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Let's be honest, Episode 7: Sustainability as an International Experience

Let’s be honest is a Food Circle’s project with the aim to open up the conversation about the challenges when being or becoming a member of the SC (Sustainability Club). This series will shine a light on the different approaches to make life more sustainable, as well as the step-backs and difficulties that arise. Being more kind and understanding, instead of critical, will hopefully help to encourage us to try, instead of giving up when facing a step-back or failure. This is made possible thanks to Sapient, the mother company of Food Circle, which every year offers internships to students from all around the world creating a uniquely multicultural environment.

Let’s celebrate the achievements and give room for honesty and struggles!

I recently talked to my friend Johanna who moved to Uganda to study Gender Studies. She lived in Maastricht in the Netherlands before that. She grew up in Hamburg, Germany. Having been politically active on various concerns, one of the most important issues to her is sustainability. She told me about some issues arising when it comes to keeping a sustainable lifestyle as she used to be able to maintain in the Netherlands.

I am very grateful that she takes the time to talk further about this since I think this will be very interesting to read about for many.

Hello Johanna. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me. Would you mind introducing yourself shortly?

Sure! Thanks for having me! My name is Johanna and I am a Northern German living in Uganda at the moment. I came here to the capital city, Kampala, to do my Master's in Women and Gender Studies. While I was living in the Netherlands studying for my undergraduate degree, I came to visit Uganda a couple of times. However, my main priority back then was to see my partner. After moving here permanently, I realized that living here is very different from just visiting. For me, it took about a year of adjusting to feeling at home here.

So you are living in Uganda at the moment but used to live in the Netherlands, right? What were the biggest challenges for you when it comes to sustainability when you moved to Uganda?

Yes exactly. While living in Maastricht, I used to live in student houses, sharing facilities with several people. And while I am grateful that I had the opportunity to study abroad, I used to be annoyed by the state of the house. We even used to have flatmate meetings on the trash situation and on keeping our cleaning schedule for the kitchen etc. Only after moving here, did I realize how privileged I used to live, and that provisions such as a fridge and freezer are not the norm everywhere. And this makes things harder when it comes to sustainability. While these things take a lot of electricity, they do enable us to store food and leftovers longer than a day or cool our beverages without needing to buy cold drinks in plastic bottles in the supermarket. This is a necessity since the climate is very warm here and goods expire fastly.

Another major challenge for me is the garbage situation. In the Netherlands, the Municipality issues a calendar. This plan organizes when trash gets collected. It also gives guidelines for citizens on how to separate waste.

Here in Uganda, the situation is a bit different. In major cities, the city authorities organise pick-up services but one single truck picks up all the trash. Personally and sadly, to separate my trash individually doesn't make sense. However, for example in Kampala, it is estimated that around 60% of all residents live in slum areas, which means that people build their housing illegally. Consequently, there are no provisions for plumbing or sanitation facilities. The garbage trucks are not able to drive there, so the residents resort to either burning their trash or it gets accumulated on the side of roads. Most sewage canals are not built below the paved roads but openly beside them, and a lot of trash also ends up blocking the sewage canals. When I started to live here, I used to get angry, and it took me some time to understand that people are already trying their best and that the system is already overwhelmed with countless other issues. Before my Master's, I used to live in Eastern Uganda, and there we also burned our trash like most people in rural areas have to. The authorities don't collect trash in these areas. The smoke generated during burning the waste is very harmful to everyone around. Nevertheless, it seems to be a better alternative than filling up their gardens with never composting plastic.

What would you say are the major differences in the tackling of environmental issues in Uganda in comparison to the Netherlands?

