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That got your attention. The answer is no. I know this because I’m able to feel emotions like sadness, and to empathise. But just to check, I did an online test entitled ‘Are you a psychopath or a narcissist?’ I was pleased to confirm that I am not a psychopath. Slightly less pleased when it turned out that the test thinks I might be a narcissist. The leads me to think that it is probably wildly inaccurate (she says, blogging extensively about herself).

But Jon Ronson’s book, ‘The Psychopath Test‘, has definitely got me thinking. I’m half way through it, and am enjoying it so much I’m going to bed way after my bed-time. It’s laugh-out-loud funny. Bob Hare, who came up with the original psychopath test, really didn’t appreciate the trivialisation of such a serious personality disorder – him and the rest of the psychology/psychiatry profession. I did, though. As, I suspect, did many other readers.

How can psychopathy be so entertaining? I should caveat this with the fact that there’s nothing I enjoy more than a good murder – written or on film. Silent Witness’ – which quite frankly probably leaves its actors scarred for life – is a personal favourite. 

Jon Ronson explores the world of psychopathy, and looks in particular at the possibility that around 4% of the top echelons of organisations are psychopaths. This is compared to around 1% of the general population. As they can’t really put the question in a census, I think it’s safe to say that the 1% figure is an estimate. He gives examples of businessmen who allegedly enjoy firing people to the point of pathology, and have statues of predators all over their mansions. Ronson visits prisons and finds most psychopaths to be charming, erudite, expert manipulators. 

This got me thinking. I work in the aid industry. I bet you’re thinking we’re all pretty empathetic, out there saving poor people and all. And to a certain extent that’s true. But I couldn’t help but think, as Ronson went through some of the characteristics of a psychopath, that something struck a chord. On his website, Hare says that:

“As things stand, we do not know the prevalence of psychopathy among those who work on Wall Street. It may be even higher than 10%, on the assumption that psychopathic entrepreneurs and risk-takers tend to gravitate toward financial watering-holes, particularly those that are enormously lucrative and poorly regulated. But, until the research has been conducted, we are left with anecdotal evidence and widespread speculation.” (See full article here).

Hmmmm. Lucrative and poorly regulated? Watering-hole? That sounds familiar. You only have to read ‘Lords of Poverty‘ and ‘Dead Aid‘ to see that these characteristics could well be applied to my industry. And once you’ve worked at country level, you know they can be. Let’s take a few and work it through. Of course, I realise that in doing this, I am being true to form and destroying idealism. Bear with me: I’ve only been back a year. I’ll get idealistic in 2014. 

  • Grandiose sense of self worth. Am thinking about the heads of advocacy at most affiliates of hand relief international. Say no more.
  • Pathological lying. Aid definitely works. That’s what the adverts say. And what we tell ourselves. What do you mean, corruption? What organisational free fall?
  • Parasitic lifestyle. Just thinking of my generous accommodation allowance, flights home and salary whilst I eradicated poverty in Africa. And I wasn’t even working for the UN.
  • Lack of realistic, long-term goals. Millennium Development Goals. Say no more. 
  • Need for stimulation: prone-ness to boredom. We stay in country for 3 years, tops, by which time we understand the country almost enough to begin eradicating poverty in it. We then move on to somewhere else and blithely apply what we’ve learnt, because all poor places are pretty much the same anyway.
  • Promiscuous sexual behaviour. Have you read Emergency Sex?

Of course, I imagine that you could run through these characteristics, and the others, for any industry and come up trumps. Take political leaders. Mugabe? Reckon he must be up there. Idi Amin? Even if the head in the fridge story isn’t true, we’ve all seen ‘The Last King of Scotland’. 

In the UK? Chris Huhne certainly showed some criminal versatility in getting his wife to take his penalty points (although I wouldn’t say this puts him up there with Charles Manson). 

And lastly, failure to accept responsibility for own actions: ref the Afghanistan chapter of Tony Blair’s memoirs.



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I’m back. I’m sure my loyal readers will be glad to hear it. I actually don’t think I have any readers, which is partly why I feel few qualms about being back.

So, imaginary reader, you are probably wondering where I have been over the past 2 years, and what has happened. And if you’re not, I’m going to pretend you are, for dramatic effect.

