Tuesday, September 04, 2018

reflections on south africa

South Africa was fantastic. I was in Johannesburg for 10 days for a school trip and found it incredibly inspiring. It's so difficult to try and succinctly communicate what it was like but I will give it a try.

Highlight 1: Soweto

We visited Soweto, a former township where the government forcibly relocated Black South Africans during apartheid (SoWeTo=South West Township). A neighborhood in Soweto, Kliptown, still experiences tremendous challenge in education and employment outcomes. Kliptown Youth Program (KYP),  is a locally led and managed non-profit that works directly with 450 youth to increase access to technology and higher learning. Thando Bezana, Operations Manager, explained that the executive leadership team is composed of Kliptown community members (including himself). Teachers are locals, too. Some studied computer science on KYP scholarships then returned to teach computer classes twice daily. KYP graduates who have moved to other neighborhoods contribute to a KYP alumni fund. KYP really has mastered the art of investing in and developing local talent. The "for us by us" (FUBU) nature of the entire program was such a joy to witness.

Highlight 2: Landfill site visit

We also had the privilege of hearing from a couple of federal employees working in the Department of Environmental Affairs. They explained on a high level how South Africa is tackling solid waste management, mainly by prioritizing diverting waste from landfills. We then got to visit a landfill site, one of the largest in the region. The landfill must have been at least 30 stories high and receives 2,500 tons of waste a day. The site manager explained that waste is dumped at the landfill, individuals remove as many recyclables as possible (plastics and glass), the trash is compacted, and then covered with crushed concrete waste. We rode all the way to the top of the landfill and at one point there was just trash and seagulls as far as the eye could see. It was incredible. The federal employees, who joined us on the site visit, were so excited to be out in the field (normally they are either in their offices or consulting at other local government offices) that they hopped out and started chatting with the onsite employees. It's quite an operation! And the methane from the landfill is used for public energy. Truly, nothing is wasted!

Highlight 3: Meeting bureaucrats

There's nothing quite like being able to meet career civil servants. Their passion for good governance is contagious. Joel Netshitenzhe, former Communications Director for Nelson Mandela, presented on the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), a major economic policy developed by the African National Congress (ANC). He was refreshingly honest about the different delays, complications and failures of the policy, while at the same time acknowledging the ways in which the RDP was successful. My favorite part of his presentation, though, was when I asked him what it was like to work in the Mandela administration and he waxed nostalgic on Mandela's uncanny ability to sense the mood of the nation, even when it went against conventional wisdom or even his own party. I was completely rapt listening to Netshitenzhe's stories. Mandela was such a singular and gifted leader. I am amazed at the difference one person can make--how one person can inspire so many and leave such a legacy. It's a beautiful thing.

I also loved hearing from Ivan Pillay, former Acting Commissioner of South African Revenue Services (SARS), the equivalent to the IRS. He spoke about the health of government institutions, accountability, change management, strategic planning and organizational effectiveness. He was speaking my language! And so thoughtful and wise. I loved his pragmatism. Bureaucrats are the best. I could have listened to him all day, to be honest.

Highlight 4: Jonas testimony

I joked with folks back home that I witnessed the equivalent of the Comey congressional hearing while in South Africa. It sure felt like it! We got to sit-in on the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture, a public fact-finding entity charged with determining the veracity of allegations of state capture (systematic funneling of public funding into private interests) in the Zuma administration. Chaired by Deputy Chief Justice Zondo of the South African Constitutional Court, the commission, after hearing testimony from involved witnesses and examining evidence, will produce a set of recommendations which may result in legal action by the National Prosecutor’s Office.

The "star witness" of the day was former Deputy Ministry of Finance Mcebisi Jonas. He testified of a meeting on October 23, 2013, where a member of the Gupta family (aligned with Zuma) offered him 600 million rand to assume the role of Minister of Finance and act in the Gupta’s interest. His testimony was extremely compelling, and at one point Jonas paused to wipe tears from his eyes, and I found myself completely moved. The commission is predicted to continue for at least a couple of more years but I am highly interested in seeing what ultimately will come of it.

