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a southern yankee abroad

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July 2017

Why I’m a Self-Loathing Liberal

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Today, Donald Trump announced (over Twitter, of course) that transgender people would no longer be allowed to serve in the military. On cue, my Facebook feed filled up with justifiably shocked and outraged responses and reactions from my liberal friends.

To start, I will say Trump’s announcement is disgusting. But we have to remember Trump is just continuing to troll America, the country that unfortunately put him in office. He’s under serious investigation by an independent counsel, his healthcare plan continues to go down in flames despite the fact the GOP controls Congress, and he is under fire for typical brutish remarks to Boy Scouts (is this really shocking though?) So it’s typical that he would rally his base by making such an announcement out of left field—to try to distract by denigrating another minority and throwing them under the bus (kinda like he’s thrown Jeff Sessions under the bus lately).

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Donald Trump, Troller-In-Chief

But I’m tired of all the anger with no solutions. I’m tired of fellow liberals taking the bait and yelling over social media about how angry they are (to be fair, I’m guilty of this too!), and complaining about the outcome of the 2016 election, without strategizing about how we’re actually going to move forward from here.

I am not claiming to have all the answers. But what I do know is that being a “liberal” is not something I’m proud of these days, and the tone of the discourse isn’t going to build any bridges or promote unity in a way we so desperately need.

I’ve found that many of my fellow liberals attack anyone or anything that doesn’t perfectly align with their worldview. It’s true, conservatives are very much guilty of the same (I have a Trump-supporting family member who stopped speaking to me around the time I vocally supported and campaigned for Hillary and views me as “immoral” for my support, so I know better than anyone how closed-minded conservatives can be). But liberals, progressives, left-leaning people, Democrats, or whatever you want to label them (I mean, us?) need to do so much better.

A few recent examples:

Unqualified Vilification 

I posted on Facebook recently about Jeff Sessions. I worked for him in the summer of 2009 in D.C. When I suggested people can change for the better over time (referring to comments he made several decades before), a liberal friend was quick to post “Was his heart in the right place before or after the 1980s?” Everyone is quick to vilify Sessions as a racist without looking at the entirety of his record, and this frustrates me. Granted, I voiced my concerns about his nomination back in January and never thought he was the right person for the job, and I got a lot of pushback for this from moderate and conservatives alike. But this blanket vilification of people “on the other side” will never move the needle, and will only serve to further alienate people instead of getting back to a place of civil discourse. (To be fair, this friend and I had a very productive discussion following the post–we shared a lot of the same concerns about Sessions then and we continue to do so now. And Sessions’ comments way-back-when were and are fair game for legitimate criticism.)

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Disclaimer: I changed my mind about Sessions’ “changed heart” the day this happened

 

Privilege

Also, there’s a huge Facebook group called Girls LOVE Travel (GLT). Obviously, since I am a girl who loves travel, I’ve been a member of the group for quite some time, and it was very helpful and encouraging to me as I was planning my solo backpacking trip around the world last year. I love seeing posts where girls are asking for travel advice, and the amazing stories of girls traveling solo and discovering so much about the world on their adventures.

But this week in particular, there have been a lot of posts about “how to spot the American abroad” and “the fragility of the Western traveler,” among other riveting topics. I get some posts along the lines of the first example may all be made in good fun, and it’s important to talk about how to be a respectful and mindful traveler, but I began noticing so many of the comments were devolving into arguments about “privilege” in a tone that didn’t show respect for others posting.

So today, I posted that I was disappointed in how negative the page was becoming, and that I thought it was supposed to be about travel, not politics. Of course, I was called out for my “privilege” and for not being knowledgeable about the world and the circumstances of others. These people who were calling me out have never met me. I’ve traveled a lot and I understand that I’ll never be able to fully understand or appreciate some of the situations of others, but I don’t need a stranger yelling at me about it on Facebook. This girl loves travel, but she doesn’t love virtue signaling.

I left the group because I really don’t need the negativity. As much as social media can add to our lives (I love seeing pictures of friends on vacations, friends’ babies, reading funny posts and memes etc! And I also think social media is an important means of social activism) it can be extremely dehumanizing, as I think people forget they are talking to someone’s daughter, friend, sister, aunt, mother, or wife when they yell at them over social media about their “privilege.”

