(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, October 10, 2012

A Day in the Life

I’ve been asked what a typical day is like for me. I thought I’d give an example from last week:
5:30am - On my feet, I stagger to the kitchen to make coffee. Never know if the water and/or electricity is going to be functioning. Such is life here. A gas stove and lots of water jugs are there as back-up such that my quest for coffee will be sure. On this particular morning both utilities are working for me. Bodes well for my shower.
Given that we’re near the equator, the dim pre-sunrise lighting at this time of day is always about the same. As I look across the lake I can see the lights of Uvira in the Congo, a sign that the rainy season is upon us and the mountains across the lake become clearer.
6:45am - I leave the house for the office. Sometimes wife and baby are awake, sometimes not. Lately Kiran has been getting up early so we get to play a bit before I leave. It is tough sometimes. I often only see her for a cranky hour or so in the evening between the time I get home and the time she goes to bed.
7:00am - Our office is in an industrial zone on the road to the airport. It’s not a particularly attractive part of town but within our compound it’s quite nice with palm and fruit trees, stone walkways and grass.
The electricity functions about 50% of the time, less than the area where we live. This doesn’t bode well for this country’s ability to cater to industry given that this zone struggles so badly for basic infrastructure. So during the day the power comes on and off and the guards get their exercise switching us back and forth from city power to generator.
I’m usually the first one in the office. People start trickling in soon afterwards. There are the usual hand-slap greetings as staff migrate towards the kitchen for their tea. In my relatively small office I sit down to my email. We have satellite internet access through our organization so we don’t need to rely on a local ISP. That used to be a huge advantage but internet is much more stable in Burundi now and that makes life much easier.
Off and on I’m interrupted by things to sign and then our lady in the kitchen, Valentine, brings me some coffee and a glass of water. As is her custom, she asks about Kiran and gives me some parenting advice.
8:30am - My first meeting is the Executive Committee for the international non-governmental organization group in Burundi. The group focuses on dealing with issues that are common to NGOs and often with government relations. It’s sort of a time suck but because we’re such a large organization, we need to play a strong role in the group.
10:00am  - I head straight from there to a hotel on the beach not far from our office where our Women at Work group is meeting. It’s a group within our organization that I helped start to improve the role of women. It’s no secret that women in this part of the world deal with a considerable amount of obstacles, particularly in the workplace. Moreover, a large percentage of our management team (most of whom I inherited from before I arrived) are male. This quarterly meeting gives them a forum to discuss these issues and propose solutions.  I of course do not attend their meetings since it is exclusively for women but they did invite me to come and say a few words of introduction and encouragement. It was pretty cool in that they all came in traditional, colorful clothing. They seemed very enthusiastic (and loud). I’m happy the group is working out and they seem appreciative, particularly because this sort of thing does not exist elsewhere in this country nor elsewhere in our organization. We may at some point use it as a model to share with other organizations.
10:15am  - It was a quick stop since I had to be off to our Logistical Support Program office. I needed to have a quick briefing on the preparations for the potential forced repatriation of the infamous Burundians who are still sitting in a refugee camp in Tanzania. Since we provide logistical and protection support for this return, we’re on alert for things to start happening.
10:45am  - I’m quickly back in the vehicle and off to the next meeting. The previous briefing was in preparation for this meeting at the UN (UN High Commission for Refugees). UNHCR is our most significant donor/partner in supporting refugee operations – both for the Burundians who are projected to return as well as the growing population of thousands of Congolese that are residing in refugee camps here in Burundi. Though the situation across the border in the Congo is worrisome, our focus right now is on the other side of the country and the 38,000 or so Burundians who are on the verge of getting kicked out of Tanzania.
11:00am  - The meeting at UNHCR is about the various scenarios of return for these people who have had their refugee status removed. If they are forced out of the camp, neither UNHCR nor its partners are allowed to participate/assist in their evacuation. The UN mandate is that repatriation must be voluntary and providing assistance would imply complicity. If forced, the individuals are more or less on their own until they get to the Burundian border on foot – about 35-40 miles depending on the route you choose. This group of refugees has been encouraged, threatened, begged, offered money, etc. to return to their home country but they are digging in their heels. During a recent visit by high level officials from Dar es Salaam, a refugee announced in a group meeting that they’d rather die than return, a statement that drew applause from his fellow refugees. It’s a sign that things may get ugly.
Unfortunately I had to leave the meeting a bit early to attend a lunch meeting with the Political Affairs Officer from the US embassy. I left one of my deputy directors behind in the meeting and off I drove in the hot, midday sun. Fortunately Bujumbura is a small city and traffic is manageable. I would never have been able to fit all this in when I was in Dar es Salaam.
12:45pm  - Meetings with the US government local mission are a bit one-sided these days. It’s not necessarily their fault but they really don’t have much to offer me right now. We have far more advanced security information due to the fact that we have staff/offices located key locations throughout the country. They don’t. They also aren’t providing us any funding (except from some support coming directly from Washington DC). They are, however, interested in what is going on with the refugees both for the situation in Tanzania and the unrest causing people to be dislodged from their homes in the Congo. They think that if things get nasty, they might be able to mobilize some funds to assist. For now my time is spent funneling them the latest information and maintaining close ties.
2:00pm - Back in the office, I have an hour to sign stuff before my next meeting. I sign an enormous amount of documents on a daily basis (purchase requests, contracts, letters, timesheets, checks, etc.). When I’m out of the office very long, it builds up and can also slow down other peoples’ work. An hour is about all I can handle anyway before my hand gets tired.
3:00pm - Off to another meeting. This one is at the residence of the acting US ambassador. The new ambassador is scheduled to arrive in a few weeks and the deputy has been doing a good job in her absence. I very much enjoyed working with the previous ambassador and was sad to see her go (off to her retirement in Texas). I’ve heard good things about her replacement so we’ll see.
4:30pm - Given that the acting ambassador’s residence is just a couple of compounds down from where we live, I decided to go home and work from there the rest of the day. Priya and Kiran were not at home so I was able to knock out a few emails before they arrived. Once the little one walks in the door, however, work basically stops. I’d like to say it’s because I’m such a loving father but it’s really more about the fact that she likes to smack my keyboard with her little hands, chew on my mouse, unplug the cord and drag it around the house, unlock my phone and make random calls from my contact list, and so forth.
5:30pm - I finally call it a day, temporarily. After having tea with Priya, playing with my daughter and giving her a bath, having dinner, I’m back on email again by 8:30pm or so. I usually log back on to catch the wave of emails coming from NY now that life has begun there. It’s not ideal but it does temper a bit the damage to my inbox for the following morning.
And so it goes. A day in the life.
Hands up against the wall! Checking to see if she's in possession of something dangerous.

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