Brought to you by #NEUDC2018! Check out mini summaries of the many awesome papers featured at this conference here, and download papers here. These are three that really struck me.
1. Psychological trainings increase chlorination rates Haushofer, John, and Orkin 2018: (RCT in Kenya) “One group received a two-session executive function intervention that aimed to improve planning and execution of plans; a second received a two-session time preference intervention aimed at reducing present bias and impatience. A third group receives only information about the benefits of chlorination, and a pure control group received no intervention.” Executive function and time preference trainings led to stat sig increases in chlorination and stat sig decreases in diarrhea rates.
2. Conditional cash transfers reduce suicides! Christian, Hensel, and Roth 2018: (RCT in Indonesia) This paper is so cool! One mechanism is by mitigating the negative impact of bad agricultural shocks and decreasing depression. “We examine how income shocks affect the suicide rate in Indonesia. We use both a randomized conditional cash transfer experiment, and a difference-in-differences approach exploiting the cash transfer’s nation-wide roll-out. We find that the cash transfer reduced yearly suicides by 0.36 per 100,000 people, corresponding to an 18 percent decrease. Agricultural productivity shocks also causally affect suicide rates. Moreover, the cash transfer program reduces the causal impact of the agricultural productivity shocks, suggesting an important role for policy interventions. Finally, we provide evidence for a psychological mechanism by showing that agricultural productivity shocks affect depression.”
3. Women police stations increased reporting of crimes against women Amaral, Bhalotra, and Prakash 2018: (in India) “Using an identification strategy that exploits the staggered implementation of women police stations across cities and nationally representative data on various measures of crime and deterrence, we find that the opening of police stations increased reported crime against women by 22 percent. This is due to increases in reports of female kidnappings and domestic violence. In contrast, reports of gender specific mortality, self-reported intimate-partner violence and other non-gender specific crimes remain unchanged.”
I just got back from visiting my brother in Spain. He’s studying abroad in Granada, the beautiful city I never wanted to leave.
I’ve never been a fan of window seats – I get claustrophobic stuck in the corner, and I always drink a lot of water and then have to pee which means everyone in the row has to get up twice – but I’m glad I forgot to pre-check and choose an aisle seat.
When I landed, I had to take a bus from Málaga to Granada. I spent the two hours staring out the window. Somehow I’d thought Spain was more lush, less dry.
The first night, Max introduced me to tapas, which is the reason I want to live in Granada forever. You hardly need to eat dinner, just go out for drinks and every drink gets you a snack. One place we went gave us mini enchiladas.
I posted up in different cafes to work Monday – Wednesday, and Maxie came and did work with me in between classes.
On Friday, Max, his friend Silas, and I went to Albaicín, a neighborhood on a hill that was the original walled city when it was under Arab rule.
We wandered so many good alleys in search of this one lookout Silas remembered. Along the way, we were propositioned to buy weed by this kid who looked 16 and we bought our lunches at a little grocery store.
The lookout had a view of Alhambra, the awesome fort that overlooks the city from a hill.
We wanted to find a quieter lunch spot so we walked all over Albaicín until we found this awesome wall that overlooked caves where people were living and, apparently, farming, as well as the rest of the city.
After a delicious sandwich for lunch (baguette is good in Spain, too), we climbed down the other side of the wall and walked by some of the cave homes on our way down to the river that would lead us back into town.
I would absolutely move to Granada – I would just need a job and also to learn Spanish. (I was totally useless, sometimes forgetting to say “si” instead of “oui” but it was fun to see Max in action with the Spanish.)
The hills were awesome, and from some vantage points you could see the white caps of mountains not too far away. I love the white buildings with the red tile roofs, and the cobblestone streets, and all the bread and cheese. Not sure I could get used to a giant lunch and nothing being open from 2-5 pm, but for the scenery, I would certainly try.
Max had been injured while climbing a mountain (he had to be helicoptered out!) before I got there and had just gotten his stitches out. So while I was there, we went on a run together with Silas and his other friend Ivy for his first run back. He was like, great, running with y’all will be so chill, and THEN WE RAN FOR TWO HOURS.
Still chill for him, not so much for me! It was the longest I’ve run since the half marathon in July.
The run was beautiful, though, we ran up into the hills behind Alhambra before turning down into the valley and making our way back along a winding country road.
I ran on my own on Monday and followed the same trail but not as far. It was so dang beautiful.
I’m trying to run consistently again (Max recommended a training plan), and it would be so easy if I could run on those trails all the time!
My Monday run was the first of the training week and I felt pretty awesome about meeting my goal of sub-9’30” average pace (9’23” in the end). It had a rough start because the first two miles were basically straight uphill past Alhambra. (And miles 6 and 7 were back down the same hills.)
