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Namibian Law: in Progress and in Flux

By: Eleanor Dennis

Living in a country whose independence dates to the decade you were born in can be a reminder of both how quickly development can happen and how long institutionalized ways of thinking can take to change. Namibia’s democracy is still relatively young, having passed through several distinct stages of English, German and South African rule before becoming the Republic of Namibia in 1990. Now an independent republic, Namibia is in the process of reforming many of their laws enacted during apartheid and determining exactly what Namibian constitutionalism will look like well into the twenty-first century.

Day to day life in Windhoek is fast-paced, cosmopolitan and hectic. The downtown core is often jam-packed with taxis and private vehicles moving people to and from work inside the city centre and to some of the towns outside. There are huge avenues with six car laneways and street names like Independence Avenue and Sam Nujoma Drive which serve as almost frequent reminders of the hard-fought liberation struggle that is never far from people’s minds.

Work at the LRDC

Members of the Hoachannas Traditional Leadership with representatives from the Ministry of Justice

My work at the Law Reform and Development Commission (LRDC) is another reminder of how young Namibia’s constitutionalism really is. The Commission came into operation in 1992 and its core mandate is to examine all branches of Namibia’s laws and make recommendations for their review, reform and development. A typical work day involves the review of bills that are making their way through the Commission before being discussed at the Cabinet Committee on Legislation (CCL) and being passed on to the Attorney General, the National Assembly and eventually the National Council.

As an intern, I also work side by side with the Chairperson of the LRDC Ms. Yvonne Dausab and often accompany her to community meetings, town halls and workshops. What this meant for me was diving head-first into Namibia’s constitutionalism and getting a rare opportunity to see a law come to life almost from start to finish. What I’ve begun to develop in my six weeks in Namibia is a bigger picture of how a country’s laws shape both its present and its future—and some of the barriers that legislation can encounter in effectuating real change on the ground.

Town hall meeting in Hoachannas with the Minister of Justice

Racial Hate Speech in Namibia

Namibian society has come a long way from its racially-charged past. Every Namibian now enjoys the equal protection of his or her constitutional rights regardless of age, sex, colour, race, tribe, disability or any other of the enumerated grounds for discrimination under Article 10 of the Constitution. On the other hand, Namibia is at a crossroads with regards to one of its fundamental post-independence values—protection against racist hate speech.

Many violations of human dignity during apartheid in Namibia have been removed through legislation and policy, however there has still not been a total break with the racialized social order. This is evidenced by the inconsistent distribution of land and resources in Namibia and also in the social sphere where racial and tribal tensions continue to result in unequal treatment of individuals.

Racialized structures and racial language have survived apartheid in spite of a modern, liberal Constitution and a profound will to break with the past. Use of words making racial distinctions between people are still strongly embedded within people’s minds and discrimination continues to occur across both racial and tribal lines. Stereotypes based on tribe are particularly harmful, and continue to impact on an individual’s access to employment, land, shelter and equal treatment.

Freedom of Expression and Anti-Hate Speech Legislation

Other countries which have similar racial histories have enacted very strict legislation to protect individuals from racial hate speech in order to address past injustices and initiate a strong break from the past. These protections must be balanced with an individual’s right to express themselves, and countries like South Africa have restricted this balance to make the perpetuation of hate speech a serious crime where prosecutions have led to jail time. [1]

Namibia has followed suit and in 1991 enacted the Racial Discrimination Prohibition Act [2] to protect the gains of the long struggle against colonization, racism, apartheid and the right to non-discrimination. Few cases have been brought before the High Court, however, and as of 2018 there have been no successful prosecutions made under this Act.

One of the landmark cases that led to a 1998 amendment of the Act is the 1996 Smith v State and Others case [3] where an advertisement in a Windhoek newspaper congratulating a famous Nazi on his birthday was challenged under Section 11 prohibiting racist speech. The constitutionality of Section 11 was challenged for derogating from the protection of freedom of expression set out in Art. 21(1) and (2) of the Constitution. The Supreme Court of Namibia used the Oakes test and while the advertisement failed on every requirement, the Court deemed that the infringement did not justify restrictions on freedom of speech under the Act because the groups of persons concerned (Jewish people) had “never featured or suffered in the pre-independence era in Namibia”. The Act’s objective was deemed to be the prevention of apartheid-type racism and while the advertisement was harmful to Jewish people, it did not espouse apartheid values and therefore the Act could not justify infringing upon the advertiser’s freedom of speech in that situation.

Former Dean of the University of Namibia Faculty of Law Nico Horn criticizes the Smith case precedent, [4]  arguing that the Act should not only offer protection to previously disadvantaged groups in a country where racism has many forms and minority groups continue to face discrimination today. Horn argues that a broad interpretation of the term “racial” group in the Racial Discrimination Prohibition Act is needed to cross the bridge from a racist to a non-racist society and the Smith case failed to further this. Alternatively, the former Ombudsman Clement Daniels argued [5] that laws that prohibit racism are not enough to curtail racist expression. Laws that promote national unity and anti-racism promotion campaigns are equally needed in order to change one of the roots of the problem—people’s mindsets.

Moving Forward with the Racial Discrimination Prohibition Act

The fact that only few cases have ever come to Court under the Act has led many to question its effectiveness. There are a myriad of reasons for this, ranging from victims having inadequate information concerning their legal rights, lacking the resources to enter into the complex judicial process, and fearing social censure if they come forward.

An article that Ms Dausab and I published in The Namibian on hate speech legislation

This puts Namibia in a particularly important position when it comes to determine which direction the country will take on freedom of expression and what hate speech regulation will look like. Legislation exists protecting individuals from discrimination and racist hate speech, however as long as the Act remains unarticulated by the Courts confusion will remain in terms of what legal protections exist to combat racism in a judicial context in an independent Namibia.