I do think we all need to be aware of the various ways we are privileged, and that we all need to work to make society more equitable for all. I’ve talked about privilege until I’m blue in the face, on Facebook with Trump-supporting friends and in person with a variety of people. I protested after Trump’s election. I blogged about travel privilege here, about how colonialism is still an issue here, and about my views on Trump’s America here and here. But I think the term “privilege” is losing its muster–the more angry liberal people yell it at other people without trying to first put themselves in that person’s shoes, the less anyone will listen and the less the term means.

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In my view, this is a good way to call out privilege

Don’t get me wrong…there are so many who are getting the messaging right, particularly guys like Trae Crowder and crew, and I still think the editorial section of the New York Times is on point these days.

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But as a self-identified liberal (probably more moderate these days), I am calling out my people for being a self-righteous bunch. We all need to have a bit more empathy for each other.

 

 

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The Africa I Know

 

 

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Bustling streets of Kampala

There’s a narrative about Africa told by the West that continues to leave out important details, at best, or misrepresent the continent and its people, at worst. Westerners seem to relish, to some extent, the pull at the heartstrings that comes when footage streams across the television of starving orphans wandering barefoot along the dirt roads of some remote village here. I say “relish” because seeing these images and then sending money, clothing, missionaries, or whatever makes many Westerners “feel good” because they are “doing something” to “help” those in need.

 

The Africa I know is strong enough to help itself.

 

There are orphans here. There are orphans in the United States. Many people here do have AIDS, but infection rates are on the decline. Did you see this in the news recently? Didn’t think so.

 

The narrative of Africa as helpless needs to stop. Businesses here can grow on their own, but not as long as foreign aid is given in such a way that depresses local economies, and not as long as African businesses are effectively locked out of the global economy. (For example, Amazon and Paypal may say they operate here, but from conversations I’ve had they don’t really, which prevents local entrepreneurs from expanding operations. Sadly, the people I spoke with believe this is all because people think they are being scammed if they make online payments to “someone in Africa” so these companies see no need to invest in infrastructure here.) Local economies here can’t grow as long as the Western world keeps telling itself Africa “needs” us more than we “need” them.

 

My first night in Kampala, my roommate and I ordered pizza from Jumia, an online food delivery service that functions just like Seamless, GrubHub, or Delivery.com. I have to admit I was surprised to “find this in Africa,” but really it was just the beginning of me checking my own ignorance at the door.

 

Most Ugandans I have met have a cell phone (and no, I haven’t been in Kampala the whole summer…I’ve travelled to some remote villages and small towns too!) There is also pretty good cell service throughout most of the country. But you don’t see this on TV back in the USA.

 

I’ve spent many afternoons at Kabira Country Club and Acacia Mall here in Kampala—my favorite places to relax. They are frequented by both “muzungu” families and black families. But you don’t see this on TV back in the USA. I admit these places are evidence of wealth disparity, but America has these problems too, and it doesn’t help to pretend that these places don’t or can’t exist in a place like Uganda. The question should be about upward mobility instead of denying, or not caring enough to find out, that there is development like this already here.

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Photo taken at Acacia Mall! 

It’s true corruption is a huge problem. One reason there are so many potholes in so many of the roads here (at least the ones that are paved) is that a lot of civil servants “pay themselves” from the allocated funds. But Westerners need to stop paying lip service to being concerned about corruption. There may not be much “we” can do about this, but I’d suggest at a minimum to start paying attention to news reports when another dictator “wins” an election, or when a ruler “refuses” to step down after losing a monitored, democratic election. We have to first start caring by paying attention. Who knows what may happen when the world opens its eyes and starts speaking up about the things that matter? From many conversations I’ve had, it’s not that Africa doesn’t want the world to send aid or intervene in some way; rather, it’s that they prefer to be empowered to help themselves.

 

 

And it’s true there is a lot of poverty here, but there is also a lot of innovation. There’s an education problem (there is in the USA too) but Ugandans are educated. In fact, most Ugandans I’ve met speak and write with better English than a lot of people I know in the USA. And they are all multi-lingual—a skill severely lacking in the USA.

