Learning to Learn

Happy August!

I really wanted to start this month on a positive note; after all, this is my last month at home before I enter my fourth and final year of undergrad. Here’s how I actually entered August: me staring at my laptop for 8 hours a day, stressing and overthinking about graduate programs and professional school. How in the world am I supposed to decide on one program that will change my entire life in just one month?

For most of my undergrad, I’m sitting alone at my desk, memorizing fact after fact for my midterms, finishing assignments that will definitely lead me to what I want to do in the future, and worrying about my next deadline. We are expected to have a mindset of always being one step ahead of ourselves. Before I’m finished one task, I’m thinking about the next step. That certainly was the case when I started third year in the fall and was already worrying about what I’d do the summer before fourth year. I was never in the moment, experiencing everything the task at hand had to offer. In a society so fast-paced, goal oriented, and busy, it is hard to focus deeply on just one thing. I felt the constant pressure to be productive, juggling at least 6 activities at one given time. Slow down a bit and you’re in deep trouble. The unforgiving deadlines are coming after you.

As this internship is coming to an end, I want to really think about and reflect on the many lessons that I have learned throughout the summer. This is such a unique opportunity because of its flexible nature, granting me the time to think deeply.

My friends would ask me “how’s the internship going?”.  I always answered by talking about how I learned a lot about the business aspects of the project and what deliverables I was working on. But there was so much more going on. The internship is as much of a personal growth journey as it is a professional learning experience.

Today I want to delve into deeper and more complex topics, concepts that are not readily apparent: power and privilege.

There are clear-cut definitions of these terms, but how each manifests for each person is subject to individual  interpretation and experiences. I’m not an expert in talking about these topics and I still have so much to learn. But as a start, I’ll reflect on how these concepts translate to the work I’ve been doing for the past three months.

Being from the Global North inherently gives me power and privilege. While I’ve tried my best to be mindful of this, I did not know what this actually meant until I started the internship. Despite not being in Tanzania, there were many moments over the summer that showed me just how tightly power and privilege are intertwined with the work that I’m doing.

As a Westerner who is able to obtain a university education, I have been immersed in Western education and values my entire life and initially approached my work from this perspective. When I was working on a start-up package, I thought of ways of how bookkeeping can be improved for the yoghurt kitchens. I thought that having proper bookkeeping would help with budgeting, analyzing business performance, and planning for the future. In our society, everything is based on how to best maximize our success for the future. Speaking with my supervisor on this topic, I learned that some yoghurt mamas had a different mindset, one that aligned better with their context and goals. For instance, some yoghurt mamas planned for the immediate future, making enough income to support themselves and their family the next day. Decisions were made on a day-to-day basis. In this case, bookkeeping was not too important to achieve their goal.

During one Zoom meeting, my supervisor from SAUT mentioned how some locals negatively associated Fiti with HIV/AIDS. In that moment, I thought about creating some sort of poster to dispel the negative association of Fiti with HIV/AIDS. It seemed like a good plan from my Western point of view, to provide accessible knowledge in the form of posters to the general community. Wasn’t it great if we could somehow share this useful information with everyone else and solve this problem? When I messaged my host organization about this idea and asked about its cultural acceptability, they told me that it was not appropriate.

Both of these instances forced me to think about our different approaches to similar situations. Though it made sense through my Western perspective, there were many complex social, historical, and cultural factors shaping Tanzanian views that I did not yet understand completely.

More generally, I have the privilege of being very familiar with a commonly used language. I’m able to communicate well in English and use this language to converse with my host organizations, without ever having to think about switching from my native language to a foreign language. I also had the opportunity and means to intern at my host organization, but there may not be similar opportunities for students in my host country, resulting in a one-way flow of knowledge. Just from being a Westerner, I was granted with this power and privilege.

There may be other aspects of the internship associated with my power and privilege that I have missed. This is why self-reflexivity is such an important practice in international learning experiences. Reflecting on these instances strengthened my understanding of what it means to work in solidarity, what actions I can take to engage in ethical partnerships and avoid perpetuating harmful stereotypes, and improve my self-reflexivity.

Based on my experiences this summer, here’s an important tip I would like to share with anybody engaging in international internships (in-person or remote):

Instead of immediately sharing your idea and explaining how great it would be, ask your host organization first how you can best support them. They are the ultimate experts.

For me, this internship means challenging my ingrained Western values and beliefs, learning how to learn from a different culture, listening to the advice of local community members, celebrating similarities and differences, and seeing the strength in diversity.

Completely unrelated photo, but I recently learned how to longboard and I needed to share my excitement. So here’s me looking like a kid sitting on my longboard.

Stop. Breathe. Reflect.

A while ago, I wrote a reflection about the internship that is both relevant to Tanzanian culture and what the world is going through right now. I’m going to share that here. Never stop learning!

Tanzanian culture is certainly nothing short of complex and fascinating, with over 120 tribes each exerting a unique influence on one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. Though there is still much to learn, my biggest takeaway from Tanzanian culture so far is centered around the words “ubuntu”, “karibu”, and “pole pole”.

