(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.)

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Mombasa


I’ve mentioned it before but Kenya has a great deal to explore. We’ve been doing a pretty pathetic job of it since we’ve lived here but we do have some reasons. That being said, we are looking to rectify this over the coming months to the extent that time and resources permit.
One obvious challenge for me is that my job involves a certain amount of travel. This not only takes me away from Kenya, it takes some of the wind out of my sails when it comes to doing more travel, even if it is for pleasure.
Another challenge has been resources. We have been traveling to the US twice per year plus trying to pay off a house. These are choices we are making but it does moderate the amount we dedicate towards the shorter trips on the continent - which are more expensive than you would think (and probably more expensive than they should be).
the lush grounds of the hotel
In March we went to Mombasa, on the coast, only our second trip to the seaside since moving to Kenya a year and a half ago. I’d stayed in Mombasa once before back in March 2010 when I was there for some meetings but really have little knowledge of the place. I do know that it’s Kenya’s second largest city and it has a tremendous amount of potential. It’s a port city that has a long history of being a trading center. Many different powers ruled the place over the centuries culminating in it falling into British hands in 1887. The Brits toughed it out for a period of time before deciding, around the turn of the century, that Nairobi had a much more agreeable climate. From then on Mombasa became Kenya’s second city.
message for the day: think, focus and participate on county budget
I’m told the old town is enjoyable to explore but it can be a bit crime-ridden. I certainly don’t want to do that with small children so we’ll need to save that for another time. Our time was spent where our hotel was – on the beach.
For those that know me, I’m not a real beach person. I’ll opt for mountains any day but I have to say, it felt good to be on the coast. It took me back to my five years I spent a bit further south in Dar es Salaam. The smell of the tropics and the beauty of the Indian Ocean are, admittedly, intoxicating.
We stayed on Nyali Beach in a large hotel that caters to families. While it’s unlikely that I would stay in such a place as a non-family guy, this turned out to be perfect for us. The food was good. There were three pools, each with its own function (families, grown-ups and exercising). The place seemed pretty well thought through and can accommodate a ton of people without really feeling like it.
Nyali Beach at low tide
The girls had a great time. They even ran into some friends from the French school (it was vacation week) which turned out to be even better. With the girls being a bit older now, it made it easier to sit back and let them go crazy. Always easier to put them to bed that way.
I have no idea who these children are with napkins on their heads
After our three days on the coast, I flew back to Nairobi a bit earlier than the rest of the family given that I needed to get back to work. Went more or less straight to the office from the airport and soon the beach was a faded memory, except for the sand in my ears.

“The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.”
- Alexander von Humboldt

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Wedding


In February I went to the US to attend my niece’s wedding. Admittedly it’s a lot of time and cost for such an event but in this case I needed to make it happen.
It wasn’t easy. We’d just been back in Kenya a few weeks before I turned around and headed back to the US, with a trip to Somalia in between. There were a lot of demands on my time during this brief period and I had to make some hard choices. In the end, it worked out. I was able to devote some time to work during my travels and didn’t burn too many bridges in the process.
I wrote some of this blog entry as I traveled but didn’t post anything until now. Here is the trip in a nutshell:
9 Feb.
I’m in the lounge in Nairobi waiting for my flight to the US (via Amsterdam). I have a glass of wine and my computer to keep me company. A Nigerian guy is in front of me on a video call with his wife. She’s in Lagos at some party, drinking and hanging out with friends. You can hear Bob Marley in the background. He’s particularly noisy for a business lounge. I’m not enthusiastic that the loudest guy in the place planted himself right in front of me but it’s the end of the world. As a father of two young girls, I’m used to noise. Now he’s dancing with everything from the waist up as he listens to music of his wife’s party in Nigeria. I do find it fascinating. He doesn’t have a care in the world that he’s surrounded by uptight Euro-Americans, a few of whom are trying to send him signals of their displeasure. I’m quite sure he has no idea. He and I are polar opposites. I tend to be overly concerned what people think. The sweet spot is somewhere in between.
my old city - the view from the depot
 11 Feb.
It’s Sunday. I arrived safely and with my bag. It is a bit easier to travel by yourself. People that are more sociable than I may beg to differ but for an introvert, catching up on some alone time is important. Also, when you encounter hiccups in the travel, it only falls on you and not the people you’re traveling with, particularly when it involves your children. Much easier to just go with the flow.
I’m at my sister’s (mother of the bride-to-be) place up in the mountains. The plan was to arrive on Saturday evening, go to our storage, pick up cold weather gear, drive two hours and be able to enjoy some skiing the next day. That’s not an easy feat coming off 32 hours of travel. Nonetheless, I was able to pull it off and we even fit in the skiing as planned (albeit Nordic skiing).
We’ve had a wonderful time catching up. I barely saw my sister and brother-in-law when I was in the US at Christmas so it was certainly time well spent. We’re even getting ready to have one of my brother-in-law’s famous steaks this evening. The massive effort to get to where I am now is already beginning to pay off.
 
