I have been facing the reality recently that my transition is about to shift once again. I haven’t been entirely sure whether I’m ready for it, but then I’m reminded that transition is all about taking risks. And about letting go of what no longer serves us.

There are many aspects of my job that I have truly loved over the last few months. In some way this has been a surprise, after spending a year letting go of NGO work, of all the stress, disillusionment and trauma (some of the deadly ingredients that constitute burnout) that arise from it. I have been reminded that there are rewards to human rights and aid work, if we learn to accept our limitations and be proud of the changes we make, no matter how minor they may seem when we’re faced with so many stories of unimaginable hardship and injustice.

But my job was only ever meant to be short-term, and now the time is approaching when my contract will end and I will be thrust once more in to the uncertainty of not having a steady income. The last time I was in this position – when I was finishing my work for a human rights organisation in Palestine – I was in a very different place, both physically and mentally. I had no idea what I wanted to do next, and this was extremely frightening. I did not feel I had the resources to even consider my next move; I knew deep down that my next move would not be clear until I had surrendered to a period of being still, healing and letting go.

I am looking forward to another opportunity for stillness, in order to process what have been overwhelming experiences in the last few months. Self-care is a priority for me now, in a way it wasn’t for ten years as I struggled through one damaging experience after another in the aid and human rights sector, bottling up emotions for fear of seeming weak to my organisation or disrespectful to the victims we were assisting.

In addition, the stillness is an opportunity for me to reconnect with my creative voice. It has been whispering to me lately, filling me with ideas for a book, for a new website and for a new project to provide healing and support to other NGO workers in need of self-care.

creativity-quote-640x640

 

On days when I get embroiled in the politics of my work, or when I feel exhausted by my workload or disappointed with how management are treating staff, I remind myself that my creative voice is pushing for much more than this. To listen to the voice is to leave behind what is familiar and be willing to take big risks. It may well mean another period of unemployment and instability. But transitions are all about risk-taking, about being able to pursue one’s dreams even if we are being discouraged by our ego or others around us. It is about making a conscious choice to be led by our heart and not by our head, in order that we achieve our our true desires. It can be a frightening ride sometimes, but I’m glad I’m on it.

Rumi-drawn

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I found these quotes, and the blogger’s own contribution, very touching. Thanks to Make Believe Boutique for leading me to Mark Nepo, a new and inspiring discovery!

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Have you searched the vastness

for something you have lost?

…..Robert Service

resting in the embrace of exquisite eyes

Listening beyond our own silhouette, each thing we encounter is alive- be it a stone, a dragonfly, a symphony, or a peach. And each thing in its aliveness encodes and mirrors the whole of life in its own way. When we can listen, each particle of being, no matter how small, invites our presence and attention, so we might hear and feel the Universe through it. Despite our physical explanations, this is what enables us to hear the ocean when putting a shell to our ear or all of humanity when holding someone with a broken heart. When relating to what we encounter, we become more possible ourselves; able to grow from what other things see and feel. But how does a stone see and feel? Well, that’s the work of…

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Writing has not been easy lately. Which is a surprise in some ways as when I travel to work, or even pop out of the office to buy my lunch each day, I find a stream of loose sentences, chapter beginnings and blog reflections running through my brain.

But then either there isn’t the time to make use of them, or when I do finally find a moment to sit with pen and paper or at my laptop I’m struck with a terrible paralysis. When this happens it’s not long before my inner critic rears its ugly head….any writer, or anyone with a dream for that matter, knows the voice of the inner critic very well. The voice that goes, ‘why are you bothering?’ or ‘you’re not good enough to be trying this’ or ‘who really cares? who wants to know about your latest pursuits and interests?’

I’ve noticed that when I become too busy to write, or too busy to make time for reflection which can inspire and trigger writing, I descend into a pattern of self-doubt and self-loathing. I’m currently on an endless treadmill of striving to do the best in my job without really pausing to ask myself whether I’m approaching things the right way, whether this is really what I want, whether what I’m doing is letting my true and happy self flourish. Without the time to process my experiences and connect with my deeper consciousness through writing or other soulful practices, I find myself unhinged by the daily challenges of work, unsure of my abilities and full of insecurities about whether people like me, whether I come across as an idiot, whether I’ve said the wrong thing….

coffee and cake

Today I sat in one of my favourite cafes in southwest London, determined to resume my writing practice. I sat there, laptop in front of me, latte and cake being consumed bit by bit….and panicked. Where do I start? What do I want to write about? Is there anywhere to go with all these snippets of ideas that play around in my head each day? I started trying to write a blog piece but couldn’t get beyond this title you now see.