The answer is that I’ve been all over the shop, in both metaphorical and physical terms. I’ve been: in Uganda; in London; in one relationship; out of it; into one job; out of it; into another job; into another relationship; into one flat; out of it; into another flat. I think that’s about it. And with all that change, you’re probably not all that surprised to hear that I am in therapy. (More about that anon).

I start my new job tomorrow (do I need to say that it’s with an affiliate of Hand Relief International?) I’ll be updating you on the last 2 years, and sharing impressions of a return to life in London, in due course.

Happy reading, and welcome back. 

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Domestic violence is a big problem in Uganda. Around 60% of women experience it, and around 25% of women experience rape as their first sexual experience. Men are also victims, but women are four times more likely to suffer.

Last Wednesday, after the Easter weekend and before the Royal Wedding and riots, my cleaning lady (aka ‘maid’ here) came in looking mournful. When I asked her if she had had a good weekend, she burst into tears and said she had had a disagreement with her husband. Follow up revealed that she and her 4 children are now living with her sister who has AIDS and loads of kids. People’s lives here really can be miserable.

There have been telltale signs, but I had hoped that it was something else. She has always been submissive and timid, and I don’t think it’s just me. She started turning up at 7am (rather than 830am) when I am looking distinctly sub-human and prefer to be left alone. E suggested that maybe it wasn’t that she loves her job (I am sure she doesn’t, although I pay on time and leave her to her own devices), nor did he think it was to traffic-related (a common excuse here for being late – not early). Maybe , he said, she doesn’t want to be in her house for some reason. Obvious, really.

So, the Wednesday after Easter weekend confirmed our suspicions and left me in a quandary: to interfere, or not interfere? Unsure of what to do, I asked some colleagues who work on gender violence issues at work. We have a big campaign on this, and I even have a spare tyre cover on my car saying I support a violence-free life for all! They recommended CEDOVIP and MIFUMI. I called CEDOVIP, who I have dealt with before and who do pretty amazing work to try and change people’s mindsets around violence in the home.

A man answered with a barrage of questions.

“What’s your name? Where do you come from? What is your organsiation?” This would be very intimidating for any callers needing help. I couldn’t understand why he was on reception. Oh well. I skipped his questions, and launched into mine, at which point I was quickly transferred to a woman.

“I think my maid is being beaten.”

“Ah, and why do you think that?”

(I describe the ‘symptoms’).

“OK,” said the woman, “does she want to leave her husband”

“I don’t know. Should I ask her? I think that’s her private business, I wouldn’t like my employer asking me that.”

“You’re right. It really helps if you can talk to one of her neighbours, and see if they can talk to her.”

“But she only works for me 2 days I week. I don’t know her neighbours.” (I can hear you all I thinking I should, that this is just like apartheid, but really, do you get to know your plumber’s neighbours back home, or your cleaner’s neighbours? I employ her, I am not her best buddy.)

“Hmmm. Well, if you drop her off here, that’s forcing her to get  help and she might not want to speak to us.”

“I agree. And can you help her, anyway, if she is NOT going to leave her husband?”

“Hmm, maybe, maybe not. But you know, it’s really best if you can talk to her neighbours and get them to…”

(ARRRRRURRRRrgh!) “I don’t know her neighbours, do I? What’s it going to look like if some White person shows up in her neighbourhood asking questions about her marriage?”

“Good point.”

In the end, we decided that I’d give my cleaner the details of the organisation, I’d pay her some extra money to help with her house hunting, and I’d tell her she could take a day off to go and see CEDOVIP if she wanted. She hasn’t yet – nor does she have to.

These issues are much more easily dealt with when, say, designing a programme on violence against women, or putting them on a tyre cover, than when they are right under your nose.

What to do, what to do, about domestic violence. Answers on a postcard please.

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It’s hotting up in Kampala, and none of us are quite sure where it’s headed. My first notification on Friday came from an American friend working near Nakasero market, who heard gunshots nearby. The security notifications came thick and fast after that. I was sitting on the balcony at work in a leafy suburb of Kampala, thinking, “trouble never comes here“, when I heard fireworks/firecrackers/gunshots. I opted for the latter, given the context, and observed vans, boda bodas (motorbikes) and large military vehicles with even larger guns rushing towards my neighbourhood. I carried on typing until my colleague Gilbert popped his head out after a new volley of gunshots and said tactfully,

“You don’t think you should, well, come inside? Seems a bit of a risky place to be sitting.”