Moving Forward at the LRDC

Like Namibia’s constitutional law maturing case by case and bill by bill, I’m learning to take my experience here at the LRDC step by step. Namibia’s past and present is more complex and nuanced than I can manage and at times I fear I am only scratching the surface of the real-life issues a country must grapple with in the first decades after its independence. Like Namibia, I too am developing an understanding that takes two steps forward before falling one giant step back when faced with issues like racism that legislation has not be effective at combatting.

The perspective the LRDC is restricted to is a legal one, but that perspective need not be the only one. Namibian law is a work in progress and so is building a constitutional democracy. That much, at least, I understand. 😉

 

[1]   https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-43567468

[2]  http://www.lac.org.na/laws/annoSTAT/Racial%20Discrimination%20Prohibition%20Act%2026%20of%201991.pdf

[3] https://namiblii.org/na/judgment/high-court/96/16

[4] http://www.kas.de/upload/auslandshomepages/namibia/Namibia_Law_Journal/09-1/horn1.pdf

[5] https://www.namibian.com.na/index.php?page=archive-read&id=147374

 

 

 

 

 

Settling in on the Smiling Coast of Africa

No matter how you many countries you visit or live in, moving to The Gambia is a whole different experience. Nothing quite prepares you for the change, the weather, the people, the men, the poverty and the adjustments you have to make. The friendliness on the “Smiling Coast of Africa” definitely helped but I still found it difficult to adjust in my first few weeks.

Things don’t work when you want them to, the power goes off when you really don’t want it to, goats scream in the middle of the night and it’s terrifying, sidewalks are a luxury, it takes 4 hours to get something done when all you need is 30 minutes, you sweat in places you didn’t know existed, seeing cows walking by your side as you try to tan on the beach is normal, you fear the bathroom, you accept you will never be as well dressed as West African women, you’re convinced the mosquito in your bedroom is going to give you malaria, you feel a special bond with your electric fan at work, you try to learn to appreciate instant coffee (I haven’t), and you actually begin to answer when people call you toubab on the street (the Wolof word for white).

If you do not learn to be flexible and to take things with a grain of salt, you won’t like it at all.

Some of the more frustrating aspects of day to day life grow on you with time. I came to enjoy the freezing cold wakeup call of my morning bucket shower making it oh so clear that it was time for work.  I found my evening feet rinse quite therapeutic even if it was because the lack of sidewalks and the abundance of dirt roads make your feet turn a whole new colour. Sometimes the fridge would stop working, meaning it was a reason to go out and eat Gambian cuisine, which is actually fantastic, unless you’re allergic to peanuts, in which case you’d die just by stepping out of the airport of the country where peanuts are the ONLY export.

One ritual I’ve come to thoroughly enjoy is to walk down to the local market after work to pick up my vegetables and mangoes (a food group in itself in The Gambia when they’re in season). There, I get to chat with Ara, a lovely Gambian woman, always beautifully dressed (I could stare at these outfits forever) who runs the fruit and vegetable stand with her brother. I was drawn to her stand on my first day after work and have been going since. A few days in, she asked if I liked parsley and gave me some for free. I was so touched by her gesture; that’s what Gambians are like. They’re happy, they’re generous yet they have so little. It’s incredibly humbling and we can all learn from their wonderful nature.

Some of it doesn’t grow on you and makes you so frustrated you could just scream into a pillow for hours on end. I’m a very independent person, I do things on my own and I’m used to going where I want to solo. As a white woman, even though the country is very safe, I can’t do whatever I want without being disturbed. Going to the gym or for a run? Men will try to run next to you. Go for a leisurely stroll? Have lunch in a restaurant? Go to the beach? Get a taxi? Walk around local markets? Someone is going to introduce themselves to you and propose to you. If you find a Black man to join you, you’re fine. But that still means I have to spend time with someone if I want to venture out anywhere. We all have days where we don’t want to interact with humanity, where we just want to be lost in our thoughts, read, write, drink coffee, listen to music and just be on our own. When I feel that way, I find myself forced to stay home because there is literally no way I can find that peace if I leave my compound.

Some of it doesn’t grow on you but you learn to tolerate it. Cat calling isn’t fun, but some men are more imaginative than others at complementing women. One said I was as pretty as A flower in A garden (no one told him beauty lies in precision), a nice change from the whistles or the ones screaming from the other side of the street, BOSS LADY HI YOU LOOKING GOOD TODAY, I was offered romantic rides on donkey carriages, was proposed to by taxi drivers and was expected to give out my phone number in the same way you throw fish to a hungry crocodile; freely and with no restraint. Many men confessed their love to me, a nice ego boost from my love life back in Montreal. Of course I rarely answered but often took mental notes of what was being said and write it down for entertainment. If you can’t laugh about it, you’ll cry of frustration because it happens so often. Every man wants to shake your hand. WHAT IS WITH THAT? I don’t know you and quite frankly have no desire to know you, so please, save the hand shaking and just wave hello.

It’s not always fun and I often times find myself thinking “I’m The Gambia, what the actual fudge” (censored for academic integrity) and then I remind myself that this is a once in a lifetime experience, that most people never leave their comfort zone and that I am growing so much from my time in The Gambia.

That being said, I’m only human so if I’m having a rough day, that’s ok too. It’ll pass.

 

There is no schedule

By Francesca Nardi

“Horario no hay”.

“There is no schedule”.

This was one of the first phrases that I heard on my first day at my new job in Argentina and asked what time I should be expecting to arrive and leave the office every day.

After finishing 1L exams, and leaving 12 hours later for a grueling 36 hour journey to Mar del Plata, Argentina, this was the last sentence I ever expected to hear. Like many law students, our lives are governed by strict class and study schedules, with many of us often having to schedule in time to do basic things like eating and sleeping. This was my first introduction to a completely different sense of time that would shape much of my Argentine experience.

I had never realized the extent to which schedules shape cultures until I arrived in Argentina and was forced to reflect on the way I think about time. In Canada, and especially in the legal profession, time is money. In my experience in Argentina, things move much more slowly, people arrive late to almost everything, and deadlines are merely a suggestion. At first, I took this as a frustrating indication that my time wasn’t valued. How was it that things could seem to move so much more slowly here?

