(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.)

Sunday, April 29, 2012

At the Wheel

The Hot Seat
As April comes to an end, so did my little respite in travel. The past week I spent traveling to all field sites. It was a tough trip. Not only is it a challenge to knock out a clockwise trip of the country in a week, the purpose of the visits were to have “town hall” style discussions with all staff. They’re usually set up with a head table decorated with plastic flowers. One office had choir music blaring as staff filed into the large meeting hall. After all the pleasantries and greetings, it would then be time to unload on me. With the increasing cost of living and a number of other challenges that staff have been going though, it was voluntarily throwing myself into the gauntlet. Staff have a lot of legitimate complaints so the trick now is to figure out how to sort out the issues within the constraints – most of them being budgetary.

In addition to the general complaints that are common to most, I’ve had a few staff come into my office with specific issues that they are dealing with. They are not pleasant. One guy just lost his wife during childbirth. His child survived and he’s requesting to be moved to Bujumbura from his field location so that he can be with his child (being cared for by family). An hour later another guy came in and to request time off to take his wife to India quickly for surgery or she will likely die (if approved he will move to the stage of figuring out how to pay for it).

I often feel that this is a heavy load. There is a cultural expectation that the director will take care of the staff. It goes beyond the Western employee-employer relationship and it’s a burden that many non-African leaders working here struggle with, including myself. It’s not that I resist the principle of playing the role but it’s becoming a hard one to play with hundreds of staff. Needs and expectations can quickly overwhelm the capacity to respond to them. Even when I provide discreet assistance from my own pocket when it’s inappropriate for the organization to assist (a delicate thing to do), the sheer number of people who encounter daunting personal issues pushes my capacity to support them beyond what is responsible either for the organization or myself. The other thing that is always a concern is that the more you do, the greater a chance you have that fraudulent personal dramas enter into the mix. It’s not always easy to know.

Back in Buj
On the home front, we had a sad situation a few days ago. I was in the living room doing some emails and watching Al Jazeera when all of the sudden I heard the sick sound of the screech and thud/crunch of a car accident on the road in front of our house. I’m not a gawker and didn’t want to go look but we were a bit concerned if someone was hurt. We heard the wailing that women do here when there is some sort of tragedy in addition to men yelling as well. I went out of the compound with one of our guards to check out the situation. In fact it was not a car to car accident but rather a car that plowed into a group of a dozen or so joggers. It was ugly. At least one person was dead and another eight or so others were injured and taken to hospital. 

There are plenty of ways to die in this country. This should not be one of them. Even though it was dusk and there are no street lights here, it still shouldn’t have happened. We found out later that the driver had been drinking. It is interesting that she was not beaten and killed on the spot. Apparently something similar happened not long ago here and the driver was subsequently pulled from the car and throttled to death. No convictions; case closed. Perhaps the hesitation in this case was that it was a woman.

The Kid
on a hike last weekend
So as to not finish on a sad note, our beloved little daughter continues to grow. Every day is a new adventure. Sounds a bit cliche but it's true. We moved into crawling but I think we'll be into walking soon.
mom and daughter

dad and daughter enjoying the view of Burundi

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


It's A Parent Thing
I noticed that it’s been a while since I’ve updated the blog. Not for lack of anything to say, of course, but lack of time. Of course.
After my two work weeks in Rwanda, I now have a bit of a break in travel. I’ll probably have a rather quick trip or two to the field here in Burundi but otherwise I’m relishing the opportunity to reconnect with my wife and baby.
Speaking of, I have jokingly been ordering my little 8-month-old to crawl by Easter. She'll never set the women's world record in the 100m by being a slacker.We knew she was getting close to crawling. She'd be poised and ready to go. Then she'd lift her butt in the air, drop a knee and spin back into a seating position. But our little bundle of energy has finally had enough of 100% dependence and has taken matters into her own hands. Easter Sunday she busted out a legal crawl. Won't be long before she's asking me for the keys to the car.
On the down side, we in the parent business have to deal with things called a “bo-bo's or "owee's”. We had a good one a couple days ago. Kiran smacked her head on an open window while cruising around in her little wheeled walker thing. As she turned around to wail in the direction of her parents - during that big pause while she’s catching her breath to scream - her little walker tipped over and she went face down on our cement floor. My oh my. Bad sequence. God gives babies soft bones for a reason. Soon she was smiling and tossing my wireless mouse across the room. Ah the ups and downs up parenting.

It Is What It Is
So speaking of adventure, I’m reading a book called Undaunted Courage about the American Lewis and Clark nineteenth century trek to the Pacific Ocean. It was recommended to me a while back by my brother-in-law Pat and it’s taken me a while to get to it. While it’s not one of my all-time great reads, it’s nonetheless a remarkable book. The historical record is fascinating and though the basic story plays a key role in American US history classes, this particular account digs down into some interesting details. 
I can’t help but view these types of stories through the lens of a guy who’s been working in Africa for a while. One thing that jumps out at me is where the author discusses life in America during the late 1700’s prior to the expedition. He talks about how during that period in history, as with the centuries prior, people assumed that the way things were at the time was how they would basically be forever. Technological advancement was so slow that few people sat around pondering all the advancements that the future might bring. The West is untamed and always will be. The technology we have is basically what we always will have. The idea that things will likely be crazy different in the future is a relatively recent phenomenon that began in the 1800’s, taking flight as the industrial revolution began a chain of technological advancements, the pace of which has increased over time. I see this more than I would if I lived in Europe or the US. Every time I go I see snapshots of how much things are advancing since my previous trip. This happened when I first moved overseas in 1988 but the pace if far faster now. There is a certainty that life will not be the same in the future.
On the other hand, for the typical rural Burundian, there is an interesting similarity to life in the American West pre-1800. While there is a certain sophistication to life, it is not technology based. In fact, there are many parts of sub-Saharan Africa that are still largely devoid of technology except for, of course, the ubiquitous cell phone. There is not a constant thought as to how technology is shaping their lives and what lies around the corner that will change their expectations as to how things are done. The bulk of their day in many ways reflects how things were done centuries ago. It’s difficult for Westerners today to imagine how different imagination plays itself out in the mind of someone in that environment. Even among a lot of my staff, many of whom are fairly well educated, creative thought is a strained activity. The developed world has had a couple centuries to get their brains around this way of thinking. It won’t happen overnight here.
There are other interesting connections between the book and what is happening here. Another one is how Lewis and Clark drastically misunderstood how life works with the Native American tribes, particularly how with regards to dealing with tribal leadership. This is something that outsiders constantly do here. Humanitarian organizations arrive with naïve notions as to how things work here, lacking cultural understanding and often completely missing the power dynamics. In the process their ability to implement activities (or even determine them) is misguided. As with Lewis and Clark, the locals understood the game far better than the outsiders anticipated.
One adventure at a time. For now I must get back to the parenting thing.