(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, March 29, 2010

Mombasa and Nairobi

The last two weeks (mostly) I spent in Kenya. I had regional meetings in Mombasa and then a week in Nairobi for other meetings. All in all it was a productive time and I have to say that I enjoyed the learning and interaction with my colleagues from other country programs. I know it sounds like I'm writing this for the spies of my organization who are monitoring my blog to make sure I don't say anything problematic but it's not the case. It's a skilled and experienced group of people and for the most part they are fun to hang out with. Not everyone can say that about their colleagues.


Mombasa is on the coast north of Dar so the climate is basically the same. It was sort of like being in Dar except that I was surrounded by chubby, sunburnt Europeans. The hotel we were staying in was a massive complex with over 300 rooms and lots of amenities, most of which went unused by the guests except the buffet and the beach chairs.


I spent most of the time in meetings and keeping up with work in Tanzania. I didn't even touch the ocean until Saturday, at week's end. The main reason was that I had tons to do. And some of the exoticism of the location was lost on me given its similarity to the Tanzanian coast.


One thing that was interesting is how different my work is compared to my counterparts. Historically our various country operations were primarily refugee oriented. Now, as the world is changing and many of these "minor" wars are drawing to a close, the efforts have transitioned from camps to post-conflict operations and supporting these fragile countries in sustaining the peace. This involves a number of initiatives, many of them resemble normal development programs. In my region (organizational in nature rather than geographic, from Tanzania to Sierra Leone) we are the only country program with camp-based operations. The differences are rather striking when you look at the challenges facing the different country programs. My counterparts are facing competitive funding challenges and operations that do much through local partnerships (for example funding a local NGO to implement activities). Refugee operations have more of a fixed structure and activities are more defined - partitioned off between different NGOs (implementing partners) as determined by UNHCR. While they are constantly battling for funding and redefining their role in their countries, my primary challenges are focused on the actual implementation of activities in the much more intense environment of refugee camps.


To compare the challenges is a bit like comparing apples to oranges. There are commonalities for sure. Managing hundreds of employees in sub-Saharan Africa is one commonality and one that eats up an exorbitant amount of our time. Logistics and security are also similar challenges and it's in those areas that I found the best fodder for tapping into the experiences of my colleagues. In the end we probably all have a similar scope of challenges, just not always the same ones.


On Saturday I finally did something besides work. It was well deserved if I do say so myself. Several weeks ago a couple of colleagues based in NY, Scott and Alec, launched the idea of going scuba diving in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Mombasa. Given that I had a "free" weekend before going to meetings in Nairobi and I needed to step away from the computer, I was in.


We went down the coast a ways to another beach hotel, checked out gear and headed out on a small boat. The weather was good and the water was fairly calm. I was rapidly trying to remember all of my diving rules and procedures as we motored out to the reef. As we put on our gear I occasionally glanced over at the dive guide to make sure I was doing what he was doing. As Alec said, "As long as I know how to breathe under water, I'm ok." While the simplicity of the statement was comforting, I fortunately know that there's more to it than that.


We tipped back into the water, reformed out little group and started descending. I was immediately uncomfortable as my mask started filling with water and my ears refused to equalize. I stopped descending, cleared my mask, grabbed my nose and blew. Finally I felt a pop in my left ear and heard something "adjust". Satisfied that all was in order, I continued further down. At about 10 meters we were on the bottom and the colorful little fishies started to appear. After a few minutes I began to feel more comfortable though my mask continued to leak. We were able to dive for about 45 min. and then ascended back to the boat. It was good to be in the water and good to be doing something besides work for an afternoon. After climbing in the boat, we removed our gear and headed back to shore. We had a quick beer on a bluff overlooking the Indian Ocean and then proceeded back to the hotel.


The only drawback to the diving experience was the ear infection I got afterward (and still have). It has been by far the worst ear infection I've ever had. I went to the doctor when I arrived in Nairobi and got some ear drops and antibiotics. In addition to the headaches and plugged ear, I have had an almost non-stop flow of pus oozing out of my left ear. It gives a nice impression in meetings to have droplets dangling off the earlobe eventually moistening my shirt. Worse is the artistic design left on my hotel pillow, mitigated somewhat by the use of a bath towel. Oh well, it was worth it.


Having returned to Dar, I am back to the grind. Priya is still out in the field not to arrive until Wednesday. Seems like a long time since we've been in the same place at the same time. We'll have a couple weeks in Dar and then it's off to the airport again. And so it goes. Not sure what we're doing for Easter but I'm sort of hoping it doesn't involve an airplane.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Evenings with Ambassadors

The more interesting (blog worthy) stuff happens, the less I have time to write it up and post it. Such is the case these days.


The American Reception

About a week and a half ago I was invited to a reception at the US Ambassador's house. I hadn't met him yet though he arrived in country late last year. Other than being a US expatriate in Tanzania, my organization does have a considerable amount of US funding and it does make sense that our paths would cross before too long.

