What Can I Tell You About Uganda?

What do you know about Uganda? I asked myself while booking my flight to Entebbe. That was two months ago.

I have been working for the Swedish Organization for Global Health for almost 2 years now and involved in the evaluation of our project on maternal and newborn health in Uganda (Mama & Family Project) for more than year. I should know a lot.

But, knowing a place based on paper, other people’s experience, and Google is not really knowing a place. The only way to truly know about a country and its culture is to experience them for yourself.

As my plane took off, ideas and images swirled in my head, some based on pictures I had seen and some creations of my imagination. I was excited and open to the challenge of truly discovering the country and the work. I had a smile on my face when I landed. Ready to learn! I thought to myself.

Geographically, Uganda is located on the Central East part of the African continent. It is surrounded by many countries, Kenya, Tanzania, South Sudan, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo. Though not located on a coast, Uganda has a great source of water, Late Victoria – the biggest tropical lake on earth. However, this is information that you could easily find on Google. What can I tell you about Uganda that you cannot find out yourself on the internet?

I can tell you about ‘You’re Welcome!’ – the phrase I heard the most during my time in Iganga, a small city located around 3 hours east of Entebbe. ‘You’re welcome!’, not as a response to my ‘thank you’, but as ‘Hello, we are happy to have you here’. I immediately felt at home in a place I had never been before with people I had never met. This is what Uganda felt to me: welcoming.

Scientists, who didn’t know me at all, welcomed me at their amazing research facility of infectious diseases in Entebbe. The UDHA team welcomed me when I arrived at the office the next day. Fancy, a midwife of the Mama & Family Project, welcomed me at the Maina Clinic. The women in the villages I visited welcomed my excited soul and shy presence. 

SOGH Mama & Family Team. Photo Credit: SOGH

What else is Uganda (at least for me)? Uganda is red sand, everywhere. The sand gets into your shoes, into the tiny space between your glasses lenses and frame, even into your ears. But that color… That color just captured me. I was in love, I am in love with it. The warm feeling of the sun on the skin, a warm hug, that was, is, the red sand for me.

What would I miss the most about this place? You’re welcome, the red sand and for sure the people… Moses, Jarius, Sumaya, Fariba, John, Sulaiman, Tabisa, Rose, Zainabu, Olivia, Fancy, Sarah, Betty, the waitress at Smile and Dine, the nurse at the hospital, Joffrey, and many more. All the people I had met contributed to our work, not just by telling me about menstrual health in Uganda but also by giving me the opportunity to understand the culture and their country.

Menstrual health is a social issue because it doesn’t concern just health, but also education, infrastructures, culture and beliefs. Menstrual health is the kind of topic that needs cultural insight for true understanding.

What else is Iganga? Iganga is animals running around everywhere, chips from a street vendor, houses painted with coca cola commercials, music from a local band, water bottles, slow internet, car rides, ‘jumping’ roads, great driving skills, kids’ ‘hello, bye’, kids, kids and kids, walks, old men and checkers, becoming a ‘latrine pro’, slow pace, smiles and high dreams, collaboration, community and women, communities of women.

All bright and beautiful? No. Uganda is a low-middle income country. There is poverty, garbage piles, issues with sanitation, a high maternal and child mortality, malaria and other infectious diseases. However, many people already know about these issues. So, yes difficulties are there, but there is much more beyond those difficulties. Uganda is not the difficulties it faces, but the communities of people who rise up against them. Uganda is the community spirit of ‘going ahead, all together’.

Together we rise.

You’re welcome.

See you very soon, Uganda!

The Travel Agency Empowering Women in Southeast Asia

Sin Thi Huong is a rare gem in the bustling mountain town of Sapa, in Northern Vietnam. Ethnic minorities like the Giay and Red Dao live in Sapa, and many women are illiterate and live in poverty. Huong, however, is a 32-year-old Giay woman who has worked as a tour guide for the past six years.

I can take the opportunity of the work to show and to share about our culture to international guests,” Huong said. “All the guest they come from modern and developed countries; people like to find out [about] what they don’t have and see everyday.

Huong is not the kind of woman you see everyday in Sapa. She is unmarried with no children and she studied International Economics at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam. Speaking English opened the door for her career in tourism – a decision not supported by her family at first.

People here are less educated, so we think woman [can] only do selling and buying [and] follow tourists to sell handicraft,” Huong said. “Men can be tour guides, because they are more free; they do not have to take care of the children and clean like the women do.

In August, Huong began working for Guided MissDirection, an international travel company designed exclusively for women. Leading small-group tours in Southeast Asia, the company hires local female guides who have broken into the male-dominated tourist industry.

Co-founders Danielle Johnson and Sarah Deicke are recent college graduates from America who grew up together in Illinois. In November 2016, the 23-year-old entrepreneurs wanted to create a business where women could support other women and explore cultures in comfort.

Cofounders Danielle and Sarah backpacked for three months in Southeast Asia to create their tours. Photo by Danielle Johnson/Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

Being uncomfortable is a reason why women don’t want to travel,” Danielle said. “That first step, that first trip is very important. We hold your hand if you want us to; we take the fear away.

