(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, April 18, 2011

Tragic Landing in Kinshasa

For the last few months we'd been planning to bring in a senior reproductive health adviser from our Congo country office to conduct some workshops on clinical management of rape. While we have a rather robust gender-based violence sector (now called Women's Protection and Empowerment), we don't have a health program. What is critically missing in this country, one of many things, is the linkage between providing counseling and support for women who have been victims of violence and the potential health care necessary as a result of the violence. It's a relatively complex situation that can bring devastating consequences if handled poorly.

While in Tanzania we did have a health care operation in the refugee camps – actually a rather large one when I was there. We had four health centers (one in each of the camps), clinical officers, nurses, etc. etc. We also had a pretty strong GBV program as well but we constantly had to work on the linkage between the two in support for survivors of these violent attacks. As time went by we expanded that effort to the surrounding communities such that this remote part of the country, the region hosting the refugee camps, would benefit from our expertise in spite of being a particularly neglected area of the country (there were some bad consequences for Tanzanians subjected to living near the refugee camps which were imposed on them but there were also some benefits).

A week ago Monday a Bombardier CRJ-200 left Goma in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo headed for the capital, Kinshasa, in the western part of the country. It was a UN plane carrying passengers that were mostly aid workers and peace keepers working in the DRC. Thirty-two of the thirty-three passengers died. One of the passengers, sadly enough, was the man who we'd been working with to come and spend two weeks carrying out these workshops.

Dr. Boubacar Toure was due to arrive in Bujumbura the following Sunday and I was to meet with him on Monday. Dr. Toure, "Bouba" as he's known and as I'd come to know him in emails, was a 63-year-old native of Guinea and an internationally recognized leader in the maternal health field. He was deeply committed to reversing high levels of maternal mortality in Congo and other countries where he has worked. He oversaw an extensive reproductive health care program in four war-impacted provinces. He is survived by his wife, Salamantou, four children and one grand-child.

It's been a sad time for my colleagues in the DRC and a sad time for all the families and friends of those impacted by the crash. Given the nature of the work and the sometimes harsh conditions of aid work, it's surprising how rare such accidents are. But in my opinion, the pilots in sub-Saharan Africa are some of the most amazing on the planet. We had several pilot friends in Tanzania and though they had some crazy stories of close calls and questionable flying conditions, they all seemed to be great at what they do and possessed a considerable respect for their fellow aviators. In the many dozens of hours I've had flying in small and large planes here, I've never felt in danger - at least nothing REAL serious. There was, I suppose, that tire blowout landing in Dar es Salaam flying from Kigoma a while back which could have been ugly. In general, though, I've been impressed with the quality of air travel here – certainly compared to what I had expected before I came. It's not clear if the Kinshasa accident was preventable or not but that won't change things for Bouba and the 31 others. Our thoughts and prayers are with their families and friends.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Seismic Activity

Last Saturday we were awoken by a shaking of the bed. Actually I was already awake but I wasn't in any hurry to get up. The shaking was accompanied by noise and after a few seconds it was clear to me that this was an earthquake.

I've been through several earthquakes, including the first one I experienced in Idaho back October 28th, 1983. Also in the early morning hours, it was 6.9 quake with an epicenter near Mt. Borah, Idaho's highest peak. It produced some rather spectacular surface faulting that is still very visible today. Though 200 kilometers from my apartment in Boise, it caused a significant amount of shaking.

Later while living in California, a place known for seismic activity, we felt them quite regularly. With the San Andreas fault a short distance away from my house in Pacific Grove, there was always that great rumor that at some point the "big one" would happen and the chunk of land to the west of the fault would go tumbling into the ocean.

This Burundi quake was much less significant in magnitude (4.8) but what made it interesting is that it was the closest I've been to a quake's epicenter. This one was only about 50 kilometers (27 miles) southeast of Bujumbura and thus allowed us to get the most of our 4.8. I haven't heard anything about damage or injuries caused by the quake and I doubt there was much. Most construction here is single story and, though things are generally poorly built, a medium magnitude earthquake is unlikely to do much. However, a severe quake would.

On Monday I was off to Rwanda. I have to say, I'm growing rather fond of the place. Though I prefer Bujumbura to Kigali from an aesthetic point of view, there definitely is an attractiveness to the cleanliness, organization, safety and just general access to things in the Rwandan capital.

The trip was short due to my need to get back to Bujumbura for meetings. Also, Thursday, April 7th was Rwanda's National Mourning Day, a time of remembrance and reflection of the seismic event which took place 17 years ago. It also kicks of Genocide Memorial Week. While I think it would be an interesting experience to be around during that time and learn more about how the country and its citizens, including our own staff, are working through this long and difficult healing process, my responsibilities don't afford me that luxury. It's simply not a good week for me to be there given the distractions to staff and the challenges to getting work done.

So my two colleagues, Felix and Jon, and I caught the 1:00am flight from Kigali to Bujumbura. It's not a pleasant time to travel and I'd tried to get away on a previous afternoon flight but it was cancelled (happens often around here). Misery loves company and the three of us endured the late hours, the very short night's sleep and the full day of work the following day. Fortunately, the weekend lay in waiting.


Sunday, April 3, 2011

A High-level Visit

It's a rainy tropical Sunday afternoon. Priya's in our office doing her consulting work on a health program strategy in the DR Congo and I'm in the living room catching up on emails and occasionally gazing at the rain-soaked view of the town of Bujumbura. A rare moment to collect my thoughts.