 

And it’s true that many women here have several children. French President Emmanuel Macron recently put Western arrogance on display by proclaiming African women need to have fewer children. It’s true family planning resources are harder to come by here than in the West, but we (at least we Americans) are lying to ourselves if we think we have it all figured out. In fact, I’ve been told many times by Ugandan women here that children are viewed as a blessing from God. So maybe it’s a cultural choice. Who are we to judge? The cultural superiority needs to stop.

 

There are 54 nations on this continent, and I’ve only spent time in Uganda this summer (I’ve visited Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Egypt before, though), so my experiences here are informing my broader opinions about how the West approaches the continent. But we do need to check ourselves each time we are about to buy into this narrative that Africa is the “dark continent,” dying from AIDS and starvation. While there are areas where humanitarian crises dominate (like South Sudan), we need to stop pitying the continent. The last thing Africa, or Uganda for that matter, needs in a savior from the West.

 

I’m not saying aid should stop, or that people should stop taking service trips here for humanitarian or religious reasons. But we should stop and think about our motives and be realistic about how, and if, “our work” from the West is really helping countries like Uganda grow and develop organically on its own. And I think we should start by actually paying just as much, if not more, attention to what’s going on politically in Africa in the news as we do to those heart-rending videos of starving children in orphanages. If Africa is allowed to grow and develop on its own, more families here will be able to provide for their kids.

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An example of what I consider a “good” type of aid that involves sustainable employment solutions

The narrative needs to change. I ask everyone who has been reading my blog or following my Instagram and Facebook posts over the summer to ask me more about my time here. It’s not all destitution! The narrative of the West needs to portray Africa as a peer, not as a charity project, and it starts with how we all discuss this amazing continent together.

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Am I in NYC or Uganda?! Celebrating my birthday at Cafeserrie

Peace, Love, and Adventure

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Sunset over the Kazinga Channel, Western Rift Valley, Uganda

This past weekend, I went on my ideal mini-vacation—a 3-day excursion to Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP) in the Western Rift Valley of Uganda along the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). I booked the trip a few weeks ago, as I knew my time here was winding down and a safari was at the top of my list of things to do this summer! I was able to see the Big 5 on safari in Zimbabwe and South Africa in 2015, but I had yet to see a male lion in person. This topped my list of “things to do,” and I got so much more out of this trip than I anticipated.

 

Day 0:

I booked the safari through the Red Chilli Hideaway Hostel (which is actually more like a hotel), located on the south side of Kampala bordering Lake Victoria. As the safari was leaving at 6:30 am the following morning, they offered me a free room for Friday night! Because our internet died in the office, Diana was gracious enough to let me leave a few hours early so I could enjoy the pool at Red Chilli and get some sun. They also served delicious pizza by the pool, which I enjoyed, of course.

 

Day 1:

The next morning started before dawn at 6:30 am as we set off southeast from Kampala on the Masaka highway toward the DRC. I slept all the way to the Equator (about 2 hours). We stopped here to take pictures, as the rest of our tour group (4 Belgian girls and a German dad and daughter) had never been to the Equator! As this was my 5th time crossing the Equator (!) I took the chance to grab coffee instead. We then continued on, passing through Masaka (where I had visited with my office for the UN OHCHR conference a few weeks before), the turn off for Lake Mburo (good memories from last month here!), Mbarara (the second largest city in Uganda), and finally to QENP.

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The town center of Mbarara

 

 

The drive was sooooo long…9 hours to be exact. The road past Mbarara was full of potholes, so the driving went even slower here.

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Typical potholes past Mbarara

Fortunately, I was able to sit in the front for the entire trip with our driver/guide Noor, so I was able to take in all of the views from my open window on the passenger side.

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Fruit stand along the way
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Famous Ankole cattle of western Uganda

We passed the most gorgeous tea plantations that covered the hills and plains of the Western Rift Valley like a blanket of green in the Bushenyi District. We were actually able to walk through one on the third day when passing back through, but here are some pictures of what these fields look like.