Guided MissDirection’s 11-day excursion from Southern to Northern Vietnam features a bamboo boat tour in Halong Bay, zipping through Hanoi on motorcycles, and haggling at street markets in Saigon. Meals and transportation within Vietnam are included, as well as cooking, zumba, and yoga classes with scenic views. Besides sightseeing, forming intercultural relationships is another guarantee when touring with Guided MissDirection.

Women attend a mountain hiking tour with Guided MissDirection. Photo by Danielle Johnson/Sapa, Vietnam.

We look for [guides] who are willing to share personal information about themselves and their lives in order to connect to the American women we bring,” Sarah said. “For example, Huong not only tells our women stories about what it was like growing up in the mountains as a minority, but she also brings us to her grandparent’s house for a meal.

Danielle became in awe of Vietnamese culture while studying History at Rollins College. She wrote her thesis on females who served in the Vietnam Conflict. In May 2016, Danielle attended a field study to the country, where she met local woman like Huong – women she later hired for Guided MissDirection.

Sarah and Danielle also spent three months backpacking in Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Thailand to create their tours and find local female guides. The trip motivated them to make traveling easier for other women.

It is hard traveling as a solo female,” Danielle explained. “The biggest frustration is having to always be on your guard. We wanted to give women the opportunity to go to places they thought that they couldn’t or wouldn’t be able to go.

Currently, Danielle and Sarah are finalizing a new 11-day tour to Sri Lanka that will launch in March 2018. So far, the trip includes surfing lessons in Weligama, seeing elephants on a safari in Udawalawe, and volunteering in Galle.

Guided MissDirection led their first small group tour to Vietnam in August. Photo by Maelynn Johnson/Sapa, Vietnam.

Guided MissDirection has upcoming tours to Vietnam this October, November, and New Year’s Eve. In the future, the travel agency plans to expand their tours to Thailand and Samoa.

When Security is Sexist

I was surprised, and yet not surprised, to be flagged as a high-security risk on my latest trip to the United States from the Middle East. I’ve received the infamous red “SSSS” stamp on my boarding pass before, the four letters that stand for “secondary security screening selection,” and I’ve gone through finger prints and pictures and pat-downs before getting on a plane. Resigned to the scrutiny, I usually don’t give it much thought.

But this time the secondary screening was more invasive, more intrusive, more dehumanizing. Was it that the Trump administration heightened precautions and narrowed definitions of rights? Was it that someone, somewhere disapproves of the patchwork of stamps from conflict-ridden places in my passport? Was it that I was traveling alone and therefore I, with my long hair pulled up in a bun and dangling earrings, seemed like an easy way to reach a quota of people screened?

Whatever it was, I was pulled aside for my bag to be searched by a man who insisted on calling me “girl.” Out of all of the suspicious items – including a laptop and two cell phones that would have provided a mountain of information were I actually a threat – this man focused on my toiletry bag. After smearing my lipstick on the table and blowing onto my powder, he smirked as he unwrapped each of my menstrual pads, ran his hands over them and then held them up for his male colleagues.

Let that simmer. He unwrapped and touched each and every pad and held them up for his male colleagues.

This was supposed to embarrass me. I didn’t flinch because working with adolescent girls means I talk about menstruation as comfortably as most people order lunch. So instead I stood there, responding to his smirk with a cold glare, as he played a sex-intimidation game that had no place in an airport, no place during entry to the United States, no place anywhere. After having spread bacteria over something that was once sanitary, he ordered the more invasive “body search.” The woman who ran her hands up my bra was apologetic, but the men who looked on were not.

This experience was an infuriating reminder that women’s bodies – and all bodies of people who have been othered – remain battlegrounds, sites of search and seizure, sites of exploitation and sites of terrorism. If we differ from the socially constructed norm, we reflect something that must be checked, controlled and owned. For women and girls, our bodies have been made sites of customized-by-culture abuse and exploitation.

In the United States, intimate partner violence makes the most dangerous place for a woman her own home. In Jordan, victims of rape are imprisoned if not killed by family in the name of so-called “honor.” In China, there are more men and boys than women and girls due to sex-selective abortion that eliminates girls before they are born. And in airports, check-points and other spaces in-between, women can be touched and groped and fondled under the guise of security.

This airport encounter is more than crude behavior; this is one of many transgressions so intertwined with daily life that it is difficult to tease it out as a transgression. It doesn’t seem horrifying in that this kind of thing happens all of the time. And as I tackle the big and bold issues impacting marginalized girls, I fall into the pattern of accepting the transgressions in my own life as both inevitable and relatively harmless.

But they are not inevitable. And they are not harmless. These small acts violate human dignity and reflect a larger, systemic sexism and misogyny that is directly connected to those big and bold issues.

I always seem to have a solution in my work. I can talk about solutions to end child marriage and strategies to curtail trafficking for hours, but I can be speechless when it comes to everyday sexism and misogyny. We’ve named the big issues, we’ve shed light on them and we’ve developed (somewhat of) a consensus that issues like child marriage and trafficking must be addressed. But it is somehow still OK to catcall, harass, coercive and intimidate girls and women, especially when done by those in power, because these issues are more nebulous and are made out to be benign.

