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Out of Africa: Welcome to Kampala, White Girl

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Mariah Griffin-Angus is currently doing human rights and development work in Uganda. She will be writing regular dispatches about her adventures in Africa for Huffington Post Canada.

Africa. What do you need to know about Africa that you don't already know? It's the land of the Lion King and mythic safaris. But if you spend any time here at all, you quickly learn that 'Africa' isn't really Africa at all.

It is a vast continent of some 54 countries, hundreds of languages and over a billion people representing a rainbow of skin tones, beliefs and cultural histories. For example, if you cross the border from orderly Rwanda into chaotic Uganda you'll realize that you have crossed more than a mere borderline.

When I walk the rambunctious streets of Kampala, everybody knows I'm a long way from home. Little children follow me. Some are fascinated. Others cry as they see the very tall girl with white, white skin and long red hair. These children spend their childhood playing noisily in the dusty, crowded neighbourhoods. I spent my childhood skating on the frozen lakes of northern Ontario or exploring the abandoned silver mines in a fading northern mining town.

What brought me here is my work in human rights and development. I'm a 24-year-old who has just graduated from Human Rights Law at the University of Bristol in the U.K. I first had the opportunity to work in Africa during a 2009 project in Rwanda. The project involved sponsoring journalism and human rights as part of an outreach program at Carleton University. In Rwanda and Burundi, I saw a country where the wounds of the genocide were always just beneath the surface. And yet, in spite of the horrors of the previous decade people were trying to put the pieces of their country back together.

During my work in Rwanda I was exposed to the shambolic glory of Kampala on a trip with some fellow students. I was determined to come back and see the city and the country in greater detail. My lens on the change in Uganda comes from my work with the Uganda Youth Network. It's a project facilitated by Youth Challenge International (and funded by CIDA) offering Canadian youth (18-30) experience in development and human rights.

The Uganda Youth Network focuses on empowering youth on issues relating to human rights and government policies. I am the governance officer and I focus on human rights issues relating to the Karamoja region in northeastern Uganda. Of course my work involves a wide variety of tasks. Last week I advised youth on how to develop a research work plan in order to draft a policy brief. I've done a gender analysis of a survey report and attended meetings for a campaign on promoting a national identity among Ugandan youth.

Uganda is developing at an explosive, albeit uneven, pace. Last year Ugandans voted in the first multi-party election. It is the third largest economy in East Africa. New malls, expensive hotels and fancy casinos are springing up everywhere. Ex-pats and middle-class Ugandans drive flashy four-wheel jeeps and you can get any food craving satiated. Indian, Italian, Mongolian, Thai: they have it all here. And yet, it is a large urban centre where goats and chickens still roam the streets and traditional witch doctors ply their trade.

Unemployment remains alarmingly high; the education system is strained and riot police often take to the streets to quell unrest. Going to work past hundreds of police with riot gear is always an unnerving sight. Not quite as unnerving, though, as the grim, and enormous "undertaker" birds that line the downtown rooftops watching menacingly the passerbys below.

Check back every week for a new post on life in Kampala; I'll cover what's happening here, my experiences and what it's like to live here. I'll be writing about killer birds, the protocols of flagging down the boda-bodas (motorcycle taxis), and the wonderful absurdities of living in a country with one foot deep in the past and another foot stepping into the unknown.