January 28, 2011

How I got where I am - Part 3: Ghana and my internship

In June 2010, when British Airways’ employees were on strike, I flew from Prague, through London and Lagos, to Accra, Ghana. I was finally – for the first time since 2007 – going back to Africa and I was both scared and excited. The main reason of this trip was to spend 2.5 months interning at a Ghanaian NGO, whose name I’m not sure if I should say here... Let me just say that it is an organization that is supposed to promote women’s rights and fight against HIV/AIDS.

I found this organization on my own, through days and days of Google search and stuff like that, and it looked pretty cool. While getting the internship was definitely time-taking, dealing with all the formalities later wasn’t much better. I am not the type of person who likes e-mailing people with the same request a million times, but since I was applying for travel grants to be able to go and “my” NGO wasn’t responding, there was nothing else I could do. I probably should have taken that as a warning. Long story short – I got all the signatures I needed in the end. But I was also told in a very unfriendly way by the then president of the organization when meeting her for the first time that I should understand that people working in organizations like theirs are really busy and interns shouldn’t ask them to sign any papers at all. I remembered that encounter many times later during my internship on various occasions, especially when most of my colleagues were watching soap operas every afternoon at work.

But let’s go back a little bit… About 3 weeks before my departure for Ghana, I got an e-mail from the national coordinator of the organization saying that we should come up with a more specific plan for my internship. Great, I thought, they really care and it’s going to be good!  And so we made a plan. I received the Newman Award for Intergenerational Relationships to go to Ghana and thus I suggested researching the impact of HIV/AIDS on relationships within families, how they affect intergenerational relationships and how roles within families are changing due to HIV/AIDS. The coordinator agreed and assured me that this area needs research in Ghana and that it is perfect because they are just starting a project with HelpAGE Ghana and thus I can join them... It all seemed great. I wrote a research proposal and it seemed she read it all… It turned out only later that – if she actually had read it – this was probably the only time she ever read anything I wrote…

Excited about the internship I got to Ghana. I was happy to be back on the continent and I was happy to meet what is always going to be my Ghanaian family. I am pretty sure that if it wasn’t for them – definitely some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met – I might have left Ghana earlier because my organization turned out to be a very frustrating place. And commute happily 2 hours to work when you know that most people will do nothing the whole day. I at least always had my great family home at the end of my 2-hour commute back.

The trotro stop in front of our house
The street I walked every day to get to the office
 Back to my internship. The first day, when all we did was waiting around only to be told after 3 hours of waiting that nobody is coming, should have opened my eyes, but being a hopeless optimist sometimes, I still believed it was going to be good. Two weeks later, I realized that the fact that nothing got done during the first two weeks just meant that nothing was going to get done. Nobody cared. I am pretty sure that the excuse would be that they were waiting for money to come to start the project, but I would believe that that was the only reason only if I didn’t have to watch my colleague sleep on her desk at work (or on the couch, sometimes, which I actually preferred because at least I didn’t see her), or listen to another colleague’s explanation why he didn’t come to work (strike of the trotro drivers… to be hones, it’s still one of my favorite jokes coming from him).

And here you’re probably wondering if I got something done. Yes, I did. But only because I gave up on waiting on them to help me or connect me with people. I said – I’d love to meet with the Queen Mothers, they said “yea, you can, but they’re really hard to work with, you’ll have to pay them all dinner and stuff.” Guess what? I did meet with them, thanks to my friend’s former boss, and no, I didn’t have to pay anything. Actually, I met with Manye Esther many times (and just in case, once again, here’s their website).

Me with Manye Esther from the Queen Mothers Association
I was lucky to have my friend Edem around. He connected me with people, he helped me with interviews (as did my Ghanaian sister Naa) when I was interviewing people who didn’t speak English, he explained things to me about Ghana and thanks to him I was able to finish my research, although I had to change the topic. I had limited resources and wasn’t able to connect with enough people working in the field I wanted to research. In the end, I changed the topic to support for AIDS orphans and other children made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS.

