Global Policy Studies & International Security

Being a Professional in a Foreign Country – Economic Policy Research in Kampala, Uganda

Photos: Katherine Whitton

Crook Fellow Katherine Whitton has been interning through the AidData Summer Fellowship Program at the Economic Policy Research Centre (EPRC) in Kampala, Uganda this summer. Her work involves a feasibility assessment, production of geocoded data, geocoding and GIS training, and research plan development. Katherine is sharing her thoughts about living in Africa as an emerging professional. Read more below about her experiences abroad:

Strauss Crook Whitton 2I have been here for 5 weeks and crossed the halfway point for my internship. By now I should have something to say. When I sat down to write this post at the 4-week mark I was not sure how to put my life in Uganda or my work at the Economic Policy Research Centre (EPRC) into words. In 4 weeks, I attended two conferences, visited Queen Elizabeth National Park, helped execute a weeklong GIS training, toured the National Mosque, and visited Rwanda. Surely, there was a story in there. But none of those were the poster child of my Uganda experience. I decided to follow the advice of my writing professor – start writing. A thousand words later, I had a nagging feeling that I was missing some important point. I looked back at everything I had written and a few days later I had my ‘ah, ha’ moment. I was still holding on to my Peace Corps experience.

From July 2013 to September 2015 I lived in Addis Alem, a rural town in Ethiopia. It was a challenging and rewarding experience that helped me decide what career I wanted to pursue. It will always be a significant event in my life and the lessons learned will always influence my thoughts. But, I am not in Peace Corps anymore. I needed to accept that it was not an example experience for my life in Kampala. It was time to let the Posh Corps thoughts go and focus on the work I can accomplish during my internship.

Strauss Crook Whitton 4 First, let me explain Posh Corps. When a Peace Corps volunteer had access to western food or experiences in their town like a supermarket with frozen chicken or ice cream, they were labeled as having a Posh Corps experience. It was usually said in jest and contrasted the different challenges each volunteer faced. However, at times it is tinged with the charge that a Posh Corps experience is not a true Peace Corps experience.  I felt I was having a Posh Corps experience here in Kampala and I was a little bit ashamed. I could not be comfortable.

I have a washing machine, cable, access to Uber, decent Internet and data plans, cinemas, great ethnic food, great local food, supermarkets, shopping malls, takeaway delivery, and almost fluent English no matter where I go. My summer funding is more than the total living stipend I received in Ethiopia. I thought I knew not to expect the same as Addis Ababa or my life in Addis Alem. I had been told that Kampala was fairly developed and the economy more competitive than Ethiopia. I was heading to Uganda’s pre-eminent research center and their top university. This was and is a serious internship and yet…

Strauss Crook Whitton 2Second, I need to explain why this matters. This is the first time I have had a professional experience while being in a foreign country. As I packed, I wrestled two voices in my head. One “business attire, it is a formal office!” and the other “this is East Africa we are talking about.” There are similarities to Ethiopia: unregulated engines, pot holes, dirt roads that I am not sure cars should use, local vegetable markets, a resale market for donated clothes from western nations, a bar owner who insists you bring back the glass bottles you take home, and a rural landscape that is eerily familiar. But all those do not outweigh the fact that it was unfair of me to assume my life in Kampala would be like a life in Addis Alem.

Maybe I struggled to find my story because life in Kampala is not that different from life in America. Even as I finish this article, I am sitting at a coffee shop where a dozen people (both foreigners and locals) are taking advantage of Wi-Fi. We are across the street from a mall that could be anywhere in America. However, it is time to experience Kampala and Uganda for what it is – Kampala, Uganda – and my time here for what it is – an important point in my degree and career path. A new chapter is beginning and I look forward to writing the next page.

This blog post was first published by The Robert Strauss Center at The University of Texas at Austin on 20 July 2017.

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