notre dam de la garde

Yesterday I walked to the top of a hill to see the Notre Dam de la Garde, and was sad that it was just as Catholic as any other cathedral, and even more filled with tourists. I had somehow hoped for a pile of tiny boat models, superstitiously left over decades in hopes of protection. As I couldn’t discover hidden pockets of trust and hope made manifest, my favorite part was sliding down the railings back down the hill.

The week has been dedicated to Global Voices Exchange, a project to create a digital advocacy campaign guide by and for women of the global south. 20 of us gathered to question, scaffold, and draft the guide. I was honored to facilitate in my role at Aspiration, and as a friend of the Global Voices community. It was amazing to remember that about 2 years ago, I had facilitated the GV strategy meeting, and it was the first intensive time collaborating as mentee to Aspiration. It was incredible to see the progression of my skills (still so far to go!), the continued trust put in me by GV, and also how significantly working with Aspiration has influenced me. Continue reading

Adventures with the TSA

In the last month, I’ve had two interesting experiences with the TSA. Both times, the airline ended up saving the day. I’m writing this not as a “LOOK HOW BAD THIS HAS BECOME!” as I have friends in targeted demographics as well as friends on lists who consistently get detained, and they already write far more eloquently and intimately about that side of things than I could wish to. This is more a “look at what this is like, for someone who is socially aware but also not in a tracking system” (that I know of).

What’s in a Name?

The back issue on my end is this: I like my first name, but it’s not my social name – that’s “Willow,” my middle name. I have no desire to change my names, especially not to simply make the job the state has taken on easier. This means, when I travel internationally, my full name is listed with the airline from my passport, which also means my frequent flier programs have FIRST MIDDLE LAST. Which means when I book an intra-continental flight, my FIRST LAST shows up, while MIDDLE LAST are on all of my locally-relevant IDs (driver’s license, credit cards, academic IDs, etc). I have usually just brought an ID which indicates my first initial, and everything’s dandy.

This hasn’t been an issue until the last two months, when it has suddenly become enough of a red flag that merits extensive measures be taken that I’m not a dangerous person. Which means going through all of my stuff and a thorough pat down. Which is often used as a threat, not as a heads up. As someone who has consistently opted out of scanners which can store and transmit images of your body (and therefore into pat-downs) for the past 5 years of heavy travel, I’m pretty acquainted with the less aggressive version of this process. I asked to see the policy stating that they had a right to touch me, based on my name. TSA informed me that no one is allowed to see their policies, and to please wait on a supervisor.

A gold sticker replicates a TSA-agent's badge and reads "TSA Team Boston, Junior Officer" with the Department of Homeland Security emblem and eagles all over the place.I waited. And waited. My flight began to board. I was still on the other side of security. Finally, I went to the airline desk and told them what was going on, and they changed the name on the ticket to match the ID I had on hand. I made my flight. I’m not sure if the airline did a legal thing, so I’m not naming them, but holy shit am I grateful.

Victory point: the TSA staff felt so badly about their process and supervisor being so shitty that they gave me a junior TSA agent sticker. To which Jenbot responded “You’re just two more pasties away from the world’s funniest private screening.”

Nonconsensual Pat Downs!

Last night had significantly less humor. I, for once, went for the full-body scan thing. My emotional fortitude to opt out of every process is slowly being worn down, which just pisses me off even more. I hate rolling over and showing my belly, but I also hate being touched by strangers who think I’m a fucking villain 3+ times a month. The scan showed an “anomaly in my pants” (lulz), and the female-identified TSA agent started patting me down before verbal acknowledgement nor even eye contact were made. I stopped her, saying I hadn’t consented to a pat down, at which point she indicated the anomaly and stated a pat-down needed to happen. I said I understood, but I hadn’t yet consented. She asked if there was going to be a problem, I said “with you touching me without my consent? Yes.” She then deployed the mantra of “going through all of my stuff and a thorough pat down,” but this time with about 3 additional TSA agents, a manager, and 2 federal officers around me, with them holding onto my stuff.

I balked. I’d rather spend another night where I was than deal with this (I was in a lovely place with lovely people). They tried to take my ID to scan it for a report I wouldn’t see. I instead put on my boots, got my bags (they didn’t resist my taking my things, but they also didn’t make it clear in any way it was possible), and walked towards the airline counter to sort things out. As I was walking away, one of the federal officers told me in a surprisingly friendly tone that if I attempted to make it through a different security line that night, I would be arrested and criminal charges pressed against me.

The airline informed me that I could use the ticket’s cost towards a future flight, but that they couldn’t book me on another flight the next day free of charge. That was between me and the TSA. I went back to the security line and talked with state officers, the TSA manager, and their manager about my general work, large-scale conflict resolution, sexual assault survivors, trans friends, and the TSA’s lack of empathy and effectiveness. I should have left the last part out, but I was pissed off. They allowed me to go through the process that night, if I were willing to go through the pat-down and stuff-going-through. And fuck it, my going home was more important in that moment than my civil liberties. And yes, I’m also well aware that basically no other demographic would have been able to have this privilege (because while it was personally deeply uncomfortable and not ok, it was still a systemic privilege to be able to have a re-do).