So instead I did something totally different. I wrote a chapter, or moment, in the story which is slowly formulating in those stolen moments on my way to work or in my lunch break. Where the story goes, I’m yet to find out. I’d be lying if I said it was totally made up, pulled from my extensive and far-reaching imagination. I’m not pretending that I’m going to produce the next great work of fiction. Whatever I write will always be based somehow on my own experiences, that’s just the way I roll.

But as I start trying to draw from my experiences some structure, plot, characters and dialogue I realise that I’m entering a new chapter in my real life. I know deep down that my work in the NGO sector may soon be reaching its end. After spending over a year in transition, I no longer feel that my identity is defined purely through human rights activism or aid work. There is something bigger in my soul that is waiting to come out. And writing seems to be the channel through which to explore and express it.

This blog has been a platform for documenting my transition in the last year. It will continue with this purpose, and as such it is likely to change in its content and style, just as I connect with a new writing voice within me. A new appearance, more reflections on the writing journey, and the odd extract from the story currently unfolding in my head and making its way on to the page will be found here in the weeks and months to come. As always, comments, thoughts and feedback will be welcome. I hope you enjoy the ride and come back for more.

Writing

The last few weeks – the last few days especially – I’ve struggled with the challenges of writer’s block, of the perils of falling in to the ‘Busy Trap’, and the associated exhaustion, imbalance and familiar wafts of depression which come with these conditions. How strange then, that a moment of clarity should come at the end of a long and tiring day, when I’d been feeling hot and bothered, rather than appreciative and joyful, from the heat wave we’re having. Or maybe not so strange, now I’ve started to wind down after a cool bath, fifteen minutes of mindfulness in my room and some time in the garden watching the sprinkler glide its way from the fuschias and snapdragons to the green grass and herbs.

Since arriving back from Kenya my life seems to have accelerated at such a rapid pace that I struggle to find time to check in with myself, to be alone, or simply to relax. A busy final week in Nairobi, interviewing slum-dwellers at risk of eviction whilst trying to control the amoebiasis – a common hazard of eating contaminated food in Kenya – in my stomach, was followed by an equally busy week in London. On day three of my return my mother contracted a similar infection which, unlike me, put her out of action for two weeks and in need of help and support, and on day four I was thrown back in to the internal politics, mounting bureaucracy and low staff morale of my organisation’s London office. Working in East Africa for two months may have been tough, with the continuous stories of fear and despair I heard and documented from victims of human rights abuses and the related feelings I went through daily of self-doubt and hopelessness; but being back in London suddenly seemed a whole lot harder, with more pressures, and less time to breathe or to take stock. So out went my blog, and any time for reflection or relaxation.

Then yesterday I heard some sad news of a personal nature. My old home of four years was also subjected to its own form of eviction. An entire squatting community in Brixton, some of whom had been there for years, were given their marching orders and police were on hand to make sure they really did leave. Unlike what I witnessed in the Nairobi slums, the procedure adopted here was most probably legal; in other words, notice will have been given, it would not have been carried out under cover of darkness, and efforts will have been made – however inadequate – to suggest alternative accommodation. But the heartbreak felt by the residents – and also me, as a former resident – remains. The scene will not have been pretty; there will have been resistance from those who could not bear to leave their homes, and heavy-handedness from a menacing contingent of bailiffs and police.

I am lucky that I had another home to go to, long before these evictions took place. My time in the squat in Brixton may be in the past, but the memories are still alive – of all its colourful, unique and often damaged characters, of weekend-long parties and the Monday dregs and debris of the guests and gatecrashers; of managing to complete my Master’s degree despite these distractions; of discussions on art, philosophy, or simply how we could survive living in crack alley in the heart of a suburb that never sleeps. I certainly had my moments of frustration and wondering what the hell I was doing, living in a place with no natural light and no central heating. But it was home for me for four years, and to see it now being emptied so forcefully to make way for a new, homogenised community, fills me with no small measure of sadness.

