Waking up to feminism at 27

I have always considered myself feminist – but in somewhat the same way that I’ve considered myself blonde or middle class. I just took it as read that I’m a feminist, by default, because I care about equal rights – as a matter as common sense.

But in the same way that people may inherit a religion through their family upbringing, but not actually find a true and potent faith until they are either tested or experience an epiphany, so it is with me: I can only describe this feeling as waking up to feminism.

Hiding in plain sight

It’s huge, and it’s dominating my mental landscape at the moment. I’m feeling ashamed of this, as though I should have known better and my eyes should have been wider earlier, but at the same time I can understand myself. I have been born into relative privilege.

I wasn’t raised in an overtly gendered manner. My enduring memories are of both my mother and father stressing mine and my younger brother’s equal status and rights (in term of pocket money and dessert of course).

I don’t remember ever consciously feeling pushed down because of my gender at home or in the classroom. I do realise that makes me incredibly lucky.

Playing the peacekeeper

Of course I’ve been teased and mocked, propositioned and pinched, but I think I’ve always seen these things I’ve faced as a) part of the annoying fabric of everyday life, and b) nothing much in the grand scheme of things that people have to deal with.

The events of my childhood conspired to give me the parts of peacekeeper and optimist to play in life. Where I’ve had a rough deal I always tend towards forgiveness and focused on silver linings. I usually avoid confrontation and anger – but now I feel a turning.

Sensing a pattern

Yes I’ve listened to women and girls pour out their pain and shame about their abuse, rape, neglect, sacrifice, betrayal and humiliation at the hands of men.

Yes, I’ve read historical and contemporary accounts of women forced down, denied their rights, robbed of their dignity, swindled. Or systematically abused and scattered far from their homes as a result of wars mostly planned and waged by men.

Yes, I’ve visited women in countries whose patriarchal systems mean they can’t get loans, can’t read, can’t own land.

These injustices have always been visible to me – but now I am seeing a pattern, each a different side to an ugly behemoth.

The realisation that many men hate women.

That it is still in the mainstream to hold women to moral and other standards that simply aren’t applied to men – and that women and men are limited because of this.

That control over women is still built into the majority of, if not all, societies’ fabric.

What is it that has caused this awakening?

It’s partly that I’ve been tuned into this agenda more intently through my work over the past six months or so, and that I’ve had the privilege to work with some incredibly fierce women recently.

It’s probably also the sense of our complacency being shattered, as  we feel politics lurch backwards in terms of the human rights we should all be shouting to defend

Waking up

Before, I believed in gender equality as a simple piece of logic. So I have been a feminist for as long as I can remember, but now I’m woke as well.

Feminism is still about common sense. It is about human rights and freedom for men and women.

But it’s also a response to injustice that makes me sick with anger, a rot that goes to the core, is pervasive and systematic, hidden in plain sight.

A call to act

I’m grateful to this anger. Feeling that fire in my guts gives me the confidence to stand up tall. Wakes me to what is going on. Wakes me to the fact that my mindset and the way I live my life each day is a choice – and it can be feminist or complacent.

It’s down to my privilege that I’m having this awakening only now, and the same privilege demands that I act upon it with all the urgency and effort I can muster.

We need a radical empathy movement

We all need hope.

A sense of possibility that things can get better.

But hope isn’t always easy to find.

A glance at almost any news article, whether left or right-leaning, can leave you with a sense that things are somehow hopeless.


Things are going wrong. Terrible events are unfolding now, or have just happened. Or are just around the corner. Invariably, there isn’t much to be done.

The cynical journalist’s mantra, ‘If it bleeds, it leads,’ was born in the 1980s – shock and horror-fuelled news cycles are older still. But most recently the news seems to be doing its best impression of the world’s biggest car crash. We’re the rubberneckers.

But are things really hopeless?

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I don’t want to disregard the roiling geopolitical tumult, or diminish the importance of stark issues the world faces right now.

But every time I observe people (myself included) acknowledge their sticky-stomach sense of dread, failing courage, sinking spirits, I want to pipe up and remind them:

With very few outright exceptions, people are good.

Even cruel, greedy people are good sometimes. Hey, cruel and greedy things occurred to me before breakfast today.

But consider:

  1. The last person who seemed to actively enjoy giving you a fine or ticket.
  2. That kid who bullied you at school.
  3. The politician that stirs violent tendencies in you.
  4. Piers Morgan.

I am willing to bet they are all good people, at least some of the time. The way they act is probably the most rational response to the way their lives have been going right up to today, to now.

When we act in an ugly way, it’s because we are not in touch with the magic dust that helps us be our best selves: empathy.

Sort-of magic powers

Empathy is the ability to imagine what life might be for another person. To ‘put yourself in their shoes’. Not demonising nor sanctifying, but trying to understand what it’s really like for them.


It is a magic trick.

There are some people who can’t perform it, who are categorised as psychopaths.

But almost everyone else can practice empathy. It’s the world’s biggest secret, and the biggest reason to hope.

Practicing and developing empathy makes life easier. It helps us make sense of the world. It helps us form connections with each other and build meaningful, mutual understanding. It makes us happy.

Empathy is attractive

From great leaders like Gandhi, to writers like J K Rowling, to that person in your own community running the campaign to keep the library open – people who can

a) imagine what life is like for others, and,

b) act on and share what they’ve realised,

are very attractive.

People who are empathic listen to us, and we are drawn to them in return and want to know what they have to say. They are easy to support and to help. They inspire empathy in us.

Practicing empathy is building a beacon: you create light and warmth, and people are drawn to it.

We can all build a beacon.

It takes courage

Especially now. According to current affairs, society is divided. Apparently people only care about themselves, and are living in bubbles.

People are voting for time to turn back to one in which we knew our neighbours and people were decent.

I genuinely think that in empathy, we have the power to turn everyone into our neighbours.

Think about those people in your life that you love. It is stating the obvious to say that you want them to be happy. You wouldn’t want them to face pain or hardship. If you could do something to stop that from happening, you would.

Empathy allows us to consider any person and feel for the thread that binds us to them, to sense what we share, and ultimately, to feel concern for them in much the same way we would about our closest friends and relatives.

Empathy bursts bubbles, unites groups. It is a spur to action, to creativity, to achievement, to service.

Empathy is a radical act

What the world needs is a radical empathy movement – and it is already happening.