the depot - where the wedding would take place
12 Feb. Monday
On Monday I headed back to Boise to begin taking part in the wedding preparations and also running various errands, taking advantage of my time in the US as we always do. At the outset is appeared that I had loads of time to work out and do a lot of things that I normally don’t have time for when traveling with family. Though I clearly had more time than I normally do, it was still far less than what I would have expected.
One of the biggest differences in traveling alone was at meal time. When we travel with the children we generally look for establishments with play areas. That can often mean fast food and thus culinary sacrifice. We don’t always do that but quite often, particularly if that particular day doesn’t afford much time for the kids to get out and play either due to schedule or inclement weather.
socializing before the big event

15 Feb. Thursday
The week was full of dinners with family and the standard wedding functions. The rehearsal was the first of these events taking place at the stately train depot, now retired and used for various activities such as this. It’s an impressive building that hasn’t been operational as a train station since ###. In the five or so years that I lived in Boise I had never been inside, in spite of it being one of the most prominent landmarks in the city. I suppose that I didn’t have any friends or acquaintances that would have been able to afford to get married there.
The rehearsal went smoothly and it sort of felt as though the wedding was going to happen without a hitch. Lots of work obviously went into the preparations, delegations of tasks, etc. such that people seemed pretty relaxed.
rooftop rehearsal dinner downtown Boise
Afterward the rehearsal, we were off to the rehearsal dinner downtown. It was also a place I’d never been before. It was amazing how many firsts I had on the trip in a city that I formerly called my home. Granted, I was a penniless student most of the time that I lived there so I suppose it shouldn’t be all that surprising. Going out to a restaurant, particularly downtown, would have been a luxury back in those days.
 
the groom and his men, considering the next train out of town...?
16 Feb. Friday
Wedding day consisted of running a few errands and hanging out with my brother and parents. The day wasn’t as intense as I might have guessed it would be. Even though they had hired a photographer, my habit of schlepping my camera around and taking lots of photos sort of put me in the role of a volunteer supplemental photographer. I suppose you get what you pay for. I have don’t photos for a wedding before many years ago. There isn’t as much pressure as there used to be before things went digital – wondering whether or not the photos would come out okay. There’s still some of that but I think nowadays you have a better idea as to whether or not you nailed it from the viewer. And you have better tools to clean up your mistakes.
my little niece has, in fact, grown up
In the end I got a few decent photos. For now, though, I think it’s safer for me to keep my day job.
It was a beautiful wedding with lots of beautiful people. I would hate to guess how much was invested in the whole event. Likely we’ll never know since so many people pitched in. I do know my sister and brother-in-law did much of the “heavy lifting”. Their other daughter just got engaged so they’re going to have round two soon enough. This is probably when you’re glad you only have two kids.
The reception was also in a place I’d never been to before in downtown Boise. It’s one of those wonderful historic buildings that fit the 40’s theme. The band was good. Food was good. I spoke to my niece the next day and, as I suspected, she was quite happy with how it went. I heard nothing but positive comments from people I spoke to.
 
selfie in the vintage transportation to the reception
17 Feb. Saturday
When I booked my flights late last year I wasn’t sure what was happening when during the week. Fortunately I stayed until Sunday since there was a final post-wedding event at the newlywed’s home Saturday evening. To be honest I was getting a bit burnt out of social activities but it was a good opportunity to talk to those I hadn’t been able to spend time with up to that point. It was pretty chill given that the wedding nerves were done. I bailed early given that I was traveling the next morning.
Long way to go for such an event but in retrospect, it made sense. Would have been great to have my family there but that would have made less sense given the cost, the short duration of the visit and the fact that the girls would have missed a week of school. And we all hope that the marriage is a huge success such that my wife and daughters won’t be attending a next one. The family has had a few too many “do overs”.