This may not be on the scale of the daily tragedies that the poor and destitute experience across the world, and some may even argue that the struggles of a privileged middle-class white girl are self-indulgent and petty in comparison.   But we all inhabit our own realities, our own dark moments and periods of grief, as well as our own moments of joy and happiness. We all have our own stories to tell, that will resonate succinctly for some and grate or be misinterpreted by others. If we feel it is within us to tell our stories, then we should, as it is one way of fostering understanding, empathy and compassion.  And so, as I recover from my writer’s block, I will finish off this piece with these words….

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.

Martha Graham, dancer and choreographer, 1894-1991

I have a week left in Kenya. So many thoughts and emotions have passed through me in the time I’ve been in East Africa. There are times when the expectations and requirements of this job have seemed totally overwhelming; where I’ve had no time to stop and digest what I have seen or heard, and I’ve had to push on with writing, researching, asking further questions, whilst often lacking the confidence that what I’m doing will actually make a difference.

Humanitarian work, human rights work, development work. All them giveth, and they taketh away. An average day can feel exhilerating, hopeful, frustrating, desperate. It takes a certain amount of strength to face some of the stark and difficult realities of poverty and injustice; to challenge the authorities even when you know that they may well ignore you and continue to sit back as another crime or violation is committed under their watch; to walk away after interviewing a victim of human rights abuse without being able to offer any immediate assistance. We have to remain confident that doing something – raising awareness at international level, lobbying politicians and demanding accountability from State authorities – is better than doing nothing at all.

A Kenyan woman sits in the rubble of her home after being forcibly evicted from a slum in Nairobi

A Kenyan woman sits in the rubble of her home after being forcibly evicted from a slum in Nairobi

On a bad day I feel guilty and hopeless about all that I have seen and can do little about. I feel angry with the State official who lies to my face, denying that a forced eviction has taken place and that hundreds have been made homeless; or worse stll, refuses to even discuss such matters. I feel ashamed that a victim of human rights violations will be hoping for so much more from me than what I can provide. When I’ve had quiet meditative moments, I’ve contemplated forgiveness; forgiving myself for any action which I feel was not really in my character, or may have offended or disappointed others. I can only hope that in consciously keeping my heart open that I can connect with people beyond the expectations of what I can and cannot give. The same applies to dealing with the authorities. I have worked to release the anger I’ve often felt towards them, and try and understand them and the situation on a deeper level; to have compassion even for those I disagree with, and to continue to connect with the pure light that shines in each and every one of us but is so often darkened by psychological and environmental factors.

And on a good day I feel nothing but gratitude. Gratitude for finding myself back in East Africa, a place that gives me inspiration and fulfillment. Gratitude for having a space to myself to explore ideas and emotions away from the familiarity and distractions of home. Gratitude for the nice weather (most of the time) – the huge African skies and the gentle heat on my pale skin. Gratitude to the people I meet, for welcoming me and increasing my respect for different cultures and customs. Gratitude for every new lesson I learn from my work and from the conversations I have with friends and colleagues. Gratitude that no matter what challenges I experience, there is always a quiet place to retreat inside myself, to reflect and regain some peace.

The view of the valley from where I'm staying in Nairobi

The view of the valley from where I’m staying in Nairobi

I’m looking forward to going home. But I am also looking forward to reflecting on all that I have seen and done here, and finding the inspiration to use these experiences in constructive ways that not only seek to help victims of human rights abuses, but also the aid workers themselves. Self-care is essential in this line of work, and I see this journey I’ve made as an opportunity to recognise and put into practice the tools that are necessary to hold these powerful concepts of compassion, forgiveness and gratitude in our hearts no matter what the circumstances.

I have been appreciating stillness lately. Here in Kenya, I spend a lot of time on my own, cherishing the calm and quiet. I don’t seem to be desperate for company and entertainment all the time like I used to be, instead enjoying moments where I can be with myself and dip in to my inner being. By having time on my own, I can also reconnect with other passions and interests, and avoid the common trap in this line of business of defining myself purely through the work I do.