Highlight 5: Church and baby lions


Of course, all this public policy-related stuff was truly mind-nourishing and energizing, but I also managed to have some fun, too! On our day off I met up with Hannah, who is the cousin of my friend Esther. I immediately really liked her! She took me to her church, Heritage Baptist. It was so great to see a South African expression of faith in Jesus. After service we went to lunch with another young woman, Taimi, a surgical resident from Namibia. It was so easy chatting with them and we already had lots in common simply by virtue of being young, single Christian women. I love finding friends all around the world! 

In the evening I met up with Jill and Nya at the Lion & Safari Park in Lanseria, about 50 minutes outside of Johannesburg. On the way out I had a nice chat with my Uber driver from Zimbabwe who also works as a bouncer on the weekend. He had the radio turned onto a R&B station and at one point I turned to him and asked, "SZA?" "Huh?" "This is SZA, right?" "Huh?" "I like this music." He just laughed. He was wearing a New York Yankees cap. Globalization, y'all.

Jill, Nya and I did a night safari to see the spotted hyenas and the lions. We witnessed staff feeding them horse meat and it was visceral to say the least. I won't forget the sound of them cracking bones open to get to the marrow. Makes me squirm just thinking back on it. Afterward we got to play with some very sleepy, cute lion cubs. It was surreal!! The cubs were so young they hadn't even named them yet! Staff usually assign names to the cubs around seven months when their personalities have had time to emerge.

In conclusion


In sum, I had an absolutely unforgettable time in South Africa. I had read so much about it in books for school, but there was nothing like being there in person and experiencing it myself.

Stray observations

  1. Nothing in this world could explain my delight when, upon entering local fair trade coffee roaster Bean There, I heard an acoustic version of "Mama" by William Singe, one of my favorite Australian vocalists. I was home. I went there pretty much every morning over the duration of the trip.
  2. When someone asks "How are you?" sometimes folks say "sharp," meaning "well."
  3. The African diaspora is incredible. The "Pan African Writing" section of Exclusive Books featured works by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ta-Nehisi Coates, LaShonda Katrice Barnett, Teju Cole, Chinua Achebe... I was in heaven. I limited myself to purchasing four books due to luggage space constraints but would have purchased many more. 
  4. I loved pretty much all the food I tried: ostrich steak, lamb stew, oxtail stew, venison stew, "bunny chow". The only thing I wasn't a huge fan of was the tripe. 
  5. As I traveled through South Africa I couldn't help thinking about my Grandpa Don, himself a world traveler during his lifetime. Did he have similar thoughts and reflections as he met new people and learned new things in new places? He taught me so much about being a humble observer when a guest in another country.

Friday, August 03, 2018

in full swing

Since I'm making very minimal progress on a memo I'm supposed to complete by Monday, I might as well take a break and blog. I'm sitting at my neighborhood Dunkin' Donuts having enjoyed a "Watermelon Coolata" on an oppressively hot day. Total grams from sugar? 61.

I'm full swing into "Summer Sequence 2," which is thankfully much more qualitative and less quantitative than the last. I am having a blast in "Communications and Public Policy" which mainly consists of reading journal articles on political science, social policy and governance (domestic and foreign), which we then discuss in class. I'm in heaven. My other course, "Introduction to Public Policy" is more about developing an adequate analytical lens through which to evaluate and recommend policy solutions given different social problems. This, in my opinion, is another winner of a class. This is why I came to grad school: to learn how to make difficult decisions while trying to balance budget constraints, politics, equity and feasibility of implementation. It's certainly still a lot of work but it's ultimately rewarding and fulfilling.

Strengthening weak muscles

Since this Master of Public Affairs program is one calendar year (accelerated), there's considerable pressure to get your sh*t together, and get it together quickly. I need to "pick a lane," so to speak, in the next month or so. There is the more technical, quantitative lane, or the more qualitative, advocacy-oriented lane. I've already established that I'm stronger in the latter and weaker in the former. So should I play to my strengths or risk going out of my comfort zone?

For the past few weeks I have been hitting the gym (at 7am, may I add) with my classmate David. It's the first time I've done any serious weight training since 2015 (shoutout to Andreas!). Consequently getting back into the groove has been a bit of a struggle. I can barely lift five pounds for a triceps drill, curl 20 lbs or squat the bar (45 lb). After every session my muscles riot and are sore for days. I laugh when I hit failure at eight reps. "Believe," I urge myself, laughing, as David looks on and also laughs.

