About Laura Henson

Pursuing an M.A. in International Environmental Policy with a focus in international marine policy; PADI scuba diving instructor; an RPCV from Mozambique, 2008-2010; a graduate of Washington and Lee University, 2008

Estamos en Contacto

Spanish Flag in Plaza de Colón, Madrid, Spain

My UNESCO-UniTwin internship has officially ended, and those eight weeks flew.  The CBE gave me the opportunity to truly maximize my one graduate school summer, and it is hard to imagine learning so much in a practical environment in such little time with any other program.  The fellow process works.

Fishing off Lanzarote, Islas de Canarias

Throughout the summer, I felt challenged and busy enough to stay interested, but I also had the chance to take some nice day trips and an awesome vacation at the end.  The European August vacation norm is something we should really consider including in the U.S. work calendar (I know, I know — we’re more “productive” given our measly ten days off).


Practicing ABS negotiations, Maputo, Mozambique

Primarily, I saw one part of a large international project through from start to finish.  I helped plan and build materials for a workshop in Mozambique, attended the workshop, and participated in the debriefing and reflection.  I analyzed a current international issue in a country I love and associated with natural resources in which I have a personal stake.


Obviously not as much of a stake as Mozambicans themselves, but a stake nonetheless.

Continue reading

I Speak Scuba

It’s true.  And it is actually a language option on Facebook profiles.  For many of the same reasons I like learning other languages, I also like SCUBA diving.

For one, it brings people together.  It is not a graceful sport, and the sea humbles everyone.  It’s quite difficult (not to mention ridiculously unsafe) to dive without at least one buddy, and most dive centers are run by dive “teams”.  In fact, my old boss used to say, “Teamwork is dreamwork.”  She was only half joking.

Secondly, the more time you spend immersed in it (in this case, underwater), the easier it becomes to communicate.  And like mathematics, SCUBA language is pretty much universal.  Though I had a hard time understanding Miguel’s accent in Spanish sometimes, we were easy diving buddies.

Finally, and also like with foreign languages and cultures, there is an endless amount to learn — both about diving, as the sport is fairly new and curious thrill-seekers push the limits daily, and about the underwater world.  The more time you spend with a reef or kelp forest, the more intimate with it you become, and the more you realize how much there is still to learn. Continue reading

Explaining Moz (Everything is Relative)

I am not the most patient person; this is no secret.  However, I would like to think I’ve gotten a little better with time, especially from my teaching experiences both in the Peace Corps and giving SCUBA diving lessons.  Despite these improvements, I still have a ways to go.  And when living in working in foreign countries and cultures, patience (both with yourself and others) is key to successful communication.

I lived and worked in Mozambique for about 32 months in the end.  I buy my purple Moz havaianas from the same guy every time in the same market.  I can stand in front of 400 students and sing the national anthem at 6:45am with the best of them.  And when I see it, I know the petrol station at which every Vilankulo-Maputo bus stops en route (it has Simba sour-cream and onion chips and Cadbury fruit and nut chocolate bars — I never miss this stop).

On the other hand, when my colleague asked me where those train tracks went leaving Maputo city, I responded, “I don’t know, probably nowhere.  But they look new, so maybe somewhere.”  To me, this is a sufficient response.  However, to someone with limited experience in Moz and who is unfamiliar with the U.S. Peace Corps, this was far less than sufficient.  I found myself losing credibility left and right. Continue reading

Not Just Another Moz Workshop

I attended or helped organize more than a handful of workshops here in Moz during my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV).  Certain things are always the same: organizing lanche (mid-morning and mid-afternoon coffee and snack), getting nervous about speaking proper Português during the abertura (opening), signing certificates on the last day, and Endearmints.

In those aspects, this workshop on ABS in Mozambique has been no different, and I have assured with Mamá that the white Endearmints, not the green ones, are on the plate closest to me each morning.  My comfort with the Português language and Mozambican culture has returned quite quickly, a graça de Deus. Continue reading

Me Meo Toa

Me meo toa, but this time out of excitement.  Last week my colleagues had a Meeting of the Parties in New Delhi, which means that this week is the final rush of preparations before heading to Mozambique, hereafter referred to as Moz.