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Tea production is becoming a huge part of the Ugandan economy. Indians introduced tea to Uganda in the 19th century, yet production almost stopped in the 1970s as war devastated the country and the ruthless dictator Idi Amin expelled all Asians from the country, confiscating much of their property in the process. Tea production picked back up when stability returned in the 1980s. While many of the larger estates are currently owned by foreign Indian companies, there is a big effort to ensure local ownership and to support Ugandan producers, particularly small farmers. It is estimated Uganda is currently producing tea at a rate of 10% of its potential capacity, so there is a lot of room for expansion. Sadly, global climate change may halt Uganda’s ability to produce tea as soon as 2050 if it continues at the current pace.

 

Before arriving at our accommodations at the Queen Elizabeth Bush Lodge, we stopped by the salt mining lake at the village of Katwe.

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Salt mine at Katwe

The salt lake was formed by a volcanic eruption about 10,000 years ago, and the mining activity employs hundreds of local workers. Each day, the workers “break” the salt crystals that have formed at the top of each pool, and eventually they collect the crystals from the bottom of the lake. They then wash them and grind them into smaller crystals for consumption. Katwe exports about 70% of the salt produced to other countries in East Africa.

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Selling salt at Katwe

 

 

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Crystals forming at the top of the pool
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Salt workers working in the lake. They only work 2 days a week because the work is so strenuous. Also, this is the second time I’ve seen a Ugandan wearing a confederate flag. My first thought was confusion, but my second thought was that American rednecks need to stop donating clothing that somehow makes it way over here. I’m sure this guy has no clue what this symbol means…it’s sad.

After Katwe, we continued on to the bush lodge. For the first night, I had booked a standard tent, being the budget-minded traveling law student that I am. For the second night, they did not have any available tents, so I was “forced” to upgrade to a banda…but I wasn’t complaining!

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My tent for night #1!

We had a 4-course dinner under the stars at the dining area of the camp overlooking the Kazinga Channel, which connects Lake George to Lake Edward. I heard hippos and warthogs outside my tent as I fell asleep that first night…I was so exhausted I didn’t wake up once!

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4-course dining at Queen Elizabeth Bush Lodge, overlooking the Kazinga Channel

 

Day 2:

I woke up at 5:30am, had breakfast at the dining area at 6am, and was on the truck with Noor for our game drive by 6:30am. The sunrise over the savannah was so beautiful as we made our way toward the areas where our guide knew we could spot the Big 5 (except rhinos, which sadly aren’t in this park).

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Cheesy, but I feel like sunrises and sunsets are everyday miracles, and I will never get tired of them!

I spotted everything I wanted to see…

Elephants…

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An elephant walking across the savannah…I wish I could post video on WordPress…it was an amazing sight to watch!

Buffalo…

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This bush buck…they are known to be loners and only are spotted with other bush buck when mating…

 

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Uganda kob..

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This gorgeous leopard…it was amazing to see her so close…

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…and my male lion. But…I will never look at lions the same way now. Our lion had just finished hunting this buffalo, and was panting heavily with his eyes halfway closed. However, the way he chose to start eating his buffalo left a LOT of questions in all of our minds as we looked down at him from the safari truck. WHY did he eat the buffalo THAT WAY? It was truly so gross. (Warning: if you’re about to eat anything, you may want to skip this picture). I have to say…this ruined The Lion King a little bit for me.

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Sick to my stomach every time I look at this picture… ewww!

After our game drive, we continued our journey with a 2 hour drive around the famous crater lakes. These lakes, like Lake Katwe, were formed by volcanic activity several thousand years ago. We didn’t see any game here, but the views were breathtaking still.

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The lakes reminded me so much of what I saw in Bolivia last summer, which makes me wonder if the volcanic activity occurred when South America and Africa were still joined as one continent.

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As we drove around the lakes deep in the bush, our truck was swarmed by infamous tsetse flies! These are known for carrying the dreaded African Sleeping Sickness, but according to Noor this disease no longer exists. (“If it did, I’d be dead by now because I’ve been bitten so many times,” he said.) I was bitten twice (it felt like a small bee sting), so hopefully he’s right!

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Tsetse fly

After the crater lakes drive, we had all gotten our appetite back a bit post-lion encounter, so we stopped for lunch at the restaurant in the park. I ate my vegetables and rice while looking out over the buffaloes and elephants drinking their water in the Kazinga Channel.