“A ship in port is safe; but that is not what ships are built for.”
-Grace Hopper, computer scientist and US Navy Rear Admiral (1906-1992)

Let the adventure begin.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Mogadishu & Galkacyo with SVP


I think this is the longest absence I’ve had from this blog. Tough to keep up as 2018 has been rather full. But we're off and running again.

As the new year began, things moved rather quickly. By mid-January I was hosting the highest level visit for our organization to Somalia since we started working there. The Senior Vice President, in charge of all of programs around the world, came for a 3-day visit. He and I had discussed it in the past but I was surprised that he was keen on coming, not only to Mogadishu but deep into the country to remote areas as well. The trick was to figure out how to do this, plus set up meetings with the government and keep everyone safe in the process. Moreover, travel in the country can be unpredictable at times and you need to be flexible. He'd worked in the field for many, many years so I pretty much knew he'd have some understanding of the context.
On our side, HQ was pushing for a detailed itinerary. After doing this for some time, I’ve come to learn that this is a bit of fantasy. Rather than plan every five minutes of the day (which could never be realized), you being with a general plan for a full day with lots of A and B options. You set priorities (things that MUST happen) and adjust quickly as you go. But a set chronology likely can’t happen even in the best of times. There are so many things that can throw things off. Being ready to change tack and be able to put it into motion in short order, that is the key.

Day 1
In the end, this is what happened. The trip began early as all my trips to Somalia do. By 4:30 we were picking Ciarán up at his hotel on the way to the Nairobi airport. He’d arrived the day prior and would be silently dealing with jet lag throughout the visit. He’s done this hundreds of times and so he’s better at it than most. Nonetheless, we’re all human.
kilometers of devastated buildings
through tinted, bullet-proof glass but you can see the beautiful architecture that hopefully one day will be renovated
We arrived in Mogadishu about 9:00 or so but getting through “immigration” took forever. I have a Somali work permit so I can get through quickly. But the queue for the visa people dragged on and on. Eventually we hopped in our armored vehicle and headed out. We stopped for a quick “breakfast”, had our detailed security briefing and then headed out to the camps for the internally displaced (by drought and/or conflict). Prior to leaving the security team tried to get us to wear flak jackets and pith helmets. I'm not sure why. I've never worn them before. May have been due to the high-level visitor. I shrugged and complied. Sort of. I put my stuff on, amazingly heavy, but as I looked through the vehicle at Ciarán I noticed that he was getting in without it. The jackets are apparently one-size-fits-all-except-big-guys. Mine was super tight but it worked. His wasn't even close. Once inside the vehicle I took mine off and tossed it in the back. Hot. Uncomfortable. Unnecessary.
blazing through the powdery dust of the IDP camp (and the ubiquitous furry dashboard)
We went via rough and tumble backroads. The main road had had a few IED (improvised explosive device) attacks in the days prior and the security guys thought it would be safer to avoid it. Our visit to our health facility was short as is standard when you do these sorts of things. You need to keep moving. Soon we were back in the vehicle heading towards a hospital that we support in town. By now it was noon and the place was not a bustle like it would have been if we'd been there earlier. Nonetheless, it's such a good and clean facility. Our lead doctor, Marian, impressed as usual.
Behind the scenes plans were changing. We’d set up an appointment with the Minister of Health and it was already time for the meeting. Other things would need to shift.