Good point. I shuffled inside. I tried to stream the Royal Wedding online, but the gunshots were distracting and all that rioting interrupted my concentration – priorities, people!

The walk to work starts again tomorrow. Apparently, those people planning on walking can do so as long as they notify their local police.

Weather forecast: overcast with teargas and rubber bullets.

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Last night I was gazing at the lovely backlit trees as I sat in a balmy hillside bar in Kampala when a Ugandan friend interrupted my thoughts.

“You’re looking at those trees, aren’t you,” he intoned flatly. “You should read this great blog – ‘Stuff white people like’ – it’s very funny.”

By “it’s very funny”, I assumed he meant, “it’s uncannily accurate and all about people like you.” He does like to say “Huh, you white people,” to me on a regular basis, for almost anything I do  (I have generously attributed this to his ongoing messy separation from his white spouse).

Nevertheless I was intrigued. I went home and, after checking my Facebook (#106 on the list, by the way), scrolled through the list as E snored beside me. There is a full list of 134 items, and the website has 80,000,000 – yes, 80 million!- hits. My God, are we this predictable? And do this many people find our predictability entertaining?

Yoga and dogs are, apparently, among the many things that White People Like

I scrolled through the list and found, that, to my relief, it was mainly about things white American people like, so there were a fair few that may not apply to Britain, or at least not to me. I don’t pretend to like classical music anymore (now that I am in my 30s – I did for the longest time, though). To the dismay/relief of my American friends (depending on where they went to school) – don’t easily recognise the names of Ivy League schools. I think I can be excused on the having black friends and being the only white person around points, given that I live in a black country and all my expat friends have left and I can’t be bothered to make any more as they’ll all leave again – so I think the motivation there is rather different to the one cited in the posts – i.e. primarily laziness. Still, there were enough in there that resonated and I felt rather embarrassed. Notably #15 – yoga. “Participation in this activity requires large amounts of money and time, both of which white people have a lot of…It gives white people the chance to showcase their $80 pants.” I looked down guiltily at my new hot pink yoga pants, and read on. Also making you feel bad about not going outside:  I do that to E a lot, even though I spend a fair amount of my time sitting on my @ss eating chocolate and watching Hercule Poirot episodes (when he can’t see me). And I do have 3 moleskines, full of shopping lists, which make me feel intellectual just by holding them.

This morning E and I had a bit of a discussion on this – I wanted to verify the list’s accuracy from his perspective. He’s not keen on racial stereotyping, but there were a few bits of the list that he couldn’t resist commenting on:

#116 – Black music that Black People Don’t Listen to Anymore. He glanced warily at my iPod. Enough said.

#128 – camping, “that’s definitely a white thing”.  (He has shown no interest in the gorgeous campsite at Sipi falls that I keep telling him about, and does not seem to think that it would be a romantic trip.)

# 126 – Vespas – “for sure that’s a white thing. You ever seen anyone here on a Vespa?” (this was supported by an uncannily good – although not particularly sexy – impression of a man on a Vespa).

# 69 – Mos Def – this was met with a loud guffaw and no explanation. I don’t know who Mos Def is but am assuming that a lot of people, white and black, do, and that this is funny to them.

However, there were large areas we agreed that some of this stuff everyone liked (i.e. E also liked them so wasn’t too keen for it to be on the same list as some of the other items): The Wire, Facebook, Mad Men (although I suspect that he only pretends to like Mad Men to humour me).

Driving home this afternoon, I saw my first ever Vespa in Uganda. I dashed after him to see who was driving it.

A white Italian guy.


PS – if all this racial stereotyping is too heavy for you, try a little light relief: http://nonthreateningvampires.tumblr.com/ or http://chickswithstevebuscemeyes.tumblr.com/

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 Some of you may have noticed that, in Uganda, walking is sort of, well, there’s no other way to put it than…it seems to be illegal. I think.

“But walking to work”, I hear you say, “how commendable”. (If you’re not saying it, just humour me and pretend that you were).   It’s not that thousands of Ugandans are on a health kick. Nor is it brought on by the state of the roads here (which are perilously potholed). No, people are walking because they’re pissed off.