Metaphorically, I think of the left side of my brain like I think of my atrophied muscles struggling to wake up after a long slumber. There's potential there, but I have to exert a considerable amount of will to use them in any sustained capacity. After the first week of statistics and economics I was in full-on panic mode. "I hate this!!" was my frequent inner monologue. By week four, though I was by no means achieving proficiency in any of the presented concepts, I was able to celebrate the accomplishment of surviving the course (see my last post) and appreciate the fact that I learned something (which, all things considered, is better than nothing). So despite the fact that quantitative reasoning doesn't come naturally to me, and despite the fact that I don't particularly enjoy it, I am seriously considering continuing down the left-brained path knowing full well that I will struggle the entire time.

One drawback of being an overachiever is that it's tough for me to not be the top of the class. I remember in elementary school I used to love that when we got our math packets my peers would automatically congregate around me to work through things because they trusted my general competence with the material. If I go down the data-driven policy track, I need to be okay with just being in the middle of the pack or *gasp* at the bottom. I'm considering a fall semester full of technical electives (budgeting, GIS and Python). Is this irrational or inadvisable?

This week the instructor of the Python course held an information session where he summarized a daunting menu of concepts and projects (I started feeling anxious as he advanced through each subsequent Power Point slide). Afterwards I went up to speak with him. "Hi, I'm April, I talked to you on the phone earlier this year about the course." His face lit up in recognition. "Oh yeah! Hi April, so glad you decided to come to Brown." When I expressed my trepidation about the course (I specifically asked what supports were in place for students throughout the semester), Prof. Prasad assured me that there would be two course assistants and that he was more than happy to help students out personally. "We want you to succeed," he assured me.

That statement really stuck with me. In what other situation will I have such a safe environment in which to make mistakes, stumble and fail, knowing someone will be there to help? If I am going to really go out of my depth, I think now is the time to do it.

Other miscellaneous stuff

Apart from all these existential musings, though, I've just been living a regular life and enjoying it immensely:

  • We have had the enormous privilege of hearing from practitioners who are working in local government, private consulting and non-profits. I am so fond of these passionate eggheads. One of them literally said, "There is an event horizon at the singularity," and I had to stifle a laugh. They also bring the heart. Someone in international development today advised, "Listen so deeply that you invite the person you are with to share." That rocked me to my core. "My soul feels hugged right now," I confessed to my classmate Suhaib following that session.
  • It has been really, really hot this week. Not only are temperatures in the mid 80s to low 90s, to add insult to injury, humidity sometimes hovers around 92 percent. Are you kidding me?? "I feel like I could box the air!" David proclaimed to me as we stepped out from the Dunkin' Donuts into the night. I finally caved and purchased a window-mounted air conditioning unit for my room, so it's manageable. Today I entered the living room and cried, "Oh my god! It is so hot out here! Practically tropical!"
  • Visitors!! Sometimes I get a little homesick being out here on the East Coast, so seeing folks from the West Coast makes my heart so happy. I met Marie in college and now she's in the D.C. area. She was able to stop by on her way to Boston with her husband, Jackson. It was lovely to catch up with her (the last time I saw her was in April when doing college tours). And you know we took full advantage and played Pokemon Go together. We caught three Zapdos each and Jackson even got a shiny one!
  • I also had the pleasure of seeing the Shimada family, who also stopped by on their way to Boston. It was so nice to see them!! They brought the chill bay area vibes. We got boba and I honestly felt like I was back in California. Cry!! I gotta get back there ASAP.
  • Speaking of travel, on the 18th I'm headed to Johannesburg, South Africa, for 10 days as part of the MPA program. Our host site is the Public Affairs Research Institute which conducts analyses on government institutions and their (dys)functions. Right up my alley! Moreover South Africa is in a period of tremendous change and transition with the recent ouster of former president and known kleptocrat Jacob Zuma. I'll have access to WiFi so will do my best to provide some brief updates while I'm there. I'm really looking forward to rooming with my classmates Nya and Jill (I requested that one day we all wear our jumpsuits) and getting to know Africa. This will be my first time to the continent! 

