Answers

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”  -  Rainer Maria Rilke

I took some advice a couple of years ago.

Back when I was still in college there was a chance summer, in 2009 to be exact, during which I ended up in a particular professor’s office. It was a seemingly random and unconnected chain of events that led me there. By that time, my very short life experience had taught me one real thing: do work that is meaningful, or risk loosing my fire and potential to lethargy and apathy. My brief stint in corporate America had left me feeling like my brain was rotting inside my skull. My attempts to find a summer job in the development sector had yielded a couple of awkward interviews with the World Bank, but no position. My head was spinning. I was not qualified for the jobs I was seeking. I needed tangible skills.

I finally decided I was ok with not earning any money that summer. I remember I was at a crossroads. I asked myself, what do I want out of life? What do I care about? I wrote to my local PBS station and asked if they could use a young person who was hungry to learn about the world and about herself. I wrote to others as well. The responses were overall positive.

At some point I cast an email to a professor in the African studies department at the University of South Florida, where my parents live in Tampa. My email was forwarded to another professor with a funny name. It was a shot in the dark. I said I was eager to learn social science research methods, and that I’d give my time in return for mentorship that summer. The professor told me to come in to his office at 1pm the next day.

I went in prepared for an interview. Dressed the part. Had my elevator speech and padfolio at hand. I hoped with near desperation that a 19 year old with far too many questions swirling in her head would finally find some luck that day. An answer, perhaps.

***

Dr. Sultan and I met again two years later on another continent. June 2011. Nairobi, Kenya. I felt like I had been sucked though a wormhole when we reunited in Africa: the land of both of our dreams. His of childhood, adolescence, the Sahara, old loves, and the lingering aroma of coffee. Mine of answers lived into. Who was I again? 

We met several times over the course of a week. Long and thoughtful conversations. Never heavy. Always light and lighthearted. But intense, subtly.

I was different by then. My values were the same, but I was not the 19 year old college student who was living on the periphery of life. For all I knew when I first met Dr. Sultan in 2009, my life was a full one, my universe complete– except for these questions– and they bothered me so.

But by 2011 I had seen just enough to realize that up till then in my life, I had only traipsed the very edge and had not dove in. I had lived in East Africa for one year by then. And I knew just enough to understand that up till then, all that I had felt in my life were just shadows of real emotions. I was a child on whom the true beauty of a life wholly lived was lost. Up till then in my life I had lived only in my own mind.

Dr. Sultan and I walked to an Ethiopian restaurant in the living room of a lady’s home one Friday evening. My mind was preoccupied as usual. I was expressing to him my concerns about one thing or another. Work, friends, love, purpose, intention, happiness. Matatu routes, time zones, a new city, a new pulse. I’m confused, I’m hurting, I’m alone, I’m lonely. How do I do this again? At some point he looked over at me and said something I only slowly began to absorb.

***

There was no interview.

I sat in Dr. Sultan’s office that chance afternoon in 2009 and he did not ask me about my resume. He did not ask me the behavioral interview questions I was prepared to answer– about a time when I worked on a team or showed leadership ability when no one else rose to the challenge. He did not ask me what skills I would bring to the table.

What he did ask was: Who are you? What do you want? What are your dreams? And what would you like to gain while you’re with me?

I think back, and it is like the conversation that started in 2009 just simply continued. It continues even now.

***

When I was 19 I lived by very strict rules. Discipline was essential. Focus, determination, goals. I was obsessed. No distractions.

One day at lunch Dr. Sultan asked if I would like a glass of wine.

I replied that I didn’t drink.

He said that it was ok that I was 20 and that I’m technically not supposed to drink for another year– one glass was fine. I replied that my non-drinking had nothing to do with my age, or laws, or even morality. Dr. Sultan said, what then? Would you object if I dipped a Q-tip in some liquor and rubbed it on your teeth?

Incredulous, I said no of course not, but that’s absurd!

Laughing earnestly, Dr. Sultan warned me then about having hard and fast rules. Discipline is a good thing, but the reasons for having rules can be lost when they are followed indiscriminately, he said.