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Lunch view…watching the elephants and buffalo drink from the Kazinga Channel

In the later afternoon, we took a 2 hour boat cruise along the Kazinga Channel and into the mouth of Lake Edward, which runs along the DRC border. Our boat spotted a crocodile, elephants, buffalo, impala, water buck, and what was probably close to 100 hippos (not exaggerating!) Our boat even hit a hippo, which I was not happy about. 😦 He seemed to be ok though.

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Crocodiles and impala…coexisting, for now

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My favorite part of the boat cruise was when we sailed into the mouth of Lake Edward and saw about 30 of the local village men leaving in their canoes for a night of fishing.

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Because they live on national park land, these men must earn their livelihood solely from fishing and cannot farm the land. They fish at night and then barter their fish for food in the market during the day to feed their families. Each boat contained two fishermen, and they rowed out into the lake past swarms of hippos. They are so dedicated and brave, and I felt almost embarrassed watching them from my comfortable tourist position on the boat. Our guide informed us that 30% of the park fees we paid go to support schools and infrastructure in their village. Yet to see their dedication, work ethic, and bravery in person was truly humbling and inspiring.

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Sailing into Lake Edward at night fall to provide for their families

 

After the boat ride, we made our way back to the bush camp, where I moved into my banda for the night!

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I was in the Warthog banda…I ❤ pumbas!

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My personal outdoor shower! For hot water, they manually fill the bucket with heated water

 

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Sunset over Kazinga Channel from my front porch

Hippo, warthogs, hyenas, and even elephants and lions are regularly spotted in and around the camp. For this reason, I had to have a personal escort between the dining area and my banda after dark, as the bandas are further removed from the center of the camp than the tent area.

After dinner, I sat on my porch in complete darkness and silence, looking at the thousands of stars in the sky and listening to all the animals enjoying their nightlife around the Kazinga Channel just below. I felt safe, as an armed guard with a flashlight was stationed next to my banda for the night, and could assist me if I needed to leave for any reason (but again, I couldn’t help but feel humbled at the dedication and bravery of his profession, and I was so grateful for him!) I heard elephants and lions twice respectively, and listened to the constant sounds of the birds, warthogs, hippos, and insects as I slept like a baby for the second night in a row. (Or as Noor says, “I slept like a baby, without the crying!”)

 

Day 3:

The next morning began just as the previous one had—5:30am wake up, 6am breakfast, and 6:30am departure. This time, we loaded the truck and headed back toward Kampala, stopping at the Kalinzu rainforest along the way for a morning of chimpanzee trekking. We hiked through the dense forest for about half an hour before locating the chimpanzees stationed in the tall trees above. The forest was so thick and beautiful, and it reminded me so much of the beautiful time I spent hiking alone in Monteverde, Costa Rica back in January.

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Following my guide Robert through the rainforest

Once we located the chimps, we stopped and watched for about an hour. I camped out on the rainforest floor and just took it all in. While it was fun to watch the chimps, to me it was even more fun to listen to them talk to each other. Sadly, it was hard to get any good pictures of them, but I will post some videos of the sights (and especially the sounds!) to my Instagram soon!

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I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine
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Me, watching chimps in the rainforest…no make up, wild hair, pure happiness
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Wild figs in Kalinzu forest

After spending a few hours in the rainforest, we briefly visited the Ankole Tea Estate before hopping back on our safari truck and making the long journey back to Kampala. We stopped in Mbarara and Masaka again, as well as at a local roadside produce stand where I bought fresh mangoes for 1000 UGX (about 30 cents USD).

 

Once I finally made it home, I was so tired, so dirty, but oh so satisfied from the beauty and magic of the Western Rift Valley. While I was fortunate to take in all of this beauty on holiday, I am moved to recognize the economic challenges that so many local people there face. I am so grateful for their hospitality—the number of times children and adults alike waved at our safari truck is innumerable. I was especially humbled to stay in such a luxurious place knowing that the villages around me had none of this. I’ve been having a lot of thoughts lately about economic opportunity and disparity in Africa, which I’ll write about soon. But I’m forever changed in a positive way by how the people welcomed me and our group into their home for a few very special days.