The conclusion I can draw is that silence normalizes; words disrupt. And so we must speak loudly and boldly to disrupt the normalcy of sexual intimidation, coercion and abuse. These nebulous issues must be given a shape by our words. We cannot fight the threat that exists in the dark, but we certainly can fight the one we’re shining the light on.

India, Thank You for Re-energizing Me!

In front of me stands a woman in a blue saree. She is sharing her experiences as a female farmer in rural Tamil Nadu, India. We have gathered under a couple of trees to shield ourselves from the broiling sun and while we are talking, the cows standing in the yard are dipping their whole heads while drinking water from a bucket, trying to cool down in the summer heat.

As the woman in the blue saree tells me how old she was when she got married, I can only stare at her in disbelief. Of course I knew that child marriage exists in India, but this is the first time I’ve actually met a woman who got married when she was only thirteen years old. Although it has been prohibited in India since 2006, child marriage is still practiced regularly and India has the highest number of child brides in the world. According to Girls Not Brides, in 2016, 47% of all girls under 18 years old were already married. As I try to regain my composure and wrap my head around the fact that this woman was married when she was only thirteen, she just smiles and carries on talking.

The women I have met during my four months in India are some of the strongest women I have ever come across. Can you imagine being married at thirteen and having three children at the age of eighteen? For me, it is an unimaginable scenario – showing just how privileged I am to have the possibility to choose for myself what my (love)life will look like. However, for many women in India, choice is an impossibility. Furthermore, to speak about sex and reproductive health is still taboo and many girls do not know how their bodies actually work.

My time in India has made me realize, even more than before, how lucky I am to have grown up in a country where sex and reproductive health are relatively easy topics to bring up (even though improvements could still be made). It has also made me more convinced than ever before of how important the feminist struggle has been, and will continue to be for many years to come. It has reminded me that, as a feminist, I need to be responsive and listen in order to be able to choose my battles, without trying to impose my beliefs on others.

Intersectional feminism has taught me to be aware of my privilege, to listen and to understand that there are many different feminist struggles going on side by side. It has also taught me to realize when it is my place to speak and when it is not.

There are already a lot of initiatives in India working towards the abolition of child marriage (and other institutional inequalities), and sometimes the best thing to do is to show support and solidarity. As the world becomes ever more globalized and intertwined this will be important to remember as we go forward with the feminist movement. Because we must go forward!

Being in India has thought me a lot of things but most of all it has made me angrier than I ever was before. How can it be that I get to choose how to live my life when so many women and girls around the world can not choose how to live theirs? Of course, imperialism, colonialism, racism and capitalism can answer that question and explain why the world is so unfair. However, a theoretical answer is not enough. Action is needed. And it is needed now.

So, India, you mesmerizing, colorful, but oh-so-patriarchal country, thank you for all you taught me and all you made me realize about the world. But most of all, India, thank you for re-energizing me!

Go! Girl Guides

Being a woman is a form of art; we often must grapple with issues – biological, social, personal and professional – that men never have to worry about. Never is this more true than while traveling. When on the road myself, I often found myself hunched over computers in hostels, furtively googling specific information on what other women had thought about the safety of a certain place, what hygienic facilities were available, or commiserating with others in a pharmacy about the lack of tampax.

Kelly Lewis, Founder of Go! Girl Guides
Kelly Lewis, Founder of Go! Girl Guides

A travel aficionado herself, Kelly Lewis had similar experiences and realised that despite the number of travel series there were on the market, there were none written exclusively for women. And so, in 2011, Go! Girl Guides was born. Armed with gutsiness and a webpage, Lewis amassed a group of feisty travel writers to chronicle their experiences and explore the world from a distinctly female perspective.

The writers at Go! Girl Guides write about traveling as a woman with unflinching honesty. As well as reviews of where to go, what to see and where to eat, they offer the insider knowledge for women that is so often lacking in traditional guidebooks. This ranges from the small (how often to shave, how to tackle UTIs and yeast infections) to the more taboo (the gender politics of different regions, where it is legal to get abortions, what to do in the case of sexual assault, the biggest regrets women have from their adventures).

Go! Girl Guides’ mission is to empower women to travel by removing the stigma attached to solo female travel, offering sensible advice on what is feasible and what is not. The empowerment of girls and women depends as much as on our ability to encourage each other as it does individual action.

As an avid traveller myself, I have found the Go! Girl Guides community to be full of warmth, candour, wit and inspiration. Too often, as women, we are made to believe that the issues we struggle with – our bodies or our psychology – are embarrassing and to be silently dealt with. Isolation makes any experience harder, and what Go! Girl Guides does is offers a ready community to dispel this, often feeling like an older sister passing on hard-earned wisdom.

Today, Go! Girl Guides has published guidebooks on Argentina, Mexico and Thailand, with one on Costa Rica in development. You can find them online here or on Twitter @GoGirlGuides.