I entertained these ideas– and there were so many we tossed back and forth that summer. I can’t say I could understand all of his advice and musings. What I remember is that we laughed a lot. I went home really happy every evening. I didn’t have all my answers, but this I was ok with. I learned my research methods, yes, but I was just getting started with my real education. My reality was expanding. I was not aware of this at the time.

***

I have recently been asking myself a lot of tough questions.

Fear and insecurities. It’s ugly to look at. Easier to push these away to the recesses of my mind and distract myself with the everyday. But every now and then life makes you confront them. A wake up call. A point where bad habits start biting you in the ass. The point where you can’t pretend any longer. Life becomes volatile. The slightest provocation can prove terribly painful.

I wrote to Dr. Sultan this time. He responded swiftly, poignantly: Please remember that you have about 3 times the life you have already lived ahead of you. You have time to adjust to everything. 

Oceans and decades later, perhaps I will have adjusted. Perhaps I won’t be so resistant to change. Or be so afraid of myself.

For months I thought long and hard about the advice Dr. Sultan gave me in the restaurant in the Ethiopian lady’s living room:

Don’t be too rational. Don’t logic your way through life. Make mistakes. Screw up. Get messy.

I took his advice.

Immigrants

Temple scene from my hometown in Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu

My mother and father were 29 and 32 respectively when we moved to Montana with just two suitcases. It was about the same time of year as it is now, and I was a couple weeks shy of my fourth birthday. This year marks 20 years that our family has called the United States home.

I never fully understood the limbo-state that my parents have always lived. We talk about settling down, we talk about citizenship, we talk about retirement plans. But over the course of 20 years the dialogue has shifted. It’s no longer about dreams of moving back to India, but rather how many months out of the year we would ideally spend there. Back in India, just a few rusty trunks contain what little remains from homes long bulldozed. Old photos could be all that we have of our former selves.

We left India for a chance at something new. In a place and time where paid work for so many was incredibly difficult to come by, employment within one’s field and course of study was truly a rare chance. Both of my parents had jobs within the fields they were trained in. Yet, when presented with the Opportunity to learn and to earn, to deepen one’s pond of existence, to see what else the world had in store– there was no choice but to take it. And never look back.

In Nairobi, we talk about the expat life. We talk about missing out on family milestones, we talk about loved ones moving on without us, we talk about a lonely existence in a foreign city.

But it’s sort of glamorous. We did something that not many have done; we congratulate ourselves. So it’s alright that during the two, perhaps three, years we spent as an expat we were uncomfortable. Yes, we were stretched across two continents (maybe three)—but it was worth whatever it was we each thought we’d gain by being away those years.

When I think of my parents and so many others like them, I think about what it’s like to be torn across two continents. As long as we are at home we cannot appreciate all that is familiar and comfortable that we attach ourselves to. Yet when we are away from home it is these things we never could appreciate that hurt us the most. Today I thought I smelled the distinctly tart aroma of dosa batter as it hits hot oil on a cast iron griddle, and it immediately put me at ease. It’s the aroma that wafted through my house every single morning of my childhood. My reaction was visceral. But my heart sank when I realized that I imagined it.

I think that in the long run, having to redefine ourselves, our identities in relation to our new homes is what hurts the most. In two or three short years, we sample that pain. But none of us can truly claim to know it.

The smells, the quiet, the noise, the spaces, the textures, the lights, the sights, the human beings we long for! It is not unique. The millions of immigrants who came before us, they too have mourned the loss of Things they left behind.

It is in this that I find solace.

The Idiot

Mountain gorilla who rubbed his face on my thigh

A few days ago I came to the startling realization that in two more months, I will have lived in Nairobi for a year.

That also means that it will have been two years since I left the U.S. and moved to East Africa.

Two years is an odd and startling benchmark in my own mind. When you are 21 years old and freshly graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree, two years seem like an eternity. Two years in a land so foreign where, as my roommate Kimmie likes to say, the only thing you recognize is your own shadow. Two years in a place so far away that, looking forward, you can’t even imagine life on the other side of that finite stretch of time. I am nearing that point. That point at the end of two years. And it is so very, very real.