When Max was helping me with a training schedule, he recommended training for 5K instead of the half marathon, since it’s easy to run a lot of 5Ks and see your progress. Plus I’m more of a sprintery type. We’re going to get the whole fam to run a 5K in December when I’m home for the holidays.
I was guessing I’d run that 5K at about 25 minutes and then try to improve all the way down to sub-20 (which is SO FAST – you have to run 6’25” pace!). The only 5K I’ve ever run before (just after volleyball season 3-4 years ago), I did in about 26 mins. But now I’m hoping to get more like 23 or 24 mins, since the last 5K of my 8 mile run was in 25:56. We’ll see!
On the last day of my visit, Max took me to see his school. This is the view from the rooftop study area, which is ridiculous:
1. 11 years later: Experimental evidence on scaling up education reforms in Kenya (TL;DR gov’t didn’t adopt well)
(This paper was published in Journal of Public Econ 11 years after the project started and 5 years after the first submission!) “New teachers offered a fixed-term contract by an international NGO significantly raised student test scores, while teachers offered identical contracts by the Kenyan government produced zero impact. Observable differences in teacher characteristics explain little of this gap. Instead, data suggests that bureaucratic and political opposition to the contract reform led to implementation delays and a differential interpretation of identical contract terms. Additionally, contract features that produced larger learning gains in both the NGO and government treatment arms were not adopted by the government outside of the experimental sample.”
Total causal effect (TCE) = weighted average of the intent to treat effect (ITT) and the spillover effect on the non-treated (SNT)
Importance: “RCTs that fail to account for spillovers can produce biased estimates of intention-to-treat effects, while finding meaningful treatment effects but failing to observe deleterious spillovers can lead to misconstrued policy conclusions. Therefore, reporting the TCE is as important as the ITT, if not more important in many cases: if the program caused a bunch of people to escape poverty while others to fall into it, leaving the overall poverty rate unchanged (TCE=0), you’d have to argue much harder to convince your audience that your program is a success because the ITT is large and positive.”
Context: Zeitlin and McIntosh recent paper comparing cash and a USAID health + nutrition program in Rwanda. From their blog post: “In our own work the point estimates on village-level impacts are consistent with negative spillovers of the large transfer on some outcomes (they are also consistent with Gikuriro’s village-level health and nutrition trainings having improved health knowledge in the overall population). Cash may look less good as one thinks of welfare impacts on a more broadly defined population. Donors weighing cash-vs-kind decisions will need to decide how much weight to put on non-targeted populations, and to consider the accumulated evidence on external consequences.”
3. Why don’t people work less when you give them cash?
Excellent post by authors of new paper on VoxDev, listing many different mechanisms and also looks at how this changes by type of transfer (e.g. gov’t conditional and unconditional, remittances, etc.)
BONUS: More gender equality = greater differences in preferences on values like altruism, patience or trust (ft. interesting map)
“Identifying causal effects involves assumptions, but it also requires a particular kind of belief about the work of scientists. Credible and valuable research requires that we believe that it is more important to do our work correctly than to try and achieve a certain outcome (e.g., confirmation bias, statistical significance, stars). The foundations of scientific knowledge are scientific methodologies. Science does not collect evidence in order to prove what we want to be true or what people want others to believe. That is a form of propaganda, not science. Rather, scientific methodologies are devices for forming a particular kind of belief. Scientific methodologies allow us to accept unexpected, and sometimes, undesirable answers. They are process oriented, not outcome oriented. And without these values, causal methodologies are also not credible.”
How good is good? 6.92/10. The YouGov visualization on how people rate different descriptors on a 0-10 scale is really interesting if you look at the distributions – lots of agreement on appalling, average (you’d hope there would be clustering around 5!), and perfect. Then, pretty wide variance for quite bad, pretty bad, somewhat bad, great, really good, and very good. Shows how you should cut out generic good/bad descriptions in your writing and use words like appalling or abysmal that are more universally evocative.
“Consider a simple policy rule: if a government’s statistics cannot be questioned, they shouldn’t be trusted. By that rule, the Bank and Fund would not report Tanzania’s numbers or accept them in determining creditworthiness—and they would immediately withdraw the offer of foreign aid to help Tanzania produce statistics its citizens cannot criticize.”
2. 12 Things We Can Agree On About Global Poverty?
In August, a CGDev post proposed 12 universally agreed-upon truths about global poverty. Do you agree? Are there other truths we should all agree on?