If all the people who volunteer were a nation, they’d be the world’s eighth biggest country. Around the world, people are building enterprises, projects and products that solve some of our most urgent social issues, powered by empathy.

My hunch is that in addition to these people, there are 100 times as many again who have a notion that they want to feel more connected, to contribute more and to use their unique lifetime to serve and to make life a couple of degrees nicer.

So, back to hope

We need hope because it gives us a sense of possibility. With empathy, we add a personal connection.

We gain a confidence in having something to contribute that could make a difference to something that really matters, that we care about.

We can all contribute to this radical empathy movement. We don’t need to write a book, start an enterprise or invent something (although many of us have it in us to do so, in the confidence of being connected to a network of others).

Seeing others is enough. Listening. Noticing your fellow tube passengers and that they are all individuals with hopes, struggles and loves. Same for your colleagues, the man in the shop, the people in the news.

A club for radical empathy would give us hope that we are not alone. We are connected. We have the energy and heart to reach out and contribute what we have to give, to feel people draw closer to us in return. We are building our beacons and making a difference in that little bit of the universe that revolves around us.

I’m working on starting the Radical Empathy Club, a magazine/podcast that will share the stories of inspiring people working on some of the most astonishing and uplifting projects powered by empathy. Watch this space for more! 

Lessons in activism from King Leopold’s Ghost


King Leopold’s Ghost

Or: The atrocious crimes of Belgium in Congo, and how they kick-started the humanitarian movement

This book tells the story of the invasion of the Congo and theft of its people and resources by Belgium. It’s presented as just one, truly audacious part of the narrative of the wider scramble for Africa (and world beyond Europe).

Before I read this, all I knew, through my Euro-centric lens, of the Democratic Republic of Congo was as a somewhat complex and depressive zone of perma-crisis, militias, environmental abuse and corruption that no newspaper even prints stories on any more. I did not know anything much about what happened on the way here – so Leopold’s Ghost was an education.

This book is horrifying.

Without sensationalising, it lays out Belgium’s skeletons from the Congo, which include rape, torture, mutilation, enslavement, betrayal, barbarism, and simple cruelty. There are those who would say what happened was genocide. In any case, up to 20% of the population lost their lives.

What makes Belgium’s crimes so glaring is not just the scale (the ‘Congo Free State’ its King Leopold II staked out for himself in the colonial pillage of Africa covered an area of 1,000,000 square miles – 50 times the size of Belgium).

It was the fact that Leopold held the lands, its people and resources hostage as a piece of private property: he was the sole owner and did all he could to obfuscate the true scale of his profits from the Belgian parliament and people, all while building his personal fortune and cachet with palaces, yachts and monuments. He matches entirely up to our stereotypes of despotic leaders – except he was European and got there first. It is this brazenness that contributed to his eventual demise.

The story is pieced together through accounts and letters of officers who served in Leopold’s Congo, along with missionaries, writers and explorers. Hochschild acknowledges that the voices of the oppressed is loud in its absence.  The few written accounts from Congolese that were recorded are the most terrible of all. Each one is like being punched in the gut, leaves you sick and angry. I can’t imagine how I would feel reading this if I were Congolese.

Truth like fiction

The book also tells the story of the campaigners who tried to stop the atrocities in the Congo. It has great heroes- an African American trickster who goes looking for a promised land and finds a hell on earth- and pays for speaking out. A lowly shipping company official who notices something awry about boats coming in loaded with rubber and leaving only with guns – and decides to do something about it. It’s a story of courage, and should inspire us all.

Among my very favourite things to read is non-fiction that reads like a novel and this is a great example (see also American Nations, Nothing to Envy, God Sleeps in Rwanda). Leopold’s Ghost is a truly gripping story – just in this case you wish it were a fiction.

What I learned

This book left me with an urgent sense of the need for our European school curricula to provide an honest education of our colonial legacy. We need the courage to talk about what happened – I think it is outrageous how little I knew about this.

In the UK, I got a bit of education on the slave trade – focused on America. But it’s so much more than that. Reading a book like this you come to understand that the rich countries are rich because they took the resources of other countries for themselves.

Rubber terror

I never knew about the ‘rubber terror’ – the insatiable hunger from America and Europe for rubber once it could be used to make durable tyres and machine parts. Our progress was only ‘affordable’ because people were being held hostage, starved and tortured into collecting rubber all day in the Congo. If they were paid, it was in a few worthless brass rods.

Those who resisted (and the book does tell some amazing stories of those who did) could only do so for so long. Belgium had control of governance, the waterways, the churches, the manpower (including Congolese encouraged into suppressing their own people) and the firepower.

The rise of British humanitarianism

Hochschild lays out how this case of the movement against Leopold’s grasp on the Congo was the birth of the British humanitarian movement, which continues to this day. The oldest surviving international human rights organisation (Anti Slavery International) was set up in this time.

The two central ‘heroes’ of the book are Roger Casement and E. D. Morel. Both British, and working independently before they found each other and worked together, they systematically gathered evidence of the atrocities committed. They were both fantastic researchers.

Morel was a great fundraiser and influencer, getting the cream of British society behind the cause, from Archbishops to Arthur Conan Doyle.

He was also a prolific writer and seems to have been a real obsessive personality type. He spent hours writing letters and editing and writing articles for various newspapers, including the West African Mail – his own newspaper started as the focus for his obsessive campaign against the Congo.

Casement was the Foreign Office diplomat whose investigation into the reality of abuses in the Congo provided the evidence the movement needed to grow in momentum.

Remembering Casement and Morel

Of course, neither of them were perfect. You can say Britain’s eventual interest in and supporting of the campaign against Leopold’s Congo was hypocritical. It ignored Britain’s own human rights abuses in its colonies. And it was never so radical as to question the legitimacy of colonialism in the first place, which hardly differs from invasion except in name.

However, both were deeply committed to what was at times an unpopular cause. They were determined, and their efforts eventually put an end of Leopold’s personal stranglehold on the Congo (though it wasn’t the end of the pain for that country). They should be celebrated as two of the most important figures in British humanitarianism.

After finishing the book I wanted to find out how these two men are remembered now. I was expecting there to be statues or monuments, but I haven’t had any luck to identify any to visit. I think this is a real shame.

(Note: It seems there will be a statue erected to Roger Casement in his native Ireland, his radical nationalism eventually being what led to his demise in a jail cell. British Government exposed him as gay, which contributed to his incarceration and meant he hasn’t been remembered as the hero you could argue he should be).