When I was 21 and a fresh graduate I thought I would spend two years in East Africa. I think the ‘about me’ section of this blog still even says that I would spend two years here. I am trying to remember what I thought would come after that. Graduate school seems the most likely next step I would have imagined for myself at the time. Let me start by saying that I am not ready for graduate school. But let me end by saying that I have never before felt like I know and have experienced so little as I do at this point in my life. At this very moment, it seems to me that I have spent two years in East Africa learning how much I don’t know. Continue reading

A quick note on the 30-day Blogging Challenge

A few of you have asked me what happened to the 30-day Blogging Challenge I committed to a couple months ago. Basically, I failed. I realized that writing on my blog every single day is very difficult, especially because on many days I come home late and go straight to bed. So my new goal is to write on my blog at least once every week. I think it’s a much more realistic goal! I encourage you to hold me to it!

Falling in Love All Over Again

“Absence diminishes commonplace passions and increases great ones, as the wind extinguishes candles and kindles fire.” -Francois, duc de La Rochefoucauld

The view from my roof terrace

After one year in Uganda and Kenya, I returned to the States for a two-week holiday. In that short fourteen days I fell back into life in the U.S. so seamlessly that my time there seems to have been much longer. It’s true that on the first couple of days Florida felt a bit foreign. The roads a bit too wide, the parking lots a bit too expansive, the palm trees grew in patterns that seemed a bit too planned and orderly. But one week in, and it was almost as if I had never left. As a result, having returned to Nairobi just a fortnight later, I am going through a very peculiar phase. My mind adjusted so quickly to the U.S., that I am looking at Nairobi with a fresh pair of eyes. I feel like a tourist in the very city where I live and work. The avenues I have walked hundreds of times are suddenly smaller. They’re thickly lined with bougainvillea and hibiscus plants that I did not always used to notice. The parking lot at Junction Mall is startlingly tiny, when just two weeks ago that parking lot seemed vast. My perspective has completely changed and it has caught me off guard. Continue reading

A Dream Deferred: Uganda’s Presidential Election

The following blog post originally appeared on the Kiva Fellows blog on February 23, 2011. It was removed from the blog because of concerns over the controversial topic I wrote about. Uganda remains a country in which there is only a fasad of free speech and free press, and as a result I was advised to not openly criticize the current regime in a public forum. I’ve decided to repost this blog post on my personal blog because my hope is for more people to take an interest in Uganda’s leadership and for Ugandans to unite and hold their politicians accountable. Since the post was written, there were several reports that Yoweri Museveni, despite stealing votes, was still democratically elected into office by a majority of Ugandans. Whether those votes were fairly gathered is absolutely debatable. Although written in February, the post still captures my sentiments.

***

A Dream Deferred by Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up 
like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore–
And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
 like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

On February 22 at 3:45pm Norbert Mao, one of Uganda’s former presidential candidates for the 2011 general election began his speech by reciting A Dream Deferred by Langston Hughes. Considering the results of the latest elections in Uganda, a lot has been deferred, including the dream of a free and fair election.

The Presidency, stolen

Friday the 18th, the day of the Ugandan presidential election, was a national holiday. Millions of people across the country hoped that the date would mark the day that a new president was elected into power. They hoped that Yoweri Museveni would finally leave the office after a continuous twenty five years in office. On the morning of the election, several hundred international civilian observers were dispatched to polling stations all over the country. However, right under the noses of Ugandan citizens, as well as the international community, the election was rigged and the office of president was stolen, once again. Continue reading

My New Job

Since July I have been working for a San Francisco based tech startup called Samasource.

The key idea behind our social mission is that work is at the core of human dignity.

Today we live in an incredible age where anyone, anywhere with a cheap computer and an internet connection can log on to the internet and do work remotely. Samasource has harnessed the power of educated and able populations all over the globe to do work for companies that need high quality and cheap outsourcing solutions. Essentially, we’ve reworked the traditional outsourcing model and brought much needed work, along with a chance to develop skills and earn an income to marginalized populations around the world. The workers we’ve given work to range from villagers in rural Jarkandh, India to youth in conflict zones near Somalia in northeastern Kenya. Check out our website here: http://samasource.org/

As the East Africa Field Operator, I am based out of our first regional office in Nairobi, Kenya. The focus of the Nairobi team’s efforts are to develop and build the Samasource model in the East Africa region. Part of my job is to tell the stories of the people whom we have given work to. Check out this video I made of Kalekye, a Samasource worker in Nairobi, Kenya!