3. Food for thought on two relevant method issues
Peter Hull released a two-page brief on controlling for propensity scores instead of using them to match or weight observations
Spillover and estimands: “The key issue is that the assumption of no spillovers runs so deep that it is often invoked even prior to the definition of estimands. If you write the “average treatment effect” estimand using potential outcomes notation, as E(Y(1)−Y(0))E(Y(1)−Y(0)), you are already assuming that a unit’s outcomes depend only on its own assignment to treatment and not on how other units are assigned to treatment. The definition of the estimand leaves no space to even describe spillovers.”
Service delivery will result in state legitimacy in war-affected contexts: Study in Afghanistan refutes this
Surgery is too expensive and not cost-effective in LMICs: Evidence that it is comparably cost effective to other public health interventions
2. Traditional local governance systems (autocratic) underutilize local human capital
A new paper by Katherine Casey, Rachel Glennerster, Ted Miguel, and Maarten Voors. “We experimentally evaluate two solutions to these problems [autocratic local rule by old, uneducated men] in rural Sierra Leone: an expensive long-term intervention to make local institutions more inclusive; and a low-cost test to rapidly identify skilled technocrats and delegate project management to them. In a real-world competition for local infrastructure grants, we find that technocratic selection dominates both the status quo of chiefly control and the institutional reform intervention, leading to an average gain of one standard deviation unit in competition outcomes. The results uncover a broader failure of traditional autocratic institutions to fully exploit the human capital present in their communities.“
3. Aggressive U.S. recruitment of nurses from Philippines did not result in brain drain / negative health impacts
A new paper by Paolo Abarcar and Caroline Theoharides. “For each new nurse that moved abroad, approximately two more individuals with nursing degrees graduated. The supply of nursing programs increased to accommodate this. New nurses appear to have switched from other degree types. Nurse migration had no impact on either infant or maternal mortality.”
BONUS. Data viz: Poverty persists in Africa, falls in other regions
Justin Sandefur shared that the Economist much improved a World Bank graphic to more clearly visualize how the number of people living in poverty has risen slightly in Africa while other regions have seen sharp decreases in # of people in poverty over time. (Wonder how the graphic would like stacked Africa, South Asia, then East Asia & Pacific? Less dramatic contrast between Africa and the other regions? Number of poor in South Asia hasn’t decreased as dramatically as East Asia, would look more similar to Africa trend than East Asia trend until about 2010 I think.)
Each Wednesday at IDinsight, one of our tech team members, Akib Khan, posts a few links (mostly from Twitter!) to what he’s been reading in development that week. For the next three weeks, he’s on leave and I am taking over! Thought I should cross-post my selections (also mostly curated from #EconTwitter):
Cash Transfer Bonanza: The details matter
Blattman et al. just released a paper following up on previous 4-year results from a one-time cash transfer of $400, now reporting 9-year results (see first 3 links). To liven up the internal discussion, I’m adding critiques by Ashu Handa (UNC Transfer Project / UNICEF-Innocenti economist and old family friend), who has cautioned against lack of nuance in interpretation of CT study results, esp. around program implementation details like who is distributing grants, the size of the grants, and how frequently they are given – he studies social protection programs giving repeat cash transfers.
Diff-in-diff treatment timing paper… with GIFs!
Andrew Goodman-Bacon (what a name!) has a new paper that all of #EconTwitter is going crazy over. It deals with some methodological issues using diff-in-diff when treatment turns on at different times for different groups, and other scenarios where timing becomes important. Real paper not for the faint hearted, but the Twitter thread has some great GIFs!
In order to have a high-quality writing sample for the RA jobs I’m applying to this fall, I am revamping my thesis! Joy of joys!
I thought about doing this earlier in the year and even created a whole plan to do it, but ended up deciding to work on this blog, learning to code, and other, less horrifying professional development activities.
I say horrifying because the thesis I submitted was HORRIBLY WRITTEN. So so so bad. I cringe every time I look back over it. I had tackled a 6-year project (the length of time it took to write the paper I was basing my thesis on, I later found out) in four months time. Too little of the critical thinking I had done on how to handle the piles and piles of data I needed to answer my research question actually ended up in writing.
I thought it would be a drag to fix up the paper. I didn’t expect to still be as intrigued by my research topic (democracy and health in sub-Saharan Africa!) or to be as enthusiastic about practicing my economic writing. I’m taking the unexpected enjoyment as a positive sign that life as a researcher will be awesome.
I’ve been thinking critically about the question of democracy and health and how they’re interrelated and how economic development ties into each. I’ve read (skimmed) a few additional sources that I didn’t even think to look for last time and I already have some good ideas for a new framing of why this research is interesting and important. The first time around, I focused a lot on the cool methodology (spatial regression discontinuity design) because that’s what I spent most of my time working on.
My perspective on the research question has been massively refreshed by time apart from my thesis, new on-the-ground development experience, and the papers I’ve read in the interim.