Inspiration for today’s campaigners

I couldn’t read about the way the Congo Reform Association’s campaign was won without thinking about Britain today. In a turbulent and populist political climate, and coaxed by rabid right-wing tabloid leaders,public support for spending on international development, including in countries like Congo is dwindling.

There is a lack of a proper understanding of our own role in the relative poverty and underdevelopment of countries formerly colonised by European powers. However the Morel and Casement campaign skipped over the colonial guilt thing entirely in order to build public support and succeed.

What won the Congo campaign seems to be three things, which should give anyone interested in preserving a fair and decent level of basic investment in developing countries to increase the peace, stability and justice in our world, food for thought:

  1. ‘British values’ and decency

    The British have a powerful and pervasive view of themselves as the good guys. We think we are the scrappy underdog who wins through perserverance and moral superiority. Britain accepted waves of migration from former empires, and then commonwealth states because it had this sense of itself as having some kind of maternal responsibility to the weak. Modern campaigns can probably still tap into this to prick public conscience by talking about British values – at home and abroad.

  2. Celebrities, thought leaders and emotive witnesses

    Morel’s ability to schmooze meant he had a roster of famous and influential faces behind his campaign. These in turn probably encouraged yet more society figures to join what became an increasingly glamourous cause. The Congo Reform Association put on talks featuring these famous people that drew huge crowds. Also highly engaging and shocking were the lantern shows of returned missionaries, showing hundreds of people photographic evidence of the worst abuses: baskets of smoked human hands, mutilated toddlers, people being whipped mercilessly. Some famous faces like Conan Doyle, and Morel himself wrote books about the Congo that were read by huge numbers of people. These things together captured the public imagination. It is not too different from modern media strategies from humanitarian organisations and NGOs, but on a huge scale and high level.

  3. An acceptable baddie

    In King Leopold II, Morel and Casement had their jackpot. By all accounts Leopold was horrible, possibly a narcissistic psychopath. He hid his wealth from his people, his mad sister and even his children. He had perversions about sleeping with virgins and very young girls. He was a gift to caricaturists with his huge nose and white beard. He was the perfect villain. A good campaign offers up a simple solution to stop injustice. It can be illusory if need be, but simplicity allows for a belief change is feasible and realistic and thus building momentum. Here it was put to great use – get rid of Leopold and you could stop the abuse. It gave the rest of the Belgian colonial establishment a way to get out unscathed and continue governing the Congo in a way more acceptable to the rest of Europe (to their credit conditions did improve in the Congo, though it was still a very unjust situation). In the absence of a good baddie, it can be hard to build conclusive momentum a campaign needs to get a palpable ‘win’.

8 things I learned getting up at 5am for 50 days

Well, it’s nearly here. Tomorrow marks the end of my #50earlydays challenge: to get up at 5am for 50 days to form new habits to help me be healthier, happier and more productive. More about the challenge and my reasons for taking it in a previous post.

How did I do?

I actually really surprised myself on this challenge. My overall result as of today is 43/49 5am starts. All being well I will finish with an 86% success rate, which is much better than I ever would have expected, especially over the December/January period.

Was it hard?

The short answer is yes. But it’s a bit more complicated than that. I started the challenge living in Rwanda where sunrise was at 5.30am and I was living in a very focused bubble. On Day 11 I was back in a very dark, grey and damp London and caught up in a hubbub of reunion and Christmas catch ups and drinking. That quickly dialled up the difficulty level!

However, in a sick way I was enjoying the challenge. I really found myself liking the routine and the pushing myself. When I managed to do well it was self-reinforcing and I was seeing progress, which was motivating. At 6am on Christmas Day, I went for a run in the pitch black Berlin drizzle.


I find it hard to reconcile the person who did that with my my own self-image. I dunno who she is.

Perversely, the challenge got much harder in January. After one of those classic hyperactive starts to the New Year where you fool yourself that this arbitrary ‘fresh start’ provides infinite possibilities for transformation, I had a slump. Separately, two very important people in my life moved to the other side of the world. I was no longer just returned from Rwanda, but still hadn’t quite adjusted. I was in the doldrums. Someone very dear to me was in crisis and it brought up some old trauma. Plus the weather was freezing. It felt very hard to motivate myself to get up and I didn’t manage for four days in a row.

As it has got closer to the end of the challenge it has got a bit easier again – though I’ve had the thought playing in my mind of what next…

What did I do with all those extra morning hours?

They say that it takes 7 weeks to form a habit. I don’t know if that’s true but I wanted to test it. I also had some very ambitious ideas that I was going to try to improve in a few different areas, giving myself some variety and a plan of things to do so I would have more reason to get up.

In the end my main successes were building habits around meditation, stretching, exercise (skipping, running etc), journalling and planning.

It is less than what I intended. But what I intended was unrealistic. I’m pleased I have developed any habits I feel I am likely to stick to, and that I have already noticed some positive benefits.

My learnings were:

1. Forming a habit is hard.

Even after weeks of doing things every day, there are still days you just don’t want to do it.

2. …but it gets easier

You might grumble inwardly that you don’t want to do it, but you still (mostly) do it.

3. Mornings go quick even at 5am

I found that the basic morning routine I wanted to put in place generally took an hour. That’s before doing any additional things like writing or going out for some exercise. Often it is suddenly 7 or 8am and it feels like only 30 mins have passed, which was unexpected.

4. It’s better to focus on one thing at a time (for me)

I thought I would be able to stick to a regimen of rotating activities i.e. run one day, work on an online course the next, do some writing the next, etc.

In the event I found this difficult. I found I felt like I had failed when I couldn’t stick to it. It was easier, and probably more productive to stick to one thing and try to improve on that over the 50 days. In my first post on this I mused about whether I should work on one specific project. I didn’t have one in place but I think this would be a really great use of a challenge like this.

5. It’s not that hard to get out of bed at 5am (but it’s harder in a British January 😝)

If I have to get up early I just set my alarm and plug my phone in well out of arm’s reach. I have to get out of bed to turn the alarm off, which is 50% of the battle over. Then walk straight into your morning routine, even if your eyes are still shut and you feel like a zombie and look like one of those newborn pink squirming eyes-shut puppies. Brushing teeth, washing face and drinking a pint of water all help with the other 50%.

6. It gets easier …in general

I did have a few mornings where my eyes opened naturally a few minutes before 5am, which was very weird!

