Lauren Novak


This blog is a documentation of my journey as a constantly learning and evolving student of development. It is honest and it is raw. And much similarly to myself, it is not perfect.


About Time

As I sit here composing this post, I have less than three months left of my international development placement. It is difficult to put into words the gravity of this experience and how it has shaped me as an individual. The past five months have been a roller coaster of an adventure both physically and mentally. Before I left for Ghana, I was certain of many aspects in my foundation; I knew who I was and I knew what I wanted. But I have come to learn that the further you push yourself outside of your comfort zone and into the unknown, the less sure you become. And I have realized that not knowing where you’re headed or what you will be doing…. is perfectly okay.

The biggest lesson that I have gained throughout this experience is the beauty of perspective. Living in the western world, we can often get caught up in the craziness of our everyday lives. The little frustrations like a slow-moving Tim Horton’s drive thru line and Monday morning rush hour traffic can put a damper on your whole day. When I think about those things now, it makes me laugh. Perspective truly is everything.

The everyday challenges that you experience while living in a developing country can often be quite overwhelming. The biggest challenge personally has been the restricted freedom of movement. As a female, quite literally living in the middle of nowhere down a dirt road, I do not have the freedom to move about safely after dark. In a country that experiences sunset around 6pm every day, you can easily feel trapped inside. It can also be extremely trying not knowing whether the water you drink or food you eat will give you a parasite or typhoid. Its constantly a game of Russian roulette with your health. So far, I have been on the winning end of this gamble…. keeping my fingers crossed.

On the other side of the coin, living in Northern Ghana has allowed me the opportunity to find happiness in the little things that I had often overlooked in Canada. Any day that I wake up and the water in our house is running… is a good day. And everyday on my way home from work, I feel so spoiled to be able to buy incredible fresh tropical fruit from the side of the road.

The relationships that I have built over the last five months have been the foundation of my happiness here. I am so lucky to have a Ghanaian family and be an aunty to three beautiful girls and adorable baby boy. I have met an amazing number of expats and development workers who have been the shoulder to cry on, explore with and support network I desperately needed.

Despite the challenges, I am really happy. And that is invaluable.IMG_20150110_143620

Adjusting To Life In Tamale

It has officially been two and a half weeks that I have been living it Ghana. Although it is a far cry from the place I have lived for 21 years, I am beginning to see it as I place I can call home. I have moved to Tamale, located far from the capital Accra, within the northern region of the country. After spending a week in Accra before moving to Tamale, I can remark on how incredibly different the two cities are. Tamale is much smaller in terms of population, much hotter in terms of temperature and is essentially a city completely run by motorbikes and scooters. The atmosphere here is far more relaxed and people do not seem to have the crazy lifestyle mentality that is found in the city.

One of the biggest worries I had prior to moving was that I wouldn’t be able to find a place that I could make my home and would end up feeling like a foreign guest for eight months. Well those fears were unnecessary, as I currently live in a cozy 3 bedroom house with two Canadian roommates. The only drawback is that I don’t have an address. But, if you’re coming from Jasonayili, you simply pass by the Gurugyu filling station onto the dirt road, follow it past the summer tree and take it all the way till the end. I have learned that landmarks are essential to navigating through Tamale 😉

My organization, Maata-N-Tudu is located in Vittin Estates which happens to be on the opposite end of town. In order to get there you can take two share taxis for 1 cedi 20 pesawas each (approx 35 cents). In my case, the driver for Maata-N-Tudu lives fairly close to me and drives me to and from work. In the mornings we stop by his home and while he eats his breakfast, I play with his beautiful 5 month old baby girl. In the afternoons we pick up his other girls from school and they yell Sullyminga (white lady) with the biggest smiles on their faces. I have been in Tamale only a week and I already feel welcomed into a family.

I know that the next seven months will be a roller coaster of emotions, but I am content to have gained a sense of calm and normalcy so early in my journey.

Cheers Waterloo!

I remember the day I received my university acceptance letters in the mail. Excited and nervous, I dreamt about the people I would meet and the experiences I would have over the next four years. I never imagined how quickly the time would pass. It seems like just yesterday it was all beginning and today I am close to the end of an incredible chapter in my life. Countless hours spent in Dana Porter Library choking down coffee to stay awake as I pulled unnecessary all-nighters to meeting the most amazing people I have ever known, it has been a great journey. One that I have loved whole heartedly.

I know that this is not the end of my undergrad entirely, but it is the end of the university life I have come to know and love. This is the end of shitty waterloo student housing with the two hilarious roommates I met playing varsity hockey. No longer will I make 2am journeys to smoke’s after a raunchy night of $2.25 drinks at Phils or bartend with the greatest people on Bomber Wednesdays. I will never be in another Fashion for Change show or compete at another National Cheerleading competition. And most importantly I will never be able to relive the incredible experiences and funny times I have shared with the countless unique individuals I have met over the years. But I will remember and cherish every moment for the rest of my life.