My first tasks have been to re-read the thesis (yuck), and then gather the resources I need to re-write at least the introduction. I am focusing on the abstract and introduction as the first order of business because some of the writing samples I will need to submit will be or can be shorter and the introduction is as far as most people would get anyways.
To improve my writing and the structure of my introduction, my thesis advisor – who I can now call Erick instead of Professor Gong – recommended reading some of Ted Miguel’s introductions. I printed three and all were well-written and informative in terms of structure; one of them (with Pascaline Dupas) even helped me rethink the context around my research question and link it more solidly to the development economics literature.
The next move is to outline the introduction by writing the topic sentence of each paragraph (a tip taken from my current manager at IDinsight, Ignacio, who is very into policy memo-style writing) using a Miguel-type structure. I’ll edit that structure a bit, then add the text of the paragraphs.
There was a recent discussion on the IDinsight #philosophy Slack channel about a recent Ezra Klein Show (EKS on this blog from now on, since I talk about it all the time) podcast with Anand Giridharadas. My contribution built off someone else’s notes that Giridharadas is spot on about how companies (also IDinsight in some ways) sell working for them as an extension of the camaraderie and culture of a college campus, how he doesn’t offer concrete solutions and that’s very annoying, and some reflections on transitioning from private sector consulting to IDinsight’s social sector, non-profit consulting model. I related more to the moral arguments in the podcast, and this is what I shared:
I connected most with his argument about how the overall negative impact of many big for-profit companies on worldwide well-being vastly outweighs any individual good you can do with the money you earn. One of EA’s recommended pathways to change is making a ton of money and giving it to effective charities, but if you do that by working for an exploitative company, then you’re really contributing to the maintenance of inequality and of the status quo racist, sexist, oppressive system.
My dad was always talking about having a “noble” profession when I was growing up (he’s a teacher and my mom’s a geriatric physical therapist) and even though “noble” is a strange way to put it, I think it is really important to (as much as possible) only be party to organizations and companies that are doing good or at least not doing active harm.
That being said, there are more reasons for going into the private sector and aiming to make money than are really dealt with in the podcast. For example, a few people we’ve talked to in South Africa have mentioned that many highly skilled South Africans are responsible for the education costs for all siblings/cousins and that is a strong motivator to take a higher paying salary.
It becomes very related to the debate about how much development or social sector workers should get paid, relative to competitive private sector jobs. I think IDinsight does a pretty good job of being in the middle for US associates anyways – paying enough that you can even save some, which is more than a lot of non-profits provide, but not necessarily trying to compete with private sector jobs because our model relies a lot on hiring people who are in it to serve, not for the money. Something for us to continue thinking about is how this might exclude candidates who have other financial responsibilities and how we should respond to this issue in how we hire and set salaries.
It’s so frustrating when people identify a problem without offering solutions. The closest he comes to offering solutions is to have organizations stop lobbying for massive tax breaks or in other ways deprioritize the bottom line of profitability. Sounded to me like his vision involves a lot more socialist ideas: the full solutions to these issues would involve massive-scale reorganizing of the existing economic system… although maybe we are heading in that direction with more co-op style companies and triple bottom line for-profit social enterprises? (Don’t know a ton about this co-op stuff – mostly from another Ezra Klein show episode probably, but it sounds cool!) …Maybe his next book will try to map out solutions, though?
Goddess-Economist Seema Jayachandran wrote about economists’ gendered view of their own discipline back in March. Dr. Jayachandran and PhD student co-author Jamie Daubenspeck investigate:
Percent of woman authors on different development topics: Drawing on all empirical development papers from 2007-2017, they find, out of all papers, “51% were written by all men, and 15% by all women. The average female share of authors was 28% (weighting each paper equally).” Gender, health, trade, migration, education, poverty and conflict are the development topics with a greater than average number of woman authors.
Economists’ perspectives on under-researched topics: They show that there is a negative correlation between a topic’s % of woman authors and perceptions the topic is under-researched, a finding they call “a bit depressing.” Same. (They also write that “whether a topic is under-researched are not significantly correlated with the actual number of articles on the topic published in the JDE over our sample period.” So what do these economists even know?)
I love their thoughtful outline of the methodology they used for this little investigation. Describing the world with data is awesome.
I ended up hearing about/reading about several amazing humans this week:
Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia – the clinical psychologist running Cook County Jail – had amazing things to say on the Ezra Klein Show last year in July. She is powerful and thoughtful and doing amazing things to improve prisons in the US.
New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern gave birth on the 21st. She’s only the second world leader to give birth in office, after Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto. The best part is that she is 100% unapologetic about being a mother in office, even while she acknowledges the challenges she will personally face in balancing a new baby and work.
These two leaders are just out there in the world leading noble, thoughtful, innovative lives. In love.