The last six weeks have taught me that the laissez-faire approach to time and schedules in Argentina is not a sign of disrespect for other people’s time, but precisely the opposite. The laid back approach to scheduling here comes from a recognition of how valuable time is, and the importance of making space in life for the things that are important. In Mar del Plata, people are extremely physically active, spending time outside walking and running on the beach, dancing, or working out in a gym. This is seen as an indispensable and important part of life. Argentinians are also incredibly social and family oriented, always setting aside time to get together with friends and family for an asado on the weekends, or to go and enjoy a coffee and conversation somewhere together. The relatively relaxed approach to time in my workplace reflects a recognition that while work is important, there are so many other things in life that warrant time and energy. A flexible schedule expresses this, and acts as a reminder that it is up to all of us to prioritize the things in our lives that truly matter, while still getting things done in the workplace.

Since arriving in Argentina, I have been able to explore a variety of areas of the law, including disability and fertility law, while also collaborating with the legal clinic on issues of disability rights in the context of public transport. Mar del Plata has a long way to go to making the city accessible for people with disabilities, the elderly, and parents with young children. Working on this project has allowed me to look more critically at the structures of the cities I have lived in, and become more aware of the architectural and attitudinal barriers that prevent everyone from enjoying the city and accessing essential services.

I have also been working on a project exploring the implications of prenatal and preimplantation genetic testing on the disability community. This project has forced me to think more deeply about the complex reality of technological development, and the challenges presented by technologies that may seem benign and even positive. Finally, I collaborated with a group of students at the faculty on an international research paper examining the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities throughout other UN committees and oversight bodies.

In my spare time, I have been taking advantage of the truly spectacular beaches in Mar del Plata to spend time outside, learning to dance tango, and making friends at the local gym. On the weekends, I have been travelling and getting to see some of the incredible corners of this beautiful country! Like any new experience far from home, there have been challenges, but the Marplatense community have embraced me with open arms, and have already made this summer an unforgettable part of my law school experience!

La patience est un art et une vertu.

Tunis en fleur.

Alix Genier

Il y a quelque chose d’étrangement rassurant de savoir que l’on s’attable avec presque l’entièreté d’un pays. Il est 19h14 et c’est mon premier souper seule depuis que je suis arrivée en Tunisie il y a maintenant deux semaines. Mon repas est prêt : une salade simple sans trop d’épices, un petit goût de la maison. Mais pourtant je m’abstiendrai de l’entamer avant le coucher du soleil. J’aurai le signal de départ lorsque la petite rue de mon appartement deviendra silencieuse : les enfants qui y jouent de tôt le matin à tard le soir seront rentrés avec leur famille, le son de la prière annonçant la rupture du jeûne aura retenti dans tout le quartier et j’entendrai les ustensiles des maisons voisines tintés. Le silence de la rupture du jeûne. Même si ce Dieu n’est pas le miens, il est celui de mes amis et de ceux qui seront ma famille pour les trois prochains mois.

Le Ramadan est une période de découverte pour moi : découverte d’un pays aux gens généreux et accueillants, découverte de paysages grandioses, découverte d’un soleil chaud qui nous pousse à la sieste d’après-midi, découverte des soirées vivantes. À cause du repos forcé sur la vie des gens, j’ai exploré mon quartier, ma ville et j’ai visité la campagne tunisienne. Par un besoin d’occuper mon corps et mon esprit trop habitués au rythme de vie nord-américain, je me suis retrouvée sur une ferme où j’y ai fait la rencontre d’une famille extraordinaire. Lentement, c’est un mode de vie que je découvre.

Au courant d’une balade nocturne avec ma colocataire tunisienne, elle m’a demandé ce qu’il y avait de différent ici. J’ai répondu le papier de toilette de couleur, la hauteur de marche qui est inégale, le flexible (il me fera plaisir de détailler l’utilisation du flexible dans une conversation personnelle), les coqs qui chantent à toute heure du jour et de la nuit, la beauté des bougainvilliers et la chaleur des gens. Si on ne m’a pas souhaité la bienvenue 150 fois depuis mon arrivée, c’est qu’on ne me l’a pas souhaitée une seule fois. Des gens accueillants qui possèdent une force intérieure, une combativité et un espoir profond que demain sera meilleur. La plupart des gens avec qui j’ai discuté sont déçus de la tournure des choses depuis la Révolution de Jasmin de 2011 : le taux de chômage demeure toujours élevé (12,4% chez les hommes et 22,7% chez les femmes en 2018), le coût de la vie est encore trop haut pour le salaire moyen et la nouvelle classe politique reste au service de l’élite qui s’est mise en place suite à la Révolution. Bref, c’est « bonnet blanc, blanc bonnet » comme dirait ma grand-mère. Malgré tout, les gens ont espoir que les choses changeront, que la Tunisie peut retourner à ces heures de gloire, qu’elle a toujours ce potentiel énorme. Beaucoup de gens m’ont confié avoir pensé à émigrer au Canada, mais leur patriotisme, leurs racines profondément ancrées et la vie douce et chaude de la Tunisie les a gardés ici. J’admire beaucoup cette flamme qui brulent au creux de l’âme des Tunisiens et des Tunisiennes, cette flamme que nous avons perdue par chez nous. Désillusionnés et abattus, nous sommes amers. Une autre différence entre ici et le Canada est la patience : les gens ici ont compris que cette belle Tunisie est le résultat de plusieurs ères, de plusieurs peuples et de plusieurs projets. La Tunisie n’est pas pressée, elle a tout son temps. À l’image des gens qui l’habitent.

Le Ramadan est pour les Tunisiens et Tunisiennes un exercice de patience, de foi, d’humilité et de confiance. C’est un mode de vie. Même si tous et toutes ne sont pas croyants ou pratiquants, ces valeurs sont, de mon œil d’observatrice encore lointain, le reflet de la philosophie d’un grand peuple.

