(I've changed the name from "Rants" given that I can't really rant about many things that frustrate me here, at least not without getting into some sort of trouble. As such, you'll have to wait for the book.)

Monday, February 27, 2017

Christmas 2016

I suppose that there is good justification for the lack of blog postings. My job is now heavily focused on a severe drought that has the potential of becoming a full on famine. It’s all hands on deck as
we scale up our programming. Consequently I’m not finding a lot of leisure time. I do what I can to be full on dad and husband when I’m with the family. Otherwise, I have a lot going on.

I need, however, to go back to Christmas break. In my desire to have a relatively complete documentation of the key events, that’s one that I cannot omit.

Kinaya catching snowflakes
The trip began with a couple weeks in Indiana. That has been our pattern the past several years. The time with family there is generally low-key and a nice way to make a break from the intensity the months of October-December. 
example of parent teaching a kid something he doesn't know how to do
We spend a fair amount of time balancing time at the house with family and getting the children out and about such that they don’t go stir crazy. There is also the last minute Christmas shopping (or in my case the first and last minute). 
the don
We took the girls ice skating for the first time. I’m a pathetic skater so it was all I could do to stay on my feet while propping up each of the kids. This is probably how it begins – children now starting to learn to do things that I won’t be able to do as well. Up to a certain age, you can do pretty much anything better than your children. I can see the day coming, though, when they start to surpass me in things. First it will be French. Then it will be math. Science. I’ve been telling Priya that they’ll never be able to beat me in a foot race. She begs to differ.
Christmas Eve
The Christmas holiday was quite nice. The girls are older and they are understanding and enjoying the holiday traditions. It’s a bit of a strange life they lead compared to the way I was raised. We didn’t really have our own traditions in Bujumbura and for the most part we didn’t ever really get around to putting up decorations. We normally leave around the second week of December and then we are “on the road” basically until we return in early January. So their holiday traditions are limited to whatever happens at their grandparents'. 

They’re also faced with a blend of European and American traditions. At school they met Saint Nicolas who is not quite the same as Santa Claus. And who these men are and what they do has been a bit chaotically meshed together and frankly doesn’t add up very well. We’ll need to get our stories straight soon or just abandon the whole thing. But the traditions are fun for kids (at least they were for me) and we feel an obligation to maintain them in some form or another.
serious lamb shank
We were also able to sneak in a trip to St. Louis to see friends that we knew in Burundi. It's the second time we've visited them and, added to the fun, was the presence of other friends of ours from those days who happened to be en route from Denver to Chicago. So we all met up - weird of course being all together in the US.

The day after Christmas we made our way to Idaho. The weather cooperated and for the most part we didn’t have too many challenges either by plane or by vehicle. Other than smacking into a deer in rural Indiana (and needing to swap out rental cars) we were quite fortunate with our winter travels. 
de-icing
We started in Idaho with a quick stay in Boise before heading to the ski town of McCall. Most of my family was there for fun in the snow. It was a very nice time with good snow and we were able to get the two girls up on skis – Kinaya for the first time. The weather was nice and happily it was a pleasant experience that I suspect they’ll want to do again next year. Hopefully. 
sister's new place - pretty cool, me thinks
Before heading up there I wasn't sure where we were going to stay. I was just told that we didn't need to get a hotel. Lo and behold, my sister and brother-in-law had closed on a big cabin in the mountains and had set it up just in time for the holidays. Pretty amazing place, we were there for the next couple of days while we enjoyed the deep, wonderful snow.

my little girl's second year on the slopes



We then headed south to Boise for my family's Christmas party. Once my siblings started having families of their own, Christmas Day became more of a thing for the new families to celebrate and the larger family began gathering several days later. When Priya and I were married, this worked out well for us since that gave us an opportunity to spend half the holidays (including Christmas Day) with them and half the holidays with my family in Idaho - not missing the big gathering of the latter.

This year we had it at my sister's place in Boise. The condominium complex has a shared space that we reserved. Worked out well as our numbers have grown over the years. The downside of the family growth is that there are only two children. Ours. Everyone has grown up and the nieces and nephews have yet to produce any offspring. So it's a bit tough for them (and us) not to have any other kids to play with. I'm sensing right now that as the nieces and nephews are taking their time having their own families, our girls will move from children to tweens and will by then probably not want anything to do with the next phase of rugrats. 

After the night in Boise, we headed south to my parent's place. It's always been a haven of peace for me. Always nice to hang out with my parents. It's super quiet. It's easy. Everything is relatively close. It's what a "bedroom community" is supposed to be I guess. Plus the house is big and we can spread out. As the last stop on the busy holiday season travels, it's the calm before the storm.

