(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, March 21, 2012

The New Cook


In the last three weeks I've been in five different countries. I am now in Rwanda. I come here monthly for a week at a time (since the country program is part of my responsibilities). So I was here about a month ago and I remember it was the week of Valentines Day. Not only was I not with my wife but I found myself alone in the Greek restaurant near our guesthouse. They'd prepared a special menu for the occasion and were hoping to make some money off of the holiday, commercialization that is reaching deep into Africa. Alas I think they were disappointed. Both the restaurant and I were more lonely than we would have liked.

I then returned to our guesthouse to find a young woman sitting in the compound. I wasn't sure exactly who she was or why she was there but I figured that if the guard let her in then she must belong. It was a bit odd though and it made me think of shady companies that provide ladies for traveling executives. In this case I was relieved to find out that she was the new cook/cleaner.

It was still strange though. She went directly into the kitchen without saying a word. She stayed there for about 45 min. to an hour and then she quietly left though the back door. A bit later when I went to the kitchen to see what culinary delight awaited me, there was nothing. To this day I'm not sure what happened or what she was doing all that time. She doesn't seem to understand French or English very well and communication is a big challenge. 

Nonetheless the next day went ok and I assumed we were off and running. That Friday morning, however, I waited for breakfast a bit longer than normal. I went into the kitchen to see if it was about ready and there was nothing and no evidence that there would be anything. Once again we stared at each other with mutual puzzlement. Since she couldn't communicate I just sighed and left for the office. It's a mystery why a person would wake up at the crack of dawn, travel a long distance to go to work, be on time and then strangely not do anything, even after being in the kitchen for about an hour. I notified the logistics guy before I left for the airport. He said he was going to fire her and I told him to hold off since I know how people are desperate for work. I just suggested that he talk to her in Kinyarwanda to make sure she understood what she was supposed to do.

Now, a month later, I'm back in Kigali. I noticed that my young friend is still around. I was relieved when the logistics guy told me she was still employed, not because she’s good but I felt bad for her and wanted her to have a second chance. For all I know this may be her first real job. So this morning she arrived at the house bright-eyed and obviously a bit nervous since she doesn’t want to make a mistake with the Country Director again.

She arrived at 6am sharp. I know that she comes from far away and the commute is not easy. Soon thereafter my breakfast was on the table. That ordinarily would have been good news except I was blissfully knocking out emails in my room unaware that my eggs and toast lay cooling on the table. Sigh. Fortunately I noticed her misguided eagerness before I showered and I took a break to eat. When I tried to suggest to her that 7am would be a more suitable hour for breakfast, or at least notifying me if otherwise, she nodded. I’ve seen that nod before and it doesn’t mean comprehension. I think it means "stop talking to me".

Come to think of it, I’ve never heard her actually talk other than the word “yes”. Even this morning when I said, “Bonjour, good morning” (since I still don’t know whether English or French works better), she replied, “Yes.”

Of course the real fault lies with me and my lack of ability to speak the local language. I've made very feeble attempts to do so. The one thing in my defense is that I didn’t take this job saying I spoke Kinyarwanda. She apparently claimed to speak English which is how she got the job. Maybe they should have tested her.

Anyway, I'm confident we'll get there. She seems nice and her cooking is pretty good. Both I and others are going to be here a lot in the next few months so I hope so. In any case, one must take this sort of thing with a certain degree of humor.

"A person without a sense of humor is like a wagon without springs -- jolted by every pebble in the road." -Henry Ward Beecher, preacher and writer (1813-1887)

Friday, March 16, 2012

Back to the not-so-big town


I’m sitting at the Kasulu Motel in NW Tanzania. It’s a familiar location to me – good yet strange to be back.

I haven’t been to Tanzania since September 2010, since it was our home. I do have a fairly strong nostalgic side to me and being back in Kasulu certainly does take me back to the years that we lived and/or worked here. The hotel itself was the venue for a few dramas that were recounted in previous blogs: feared poisoning by disgruntled staff, learning of ship sinking on Lake Tanganyika the same night Priya was on a refugee repatriation ship to the Congo, someone breaking into my room in the dark of night (turned out it was a drunk South African), etc.

After returning from New York/DC/Switzerland, I had a few days to catch my breath before heading to Tanzania this week. Being back in the Kasulu office and the UNHCR compound has been a bit like being home. I have spent so much time here in the past. The office hasn’t changed much. The people are mostly the same. Seeing former staff has probably been the most enjoyable part.

The Task at Hand
The purpose of the trip is to kick-start the collaboration with regards to the repatriation of the Burundians in the final remaining refugee camp in Tanzania. It would not be absolutely necessary for the Country Director to attend such a series of meetings except for the fact that I am in a particularly good position to participate in bridging the gap between the country of origin and the country of return. I’m keenly aware of the context on both sides of the border and I know the majority of the people involved.More importantly I can point out where one shouldn't eat.
 
Now that we are overseeing the logistical support for the operations on the Burundi side of the border (rather than just the protection activities), we have a much bigger vested interest in making sure that there is solid coordination between the two sides. The planning figures involve 5,000 returnees per month if things go as projected. To give you an idea how many trucks are needed, we normally calculate about two trucks for every 50 people (one for belongings and the other for the people). Belongings vary as people bring whatever they can within their allotted weight limit. In addition to bags you find tools, window frames, cooking items, goats, chickens, etc. Items are tagged and transported in separate trucks. 
Utility takes priority over comfort as people are crammed into trucks with bench seats (though there is talk of using buses this time). The more vulnerable returnees (elderly, sick, etc.) are provided separate transportation. With police, ambulance and UN escort, convoys can approach 40 vehicles in length. It is an fascinating process to witness with deep underlying emotional drama as peoples’ entire lives are completely changing before your eyes.
 For this particular repatriation exercise, all this is dependent of course on the willingness of refugees to voluntarily return. Under the UN (and partners like us) mandate, we cannot participate in a forced return (i.e. forcing people to get in the trucks). If the Burundians refuse to go, there will be a standoff and the Tanzanian government is considering its options if such a situation presents itself. Sending in the troops is one option, in which case we (meaning our Tanzanian colleagues) would not be allowed to provide support. This would mean tens of thousands of people being pushed out of the camp on foot towards the border (close to 50 miles) from which point support could commence. It’s a scenario we are all looking to avoid if possible. Refugees are being informed that this is the eleventh hour and they need to hop in a truck if and when their appeal for refugee status is rejected.
 
As such we are preparing for the various possible scenarios. It involves intense coordination and communication to make sure that we are ready for whatever happens.  Though this threat has presented itself in the past, this time it appears to be for real. It has been communicated that the camp will be closed by December. So for now, with the roughly 38,000 mostly anxious people still residing a in the camp, we have some work to do.