A calculation I saw recently based on Danida stats and my organisation’s office logistics costs shows that fuel has increased by 19% since last November. Food has increased by 44%. In the meantime, President Yoweri Museveni is looking at spending 3bn Ugandan shillings (about £1m) on his inauguration ceremony where he hands over power to…erm…himself. Which was predicted way before the February election, and we didn’t even need a psychic Octopus to do it.

Although things were relatively calm during elections, the issue of whether or not people can put food on the table has elicited a stong response. And because Museveni warned opposition leaders and others that he would crush all protests during election times (this included peaceful gatherings), Ugandan opposition leaders had the idea of walking to work to protest against, well, pretty much anything that bothers you about the current government, but specifically, about skyrocketing prices, 11% inflation rates, and why the government was allegedly stealing money for elections and fighter jets from the public purse when Ugandans were going hungrier than usual. After all, individuals walking is not a gathering. And people are walking. Not only that; taxi drivers and boda boda (motorbike) drivers have, in some towns, stopped providing public transport in solidarity with the walkers.

The government insists that these macro-economic issues are not their fault and is cracking down on the walkers. I agree to a point that some of the issues go well beyond Uganda’s borders, but this situation has brought a number of ongoing issues around governance and corruption which have been simmering for some time to the boil.

So far, opposition leaders and Kizza Besigye and Norbert Mao have both been arrested, along with scores of other Ugandans. Protests have occurred every 2 days.

Keep walking.

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We’re big on diversity in the my organisation, a Hand Relief International affiliate. It’s a cornerstone of everything we do. We’re all about justice, integrity, raising the voices of the powerless.  We’re especially keen on empowering people: poor people (we still don’t seem to be able to get past seeing them as one cuddly, homogenous whole lot of poor people); women and children; homosexuals; minorities of all sorts. In short, you name them, we are probably, somewhere in the world, trying to empower them.

It sounds so simple. And so right. But the question is: how to work on equality and empowerment when the majority of the population, and your staff, aren’t so interested in empowerment, equality or justice – or at least, they’re not so keen on it for everyone.

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My first brush with this came when working for a donor, in A N Other African country, when I was Emma. Said donor was on a diversity drive around sexual orientation, and quite right too. Where I come from, accepting differences in sexual orientation is seen as A Very Good Thing, and is for me, a no brainer. Every time I wandered through the office lobby, though, something was nagging me. What was it? Aha! After a week or so, I realised that someone had covered up the half of the diversity poster which said that the organisation respected people of all sexual orientations. How embarrassing, I thought. I called a meeting with my slightly loony line managee. (At the risk of being un-diverse about mental health, he later turned out to be an absolute madman, but that’s another story, and at this point I still had hope that I could manage this man without any risk of personal harm, and perhaps even change him. I hear you sniggering at the back).

We sat down for a chat about it. “Ernest*”, I said. “Ernest, I saw something funny the other day. Someone – and I can’t imagine who – has covered up the diversity message on the new poster with the little stick men holding hands with stick men, and stick women with stick women. Can you imagine?”

“I know”, said Ernest, not looking overly earnest at all (which to be fair makes sense, given that it’s not his name. In fact, his real name is not even an adjective). “That was me.”

Hmm. He wasn’t looking overly ashamed of himself. I tried a new, and not particularly original, tack.

“But on joining this organisation you signed up to our Core Values,” I said, trying not to sound whiny. “Can’t you see that this is not OK?”

“But,” he countered (the clever little sod), “homosexuality is illegal in this country, and my first obligation is as a citizen, not as an employee of my old organisation.”

I was slightly flummoxed by this. I’m not sure why. After a few years I am now used to this argument, but at the time it was horrifying. In the end, I used an unoriginal tactic to leap this hurdle. I had to pull the I Am Boss card. “I’m your boss, so take the covering off the poster.”

Now, if in the UK I asked someone to put up a poster to support something that is illegal and, as far as they are concerned should never be legalised and decays society – say, smuggling heroin or kidnapping children – and many Africans do see homosexuality on this level – they’d report me to HR or the police. However, the I Am Boss card works surprisingly well in much of Africa, even when people think you are being completely unreasonable (except perhaps Kenya – don’t try it there). It did this time. In fact, I really do have to check myself to keep myself from turning into some sort of mini despot.