And then there’s MJ Hegar, who’s running for Congress against a tea partier in Texas. Her amazingly directed ad shows how enduring her dedication to service has been throughout her life:
My best friend Riley and I made a pact to meditate daily for ten days, starting on Monday. I have done it each day this week and my week has felt fuller and more focused than ever. Not willing to attribute full causality to the meditation, but it definitely has been a tool to start my day well and a reminder throughout the day that I can and want to stay focused and in the moment.
The Ezra Klein Show interviews are always on point, and “The Green Pill” episode featuring Dr. Melanie Joy was no exception. The June 11 show discussed “carnism” – the unspoken ideology that tells us eating animals, wearing animals, and otherwise instrumentalizing them is good.
I’ve been mulling it over for a while now, but the episode’s frank conversation about why veganism is so hard to talk about pleasantly – and why it’s so hard for people to shift from a carnal mindset – motivated me to head back down the vegetarian path.
I was vegetarian for a year or so in college, but now I’m aiming for veganism, or something close. I’m not eating meat and am not actively purchasing or eating eggs or milk. At this point, I’ll eat eggs or milk or other animal products that are already baked into something – a slice of cake, for example. Eventually, I want to phase out pretty much all animal products. But I’m giving myself some space to adjust and dial back the carnism bit by bit. The incremental approach should let me stick to it better.
Cheese will probably be my “barrier food” – apparently this is so common, there’s a webpage that specifically teaches how to overcome the cheese block. (hehe)
They recommend slowly replacing cheese with guac or hummus, and taking a large break from any cheese before trying vegan cheese. (Which won’t be a problem since I doubt there’s any vegan cheese in Kenya to begin with!)
It is not mango season in Kenya, but I had the best mango this week. Maybe because I cut it myself for the first time, making an absolute mess. Or maybe because it was the key ingredient to the first lettuce-containing salad I’ve ever made myself at home. But there’s a lot to be said for a fruit that encourages you to embrace your messy nature.
My favorite podcast right now is the Ezra Klein Show from Vox Media, the news-explaining organization founded by the podcast’s eponymous host. I am also in love with Vox’s Today, Explained and occasionally enjoy The Weeds and Impact.
Just now, I was looking up humanitarian economics and ended up at voxeu.org – a website of the Centre for Economic Policy Research.
Vox is also an amplifier manufacturer, a vodka, an anime character, and a TV network in Germany, Quebec, and Norway.
“Why is everything called Vox?” The google search answered my query on the fourth try, with a link to the Wikipedia entry for “vox.” Below the link, in the page preview, it said simply “Vox is Latin for voice.” Well, then.
I love when you think there must be a reason for something and then there is, in fact, a perfectly good explanation.
Ӧzler summarizes his main points quite succinctly himself:
Think about the meaningful effect size in your context and given program costs and aims.
Power your study for large effects, which are less likely to disappear in the longer run.
Try to use all the tricks in the book to improve power and squeeze more out of every dollar you’re spending.”
He gives a nice, clear example to demonstrate: a 0.3 SD detectable effect size sounds impressive, but for some datasets, this would really only mean a 5% improvement which might not be meaningful in context:
“If, in the absence of the program, you would have made $1,000 per month, now you’re making $1,050. Is that a large increase? I guess, we could debate this, but I don’t think so: many safety net cash transfer programs in developing countries are much more generous than that. So, we could have just given that money away in a palliative program – but I’d want much more from my productive inclusion program with all its bells and whistles.”
Usually (in an academic setting), your goal is to have the power to detect a really small effect size so you can get a significant result. But Ӧzler makes the opposite point: that it can be advantageous to only power yourself to detect what is a meaningful effect size, decreasing both power and cost.
He also advises, like the article I posted about yesterday, that piloting could help improve power calculations via better ICC estimates: “Furthermore, try to get a good estimate of the ICC – perhaps during the pilot phase by using a few clusters rather than just one: it may cost a little more at that time, but could save a lot more during the regular survey phase.”
My only issue with Ӧzler’s post is his chart, which shows the tradeoffs between effect size and the number of clusters. His horizontal axis is labeled “Total number of clusters” – per arm or in total, Bert?!? It’s per arm, not total across all arms. There should be more standardized and intuitive language for describing sample size in power calcs.
I was supposed to read Wanderlust for my first year seminar, but it ended up being one of the first school assignments I did not fully complete. Three years later, my next creative writing teacher recommended A Field Guide to Getting Lost to all of us new graduates. I read it, my first Rebecca Solnit book, at the end of March this year. I immediately wanted to read everything Solnit had ever written, and shipped The Faraway Nearby home so my mother could bring it with her to France. I’m 50 pages from the end now and, like all her books, it’s a wondrous journey across many geographies, stories, and histories.