Other things I like: A roundup

Movie: Sorry to Bother You (dir. Boots Riley)
Music: All Blue by Jade Novah
Article: "The Business of Being Gwyneth Paltrow" by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
TV: Zumbo's Just Desserts

Until next time!

Sunday, July 15, 2018

making up for lost time

It was a tough four weeks for sure, but I can now share the good news that I survived statistics and economics*! I deserve a t-shirt.

Or, alternatively:

It's been five days since I completed the three-hour final exam and words cannot fully describe how drastically my mood has transformed since then. When under tremendous stress, I tend to become withdrawn and prone to crying because I get discouraged and defeated. After we received our final grades on Tuesday, though, I became a much more pleasant person to be around. I was also able to get out of the bubble of home to campus I'd been living in for the past month.

More adventures in Boston

Connor and I took a selfie on the T because my mom expressly requested one via text.

Wednesday I was so excited to try out the commuter rail that goes from Providence to downtown Boston for the first time. Being from Seattle, which is light on transportation infrastructure, I thought it was absolutely luxurious. I had a booth to myself on the second story and caught up on the Sunday paper in the hour it takes to get to Back Bay.

First stop in Boston? Pressed Juicery on Newbury Street. Close friends know I'm obsessed with the franchise which has a location in downtown Seattle (first floor of Westlake). With a coconut freeze and my favorite beet & ginger juice in hand, I was in my happy place. My cousin Connor thought the vegan freeze (they can't call it "soft serve ice cream" since technically it contains no dairy) was okay but spluttered when trying the juice because it was so aggressively ginger forward (I love the burn).

We then went to the Fenway area where Red Sox fans were in full force for the game against the Texas Rangers that night. Connor showed me one of his favorite places, Blackbird Doughnuts, which had a fantastic upscale artisanal feel and delicious cake doughnuts--maybe the best I've ever had (eat your heart out Top Pot). We then tried out Tiger Mama, a pan-Asian restaurant that was giving me serious Belltown vibes (vertical gardens, neon lights, overpriced cocktails and all!). They played a lot of tracks from The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill which was a definite plus.

It has been so fun to have family nearby! I saw Connor in April when deciding on graduate schools, then in May when I moved here, and this was my last chance to see him before he heads back to Illinois to await the approval of his visa to work in Japan for the next year. I am sure an exciting adventure awaits him there.

It's great to be a tourist

On Friday I went on a road trip with a couple of classmates to Quincy, Dorchester and Boston for dim sum, chè (I miss Bambu) and art! The Museum of Fine Arts was so incredible; I could have spent hours there. I loved reading all the notes about the artists, their intention, technique and the times in which they lived. Creative people are so interesting!! I'm still not a huge fan of abstract art, though.

Obligatory photo at the Museum of Fine Arts. 

Don't trust these heauxs. I asked David to take a picture of me and look what he does smh
On the way to and from RI to MA, David had the playlist "on lock" with rap and R&B hits from the early 2000s to present (we listened to "In My Feelings" by Drake and "I Like It" by Cardi B ft. Bad Bunny and J Balvin multiple times). It feels so foreign to have so much free time and to spend that free time "having fun" but I'm enjoying it for as long as I can!

Classes start up again tomorrow and I will be taking an intro to policy course and a communications course. After such a math-heavy month, I will take memo writing any day!

*Addendum: Coping methods for surviving statistics and economics

  1. Cry: I only cried twice but it helped tremendously.
  2. Write home: Venting to friends and family back home was so comforting and encouraging. They helped me keep everything in perspective.
  3. Find a good study group: I'm so thankful for mine!!
  4. Eat good food: To soothe myself I cooked my favorite foods from growing up (chicken teriyaki, tofu turkey casserole, oyako don, chicken curry) and it was quite effective in temporarily curbing my anxiety.
  5. Try not to compare: My classmates that tended to speak up in class were the ones who had a knack for math or who had taken advanced coursework in statistics and economics. I had to realize they didn't represent the general student body and I had to be okay working on things at my own pace.
  6. Take the "L": When I ran out of time, I sometimes did poorly in quizzes or labs but in the long run those sorts of losses were fine.
  7. Remember that all suffering is temporary.
Until next time!