Netting

Mosquito nets are common in Uganda. The fine mesh draped over bed posts in the above photo is one such net. For those unfamiliar with mosquito nets, their purpose is singular:

They keep mosquitoes out.

…which takes on a greater purpose in the global South. Malaria-bearing mosquitoes are a known quantity here. Fatal if not treated quickly and correctly, malaria is as scary as any other tropical disease and more insidious because of its unassuming transmission medium. As awful as the disease itself is, antimalarial treatment alone is worth avoiding. Many people familiar with “quinine” will attest to psychotic side effects.

Let’s go back to netting, but stop momentarily to talk about doors. It is an accepted fact that doors must be closed to be effective.

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You could drive a bus of mosquitoes through that door.

A mosquito net must be tucked under the mattress to be effective. In this case, the bed’s posts are too far apart to tuck netting under the mattress (thus my original problem). Few, if any, nets of that size would be available.

My first thought was to hang it from the ceiling. That would require purchasing an eyelet to screw into the ceiling. My Scottish blood went pale and clutched its metaphorical wallet. Screws in the bedposts were also out of the question, since my collection of saved and leftover screws, a testament to frugal advice from my Dutch opa, was back in Canada.

I knew my heritage would eventually cave to self-preservation. However, after a long night spent trying (unsuccessfully) to kill a single mosquito inside the net, staring at the bedposts like a lazy lion might watch for prey to walk within claw’s reach, I reached a conclusion.

String.

Impressions

I was asked by a friend to award one thing in Uganda as the “most surreal thing I had experienced so far”.

“Most surreal” in the category of Uganda is a hard award to give singly. Everything is surreal right now. But I have to start somewhere, so let’s trace back to just after I left Entebbe airport:

The drive to Kampala was overwhelming. I stared out the window wide-eyed like a baby handed to a person they don’t recognize. We were on a highway, but it was like no highway I knew.

Road rules were incomprehensible. Right-of-way seemed to be decided by arcane rules and communication that I couldn’t see or imagine.

Buildings occupied almost every linear metre of roadside. Short, squat microbusiness centres, each with at least a half dozen kiosk-sized stores. Three-storey concrete slabs in varying states of completion and repair, some windowless and others palatial. Roughshod sheet metal and wood shacks that sold everything from cellular airtime to “hotel”.

There were no concrete dividers anywhere on this highway. Micro-busses the size of a 1960’s Volkswagen van crammed in more than a dozen people, and motorcycles loaded with impossible cargo darted between and around other vehicles. Both were ever-present, frequently pulling over and crossing lanes to deposit or take on passengers.

Vinyl-wrapped steel sentinels loomed above the wheeled chaos. These billboards seemed a hundred metres tall, brandishing posters advertising the incumbent president Yoweri Museveni, brand name carbonated brown sugar water, and cell phone networks.

Nothing was clarified or comprehensible in Kampala. Intersections seemed to mean, “slow down and force your way in”. There were no crosswalks. We stayed long enough to buy cell phones, eat a late lunch, and deliver a pair of other interns to a hostel.

Darkness coated the highway to Jinja. There were no streetlights. Some of the arcane communication between vehicles became clear. High beam headlights and turn signals spoke a language, but still not one I could understand.

By then I could hardly stay awake. Nightfall, jet lag, and thousands of inexplicable sights consumed every memory of loading into what would be my home for the next six months. Bed was a mother’s embrace, cradling a child burst out crying in a stranger’s arms.

Before We Begin a Witch Hunt…

Hello everyone! My apologies for a late blog: some ducks had to be put in a row for this one to be published. Now, on to defending internships…

In the past 4 months alone, there has been a deluge of news stories exemplifying bad internships. However, unpaid internships are not inherently evil. The circumstances and result of internships, on the other hand, could pass inspection as evil.

For those same 4 months, two days of every week have been booked for what is essentially an internship. It is not called that, but it functions the same way: I do work for a company and am not paid. This arrangement came about because I met with an experienced member of the marketing industry who invited me to learn more about said industry by doing volunteer work at the company where she works.

What Works

This internship works for a few reasons. It takes up only six hours every week, and I can work additional hours if I feel like it or need to so that work is completed. My direct supervisor is acting as a mentor: answering questions, inviting me to participate in tasks, allowing me to make my own mistakes, and providing honest feedback.

The most important part is how much control I had over the arrangement. I was asked to set my hourly commitment. I am expected to be honest if I think that I will be unable to complete a task.

Obviously those tasks benefit the company, but they are also relevant to my career goals. That is enhanced further by the aforementioned face-to-face feedback that flows both ways. The intentional results are refinement of my skills (helping me) that benefits the company (skilled workers are generally do better work) and refinement of current employees’ skills in the organization (see previous parentheses).

Examples of What Does Not Work

I am not stuck in an internship of 12-hour days doing phone surveys on the premise that is “relevant work” for a management position (don’t teach me about quality control charts or how to manage the differences between individual employees – why would I need those as a manager?). I am not bussing tables for free at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel in Vancouver (I am still reeling at the fact Fairmont is serious).

The Issues

Based on what I have read in the articles above and my own experience, it seems like there are two main problems that make unpaid internships unbearable for interns.

Over-Commitment

Human beings have fundamental needs. Eating, sleeping, drinking water, and having access to shelter and clothes are important for everyday life; so is having time to mentally unwind. No pay, no time to earn money on the side and limited leisure time because of a high number of working hours (and not listening to complaints) has unfortunate results.

Some will argue that the interns have made a choice to work the hours they do. That is true in some cases, and I am sure any intern takes their positions with faith that they will be treated well. Unrealistic time commitment expectations and no chance to have complaints heard does not constitute “well treatment”.

Actual Learning

Six 40-hour weeks performing phone surveys do not qualify as broadening a skill set. One week of phone surveys? That will teach someone a lot about the ground-level work and how to be patient in the face of anger and resentment, so it is not useless. However, an additional five weeks of phone surveys is like using a sledgehammer to drive home a finishing nail.

How about bussing tables at the Fairmont Vancouver for free? What can one learn from that internship? How to stack and carry more plates than looks reasonable and fake a smile.

The Bottom Line

Internships are not inherently evil. Everyone involved in an internship can benefit: interns gain skills, organizations gain trained employees and current employees (if they’re smart/willing to accept criticism) can refine their own skills. Keep internships alive, but make sure they deliver what is promised without pushing a human being past their bodily limits.