Les conversations font de nouveau écho dans la rue. Les gens ont terminé de manger chorba(soupe aux tomates et à l’orge), salade méchouia(salade de piments et de tomates grillés et écrasés), briks(pâte phyllo frite farcie d’œuf, de fromage, de persil, de thon ou de viande) et tajines (ressemblant plus à une omelette espagnole qu’à son pendant marocain). Certaines familles auront peut-être sorti quelques petits gâteaux, avant-goût de l’Aïd qui aura lieu dans quelques jours. Quant à moi, mon souper terminé, j’irai rejoindre des amis à la Médina (incroyablement animée en soirée durant ce mois de Ramadan) pour siroter un fameux kahwa arbi, si délicieux et si imprononçable!

Coucher de soleil sur la plage de El Haouaria.

My stay in Dakar

2017-Boily Audrey By Audrey Boily

Many things could be said about my brief stay in Dakar this summer. I could elaborate on the sound of the ocean or the beauty of the nearby beach, I could mention the suffocating heat and the need to sleep under a mosquito net with no fan, or I could simply describe the differing living conditions and scenery from the ones I’ve grown accustomed to in my hometown of Montreal. Truth being said, this is not what I will remember from my internship in Senegal and it is not what I would like people to focus on when describing my trip. I would rather want people to remember things hardest to verbalize; the new emotions that I learned to deal with and situations of which the beauty and power is lost when put into words.

One thing that really stood out from my experience was the loss of bearings I experienced upon arrival and during the entire length of my trip. For example, it took me two weeks to be able to identify what stop I had to get off the bus to get to work (something I do quite easily at home). At first, every building looked the same; it seemed impossible to establish clear landmarks.

It also took me time to understand where my place was within my organization, my host family and with my Senegalese friends. Means that I normally use to avoid or deal with conflicts seemed obsolete. I still had a voice and a desire to express my ideas, but didn’t always know how to do so in a constructive and respectful way. Once I understood the reasoning behind certain Senegalese habits, it became easier for me to accept them and move forward.

Another amazing part of my trip was the many different types of relationships I built with the people I met. A true sense of community existed in my neighborhood. Each family knew the others and every parent looked after the others’ children. When preparing a meal, it was always difficult to assess the quantity to prepare as in the event unexpected guests arrived around meal time, they would invariably be invited to stay and eat. With these relationships came very diverse and interesting conversations about life, religion, family, friendship and culture. The hardest part was nothing experienced during my stay, but having to leave and say goodbye to the many people that made my experience meaningful and memorable.

Learning to Sing: A Look Back on my Summer in Peru

Melisa DemirBy Melisa Demir

There are a number of ways that I could describe my fifteen-week journey to Peru –  an amazing adventure which often times all seems like a blur to me now.

“How was your trip?” is the most common question I’ve been faced with since my return – one that I expected, and yet still have trouble answering. “There’s not enough time in the world to tell you all about it,” I say.  Sometimes, I confess that it all went by so quickly – that it feels like I never even left.

Still, I find myself saying that my trip was busy, as I spent most of my days working hard to meet deadlines, or travelling back and forth from airports or bus stations early in the morning to get back to work on time after weekend getaways. When including it on my CV, I will probably write about how this was the summer in which I developed my research skills, perfected my Spanish, and learned about national and international human rights protection through my contributions to reports, events and other projects with the IDEHPUCP. My friends know it as the unforgettable trip where I managed to live by myself in a foreign country, made friends from all over the world, and climbed a countless amount of mountains – both physical and figurative.  

To me, this was the summer where I learned how to sing.

**

In Lima, life is always bustling – cars and busses honk through stop signs instead of actually stopping, bus drivers scream the route out of the window instead of having a formal system like we have here in Montreal, and nearly everyone listening to music fearlessly belts their hearts out as they sing along, no matter where they are.

I was shocked the first time I heard my colleague – who later became one of my best friends – singing her favourite reggaeton music in the middle of the office on my first day. I rolled my eyes and chuckled as the person behind me during the walk to the grocery store sometime early on in my trip sang and danced to his music. In Montreal, this would be seen as obnoxious and disruptive – but in Lima, it was a form of expression that had not yet become taboo or subjected to the social expectation that, in public or at work, one must be discrete. Where I was used to being expected to fit into a set of social standards, to mold into the rest of society and stay in the shadows, they would charge forward in individuality and expression, full of life and heart-warming spirit.

Walking through the streets of Magdalena del Mar on Peruvian independence day

It wasn’t long before I stopped jumping in surprise when someone in the Institute’s academica department broke the concentrated silence of the area with a few words of one of the summer’s top hits, and instead, started smiling and dancing along to their melody. Their voices and music ended up being the soundtrack to my summer, characterizing my walks home, my evening dinners with my Peruvian family as they sang “El gato nero” to their one-year-old son, and, of course, my time at work. As this aspect of Peruvian culture lost its foreignness, my initial role as the young, shy Canadian intern terrified of speaking Spanish at the risk of sounding stupid slowly morphed into one of sociability and confidence. The country that once seemed so distant from everything I knew began to transform into a home – or as my colleagues and I liked to call it, mi patria. On Peru’s independence day, I attempted to belt out their national anthem. I joined in many birthday celebrations at the office in which the entire Institute gathered around to sing “Happy Birthday” in choir around a large strawberry shortcake from the bakery down the street. Eventually, I even found myself humming along to my music as I typed.

What at first glance appeared to be an example of the care-free stereotype we often associate to Latin American culture eventually revealed itself to be a beautiful expression of happiness, confidence, and hope. A life in human rights research, I quickly realized, can be a daunting one. The nine-to-five work days, which often dragged out to nine-to-eight days during busy periods, are a constant realization of the terrible things that occur around the world, sometimes as close as within the city you work or live in. Every hour is filled with reminders that the world can be a terrible place for some, and that having the opportunity to advocate against human rights violations is a product of your privilege to not be on the other side of them. When one project ends, it’s on to the next one, dealing with similar hard realities, only with regards to a different violated right, and rarely with any assurance that the work you submitted will ever make it into the hands of a policy-maker, or even make a dent in the international hardships you are trying to alleviate. Most of the time, all you can do is hope that what you invested your heart and soul into makes a difference, even if by just raising awareness about the issues around you, and keeping pushing forward until the change you work for finally comes. And so, they sing.

