Friday, July 29, 2011

Angry, but in a Good Way

I am angry.* No, not just angry but an angry, Young, African-American, female. What do I mean? Well...

Sometimes, we have to believe at everything happens for a reason to be okay with disappointment and disbelief. That's exactly how I've felt about the physical logistics of getting to Malawi. The plan was to leave at some ungodly hour of Sunday morning, in order to get from New Haven to New York to catch a 6 am flight. But things started to fall apart on Wednesday, when social media (i.e., Facebook) alerted several individuals including myself of "civil unrest" in Malawi. Long story short, there were some organized protests against the current president in major cities including my new home –Lilongwe - but with police involvement, the events became fatal for 18 people. Although the commotion died down within a day, the Fellowship decided that as a precaution, U.S. citizens would stay behind a few more days. Without knowing exactly when we would be leaving, my colleague Emma and I lugged our bags to New York where we eventually made our way to a cozy Upper Eastside apartment and some NYC TLC!

Me and Emma...and all our luggage!

Happy to be on the train from New Haven to NYC.

I tried to get very creative in NY, since I only had (and still have) 2 hands.

Met up with Lindsay, one of my best friends from high school, while in NY! (note: we haven't aged a day since 2001...)

Enjoyed a musical number by three drummers on the train (for you GHC-ers, they were a little better than our Michael Jackson  attempts...)

So why am I angry? There's something about the way we are positioned within social constructs of this world that continually leave some of us feeling targeted. As articulated by Stefancic and Delgado (2001), Critical Race Theory – one framework through which we can understand race, racism, and power -  utilizes the concept of structural racism in explaining power relations in the U.S.  One such component of this is intersectionality, which recognizes that there are several power dynamics for different constructed groups, including by sex and gender, age, race and ethnicity.

So what does this mean in practice? It means that after spending 1 hour buying a brand new TSA-approved carry-on suitcase en route to Malawi, I was furious when I was told that I could not carry bring this suitcase and my backpack with me on the second leg of my journey because it didn't "meet the travel requirements." I would love to believe that I was overreacting, but I cannot tell you how many other travelers carried a similar-sized suitcase or carried 2 bags, including Emma, which was contrary to what the travel agent requested I do. I seemed to be the only one struggling to cram my medicines and “non-checkables” into a non-expanding backpack, as other passengers glanced over to watch me in my misery.

I may have been a little more emotional than the situation called for, but in the spirit of "leaning into vulnerability," something I was encouraged to practice over the last 2 weeks, I'm going to be very frank. It wasn't the paying another $60 check-in fee for the brand new luggage that I just purchased, and it wasn't the request of checking in my bag. What really angered me was the feeling of loneliness and the realization that I was targeted for one reason or another; it was just me. I was my usual smiley self and made an effort to be friendly to the attendant (perhaps that was my problem?), and I was the one called aside. I have made the lifelong commitment to fighting for social justice for the "less fortunate," but who's going to fight for me? Who will continue to lift me up when on my journey to helping others I'm the one in need of help? Why can’t I be called "ma’am" or "sir" like the other passengers sitting next to me? Who is there for me?

I'm still toying around with answers, and perhaps some of you reading this will have thoughts you'd be willing to share, but what I realize is that being angry can be good. Anger is a sign of passion and a physical manifestation of my commitment to and desire for justice. As Lateefa Simon (one of the orientation speakers) shared with me, it's what you do with that anger that can make difference and positively impact people's lives.

So what was my response to this initially catastrophe? Well, after the feelings of victimization became more manageable, I started downloading all sorts of books - classics, biographies, fiction, non-fiction - so that I can continue to expand my knowledge and understanding of the world we live in now and what I can do to make it better for others AND for myself. I've entered into Malawi with my mind in a very different place, and I think that this can be a very powerful place to be. I may never be President of the U.S., but I can assure you that I am fully committed to making the world - and Ethiopian Airways - better than it is today.