The Minister was great and was excited for the visit. She had her entire team of about seven or eight advisors join us. Impressive. We felt special.
taking photos at the beach
After the visit it was time for lunch. We’d initially planned on heading back to the office since it provides adequate security. But my head of office likes to show off his city. Rightly so. As a result, we headed to the Lido restaurant on the beach. Not everyone does this sort of thing since this part of the city has seen its share of attacks, including this very restaurant where a couple dozen people were killed. But they serve some relatively inexpensive, tasty lobster, fresh grapefruit juice and some fantastic watermelon overlooking the beach and the beautiful Indian Ocean. I’d been there a couple times before and I was okay with authorizing a quick lunch on this occasion.
lobster and shrimp, with a view
From there we headed straight to the UN compound for meetings, then back to the office to meet with staff. After the full day we made our way upstairs to the guesthouse where we started in on our emails. When the day starts that early, it’s best to end it early. They brought in our dinner about 7pm. I had some camel, a bit of rice and watermelon juice and was soon off to bed.

Day 2
The flight to Galkacyo was at a reasonable time. We had some breakfast and caught up on a few emails before heading to the airport. Instead of the UN flight we took a small commercial flight given that it fit our schedule better. You get quite a bit of stares since there aren’t many expats that take these flights.
Upon arrival at the tiny airport, we visited the office, had some lunch and headed southwest. Galkacyo is not far from being in the geographical center of the country. It lies about 50km from the Ethiopian border and has a history of conflict, particularly because it is on the border between Puntland and the rest of Somalia. And there is a lot of sand and rock.
have gun, will travel

Our destination for the day was a place I’d never been to. The economy, as is the case for much of Somalia, is based on pastoralism. Camels, goats and cattle and are herded here and there in search of grazing area and water. The place we visited consisted of twin communities, each supported by boreholes (wells) that we had rehabilitated and provided solar panels to operate the pumps. We were also supporting some livelihoods activities, particularly supporting women.
yes, more furry dashboards, just what you need for a dusty environment
The drive was just a bit over two hours long on a sometimes nasty dirt road. I was beginning to question the wisdom of my team in attempting to make this happen, particularly with an SVP. In the end, however, it worked out well. Each community welcomed us with open arms. Given the remoteness of the location, we were told that many of the children had never seen white people before. It was the type of visit that doesn’t happen very often but I was so glad we went.
men on the left...
...women on the right
I don’t remember how long we stayed but I think it was a little over an hour altogether. But as the sun was getting lower in the sky, there was no question we needed to get moving back to Galkacyo. It’s more exposure than we generally allow for security reasons and we didn’t want to push our luck.
filling jugs and putting them on her donkey
As is often the case, the return drive didn’t seem as long. Upon arrival we had some tea, met with the mayor and later had a dinner/meeting with staff. I got the impression that staff were grateful for the visit after being sort of off the radar during the area’s long-ish periods of conflict.

Day 3
The third day barely needs its own section in this blog. Before heading to the airport, we had a rather than a short visit of the hospital that we support in town. The last time I was there was during the drought and there were lots of cases of malnutrition, acute watery diarrhea and some cholera. The trauma ward had a few gunshot wounds, including a woman who, according to her, had been shot by her husband. When I asked her if it was an accident, she provided an expressionless answer of no.
visiting the hospital
From the hospital we headed north to cross the "green line" (we flew into the south the day before and we flew out of the north). It's the imaginary yet real border between the north and the south. It can be a place of significant tension but peace talks have calmed things down. But we still needed to change vehicles in the no-man's land since whatever operates on one side is not allowed to operate on the other. Even airlines. If a company flies to the airstrip in the north, it's not allowed to do business in the south and visa versa. The military escort from the south greeted their counterparts from the north with handshakes and smiles (hasn't always been this chummy). They bid us farewell as we moved our stuff to the "north" vehicles and off we went.

From then it was simply a brutal day of travel from Galkacyo, to Garowe (Puntland), to Mogadishu, to Wajir (Kenya) to Nairobi. You disembark each time even though it’s the same UN plane all the way. The trip takes the entire rest of the day. I eventually arrived home about 8:30pm or so, had dinner, a shower (to wash away dried sweat and dust) and went to bed. I would do the same basic trip seven weeks later, with a trip to the US wedged in between. It’s shaping up to be a busy year.