A friend who happened to be in the airport at the same time (small world is small) had seen some of this happening, and waited past security for me to be sure everything was all right. I’m deeply thankful for this act of kindness and manifestation of social fabric. Also that the TSA manager enacted the pat-down, as a personalized moment of “I know I’m a part of a fucked up system.” I made it through security at the core of the airport just as my flight was meant to be taking off in a peripheral gate, but I jogged to my gate anyway. And the goddamn airline held an entire flight for 15 minutes just so I could still get out that night. So much gratitude.

Internal Consistency is How the Terrorists Win, Apparently

It’s worth noting here that I fly a fair amount. I also tend to detect patterns and systems fairly well. I dread the inevitable next agent-splaining of how TSA policies work, which are always attempts to be kind and to let me in on “how things work,” but are never remotely consistent. Fuck you. The haphazard nature of enforcement has little to do with “let’s keep ’em guessing!” and far more to do with “what equipment is working today and what rules we’ve been chop-busted about most recently.”

Which Just Adds To…

The cycle we’re caught up in right now does little to nothing to “catch the terrorists” (which is also just slapping a band-aid on a gaping wound of systemic problems) and a whole lot in further ostracizing and demeaning historically marginalized demographics.

I have no idea what to do with this – the work I can’t not do (for passion, for frustration, for specialization) merits traveling a fair amount. The people I love are a distributed lot. But I also can’t handle instances like this happening too much more before… something has to change. Me, or it.

Here’s something I used to do a lot more, and which now I’ve been worn down out of doing, so I can still have emotional capacity for other things I care about. And that also pisses me off.

The signals of Tanzania

The driving in rural Tanzania is intense. Mountains without guard rails, extended trucks going around the curves, sometimes passing each other at the same time. Sometimes creeping, sometimes breakneck speeds. Our race against the setting sun, beautiful against trees and mountains, has been lost, and so we’re on a nighttime road. Already dangerous, it becomes even more chancy with blind curves made blinder. Sorry mom.

There are always people walking and riding bikes alongside the road, no shoulder or sidewalk, trusting that vehicles will avoid them, sometimes at the last moment. I fear for their safety, and for my own trust in the buses they recently emerged from, careening along, crossing road lines when they exist.

A language of signals becomes more and more apparent as we go along – present during the day, it is more visible at night. Sometimes high beams flicker, sometimes horns are tapped, sometimes a right or left turn signal is left on for what seems like no discernible reason. So we ask.

The high beams flicking to you oncoming are a “slow down, caution,” because of a speed trap or a tight curve or a wrecked truck. One slow pulse of high beam is a “hello, I see you. All is well.” As a following car, turn your high beams on to indicate to the vehicle in front of you that you want to pass. A turn signal to the outside for the car behind is “it’s safe to pass,” to the inside is “caution this side.” We think the outside turn signal is also for oncoming traffic, to help define the outside of the car for oncoming traffic. Horns are used as thanks and heads up.

Of course I wonder how this started, how it spread, why it’s so standard now. I wonder how it spreads. And I love how it has people in touch with each other, even from within their little enclosed world of vehicles.

Dar pt 3

Thursday is a holiday, and so no meetings – we wake up early and head to Mkuranga District – a rural, rather than urban (like Tendale), slum. We run for the ferry, tho thankfully we don’t have to jump for it, new journalist friend Erin in tow. On the other side of the sea, we drive for hours, slipping between staring out the window and talking about interactions and plans. When we finally arrive, Msilikale talks with some women about if they’d be ok to be interviewed. We negotiate money amongst ourselves – in the US and Europe, you get paid for research subject time. Here, there’s an expectation that uzungu will provide money. I offer to buy a meal or drinks1, but it doesn’t go over. Even this is complicated, with potential larger ramifications. What expectations are we setting? Are those ok? Ethical? The lacking infrastructure and predictability isn’t just about drains and tap water, it’s also about social interaction and protocols2

We talk about sewing, and water, and responsibility. There are only wells here, and those only produce salt water, with which they clean, wash, cook, and drink. There was once a community-held water point, but it broke at some point and it wasn’t fixed. The assumption is that the government will install the infrastructure, in the same breath as a complete lack of belief that it will ever happen3. Water can only be gotten when there’s electricity.4, when it can be gotten at all.

reports from the field

Again, there’s no central square, no place for known dissemination of information. Everything is done by word of mouth, neighbors talking to each other. Do they ever update each other with phones? No, there’s too much worry about the cost coming back to them (or to the person they contacted). But they’d be happy to do what’s needed to bring water to their place. If mgunzu like me try to figure out things, how can we avoid being jerks5? So long as the government brings it in, they’ll work with it. Again, this weird relationship to authority.