The term “ubuntu” is deeply rooted in African cultures. It reflects the idea of solidarity and collaborating together for the good of everyone. Individuals are seen as part of a connected community, learning, growing, and thriving together. It is the essence of humanity. This is quite different in Canada, where an individualistic approach to life is valued. People are independent, make their own decisions, mold their own future, and do things that will reap the greatest benefits for themselves. It is evident in our society, reflected in the competitive nature of our workforce and educational institutions. However, there is great value in teamwork and in fostering a sense of community where our collective strengths and talents can be put together to achieve what one cannot accomplish alone. “Ubuntu” is especially important during this internship, where solidarity between interns, East African partners, and other individuals involved is the first step in promoting equality, building trust, and establishing ethical, sustainable partnerships.   

Accordingly, Tanzanian culture is centered around friendliness and a welcoming nature, with their language reflecting the culture’s values. “Karibu”, meaning welcome, is often heard while walking around the streets. Striking up conversation with strangers is common . Reading about other’s experiences in Tanzania through blogs, I would imagine that friendly greetings are more widespread there than in Canada. However, I do appreciate the friendly few who do exchange greetings with me as we pass by each other, especially when I’m out for a run, walk, or bike ride. I am always left feeling positive and a sense of connectivity. Surprisingly, it is these strangers who have taught me the most about empathy, human connection, and friendliness. Growing up as a relatively reserved individual during my youth, I have developed into a welcoming and empathetic individual and become the initiator of these greetings. Regardless of culture, I believe this forms the basis for trust, friendship, and life-long connection between people. A little greeting can go a long way.

This leads to what I believe to be the defining aspect of Tanzanian culture: its slow and laid-back lifestyle.

Their pace of life is said to be “pole pole”, meaning slowly, slowly. Everything is taken one step at a time and there is never a hurry to get things done. Before rushing into work, time is spent on nurturing essential relationships with other people. It is clear that human connection is given utmost importance.

Punctuality in Tanzania is a foreign concept. Nobody is expected to be on time to a meeting or work. In fact, it is totally normal to be late. It’s the exact the opposite of what I was raised up to learn in Canada. At school and work, I’m expected to be right on time, even arriving a few minutes early. I know that this different approach in Tanzania would definitely take me some time to adjust to.

In a relatively fast-paced country like Canada, we are so focused on diving right into work, becoming robots that are programmed to output maximum efficiency.

This is apparent everywhere, from school to work. Our society values time efficiency, productivity, strict deadlines, and perfection. Only after we complete our endless list of items, we spare a few minutes to catch up with our present surroundings before burying ourselves back in work again.

We embrace this lifestyle fully without even giving it second thought. It has become deeply ingrained into our culture and it defines who we are. Consider the simple greeting “How are you?”. Most Westerners’ go-to responses revolve around some variation of “busy”. Upon hearing that, a slew of thoughts occupies my mind, such as “I must not bother this person, for they have something else to focus on” or “let’s get right to business”. My good-intentioned questions about their recent trip or hobby is pushed out of my mind, and the topic of being busy takes over the conversation once again. Consequently, I am left comparing my level of busyness with other’s and thinking that I should take on more and more to feel in line with Western society’s standards. This is an all-too-familiar situation that I encounter at home even after the workday has ended, during weekend hangouts with friends, and at leisure activities that have absolutely nothing to do with our professional work life.

I have always been brought up with this kind of thinking and accepted this way of life.

In fact, I can become so concerned with being busy that when I do have free time, it feels completely wrong.

On weekends, where I have no upcoming assignments or urgent work, I am left frantically searching for the next thing to be busy on. If I’m not busy, then I feel guilty. Our society glorifies busyness as if it is the answer to all of our problems. We choose busyness, often at the expense of forming lasting, meaningful connections with humans.

I’m not implying that being busy is a bad thing. I have lived most of my life choosing busyness. It is the most important reason for my successful completion of my associate diploma in piano performance and the reason that I am able to balance my studies with my extracurriculars, friends, and leisure time.

It is only when we blindly follow the path of busyness wherever it takes us, from one thing to the next, that we forget to slow down, recharge, look at the bigger picture, and pay attention to what actually matters: human connection.

Reflecting back on my experiences, busyness is the source of my productivity, but also the source of alienation that I have often experienced. This summer has been a great time for me to slow down and reflect on my life. While I do appreciate the productivity of Canada’s fast-paced lifestyle, I recognize a need for a balance. I’m not ever going to stop being busy, but I won’t compromise my valuable relationships with family, friends, colleagues, and even strangers.

My friend Jessie and I, being our quirky selves.

The Tanzanian concepts of “pole pole”, “ubuntu”, and “karibu” are things that everybody can learn from and greatly benefit from right now, during this rapidly changing global pandemic.

How I Got to Where I am Today/WHE Internship: The Journey of a Walking Contradiction

Warning: prepare for a long and personal revelation ahead.

Today I invite you to peer into the sheer vastness of the human mind. More specifically, mine.