**

I had never worked in human rights before my experience in Peru. I now have the utmost admiration for those who do – who dedicate their lives to making the world we live in a better place, if only for some.

On my last day of work, I submitted my final project, took pictures with my friends in the department – who I would see later for a final goodbye party – and emotionally emptied my desk. As I left, I closed the mahogany doors of the Institute behind me for the last time. I hugged Señor Ochoa, the security guard that greeted me every morning, goodbye.

During the walk home, I sang along to Ed Sheeran’s Perfect.

Perceptions, Misconceptions, and Reverse Culture Shock

Ohayon Jillianby Jillian Ohayon

Perceptions & Misconceptions

Here are some of the things that were said to me in Canada when I told people I would be spending the summer in Uganda:

“What’d you do to piss your dad off?” – My father’s (very loud and rather obnoxious) acquaintance, whom I met in the Montreal airport on my way to Uganda

“Is it for a punishment?” – My Cameroonian Uber driver in downtown Montreal

“If you can’t afford to fund the difference on your own, maybe you should get a real job in the summer instead of doing an internship in Africa.” – McGill financial advisor

***

The first thing that I’ll say is that the general Canadian public’s perception of East Africa, and Uganda in particular, seems to me a little twisted. It’s true that Uganda is one of the least developed countries in the world. There is poverty. It is hot outside most of the time. Police officers regularly walk around carrying machine guns. Most living compounds are surrounded by high walls and barbed wire. That being said, there is not crime, violence, and savagery to be found around every corner like some of my friends and family were concerned there would be. Uganda is not a dry and deathly desert land; Uganda is vibrant, lush, and beautiful.

I have also noticed some western misconceptions with regards to East Africans themselves, in that I get the sense that some people assume laziness on their part. To be clear, very few Ugandans sit around pouting, complaining about living in poverty, and waiting for some wealthy person from some wealthy country to come and dump money into their laps. Everybody is doing something pretty much all the time. I always tell people that there exists a strong sense of vitality in Uganda that I have never quite felt before in any other place that I’ve visited. In fact, Uganda was recently named the most entrepreneurial country in the world. From what I have felt and observed, it is a sense of gratitude, pride, and resilience that fuels this spirit.

I worry that the negative stereotypes about danger and disease in East Africa keep people from visiting, even just for purposes of tourism. Uganda has a lot to see. Among others, I visited Jinja (the town on the source of the Nile), Sipi Falls, Murchison Falls waterfall, and went on a safari in Murchison Falls National Park.

Roasting coffee beans, Sipi Falls

Murchison Falls National Park

Murchison Falls National Park

Murchison Falls

Murchison Falls National Park

Sipi Falls

Cave by the shore of the Nile, Jinja

Sunset over the Nile, Jinja

Reverse Culture Shock

Everybody expected me to find myself in serious culture shock upon arriving in Uganda. That didn’t happen. This might have been because I had had a few long, in-depth conversations with two expats living in Kampala before leaving Canada. It may have been because I had prepared myself to expect the unexpected. For whatever reason, I arrived in East Africa, took in the warm, sweet air that filled my senses the moment I stepped off the plane, and hit the ground running. Kampala felt like home after only a few days.

My Canadian-Ugandan friends and I at the top of the Gadaffi Uganda National Mosque overlooking Kampala

This is not to say that there does not exist a multitude of significant dissimilarities between Canada and Uganda. There are certainly many cultural and ideological differences between Canada and Uganda that make being a young, white female more difficult in the latter country. I grew used to being incessantly catcalled on a daily basis on my ten-minute walk home from work. I grew used to having locals shout “Muzungu!” at me in their attempts to get my attention to buy their products (actually, sometimes, they didn’t even want to sell me anything – they just wanted the satisfaction of gaining my attention). I also quickly became used to walking around the city hyperaware of the fact that almost everybody assumed I was in possession of deep pockets filled with American dollars. I even learned the hard way not to travel alone after dark. However, just like Uganda’s shoddy internet and temperamental electricity, all of this just became a part of the experience – and because I loved the experience so deeply, I learned to love the bad with the good.

It was the reverse culture shock that hit me the hardest.

Coming home was not easy. My departure from the full and exciting new life that had so quickly materialized before my eyes throughout my three months in Kampala was cushioned slightly by travels to Kigali, Rwanda with my close friend and IHRIP intern, Julia, as well as a four-day stopover in London, England. Nonetheless, I arrived at home in Montreal, spent a few hours with my family, and proceeded to sleep for seventeen hours straight. I think that, combined with the intense jetlag through which I had put my body, this was my subconscious way of avoiding the feelings that I knew were creeping in ever too quickly as I tried to reintegrate into a society and a life that I now felt so far away from.

It wasn’t just that I missed the beautiful friends I had made over there, or the restaurants I had been to so many times that the waiters knew me by name and even brought me a cake with the words “We are going to miss you” written in chocolate on my last night in Kampala. That was undoubtedly a part of it; but there was something more.

I had never anticipated feeling so free. This feels like a somewhat ironic sentence to write. I can imagine that someone reading this may be thinking, “Free? Really? In a country where you were shouted at every time you walked outside in public and felt afraid to walk alone at night?” Yes. Kind of. I will try to explain it as best as I can, but please bear with me, as I’m still trying to figure it all out for myself.