We hang out by one of the salt-water wells while Msilikale finds a taxi6, watching people bring carts and buckets to fill up. Children throw rocks at a lizard, chase each other, drink water from the bucket used to wash clothes now hung to dry. We stand under the gas station awning during a short but heavy rain, and then pile into a car for the long journey back to Dar es Salaam. Now it’s back to interaction at the scale of organizations, but now as informed as it can be on our short time scale by interactions with humans as humans, not in aggregate for logistics. The UNHCR refugee camp in Northwest Tanzania seems most appropriate for the water sensor innovation test deployment, as it’s a closed loop. Kibaha makes the most logistical sense for the test deployment of Taarifa, as a lot of cultural work around accountability has already been done there by a potential partner organization. Mkuranga doesn’t make sense because it’s too far out, there’s no existing social infrastructure for organizations, and there aren’t plans to put in water infrastructure for awhile yet, so people would quit reporting after awhile of no results. It’s all practical, but not cold. People here feel their responsibilities, just like anywhere else.

The next morning it’s raining as we gain a blessing from the Ministry of Water – we’ll work with their water engineers on updating reports of water points7. We sit in a taxi in traffic and talk, then meet with a potential local partner who will help with social interaction and embedding – managing expectations, closing feedback loops, continual interaction for a more successful launch – or for a better understanding of a failed launch. If it works in Kibaha, we’ll try it out in Mkuranga, with more focus on the sensors than on the reporting, to ease survey fatigue. We get back in the taxi and talk more while we head back to the Ministry of Water to talk to some engineers about what they would want out of a reporting system (yay more talking to people who use Taarifa, not just read the outputs!). As the depth of the water on the road increases, the speed of the traffic decreases. Finally, concerned about even making his flight, we send Mark off in the taxi with his luggage, and I pile into a bajaj with my own suitcase. A meeting to get to, and facilitate, on my own!

Everything goes beautifully. I’ve learned to hold firm when I’m told someone doesn’t have time, or tells me they only have a few minutes. “We’ll talk again on Monday, but right now I do want 15 minutes. That’s it.” Engineer B and I end up sharing frustrations, drawing on pieces of paper, and giving a firm handshake at the end. Msilikale and I meet up, and head to my new lodging – not the fancy hotel anymore, but a friend’s-of-a-friend house. From here, I can still see birds flocking, and the sun setting over the sea, but there are also bugs and the shower is weird and it feels so much more comfortable than the fanciness. We have dinner with one of her Dutch friends, and brave traffic, and bond over growing up in the Midwest. The ensuing days are similar, with one day blissfully off. Plans for Zanzabar are trumped by epic, amazing rains. I read frivolous articles on my iPad and watch the rain roll over the sea.

In all this, the World Bank8’s hammer is money, and so everything looks like a project to fund. What makes this a complicated mess to my anti-capitalistic heart is that, indeed, many projects do need funding in the current environment. I see the “we read as much about about a grassroots thing that works as we could, and this is how we think we should do it…” All the people I’ve met within the org want a way to make the world to suck less. But these are institutions whose tools are people, and funding, and other institutions. And while they try various tactics, and sometimes make headway, in making the world suck less… they’re also held accountable for their actionsIn theory.. The difference is, the people in grassroots initiatives have to live with the reality of the failings and successes of their (and institutional) endeavors. So of course they are who I think of first. And last. And always9.

And Msilikale and I go over the drawings I did, and listen to music, and talk about all sorts of things. The power goes out, and we keep talking, the windows closed against mosquitos and the oppressiveness of the growing heat inside overwhelming. We walk in the dark to a local Indian joint, eating overly peppered food and listening to the calls to prayer out the window. The lights go out there, too, and we eat by the light of cell phones until the generators kick in. “This,” say Msilikale, “is Dar es Salaam.”

1. Worked for Kibera.
2. Scott’s Seeing Like a State is ideologically interesting, but if there’s no way to get clean water but through organized distribution of resources, such ideology gets tempered at least a bit.
3. It’s like breaking up with someone before they break up with you.
4. Mind you, this is a project with the Ministry of Water. Not Ministry of Power. This is with water. So we can only focus on water. *shakes fist at silos*.
5. Again, Msilikale mitigating anything that seems like a promise. Or hope, really.
6. Easier to negotiate price if we’re not there.
7. The hand washing tap in the MoW does not in fact produce water. Oh, the irony.
8. A World Bank innovation fund is what is supporting this initiative.
9. Not saying others don’t, simply that there sure does seem to be a lot of reminding.

Dar part 2

People don’t lean out of vehicles to ask for directions here, as they did in Nairobi. The security guards, when they exist, lounge in chairs and ask questions rather than standing, mostly silent, with automatic weapons. But like Nairobi, meetings can start (and end) hours late due to traffic, to tardy risers, to rain that causes traffic, to conversations running long, to torn-up infrastructure (that causes traffic), to slow service for your lunch meeting. Tardiness is sometimes used as a sort of posturing card to play – whether or not someone gives you a meeting, and how prompt they are, as sorts of indicators of status.