Soon we would be saying our farewells and heading to Boise for the flight home. Have to say, it was an excellent trip. You always can find a thing or two that could have been done differently but by and large it was what we could have hoped for. Sad to bid farewell to family but my guess is that we will be planning for the next vacation not long after arriving in Nairobi. Okay by me.

Friday, February 17, 2017

First Trip to Somalia

In December, prior to leaving for the holidays, I was able to make my first trip to the field. The field, in this case, is the country of Somalia. It’s not the first time in my career that field offices I oversee are located in a different country. In Burundi, prior to closing the Rwanda office, I would travel there to visit staff and activities. It’s not easy and there is always a feeling of disconnect between the staff in those offices and the head office. There is a sense that their HQ doesn’t understand and never visits frequently enough – both of which are often true. Something you have to be conscious of and work to improve.

In the case of Somalia, there is no question that I don’t have a solid understanding of the complexities in the country. I’ve spoken to people who have worked there for years and confess that they don’t, and likely ever will, understand the subtleties and complexities of Somalia. The key is to understand enough to do your job. That’s where I am now. I’m cramming as much into my head as possible. I’m picking peoples’ brains about the history, politics, geography, etc. I’m doing my best to travel there as much as time and security will permit. I’m gaining ground but, in addition to being complex, Somalia is constantly changing. The humanitarian situation is rapidly deteriorating. Clan relations evolve. The security situation varies from one day to the next. So it’s also a bit like hitting a moving target.

My trip began by catching a UN plane from Nairobi to Mogadishu. As we were arriving I looked down at the beautiful coastline stretching out as far as the eye could see. I wondered how much different the development would be if it had not been for decades of turmoil.
Upon arrival I made my way through the airport. In fact you don’t really enter a building at all. You go into a covered walkway lined by a blast wall made from massive, stacked cubes of sand. These walls are everywhere in Mogadishu and they are quite effective at absorbing the blast of an explosion, even better than concrete. The latter not only breaks, it can send projectiles of concrete which can add to the damage caused by the bits of explosive matter.

“Immigration” took longer than I anticipated given that so many in the queue were military or diplomatic and didn’t need to fill out paperwork. The air was hot but there was a bit of a breeze blowing through. It felt similar to the air in Dar es Salaam except dryer. Maybe more like southern Idaho in the dead of summer.

Eventually I made it through and my Somali team was waiting for me with an armored vehicle. The airport is basically a fortified town and an impressive one at that. It’s been attacked so many times they pretty much know what they’re doing.

Once through the boom gate, and with two armed escort vehicles, we sped out onto the streets of the city. We decided to go directly to visit our health facilities in internal displacement camps on the outskirts of the city. Prior to our small clinics, these people who have been displaced by conflict and drought had no access to healthcare. 
a tense drive around town
It was a crazy drive through traffic, dodging goats, carts, people, camels, etc. I won’t going into the details of the visit but it was rather fast and furious. We couldn't stay in any one place longer than just a few minutes. 
visiting the IDP camp
Within two hours we had done the rounds and were back in our heavily fortified office in the middle of town. I was given a tour and then met with the team. It’s our largest office in the country and they seemed quite organized and competent. In fact one thing that surprised me about the clinics and our office is how normal everything is once you get past all the security stuff. I’m not sure what I was expecting but I was happy to finally get a feel for our key field office and the people that work there.

a quick stop at the beach...
...but not without my new friends
Our guesthouse is located within the office. I didn’t have the freedom to go out and walk around, obviously, but our facility is well equipped with satellite TV, wireless and so forth so I was not bored by any means. And I ate well. In fact our head of office brought me by some crab which was fantastic. Nice little surprise. He then topped it off by bringing me a cappuccino the next morning. Must be looking for a raise.

That evening there was some sporadic gunfire, some off in the distance, some very close. Such things are not foreign to me after six years in Burundi but it's still not pleasant.

The next day there was time for a meeting or two and then it was off to the airport. Getting in the fortified airport compound is a bit more complicated than getting out so we have to give ourselves quite a bit of time. Once in I was able to chat with some of the Burundian military who were working with the international forces guarding the airport. They were happy to find someone who spoke French and knew about their country – another very troubled place.

While I was awaiting the flight I spoke to a guy who was a regular to Mogadishu. He said he’d been making trips over the past two and a half years. I asked if he’d seen a lot of crazy stuff over that period of time. He said not really, that due to the security policy of his government he was not allowed to leave the airport compound – the case for many who travel to Mogadishu. I told him about my crazy trip in less than 48 hours and he said he’d never once done that. I thought about that afterwards and was wondering how that impacts your ability to understand the country you are supporting. Hopefully the security situation will improve so that more people can see the place.

