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.