Indeed, I spent most of my years of NGO work telling people, without much thought, ‘I’m an aid/human rights/development worker’. This was partly because I would have struggled to claim another identity for myself. My time outside work usually revolved around smoking, drinking, partying or sleeping. And none of these activities really form an identity. So I remain grateful for the months I had last year to rediscover my passions. They were there all along, but it took a concerted effort of slowing down and being still to realise them once again.

Such moments of stillness are crucial for NGO workers, faced so often with mounting pressures, expectations, negativity and disappointments in their daily work. It is also easy to live through our work when the job often continues beyond office hours – in discussions with friends or associates, in networking dinners and social occasions. Topics of conversation so often revolve around the difficult situations we’re working in, the communities we’re trying to help, the lack of resources there to support us, the deficiencies of the structures we have to work with….we forget to switch off and talk about something completely different. Particularly when working in the field and overseas, it becomes ‘normal’ to spend all our time outside work either reading or talking about the very human rights or humanitarian issues which we’re confronted with each day.

Of course there is nothing wrong with doing this; so long as there is also some time given over to stepping out of that space, that identity and seeing what else lies beneath in one’s soul. This means taking time out to admire the beauty which surrounds all of us, to remember that as well as the horrors of war, conflict, poverty and human rights violations there is also the abundance and power of nature, of creativity, of love. Whilst there may be many things for us to feel guilty about, there is also much to feel grateful for.

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A monkey and I admire the view of the River Nile in Uganda

The other day my Kenyan colleagues and I sat around a table in their office drinking coffee and eating samosas and mandazi (doughnuts). Two hours had been set aside specifically for the purpose of connecting with each other, and not talking about work. When I was confronted with this unusual exercise, my initial reaction was one of panic. What are we going to talk about? What can I say that’s interesting? But as we went round one by one, contributing something to the very light and candid conversation, I began to relax. I realised this was the first opportunity I’d had to actually get to know the people I’d been sharing an office with for the past few weeks. We laughed and joked, and were moved by stories about our families, or about how we spend our time at the weekend, or about what we value in life. This simple initiative to bring people together in a relaxed way, and to take them away from their all-consuming work and other pressures, was very important. I wondered how often this happens in an office in London, for a full two hours.

One of my colleagues said something which particularly resonated with me. He said that we must find time to admire the flowers. This was of course a metaphor for how we should approach our work. We have much to focus on that is distressing and unpleasant. But admist all that, we each have an amazing and powerful ability to create some stillness in which to marvel at what is pure, beautiful and magical; and to have gratitude for such small and simple pleasures.

hibiscus

hibiscus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A glance over at people around me in any given situation in Uganda prompts a flood of thoughts, memories and reflections. Having lived there before, and having returned there recently, each moment brings with it a connection with the past and the present.

At Entebbe airport, a line of young men in polo shirts and sunglasses were in the queue next to me, preparing to board an Eagle Air flight to Gulu in northern Uganda. What were they going there for? I wondered. When I first started travelling to wartorn Gulu in 2002, there was only a handful of NGOs, and therefore only a few white faces, to be seen there. Over the years, as the international community finally started paying some interest in a rebel war which for two decades had resulted in thousands of deaths and child abductions, UN and NGO offices in northern Uganda multiplied, along with plush hotels to house their staff. Now, with the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army having left northern Uganda to cause further damage and deaths in neighbouring Congo and Central African Republic, Gulu has beeen restored to some level of normalcy; indications of it embarking on a new stage of development found in the construction of new roads and a large supermarket.

Outside Gulu

Outside Gulu (Photo credit: The Advocacy Project)

And so I glanced curiously at these guys next to me and wondered what Gulu is like now to be attracting these smiling men, who looked as if they’re about to go on safari rather than on the aid missions that were so common there only a few years ago.So much has changed since those days when I worked in Uganda, both within and around me. New hotels, office blocks and shopping malls have sprung up all over Kampala. Places which ten years ago were disused carparks or empty plots where people threw their litter are now busy shopping centres or classy restaurants. But certain things remain the same. The slow, unhurried pace of the traffic; the roadside clothes markets with wire manequins whose hips have been purposefully widened and stretched out to reflect the African woman’s figure; the gruff vocal chords of the male singers on the radio, performing their version of reggae to pre-recorded and synthesised backing music; the calm, quiet, smiling demeanour that is customary to the country’s inhabitants.