This is an attempt to explain the inner-workings of my mind, which has shaped my character and lead me to where I am today and what I’m doing right now,  the WHE internship.

To give some context, this piece comes from a mini crisis after speaking to one of my closest friends about the mind-boggling yet exhilarating experience that we signed up for, aka university. Realizing that I would be moving back to London, ON for school at the end of summer break, I felt a surge of panic, thinking that I was not ready to start my fourth and final year at Western University.

I always thought university students had their life together, knew what their purpose in life was, and definitely knew what job they’d take on. As I entered university as a naïve 17-year old, I expected to emerge at the end of my four years as a seasoned, mature know-it-all adult, ready to be integrated into our productive society.

But first year blended into second, then second into third, now third into “oh my goodness I’m going into 4th year but I don’t exactly know where I’m going”.

Some people never had the “AHA” moment when they knew exactly what their purpose in life was. Then we have the lucky few who figured it out as children or experienced that life-changing moment. I happen to fall into the first category.

Following this introduction, maybe you’re expecting the clichéd story where I finally find my passion, purpose, meaning, or whatever you’d like to call it. Not quite. Nor is this a piece where I give you advice on how to find your purpose; I think everyone should be free to follow their own unique voice in their heads, without my intervening.

Rather, I’m trying to make sense of the world of my own mind that led me to where I am right now. This is by no means a complete picture of myself, but I’ve attempted to include the important parts.

My direction in life has been pushed and pulled by numerous diverse experiences. In my youth, my mother put me in many different activities and I took on many more by myself. My earliest interest was art, so I’d go to my teacher’s studio every week to learn oil painting, watercolour, and sketching. At one point, I was learning ballet, taking ballet examinations, and participating in dance competitions. Then I’d be learning how to do an axel jump in figure skating or taking ice-dancing examinations. Eventually I’d be at tennis lessons, working on my serves. Badminton tournaments at school. Long-distance running. Skiing. I could go on. So what’s the point?

I was always in the constant rhythm of learning, absorbing everything like a sponge. Each new experience led me to new insights, which filled in the blanks of my view of the world. My curiosity fuelled my desire to learn more and more, and in turn these activities fed my curiosity. It was a never-ending cycle.

It goes something like this.

However, I noticed that by participating in these seemingly unrelated activities, experiences, and hobbies, I became very open-minded, embraced curiosity in everyday life, and developed a hunger for life-long learning and understanding. Some may call me scatter-brained, but what I see is a network of intricately connected ideas and experiences that add to the layers of complexity of a person: A person that is shaped by diverse life-experiences and a person that ultimately emerges as a holistic member of the world.

Along the way, I met many interesting people, who’ve inspired me to participate in different activities that I otherwise would not have considered or thought would be possible, such as this internship! I’ve had my instances of trying to emulate what others have done, what has been tried and true, because maybe that will finally reveal life’s answers to me. After all, since so many people are doing one thing, won’t that reveal a profound truth? Not quite.

Luckily, jumping on the bandwagon did not last for me, because the unknown or less taken paths intrigued me more. I never hesitated to try something different, because that only gave me more ideas about the world that I so desperately chased after ever since I was a child.

Life is a giant puzzle with more missing pieces than I can count, and my role is to collect and search for these pieces, no matter where the journey takes me. Whether in my own mind or halfway across the globe, I’m all about the adventure. I internalize patterns, ideas, and thoughts about the world, guiding my way through life.

The beauty of the world never ceases to fascinate me. Location: Dragon’s Back, Hong Kong (December 2017)

As if my way of approaching life isn’t overwhelming enough, this is where the walking contradiction comes in. I believe that a person’s character is equally as important as their professional experiences in shaping their direction in life.

So, here are a few contradictions about me:

  • I love being around and connecting with people, yet superficial small talk and mundane everyday topics drain my energy (though I have a list of small talk topics stored whenever I have to use it). Talk to me about ideas, what-ifs, the world, the human condition, and you’ve got a friend for life! However almost everything intrigues me.
  • Getting along effortlessly and making friends easily with almost anyone, but really opening up and connecting deeply with a select few.
  • I can be extremely outspoken at times, especially if I’m really passionate about something. But in all other instances, I prefer to withdraw into my introverted shell, noticing and storing every little detail about another person.
  • I strongly value authenticity, but I adapt myself to different people and end up adopting different personalities. As an extremely empathetic individual, I unintentionally morph myself into the person that would best suit other’s needs. I could easily turn from a outgoing, crazy adrenaline junkie to a serious, withdrawn bookworm, depending on the circumstances. Maybe that’s why one friend group may see me as a vastly different individual than another group.
  • Having a spontaneous, light-hearted, and fun-loving side of me that I present to other people, but then confusing them when I move towards my preferred serious and philosophical topics. There’s never an in-between!
  • My desire to fit in with people and society, yet unwillingness to conform to what is normal and instead fiercely embracing my individuality, marching to the beat of my own drum.
  • I hide my awkwardness by putting all of my energy into trying to create a normal, easy-going persona, while perfecting the art of small talk.
  • I love structure and organization, but I will actively resist to be micro-managed.
  • My seemingly scatter-brained way of doing things that drive others crazy, yet accomplishing my tasks on time by the end of the day.
  • My soft-spoken and easy-going nature, but holding unshakeable values and opinions that are mostly hidden.
  • Having a child-like wonder of the world, yet being deeply concerned with all of the problems in the world affecting vulnerable populations.