“Fairy tales are children’s stories not in who they were made for but in their focus on the early stages of life, when others have power over you and you have power over no one.
In them, power is rarely the right tool for survival anyway. Rather the powerless thrive on alliances, often in the form of reciprocated acts of kindness – from beehives that were not raided, birds that were not killed but set free or fed, old women who were saluted with respect. Kindness sewn among the meek is harvested in crisis.”
From the internet
The LSE Impact Blog shared a fun way to spread academic learnings to a wider audience: comics!
“By turning research into an illustrated abstract it’s possible to make academic work more accessible to a non-technical audience and people outside of the discipline. Alpa and Karen have even been approached by an author who would like to include the image in a forthcoming anthropology textbook, while Alpa hopes the article will also reach students, other academics and even non-academics, to explain the value of anthropology and long-term participant observation.”
My mother and I listened to “Episode 77: Kalevala (with Elena Varg)” from Spirits on the train to Versailles. The Finnish epic is bonkers, featuring birds nesting on the limbs of goddesses, the Devil’s own personal petting zoo, badass mothers, and a river of death. Elena Varg’s accent is wonderful and her excitement for the story makes this one of my favorite Spirits episodes ever.
Haribos Sour Rainbow Strips are one of a variety of rainbow-colored, sour/sugar-coated gummy candies, nearly all of which I love. While other brands can be too licorice-flavored, gummy, sweet, or unwieldly, Haribos’ colors can easily be stripped apart and each belt of tart candy is mouthwatering. Unfortunately unavailable in Nairobi. I should have brought more than one bag back from France, since I’ve already devoured the one I did bring.
Watch Them Again
You can really see the drawings behind the animation in the original Lion King movie. Rafiki is more bonkers than I remembered, and Nala a more beautiful lioness.
Also watched some Modern Family in the evenings with my mother on our vacation. Like most family drama/comedy shows I love (see also Reba), everyone makes mistakes and is flawed but they choose to do the right thing in the end. Heartwarming and cozy, with lots of silly in between.
Two weeks ago, I had my first opportunity to climb outdoors. My friends were going to Hell’s Gate – the national park two hours outside Nairobi that inspired much of the Lion King film.
I have been afraid of heights my whole life. That fear is one of the main reasons I’ve never gone rock climbing outdoors. In a rock climbing gym, the controlled environment feels like a pretty safe space to dangle from a rope two to three stories up. But when I get near the edge of a cliff, I feel like I suddenly have to fight the urge to leap into the void.
This really freaked me out when I was younger, even though the fear was tinged with a sense of exhilaration, too.
Aside: Recently (read: five minutes ago), I learned this urge is called the “high place phenomenon.” In one study on the feeling, researchers found the desire to jump wasn’t correlated with suicidal thoughts and was instead correlated with “anxiety sensitivity.” Anxiety sensitivity is essentially how anxious being anxious makes you – specifically how reactive you are to the physical sensations of your body telling you it’s in danger (like the quaking in your knees as you look over a cliff).
It was one of the most beautiful days I have ever experienced. It had been rainy all week (we’re just wrapping up the rainy season in Kenya), but the day we were climbing was all sunshine and scudding clouds.
We hired a climbing guide to set up two top ropes so that we could belay ourselves after that. We had one easier climb and one harder one. Later, another climber showed up and set up another climb and we moved the easier rope to another wall. I was able to try all four and got to the top of three. The fourth had an overhang and was the last one I attempted. I got my arms onto the overhang but couldn’t haul myself over the top that late in the day.
After we “cleaned” the routes (removed the equipment we had used for top-roping), we drove through the rest of the park to reach some sulphur hot springs on the opposite side. The whole landscape was wide open and gorgeous.
At one point a giraffe just started running alongside our car. It was magical.
10/10 experience and made me really want to climb more!
Two weekends ago, I went on one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve ever been on – Elephant Hills in the Aberdares.
Unfortunately, the hike was 3 hours longer than advertised, we ran out of water, we had to hike in the dark (with hyenas??), and I got altitude sickness and threw up. Otherwise, best hike ever.
“The Aberdares? In the rainy season? Are you crazy?!” – My boss when she heard about our trip at work the next day
Mikala found a group hiking Elephant Hills – a hike we’d all heard was crazy beautiful – and invited Brooke and me. I added Nick and Alice from work to the hiking crew. Women Who Hike Kenya organized the buses, park fees, park rangers, and “personal photographer” (which is why I have so many pics from the hike – I didn’t get my phone out to take any pics until we reached the peak).
The best section going up and down was the bamboo forest we passed through. On the way up, we thought this was the middle third of the hike up – it was more like one of the middle tenths of the climb.