 I did research on a topic slightly different from the original one, but I did it. I did it despite my office’s attempts to make me do nothing and despite the fact they didn’t do anything they had promised. I did it because I am lucky to have great people around who believe in me and are willing to help. I did it because giving up wasn’t an option (I went to Ghana determined to make it worth it no matter what it takes). I did it because I believe that the people I interviewed matter. It was frustrating at times, sad at times (no school can make you ready to see the people you’re interviewing crying in front of you because their lives are so difficult and because you’re probably the first person in a long time who actually asked them about it), but it was worth it.

I learned a lot about the lives of AIDS orphans, people living with HIV/AIDS and generally about Ghanaians affected by HIV/AIDS in any way. They live tough lives – although the HIV prevalence rate in Ghana isn’t so high (about 2 %) compared to many other sub-Saharan African countries, it’s a very big issue that needs attention because of the omnipresent stigma and discrimination of such people.

And what’s the most important lesson I learned for my future involvement in the development field? Local, grass-roots NGOs are great because we need to know what the local people think, we can’t do much without them; however, before you go start working for a local NGO, find out what “working” means for the people employed there. Because just being local doesn’t bring about any change. Just being doesn’t bring about any change. They key word is do, not be. But don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret going to Ghana to work there at all. I certainly learned more than any class could ever teach me. It was a great lesson on the development field. And let me throw another cliché here – I learned a lot about myself, too.

And if you want to read more about my Ghanaian experience, you can look here, too.

Although I never thought it was funny when Percy woke me up at 5:30am, these two guys and their family made my stay in Ghana much easier. They're always going to be a part of my family.

January 13, 2011

How I got where I am – Part 2: South Africa

As I have said before, I studied in South Africa. Why? Because I had a South African roommate in Canada who studied Political Science like I did. She was cool and I thought South Africa would be a cool place to visit, so I wanted to figure out how to go to South Africa. It turned out I could get a scholarship. I applied for ISEP and I got it.

In January 2007, I believe it was the 19th, I flew Prague - London - Cape Town. I'm not going to bore you with all the visa troubles and stuff like that. I'm just going to tell you that driving from the Cape Town Airport to Stellenbosch was just shocking. The people from the University were asking us all the polite questions but I was speechless - the highway passes Khayelitsha, one of the many townships of South Africa, and I realized that I was just a European girl (I tend to say "spoiled" but I don't think I really was - unless being used to what people have here inherently means you're spoiled) who had no idea what tough life was about. It's one thing to read about it and quite a different thing to be right next to it. I couldn't believe it was possible that people lived there! Yes, that's how much I didn't know.

Khayelitsha as seen from the highway
And after watching the shacks that are homes to so many people, I got to Stellenbosch where I was going to live for 6 months. Stellenbosch is pretty. Stellenbosch is also segregated, although it's not official anymore. The university residence where I stayed was the most luxurious home I had throughout my student years. I shared an apartment with 3 other girls but we each had our own bathroom and we had a lady coming to clean our apartment twice a week. We were behind a fence, with security guards checking everyone's IDs when getting in. Behind security doors. It was still nothing compared to the house where my friend lived - huge and beautiful and with a swimming pool... and behind a wall. I knew that I was immediately labeled the privileged one (and well, I was, in a way), although I was myself shocked by the luxury in which a minority of South Africans live, and although I would never be able to afford to pay for the room I had if it wasn't for my scholarship. No matter what, it didn't feel right.

And then I joined a group of international students, through the International Student Organization Stellenbosch, participating in the iKaya Primary After-school Care Program. We'd spend every Wednesday afternoon with the kids from iKaya Primary School in Kaymandi (another South African township whose name means, very ironically, sweet home in Xhosa) helping them with English. Fridays were for sports. We also organized a trip to the Parliament in Cape Town (while it's only 50 kilometers away and not even 10 Rands by train from Stellenbosch, some of the kids had never been there before), or to Jonkershoek Nature Reserve, and spent an afternoon cleaning the area around the school (I spent at least 20 minutes chasing a 5-year-old boy who found a knife among all the underwear, bottles and stuff like this under one of the trees, trying to take it from him). The kids were from 8 to 15, but most of them knew about the hard things in life much more than any of us. Hearing about sanitation facilities, or rather the lack of thereof, was upsetting, hearing about how many girls get raped there was just more than I had ever really wanted to know.

