A Three-Step Guide to Writer’s Block

If you’ve never experienced writer’s block before and for some reason would really like to, here’s my advice:

  1. Go to Africa for three months. Live among people whose lives are totally different from anything you know. Play with the kids, eat the food, listen to the music, volunteer in the health clinic, haggle in the market, catch an odd stomach virus, ride on the bus, celebrate a birthday, mourn a death, dance with the locals, learn the language (or at least a few off-color phrases), laugh with new friends, cry with new friends, teach a class, go to church, gaze up at the stars, hike in the mountains, swim in the sea.
  2. Come back to the US, especially to a big city like New York or Los Angeles.
  3. Try to make sense of it all in one concise blog post.

Follow these instructions and I guarantee a case of writer’s block so strong that it will rival the inertia of the most tortured famous novelists.

Before I left for Uganda, a friend who has spent time there warned me that Africa “really gets under your skin.” What this friend didn’t prepare me for was how long it would take for the lessons to fully sink in. After two weeks back in the US, I have to admit that I’m still unsure how to articulate an answer the simple question I get every day: “How was it?”

Well, it was wonderful. And terrible. And exciting and boring and fun and scary and emotional and enlightening and hilarious and depressing. It was everything all at once and I don’t know if there’s a word to describe that feeling. So I guess I’ll default to… overwhelming? Africa was overwhelming? See, I still don’t know. I don’t just have writer’s block, I have thinker’s block.

Perhaps the only way to overcome writer’s block is to just go ahead and write. To start chipping away at the Titanic-sized iceberg (or kopje, if you’ve ever been on safari) that I shall hereby call “Charlotte’s Lessons from Africa.” Here are my first three:

1. Please, please pay attention. After listening to East African citizens and refugees divulge the unbelievably cruel deeds of corrupt leaders that never made the front page (or even page twelve) of most mainstream US media, I can’t tell you how disappointing it was to see that a story about deflated footballs was dominating every news outlet when I arrived back in America. If you’ve started to notice that your top three news sources are covering the same three stories every day, I must remind you that there is a great big world out there. Please accept the following challenge: look elsewhere. There are so many stories to uncover every day, and so many brilliant people to learn from. Start with a daily visit to BBC News Africa. Follow a new Twitter feed, subscribe to a new blog, or visit the top online newspaper of a country that has always intrigued you. Become informed and you will be shocked about what you’ve been missing.

2. It’s OK to not know the answer. Spoiler alert: I don’t know what the “answer” is for all of Africa’s issues. In fact, the only thing I’ve really learned is that everyone has their own opinion when it comes to this question. In all honesty, I’m still formulating mine. Before I come out and say what it is (remember, I have writer’s block and I’m just chipping away), I encourage you to Google the term “trade not aid” and to learn more about the idea that aid dependency is what is keeping Africa on the lower rungs of the global economic ladder. Although the idea of advocating for cuts on foreign aid makes me feel icky, this is a train of thought that definitely has some merit. As well-intentioned as we all may be, it’s important to know every side of Africa’s aid story.

3. Traditional beliefs die hard. You might have noticed that this blog was originally created to focus on Uganda’s mental health care infrastructure. While I have addressed themes of mental health care in certain posts, I admit that I went a little down the rabbit hole with the multitude of issues facing this country and this continent. So I’ll try to appease those who are clamoring for mental health updates with this last point. During my time in Africa, I had many conversations about mental health with Ugandan citizens, as well as refugees from neighboring countries. These people were educated. They were articulate. They were compassionate. And many of them still blamed witchcraft and evil spirits for the persistence of mental health disorders within their community. These beliefs should not be ignored as we strive to improve access to mental health care in Africa and the developing world at large. To help bridge the gap between tradition and modern medicine, one innovative program funded by Grand Challenges Canada has trained traditional healers (aka “witch doctors”) in Uganda to diagnose mental illnesses and refer patients to psychiatrists. In a country with less than one psychiatrist per million citizens but one traditional healer per 290 citizens, these types of culturally sensitive interventions could be an effective way to help people walk along the bridge between old and new.

Phew. That felt good. The first three lessons learned from three of the most amazing, heartwarming, heartbreaking and terrifically challenging months of my life. Writer’s block, be gone!

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