends and worked on theses.  And then… after many months and a final all-night session, I FINISHED MY THESIS!  It’s officially printed and turned in.  I am just waiting to hear back whether or not I’ll pass! 🙂

(I neglected to take a single photo in DC… not like me, but my mind was very much elsewhere).

Right now, Jon and I are sadly separate.  He is in Rockford, putting the finishing touches on his thesis and spending more time with family, and I am back in Florida with my mom.  The big news here is that she just got an adorable puppy: Mabel, a teeny tiny Italian Greyhound.

Me & Mabel

Although the last couple of weeks have been spent solely in the US, we’ve seen so much it seems like we must have left the country a couple times.  We’ve had moments of quintessential Americana, like catching a Saint’s Baseball game with my dad, watching a small-town fireworks display with Jon’s dad, and walking along the Washington DC monuments at night.  We’ve also seen the diversity of American life: I talked with my friend Tena about her Somali students in Minneapolis, visited a wedding shop in search of a traditional Korean dress with my sister in Chicago, and enjoyed Brazilian food in Miami for Jon’s birthday.

Overall, it’s been a beautiful blur of a couple of weeks.  We’re still not quite sure what’s happening next in our lives – where we’ll be “settling down” or what jobs we’ll have, but we’ll be sure to keep you posted.  Until then, you can be sure that we’ll be savoring our downtime in the good ole USA.

Last week the other Mitchells and I gathered for our last Irish adventure.

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First, we had an event at Farmleigh, once the home of the Guinness family in Dublin, where we received rings commemorating our year in Ireland.  The President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, was on hand to present them to us.  It was a lovely reception, and President McAleese was a wonderful speaker and very warm in person.

The next day, we headed to Glenstal Abbey, a monastery in County Limerick.  The Abbey is situated on some gorgeous grounds with glens, conifer forests, and gardens.  We were given a guided tour by one of the monks, who told us the history of certain trees, and wove in thoughtful reflections on humans, their environment, and life in general.  We also got a chance to visit a small chapel that holds a number of old Russian and Greek icons, complete with explanations of icons and the Orthodox church from a monk who has written books on the topic. Afterwards, we visited the Abbey’s library, which holds a number of rare and antique manuscripts, including texts from the 1400s and first edition Irish novels.  Oh, and how could I forget the tea and freshly baked cakes and pastries that awaited us when we needed a break!  All in all, the most perfect way I can imagine to spend an afternoon.

The remainder of our final retreat was spent in the town of Listowel and at the gorgeous Glin Castle.  We were in Listowel, in County Kerry, for the annual Writer’s Week festival, which brings in authors and poets and playwrights and artists for readings, discussions, and plays.  Two of the highlights for me were seeing The World’s Wife, a play based on the poetry of British Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, and hearing Irish author Roddy Doyle read some of his work and answer questions.  I also had a lot of time just hanging out around town with the Mitchells, which was nice.

I hadn’t thought too much about the goodbye at the end of the weekend.  So I was not prepared for the dread and sadness I felt as we pulled up to the Limerick train station at the end of the weekend, where I hopped out to take a train back to Galway.  Although I know that I’ll be seeing my Mitchell friends pretty frequently in the years to come – both at official Mitchell alumni events and wherever else we happen to be – suddenly I realized that this goodbye marked The End of our year in Ireland as a group.  This makes me acutely aware that it is almost time to say goodbye to everything else in Ireland – our gorgeous apartment, my wonderful Irish friends, and beautiful Galway.

Before the goodbyes, though, I have to finish a draft of my thesis. I’ll be trying to focus all of my energy on that rather than mourning my departure.  Hopefully I’ll be able to turn some sad emotions into positive outcomes… Wish me luck (I’ve got a week and a couple days to go for the thesis draft)!

There have been two especially popular topics in the world of development/aid blogs this week.

The first is this TED talk by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie, which I insist you watch.

Adichie’s “single story” framework resonated strongly with me and she does a great job of describing how harmful the single story can really be.

The second hot topic is Nick Kristof’s Sunday column in the New York Times, in which he aims to tell a “blunt truth that is politically incorrect, heartbreaking, frustrating and ubiquitous.”  Kristof goes on to highlight the problem of poor people in Africa spending money on alcohol, cigarettes, and other items instead of spending it on their children’s education.  Kristof lays out this problem as if the entire continent is choosing alcohol over education, and doesn’t stop to consider the nuance that’s inevitable here.  Wronging Rights does an excellent take-down of this article, picking apart a number of his arguments.  In essence, they remind us that 1) education is often a public good, and family spending on education (depending on where you are) may be very low; and 2) although spending on alcohol, cell phones, and elaborate parties may take money away from other parts of a family’s budget, it is nearsighted to think of them as luxury items.  All of the above are usually associated with close community relationships, and social capital is acknowledged as an important element of raising oneself out of poverty.

But what I want to highlight here is the serendipity of the two topics being published around the same time.  Kristof, trying to tell a new story about Africa that does not “romanticize poverty” (as he claims aid workers tend to do), ends up retelling the Single Story about Africa.  In this story, the Poor African Father is unable to think long-term, is childlike and self-centered in prioritizing his desire for a drink ahead of his children’s education, and is in fact the reason why his family will remain poor.  Nevermind the fact that alcoholism is an often unacknowledged, heartbreaking, and ubiqutous problem all over the world – the Poor African Father is especially guilty of harm because he is poor.