Everything we’ve done here has required status strutting in order to gain speed. Those plates I told you about? Only people with yellow plates get pulled at traffic stops, because they won’t be diplomats, or military, or donors, or government. If you get stopped, it’s easier for everyone if you just hand the officer money rather than pay the huge fine for driving illegally. Which most are. And because we don’t want to slow down our project, nearly every introduction is “and this is Willow, from MIT.” Which is great and all1, but as someone who prefers to be affiliated with institutions for access to incredible brains and the space to consider at length, rather than constructed legitimacy, it makes me feel like I’d be prettier if I just smiled2.

Those same posturings and rerouting the system means there’s a fear of transparency here. Entire systems here are built up around being opaque. People across all walks of life ignore the floods for fear of being blamed for what happened, being put out of a job. This means any transition into transparency will require safe space. No “we’re coming after you” attitude, but a “we have been operating to the best of our abilities within the structure we have. Now that the structure is changing, we get to change as well!” But it seems enough people into open data and transparency have done it with a vindictive streak that everyone balks these days, and it’s a slow, gentle process.

Two and a half days into an 8 day trip, we’d chatted with NGOs, World Bank3 employees, the Ministry of Water, UNHCR, and no people who actually live the experience this technology would change. And as much as I trust all of those people (and my hosts) to know what the status of their work is, I needed to go see things. Establish ground truth. Everyone gets caught up in paperwork, rhetoric, image, and email, and so seeing it for oneself is always imperative. Mark, an amazing guide and cohort as always, got us out to Tandale a full day early for the sake of my patience and sanity.

On the way there, Msilikale leaned forward to ask the bajaj driver to drive like he does, not like we’re tourists. The roads had washed out from the recent floods, full of pot holes and rubble to negotiate and lurch over. Tandale is a slum in Dar es Salaam, and is a place to live, just like anywhere else. We walk with a man who has lived there, him taking us past houses with water lines up to our mid-thigh, insides still covered in silt, to the river running by the open defication area (ODA here). Kids run by with make-shift toys, and young women peep out to ogle my hair (or Mark’s size)4. As we stand by a washed-out bridge, our guide explains context.

The river divides two areas, one has most of the markets and the other is mostly houses. There’s no grid system (it’s an informal settlement), and so paths are highly reliant upon available bridges, and new structures are based on those paths. IE, functionally ad hoc labyrinthine. And when the floods came, the bridge washed out, and there are still people learning about that and figuring out new routes home. No one is responsible for the bridge – the government won’t come fix it, and the man who built it and had lived nearby died awhile back. No one takes responsibility, either.
It’s not just the bridge getting washed out – it’s the height at which the water rose, and that the ODA is not much higher than the river on a regular basis anyway, and it’s certainly lower than the water marks. So all the trash and bodily functions and such from the ODA get caught up in the river, which means it gets clogged up (as do the drains in the area), which means standing water, which means more mosquitos, and mosquitos are bad news bears. That’s besides all the things in the ODA also flooding into the houses with the rest of the river water.
Flooded or not, the water from the river (and the wells around it) is used to wash, cook, and sometimes drink. This is only for people who can’t afford the water out of the water points – which can be salt or fresh. For half price, you can get jugs of salt water to wash with, and sometimes for cooking. For full price, you can get fresh water. The water is delivered out of water points – giant containers, raised up off the ground, from which people purchase water. These are privately owned, though installed and supplied by the government, and few enough are stocked and working at any given point that there are queues for the resource.

I ask questions. How do people know that one is broken? I wonder about where knowledge of what is going on would be hosted and shared. Is there a town center where things are posted, or is it all word of mouth? No center, just neighbors telling neighbors. No bulletin board system. I saw a vanishingly small number of feature phones while we were out. Only government and donor officials and contractors smart phones. Which, to me, makes me wonder how to get maps built of the water system back to the people in the area5. And given the level of corruption in the country, that data being only accessible to groups already in power is fraught with peril. Mark, aware to not ask questions about anything that won’t have a guaranteed resource response, waves me off asking more specific questions of how points break, and how to track response, what would next challenges and steps be, etc6.

Night threatening and malaria mosquitos7 lazing about, we walk back towards the main road. At a bodaboda station, we negotiate with the fliers. I feel like I’m choosing who to be auctioned off to, having to dismiss the enthusiastic and be wary of the most aloof. Msilikale shoos off the most invasive, and I’m glad of a native Swahili speaker friend and a friend who’s 6’6”. That negotiated, we take a rather epic dive-bomb through traffic route home8, avoiding jams and vehicles traversing the median to gain a clearer route. Only one or two of the passing bike riders make kissy faces and eyebrows at me. Mosquitos die on my visor, and mud splashes on my boots.