Learning about plants in Jonkershoek
Someone wanna talk to you!
I also spent one afternoon a week in one of many Kayamandi crèches with a friend of mine, playing with kids and trying to - maybe hopelessly - give them the attention they should get as kids, but they were often not getting because they were born into such difficult situations.

While the activities at the primary school were organized through the university, and thus we had transport to get there, I had to walk to Kayamandi after my friend left - since I didn't have a car - to go to the crèche. It was maybe a 20, 30-minute walk from where I stayed, across the Kayamandi bridge, from the pretty world of little old European-like houses to a completely different world of almost no infrastructure, shacks and 20% HIV prevalence rate. I walked from my university residence where they were watering the grass even on rainy days to a place where people had no easy access to potable water. I liked the world across the bridge from where I stayed better, though. And for the lack of better explanations, I'll just throw a cliché here - I liked Kayamandi better because of the people. They were really friendly and after a couple of weeks of me walking through "their" streets, they'd say hi and how are you and I was happy to be able to join the people on the street on Fridays watching street performances (and South Africans are extremely talented so it was always worth it) and not feeling weird.

My Stellenbosch home 
A Kayamandi home

And that's why South Africa (and Kayamandi) will always be a special place for me. That's where I realized what it is that that I want to do. Playing with balloons with kids who'd never seen them, spending an hour drawing flowers with a girl who didn't want to try because she had never used crayons before and was scared that she couldn't do it... to finally watch her draw a flower next to mine. Things like that, only hopefully on a larger scale, but with similar impact on the individuals.


I saw more of Southern Africa thanks to this "study trip." I went to Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe after school was over because I knew that I wouldn't make it back to that part of the world any time soon. All these countries were great and beautiful. But it was also a great learning experience. 

The more difficult it was for me to go back to school back home again to study theories of international relations and Cold War events... Because how was that going to get the people out of the Khayletisha shacks?

January 6, 2011

How I got where I am – Part 1: I was gonna be a student forever...

I always say education is key to everything. I was lucky to be born in a country where education is free. I was also lucky to have a choice over what I studied, although I sometimes wish I knew better when making my choices: if I studied engineering or medicine, it’d be so much easier to get a job in development! But how could I know? I had no idea what I wanted to do when I was 18… I did know that I liked English. I also knew that studying only English wouldn’t be enough. So I applied to more schools, mostly for economics. But then a friend of mine told me – about 2 days before the deadline – that the School of Social Sciences at Masaryk University in Brno seems really cool, that they have a lot of international students… and so I applied to study Political Science and International Relations there. Long story short, when deciding what to do, my dad, who is a civil engineer, told me: “You can go study economics later, political science seems more interesting.” And so I moved to Brno to study Political Science and International Relations at the Faculty of Social Sciences and English Language and Literature at the Faculty of Arts. Three majors + a job to pay the rent = a sure way to learn how to prioritize and work well under stress.

In the course of the next 5 years, I finished my classes, wrote two Bachelor’s theses and got two Bachelor’s degrees. I went on and enrolled in two Master’s programs: International Relations and English Language and Literature. I dropped English after the first semester because I simply couldn’t find the passion needed to study 16th century English.
In 2009, I graduated with a Master’s degree in International Relations, although it wasn’t a walk through a rose garden either (which is what we say in Czech when something isn’t easy). I began my master’s program with a semester abroad at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa where I took classes at the Political Science department. I learned about conflicts in Africa, democratization in the context of sub-Saharan Africa, conflict resolution, and about the culture, history and politics of South Africa. I think that I had never been so serious about school before as I was in Stellenbosch. I loved my classes.

My South African experience was so strong that I decided to change the topic of my BA thesis from relations between South Africa and Great Britain to South African townships, their history, their importance, impact on cultural and political life etc. (If you’re interested, you can read it here). It was so strong that coming back to the Czech Republic to return to theories of international relations and the focus on transatlantic relationships suddenly wasn’t appealing at all. I didn’t want to do that. I came back and kept telling people that I don’t care about this stuff because there are people dying in the world and we discuss 100-year-old theories! But well, every school has a different focus, I guess. I did my best not to quit school and still do what I was interested in. I picked my classes carefully, although the choice for me wasn’t that wide, and I decided to write my Master’s thesis on sub-Saharan Africa, the prospects of democracy in the SADC region and the impact of socio-economic factors on democracy, in particular. Finding a topic was easy, finding a supervisor at a school with a completely different regional focus, that was another story. I didn’t give up, though, and with the help of the academic advisor, I convinced Dr. Hlousek to be my supervisor, wrote it, defended it and was happy when Dr. Hlousek told me that he had learned a lot thanks to me (you can read it here if you want).