Kampala, with all of the shouting, traffic, pollution, and poverty that it has to offer, is imbued with a vibrant soul that is only felt by those who understand it. I know this to be true both because I have felt it firsthand and because I have spoken to many people who have enthusiastically agreed with this assertion. It probably isn’t the most beautiful city in the world. It’s not on the ocean, nor is it exactly wealthy. It is, however, a city of sunshine, red earth, many hills, and an abundance of palm trees. All of Uganda has a certain vitality to it. Whether it’s a woman braiding her daughter’s hair, a man selling fruit on the side of the road, or a child carrying water to their home in jerry cans, everybody always seems to be doing something. Rarely do they seem exhausted or miserable. In fact, to my mind, they generally seem to be much happier than the average person one might encounter in North America.

There is also a very different mentality in Uganda by contrast to Canada with regards to time. Scheduling and planning – which are essentially second nature in the western world – do not hold the same influence over Ugandans. One might often hear jokes about “Africa time.” Africa time is, for example, when you tell someone you will meet them at 10:00 AM and then only show up at noon, and nobody thinks anything of it. Rarely did a work meeting begin sooner than 45 minutes later than its set time. Again, nobody ever seemed to be particularly stressed over this. If I told a boda boda driver to pick me up in ten minutes, it was because I knew I was only going to be ready to leave in twenty. This was a significant aspect of Ugandan life that helped to feel liberated during my time there. It might have also been a part of why coming back to the western world felt like something akin to suffocation for a while.

There is also a feeling of liberation involved in being a white person in East Africa. As young females especially, whether or not we are always conscious of it, we live under the constant impression that we are being scrutinized. We aim to look a certain way, we dress in a certain way, and we even walk, sit, and stand in a certain way. Being in Uganda, I knew that I was going to be noticed and stared at no matter what I did. There was no way around that. It took me a while to get to this point, but eventually, I came to find this realization very liberating. It didn’t matter what I was wearing, how I looked, or how I walked, because people were going to stare at me either way. Since nobody there knew me previously, I was free to do and act as I pleased, and to let go of some of the unconscious stress and awareness of judgment that governs so much of my behaviour on a daily basis back home.

To be painfully honest, all of this, combined with the facts that I was on a different timezone from everybody who had ever known me and that I had limited internet connection, allowed me the space and freedom to discover parts of myself that I’m not sure I had known existed. It’s a very liberating feeling, to say the least.

***

Well, that’s about what I have to say on Uganda and its gift of reverse culture shock. Thanks for reading my blog! If you’re reading this because you’re considering visiting East Africa, I hope that my experience functions as a helpful push in that direction. Challenges will certainly present themselves from time to time, but I can guarantee that the positive aspects will far outweigh the negatives. You cannot put a price on the self growth from which you benefit when you succeed in making a home out of an unlikely and unfamiliar place. It wasn’t always easy, but it most definitely was worth it.

Blog Post 1: First Lessons and Impressions

By: Sara E.B. Pierre

A few months preceding my internship, I saw a news story on my Facebook page about how the President of a small country in West Africa accepted defeat after 22 years of dictatorship, but quickly changed his mind. The President’s name was Yahya Jammeh, and the country was The Gambia – where my internship was taking place in the summer. For a long time after this news, I was not sure whether the internship would happen. In the end, Jammeh was pressured enough to accept defeat and left the country. I did some more research on him before I left for The Gambia. It was only later that I found out how the Gambians I saw on my screen, cheering him in the streets, were forced to do so every time he made a public appearance. Through my work, I started to realize how he ruined the reputation and endangered the health of those he claimed to have personally healed of AIDS, and how terrifying it must have been to live in a place where any member of your family could go missing and be tortured without ever getting any answers.

   

The first week of May I was greeted into the New Gambia. Billboards, T-Shirts and graffiti all proclaimed, “Gambia Has Decided”. I saw people selling smartphone data plans, shoes and fruit on the side of the street, I saw monkeys waiting for a safe time to cross those same streets, and I saw vultures resting on top of the street lights. I ate mangoes every day and soaked in the sun at the beach.

On my first day of work I took multiple taxis which have designated stops, kind like the public transportation system I was used to back in Montreal. After getting lost and telling the taxi driver I was working in human rights, I was dropped off at the African Human Rights Commission. This was not actually my workplace. It was, however, as I would soon come to realize, the place our complaints (“Communications”) would sometimes be sent, seeking redress for those across the continent whose rights have been violated by their government.

Some cases and presentations I have done research for include those advancing the complainant’s right to health, right to work, right to not be tortured, right to education and to freedom of expression. These, and many more, are enshrined in a Charter I have gotten more and more familiar with over the months – the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The part that I find most impressive about this Charter (which was set up in The Gambia itself), is that it not only protects civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, but it also protects group rights (such as the right to a “generally satisfactory environment”), and lays out duties incumbent upon these same individuals and peoples.

After a very friendly Gambian woman helped me find my actual workplace, I realized it was only a short walk away from the Commission. We walked past the roundabout (adorably named “Turn Table”) and found The Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHDRA).

I was impressed with the pan-African non-governmental organization even before I arrived in The Gambia. Besides reading about their mission to defend, educate, and inform, what struck me most was how they included professional pictures of staff members, such as the gardener and cook, on their staff page. The idea that justice and the fight for human rights involves so much more than what superstar lawyers do is a big lesson that I am learning. At our staff meeting, we all had the chance to say what we had been working on, whether this had to do with the organization’s website, a conference someone would be presenting at, or making sure we have clean and running water. When everyone’s voice was heard, I felt there was transparency, accountability and fellowship. The value of these things cannot be dismissed because it reinforces the underlying truth that we, those who work to uplift the dignity of human beings, are not there to “save” or “fix” anyone; we are there to build safer and more just communities, and to empower people. And what a better way to project that vision than by reflecting it in the way we uplift our own neighbours?

¡Buenos días desde Argentina!

Gillespie TaylorBy Taylor Gillespie

Since I’m the first McGill student to intern in Mar Del Plata, I think it’s appropriate to use my first blog post to describe what life is like here in Argentina.

Mar Del Plata is a city of about 1 million some 400km south of Buenos Aires. The city is known within Argentina as a summer resort spot owing to its beautiful coastline, which stretches for 47km along the Atlantic Ocean (and makes for a spectacular view on morning runs).

