(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.)

Thursday, December 12, 2013

On the Muddy Road

Over the past five weeks I’ve been to NY, Rwanda, and all three field sites here in Burundi. My calculation for 2013 is that I will have traveled 47% of my working days. It’s a fair amount of being on the road but oh well. It’s what I do.

Last week I went to Makamba to visit the team there. We’re consolidating our two offices there so in 2014 we will have a single compound. It will be much easier and more efficient once we get it all done. The logistical support that we do there for UNHCR is phasing out and by the end of next year we are likely to be only doing protection programming. It’s good though. When you phase out programs like that it’s a sign that we did the job, the refugees have returned home from Tanzania and the mission has been accomplished. It’s just unfortunate for those who will lose their livelihoods as a result of the end of the project.
visiting the storage of plastic sheeting, tents, buckets, etc.

This week I’ve been in Ruyigi and Muyinga. For the former, I arrived in the afternoon after the long drive, the last stretch on the muddy, bumpy road. I began with a tour of the facilities, something I do about every other visit. It’s good to see what has changed, what needs fixed and have some quick individual conversations with the team. We then had a good meeting with all the staff, as I did in Makamba. It’s a time for them to ask questions, complain, etc. but also for me to give them an overview of what I learned in NY and to provide them with a general perspective of their organization. When you work in a field site, as I know quite well, you sometimes can feel isolated in your little, remote corner of the world.  Even for our national staff, most of whom come from Bujumbura, life is not easy being separated from family. That evening I had some meat skewers and a beer with a couple of my leadership team and then went back to the guesthouse to sleep just as the storm hit. The cool air and hard tropical rain make for good sleeping conditions. 
the beautiful Burundian countryside

The next day we headed out to Kavumu refugee camp. I’d last been there in May when the camp was just getting going. It’s a new camp, the fourth in the country, that has been welcoming all the new arrivals from violence in the Congo. Hard to say how things are going to evolve in 2014 but we’d ideally like to think that the flow of refugees into Burundi will calm and eventually start to reverse itself as people begin to feel it is safe to return. We’re certainly not there yet.
humor Congolese style

My visit was timed, partially accidentally, to attend the closure of a two-week long event raising awareness to the problems of gender-based violence. Since we are the organization that oversees this sector in the camps, it was good that I could be there. 
some of the spectators

As usual with these sorts of things, there is a lot of dancing, singing and speeches. Usually they drag on a bit longer than they should but given that things like this break up the monotony of life in a refugee camp, I was happy to indulge.
little drummer boys - note the drums made from used cans and plastic

I sat at the head table and enjoyed the festivities, taking in what is not only a lively event but also a rather beautiful setting perched on a hilltop in remote Burundi. As is the usual tradition, I was pulled into a Congolese dance, much to the delight of the cheering crowd. I’m not a huge fan of dancing – at least being a participant – but in this case it is not something I can avoid. I’m sure they all get a kick out of my brief yet awkward attempt at Congolese-ness. A scarf was then draped around my neck and I was, happily, able to return to my plastic chair and avoid further embarrassment. 
the dancers

As soon as the event came to a close, I was whisked off to the Land Cruiser to begin the trek towards Muyinga. It was a couple hours away and I had to get there to meet the UNHCR head of office and then the meeting with 80 or so Muyinga staff. It was a long and exhausting day but it all went generally well and I was able to squeeze in all the critical things I’d wanted to. The evening was much like the previous one – beef on a skewer and a beer. We even had evening and night downpours, more intense than what we’d had in Ruyigi; the rainy season still doing its thing.
On Wednesday I was off rather early to get back to Bujumbura. It was nearly a four-hour drive with mudslides, set in motion by the heavy rains, often blocking part of the road. Happy to be back in the office, and eventually home, I’m a little over 48 hours from traveling again – this time home for the holidays. I can deal with that.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Odds and Ends

I just returned from Rwanda. Long week but good. Lots of meetings. Little sleep. Have to go hard when I’m there since I’m only there about once a month.

getting big
Now back in Burundi quickly turning around and hosting our year-end staff general assembly. It’s basically our countrywide management team – about a hundred in all – that get together for a day of presentations with a reception at the end. I enjoy the event thought it’s a bit tiring after having been away. 

K2 - also getting big
I heard that the US Secretary of the Navy was here a couple weeks ago. I think it was while I was in NY. Sorry I missed that one. He’s apparently a pretty interesting guy. I heard that he was not happy about the fact that he didn’t have the high-level meetings that he anticipated. As I we were discussing, it’s it bit much to ask of a land-locked country in the middle of Africa to prioritize the head of the Navy. He’s important and probably should have been received by the president at least for a courtesy visit but common topics may have been in short supply. “I see you have a lake. Any interest in an aircraft carrier?”

Thursday was Thanksgiving in the US. It came and went basically unnoticed except that I received fewer emails from HQ in NY. For better or worse we recognize only Burundian holidays so no 4th of July or Thanksgiving.