7. The mood you go to bed in really affects your morning.

I realised this one towards the end. If you go to bed feeling sick, self critical, angry, depressed, it’s easy to find it harder to motivate yourself in the morning. When I’d had a great day, I felt really positive the next morning too and very energised to start the day.

8. Give yourself nice things to do in the morning

It can’t all be work. When I felt under the weather or worn out by general life I would take a morning to do something I really enjoy, like make a really good breakfast, read, or listen to music or podcasts. Having a bucket of coffee also helps 😉

What were my results?

  • My 5 Minute Journal habit helps me set daily priorities, feel more prepared and in control, feel more gratitude, and get to sleep quicker in the evening (thanks to having reviewed the day at the start and finish means the amount of things swirling through my head is greatly reduced)
  • Stamina and fitness increased. I have never had a running habit and it is nice to feel your fitness gradually improve even from a low baseline
  • General mood better – I think. Generally I am reasonably peppy but I think I noticed an improvement. This could be as a result of the meditation practice or more exercise.
  • Calmer- probably for the reasons above, though could also be by starting the day in a predictably measured way. I didn’t miss the morning cortisol produced by my usual practice of waking 30 mins before I need to leave the house!
  • Less back pain. I don’t have serious back pain but I do have a weak lower back and genetic hollow back, which I notice when I’ve been standing a while or just at the end of the day. It seems to have got less noticeable, possibly due to daily stretching and exercise, but who knows?

The downsides

Any challenge like this is a bit obsessive and there are always positives and downsides with obsessive behaviours (which I am naturally prone to!).

It’s no fun to have a set time limit to get to bed (ideally 9.30, 11 latest if you don’t want to write off the next day). It is boring and makes you a bore.

This challenge also took over my life. I felt like it was a big portion of what I thought and talked about for 50 days. On the one hand that’s OK as it interested me, on the other it made me feel a bit like an alien.

What’s next?

Will I continue? Given all the above and the progress I feel I made, I don’t want to abandon my morning routines now. It would feel like a waste.

However, I won’t feel pressured to do 5am every day – looking forward to that. I think I can still get lots done getting up at 5.30, 6 or even 7. But on evenings where I have no plans, I think I’ll be more likely than I was before to stop wasting time on the internet and get an early night in so I can have a great morning.

I did really enjoy the format of this challenge, having a chart, seeing myself make progress and so on. So I am looking for a new challenge! I’m not sure yet what it will involve. There’s so many areas I want to work on from professional skills, to finances, to focus training, to building a daily writing habit. But if I’ve learned my lesson I will resist the urge to try them all at once!

I’ve also signed up to do my first park run in Feb so that’s going to be a challenge in itself… wish me luck 💪

I’d love to hear from anyone who has tried anything similar about what they learned, or suggestions for what to try next 😊

Can charity magazines make a comeback?

I think I’m probably not the only one for whom ‘charity magazine’ carries a whiff of photocopied parish newsletters, or perhaps dull pages of generic blather and images that reek of middle England and middle age. Now I’m not for a second saying that’s all there is out there, but that there is still a certain stereotype that made it possible for me to be surprised and delighted when discovering something different on my most recent stay in Berlin

Greenpeace Magazin is a title that could hardly be more different to these tropes. It seems to hold its own against commercial and indie mags and has got me feeling optimistic and excited about opportunities for charities and social good orgs to use print editorial to inspire and share their values with the public.

Print revival

It is clear that print isn’t dead. While the days of high circulation magazines and newspapers, required-reading print are in decline in the West owing to rising production of and appetite for digital formats, indie publishing is having a huge revival.

Appetite grows for niche titles printed in batches sometimes only running to 5,000 or so. While some household name mags may be struggling, I’ve seen some estimates that about five indie magazines were launched in the UK alone each week over 2016 alone. The cover prices on some of these are £10 or more, positioning themselves outside the mass market. For their subscribers, it is a fair price.

Much has been said about the continued visual appeal of the printed page as a badge of identity, conviction and taste. Magazines’ ability to make a statement for their ‘communities’ of readers has caught the eye of brands and content marketers. N (Norwegian Airlines) and Ferment (the magazine included with a Beer52 subscription) are two personal favourites in the genre.

An opportunity for charities and social enterprises?

There are some nice charity examples I’m aware of such as the RSPB’s suite of printed titles for young supporters of different age groups. I really like Wingbeat, the magazine for teens that is guest edited by and features the photography of young supporters. And I can’t knock the National Trust mag. It’s not aimed at me but my hoarding dad keeps great stacks of them that no one is allowed to throw way, and has separate piles in his man drawer of bits that have been torn out.

But charity budgets for print magazines are falling and many more have gone online only, whether their content is properly adapted for digital or shoved into an awkward ‘e-magazine reader’ (*cough* *Issuu*).

All of which made discovering Greenpeace Magazin today while bumbling in Kreuzberg bookshops such an unexpected delight.


This magazine is beautiful first and foremost. That’s the first thing that strikes you: pages of stunning photojournalism, clever typography and clean editorial design (seemingly by designer Inka Schnettler). At €6.70 it’s beyond mass market but reasonably accessible to supporters. I’d like to know whether funds for charitable activities are raised through the mag or whether this counts as one of Greenpeace’s campaign interventions in Germany. There are no ads, though there are a few listings for products sold by Greenpeace at the back of the mag (think a wholesome, unbleached, ethically-produced, sustainable wood and natural fibre skipping rope) which I imagine also raise funds.


The second thing that stuck me was the lack of asks. If not outright donations most charity mags seem to be asking for something. There is very little of that here and for that reason it feels more ‘authentically’ like a magazine. It’s not an indie I’m sure but it has that vibe and that’s where it sat on the racks in this all liberal smorgasbord of a bookshop.


This December 2016 issue (yes I did take a few too many overenthusiastic shots of spreads at the rack) is focused on the theme of mountains of Europe. The articles look at wildlife (as we expect of Greenpeace) but also at culture, landscape, society and more (there was even a food bit!), all through this lens. It’s obvious when you think about it that this is because Greenpeace wants to protect mountain environments for all of the above things they hold, but it never bashes you over the head with it. It treats the reader as an adult with interests in culture, current affairs, travel, photography and the environment – interests that it too holds and wishes to share.

Though it’s image-led, there are longform feature articles (1500wds and more) and well as more bitesized content with facts and stats.