To everyone that has been a part of my university career thus-far; thank you. Thank you to the University of Waterloo for allowing me to grow into the individual I want to be and to the universe for letting me make stupid, but fixable mistakes! Placement will bring exciting new experiences and the opportunity to meet incredible individuals as I follow my passion within international development. I am incredibly excited for that to begin, but I really want to appreciate everything I have been given and learned over the last few years.

Closing a chapter in your life is always difficult. It can be something small like saying goodbye to the people you meet and become friends with on a trip somewhere to graduating high school or university. Closing this chapter hasn’t quite sunk in, but I know that when I board that plane headed half way around the world, it will hit me. So before its too late, I want to say thank you, raise my glass of wine and toast the people, the city and the university for an amazing 3 years.

Waterloo, it’s been a slice!

The Importance of Challenging Experiences

They always say that you will have one class or one professor in university who will truly challenge you. Up until this year, I have relatively cruised through university, putting the effort in where necessary while remaining grounded in my arguments. There has been the occasional hiccup due to lazy last-minute university tendencies, but I have never really struggled. That all changed when I walked into my third year International Development ‘Culture and Ethics’ class. Multiple readings of anthropological theories where thrown at me, each exceedingly complicated than the previous.

To be honest, I was completely lost. I was frustrated because I didn’t understand what the point was and I definitely couldn’t see the big picture. How were Zizek’s complex theories surrounding the matrix relevant to my life? On top of it all, our class average was less than ideal, causing the type-A personalities I’ve come to know and love within my program to freak out.

I graduated high school at 16, on the honor roll with scholarships to every university program I applied for. Don’t get me wrong, I am by no means a snob. I simply got a great head start to my education and that foundation allowed for academics to come easily and enjoyable for me. I never felt truly challenged in a way that I was questioning the very foundation of my arguments and the way I viewed life around me.

This class and professor changed that for me. Her brilliant mind and passion towards anthropology were refreshing and frustrating at the same time. I couldn’t keep up with every idea she explored within lectures and I was angry that it didn’t come easy to me. She made me realize that it is not acceptable to be complacent with the ordinary and the satisfactory. Everything that was being thrown at me was for a reason and by the end of that roller-coaster of a course, it all made sense. I finally saw the big picture.

As I make my way through my last term of academic learning within my undergrad and prepare for my placement, I have begun to appreciate everything I have learned over these years. My ‘Culture and Ethics’ class was one of the worst grades I have received in university, but ironically the class in which I learned the most. Development work will not be easy smooth sailing and I will not be good at everything. Not only did that class and professor teach me to challenge myself and strive towards bigger achievements, but also gave me incredibly useful tools that I will utilise on placement. I have gained a lens with an alternative perspective of the world and the situations we enter into.

In the sincerest way, I would like to thank that professor for teaching me more than what was outlined on the syllabus.


Everyone has that experience, that moment in life when something you have worked so hard to build comes crashing down around you. Whether it’s a broken heart, falling out with a friend or losing a job, the hurt is inevitable. You are left wondering what you could have changed or done differently and if it would’ve even made a difference. You can be angry or jaded, but ultimately fearful that history may repeat itself, leaving you vulnerable once again. These experiences change us, regardless of whether we want them to or not.

How do you pick up the pieces and begin to move forward? How do you open your heart to new people or apply for a daunting position with a large company? There is really no right answer. Although I have never lost a job, I have had my heart broken once. Falling in love is like stepping in front of a fast moving train; it’s going to hit you like a ton of bricks and you sure as hell better be ready for the ride. Everyone talks about the rush; how it feels to have the wind blowing through your hair as you speed down the winding tracks. But no one tells you about the crash, when the ride can come to an abrupt stop. And for me, the ride did stop.

The times when you are left feeling vulnerable and hurt are the ones you never forget. You carry the memories and lessons learned as you move forward throughout life. But it is often difficult to separate the new experiences from the old ones, terrified that you will be hurt once again. You may never be as open to the world as you once were, but I have learned that being closed off is far more detrimental.  The truth is; not every person you meet or situation you enter into will result in the same outcome as previous negative experiences. Every man you meet will not break your heart, every important friendship will not fall apart and you will not be fired from every job you have.

Fear is what holds you back from realizing your full potential in all aspects of your life. Fear of the unknown, fear of heartbreak and hurt. As I embark on the greatest adventure of my life thus far, I have a combination of emotions; excitement, happiness and an element of fear. Moving half way across the globe, far from my support network and living in a completely different environment, it would be easy to let that fear control my experience.