We started out by criss-crossing a muddy road, then followed the road through potato farms, through a pine forest, through an electric fence to keep the game out, through more trees, and along another open grassy section before reaching the bamboo part. On the way down, these pre-bamboo sections all merged into one quick burst in our minds… instead, it kept going and going and going. The bamboo section was just a vertical shoot up a mud slide between gorgeous bamboo shoots – lots more falling.
After the long bamboo section, we took a quick break on a grassy knoll. A bunch of us thought it was the elephant’s head, so we ate all our lunch. But then on we went.
The next section was just a muddy stream of squelching mud sprinkled with safari ants (vicious biters, but I thankfully wasn’t bit). We also thought this was the last section…
…until we arrived at another grassy section leading us up into the clouds.
After that, I started feeling really sick and decided I had to just power through to the peak. The clouds faked us out at least 5 or 6 times before I finally made it. As soon as I reached the top, the clouds parted and we were treated to incredible 360 views. I was too busy dying of altitude sickness to notice at first. I recovered a bit and ate some of my leftover “I’m not going to Liberia for two months!”chocolate cake from Java.
I was desperate to get down from altitude (about 12,500 ft at the peak, up nearly 3000 ft from the trailhead), so I tried to keep up with Alice and Nick. They hadn’t been feeling the altitude sickness like Brooke, Mikala, and me. Pretty quickly, though, I had to stop and almost started crying my head hurt so much. I let the rest of the summiters pass me by until Brooke and Mikala reached me and rallied my spirits.
Still, Mikala and I were hit pretty hard and it was slow going. Meanwhile, Brooke was calculating how long it would take to get down, comparing that timeline to when it would get dark, and debating whether it was better to push us to go faster when we were feeling so crappy or to be in a national park with wild animals after dark. Actually, at that point, we were more worried about being in that dense, slippery bamboo in the dark.
My head was pounding, I felt hopeless but knew I had to keep going, and my legs were quaking. I’ve never seen my legs shake as hard as they did each time I paused to take a sip of water or breath more deeply. I’d been sitting on the idea that I needed to throw up for about 15 minutes when I finally sped up a bit, turned off the trail and puked. After that, I felt AWESOME. My legs were still shaking, but now my head wasn’t pounding.
We made it to the first grassy knoll where we’d eaten lunch. Happily, another group of friends on the hike had over-prepared with extra gatorades and lent us some. We refueled and then plunged back into the bamboo forest.
We had some great jungle-woman moments slipping and sliding down the increasingly dimly lit bamboo section. The bamboo on the edge of the path were key; we swung between them rather than trust our weight on the muddy slope.
By the time we made it to the end of the bamboo, we were euphoric and wanted to power through the final spurt. But by the time we hit the pine tree forest again, it was already dark. At that point, one of the more experienced hikers who had done Elephant Hills seven or eight times before started getting antsy. He kept hiking super fast but also yelling at the few stragglers to stay with the group and warning everyone about hyenas.
At that point, though, I was actually in a great mood. I had a stick to wave menacingly at the dark edges of the path, I wasn’t at a crazy altitude anymore, and I knew where we were and how to get back.
In all, we hiked 12 miles, straight up and straight down through deep mud. No switchbacks in the Aberdares, apparently! I was out on the trail from 9 am to 7 pm.
10/10 would do again… but maybe only through the bamboo section. And probably not in the rainy season!
This week, one of my favorite podcasts – AdultSh1tfrom Kate Peterman and Kelsey Darraghof Buzzfeed – answered a question from a listener whose sex drive is much higher than that of her long-time girlfriend. The listener said she felt bad and uncomfortable asking for more sex because she doesn’t want to feel “rape-y” or like she’s pressuring her girlfriend into doing sexual things she doesn’t want to do. But she’s not getting the sexual fulfillment she needs right now.
Kate and Kelsey advise even more communication, but also to make sure you’re getting what you need in the relationship. I would add a few things to what they shared:
Start the conversation from a point of, “I love you and I want to figure this out together. We seem to need different things and I want to understand why you need what you need and explain why I need what I need.” It is super scary to start a conversation with a long-time partner that you know could lead to some really painful and possibly break-up-inducing discussions. Phrasing it like you’re tackling an issue together makes it seem less intimidating to get into it at a deeper level.
Be careful to not attack her perspective/experience. I think this is especially challenging because there’s an assumption that everyone wants to have sex inherent in U.S. culture. Being sensitive to the fact that she might be ready to get defensive about that assumption (just like you could be sensitive about the assumption that having a higher sex drive is “sinful”) can help. Avoid approaching it like there’s a problem with her. It’s a problem between the two of you.