Can you tell yet that I really like this mag?

I was a regular Greenpeace supporter for a while so maybe I’m biased towards this as a title I would genuinely enjoy reading, but it was also so satisfying to see such a well executed product under a charity title.

It makes me excited about how charities and other orgs for social good can harness new approaches to print, alongside their digital, video and audio output to delight their supporters and explain their values and raison d’etre in a more relevant and interesting way.

There’s no reason other charities couldn’t do this (a quality magazine on it’s own right) in the right spaces, if they took this risk. I’m interested to learn more about the process here, I haven’t seen an equivalent to this in the UK – yet.

Have you seen any similar charity magazines of this type, in the UK or elsewhere? I’d love to find out if there are others.

Why I’m getting up at 5am for 50 days

When the amazing Umisha of Little Bird Kefir told me that she had set herself a challenge to wake up at 5am each morning for 50 days straight, I wasn’t that surprised. Consistently she is one of the most dedicated people I have met in terms of pushing herself creatively and in pursuing personal growth. I always feel like I’ve had a strong cup of coffee after talking to her!

But then she explained that she was trying to recruit participants to join her in this challenge in an effort to be more accountable and increase motivation to complete the challenge. Was I interested?

I only hesitated because starting on December 1st seemed to be dialling up the difficulty level quite a bit – all those Christmas drinks, socials, Christmas holidays themselves (all about the lie-ins surely) and then the bleak January mornings that make you think maybe humans should hibernate.

But it also appealed in terms of being a bit of an experiment. What might you be able to do with an additional 50-75 productive hours? (I usually try and get up between 6.30-7.00 on a work day, and don’t much like sleeping past 8-8.30ish – excepting apocalyptic hangovers) Plus, maybe the opportunity to share in the challenge with other people would make it more achievable, appealing to both my competitive streak and mortal fear of letting people down.

So I signed up! From December 1, until January 19 the alarm is set for 5am.


The game plan

So what are my goals for these #50earlydays? I thought about pursuing a single project, and I still think this would be a good way to use the time. If I was in the planning stages of  a project like writing a novel, or building a website then I think this is a great way to sprint through some of the execution.

However, I also feared getting bored of a single project, or making it into a chore by doing it every day. They say confidence in success is a precursor to success, so I decided to try and make the challenge fun and achievable, whilst hopefully completing some of the things I always put off doing, despite them being priorities.

Without getting into specifics, I grouped the things I want to do more of or to try into three categories:

  • Becoming stronger
  • Developing skills
  • Having more fun

Applying gamification theory

By chance I had been reading quite a bit about gamification in the weeks leading up to this, so I thought that this might also be an opportunity to test out a few of the tools from that field. Essentially gamification describes mapping out the features of gaming that make the experience stimulating and compulsive (even addicting) and exploring how they could be applied to more banal everyday situations that we could use help getting motivated to do. Examples might include exercise, quitting smoking, saving money – or indeed waking up early.

Then I tried to apply some of the most commonly mentioned elements of gamification to try to inspire me towards progress in these three areas:

Social pressure/accountability

There is already a Whatsapp group of the challenge participants which is a great motivator. As I mentioned earlier, it tricks my brain into thinking I would be letting people down AND losing face if I don’t get up at 5 when others are. I’m also following advice to post about the challenge on social media. This blog is the cherry on top – the idea is now I will look like a total idiot to the world if I fail! Boo to that.

Progression towards a goal

The goal is 50 days, but without being visible it means nothing much. Over a year ago, my oldest and best friend Alice made me a chart that knocked my 5-a-day smoking habit on the head. It was like a 21-day long advent calendar. Each day I pulled off a tab to reveal a really cute handwritten encouraging message (progression towards a goal PLUS fear of letting down a loved one), and if I made it the day without smoking I got to put a sticker on that day (delivering a ‘reward’ dopamine kick). While I did smoke four cigarettes in those initial 21 days, it was successful in killing off the daily habit and I have stuck with it.


That got me into charts. So I felt that what this challenge needed was a good chart. Or four, which is what I have, haha. One main 50-day long chart (with mini milestones) and three challenge charts (one for each of the priority areas). These last ones are an experiment that might or might not work…

Degree of choice/personalisation

Like in a game when you get a choice of which items to invest in that level up certain skills, the idea of my three challenge chart-type things is that each morning I can choose which area I want to focus on each morning. If I am not feeling like going for a run, or maybe I feel unwell I can choose something from one of the other areas. As I do more challenges the idea is I will progress up the pyramid, with the goal to complete each one – but I will only manage that if I do one of the challenges most days (there are 45 in total!).

Element of surprise

In lots of games you are trying to find and unlock chests – which are made more intriguing and covetable by the fact that you do not know what’s going to be inside. To experiment with this mechanism, I set myself mini-milestones (11 days, 21 days, 38 days, 50 days) at which I can earn a reward. These I wrote down, folded and numbered (my poor memory works in my favour here – its only been 5 days but i can only remember one). Upon reaching a milestone I will roll a dice and get one of these rewards. The theory is that this should be more motivating than if I knew in advance what I will get at each stage.

Avoidance of loss

Umisha’s rules include 5 veto days – which will be extra essential over the holiday period. However, veto days will put an end to my streak (4-day streak by day 4 wooo). I am plugging into the ‘avoidance of loss’ in another way too: if I fail at getting up at 5 outside of my veto days, I will have to donate £20 to charity. I thought about making it a donation to something awful like the NRA but I just can’t. My financials are such that £20 is enough of a sum to feel like a loss – especially over the Christmas period.

Higher purpose

I have heard this described as the feeling you get when you are playing a game where your character is the only one with the ability to save the world –  or perhaps at work when you are given an important task that only you have the skills to execute. This gives you a sense of calling, when vitally important outcomes rest on whether you personally succeed or fail. Bit tougher to apply this one for the #50earlydays challenge! The most I could do was write a statement of commitment. If you want to get really grandiose, when you think about it we are all the only person who truly has the power to change our own lives and behaviours. Always harder when it’s not external though! I was’t really able to think of a creative way to apply this.

Day 3: Going for a run for the first time in about six months!

My game plan

I will report back on how this all goes, it may be that none of it works, but so far, I have the outline of rules for the 50 days, goals and rewards for achieving them. The last thing I needed was a routine for the morning.