And I stare at the bathtub in the hotel room, and think about not finishing my dinner when I was young and knowing most parents referred to starving children in Africa. But the issue then, and with this, is in supply chains and politics around them.

1. Waves MIT flag.
2. Institutional objectification. Which is at least different from institutionalized -isms.
3. Yes, of course I wore my “/capitalism” pin, why do you ask?
4. Please forgive my tense-shifting.
5. A core ethic when obtaining data. See also this blog entry.
7. Dhengi for day, malaria for night.
8. Sorry, mom.
9. Inside joke.

Safe and Warm in Dar es Salaam

6.5 hours from JFK to AMS, and another 11 from there to DAR. Woobly from hours on planes, binging on movies, and clandestine email response; I stood in a pen full of anxious people waiting to regain their passports. I watched the processing, detecting patterns but not defined process – most passports and paperwork went in one window, in a pile, often added to the bottom of a stack but not always. Person there did something, often interrupted, passed on passports in single or in aggregate, not in the same order received. Then passed on to one of 3 other people, who did… something else. Of the two windows which kicked the passports back out, one would use a mic and announce your name, the other just held up the passport and people would see their image (or not). Those unclaimed, plus.. other ones? to be distributed were carried through the pen of passport-plebes1 with names shouted or mumbled. Finally escaped, Mark and Rav met me past customs, and we crammed into a car with a misfit axel, grinding gears though city streets. Traffic lights were blatantly disregarded, motorcycles passed on either side, and we attempted conversation over the loud and the heat. We got to the hotel, one of the few that’s approved for World Bank staff2 to stay at in Dar es Salaam. I showered the 20+ hours of travel time off, well aware that many people in Dar don’t have access to water3.

Monday I headed out to meet Mark at COSTECH’s innovation space4. Could I walk? Ha ha, no. Was there public transit? Not worth mentioning. So another cab ride, the driver and I talking about corruption, and family, and why he loves living in Tanzania. There’s no war, it’s peaceful, he doesn’t worry regularly about being killed. “How long has it been peaceful?” I ask. “Seems like from independence.” “50 years?” “Our independence was in 1961, so 53.” “Congratulations.” “Thank you.” He rolls up the windows when we come to lights, pointing out people on the side of the road, says they will try to take my watch or bag or phone, because I am mzungu. Do I know what that means? “White bread?” He laughs. “Your hair, though, it is blue.”

At COSTECH, Mark and I chat with other people. The local developers who worked on Taarifa a few years ago, have continued to develop and map. A Fin from TANZANICT joined us, and Mark talked through the ecosystem of water projects5, my drawing furiously to keep up. From there, we hopped in a bajaj speak to a large NGO which has been in the area for a few decades. During the ride over, Mark points out license plate colors – blue for diplomat, yellow for private cars, white for public – my dark humor latching onto the hierarchies embedded in such a visibly manifest way. It makes me want to actively avoid the shortcut of institutional credentialing.. but we don’t have time to not take them. At the NGO, we sit for awhile doing email, the African-pacing of time reminding me of Rob’s laptop sticker and conversation I went to Kenya – There is no Hurry in Africa. I drink sweet coffee we chat about Swahili having at least 3 ways of saying “I’m sorry,” my suggesting that and the side of the road driven on as main indicators of English colonization.

We finally chat with the folk at the NGO – for hours. Both groups circling the other, Mark being performative in his role with World Bank, Rav as backup in stitching things together, myself trying to pick up on social cues and attempting to not speak too quickly. We talk about accountability, transparency, scaling, and survey fatigue. If we ask people, again, to provide information, what do they get in return? So many maps have been built, so many initiatives have blown through, and life still sucks. What we possibly do that is any different? Can we work with the local municipalities and national water ministry to enforce the fixing of the points? We’re working on it. Can we make the information visible to the people who live somewhere, provide material and structure to advocate for themselves? That’s a long and difficult journey, but possible. We circle each other for awhile, uncertain of if the other party “gets it,” from the social responsibility or the data possibility sides. Finally seeing that we do, we agree to send a draft MOU, and we head out in another bajaj. This time with Mark, Rav, and myself.

7f0845b8cf8911e385d20002c95277aa_8Now, these things are tiny, just big enough for two people plus some wiggle room. Here we have 3 of us, of whom one is over 6’6”. In the strange layering of apologizing, stubbornness (from all parties), and negotiation of money, we make our way back into town to have dinner and pile through emails. We walk home (hooray!), Mark stating time and time again “not a tourist” in Swahili. We get freshened up and head out to see a friend. As it’s rush hour, we pile onto a bodaboda, or a motorcycle taxi. Both of us. Making three people. We ride like this for awhile, Mark asking passing motos if they are also bodabodas, offloading onto an available one, us easing between lanes of traffic and narrowly avoiding potholes. Sometimes we ride on the sidewalk. When we arrive, we drink beer on a balcony, talking about teaching coding and entrepreneurship, discovering what patterns work across places and what must be thrown out. I find a difficult conflict in myself, between a growing awareness of levels of corruption, and my deep need to defer to people who live the reality of this place. I think back to conversations I had with Lorraine over lunch at Theorizing the Web, about how people are able to use any system to still do good, and you disrupt them as well when you shift systems. And then a car ride to dinner with assessors of programs. Amazing Indian food, and conversations around baselines and statistically predictable incongruities, and how to learn from things even as you fail from them. And beer in a place called Cuba, which we joked I couldn’t get into. And then finally back to the hotel to sleep.