What is the result of these mind-boggling experiences?

My experiences, along with the mix of contradictory qualities that make me who I am, certainly shaped many of my perspectives.

For me, it is only through experiencing many things in the world, whether exciting, saddening, angering, or underwhelming, that I am able to pinpoint a common underlying thread that unites my thoughts, actions, and endeavours.

Especially in the past few years, I’ve naturally gravitated towards activities where I can connect, inspire, and help people, young and old. I wanted to learn about what makes people tick, what motivates them, and their life experiences and challenges. I love supporting people in ways that align with their values, because seeing their dedication, energy, and accomplishments is truly fascinating and inspiring.

Some patterns I’ve noticed about my goals:

  • Curiosity and a never-ending desire for learning
  • Inspiring and motivating people
  • Encouraging people to follow their values
  • Forming deep and meaningful relationships with people to expand my perspectives
  • Exploring the world and learning about different cultures
  • Focusing on the bigger picture and doing things for the greater good of the world
  • Using my voice to amplify those of vulnerable populations

For the most part, my focus is on people. More specifically, the well-being of people and how we live in the world.

This is where the WHE internship comes in. I saw it as an opportunity to educate myself of the inequalities in the world, learn how to work in solidarity with oppressed and vulnerable populations, learn from the local community of Tanzania, challenge my ways of thinking, leave the society of Western values and thinking, and become a global citizen. The internship is as much of a learning experience as it is a personal growth journey, where I always strive to be a better version of myself. I can educate myself further about the Global North/Global South relationship, engage in ethical, responsible partnerships, reflect on my power and privilege, and practice self-reflexivity.

A main reason why this internship stood out to me is the involvement of many different institutions, all playing an equally important part, no matter the level of involvement, in translating scientific knowledge into local community action. It includes hospitals, research institutions, universities, students, yoghurt mamas, local leaders and NGOs, and many more, working in harmony and solidarity for the health and well-being of local communities.

After being thrown into this interconnected network of different organizations as a student intern and allowing myself to be pushed and pulled by the dynamic relationships between the groups, I began exploring and directing my attention towards the ever-evolving fields of global health, advocacy, and medicine.

This may be an oversimplification of how I ended up with my current interests, but it is another example of how my curiosity leads me to new experiences and new experiences igniting my curiosity. Even better, the internship led to my unexpected interest in turning to writing as a creative outlet. This is the allure of being open to new experiences; you never know what exciting thing you’ll discover next!

While keeping up with all of my ideas and thoughts is both exhausting and exhilarating, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Well, there you have it. Me in a nutshell.

Congrats, you’ve reached the end!!!

Do you feel the same way too or do you think about the world differently than I do? What makes you tick?

Zoom-ing to all these International Meetings!

Who isn’t in the mood for a Zoom pun once in a while?

A while ago, Gurleen, Dora and I co-wrote a post about some tips to schedule virtual meetings. It may seem simple, but you’d be surprised at all of the important little details that slip your mind. The Canadian Coalition for Global Health Research (CCGHR) published our post, which can be found here!

Please enjoy.

Time zones, toggles and telecommunications: Navigating an online internship during COVID-19 + Tips for the technologically challenged!

As emerging global health professionals, we must learn to be adaptable; unpredictable project funding, changing foreign policy priorities, cultural differences, delayed flights – the list goes on. This spring, with COVID-19 disrupting virtually every sphere of society, we have gotten a crash course in what it means to be adaptable in the face of uncertainty! We wanted to take the opportunity to share some of our learnings, missteps and even a few “A-ha” moments with others who may be similarly navigating an online, international internship.

We – Dora, Gurleen & Jasmine – are a group of interns working with an organization based at Western University that implements programming internationally. The group we are working with is known as Western Heads East (WHE). WHE is a collaboration between Western University in London, Canada, and African partners in either Rwanda, Tanzania, or Kenya, using probiotic food to contribute to health and sustainable development. Largely through probiotic yoghurt social enterprises, the program is established in under-serviced areas of Sub-Saharan Africa to address HIV/AIDS, health, the empowerment of women, and economic development.

Our Mikono Yetu partners with some of the 2019 interns from last year.

Before COVID-19 swept across the world before our eyes, Dora and Jasmine were getting ready for their journey to Mwanza, Tanzania. There, they would be working with the Mikono Yetu Centre for Creativity and Innovation, an NGO that empowers women and girls through the ownership of probiotic yogurt kitchens. Perhaps, they would even go on to climb Mount Kilimanjaro (the highest mountain in Africa), gain more fluency in Swahili, and form meaningful relationships with the local community.