So I was done with school, but didn’t know what's next. I knew I wanted to “do good for people” but I didn’t really know how, the theories and my ability to name European political parties didn’t really help. And so I accepted the scholarship I was offered by the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) and moved to the US to get a Master’s in Public and International Affairs (MPIA).
Not even a month ago, I graduated with MPIA. However, if you look at my transcript, you’ll realize that that’s not what I actually did. I think that I should be writing MID (Master of International Development) instead of MPIA next to my name, but these are just letters anyways. I finally learned more about development, what has worked and what hasn’t, HIV/AIDS, urbanization, education… the things I wanted to learn. Although there are many things I’d change at that school, I also think it was worth it, it was a good experience and I think I learned things I will use, one day. I also met many people with the same interests and many people who are extremely inspiring, which is more important to me than I’d ever think.

And that’s it as far as my education is concerned. I’m glad to be done with school, so no PhDs for me, at least not now. And if you expected “I have wanted to save Africa since I was 5 and that’s how I was choosing what to study,” sorry for the disappointment.

January 4, 2011

Hi, welcome and a little intro

I come from the Czech Republic. I like Europe because it's small and it's easy to get to places, but my favorite mountains are in Canada and one of the most important places of my life is in South Africa. Kayamandi, a South African township, is where I realized what I want to do "when I grow up" – I want to help people make their lives better. And so I moved to the US to learn how to do that, or learn as much as you can learn at school. 
Kayamandi. That's where it all began.
 In December 2010, I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a Master of Public and International Affairs, major in Human Security. While this sounds like I should go work for the government, the truth is that I did more international development stuff than many of the real students of international development. To see how it works in practice, I spent the summer of 2010 interning in Ghana with a local non-governmental organization. That was eye-opening. Although I had no illusions about the work of NGOs and the world of development (read: I really didn’t think that all the people involved are idealists who care about the cause more than anything else), I still had days when I felt as frustrated as never before in my life. The I-came-here-to-work-for-free-and-you-think-I’ll-be-fine-with-watching-you-sleeping-on-your-desk-at-work-and-doing-nothing moments were more common than I liked. At least until I found a way to keep myself busy with making a website for an NGO that actually works (Manya Krobo Queen Mothers Assocation) or raising money to buy bikes for orphans. Or with the research on support for AIDS orphans that I went to do there (and that I would never finish without the help of my Ghanaian friends).

New bikes!

It was frustrating at times, but I didn’t give up. And I didn’t give up after seeing that even a thousand of NGOs (or at least it seems that there are as many in Haiti) can work and still do nothing. I finished my degree and I still want to work in development. For many reasons, I decided to get a work permit and I’m going back to the US, if all goes well. No, I’m not doing the rational thing – I’m not moving to DC “because that’s where everyone is and it’s best for networking.” I’m not doing that because I know I can’t go to all the social events and smile and pretend like I’m happy to be there when all I actually am is stressed and tired. My first stop is Pittsburgh mainly because that’s where I have my “support base” of friends and people who understand what I’m trying to do. The plan is to look for a real job from there. I don’t care where the job is going to be. While I love Africa, I can see myself working anywhere. All that matters is that the job makes sense, is fulfilling and allows me to see results (i.e. better lives for those who need them). And what areas? HIV/AIDS, education… but while I know I can’t do technical stuff, I’m otherwise open to pretty much anything because I think I do have knowledge in more areas than just these two. Urbanization, for example. Or better yet - get a job whose goal is to make sure kids get to play.

I already know it’s not going to be easy. I didn’t choose the easy path, but hopefully, it will be at least as rewarding in the end as it will be stressful. And what is this blog about? This is about the path I chose, about what I have to go through and about the results. It’s about an idealist who doesn’t want to give up and who hopes that there’s a job out there, in the international development world, that is the right for me.