The people in the local offices seeing people like me, who are just coming in for a short period of time, like some sort of Starship Troopers, shouting about how someone else fucked up while things they don’t understand happen. I try, as always, to provide scaffolding for others to see things in new ways, rather than complete deferment or frustrated attempted mandates. The local groups here are doing incredible work, and it reminds me of spanning mutual aid and specialized response. Here, in practice, are many things I spend brain cycles on – philanthropy as unsustainable, colonialism and aid, organic discovery and institutionalized knowledge, and digital divides.


1. Done more for alliteration than social commentary. Yes, I realize how self-referential and socially (un)aware this comment seems to be.
2. Not the IMF. The World Bank. Mark does good work there, and it’s who has contracted me for this trip as well.
3. Cognitive dissonance jazz hands.
4. Which I needed to get to, on my own, without data, in a place I’d never been. I sat with my anxiety over loss of control, of the possibility of getting lost, and hugged that part of myself to acknowledge it.
5. As always, a mirror for my own reflection as well. The pace at which Mark moves, trying to loop people into the understanding of a complex system of technology, people, and politics in his head made me think about what I expect of people and how I express those expectations. It’s like when I speak about either of my friends called “case” – one of which is spelled that way, the other of which is spelled “qais,” and the difference between them is so clear in my self that I don’t think to differentiate them for the person I’m speaking to.

Nairobi (2/2)

We went on safari in the national park, waking up so so early and adventuring first around parts of Nairobi to find Andy, new cohort in action and humored outrage. Backroads and hanging out of the car window asking for directions, every interaction a moment of pleasantry and shared experience. Francis, exhausted from funeral travel the day before indulging our awkward questions and changing plans, finally looking less emotionally exhausted after a chicken lunch.

giraffesA giraffe rather immediately looming on the left, blended with the forest, perturbed to be interrupted but not worried about us. The immediate dispersal of any remnants of jadedness I might have felt about being outside, and joy in seeing a creature move in unconstrained strides. Later seeing young giraffes fighting, I hope in play, but likely not. Spotting the “Kenya Express” of warthogs nestled down in the distance, called as such because they run from wherever they are to whatever their next stop is. I might like them a lot, given that.

Stopping into the animal orphanage, Andy and I excited about animal conditioning and release back into the national park, our wilted demeanor as it dawned on us both that the area is essentially a zoo. At some point, lingering behind the guides for this area and our expedition, I referenced the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon I had been thinking about, and he laughed that quiet desperate laugh shared by so many people with a certain level of awareness and care. We took our weary selves to iHub, and immediately met up with Kevin, an amazing human being and fantastic guide for further adventure, of course also connected via Sasha.

We took the matatu to Kibera, instead of a taxi, walking after we arrived to the area, exploring the new permanent building being built at the outskirts. It will hold toilets, and offices, and a meeting space. The solid walls are a rarity here – especially the doors – and a welcome shift from the compounds we’ve been on for the past week. Bankslave is around the corner of the building, laying down the priming layer for a mural he’s working on with other folk, expressing hygiene as empowerment. They’ve run into a problem – a small swimming pool, or rather, ditch, in the way of the scaffolding they’ve set up. We work with them on problem solving before wandering deeper into the slum.

KiberaWe walk for a bit, and then pause, waiting for some folk to join us. Nearby, children crowd, staring, whispering and laughing. When I turn around, they point at my head. I remove my hat, they shout “blue!” One asks “are you a boy?” “Nope.” “Why are you dressed that way?” “Because I look good.” They nod. One notices tattoos peeking out – I went for the dress shirt but not bow tie and vest – and I discretely show the top of the ink. They chatter and gather around. I hand out dum-dums, and they run away.

Before we head down the next road with our growing cohort, the difference between “politically dangerous” and “physically dangerous” is explained. The folk working on Human Needs Project take us through the slums, insisting we take pictures, showing us local artisans, subtly and simultaneously protecting and showcasing us and their home to/from each other. They have born a hole so deep that it brings clean water. They have set up a way to collect it, and the surrounding building will hold laundry, and toilets, and offices for local initiatives. They will have wifi and computers. It is too expensive, and too daunting, to go see the innovation centers of Nairobi, so they’re bringing a center to Kibera. We speak of education, and of shared joy, and of politics.

I’ve seen, this week, what it is to be surrounded by people who give freely of whatever they have, without question or obligation. What it is for someone to know what actions must be taken to see the community of which you are a part be better off. There is an unassuming but persister baseline of giving in Nairobi. Any overt transaction is heavily negotiated, but giving is freely done.