Meanwhile, Adichie reminds us that telling these Single Stories not only flattens reality, but is dangerous.  In presenting drunken dads and miserible, uneducated children as the norm of African life, Kristof teaches his fellow Americans to pity and look down on anyone from Africa and to assume that war, disease, and poverty are inevitable there.  If you’ve spent any time engaging in other stories about Africa, you will probably come away with another conclusion.  I certainly have.

Bill and I getting ready for a rollercoaster ride in Bremen, Germany. October 2009.

The Mitchell Scholars’ third set of reflections about our time in Ireland has been posted.  I’m re-posting mine here, but you should definitely check out the other scholars’ writing too!

***

What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s a question that you are asked a thousand times as a child, and with less frequency as an adult. At various points in my life, I’ve known exactly what I’ve wanted to be (in no particular order): an archaeologist, journalist, Broadway actress, Vanna White, neonatologist, gymnast, explorer, or rainforest researcher. I’ve been asking the question to myself lately, trying to decide what my next step should be in my quest to become someone who does international development work for a living. But as I ponder what I hope to become, I can’t help but think about who I want to become. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one. The what is about profession and the who is about character.

My time in Ireland as a Mitchell Scholar has introduced me to a number of people that give me insight and inspiration into what and who I want to be. I’ve encountered them at Mitchell events, in my program here at NUI Galway, and in my daily life in and around this beautiful country.

Let’s start with someone pretty easy, and fairly obvious: George Mitchell. Although I haven’t met him, this year has given me a lot of exposure to his life and work. The sheer number of roles that Senator Mitchell has taken on is inspiring – judge, Senator, peace broker, Chancellor of Queens University Belfast… the list goes on. Although I could probably write a dissertation-length essay about how Senator Mitchell inspires me professionally, I’ll just highlight one point here. After a life filled to the brim with public service, Senator Mitchell has certainly earned a relaxing retirement on the golf course in Arizona. Instead, he said yes when he was asked to take on arguably today’s most challenging issues: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His life-long commitment to service is something I will always strive to emulate in my own career.

Another person that I have taken career inspiration from is Naila Kabeer. Dr. Kabeer is one of the preeminent scholars on women’s employment and empowerment in the Global South. My department hosted her for a public lecture last week, and she also facilitated a private session with my classmates and me earlier in the day. Dr. Kabeer has spent her career trying to understand how women are able to make decisions in their lives, and her research directly impacts what development agencies do on the ground. Dr. Kabeer’s explicit link between academia and the lived experience of marginalized people is something I hope to be able to bring to my career as well, no matter what role I am in.

While Senator Mitchell and Dr. Kabeer have taught me a lot about what I want to be professionally, others I have met in Ireland have reminded me of how I want to live my life. Of course, it goes without saying that I am constantly learning from the other Mitchell Scholars and taking inspiration from them. I still cannot get over how energetic and ready to learn the group is – constantly open to new experiences and new ideas. And I could extol their virtues for another dissertation-length essay. I will spare you the mushy stuff, this time, but please know that the Mitchells are a well of perpetual inspiration for me.

My Irish friend Bill has been a model for me in terms of the kind of person I want to be, as he is one of the most hospitable people I have ever met. Hospitality may seem a minor thing – that is, until you are lost and alone in a new place and don’t know who to turn to for help. Michael met Bill right at the start of the year and introduced Jon and me to him several days after we arrived in Galway. From the start, Bill has been warm, welcoming, and helpful. Anytime we have had a stupid question about Irish life, we’ve known that Bill is the person to ask. He always gives great advice and doesn’t make you feel like a fool for asking about the tipping protocol at a café or where to find reasonably priced office supplies. Bill’s ability to take in total strangers and treat them as equals and friends is something I would like to practice in my own life. Although I think that Irish people generally do welcoming and hospitality quite well as a culture, I still think that Bill wins an award for the best!

If you’ve been reading the other Mitchell scholar’s entries already, I have a feeling you’ve stumbled across a character known to us fondly as Sir John. Sir John is a 94-year-old aristocrat from Monaghan and a man who has lived a very full life. Growing up in Castle Leslie, a glorious estate on the border of Northern Ireland and the Republic, Sir John led an exceptional life from the beginning. He went on to fight in World War II and was held as a prisoner of war. Sir John later traveled the globe, and settled for 40 years in Rome, rehabilitating old buildings to their former splendor. When he returned to Ireland 15 years ago, Sir John decided to focus his energy on something new: dancing. Not just old time Irish step dancing, but clubbing. Weekly, Sir John gets dressed in his Saturday best and hits up his two favorite Monaghan spots, the Squealing Pig pub and the Forum club. We were invited for a night out with Sir John during our midyear retreat at Castle Leslie and danced alongside him while he jumped enthusiastically to Lady Gaga. It really was a sight to behold. After meeting Sir John, I have taken a new approach to thinking about aging. Now, I don’t want to age gracefully, but I want to age the way that he has: with reckless abandon and complete joy.

These examples represent just a handful of those I’ve taken inspiration from this year. I know that I will always look back to my year as a Mitchell Scholar as hugely formative – not just professionally, but personally as well.

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