Last week was quite busy. We had the visit of our organization's president, his wife and one of the board members. After considerable work and preparation, the visit finally came. We had been focusing on all kinds of other activities and in the spare time would make sure that all the planning was in place. I have to say, it's fairly stressful. I know the president fairly well and he's pretty easy going but just the same, these types of visits don't happen very often and you absolutely don't want something to go wrong while the delegation is in town.

Greeting some of the team in Makamba
Preparation actually began last year even before I came to Burundi. The team was initially intended to come in November but it had to be rescheduled due to some scheduling difficulties. It was actually a bit of a disappointment given the work that we'd all put in to making it happen. The work was not all wasted, of course, since we were able base our current plans on the previous effort. I took the lead in the beginning but when I left for NY and the regional meetings, I handed things over to my Administration Manager, Yvette. At that point she and the rest of the team did their thing and all I could do is hope that they were on top of things. They're quite good and I generally had nothing to worry about but you just never know how things are going to go.

Small child at Village Health Works
Our visitors arrived a week ago Thursday. We had needed to make some last minute changes to the itinerary due to information that we'd received that the ruling party was going to hold a big meeting, including the president of Burundi, the day we were supposed to be in Makamba. In the end their meeting didn't happen but given that things were already in motion, we carried on with the changes made. The biggest change was that rather than going to Makamba and returning the next day, we were going to carry on from there to Muyinga in the northeastern part of the country. Depending on how well you know your Burundian geography, something a very small fraction of the planet knows at all, the visit would now entail a trip around the entire country. As small as this country is, it's still a lot of driving. Burundi is roughly the same size (and population density) as Massachusetts and we were going to see a lot of it, including visits to activities, meetings and social gatherings, in two nights and less than three days. And last I checked there are no freeways.

Village savings and loan activity
George Rupp (our president), Nancy (his wife) and Allen Moore (long-standing member of the IRC board) arrived and we were able to welcome them to the VIP room in the airport. It's actually not that big of a deal but at least they do a lot of the paperwork for you and streamline you through security. Once free from the airport, we took them to the hotel to check in, gave them a security and trip briefing and then to the office to meet some of the staff. The rest of the day was program briefings and then a soiree of traditional drummers, drinks and food. So far so good.

The next morning we loaded up and hit the road. I don't have many photos to post since I was obviously busy with other things but I'll try to post some more later when I get some from others.
The first stop was a clinic that we have some ties with but not one we work with directly. They are a couple of hours outside of Bujumbura and, including the long, rainy, muddy drive up to the top of the hill where it is located, we were questioning a bit the wisdom in including that in the itinerary. As it turned out, the weather cleared up a bit and they gave us a very warm welcome. They also provided us some drummers which are, in some ways, fairly ubiquitous in this country where there are celebrations.

From there we visited a couple of our own projects, had some lunch in a lakeside restaurant and continued on to Makamba. We made a relatively quick visit of the offices, met some staff, did some stealth emails and then we proceeded on to the Makamba soiree. Almost every evening of the trip we would have some sort of big social gathering. It was important, though, since this type of visit doesn't happen often and it was important for the hundreds of staff to be able to meet and greet the president of their organization, in addition to many other local heads of organizations and government officials.

George, Nancy, Allen and me with the team in Muyinga
Saturday morning we were on the road again. We headed north through the central town of Gitega and on to Muyinga. It took the better part of the day and our arrival at the office more or less coincided with the office meet and greet followed by a dinner with senior staff at a local restaurant. By that time I was getting a bit fatigued. I don't think I was the only one since, thanks to everything starting quite early, we were all back at the guesthouse before 9pm and soon after that we were looking for our respective beds. I tried my best to catch up on the accumulating emails prior to fading but I don't think I got very far.

Sunday was a difficult day to schedule for obvious reasons. Given that refugee camp operations don't take days off, I'd decided that we'd do that for the morning prior to heading back to Bujumbura. We ended up staying longer than expected but it turned out well. We had the time so the delegation took a walk through the camp. It's not something I do very often and it was nice to take advantage of this occasion to do so. I ended up with a small posse of children tagging along by my side. One grabbed my finger as we walked. Soon I looked down and a second one had a hold of another of my fingers. Within a few minutes I had five kids in tow, not counting the numerous others not attached to me.

From there we headed back to Bujumbura. We were all pretty tired by the time got back and I was happy that we'd left the late afternoon and evening open. While our delegation went to the hotel, I headed home for a bit of respite. The next day would be full of meetings and I needed a break.

Monday the plan was to load the day with meetings. The idea was that after all the time in the field visiting activities and meeting staff, they'd have plenty of perspective for discussions with ambassadors, UN representatives and government ministers. Fortunately that's pretty much how it worked out. The meetings all went quite well and I was quite happy with the way the discussions went. Most of them I'd met before and this provided a good opportunity to have some focused conversations about common objectives. The day was capped off by another reception, this one inviting head of organizations and government representatives. It was fairly small, partially due to a fairly focused invitation list and partially due to some serious rain.

The final day was spent recapping, having some final meetings and so forth. I think everyone was pretty well spent so the atmosphere was a bit more casual. I was able to thank my team for a well-organized five days and also to George, Nancy and Allen who provided a great boost to the staff and to our presence here in the country. We're an organization in about 40 countries with thousands of staff around the world. With all of the other troubled spots getting most of the attention, it's easy to forget the immense challenges in a place like this. But the challenges these people face in this somewhat forgotten country are very real and anything we can do to raise the profile and contribute to getting them some help, it's worth the effort.