The stressful process of the Nairobi airport, seeing Brenson and Josh and Oliver from State Department again, what are the chances (passed them also on safari), and hugging and wishing each other safe travels. Two more security checkpoints after that one, the first having separated Lindsay and myself rather abruptly. And now I sit on the first leg of a very long journey, obviously but not comically demonstrating the opening and using of our food packets and seat configurations. The gent in the seat next to me carries an International Organization for Migration packet, and studies from the sides of his eyes.

I’m ready to be in another home, and feeling heart-warmed and -torn for finding yet another one. Three homes in as many weeks, Boston> Nairobi> Seattle> Boston.

A Hilariously Bad Month

The last month has been really stressful. None of my people have died, though, and I’m not left destitute, so it’s not as bad as it might have been. Perspective and all that.

Boston gets communal shipping containers to Burning Man, given the drive there is more daunting than going from San Francisco, so many folk ship things and then fly. This gets packed up and sent out about a month before the Burn, so folk with early arrival also have their things. A friend I was camping with was in another country, so I was handling some of his logistics as well as my own. The ship-out day was the Sunday of CatCon. It was stressful, but it got done, with many hugs and love to Ethan and Jess.

Packing for that was complicated in that I was also packing to move, and hosting three amazing people for CatCon. I also then needed to parse out some clothes for my return to Cambridge on the 2nd as my boxes would be in my old place (with people I didn’t know) until the 5th. I would then move into the new place, have 2 days to unpack my boxes and pack for 2 weeks in England. It had been 3 days, but I booked a train ticket down to NY to spend time with a friend. My request for strange platitudes on the trusting expedition into the world was met with this:


Burning Man was fulfilling, but stressful, as per usual. I burned my self that couldn’t learn to be good enough at Temple.

I did not get time to decompress afterwards. The flight back from Reno to Boston through Salt Lake City was overbooked, and they offered flight credit, to put me up, and to do my laundry if I waited until the next day to fly. I agreed. I got back to Boston and got some work done. Then I visited my old home, stacking boxes on the porch to be transported to the new, a chest cold settling in.

Upon arrival, I found the vines on the outside of the house had grown INTO my room, cracking a window. The wall paper was peeling. It was not a state into which I could unpack. I started peeling wall paper and moving boxes into the basement, while a persistent beeping went on outside my windows for a half hour. “Geeze, neglectful neighbors,” I thought. Then, the fire department showed up. Seems the previous tenants had thrown out a bunch of stuff, including the smoke detectors, and left the trashbags along the sides and back of the house. The fireman came into the house to check for detectors. There were definitely not as many as there needed to be. Nor a carbon monoxide detector. Because of the trash, the fire inspector had to be called. And the health department. They recommended I not even unpack, as they might have to close the house if it wasn’t up to code. The landlord came and promised to get some things done on a timeline. My traveling buddy had a death in the family, so I’d be going to New York alone, but that was just as well, given the hosting situation. I packed for two weeks in England out of moving boxes, and left for New York, high on cold meds. Accordingly, I left my favorite jacket on the train.

The flight to Birmingham, England, was a haze of meds. As a facilitator, being stressed from a move and sick set a poor mood for the event. As I felt better, and as the attendees gained understanding of the initiative, we got traction and got some epic things done. More on the GWOBlog in a few days. I left for London feeling accomplished. London and I do not get on well, but Ella and Laurie and Arthur were there, so lots of work and good socializing got done. We pulled off an OpenITP Technoactivism Third Monday meetup which went pretty well, though I spent about 5 hours that day on transit, some of it lost, much of it just slow. The next day I headed to Nottingham for FOSS4G’s MapHack, where I was meant to help define and guide the group. Instead, I spent the day having a panic attack in a friend’s hotel room.

The morning after that I woke up at 5a to train from Nottingham to Birmingham to catch my flights from there to Amsterdam to Minneapolis to San Jose, where I was meant to get to Santa Cruz to learn from Monica, who has also agreed to mentor me in facilitation. Lodging awaited me, but the shuttle that late would have taken 3 hours and a couple hundred dollars (making it equivalent to a taxi). Exhausted, finally recovering from sick but not from anxiety, not knowing what I was returning to in Boston, I finally balked. I bailed on something I was very much looking forward to in the short and long term, caught a bus to Caltrain, and went to San Francisco. The self that couldn’t learn to be good enough would have gone, and been broken, and been broken further. Instead, I took care of myself. I decompressed for a few days, boots up on the coffee table, with people whose faces I like, and my wifey, and good food and fine wine. I returned to Boston to strip wall paper, and ride my motorcycle, and settle into my new space and roles. I’m TA for a Codesign Studio at the Media Lab. I’m getting ready to take the GREs. My walls are a pleasant slate color, and my art is prepped to hang.