One interesting thing about Mardel is that unlike Buenos Aires, which is an international tourist hub, very few tourists come from outside of Argentina. In fact, I’m the first Canadian that most people I know here have ever met. Similarly, English is not widely spoken here, and the only way to learn it is by attending costly private institutes.

The food here is nothing short of incredible—milanesas, empanadas, locros, alfajores, and of course a steak with chimichurri sauce and a bottle of red wine from the Mendoza region of Argentina are must-haves for anybody visiting the country. One thing to know, however, is that supper in Argentina is not normally served until around 9 or 10pm, and trust me, you will be laughed at if you go to a restaurant at 6pm and ask for the dinner menu. Another thing to get used to is that most stores, offices, and buildings close between 1 and 4pm for siesta. Personally, I think a 3-hour naptime is something we should bring to McGill.

MDP offers some of the best nightlife in the country, but a Saturday night out in Argentina is very different from a night out in Canada. An average night on the town consists of meeting up with friends around 1am to catch-up and enjoy a few drinks together. Then, around 3 or 4am, head to the bar, which will only be beginning to get busy. Stay and dance to the hottest Latin-American music until the bar closes at 630am—by the time you get home the sun will be rising, and you’ll probably hungry enough to eat breakfast before going to bed.

Parque Nacional Tierra Del Fuego

Climbing Monte Olivia in Ushuaia

 

Argentina is incredibly geographically diverse. Two weeks ago, I had the amazing opportunity to visit Ushuaia, the capital of the Tierra Del Fuego Province of Argentina, and the southernmost city on the planet. It is the middle of winter there and the temperature hovered around -5 to -10 degrees.

On the other hand, last week I went on a two-day trip to Las Cataratas del Iguazú, breathtaking waterfalls in the north-eastern part of the country along the border of Paraguay and Brazil. The climate in Iguazú was tropical and the temperature reached nearly 35 degrees with the humidity. The distance between Ushuaia and Iguazú is roughly 4,500km. In perspective, this is double the distance from Winnipeg (my beloved hometown) to Montreal.

Iguazú Falls

 

A view from the Brazilian side of the falls

Between Mardel and Iguazú lies Buenos Aires, the largest city in Argentina and one of the largest on the continent. During my 2 day layover between Iguazú and Mar Del Plata, I had the chance to tour some key landmarks of the city: Boca Stadium, the old sea port, and the Recoleta cemetery. Likewise, I made a day trip to Uruguay in order to see Colonia Del Sacramento, which is listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay

When I returned to Buenos Aires that same evening (July 1st), I went to a Canada Day party organized by the Canadian Embassy where there were over 100 Canadian travellers and expats. At the bar, I got the chance to sit down and have a beer with Robert Fry, the Canadian Ambassador to Argentina and Paraguay. We had some very interesting conversations about my internship, his daily life as an ambassador, and of course argued about which NHL team was the best (go Jets).

Hanging out with some lobos marinos on the beach

Argentine lifestyle, in most respects, is not all that different from life in Canada, but there are a few quirks. One thing that I have noticed is that people here are much more affectionate. For instance, every time you meet someone or see someone you know, instead of shaking their hand, you give them one kiss on the left cheek…Needless to say the first time I met a group of 5 male coworkers, the greeting caught me off guard.

All in all, my experience here in Argentina has been absolutely amazing so far and I’m looking forward to the last few weeks of my internship.

Stay tuned for my next post, where I’ll be providing an update on some of the human rights work I’ve been up to.

¡Nos vemos!

Be Patient; Stay Fearless

Melisa DemirBy Melisa Demir

Nearly eight weeks ago, I stepped off a plane and into the chaos of the Jorje Chavez airport parking lot in Lima, Peru. My first experience on South American soil began with a wave of taxi drivers calling out “Taxi! Taxi” and waving their permits at me as I searched for my Uber somewhere near Gate 11. Towering ahead of me was an enormous billboard, advertising LATAM Airlines, which read: “Welcome to Lima.”

It took about half an hour and many WhatsApp phone calls – all of which served as a stark reminder of just how different the language in in a Spanish-speaking country was from the Spanish I had learned in high school – before I finally met up with Rodrigo, my driver. I threw my suitcases and my backpack into the trunk of his grey Hyundai, almost exactly like the one my parents drive at home, and hopped into the backseat, ready for what I knew would be the adventure of a lifetime.

A lot has happened since that first day. The sun that I was met with when I first stepped through the airport’s sliding doors has started to disappear, making only its signature rare appearances as “the Grey city” falls into its winter months. I’ve seen penguins and sea lions off the coast of Paracas, sand-boarded down the dunes of Huacachina, rafted through valleys in Arequipa and spent five days hiking through glaciers and the high Peruvian jungle to the beautiful Machu Picchu. I’ve finally figured out how to properly unlock the front door of my apartment after too many hours spent on the verge of tears, locked out with my groceries lying on the front steps. The family that I once knew as simply Kat and Gus from AirBnB have become like my second parents, including me in their family celebrations and mornings to the market, sitting with me at dinner, and teaching their one-year old son to walk towards me and, occasionally, roll me his ball.

On top of the sand dunes in Huacachina

Standing in front of Humantay Lake at the beginning of my Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu

On top of Machu Picchu after 5 days of trekking!

Of course, I have also become quite familiar with the corner desk I was given at the Institute of Democracy and Human Rights (IDEHPUCP) – once empty, its drawers are now filled with notes bearing my handwriting, the airplane headphones I use to drown out the sound of my coworkers’ singing when I need to concentrate, the books on human rights I have read since my first day, and the box of vanilla cookies I bought from the grocery store down the street to snack on with my afternoon coffee.

I first stepped through the gates of the big yellow building on calle Tomas Ramsey and into the doors of the Institute at the end of May, one month ago. I had been slightly anxious to start my internship – at twenty years old, I have never had a desk job, and as a first year student, I’ve never worked in the legal field before. I nervously gave the security guard my name on that first morning, and he greeted me with a large, warm smile – one that I’ve gotten used to these past weeks, and that I still see every morning as I walk into work with my morning coffee in hand. That first morning, his smile acted as a sense of comfort in the new adventure I was about to embark on. “Good morning, Melisa,” he had said as I signed my name in the registry. “Welcome.”