Gurleen, on the other hand, had a completely different vision in mind. As part of her Masters of Management of Applied Science (MMASc) in Global Health Systems in Africa (GHS-A), she was preparing to go to Uganda with her entire cohort as part of their international summer practicum placements. Now with COVID-19, plans have shifted into students in her program having to pursue remote placements, while taking this learning experience in stride.

Due to this change in plans, our team, consisting of us and other students that we collaborate with on occasion, came together to work with Mikono Yetu and the St. Augustine University of Tanzania (SAUT) probiotic kitchens. With both institutions being based in Mwanza, Tanzania, and the three of us remaining in Ontario, Canada, we had to learn quickly how to accomplish our tasks remotely; with our tasks ranging from online presentations to SAUT students, digital kitchen mapping, creating business and marketing documents, and more!

If you’re anything like us and your international internship plans have been burst by the bombshell of Corona, you may find yourself struggling to schedule meetings remotely. Although we are supposedly tech-savvy millennials, the advent of new platforms like Zoom has flustered the entire working world and left many of us stumbling through the use of numerous toggles and tabs. So, for all of our fellow stragglers, here are some tips that can help you excel at navigating the virtual landscape of working with international partners amidst a global pandemic:

●  First, find a preferred mode of communication. This may vary for your organization or partners: for us, we have found WhatsApp as the fastest platform to instantly message our partners in East Africa. This is occasionally supplemented with attachments on emails and Zoom calls to mimic in-person connections. Direct lines of communication may prove useful to ask questions and engage in extended dialogue about project priorities and deliverables.

●  Next comes the awkward dance of matching schedules. Every person has their own daily list of responsibilities, making it hard to coordinate meetings. This can especially be seen in the different ways of life that exist in various countries. We know first-hand that the way of life in Tanzania, our host country, differs from Canada. While many of us in North America (ourselves included) schedule our lives in advance using agendas and Google Calendar reminders due to an individualistic approach to life, many people in countries, such as Tanzania, have a more relaxed approach to timekeeping due to group solidarity (i.e. the term Ubuntu, which often translates into “I am because we are”). The African philosophy of Ubuntu relates to a sense of happiness and belonging through deep-rooted values of community. Therefore, a group relies on each other, and often a less rigorously scheduled way of life is the norm. Due to these sociocultural differences, we find it useful to set meeting reminders for the entire group a day before, leading to a greater sense of group mentality. And who doesn’t appreciate a reminder for a meeting when it’s slipped one’s mind?

●  Don’t forget the time zone differences! Sleep schedules are important and should be maintained and respected, amongst the other daily obligations of life. In our case, there is a 7-hour time difference between our Canadian team and our East African partners. As such, it is important to be aware of what time works best to connect with one another. For instance, all our zoom meeting calls are scheduled within a specific window of time (i.e. between 8am-12pm EDT (Eastern Daylight Time) which is between 3pm-7pm EAT (East Africa Time)). This works best for us since some of our partners in Tanzania work in a school or go to school earlier in the day.

●  If using Zoom, don’t forget to redeem your host privileges (by using your host key in the participant’s tab) during your meetings so you can wield the all-mighty privilege of muting individuals during calls. This may seem unimportant until there is conflicting background noise. You may also find it beneficial to create a group chat for sharing details behind the scenes and advising your colleagues discreetly on how to handle any mishaps that may occur, furthering a sense of Ubuntu. 

●  If individuals are unable to attend the meeting, make sure to record the Zoom meeting and send the recording off afterward. Recordings will get saved after the meeting ends, so do not fret if you don’t see the recording right away.

Online recorded presentation presented by Gurleen, Dora and Jasmine (as seen from top to bottom).

We hope these tips and tricks make all the difference for you to successfully navigate collaborating with international partners remotely during COVID-19. We know they helped us immensely! Good luck!

Think Virtual Work is Easy? Think Again!

Who would have thought?

Oftentimes, I would think that working from the comfort and safety of my own home offered a much more appealing alternative than being physically present. Consider university classes, for example. After all, who wouldn’t want to work at their own pace, choose when to interact with people, and snack as much as you wish, all in the peace of your own space with no distractions?

There’s not a second wasted on going back and forth between outfits, haphazardly stuffing your belongings into your bag as you sprint out of the house, or catching a ride to your destination. No more reaching your destination with a short-lived sigh of relief, before silently cursing under your breath because you forgot your lunch or water bottle while speeding through your morning routine. What an enemy time can be!

These past few weeks have changed my mind.

Let me start by mentioning that before this internship,  I have never used so many different online communication platforms, all at once.

  • Zoom is used for weekly intern meetings and meetings with our East African partners, Mikono Yetu and SAUT
  • We get important notifications through email
  • Microsoft Teams comes to the rescue for more informal conversation between interns and supervisors
  • Facebook messenger and video for sharing exclusive top-secret information with Gurleen and Dora
  • What’s App for chatting with our East African partners, also their preferred mode of communication
  • Slack for communicating with the WHE Fundraising and Education Committee

When I was meeting with the Fundraising and Education Committee (FEC) today on Zoom, I thought that sharing my screen with our shared document was a genius idea. Without realizing it, I started checking my email, trying to copy and paste emails to the FEC document. After many failed attempts doing so, I panicked and remembered that I was on screen-sharing, and that everybody had seen me struggling and my emails. Not that I have anything to hide, but it is still weird! I abruptly exited screen-sharing mode, feeling both embarrassed and exasperated. Do not fall into this trap.