Share that you don’t want to feel like you’re pressuring her, that you’re struggling to approach the issue, and that that’s a point of pain for you. Specifically share that it can make you feel unwanted, unsexy, and confused. Maybe this can lead to her sharing ways that you can introduce sexy times without it being pressuring, or what specific language y’all can use to discuss whether to get it on in the future. Also, ask her to tell you how these situations make her feel – is she uncomfortable? Annoyed? Sad? Frustrated? It might also be hard for her to know she’s not fulfilling all your sexual needs. My good friend Annaji introduced me to the powers of the “I” statement. If you keep it about how you feel, that acknowledges there’s room for misinterpretation and offers the other person space to clarify where they’re coming from, too.
Once you’ve both been able to share how y’all are feeling about your sex life, then you can talk about next steps more freely and as a team. Maybe you can brainstorm some solutions or compromises. Maybe, even though it’s scary, you both will find you really do need a partner whose sex drive matches your own more closely. Even though it’s a tough decision to make after so many years together.
I was once in a relationship where I found out almost 2 years in that my partner was unhappy with how much sex we’d been having. He felt like we had sex too often. He told me that our intimacy cut into his time to do personal projects that were important for him to be fulfilled. This was partially because we would sleep over in each others’ dorm rooms a lot and go to bed early, cutting into hours he would have previously used to create.
It was really painful to hear that he felt pressure to have sex, even if he said that pressure wasn’t coming from me so much as from society. I still worry that he did feel pressure from me. Maybe, as I discuss below, he just couldn’t tell me he was uncomfortable.
We did break up shortly after this revelation, which came at a complicated time in our relationship for other reasons. I’m not sure how we would have dealt with our mismatched sex drives given more time. Thankfully, we still have a good relationship as friends. And I think that’s in large part due to the fact that we did have honest conversations about our sex life before the break-up.
Men’s experiences: the same, but different
This episode also deepened my thinking on the Beautiful / Anonymous episode I shared earlier this week, where a man called in to talk about how he was sexually assaulted three times in his life, twice by women. I had a moment at work today to discuss it with my colleague who recommended the episode. One of our big takeaways was that it was amazing how familiar the caller’s description of his doubt, shame, and struggle sounded.
Most women have heard female friends’ stories of sexual assault or experienced it themselves. Through most stories, there are common threads: feeling unable to react fast enough or strongly enough, doubting whether we truly couldn’t have done anything, wondering if the other person genuinely thought it was okay and just missed our signals, whether the signals we sent were strong enough. All of that self-doubt I have heard expressed by numerous women – it was a revelation to hear a man share the same doubts.
Anyone can have their bodily autonomy and safety violated. Even if you know that in your brain, hearing this man’s story makes it stick in your soul in a new way. I think all of us still carry with us ingrained messaging about men’s relationship to intimacy, sex, and violence. Those narratives lead us to make assumptions that can really hurt other people; this podcast invites us (women) to examine our part in perpetuating these assumptions about gender and sex.
It’s hard to think about, because it really complicates narratives that are easier to keep clean cut. Women are victims, men are violent, sex-driven animals. We (feminists) know it’s a gross simplification, but it’s still so tempting when the statistics are that most victims of sexual violence are women, and most perpetrators are men. That narrative can even be comforting/validating on some level for women who are violated in that way – you’re not alone, this happened to us too, we’re here for you, it’s not your fault.
While the male caller shared these same doubts and feelings of shame and guilt as so many women, the way he expressed the doubts was also telling. My colleague and I both marked that he was bewildered by those feelings and without a narrative to put them into that accounted for both his masculinity and his vulnerability.
My female friends and I, on the other hand, can see how our own experiences fit into the larger societal phenomenon of violence against women. Each of our experiences is intensely personal and can feel isolating. Yet when we’ve been able to talk to each other about those experiences, we can wryly see it as part of “womanhood” in our culture. A terrible yet shared burden. We all contribute a piece to the larger narrative. And, we can also share in the new narratives that are rising about self-care, how to survive & thrive after sexual violence, how to find sisterhood in this massive, horrifying phenomenon.
It is both to men’s privilege and to the caller’s disadvantage that he is not part of this narrative. This podcast called me to think about ways in which I perpetuate bad myths about gender, sex and violence, and ways in which I can bring non-female survivors of sexual assault into the sisterhood component of the narrative I hold.
The man who calls had been molested by a male babysitter as a child, and then raped/sexually assaulted by two different women in the course of his high school years. It was an intense soundtrack to my first run in weeks. The caller is raw and open with his vulnerability.
It really helps you understand viscerally the broad spectrum of sexual experiences, traumas, and approaches people may have. The whole episode is a clear, loud call for more communication, more openness, and more thoughtfulness in our sexual lives.