Lake Victoria

Lake Victoria (Photo credit: wheresthebrain)

Sitting in an airport café overlooking Lake Victoria, waiting to board my plane to Kenya, I wondered whether I’d be back to Uganda again.  And I still wonder at how I got into this position in the first place; so unexpected and unplanned after a year of gently putting many of these memories of a previous life behind me in order to open myself up to new beginnings and new opportunities. This time last year, did I ever imagine I would find myself back here again?In a meeting the other day, a fellow NGO worker noted casually how coming back to Uganda – after working in other areas and jobs – can feel like going back in time. To a certain extent I agree, especially when it comes to having to put aside our Western-centric values and assumptions in order to accept the African realities of technology not always working properly, or things not always running on time.

And on a personal level too, it is easy to think that somehow my transition from NGO worker to….something else – has taken a backward step. But then transitions are not necessarily about where we physically situate ourselves, nor are they about pushing ourselves towards the new life we think is good for us. They’re about where we are internally at any given moment. The real transformation comes from not pushing, and not assuming anything; in letting the unpredictable, sometimes suprising, sometimes magical and uncontrollable circumstances that life throws at us not seem like a setback in our journey. I have to remind myself regularly that just because things haven’t quite worked out as I’d expected in the last few months – that rather than navigating my way towards academia and studying a Phd I appear to have made a diversion and travelled to a place I lived in ten years ago – things are exactly as they should be.

It feels right to be in this place right now, and that ultimately is what’s important.

Hidden or suppressed emotions manifest themselves in mysterious ways. When I got back to my hotel room after a relatively uneventful day in the office – which, rather than feeling grateful for I found dull and anti-climactic after the long and busy days of the last week – I didn’t know whether I wanted to scream with anger or burst into tears.

Was this the Monday blues? General exhaustion after spending last week rushing around, chasing the stories behind the Government’s closure of Uganda’s main independent newspaper and other media houses? Or the angst of not knowing what’s going to happen with this job or my future in general? The reasons behind my bad mood seemed hard to pin-point, but either way I’d had a short fuse throughout the day. Moments of irrational anger and irritation arose over the slow internet connection in the office, or because the people I’d hoped to meet in Kampala weren’t answering my calls or e-mails, or because I couldn’t go swimming in the hotel pool after work. This last inconvenience being due to today being a public holiday in Uganda – except, obviously, for my organisation who carried on its fight for human rights whilst the rest of the population enjoyed some time out. The swimming pool was therefore teeming with Ugandan families practising their splashing skills, which severely diminished my chances of having a relaxing evening swim.

And so it was in this state of inner turmoil that I turned to yoga. An obvious solution for many perhaps; but I’ve been a little out of practice over the last few months, preferring to immerse myself in other forms of powerful energy healing. It was only when I returned to the practice the other day with my friend – in an idyllic setting overlooking the River Nile – that I remembered the value of yoga; the way it both invigorates and relaxes, moves you to break into a sweat but also calms you down to a state of stillness and clarity.

The beautiful River Nile in Uganda

The beautiful River Nile in Uganda

The yoga I did today targeted the liver and gall bladder – organs which, in the Chinese meridian system, are where anger and anxiety are often held. And just allowing myself those 45 minutes to observe and accept whatever physical or emotional pain came and went as I held each posture was truly transformative. By the end of the practice my irritation had lifted and was replaced with a feeling of pure bliss.

And not only that. Giving myself that time out has opened up my creative channels, at a time when I felt I’d been suffering badly from writer’s block. My inability to write, and my anger and short temper, were all interlinked of course. Writing is another healing exercise for me, but one only made possible if I allow myself space to breathe and be still amidst the fast pace of human rights work. Which is why as well as returning to yoga, I have also returned to Julia Cameron’s morning pages; letting all the crabbiness I sometimes wake up with – this morning being a perfect example – spill out onto the page before I get up and get on with my day.

I am grateful to have these tools at my disposal. When times get tough and I start battling with my emotions, I know what I can do in order to calm down, rebalance and reconnect. And in doing so, creativity once again flourishes.