*As a side note, I have arrived safely here in Lilongwe, Malawi and was placed in lovely accommodation at Sunbird Capital, perhaps the finest hotel in the capital. I am enjoying my first day at the office, and hope to update you again soon once I'm situated.  

My beautiful hotel! (it looks quaint but it's actually quite grand)

Me on my bed!

Enjoying the yummy dinner buffet! (have yet to find unidentifiable food...)

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

2 Weeks of Training and 10 Bottles of Moet later...

Actor Jensen Ackles (of Days of our Lives, one of the greatest Soaps of all time) once said:

I used to be scared of uncertainty; now I get a high out of it.

I have yet to fully adopt this mantra; however, the past two weeks have been very unique, quashing my fears of meeting 70 new people and exciting me about the road ahead! Three suitcases,130 lbs (yes, that's slightly over the limit), and several hours after my last post, I arrived in New York City, eager and nervous to meet the first set of African fellows who would be riding in the same vehicle with me. What should have been a 20 minute pick-up became a 3.5 hour endeavor, but with that uncertainty brought a great opportunity to bond with some of the other fellows. 

Among the pack was Juliet, a Ugandan Rwandan who I quickly bonded with on the subjects of jewelry and life in general. From Uganda, there was the stylish Evelyn in a crisp white shirt and matching red belt and shoes. From Burundi, there were Desire (Dedo), Alexis and Arnaud (who were very sleepy due to an extra day spent at the airport), and Gerard, whom I spent most of the two hour bus ride conversing with. This was just the beginning of what became a unique 2 weeks.

The lovely Juliet and me (from left to right)!
Upon arrival, we arrived at the tall iron gates of Yale's Silliman College, and I was - I admit - a bit awestruck...Yale is beautiful! I’ll spare you the nitty-gritty details (maybe you can read it in a “tell all” book one of these days J ) but our evening of socializing was just the beginning of an eventful 2 weeks.

The incredible program staff.

Several buildings, including this library, resembled grand churches. Yale is beautiful!

Me, taking in the scenery

Inside the library (notice the church theme despite Yale's non-religious affiliation)

Said to be the largest secular stain-glass collection in the world

A typical day consisted of activities from 8 am – 6 pm or 10 pm, depending on if evening activities were optional. In addition to our yummy cafeteria meals, these would include:

  • 2-4 lectures delivered by field experts on topics ranging from leadership to activism to health in criminal justice to social entrepreneurship,

Lateefa Simons, Executive Director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, gave one of the best lectures of the entire training, discussing her experience in the fight for social justice in health and empowerment

    Professor Rob Kaplan of the Harvard Business School talked about leadership and shared the "meat" of his latest book!
    • 1 small group and/or process group session, where we delved into our feelings and experiences alongside 5 other fellows (may sound like “fru fru” but I believe that it will be instrumental to our personal growth over the next year),

    My small group consisting of myself, Morris (from Rwanda), Lena, Faith, JJ, Gerard, and Edison (from Uganda) (clockwise).

    The fruits of our last small group activity, where we created a visual depiction of our personal mission statements for the year

    Lovey ladies of pink! Barbara B. and I next to our beautiful drawings (ya, we're like "this" now).

    • 1 social activity including cocktail receptions, karaoke, bowling, a talent show, and dance parties (generally involving a delicious beverage).

    Gotta love a good ice breaker.

    Myself and Emma, who will also be in Malawi during our tour of Yale

    Bowling night! Temie, Hez, Barbara B., Claire P., and me (reppin' the Spartans)

    Myself, my fellowship partner Arthur (from Malawi), and Derrik (from Uganda)

    Hannah T., Dedo (oh Dedo...), and Isaac (from Uganda) dancing it up at Happy Hour #1

    Some of my fav fellows causing a ruckus at the Harry Potter showing! (Cori, Abby, Mansi, Jenn, and me)

    We also had some special activities in NYC including a 6-hour scavenger hunt (about that...) and a visit to financial giants Goldman Sachs, where we learned about a new non-profit initiative for women.