There are a lot of people online who brag a lot of hot air about ‘morning rituals’. It’s not really for me, although earlier this year I did apply some advice from Hal Elrod of The Miracle Morning. I’m not a huge fan but his concepts have been useful to help me get up earlier in a better frame of mind for the day.

So I have tried to build on that to map out my morning game plan that I need to do each day. This is because a) I think it will help when I am tired and grumpy and brainless and can’t remember why I am awake at 5am and b) hopefully by doing some of these things every or most days for 50 days will help some of them stick to day 51 and beyond.

The whole thing takes about 1.5 – 2.5hrs depending on what the challenge is that day and if I am heading to the office later or not. Currently in Kigali my commute is just over 10 mins by moto or I can walk in 50 mins which can be a great part of the morning. The sun also rises at roughly 5.30am all year round here. I anticipate it all being much harder in London!

  • 5.00: wake (I set my alarm and have it far away so I physically have to get out of bed to switch it off)
  • Brush teeth (I’m now 50% awake), wash face (70% awake)
  • Drink at least a pint of water (have to be awake not to drown – I’m now pretty much fully awake)
  • Make bed
  • Meditate – usually solo, sometimes a guided practice on YT – 10-30 mins
  • Crunches and stretches – 10-20 mins
  • Check a day off the main chart and make a coffee 🙂
  • Choose a challenge. Most are 45-60 mins
  • Shower (/bucket bath in Rwanda)
  • Write  – try to do 5 min journal here to establish priorities and psych self up for the day
  • Time to get on with the day!

NOTE: I do NOT think that the above is likely to be sustainable for me past 5o days. There are of course days when I just won’t have the time for all this, and there are prob too many things there to adopt all at once (we all know how it works out for those people who make too many New Year’s resolutions and don’t stick to any!). I know I am prone to setting myself up for failure by putting two much on my plate, so a disclaimer is in order for myself:

As long as I get up at 5am and do at least two of the following, that is a success: meditate / be grateful / writing / movement / reading / learning.

So far I am on Day 4 and the inevitable slip hasn’t come- yet. Of course, I am living away from home and its fun distractions from early bedtimes and early mornings – we’ll see how it goes from the 10th when I will be back in the UK.

At this point, I think I can get used to waking at 5. Harder is the other side of the coin – you have to go to bed pretty early! I can manage with 6hrs sleep if I don’t have to do anything especially stressful  or mentally taxing the next day, but I much prefer 7.5hrs. Which would mean 9.30pm bedtime!

Anyway, we shall see…

Face to face with the great apes

As soon as I heard I was going to be working in Rwanda for three months I started trying to think of ways to see the highland gorillas. These are the biggest tourist draw for this small country, which has a really proactive stance on conservation as a result.

It is expensive. For a non-resident permit it is $750 (we benefited slightly from market craziness caused by the US election). However, I felt like this is really one of those things that I feel like a total idiot to miss out on doing when I had a chance – especially since there are only about 800 highland gorillas left in the world.

I very rarely regret things, but I regretted not making the small extra effort to see manta rays in Bali earlier this year. Plus in this case, the fee is an investment in conservation. Not only for gorillas but for the other animals that share their habitat including golden monkeys, buffalo, elephants and birds.

My brother agreed to come out and visit so that we could do it together and that swung it for me. When I told my mum about our plan, she offered to support part of the trip as our joint Christmas present. She’d always wanted to do it herself, and so wanted to experience it vicariously. Thank you mama!

Getting there

To see the gorillas, you have to travel to the Virunga (Volcanoes) national park, just outside Musanze in the northwestern corner that borders on Uganda and DRC.

The trip to Musanze is only two hours by bus or car. We met an amazing guy Alexis at the bus station who was returning to his home and trying to fill the car to pay for petrol so we got a ride with him for the same cost as the bus (1800RWF=£1.80). He even invited us for a drink at his lovely bar restaurant, Green Garden where we met his wife and 4-year-old son. A lovely family. If you are in Musanze, please support their business. You can eat heaps of delicious buffet food for lunch or dinner for about £2 with things like beans, matoke, cassava, ibihaza (pumpkin with beans), saka saka (cassava leaves), ugali, beef stew, fried fish and chicken, spinach and a really yummy potato casserole with peanut sauce.

We stayed in a guesthouse found on Airbnb that was also super cheap and where we were picked up in the morning by our driver at about 6.15am to go out and trek.

Lots of Rwandans back in Kigali were dubious about our decision to go during the rainy season but we lucked out and had perfect weather. I think your trekking permit allows you two attempts to see gorillas if your attempt on the first day is thwarted by rain or you can’t find your group.

Intore dancers from Sacola Cultural Centre. It encourages people to make an income from tourism, rather than from slash and burn agriculture in the national park

The trek

I had heard from some present and past volunteers that the trek could take up to six hours. So I was feeling a bit nervous in the morning.

I was reassured to hear our guide at the briefing say that the oldest person to complete the trek had been 97 years old… until he explained that she was carried all the way up by six porters. With the volcanoes imposing on the skyline I was definitely feeling the adrenaline.

After travelling to the park entrance, we had a briefing about behaviour around the gorillas and the group we were visiting, Amahoro (Peace).

Amahoro is currently a group of 18 that is unusual for having two silverbacks. They are brothers who are two years apart in age. The eldest is dominant, though this is not always the case. There are a range of ages in the group from babies, to teenagers (from about 4yrs old), to blackbacks.

After only about an hour of walking we heard rustling and came across a young gorilla. It was insane! We were urged to continue on as it wasn’t part of the group we were tracking. It was totally surreal. The reason is that the park rangers limit the exposure of each group to humans to one hour per day, to avoid too much contact and over-familiarity. Still was crazy to walk away from a gorilla.

It was only about half an hour later that we found Amahoro. I couldn’t believe that the whole thing was under 90 minutes, and a pretty easy walk. I was expecting to be scrambling up a volcano and struggling up rock faces.


The gorillas of Amahoro group

The hour we spent with the group felt like five minutes. Nothing could really prepare you for what it is like to be in the middle of a family of gorillas watching them playfight, nurse their children and generally chill out.


You are supposed to keep a safe distance from the gorillas, but they will move towards you as they like so there were moments when we were only a foot or so away from them. One baby gorilla came up on us from behind and pushed past Benjamin (my brother) so they actually touched. It was insane.