The flight back was not direct to Nairobi. For some reason (it’s been explained to me but I’m still not sure I fully understand) the plane must stop at a town called Wajir in the desert of northwest Kenya. It’s basically in the middle of nowhere. Everyone gets out and the bags are unloaded. You then proceed through customs at an airport the size of a medium-sized house. It seems to be a tremendous waste of time given that when you eventually arrive in Nairobi, they make you go through the documentation check again – as if my documents changed over course of the previous hour. I don’t mind additional security so long as it is done intelligently. I get frustrated by attempts to focus on the appearance of security but don’t really provide any real value-added.


It was a short trip but almost everything about it made it more exhausting than I think any trip I’ve ever taken of the same length. It was good, though, and I surprisingly am looking forward to going back. More than that, though, I was looking forward to heading to see family over the holidays.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Busy December



I have been aching to get back to writing – at least writing about something other than work. Unfortunately there hasn’t been much time for the things that I now call pleasures (writing and reading) that during my youth I considered nuisances.
I notice that I have not posted anything since November. Likely my readership has dwindled to non-existence. Which is fine. I first and foremost do this for myself. It’s a record of certain aspects of my left that, had I not noted them here, would otherwise be forgotten. It’s certainly not a diary. There are some thoughts and opinions, particularly related to past countries where I’ve worked, that were best kept unposted. It’s a shame to lose some of those thoughts because they are very relevant. I have thought, however, of keeping a separate log for such reflections and stories but I have yet to carve out the time.
So back to recording what has happened since my last posting. Early December was fraught with preparations to go on holiday and wind up the loads of things that invariably come up towards the end of the calendar year. I knew in advance that the first couple of weeks of my leave I would spend some early morning hours following up on work things and making sure that all the loose ends were tied before year’s end. And so it went.
Our transition to Kenya culminated in the arrival of our belongings from Bujumbura. It was a long and arduous process that I won’t go into here. The bureaucracy necessary to accomplish what are relatively simple tasks is daunting. This continent is in drastic need to people who are experts at what most would consider mundane tasks. We need people that can think through processes and improve upon them. What happens now is that processes are a bit like houses. You build the basic structure. You add on when you spot something that is needed or a bit off. Then you add on again when something else comes up. You never go back and look at the overall structure to see if the overall design still makes sense. You just move forward adding on each time you think of something you need.
What is needed now is someone to have the balls and the wherewithal to go back to things and think about what exactly is needed and what isn’t. One would think that technological advances would sort out some of this process mapping. Unfortunately not. The other day in a meeting someone suggested we purchase a typewriter. A typewriter. It was suggested that such a thing would make us fill out carbon copy forms much more quickly as opposed to doing them by hand. I was told that eventually those forms are entered into a computer someplace.
In any case after considerable, and mostly unnecessary, waiting, the truck arrived with our stuff. A relatively orderly apartment was now in disarray and would remain that way, at least partially, until January. As February approaches, there are still some boxes that have yet to be dealt with but generally we can say that we have moved in. It’s tricky moving from a house to an apartment but with some organizing and disposing of things we’ve made it happen.
runners to your marks
Other events of interest included our girls' first extracurricular events at school. The first involved a morning of cross-country races that had each girl competing with her respective classmates. Turns out they had medals for the winners, even for the little ones. Kinaya ended up getting a third place medal in her class which was quite a feat given that she got a bit distracted along the way. As they ran, the theme from the old comedy show Benny Hill was played on the loud speaker which added to the ambiance. Hilarious.
Kiran, happy after her run
A couple weeks later they participated in a fashion show for kids. Ah yes, they are in a French school. I have to say, it turned out well and most of the kids had fun. Some had meltdowns as they faced loads of cameras, thumping music and dozens of parents elbowing each other to get better views and photos of the event.
catching the early morning UN plane
I also squeezed in a trip to Mogadishu. I won't go into detail here but it was a pretty intense 48 hours, I have to say. I've had armed protection before but this was pretty crazy. You can really see how beautiful the city was at one time. For now, however, it is struggling. Street after street with buildings in ruins, walls pitted by past firefights, divots in the ground from explosions, etc. 
a photo through bullet-proof glass
It's a very sobering place. Overall though it was a very good trip. Great to meet staff in the field and visit some of our activities (in this case health facilities in camps for internal displacement).
yes, I visited a beach - and it was beautiful
Finally, by the 10th of December we were boarding an airplane. No turning back. It was time for our much needed break in America.