In the Netherlands, there is a general awareness among most citizens, and people take actions not only on a collective level but also individually. Almost everyone is aware of environmental issues and their consequences. The main difference is the easy and general access to information on how to change consumerists' behavior. In Uganda, other issues such as financial poverty, poor access to education, gender-based violence, and national development are more prominent in public discourse. Nevertheless, there are campaigns from national and international Non-Governmental Organisations, Civil-Society Organisations, Government agencies and international actors such as UNDP on radio, TV and billboards trying to raise awareness and educate about alternative options. Environmental issues however are still taking a backseat, even though all the challenges and problems are interlinked. I don’t know if you heard about Vanessa Nakate, a young climate activist from Uganda, who is working hard to achieve change. She also aims to get environmental issues more in the public focus. WWF is also active in Uganda and is increasingly occupied with showing the connections between environmental issues and human poverty. For example, due to a lack of cheap alternatives, most Ugandans cook either with gas or with charcoal, which is burned timber pressed into briquettes. Especially communities close to forests engage in charcoal production and often illegally cut down trees. Deforestation is a huge issue in Uganda, but charcoal production has low entry barriers and especially women can sell the produced charcoal next to their unpaid care work responsibilities. Thus it enables many low-income families to earn some money on the side. WWF and UNDP ran several projects in which they tried to raise awareness of the environmental impact of charcoal production and experimented with alternative fuel sources.

How did you handle the differences? Did you change your attitude towards environmental awareness?

To be honest, I think I have become less sustainable in my daily life. If electricity is out and our gas tank is empty, I buy water in plastic bottles. In the Netherlands, I always tried to find more sustainable alternatives to household items, here the only option available is often out of plastic. Additionally, I have yet to find a sustainable and ethically made clothing store. However, I have become way more aware of global inequalities and practices. Most of the clothes you can buy here on the market are second-hand clothes from major fast fashion brands in Europe and the US that were returned to stores or donated to charity organizations. Then here, they get sold again.

The same thing occurs with electronic appliances like used phones and laptops. They are shipped here and sold again. The problem is just that after consumers here use them, there is no way to dispose of them correctly so they just end up in the normal trash. These are just two examples but they got me to think about how high-income countries live at the expense of the rest of the world.

What is better handled in Uganda than in the Netherlands?

Even though the Netherlands is doing better than Germany in terms of producing and using sustainable energy, I think Uganda is doing even better! In Uganda, almost all the energy is either produced by hydroelectric dams or through solar panels. Uganda generates its power almost exclusively through several dams at the river Nile. Additionally, solar panel farms all over the country also ensure a constant supply of energy. And there are no nuclear power plants in Uganda!

Another thing that I noted is Uganda’s commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals 2015 to 2030. While I cannot claim to talk about details regarding implementation, I have noted that the SDGs play a huge role in public discourses in Uganda, and basically, every direction or public policy being connected to economic, social, or environmental sustainability refers to it. I have not seen the same public commitment to the SDGs in the Netherlands - or Germany for that matter - and I doubt that many people know what they are about. Here in Uganda, the SDGs are even taught in most schools. For me, this reinforces the notion that high-income and industrialized countries still see global relations as one-directional and hierarchical. And in regards to sustainability, it is still treated as a national issue instead of embracing interconnectedness. Countries like the Netherlands can learn from countries like Uganda, even though that is barely acknowledged.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I would just like to point out that everything I talked about is from my point of view, and that even though I have been living here now for quite some time, I am still seeing things from a European perspective. I am sure that Ugandans from different parts of the country or with different backgrounds evaluate things differently! But I am still glad that I could talk about my experience, thanks a lot!

Thank you so much! This was so interesting and informative. Have an amazing day, Johanna.

Before concluding, I would like to thank my dear and amazing friend for taking the time and speaking with me about this topic. Interpersonal communication and exchange, as proven to me with this interview once again, are so important. Conversations are as important for achieving change as policies and regulations are, in my opinion. I would like to leave it here for now and give room for thoughts and conversation after this amazing interview.

Interviewer: Lea Annikki Kaiser

Interviewed: Johanna Hvalič

Author and Editor: Lea Annikki Kaiser

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