The dominant silverback was really impressive. A couple of times he did the chest beating thing and charged, which was amazing to see. They are so muscular and powerful and tall. The sound they make before they charge is


It was also amazing to hear them communicating. Gorillas have 12 distinct vocalisations that researchers have documented, that they use for specific situations, like ‘hello’, ‘watch out’, ‘yummy’ etc.


And of course their faces are so expressive. You can see why Dian Fossey got obsessed with them. (On a side note, apparently she went a little bit mad and power crazed living in the jungle and treated other researchers like shit.)

Drunk and rowdy: You fucking what mate?

Turns out the reason it was so easy to find Amahoro was because of the season. The recent rains and sunny day meant that bamboo shoots had sprouted all over the lower reaches of the park. Apparently gorillas love these, and can’t help themselves. Hilariously, if they have a lot of them, they get drunk. So we saw a load of half cut young male gorillas acting like fools in the pub on a Friday night. It was pretty funny.

The last gorillas

All in all, an amazing experience. The conservation project that visitors are investing in seems to be effective. Figures from a mountain gorilla ‘census’ will be published next year, and it is expected that they will show that numbers have risen from 880 to almost 1,000.

That is still only 1,000 mountain gorillas – in the whole world! These particular gorillas have suffered from loss of habitat to humans, poaching (Rwanda has armed rangers in the park at all times to prevent this) and disease. I was shocked to learn that more than 5,000  were killed by an Ebola outbreak in the 1990s, at the time 90% of the total population.


All of this makes Rwanda’s homegrown conservation efforts more applaudable. Tourism is carefully managed tourism, and the park well protected. They also have a regular national campaign to get the public engaged around gorillas and the importance of Rwanda protecting them. It’s called ‘kwita izina’, which was the name of a traditional naming ceremony of a child (gorilla mamas usually carry a single baby during pregnancy that lasts nine months, like us). Nowadays it is a month-long public campaign in which schoolchildren nominate names for the mountain gorillas born in the wild that year. After a process of whittling down the names to a winner, a traditional ceremony is held for the naming, which is broadcast on TV.

Rwandan nationals can visit the gorillas for 30,000RWF (£30). However, VSO’s logistics co-ordinator told me that in last years report from the national park, only 14 Rwandans visited gorillas. Considering that that is the entire monthly salary of a primary teacher, it is hardly a surprise.

Why you should quit whining about people who voted Trump

Earlier this week I walked up a mountain and met some gorillas. By the time I got down, America had elected to put an ape all of its own behind the most powerful desk in the world.

Donald Trump has casually incited so much hatred of every kind imaginable: racism, misogyny, bigotry, ignorance and just plain nastiness. It would be easy to allow him to trigger the most potent and basic brand of hate to bubble up in ourselves.

It is much harder to avoid hating him, and yet I think it is urgent that that is what we must endeavour to do.

I am not an apologist for Trump’s behaviour. I can’t imagine what it feels like this week to be anything but a straight, white, able-bodied male in the U.S. Trump’s ideas must be condemned in the strongest way imaginable.

But by attacking and vilifying the people who fulfilled their democratic duty to vote the way they wanted, in the same way some have done in the aftermath of the EU Referendum, a wedge is driven further between huge groups in society, making it ever harder to unite us again.

Most people who voted for Trump are (probably) good people

It is disturbing that significant numbers of Latinos voted for Donald Trump. As a white woman I’ve been especially troubled thinking about the ~40% of voting white women who swung for Trump.

Counter-intuitive as it may seem, I think people voted for him in spite of his hate speech, not because it resonates with their own ideals.

Putting Trump on the ballot paper at all was a dreadful error – akin to putting someone in a plain, empty white room with a huge red button with ‘do not press’ on it.

As I am often being reminded, the voting electorate for any candidate/party is much bigger than, and does not necessarily have much in common with the cross-section you see at a rally.

For me the villain in this piece is inequality. I know, again. People who feel worse off than others in society (whether they earn £16K or £150K) feel hard done by and consumed with ‘charity starts at home’ protectionist mentality. Maybe when you’re in the room with the big red button you think, fuck it, why not?

Put yourself in the shoes of a Trump voter. Maybe you liked Trump’s lack of gloss and the fact that you could vote for something other than a politician. Maybe, you didn’t like some of what he said, sure, but then he’s an entertainer, saying things to get attention.

Maybe you read comment pieces in the media asking who Trump supporters are, as though they are some kind of sub-species, and you read distasteful things said about people, who sound like people that you know. Maybe you read and hear the same things said about Trump, and you feel closer to him.

You vote for Trump, and he wins, which you didn’t expect could actually happen. You feel hopeful. But it seems like everyone else is in mourning. You read more labels attributed to you that you don’t recognise. You read that you are ignorant, uneducated, racist, a blind follower of celebrity culture. What do you feel now? Anger? Betrayal? Isolated? Disenfranchised? Jubilant? Scornful?

Comment on a Guardian piece about Trump victory making a link with Brexit. Might not agree with the last line or two but good points about portrayal of the winning side in each.

The polarisation of Trump and Clinton voters, or of Leave and Remain voters, and the vicious fighting BTL of articles makes me more uncomfortable than the result of either vote. We need a radical empathy movement – not more division.

Besides, making a joke, or a punch bag, out of Trump hasn’t really worked out too well so far has it?

What do you do with a bully in the playground?

This is another episode of 2016 bullying that makes me glad I don’t have young children.

How to explain that even though we have a duty to help people in need, in reality it is fine to demonise the poorest people in the world in national newspapers? In fact, if anyone stands up to try and defend the weakest, they become fair game too.

How to explain that, even though it is good to share, tell the truth and be yourself – in reality politicians and people who suggest these ideas and qualities are weak fools to laugh at?

How to explain that even though bullying is wrong, and that if you encounter a bully you should ignore them and deny the oxygen of attention – in reality bullying gets you lots of attention, headlines, money and even the most powerful job in the world?

The ‘acceptable’ face of hate in the UK can’t go unchallenged – nor should you give in to despair

While it’s hard to ignore a bully who has been elected president, you can avoid fanning the flames of his hatred by refraining from hating back. What we need is listening to each other’s sides. Reassuring and reaffirming your neighbours, networks and all you meet that you do not engage in, or give in to hatred. And calm, determined, organised protest that appeal to our sense of common decency and shared values, against policies that threaten to harm us in our countries and around the world.