The primary reason for our visit is the second workshop of the ABS capacity building project in Maputo.  The first workshop in April was on the basics of ABS and the Nagoya Protocol, while this workshop will include information on the details of ABS negotiations, ABS in the African context, and a How-To presentation for using an ABS manual.  My main task will be facilitating communication between my colleagues and workshop attendees.  Since none of my colleagues speak Portuguese, my experience teaching in Portuguese in Moz will hopefully prove valuable.

We will also meet with the funding organization, the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation and Development, in their Maputo office and perform a few site visits to universities with genetic resource research programs.  I’m stoked to see the reality of this project to date, as my short-term work in Madrid gives me just a brief and narrow glance.  I imagine I will learn quite a bit from the workshop, the meeting, and the visits. Continue reading

The Real Deal

When I first applied for an internship with UNESCO in Madrid for a project on Mozambican policy, I knew my languages would come in handy.  I hoped they would provide opportunities for some real work every now and then, but in fact English, Portuguese, and Spanish have already each given me the chance to complete some weighty tasks — an intern’s dream.

I spent my first week reacquainting myself with the Nagoya Protocol on ABS, adopted by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 2010.  Shortly thereafter I got the chance to use my Portuguese researching and pricing content for an ABS-specific library we plan to establish in Mozambique.

Next came Spanish, and the last few days of last week consisted of translating and perfecting an actual ABS project proposal to the European Commission.  As in, the actual European Commission.

My task was to translate my colleague’s Spanish proposal into English.  I did my best, noted words and sentences about which I was unsure throughout the text, and sent it back to them the following day.  I wasn’t really sure what to expect.  I lack the confidence in Spanish that I have in Portuguese, and ABS is a fairly confusing topic even in English. However, what ensued was genuinely fun.  Continue reading

The King was Marrying Elephants

While discussing the economic crisis at lunch the other day, my Argentinean colleague informed me that, “el rey estaba cazando elefantes en Africa.”  Hearing the z as an s, I heard, casando (marrying) instead of cazando (hunting) and translated even that poorly into, “the king was marrying elephants in Africa.”

I began to wonder if this meant that the king was conducting marriage ceremonies between elephants or was making a point by in fact marrying an elephant.  This distraction meant that I only tuned back in at the end of the conversation, and by then my boss was drawing a comparison between the king and the Spanish equivalent of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Image from The Telegraph

Both political figures had made headlines recently.  The king had hurt his hip in Africa, causing the paparazzi to highlight this particular hunting trip (apparently, the king hunts often).  Many citizens were frustrated with the king for taking such an extravagant trip during the economic crisis.  Therefore, the king apologized, and the headlines ended. Continue reading

I’m About to Pee My Pants

Me meo toa.  Or, “I’m peeing myself.”  Or, “I’m laughing [really hard].”  And finally, outside of immediate comedy, “I’m about to pee my pants.”  Me meo toa was the first colloquial phrase I learned here in Spain after a very long meeting back in February, and some form of this phrase seems to be the first thing I learn in any new country.

Hands down, my favorite aspect of learning foreign languages is the barrier-breaking interactions exemplifying that we are all actually part of one human race.  An example: me meo toa.  Everyone’s gotta pee eventually.

I doubt I’m unique.  In the first few days of travel most people likely learn to say, write, or show some form of these three things: I need food and water (¿Donde hay un buen restaurante?), I need a place to sleep (Por favor, me lleva a hotel turismo), and I need a restroom (¿Una casa de baño?).  Basic human needs.

I have always talked a lot, but when my parents divorced due to, in my opinion, utter lack of communication for years on end, I became fairly obsessed with effective and genuine self-expression.  My Peace Corps service in the education sector of Portuguese-speaking Mozambique fostered this interest, while graduate school professors have harped on the importance of communication skills as an environmental professional throughout this past academic year.

Therefore, communication seemed an obvious theme for this summer’s blog.  As a Center for the Blue Economy summer fellow, I am working in Madrid, Spain at a university in UNESCO’s UNITWIN program on a project regarding Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) of genetic resources in Mozambique.  Having never been fluent in Spanish and seriously out of practice in Portuguese, I can only imagine the confusion (hopefully followed by clarity — at least sometimes) to come.