ELEPHANTS

 

 

Why I Love America

 

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I read a quote recently that pretty much sums it up for me:

 

“There are three kinds of patriots, two bad, one good. The bad ones are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country.” – William Sloane Coffin, Jr. (American clergyman and peace activist)

 

After living in Uganda for just over 6 weeks, I’ve never loved my country as much as I do now. And I’ve also never felt more critical of my country in my life as I have over the past 12 months, for apparent reasons. But the beauty of America is that it encourages and embraces difference, relative to other parts of the world…yes, even today.

 

Last summer, as I was traveling from continent to continent, I gave the 4th of July a passing nod as I visited Paris and took in all that amazing city has to offer.

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This was in Avignon later in the summer, not Paris…but feeling the democratic vibe all the same.

But this 4th of July, I felt a homesickness I’ve never felt before…for New York City, for my home in Alabama and Mississippi, and for my country generally.

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A scene from our 4th of July celebration in Kampala… we Americans were joined by some Brits ❤

Celebrating American Independence this week has sparked some interesting conversations. I’ve been laughed at by some (not all!) Western ex-pats (particularly, but not limited to, Canadians) whom I’ve spoken with here this week when I said that I love my country because we’re free. “I hate when Americans say that,” they said. “You’re not really free.”

 

I respectfully disagree. While it’s painfully true America still has so many inequities and injustices, and we still can’t figure out how to provide quality healthcare for all, I can’t help but appreciate the degree of freedom we still enjoy relative to the rest of the world. The freedom of assembly, the freedom of speech, the freedom of opinion, the right to vote. God bless the Bill of Rights. Over the last 2 weeks, I’ve witnessed live police violence against unarmed Ugandan citizens on television when a by-election took place in the nearby district of Kyandondo.

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Just today, driving by on a boda in Kampala, I witnessed a man being assaulted by another group of men for no apparent reason, and felt helpless as we passed by. I know America has its own share of violence, but this was still shocking to observe.

 

One important thing I’ve learned over the last 6 weeks is that many in the world still look to America as a beacon of hope and freedom, despite all of our issues. This takeaway is based on direct personal conversations and observations—the most indisputable evidence you can find when the global conversation tends to center around media regimes (on both the political left and right) looking to make more money in a 24/7 news cycle. As a self-proclaimed “liberal,” I know this view is unsavory to many U.S. liberals who want to think we should now stay out of every else’s business and obediently abide by international consensus (when and if that can be found in a world so ideologically divided). At the end of the day, everyone wants to feel secure and protected within their own social and cultural contexts, whatever that looks like, and many still look to the U.S. as a positive example of democracy and freedom.

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Playlist at work on the 4th of July… judge me all you want

If it’s not cool to be patriotic anymore, I guess I’m not “cool” in that regard. This past week, which included the 4th of July, has been more emotional to me than I ever expected before traveling to Uganda. I have gained a new appreciation for my country, even as I’ve been personally and directly asked (by Ugandans and Western ex-pats alike) what “I’m doing about” the fact Donald Trump is our president. In response, I’ve reminded them that America has one of the oldest and most enduring democratic constitutions in the world, that the electoral college is (currently) part of our Constitution, that we peacefully abide by the outcome of our elections, that I want him to succeed in his role only in ways that will help America and its global neighbors to prosper, and that I’m looking with hope to 2020.

 

Sadly, his administration has already fallen short in so many ways. But thankfully, we Americans still have the right and obligation to protest and speak out against actions of our government that do not align with the ideals upon which our nation was founded. We still have a separation of powers that many nations do not have. Our judiciary is an institution that operates independently of our executive and legislative branches. The 22nd Amendment to our Constitution sets a presidential term limit. These are facts I’ve admittedly taken for granted until this summer.

 

Does America need to improve in many ways? Yes. But I am I ashamed to be an American? Never. Am I proud to be an American? Yes, even if I get laughed at by some. Is there still reason for Americans to have hope? Absolutely. Patriotism trumps cynicism.

 

“I thank God for my life

And for the stars and stripes

May freedom forever fly, let it ring.

Salute the ones who died

The ones that give their lives

So we don’t have to sacrifice

All the things we love.” – Zac Brown Band

 

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Last summer in Prague. A message I still believe in my heart of hearts most fellow Americans agree with.

 

 

 

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