What you could be doing instead of hating Trump supporters

You may or may not like the way democracy has worked out this time around. Yes, the rules weren’t fair, it’s now OK to lie unchallenged in a political campaign and the Electoral College system is weird and rubbish. But it has happened.

My wish for the future is that no matter our political colours or preference, we will stand firm against hate and just try to increase our understanding of each other.

Things to do when you feel like hating Trump/Clinton/Leave/Remain voters:

  • Take a deep breath
  • Don’t type a pointless comment or reply online if it doesn’t add something genuinely useful
  • Try and imagine how the other person might be feeling
  • Ask questions
  • Listen
  • Explain your own personal reasons for thinking the way you do
  • Invite questions
  • Try and channel it into doing something positive for someone – especially someone who might be feeling more scared now because of their racial origins, gender identity or sexual orientation or any other matter
  • Do something practical


There are nine million Toyotas in Kigali 🎵

I haven’t counted them all but I would estimate that at least 90% of vehicles are made by the Japanese manufacturer. From military vehicles to buses to NGO-branded 4 x 4s to the ever-present Corolla. All of which got me wondering two things:

  • WHY??
  • When, if ever, will we see an African-owned car manufacturer launch an affordable vehicle for the masses?

Because I don’t think about cars much at all (apart from with regards to avoiding being run over) it took a while before I noticed this. Once I did, I began to ask people.

It is a cheap car

Turns out that Toyota is a cheap car brand. This has been everyone’s explanation. That, and that Toyata’s are the only parts available in Rwanda. Apparently you could take a clapped-out Corolla and have all the parts replaced so it was as-new within a single afternoon and it would cost you little more than £100.

Whereas if you are among the upper echelons of Kigali car owners driving around a BMW and you have a faulty doodad you’d apparently have to order a replacement from Europe and wait three weeks for it to arrive at great cost and inconvenience.

I’m sure this explanation is true, but I don’t find it satisfying. There must surely be other cheap car brands. Why Toyota? And it can’t always have been like this – when did this start?

The relationship between Japan and Rwanda

Ducking down the conspiracy rabbit hole for just a second, I wondered whether there could be any answers in the relationship between Japan and Rwanda.

Just last weekend I went to a modest exhibition of Japanese photography that was book-ended with glossy information about the contribution of Japan International Cooperation Agency to Rwandan development. Japan has provided investment for projects ranging from irrigation, to energy, to vocational training, to improving the quality of Rwandan television programming. Japanese official development assistance has increased year on year, up to $32.79 million in 2012. There is even a volunteering programme similar to VSO or Peace Corps.

While it was interesting to learn about, I am assured by people who understand these things that while a good diplomatic relationship can grease the wheels for trade between countries, it certainly doesn’t explain the queues of Toyotas I weave through on my way to work each morning.

It is true, however, that Japanese private sector firms, including Toyota Tsusho Corporation,  are the most prominent in investing in Rwanda, particularly in the IT infrastructure that the Government has prioritised to enable transition to a knowledge-based middle income economy.

Still, that doesn’t explain the ubiquity of Toyota. I reluctantly am packing away my tinfoil hat. Back to money I guess. But why is Toyota the only car most Rwandans can afford?

Money talks

I am told that Rwanda has very high taxes, especially on imported goods (someone was arguing to me that this is a growth inhibitor for anyone wanting to set up a business here that requires sourcing raw material or tech from outside). Tax on imported cars is something like 40%. Essentially, that means 40% tax on all cars, since Rwanda doesn’t make any cars (more on that later).

So it stands to reason that if Toyota is the cheapest, that it will remain the most, perhaps only, accessible brand for most people.

It’s not just Rwanda, either. It’s statistically the world’s best selling car.  There are tons of Toyotas across East Africa and probably beyond. Also across the Middle East. They are also favoured by militant and terrorist groups including the tragic people who call themselves ‘Islamic State’.

But why isn’t there an affordable African car brand?

This is the bigger question. Africa is a huge continent, with millions of bright entrepreneurial minds (see the founders of Dangote, Jumia, MTN) and a growing middle class. It has raw materials in spades and it has a huge and growing workforce.

If there was an African-owned vehicle manufacturer that offered affordable vehicles, made at African sites employing African workers, for Africans who would not have to pay for the costs (financial, environmental) of bringing cars from Europe and Asia, would it not hoover up the market?

I think it would. The question of why that has not happened, and if it ever will, is huge and deeply intertwined in a larger debate about the unfair disadvantage less developed African nations are in, just because economic growth took off in other parts of the world earlier. (I found answers to why countries took off in different ways, at different times, in Jared Diamond’s excellent book Guns, Germs and Steel. Short answer: geography).

When the system is stacked against you

Of course. for cars to be affordable to the masses they have to be produced affordably at a mass scale, which is the stage the leading car brands of Europe, the US and Asia are at. There are about 80 million cars sold each year, and there must be just a tiny handful of people at the helms of the companies that make the well-known brands.

Since Western markets are more mature/sluggish, the bulk of profit in the car business in coming decades is going to come from developing nations.

Do you think those companies that own the market today would want to miss out on this opportunity? No. Which is logical, in the globalised capitalism we have today.

But it comes at the expense of any locally-owned private sector companies growing off the back of African economic development and contributing to boosting their home countries’ GDP and thus cash for the state to spend on essential services and infrastructure.

That our current economic system benefits those countries who got to the table first is clear. It may not be deliberate, but neither is it fair. Policies could and must be put in place to redress the completely unacceptable inequalities caused.

There ARE African car brands, you just don’t know about them

South Africa is the only African country making cars in any significant numbers, though mostly cars are built for foreign brands such as Toyota (hello again), Volkswagen and BMW.

But there are African-owned car brands making cars. Though all of them are very much in the early days phase and at low production capacity, there are names out there including Innoson (Nigeria, calling itself ‘world’s first black owned car manufacturer), Kiira (Ugandan hybrids, not yet in production) and Kantanka (Ghana).

Innoson cars for sale in Nigeria. They supply police and secret service vehicles and announced an affordable model for lower income Nigerians in early 2016.

I imagine these companies face challenges of reaching operational efficiency, and in accessing finance and technology that could make their products competitive. I also think that if they could do so, and if the playing field was somehow levelled, they would enjoy great support, as do the other successful Africa-born businesses mentioned.

In the meantime, it’s Toyotas all round. No conspiracy, just a reminder of an economic challenge that African nations are tempering with ambition, optimism and hope.