I have to say, I was pretty impressed with the man. It was a relatively short visit but I do have the impression that he's very articulate and he already seems to know more about the country than his predecessor. He's a retired Major General from the US Army and has held a number of other high level positions since. He committed himself to traveling to all the corners of the country starting with areas where the US is carrying out and/or funding activities. In fact he was headed out to see the refugee camps the following Monday. I had to apologize that I wouldn't be there due to my regional meetings in Mombasa, Kenya. In any case, I have to say, it's nice to have someone representing your country who is a class act. It's not always the case.


The Irish Ball

Last Saturday we attended the Irish Ball in Dar es Salaam. It's held every year, hosted by the Irish Embassy, but it's the first time that we've been. It's a rather pricey event but it's fun to do something like this once in a while.

The evening began with a large reception with the Irish Ambassador and a governor from Ireland who happened to be in the country. The Ambassador I'd met a year ago or so in a meeting with the Irish Minister of State when they were working together on the politically sensitive move to resettle 60 refugees to Ireland. The reception offered people an endless supply of champagne and Guinness prior to moving into the banquet room. 

We were there thanks to the invitation of our Irish friend Elaine and her husband Tende (a couple whose wedding we attended last year, meriting a blog entry). The tackily (I know it's not a word) decorated ballroom actually added to the light-hearted nature of the evening. There was traditional Irish dancing, a whacky speech from the governor, a bottle of Irish whisky, Baileys and a couple of bottles of wine on every table and a wonderful selection of traditional Irish music. I have to say, Irish culture is so rich and attractive that, as an old Irish friend of mine in Switzerland used to say, "makes everyone wish they were Irish." 

Throughout the evening I often thought back to my trip to Ireland in the summer of 1992. It consisted of a loop from Dublin, up to a recently-bombed and tense Belfast, across to the Aran Islands, down the western coast on bicycle to the Ring of Kerry and then to over to Cork. Unlike many travel destinations that don't quite match up to what you think they're going to be, for me, Ireland, with its charming pubs, welcoming people, old castles, etc. was better.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Blowouts and Battles

First the Blowout

In the case that you thought that I was exaggerating in a previous blog posting, a skid landing this past week of an ATC airplane at an airport in Tanzania gives the impression that I probably wasn't.

Though the details are not yet clear, reports that have come out state that all four rear tires of a Boeing 737 burst on landing at the Mwanza airport. The plane slid to a stop in the mud off to the side of the runway. No one was injured but there were plenty that were pretty traumatized by the whole thing and were taken to a hospital.

Now this wasn't the same plane I was on when we had a blowout (and a flat) upon landing in Dar a couple weeks ago, but it was the same airline. It could be an unfortunate coincidence or it could be an indicator that they are having some maintenance problems.


Then the Battles

It's not often that Tanzanians are tested in battle. In spite of this infrequent practice in sparring with enemies, they seem to hold their own quite well.

The Tanzanian military participated in the struggle to liberate Mozambique, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Uganda (they all ended up being liberated, by the way). Their most significant involvement was in the Uganda-Tanzania War following a Ugandan invasion into Tanzania in 1978. Idi Amin had long accused Tanzania of backing his enemies. Amin invaded Tanzanian territory on 1 November 1978 and announced the annexation of Kagera Region to Uganda. Tanzania responded like a hammer and in short order took Kampala. Amin was forced to flee the country. The reign of the "Last King of Scotland" ended.

So last week pirates attacked a Tanzanian-flagged ship in the Gulf of Aden. This is that nasty little stretch of water off the tourist-free coast of Somalia. According to the US Navy, the crew of the ship successfully fended off the pirates until the USS Farragut, a US destroyer that was patrolling in the area, arrived and busted the bad guys. This is a rare victory against increasingly organized and impressively armed pirates

Tanzanians, in spite of their reputation as a peaceful people, are probably not people you want to mess with. This is not the same for all such peaceful countries. While I was living in Switzerland, I had several friends who were part of the Swiss Armed Forces. I'm sorry but this is not a tough group of people. Military service is mandatory for male citizens and, by their own admission, they're not a motivated bunch of warriors. This conscripted army works similar to the US Reserves in America where you are committed to just a couple weeks a year (until you're in your 50's) unless otherwise needed by your country. In 1989 while I was living there, a popular initiative was launched which aimed to eliminate the Swiss military altogether. One Swiss friend of mine said at the time that the only reason the initiative failed was because the military served other needs than just assembling beds in bomb shelters. Apparently the men were happy to get away from the house for a couple weeks every year to drink beer with their buddies (and the women were apparently happy about it as well).

It's unlikely that the Swiss would ever go to war anytime soon but this past week Muammar Qaddafi did decide to declare a jihad against them for voting to ban minarets (though me thinks it MAY have had something to do with the Swiss arresting his son a couple years ago for beating two servants). I doubt it will catch on with other world leaders since most of them have their money in Swiss banks and/or their kids in Swiss boarding schools.

The Swiss don't seem worried. They have other important things on their minds. Swiss voters will go to the polls tomorrow (Sunday) to decide on a proposal to appoint state-funded lawyers across the country to represent animals in court. Not kidding.