German German Spackle Party

When people ask how I’ve been, or why I look so tired, I can only respond with “it’s been a month.” No one close to me died. I wasn’t left destitute. But I am incredibly aware of how my own privilege in being able to recover from a bad month with relative ease, and only a slight beating to my soul. I’m equally aware of how smoothly most of the things in my life go – regardless of how difficult or dangerous the situation I’m in might be, having the confidence to laugh and assume it will work out is deeply rooted in a safe childhood and continued strong social ties. While not everyone got the former, I can help to provide the latter. (Is it too cheesy to say that you can, too?)


This is the first time I’ve been overseas that isn’t for work. I’m here with my parents, and my sister, and my brother and his wife. Right now, there’s someone playing piano in the inner square of Perugia, the capital of Umbria, and I can hear them from the hotel window four flights up. We’ve played Taboo, and gone swimming, and each waxed esoteric about the things we care about (My father: Indiana Law; my mother: the world’s largest incinerator they’re trying to put in our 20k populated hometown; my sister: fitness in food and in action; my sister-in-law: care for the elderly; my brother: wine and law).

The week we spent in the Umbrian countryside had this view. There, we played Taboo and went on adventures, traipsing through alleyways older than the start of the colonization of what has become known as my country.

We took a day to drive our tiny car to a Grappa tasting (Jacopo himself came out to say hello, tease my brother that he needed his bike tattoo to remind him how to get home, and my numbers because I must forget how to count), the stills cold but beautiful, the cellars pungent and cool. We continued on to Venice for a full 24 hours, canals and tourists and heat. A new favorite statue and the persistent graffiti of unaddressed unrest.

Seeing SJ online and playing cat-and-mouse with details of the statue, finding history and story threads from across the Atlantic. Community and structured knowledge winning out over algorithms.

Upon our return, coming to Perugia, our Garmins butchering the 7-word street names, the absurdity of robotic cadence winning out over the frustration of navigating streets not built for cars. Learning a city with walls like the rings of a tree, built up for the growing population and its needs, neon pizza signs on doorways built centuries ago, praxis winning out over awe of persistence. And the hours-long dinner as the sun set and we made our way through the wine list, talking about life and intent and memories.

Today, wandering streets and churches and walls. Cracks in painted ceilings blending seamlessly with the streaks in marble walls. A shaft of sunlight blessing the shoulders of an unaware tourist consulting a map before moving on. The fake shutters of camera phones and the true ring of a belled phone in the back. Statues and paintings fight, and bless, and seek. Seek seek seek some sign of god, whose house they are in, and in whose name they have been painted and chipped away at. The holy always never quite touching the not yet holy. Candles and sunlight and incandescent bulbs and flickering-quarter-to-light-votive-bulbs. The soft muttering of tourists in half a dozrn languages and beliefs.

IMAG0095-1And then this, which had us laughing to tears. Saint Whoa-Now. Saint Hold-on-Just-a-Minute. Saint I-didn’t-get-enough-sleep-last-night-and-really-can’t-handle-this-right-now.

News From the Outside

I’m sitting on a repurposed fishing boat, which is now an art, music, and hacker venue. Last night I toured the guts of it, slipping between shoulder-high engines, the air smelling of diesel and slick oil. Doors hiding computer terminals, and audio mixing setups, and soldering stations, and a lathe so large they must have built the ship around it. Blo letting me onto the bridge, where the only piece of new equipment is the mandated ship locator and broadcaster. The crew asks for your preferred language and then your name when you enter the tiny mess hall, a window cracked for the hand-rolled cigarettes. I now have just enough German to nearly state that for my language, but am still too self conscious, so instead I listen to theirs.

view of Canary Warf from MS Stubnitz

View from my room on Stubnitz

It’s the first quiet time I’ve had in a week, the last being a six hour moto ride through the English countryside. Sheep perched on stone walls, eyeing us as we went by, hugging curves and throttle. Between then and now have been hours of hard work, rockstars of response tech tools building and conversing, finding overlaps and launch points. Between that and the ship were also bombs in Boston, staying up late into the night funneling the energies of people seeking information, freeing up brain cycles to respond rather than question.

And today was Camden Market, strange back alleys and food smells. Wandering aimlessly with no purpose, simply to see and examine, ask and listen. The papers held by passengers on the London Underground all have Boston on their front pages. Half the emails in my inbox are the same, the vast myriad of my social (fingers in) pie (charts) exhibiting ripples. I find a shop that sells mediocre doner and examine horse statues. Tomorrow is Krakow, after the flight to Warsaw and the 3 hour express train. The distraction and calm are perfect in coping with the vast ocean between me and anyone I could be hugging, which is the most I could be doing right now anyway.

Tonight I’ll sit on my tiny bench on Stubnitz, with my too-quickly-ending book, and listen to sounds of an empty banking hub from out my window. The disco balls will hang deep in the ship, refracting light inside the hull; and I’ll daydream about sailing away with them, with spotty wifi and floors to scrub, to write about what I haven’t yet researched.