Since the beginning of my time here at the IDEHPUCP, I’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot about many different aspects of international human rights law – particularly, I’ve studied the notion of corporate responsibility in international law, participated in discussions on corruption in Peru, and helped the Institute run two parallel events on rethinking gender roles in Latin America and on the continued reality of human trafficking in the area. Yet, in these past three weeks filled with great learning opportunities, two lessons have stuck out to me so far: be patient, and stay fearless.

On Being Patient: Learning to Leave My Fast-Paced Lifestyle Behind

My internship at the Institute began with a warm welcome from the entire IDEHPUCP family – I was given a tour of the different departments, greeted with a signature one kiss on the cheek or a dynamic wave by everyone I met and even invited to the Institute’s events during my first week, as if I had already become one of the team.

However, my work also began at a time where the organization of two of the Institute’s biggest projects (hosting two conferences within the same week) was just nearing its end – a time where there was just enough work for those who had already been involved in the preparation of these events to keep busy, yet not enough for me to join in too extensively. As a result, for my first two weeks of work, I was only given two books to read – one on the effects of international law on corporate activity, and another on the functions of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights – and some translation work from Spanish to English. I began to worry if my Spanish skills were seen as not strong enough to handle more heavy workloads, or if my lack of experience in human rights law deterred my supervisors from including me in big research projects.

Then came the week of the events, and I quickly found myself busier than ever, running around the University campus making sure everything was running smoothly, being tasked with small jobs here and there. I even had my first of what I expect to be many late nights within my legal career, when I was asked to help a colleague find information on the biographies of the events’ panelists due the following morning. Since then, my days at the Institute have been filled with a variety of different tasks, making every moment spent at work unique – in addition to my translation work, I have been assigned to do research on the international and national protection of elder rights, have co-written an article on labor rights violations within Peru which was published on the Institute’s website, and, most recently, have been asked to help with a jurisprudential study on recent constitutional decisions in the country.

Not only has my work life gotten busier, but my Spanish has already improved tremendously, giving me the confidence to start coming out of my shell more, going to more social events and becoming good friends with my colleagues. Lima really is starting to feel like home – so much so that the barista at the Starbucks on my way to work has started to greet me with “Hola Melisa, que tal?” and knows my order almost by heart.

Life in Lima is not nearly as different than life in Montreal as I thought it would be – its streets are bustling with busy buses and cars and large boulevards lined with shopping malls and gourmet restaurants, and its nightlife in Miraflores and Barranco rivals that on Blvd St-Laurent. One of the biggest culture shocks for me was definitely learning to take a breath, and coming to terms with with not having heavy workloads all the time. I grew up in a culture where I was taught that being hardworking and being productive often meant being busy every second of every day. Here, things are different: being a good employee is more about being available to lend a hand to your teammates when they need it, and doing everything you do, no matter how little work you’re given, as best as you can.

All in all, I have definitely come a long way in my month by myself here in Lima, and most of my adaptation happened simply with time. I have come to realize that the IDEHPUCP is largely a place for learning – my supervisor ensures that every project I am given can somehow tie back to Canada, even in the smallest way. One of the biggest lessons I have learned so far is how to be patient, to wait for my opportunities to arise (or even to create my own), and, in the meantime, to take advantage of the little things this internship has to offer, such as the experience of simply being in one of the most important research centres in the country, learning from some of the most dedicated human rights workers in the area, and being able to help out with their work, even in the simplest ways.

On Staying Fearless: Nothing Worth Doing Ever Came Easily

Like many people I know in McGill’s Law Faculty, I came to law school mainly driven by a love and passion for international law and human rights. Also like many in my Faculty, I have become well aware of how difficult pursuing a career in this field will be.

My experience so far at the IDEHPUCP has opened my eyes to the merits of pushing through obstacles and overcoming seemingly impossibly high mountains – of always staying fearless, whether it be when crossing the street in Lima’s busy traffic, swallowing my pride and joining in on conversations and social events with my colleagues even when I still sometimes have trouble keeping up with the local jarga (Peruvian slang), and most importantly, when making decisions about my future career choices.

The controversial panel on the respect of gender and LGBTQ rights in religion

Here at the Institute, I spend most of my time immersed in a culture of devotion and passion for human rights work. I watch my colleagues, some of which are still students, juggle their work with their studies, running back and forth from the Institute and the PUCP campus, putting their theses that they need to complete in order to graduate on the back-burner in order to complete what they see as more urgent tasks, like writing up on pressing human rights issues or conducting studies on international law. During the panel on Gender Rights, I watched the head of the Institute, Doctora Elizabeth Salmón – one of the most respected and successful people in the field of international law and human rights law in the country – defy social norms by setting up a panel on the continued struggle to find balance between the protection of women’s rights and LGBTQ rights and religion in Lima.

More recently, one of my best friends at the Institute told me that her dream job is to spend time working with the International Red Cross in Iraq or Iran protecting human rights, fully aware of the dangers attached to this career, because she wants to spend every day of her career being able to tackle human rights violations in these countries face-on: “I have a friend who worked with the ICRC in Iraq, and she had the power to see these violations every day, and to say ‘Enough,’” she had said. “My dream is to be able to do that, too.”

Everyone at the Institute, I have come to realize, spends the better part of their careers making sacrifices for the bigger cause of defending human rights, both within their country and beyond. They are all fearless in their work, not only because of their passion for their jobs, but because they know that what they do needs to be done in order to make a change – no matter how difficult, or scary, it may be.

As the halfway point of my time here at the IDEHPUCP approaches, I am already so grateful for all of the experiences this internship has brought me, and for all of the important lessons that I’ve learned, and will continue to use in the future – wherever my career, and life in general, take me.

 

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