But I have promised myself that is not an option. I refuse to let past scars and fear affect my future within international development. I want to embrace what scares me and allow myself to return to a place where I am completely open to the world around me. International Development is a field that holds so many incredible opportunities that are terrifying yet exhilarating all in one. Despite the inevitable ups and downs and the trying nature of this career, I want to be as open as possible to everything there is to offer on placement in Ghana.

I have fallen in love again….with International Development. And I’m sure as hell ready for this ride.

‘Voluntourism’ and Development

There are two very distinct stages that define my view on development and its global practices; before and after INDEV 100.  As I sat in Larry Swatuk’s class, I had a thousand different things running through my mind. I wondered whether or not I had made the right choice in my major, whether I would excel and most importantly, if I would continue to be passionate about making a difference in the world. As a freshman I was bright eyed and bushy tailed, ready to tackle the world’s issues with a “glass half full approach”. I thought that everyone who went to developing countries for some sort of volunteer trip was truly making positive sustainable change. In the grand scheme of things, I realized that I was wrong.

Development is extremely multi-disciplinary with several factors interconnecting throughout. Every action has multiple reactions that build upon each other over time. As I listened to lectures and gained historical context, one idea that Professor Swatuk raised truly resonated. He raised the idea that you can volunteer in Africa and build all the schools you want, but if there are no teachers then they are simply empty buildings.

A few weeks ago I came across an article entitled “Instagramming Africa: The Narcissim of Global Tourism”  that sparked my interest.  The article argues that voluntourism is ultimately about the experience and fulfillment of the volunteers rather than what they bring to the communities they visit. Voluntourism is a booming industry, charging volunteers thousands of dollars to participate in trips that last less than a month. The article argues that photogoraphy is one of the main reasons voluntourism organizations attract the large amounts of paying volunteers. They utilise the selfies that people post on Instagram and social media with local children as a form of marketing. Almost every single person I know that has gone on a voluntourism trip has changed their profile picture to one of themselves with an African child, with a cute caption describing the ‘best experience of their life’.

The article outlines three types of photographs voluntourists share through social media: The Suffering Other, The Self-Directed Samaritan and The Overseas Selfie. The main idea is that the Africa that voluntourists photograph is merely an “imaginary geography whose landscapes are forged by colonialism as well as a good deal of narcissism.”  The author urges individuals to think critically about what they are trying to achieve through global volunteer experience. Also, she urges other voluntourists to “think with some degree of narrative humility about how to de-center them from Western saviour narrative and leave their iPhones at home.”

In my heart I believe that everyone who chooses to either participate in voluntourism or work in the field of development has the intention of making positive change. Unfortunately, I think that voluntourism has many faults that are in fact creating negative outcomes. The boom of social media has allowed western society to perpetuate this “saviour” mentality and has created a “let’s go to Africa” trend. Individuals should educate themselves on the culture, historical context and root issues of an area before they travel there.

Although I am still extremely optimistic about development and the opportunities for positive change, I have become more cynical towards those participating in voluntourism and trips of the like. Development is not about making yourself feel good because you helped an organization build a school for a few hours before going on a safari. In order to make a sustainable difference, knowledge of organizations and the historical context of an area are extremely important.

There is much more to development than photographing yourself with smiling African children. 


The article referenced:


You will always remember the moment you realize your life is going to change dramatically. As I left the gym, hair dripping from a post-workout shower with my muscles in full spasm, I received an email that I had been waiting my entire university career for. This was the email that outlined where I would be completing my eight month placement and what organization I would be working for. As I read the email, the largest smile imaginable spread across my face. On September 8th, I would be starting a new life in northern Ghana working for Maata-N-Tudu.

Maata-N-Tudu, translated to “Women of the North”, is a non-governmental women’s membership organization based in Northern Ghana. According to their mission, “The goal of MTA is to initiate and promote the socio-economic well-being of women in the operational area through enterprise development. Its overall objective is to economically empower women through provision of micro-credit to support women’s income generating activities and thereby improving upon their standards of living and that of their families.”

As I read through and researched the selection of organizations partnered with WUSC and St.Pauls, I knew that regardless of where I ended up, I needed to be passionate about the endeavor. The theoretical knowledge I have learned over the past years combined with my hobbies, opinions and goals has cultivated a passion for gender equality and a focus on women in the developing world. Maata-N-Tudu is the perfect fit and I am blessed to have been chosen to work with this organization!

The last three years of university have been a whirlwind, filled with several up and downs. Everything I have learned in lecture halls and about myself has allowed me to be ready for the biggest adventure of my life thus far.  As I learn more about Maata-N-Tudu and Ghana as a whole, I develop a greater passion for international development and am unbelievably thankful that I have been given this opportunity.

In two months I will begin this amazing experience and I cannot wait to learn and grow from the amazing people I will be working with. 

The countdown to Ghana begins now 🙂