For the last three months, I have been interning with Geneva Global in Uganda and Ethiopia. I had known three months would go by in a flash, and yet, I am still surprised – it simultaneously feels like I just got here and like I have been here for a very long time.

This was my first time on the African continent, and it was a great experience. I discovered great people, wonderful new food and brilliant music I can’t believe I was living without (If you haven’t heard them yet, you need to try Ethiopian jazzRadio and Weasel, Vinka and Jacques Brel. The last one is Belgian – but hey, East Africa is a very international, cosmopolitan place). In my work life in my internship, I worked on:

  • Design of framework and tools for the monitoring and evaluation (M&E) system; and support in its implementation
  • An evaluation of the community school program in Uganda
  • Design of a pilot program for the use of tablets in Ethiopia

It’s hard to add value in a span of time as short as three months, especially in a new context – so it helped that I was working with a brilliant team who could set me up for success – they carved out pieces of work I could contribute to, gave me their time even when they were busy, and continued what I started after my internship.

I could also rely on them to interpret the context. During my evaluation of the community school program, I had a meeting with a government school official who was supporting the program. I was not sure about how to interpret what the official said after the interview – was the official sharing their honest opinion? Or she was telling me what she thought I wanted to hear? Was she being polite or did she genuinely like the program? I turned to my colleague, Lucy, who had been present in the interview and could help me put the interview in context. In Ethiopia, I didn’t speak the language (Amharic, mostly) so I depended on the local team for more literal translations as well.

The experience felt very similar to being in rural India – I was clearly an outsider, I relied heavily on the local team to understand the context (and for the context to understand me) and yet it all felt vaguely familiar. Turns out, even with wide differences among institutions, history, and economic wealth among countries- bureaucracies are bureaucracies everywhere. And people are people everywhere.

I have been reflecting on how the internship was different from my experience in India – I think the big difference was the nature of the development work itself. India is a rapidly growing economy, and most of the money in the sector comes from the Government of India or Indian companies and philanthropies. International aid plays a significantly smaller role in India (the Indian government has been known to ask donors to leave because they don’t need the money). We had discussed this in classes at Penn, I had known this in theory – but the international nature of aid and money really changes how things are done. Some of my classmates also mentioned this in their blogs. Some of it is inevitable – if people give money, they want to know where it’s going and what is being done with it. There is also a significant difference in knowledge and social capital between the West and Africa – so international experts definitely have a point when they feel they can help. I was also lucky to be working in an organization that believes in empowering its country offices. However, I am leaving the internship with questions about if and how I would want to work in East Africa as an international education sector professional.

I am very glad for the opportunity this internship was – for the people I met, the experiences I had and the work I did. And now, for real life and finding a job…