Tuesday, 4 October 2016

White People, White People, Always Know Best...

Well, the first week back in Uganda was jam-packed. After catching up with a few former co-workers I made my way to Ggaba*. My purpose for this visit was purely work-related – I was attending a conference throughout the week, called the East and Southern Africa Regional Knowledge Sharing Meeting: Changing Landscapes of Food Security. I was pretty excited to be in attendance, although I really had no idea who else would be attending. But, being as knowledge sharing and food security are two of my overall interests in the realm of all things food and water crisis, I figured it would be a great learning opportunity, and an even better shot at networking and getting a little feedback on my latest venture!

It turns out I was one of few participants that did not have some sort of affiliation with development agencies based in the United States. As a result of this, I immediately felt out of place, as many of the morning keynotes and a few of the breakout sessions focused on their specific programs… programs of which I knew nothing about. So, there was a very quick learning curve, and unfortunately I didn’t get to participate as much as I had hoped (asking questions, posing alternative views, etc.). But, I wasn’t in attendance as an expert (for I am not an expert of any kind, unless we count bad puns and Dad jokes!).

Keynote Address as given by Joyce Luma from the World Food Program.
Joyce is currently stationed in South Sudan.
First morning energizer - Selfie/Twitter blitz.
Note: I can barely handle the first, and have yet to understand the second...
But all was not lost. I met some really great people and was able to sit in on a few interesting sessions. These sessions included Strengthening Smallholder Farmer Resilience to a Changing Climate (kind of my thing), Building and Sustaining Effective Field-based Networks, Creating Lasting Change: Building Sustainability into Food Assistance Projects, and my personal favourite, Engaging Youth in Agriculture. There were plenty of other sessions as well, including areas such as monitoring and evaluation, commodity management, and various other nutrition-related topics to name a few.

Patrick Kiirya of Busiano Fruits and Trees speaking at the
Strengthening Smallholder Farmer Resilience to a Changing Climate session
Overall, I was really excited to be a part of this conference. The networking opportunities were great, and I got quite a bit out of a few of the sessions. But there were two really noticeable disappointments.

1. The entire conference was run by white North Americans, many of who were of the middle aged and male variety. I’m not saying that all middle aged white males from my home continent are bad, but there was an awful lot of self-congratulatory pats on backs going on for actions that weren’t necessarily deserving of such. The White Saviour Complex as we call it is nothing short of exhausting for this Orange Canadian. Yes, we are all entitled to share our accomplishments – especially in these types of settings, where learning what has worked and what hasn’t is the main purpose of the gathering. Yes, I believe people in any type of social-based organizations are generally there with a best of intentions attitude. But I have not come to Africa to save it. In fact, I’m almost certain there will be very little of that taking place by my own two hands. I’m equally certain that I will benefit far more greatly from my experiences abroad than any of the individuals I have or will work with. As I said, I’m not an expert in the field I am entering – I just really want a job that allows me to be in this part of the world, and I also happen to enjoy the workloads said job would entail!

2. The majority of the sessions I attended focused more on individual projects, rather than attempting to breach the highlighted subject. What I mean by this, is that in the hour and a half session, the majority of that time (in most cases) were spent talking about the presenter’s organization, rather than, say effective commodity management or building those field-based networks. This was highly disappointing for me, as I selected my breakout sessions based on my level of knowledge and interest. This was especially true when I found conflicting sessions – ones I had limited knowledge in but knew I should learn at the same time as ones in which I’m more knowledgeable and interested, but may not get as much out of. I will say, that this is frequently a problem at these sorts of functions – too many choices, not enough time - and that, I would suggest is not a bad problem to have as an organizer. But, that’s also why I found it a bit frustrating when those times surfaced, and I ended up selecting a session where I left none-the-wiser.

But it wasn’t all bad, as I already mentioned. There were many great things that came of this experience (which I saved for last so as not to end on a negative note!). While meeting some really great contacts was one of the main gains from my attendance, there were actually two big highlights from the week.

1. Lunch time table topics. For anyone organizing an event or conference, I would highly recommend this – it was awesome! Basically each table was assigned a different topic. After you went through the (monstrous**!) buffet line, you were instructed to sit at a table with a topic of your interest. And for me, this is where the real conversations took place. As this exercise was only for 3 days, I sat at the Making Agrilinks Work for You: Discussing Knowledge Sharing Good Practices, Integrating Very Poor Producers into Markets, and Improving Management of Agriculture Demonstration Sites tables. It was in these 40-minute sessions that we enjoyed good food and even better conversations! It was great to be able to contribute to these discussions, not only because I actually had some level of knowledge, but also just having a bit of stimulating conversation was appreciated. The only issue with these sessions was that the tables were quite large, and with SO many people in attendance in the same room, it was often difficult to hear everyone at the table speaking. BUT at least people were participating!

Lunch time table topics - discussing methods for improving the livelihoods of the poorest farmers.
2. The last session on engaging youth – which was really interesting in its own right – included a young lady who is a young farmer herself. It was so refreshing and inspiring to hear her talk about how she went from struggling to afford school fees to building her business enough that she now supports her younger siblings to attend school! And she was truly awesome. I mean, I’ve worked with some pretty inspiring people during my entirety in this country, but she seemed to clue into things that the others hadn’t without the aid of an external support. For example, she was growing groundnuts*** and selling them as is, but then noticed at the market one day, that someone was selling them roasted and profiting more. So, she started roasting g-nuts and selling them. She also took it upon herself to by a grinder of sorts that is used to take crops such as millet, maize, and sorghum and turn it into flour…which she then sold. This girl was amazing! I had a great chat with her afterwards, and am really hoping I can connect with her again in the future, as I truly believe she is the future of Ugandan agriculture!
That lady in the yellow (sorry close ups didn't quite work!) is
Akello Faith - a youth farmer from Northern Uganda!
So, while I may have preferred less white saviour and more African voice, it was a productive week nonetheless. I made sure to connect with those African voices, so that as this current venture begins to develop further, I can include a wider and more localized view in order to strengthen what I’m hoping to accomplish here!

-the Orange Canadian

*Which interestingly is where I visited on my first full day in the country when I arrived the first time – so it made for a perfect place to end up on my second first full day in the country! **Seriously – I didn’t have supper one night that I was there, as there was SO much food served to us throughout the day! ***A smaller peanut, also lovingly referred to as g-nuts!

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