Another challenge is coordinating meetings with SAUT when Tanzania is 7 hours ahead of our time. I’m always performing mental gymnastics in my head as I try to confirm a reasonable meeting time.

What I’m doing right now is trying to schedule a probiotic lecture and training with our presenter, Toby, and SAUT. I feel like a delivery man, relaying Toby’s email message to SAUT via What’s App, and vice versa. Have they seen my message? How long will it take for them to respond so I can tell the other party? There are many things to consider, such as when students finish their classes, when SAUT professors are free, and internet access.

I thought it would be a lot easier if we record the presentation and send it to our partners at SAUT, but realized it would be a lot more interactive and engaging if everyone could attend in real-time, even through virtual means. So the back and forth emailing begins once again.

If we were all together in one room, this would have been a lot easier.

At the same time, I feel like I’m in the middle of a serious top-notch business operation, requiring me to watch sharply for email and text notifications as if the next message contains the solution to the world’s problems. The language of my emails is overly formal and I use phrases that I never would in casual face to face communication. There have been too many times where I’ve ended of my email with the clichéd “best regards”, “best”, “thanks”, “sincerely”, you name it. It’s kind of amusing.

The Great Wall of China (Beijing, 2007). Introducing mini me, pretending to do business since ’07. This is how I feel like when I’m behind the scenes sending all those emails.

What is your go-to ending?

I have to go catch my next meeting in ten minutes. I wonder what mishap Zoom is going to throw at me this time.  

In the meantime, stay tuned for my co-authored blog post with Gurleen and Dora about tips on scheduling international meetings!

A Day in the Life of a Remote Intern

One of the questions that I get asked the most is “Omg that’s so cool, do you get to see the falls everyday?” No, although I live 10 minutes away from the falls, I don’t see it everyday and yes, Niagara Falls is its own city. We’ve got a solid population of 88,000 as of 2016, but I’m sure it’s grown a lot more over the recent years. The city is currently in the process of building a new Costco. If that doesn’t draw you in, I don’t know what will (who doesn’t love Costco?).

This is the city that I call home and also the city that I am staying in while working on my internship.

I took this photo after a 5K run at the Niagara Falls International Marathon. This was a rather gloomy day in Niagara Falls, and the only photo of the Falls I could find on my phone.

My typical day starts off with me waking up to the sound of birds chirping before sunrise, then me trying to savour the extra few minutes of sleep before my alarm goes off obnoxiously at 6 am. I know, why would anybody get up this early? I pull my sneakers on absentmindedly and head outside, with the refreshing, cool air touching my skin and jolting me awake. I picture a route in my head, then start off gradually with a slow jog and eventually settle at a steady pace by the end of my run. The early morning air is fresh and cool, the world is quiet around me, the sun is lazily stretching up in the sky, and I am left in peace with my thoughts. Other than passing by a few early risers and exchanging friendly greetings, there are no distractions, making the morning my favourite time of the day.

5:43 am. Not my best sunrise picture, but I am determined to capture the perfect sunrise (only if I manage to get up). The problem here, you see, is that I am more than willing to get up super early, but less inclined to go to sleep early. Any tips?

I did not do cross-country or track in middle school or high school. My mom was always a runner, so I decided to go on a jog with her one day. For some reason, I surprisingly stuck with it ever since.

Annually, my mom and dad have participated in 5k races hosted by the Niagara Falls International Marathon. Now I am running 5K and 10K races next to them. The infectious energy of the crowd, the strangers shouting positive encouragements at you, and the excitement bring us back every year. It may not happen this year, but we will always be ready to return to the large crowd of tireless runners.

What I’m saying is that the sweat, the fatigue, and the breathlessness are all worth it. Invest in a solid pair of running shoes and give running a chance. Physically, it strengthens my body. Mentally, it strengthens my mind. Running never fails to lift my mood and energy. This is the reason why I get up morning after morning, at 6 am.

Not convinced? Well, it is also my excuse when I unashamedly eat a larger than normal portion of dessert and it could be yours too.

I’m going to get to the details of my internship soon, but this post won’t be complete until I share my favourite breakfast.

What you are seeing here is scrambled chickpeas, pancakes, and fresh berries. I’m trying my best but I’m not a professional food photographer. If you have tips on how to take good photos please let me know. It’s about time I learned.

Scrambled chickpeas with jalapeños, red onion, garlic, and cumin seeds. It’s packed with protein and so easy to make, which makes it even better. You can probably tell that I’m really passionate about exercise and food.

With my exercise for the day completed, I bike to my aunt’s house, where I do most of my work. It is the only space that I can find peace and quiet. If I’m not in a meeting with my fellow interns or project partners, then I’m on my laptop answering emails, doing a bit of internet research for my project, and keeping in contact with close friends.

