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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!

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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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Betty surrounded by baskets and artisans

Betty surrounded by baskets and artisans

Whenever I see Betty, usually seated outside Uganda Crafts with a line of visitors waiting to be seen by her, she greets me like this, “Banange, Nabukalu! Nsanuse okukulaba!” Which basically translates into “My goodness, Lauren! I’m so happy to see you!” I am the happy recipient of this warm greeting whether it has been a month since I’ve seen her, or just a few days.

Betty Kinene is a indeed a very warm and special person to me and to hundreds of other people.

Betty was born in the 1950s and contracted polio at the age of 3. As one of 35 children from her father (yes, THIRTY-FIVE), Betty struggled to pay for her schooling, but managed to get by, and was one of the top students in the country.

After schooling, she made a living as a shopkeeper in Kampala. She lost her husband during the Amin regime, but managed to continue working and caring for her children on her own.

In 1983, the president of Uganda, Milton Obote, allowed Indians who had been expelled from the country under Amin to return to the shops they had lost. Betty turned up to her shop one day, and found it locked and all of her merchandise seized. It had been an Indian shop before and was being reclaimed now. Shocked by her loss of employment and merchandise, Betty sat down on the steps to cry. A woman named Marilyn Dodge, who had been a faithful customer of the shop, happened by, and saw Betty crying. Marilyn, who was an American working with UNICEF, had an idea for Betty: start a new shop which employs disabled people through crafts. Betty and Marilyn began planning, and Uganda Crafts was born.

Uganda Crafts began as a small non-profit shop, which sold a variety of handicrafts to tourists in Kampala. Dozens of men and women, some disabled, some widowed, and some simply poor, began to sell their work to Uganda Crafts for money. The non-profit grew and grew, and in the 1990s, Uganda Crafts began selling baskets to Ten Thousand Villages, a fair trade shop in the United States and Canada. It was then that Betty learned about the concept of fair trade and started incorporating it directly into her work with Uganda Crafts.

Today, Betty continues leading Uganda Crafts as the managing director. Uganda Crafts became a for-profit business in 2000, in an attempt to “stand on our own” as Betty puts it, and become self-reliant, not depending on donations or charity. It turns out that Betty was ahead of the curve as some of the current trends in the development world include social entrepreneurism and a backlash against dependence on aid. Uganda Crafts now exports crafts to numerous fair trade retailers in the US, Japan, Sweden, Austria, Canada, and beyond.

In addition to running Uganda Crafts, Betty is a counselor in her home district of Mpigi. She helps settle disputes between community members and even within families. She’s involved with many different organizations which work with people with disabilities. She also started Papula Paper in 2006, a community based organization which I’ve written about recently. Always an entrepreneur, she recently opened a hostel near her home for students attending a new art university.

In person, Betty is warm and funny. She loves teaching me about Buganda culture, and was quick to adopt me into the family by naming me Nabukalu (meaning either clever woman or difficult woman, depending on who you talk to). This name signifies that I am a member of a particular clan, the clan of Betty’s husband, making me a sister to her children.

Betty is one of the people I will miss the most when I am gone. She’s an inspiration to me and to so many women and people with disabilities working in Kampala today. I’m proud to call her a friend.

Betty, the founder of Uganda Crafts, and me

Betty, the founder of Uganda Crafts, and me

I have been thinking a lot lately of the incredible people I have met here, people I will be saying goodbye to very soon.  Many of these people have fascinating stories and have done downright heroic things in their lives.  I want this blog to be a place where I can celebrate these people who are both heroes and friends to me.  In that spirit, both Jon and I hope to write short bios and stories of these inspirational people.  We hope this little series can continue, as we continue on from Uganda, and meet interesting people in the US and Ireland (and beyond) that are also working to make the world a little better.

Enjoy!

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Welcome to our blog! Follow along with us as we travel and experience life as a couple of 20-somethings - with all its ups and downs. We hope to post photos, short videos, stories about our daily life and not-so-daily adventures, and thoughts on what’s going on in the world.

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