    Hezekiah (from Nigeria) and me on the bus to the scavenger hunt in NYC

    Agnes (from Malawi), Arnaud (from Burundi), myself, and Aaron creating our own Empire State Building

    The scavenger hunt team in Bryant Park

    Arnaud, Agnes, Melyn, Aaron, Hez, and I in the financial district 

    Me and Mansi (who will also be in Malawi) inside Goldman Sachs

    Agnes (from Uganda), Maimunat (from Nigeria), and me on the balcony of Goldman Sachs

    What a view!!

    Me and my new big sis, Temie on the balcony of the venue for our afternoon sessions
    The two weeks may have formally ended but knowing that I'm part of a community, a family, of passionate and fun individuals who want to improve the world is exciting! Although I haven't made it out of the country quite yet (that's a story for another post), watch out Malawi...Here I come! 

    A special dinner for the last night!

    "The last supper" (me, Caitlyn, Hannah, Edison, JJ, Arnaud, and Emma)

    Some of my girls (Mansi, me, Evelyn, Temie, and Emma) at the final candle ceremony

    Sunday, July 10, 2011

    13 Hours and Counting...

    It's been a while since I've blogged, so my fingers are a little rusty! That being said, welcome to my latest blog! For those of you who don't know me, my name is Yvette, aka: "la vedette" or "the diva." I am a recent public health school graduate, a citizen of the world who loves to travel, and while there are so many other things I could share, there will be ample opportunity to hear more juicy details about my life...
    This blog - "Diva in Malawi" - comes at a unique point in my twenty-something years of life. I've just ended one chapter as a recent Masters graduate, and I'm beginning a new one (entering the real world, if you will). 

    I'll be working with monitoring and evaluation (M&E) for a fantastic non-governmental organization that works to prevent the transmission of HIV from mothers to babies in nine African countries. My home-base will be in Malawi -  a southern African country of more than 15 million. I'm sure your mind is buzzing with tons of questions: "What's M&E and what will your job entail?" "Tell me more about mothers2mothers." "Ma-la-what?" And  truthfully, although I can answer some of those questions, I've been pondering some of the same things! What will my day-to-day responsibilities be? What will it be like to work for this NGO? What will life in Malawi be like? I guess we'll be on a path of discovery together!
    The question I've been asked most frequently, however, is, "Are you excited?!" Am I excited to be abroad in "Africa" for one whole year? In short, of course! Yes, I'm looking forward to an opportunity to exploring my passion for global health and sub-Saharan Africa, to experiencing a new country that my limited knowledge on comes from thesis research and from friends, to having a new set of adventures that I can put into a blog and into my memories of world travels. But when I really think about the transition that will be in full-force in the next 7 days, I realize that it's kind of scary. I have experienced Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal, Zimbabwe, Gambia, India, Martinique, France, and several other countries - and I've had experience traveling on my own - but I've never been to Malawi and with that comes the unfamiliarity of a new territory. 
    What makes me the most nervous is surprisingly not spending 12 months in a country I've never been to before. It's actually going to orientation in about 13 hours and meeting several other individuals who, like me, will be placed with different organizations in six countries. On the one hand, I can't wait to meet all of these young men and women (emphasis on the men ;P ) - Americans and Africans, alike - who have an interest in global health equity and saving the world, just like me! On the other hand, call me a little "high school-ish," but with meeting new people comes the fear and apprehension that maybe they won't like me, etc. etc. etc....And, of course, I'll miss all of my family and friends that I'm leaving behind (although anyone is welcome to visit, *hint hint*). 

    I guess what I need to do over the next few hours is put my "big girl" panties on, get excited about the amazing opportunity that is before me, and - oh yeah - get these suitcases under 100 lbs! Be sure to tune in every week (or as internet accessibility allows) for the latest on the adventures of a diva in Malawi!! 

    Yes, I am officially a Masters degree holder!
    My family that I will miss so much!!

    And friends....