My workplace. I took this picture while I was writing this blog and almost fell off my chair while in the process. Not seen in this picture are the heaping amounts of snacks and wrappers that I bring with me.

Around dinner time, I return home and scavenge for any snacks that I can find. In my family, dinner is not big due to my mom’s reluctance of eating too much before nighttime. At most, we eat a bowl of soup or eat a few homemade buns.

Occasionally, I can be found making a new recipe with my sister, late at night. Then comes my mom, who defeatedly shakes her head at us, but ends up snacking on what we made anyway. My day ends with a walk with my mom, the most valuable time of the day. We exchange ideas, discuss our work, and laugh at non-sensical things.

Another highlight from the past week that I must mention is my strange fascination for thunderstorms and lightning. Contrary to most people I’ve talked to, thunderstorms calm me down.

I finally figured out how to show 6 photos at once. I’m still quite new to blogging. Choose your favourite.

There’s nothing fancy in my daily life. I’ve always thought that doing more and having more is good, but I’ve come to learn that doing less is more. It took me less than a heartbeat to do the first, but a rather long time to learn the second. It wasn’t long ago that I was jumping at every opportunity I had, whether it was replying to every single friend all the time, checking my social media, or scrolling endlessly through the news. These distractions prevented me from focusing on what truly matters; my internship, myself, my family, my closest friends.

Over these months at home, I’ve eliminated my distractions. Gone from my life is social media and time spent on things that just don’t matter. By doing less, I’ve put in more high quality time into things that do matter.

Consequently, my mind is becoming less cluttered and my uncommon purpose is in focus again.

First Meeting with Maimuna

Working from home isn’t proving to be as bad as I thought. I enjoy the freedom of designing my own work schedule, taking my own time, and creating personal learning goals (as well as supporting Mikono Yetu’s goals) for the internship.

As a bonus, I have an attractive friend to keep me company throughout the summer. Her name is 小红 (Chinese for “Little Red”). Isn’t she a pretty girl? Fun fact, the photo of me below is also the photo on my student card.

Last Tuesday, Gurleen, Dora, and I met with Maimuna, who is the current director of the Mikono Yetu (Swahili for “our hands”).  Of course, this was done virtually through Zoom.

I had the pleasure of speaking with and learning more about Maimuna and her work. Before becoming the director of Mikono Yetu, she worked with Kivulini Women’s Rights Organization, an NGO that strives to mobilize communities to prevent domestic violence and to respect the rights of women and girls. Maimuna undoubtedly brings a wealth of expertise to Mikono Yetu, along with her vision to empower women and girls economically. I’m excited to have her as my supervisor!

I learned that Bob (my supervisor back at Western) and Maimuna met in 2004. I wasn’t even in grade 1 then! I can’t help but wonder about all of the work, progress, and community impact that the Fiti probiotic yoghurt kitchens have accomplished throughout the years. It is definitely not anything short of impressive.

After speaking with Maimuna, we (Gurleen, Dora, and I) decided to focus on 3 main areas: kitchen mapping, developing a marketing strategy, and drafting a start-up package. We would all take the lead on one project, and help each other accordingly.

Kitchen mapping is a continuation of the efforts initiated back in the summer of 2018, where interns visited yoghurt kitchens in Tanzania and collected data on production, sales, successes, and challenges. As of 2018, there are 27 documented kitchens out of 50. In addition to completing the kitchen mapping efforts, we hope to collect more data on finance, operations, marketing, and sales in order to gain a more comprehensive understanding of each kitchen. This data will then provide us information about each kitchen’s status, informing us of how we can best support the needs of the kitchens. But how will we collect data if we aren’t physically there? This will be discussed with Maimuna, which will most likely result in a staff member who can help us. There are always solutions to seemingly difficult situations, if you are open-minded and get creative enough!

Quickly combing through the latest kitchen mapping data and reports, I identified many areas of inconsistencies amongst the kitchens. For instance, some kitchens didn’t have proper bookkeeping, an essential part of running a social enterprise. Branding of the Fiti probiotic yoghurt was inconsistent across the kitchens, ineffective for establishing a solid brand presence. Many people in local communities lacked knowledge about the benefits of Fiti. It is sometimes difficult to obtain high-quality milk. A common problem is the addition of water to milk by suppliers, rendering it unusable to produce high quality yoghurt.

We will identify possible solutions to these challenges, guided by Maimuna, previous intern reports, and WHE supervisors. I’m impressed by the creativity of previous interns, who have outlined promising initiatives, but did not get the chance to execute them. These will be discussed hopefully in a later post, as I begin to follow up on them and narrow down on specific tasks.

Over the past few days, I read through reports and drafted a summary of learning outcomes and internship goals. It felt like a scavenger hunt, searching and gathering for bits and pieces of crucial information in previous reports in order to create a coherent story. I won’t go into excruciating detail. Briefly, this includes:

Compilation of a start-up package which would provide new kitchens with instructions to operate a yoghurt kitchen and resources for marketing, finance, and training. Ultimately, the goal is the standardization of existing and future kitchens, ensuring high quality yoghurt, customer loyalty, economic empowerment of women, and sustainability in the long-term.