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My only strategy for dealing with this has been to try to become more tolerant of intolerance and to understand it, and to engage with it in a calm, zen-like manner. “Ha!” I hear you say, “sounds impossible, without a large dose of sedatives.” And you’re on the money. My new policy was first tested to its fullest extent in late 2009 when Edgar**, who manages poverty eradication and equality programmes, said that my organisation would need to change its diversity policy if the Bahati Bill passed in Parliament. For those not in the know, homosexuality would be punishable by death under this law, and people who know someone is gay and don’t report it could get 2 years in prison. Oh, and most Ugandans support it. “But Edgar,” I said, trying not sound patronising [I always do  end up sounding patronising in these situations], “if people are born that way, isn’t it best to embrace that diversity?” [Or something along those lines].

“No one is born like that. Africans are not gay. It is the job of their pastor and their family to cure them,” he responded, dispelling my zen state of mind. This is, incidentally, a view allegedly shared by some American evangelical churches who oppose the bill because they think homosexuality can be ‘cured’: no coincidence, as Uganda is the second most evangelical country in the world, after the US. [There’s a high chance any plane headed here has a large portion of missionaries on it. With my fear of flying, this always gives me hope that a crash is less likely on a ‘God plane’].

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

It’s easy make light of all of this and to ridicule this bigotry (after all, I just did, for a page and a half). But it’s a very real dilemma for any of us working on, or interested in, human rights issues in Uganda. I find the homophobia here disturbing and repulsive. But Ugandans have a right to their law and opinions. Who are we, as foreigners, to impose our views and judge them, they say? And I can see their point. If some Ugandan came to London and started lobbying for these kinds of Draconian laws, we’d put them straight back on the plane.

It’s also tricky for any of us wanting to make non-expat friends. At home, if someone came out with some of the bigoted comments I hear here, I’d avoid them at all costs. But if you want to have Ugandan friends, you need to be prepared for those kinds of statements, and to find a balance between challenging them and recognising that barring everyone who doesn’t agree with your opinion means you won’t have any local friends, learn much about the country, or enjoy many of the wonderful things the country and its people have to offer. Excluding them from your circle because of their lack of diversity on one issue means that you miss out on learning about the diversity of the country as a whole.

I have almost managed to strike that balance, but I walk a tightrope. I was out with my 2 closest Ugandan girlfriends last week for some tea and gossip. We were having a great time, discussing love lives, marriage, the usual. My friend Bernice*** was telling us about this male friend who she spends a lot of time with, adores [and the feeling is mutual] but doesn’t feel any sexual tension with, and is sooo comfortable with. We mulled over the reasons, and I suggested that maybe he’s gay. Of course it’s only a possibility, but some of my male friends matching that description are gay. My 2 friends threw their heads back and howled with laughter. Rather nonplussed, I pointed out that 10% of the population is probably gay here. After an awkward silence, they rolled their eyes –”here she goes, with her silly Muzungu ideas” – and carried on chatting. How to handle these situations? I still don’t know, a few years in to my time here. It’s offensive to me that people can’t live and let live, but clearly what I am saying is offensive to them. We’ve reached an uneasy truce for the sake of the other areas of our lives where we get on and love each other.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

 In an attempt to boost my tolerance and general happiness, I have taken up yoga. The benefits have been significant, and noticeable to others. On Monday, I was telling my friend and colleague Margaret about this over lunch. She’s just been through a nasty breakup, so I invited her along to class as I thought it might give her a boost.

“I’m sorry, I can’t come. My pastor says we shouldn’t go to yoga,” she said, “because it opens us up to demons.”

I greeted this with an uncharacteristically diplomatic silence and chowed down on my matooke. My yoga teacher would tell me to just send love out to the world, but I’m not quite there yet. I like Margaret’s company a lot, though. Let’s not fall out over yoga, I thought.

Today, she invited me to her church. Instead of gracefully declining, as I usually do, I said, “I’m not going along to a church where some pastor is going to tell me that bl00dy yoga is demonic.”

“Well, if it’s not true, it doesn’t matter, you can still come,” she said, in a reasonable tone.

“Well, if that’s the case, come to yoga then,” I semi-snapped.

It’s hard to be tolerant of intolerance.


*not his real name. Although there are an alarmingly high number of people with names like Ernest in Uganda – it’s like stepping into an episode of Foyle’s War.

**also not his name. But again, a popular one here.

***I’m really not making this up. This isn’t her name, but this one is SO popular here.

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