The City Museum in St. Louis, Missouri is not a museum in the traditional sense at all. It is a giant jungle gym with caves and secret passage ways and obstacles. And it is hands down my new favorite museum. Ever.

(Image from City Museum website)


My friend Tom works in a KIPP school in downtown New Orleans with Teach For America. Here are a few shots from my visit:

My first reaction was that the KIPP model seems to focus quite a bit on competition and getting into college (note that Tom works in a KIPP Middle School with 5th to 8th graders). But according to Tom, this focus is what leads KIPP schools to actually see results from their students, most of whom come from underserved communities and often don’t know that college is even an option.

And what the pictures fail to show is the sense of community and desire to learn and succeed that KIPP schools cultivate. Maybe that’s why the KIPP model seems to graduate more students and send more students to college than other schools in underserved areas.

But is it sustainable? The KIPP school day runs from 7:30am to 5pm. Teachers work even longer hours. The biggest challenge now seems to be finding good teachers without burning them out.

Sometimes life leaves lessons right in front of our eyes. And sometimes we choose not to listen.

Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO.

Congratulations to my brother who graduated from Northwestern this past weekend.

Part 3: What I want in the future

When I asked myself this question two years ago, my answer was: to travel, to see the world, to learn about different cultures, different technologies and development work.

But over the course of this journey, I found my limit. I lost all my motivation to be on the road, to continue to introduce myself to new people, and to pack up my backpack again. And again. And again. It’s good to know I have a limit. And it’s good to know I can bounce back after reaching it.

Now, when I ask myself this question, I’ve done a 180 degree turn. I spent the past couple years seeing more places and projects than most people will see in their lifetime (which is invaluable knowledge). But my trip lacked one key element: being part of a community.

That’s what I want in the future. I want to move somewhere and not leave for a little while (2 to 3 years seems like a good period of time). I want to have a home and a stable group of friends and a somewhat regular schedule. I want to build a life somewhere without the hesitations that come with knowing I’m leaving in 2 months, or 6 months, or even 1 year. And I want to invest myself in a group of people and a project, and stick with it for a little while.

Ideally, this community will be more rural, preferably a village. I’ve spent time in many villages before, but never have I been in one long enough to say I’ve lived there.¬† Living in a village provides invaluable insight into daily life in the communities in which I work, and I feel that my knowledge from my short-term visits is insufficient and lacking.

In terms of other details, I’d like to work for a company (not an NGO) and I’d like to focus on dissemination models. Kenya and Zambia are currently my top spots.

I’m ready to start now, but unfortunately my plan will have to wait a year. I will be enrolling in a one-year masters program starting in October, and I’d rather do that now than postpone for 3 years. Plus, the masters degree will give me the chance to further analyze everything I’ve seen, figure out who I want to work for, and return with a detailed plan-of-action.

I wouldn’t trade the past two years of my life for anything in the world. But I also don’t plan on doing it again any time soon.

(Also check out part 1 and part 2.)

(Photo: The last community I was really a part of for the longer-term.)

Part 2: What makes me happy

If there’s one thing that two years of living out of backpack for two years teaches you, it’s what is important to you. I can live pretty much anywhere. I don’t need many material possessions. But there are a few things that immediately affect my happiness levels in a given place, regardless of what project I’m working on.

1. Staying connected. I may be constantly changing locations and constantly meeting new people, but staying connected to those important to me at least provides some continuity. I’ve got my system – internet on my phone and an unlocked 3G modem for my computer – working in every country.

2. Exercise. I need to exercise on a regular basis to feel healthy. I do a daily stretching/yoga routine, and I run every chance I get. I would ideally like to be in a place where I can rock climb and practice aikido, but I’ll take what I can get. As long as I can be active.

3. Music and dance. Not only do music and dance teach me a lot about the local culture, but they can lift my spirits no matter what mood I’m in; they add color to an otherwise gray day.

4. People. This is a pretty vague one, but the general gist is that my experience in a given place is often defined by the people I know there. I gravitate towards places where I find friendly, entertaining, and inspiring people. And I remember the people more than I remember the place or the project.

5. Nature. I feel most at home in the woods. I enjoy living in cities, but I need to be able to escape from them regularly.

(Also check out part 1.)

Part 1: What I saw

8 African countries. 5 different projects. 3 types of organizations.

And countless people and cultures.

Here’s a quick recap of where and with whom I worked: International Development Enterprises (IDE) in Ethiopia, Practical Action and a community based plastic recycling cooperative in Kenya, Global Cycle Solutions (GCS) in Tanzania, the Full Belly Project in Malawi, and Disacare in Zambia.

It was a lot, in a very short period of time. But the goal of this fellowship wasn’t to work in one place full-time. The goal was to get a broad overview of who’s doing what, what’s working, and what isn’t in eastern Africa, in addition to figuring out what I like the most. I saw a lot of different projects. I spoke to wide range of people with diverse experiences, and I asked them what their biggest lessons were (as in, “What do you wish you had known when you started this project X years ago?”). I tested out different sectors. And I learned the following:

I do not want to work for an NGO. I want to work for an organization that fits these criteria.

I believe wholeheartedly in business models. And I never thought I’d say that. Ever.

I have strong (and negative) opinions on giving things away for free. And aid.

I am not really interested in health-related technologies, and working with clinics and other government-funded institutions is not my cup of tea.

I am most motivated by environmental-related technologies, but that is often the hardest to motivate others about.

I have the most experience with bicycles and in the agricultural sector.

While I think Ethiopia was by far the most distinct and beautiful country I visited, I don’t want to live there for the long-term. It is too difficult to be a foreigner there.

I like Zambian music the best.

I like Swahili food the best.

I connected with the Kenyan people the best.

Networking is my greatest strength.

I am no longer interested in design. I still love building things and tinkering in the machine shop, but I think the real need in development is in dissemination. And, after speaking to many people who have struggled in this area, I now have some ideas for how to do this.

And lastly: I wasn’t here for long enough; I still have a lot to learn.

(I left out the specifics of what I learned from each project I worked with or saw because I often post on those reactions individually.)

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