To be honest, reading through the reports and identifying goals left me with more questions than answers. At points, I felt frustrated not knowing everything. The last time I did something business-related was at SHAD 2016, when I was challenged to address the issue of food insecurity. My teammates and I designed and built a prototype of a portable greenhouse and wrote a business plan. Fun as it was, our plan was just an idea. The start-up package that I’m about to help create is for the Fiti probiotic yoghurt kitchens in Tanzania. It is a huge responsibility.

Starting tomorrow, and then every Tuesday, I will meet with all of the current WHE interns from Tanzania, Kenya, and Rwanda to discuss our progress, successes, and challenges. On Wednesday, I will meet with professor Delphine Kessey from Saint Augustine University of Tanzania (SAUT). The SAUT campus kitchen is another project that deserves its own post.

Reflecting back on my first week, I’ve discovered quite a few things.

First, the only thing preventing you from acting on something or taking on a challenge is… you! Nobody forced me to do this internship, I chose to do it because it is empowering and meaningful. The internship will of course come with frustration, struggles, and confusion. But this quote says it all:

“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty…I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”- Theodore Roosevelt.

Second, I am a quote collector.

Third, I’m starting to enjoy writing.

Pre-internship Thoughts From a First-time Blogger

I’m writing my first post as I am sitting on a sofa in my living room, both reflecting on my past few months and wondering about my next few months. It is May, and the weather has become warmer and the sun brighter. The beautiful days are full of promise, hope, and happiness. What else am I missing? Right, we are also in the midst of a global pandemic due to COVID-19.

March 12th, 2020 was the day that everything changed. In the back of my head, I knew that the COVID-19 outbreak was on the rise around the world since the new year, but I was suddenly thrown into reality when Western University announced that classes would be cancelled, and that lectures and exams would be moved online. I was in surprise for that whole night, chatting in amazement with my peers. It seemed so abrupt and sudden.

A day earlier, the president of Western University had announced that all university-sanctioned travel was to be cancelled, which included my WHE internship. My heart dropped. I was really looking forward to travelling to Tanzania, which would have been the highlight of my year.

However, the story does not just end there. We were then given an opportunity to participate in a remote WHE internship, something that’s never been done before. After my final exams had finished, I immersed myself in reading past intern blogs and final reports. Since I was not physically going to be in Mwanza, Tanzania, it was very important for me to learn as much as I can about the culture, projects, key partners, successes, and challenges through past intern final reports and blogs. This was as close as I can get to having a firm grasp of what my role was during the internship, how I can best support the initiatives remotely, and set realistic expectations and goals.

Through our online orientation sessions with the WHE coordinators, I began to gain a clearer picture of my internship project and had most of my questions answered. I will be working with Mikono Yetu, a women-led grassroots NGO aimed at economically empowering women and girls based in Mwanza, Tanzania. The organization seeks to empower women so that they can control land and resources more sustainable, productive way. This is largely achieved through the ownership of the Fiti probiotic yogurt social enterprises in Tanzania. Most recently, a factory model of Fiti yogurt production and distribution was established in 2018. In the past, interns have collaborated with Mikono Yetu on various tasks such as mapping kitchens, conducting taste and texture surveys of various probiotic foods, designing marketing materials, securing funding, and creating yogurt tracking sheets. Throughout the years, the interns have established and contributed to a framework for future interns to work from, building on each other’s previous efforts. It is truly a team effort.

From my preliminary understanding of my role, I will work with the organization to develop a plan for kitchen mapping, data collection methods, data analysis strategies, and support the establishment of the Fiti Training and Production Centre.

This summer, there are a total of four interns placed in Mwanza, three of us with Mikono Yetu and one with Education for Better Living (EBLI), a non-profit organization aimed at reducing teen pregnancies and supporting young mothers. We were told that we could help out with various projects, not just working on our own project. I’m excited to see where this teamwork will take us, what we will accomplish together, and the incredible learning process that we will engage in. I hope to establish more defined and detailed goals as I settle into this internship, but most importantly, gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for the East African partners who have helped to shape WHE throughout the years.

The remote nature of this internship will be full of challenges, and because we are the first interns to ever to participate in a remote internship, it is daunting. What will online communication look like? What resources do I have to help me? How can I ensure that I am doing good work? What unanticipated challenges will come up? Though I am nervous and a bit anxious about the upcoming internship, I will have all the support from my supervisors, fellow interns, family, and friends.

Is this the ideal internship? Definitely not. But what I do know is that whatever happens in the next few months, it will be full of learning, self-reflexivity, overcoming self-doubt, and challenging myself in brand new ways. Through this experience, I hope to demonstrate that you don’t have to travel all over the world in order to become a globally-minded citizen.

Resilience, adaptability, and curiosity are values that I hold close to my heart, and will certainly shape my perspectives throughout the summer as the world navigates this uncertain time.