Some great quotes on happiness, thanks to the Happsters blog

The Happsters

Best Happiness Quotes

Hi Happsters,

I hope you’re having an awesome day! I decided to pull together my favorite happiness quotes for this post. It was hard to choose just 20! Enjoy 🙂

1. “When one door of happiness closes, another opens, but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one that has been opened for us.” – Helen Keller

2. “Today, give a stranger one of your smiles. It might be the only sunshine he sees all day.” – H. Jackson Brown, Jr. 

3. “Three things in human life are important:  The first is to be kind.  The second is to be kind.  And the third is to be kind.” – Henry James

4. “Success is not the key to happiness; happiness is the key to success.”  – Albert Zweiter

5. “Happiness is the secret to all beauty. There is no beauty without happiness.” – Christian Dior

6. “If you aren’t happy…

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Uganda – the home of waragi, of reckless boda boda drivers, of rolexes and of matoke (definitions to follow). And my home for a number of years.

It was only as I sat in the back of  a cab on the way to my hotel from the airport that I had a chance to reflect on the personal enormity of me returning here; the last week having been another whirlwind of actions and reactions on ongoing forced evictions in Kenya.

English: Boda-boda. Uganda, somewhere on A109 ...

English: Boda-boda. Uganda, somewhere on A109 Road, between Jinja and Malaba Русский: Бода-бода. Уганда, на трассе А109, между Джинджей и Малабой. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As we drove along the Entebbe-Kampala Road, all the familiar landmarks of yesteryear were there. The chapati traders preparing the juicy and satisfying rolexes (fried eggs rolled up in chapati), lit only by a candle on the otherwise pitch black roadside; boda boda drivers (motorcyle taxis), carrying up to four passengers, squeezing their way through traffic; the clocktower which now, unlike when I lived here, actually has a working clock, and which is the epicentre of Kampala’s worsening traffic jams.

And with these sights returned my memories of a place I called home ten years ago. Memories of sitting on those perilous boda bodas, ignoring their danger and instead appreciating their efficiency in the Kampala traffic. Of drunken parties with too much waragi, the local gin distilled from bananas, one of Uganda’s most important cash crops. Of day long NGO workshops with long speeches by proud officials and with bored participants, waiting eagerly for their free buffet lunch of assorted meat stews, beans, rice and matoke – mashed green bananas, the national dish. Of listening to live reggae music in the warm outdoors. Of falling in love.

My years in Uganda in many ways shaped my life. There were many experiences that would challenge me – from meeting former child soldiers, both male and female, who had been forcefully recruited by the Lord’s Resistance Army to looking after the psychologically damaged man I had fallen in love with, in a country where mental health problems are associated with juju – witchcraft – and adequate health services are scarce.

, Road side market between Kampala and Entebbe

, Road side market between Kampala and Entebbe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m returning to Uganda a very different person from those days. Older and wiser, sure. And more self-aware – I think. As the days have gotbusier and longer, my time for self-reflection and checking in has diminished. I find myself rushing from one thing to another, panicking, getting irritable….and I know it’s because there has not been time and space to take a deep breath – literally – and listen to my heart. My head has been ruling the show with plans, preparations and mental documentation of sad, sometimes horrific stories. I am confronted with them every day – whether it’s directly from victims or second-hand; like my taxi driver in Nairobi yesterday who told me he’d seen three young men dying that morning, who had just been burned to death by the local community – mob justice for attempted robbery on a house. There is little time to dwell, to get upset or to show pity. If there was, I wouldn’t get much actual work done. And so I rely on those moments when I can write. Or 15 minutes in the morning to meditate. These are the brief moments I have to open my heart, to process and to release what I’ve been holding.

Being in Uganda will bring extra challenges for me. There is a major human rights crisis to work on – the Government’s raid on a leading independent newspaper. One of many signs that the President – now in power for 27 years – plans to step up already draconian measures aimed at suppressing dissent in his country. Our response as a human rights NGO will be proactive and uncompromising in its condemnation. The work will be exhilerating, but I look forward to when my feet touch the ground again and I can fully enjoy being back here. Uganda has always been close to my heart, and my memories of this country are so much more than the personal and external tragedies that lie within my experience of living here. Uganda, it’s good to be back.

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Just like the horse whisperer - but with more pages

An Activist Abroad

philosopical musings for the curious mind

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An Irish Mindfulness Meditation Blog: Self-care, resilience, meaning and personal development.