We nonetheless feted the occasion on the weekend - both Friday and Saturday. I think it would be tough for us to host something with all of my travel, an infant and an active toddler. Maybe next year. 
we ddin't starve

On Friday we went to our friends Nick and Beth. Nice evening and Nick had taped a football game that had aired on Thanksgiving in the US. Though I didn't watch it much it made for American ambiance.
pretty skinny lam

On Saturday we were at JJ and Courtney's. This was a much bigger event with loads of Americans, volleyball, a slip and slide and a roasted lamb. Rainy season was good to us and gave us perfect weather after rains in the morning. Two nice occasions with friends to start the holiday season.

dad and Kinaya back there someplace; Kiran less subdued than her counterparts

I recently saw an article on the BBC website talking about how children are less fit than they parents. The study shows that fitness has been on the decline with children since around 1975. The doctors say that the declines in cardiovascular endurance are probably caused by social, behavioral, physical, psycho-social and physiological factors. It’s unfortunate but not entirely surprising. All I can say is, Kiran and Kinaya, mark my words. You’ll never beat me in a race. ; )

"Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought." 
-John F. Kennedy, 35th US president (1917-1963)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

La Grande Pomme

(written last week) 
A big shout-out to the NSA who, I'm sure, is a regular reader of my blogs. I hope these entries are more entertaining that my phone calls.

our bldg. is on the left, Chrysler Bldg. on the right
I’m in New York. We’re having our annual directors’ meetings and it’s been a packed week with little free time. It’s ok, I suppose. We come all this way from all over the world; we really need to maximize our time. Given that I’ve left wife and children in Bujumbura, I’ve cut my travel as short as possible. No additional days on either side.

I arrived on Saturday night, ran a few errands and called it a night. Sunday I went to church/lunch with our friend Liya. It was marathon Sunday as it always is when I go to NY in November. I’m increasingly tempted to run it. Maybe next year.

The week has been a blur. It seems to come hard and fast and all of the sudden you’re catching an airplane to leave. I guess that’s the way it should be given all the expense and trouble to get us all there.

autumn in Central Park
On Monday night I had dinner with a board member and his wife. This is a good tradition, linking those of us in the field with people who give to the organization and play representational roles. Last year I had a memorable dinner with Jean Kennedy Smith, the last surviving JFK sibling. She’s a wonderful woman and quite entertaining. This year I had dinner with an investment banker who hosted a few of us at his amazing penthouse residence in Manhattan. He’s fairly new to the board and seems to be full of enthusiasm for the work of our organization. And did I say he has a cool house?

Bill and David
On Tuesday we had a big meeting with our famous new president, David M. (I try not to use a lot of full names in this blog just in case people don’t like being searched/found in random places on the web). He seems fully engaged and he’s certainly smart enough for the job. All eyes are watching.
Wednesday was another full day of meetings and then the big gala event at the Waldorf. This is an annual thing that brings out some of the rich and famous of NY. It’s first and foremost a fundraiser so my presence there is to interact with people who support the organization. We are the connection to the work on the ground. 

S. Pelley and an entertaining former refugee
This year we had in our midst a former president, a former secretary of state, current US ambassador to the UN among many others. It’s always an interesting evening and this was no exception. There are a lot of people that I know only through this event and we thus have connected on a regular basis over the past few years. By the way, Madeleine is far shorter than I would have guessed…

Thursday and Friday were a bit lighter and I was able to load up on stuff to take back to Burundi. It is an important ritual that assures our stocks of the absolute necessities – things that would appear in virtually every wilderness survival kit: breakfast cereal, nutella, gruyere, diapers, etc. You get the idea.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Stranger in the Night

Flash forward to the present. I’m in Rwanda for the week. The dust has settled on our return and we’re back into our routines. Things have been generally good and I think Kiran is happy to be back in the crèche. After some respite from travel, it’s now catching up to me. Kigali this week. Possibly a trip or two to the field next week. NY next Friday. Sigh. 

A weird thing happened last night. I went for my run in the area where our house is in Kigali as I normally do (except this time I’m staying in a hotel since our house is under construction). As I was coming back it was getting dark. In Kigali it’s generally not a problem to run after sunset these days. There is crime and it may be getting slightly worse but overall it’s not too dangerous so long as you stay in the right neighborhoods. As I was in my last kilometer I passed a woman in the dark who, by what I could see of her running gear, was probably American. She obviously figured it was safe too.

Around that time the power went out. On the main roads, Kigali is blessed with street lights that actually work – but only when there is electricity.My experience is that Kigali has relatively few power outages, certainly compared to Bujumbura, but this one didn't really come at an opportune time. 

As I turned down the road to the hotel, the dark became darker. I slowed to a fast walk. The dirt road is a precarious place to run when you can’t see where you are stepping. I’ve had a few twisted ankles, even during the daylight, so I wasn’t going to take chances here. However I soon began to hear some steps behind me. Given that I was already walking at a brisk pace, I found it odd since Rwandans (and I think Africans in general) tend to walk more slowly and with far more grace than Westerners. 

I turned to see if I could catch a glimpse of my follower but it was impossible. This particular stretch of the road, with high walls on both sides, I couldn’t even see my feet. I had passed a couple of guys when I was still on the main road and I was wondering if one of them had followed me. I’m generally not paranoid but I do try to maintain a healthy vigilance when I do things like this.

I decided it would be best if I started jogging again and take my chances with the uneven road. Within seconds, as I heard my follower break into a jog as well, it was clear to me that, for whatever reason, he was trying to catch up to me. With the power outage, the thick darkness in this particular stretch of the road and the fact that no one was around, I knew that I was particularly vulnerable.

I looked ahead to see if I could make out where the hotel was and I could finally see the faint, generator-powered light near the gate. I picked up my pace further and I heard my follower do the same. It was now a race to the gate. About thirty meters before I arrived at the parking area in front of the gate, the power miraculously came on. I could now see where I was stepping and I guessed that my follower would fade back. I reached the gate and looked back. I could now see him and, strangely, he was still running towards me. I slipped inside the gate and down the steps towards the outdoor reception desk. I retrieved my key from the receptionist and made one last look up at the gate before proceeding down the hallway towards my room. He was still there, standing at the gate staring down at me, possibly wanting to see if I was really staying there or if I had just ducked off into the first place I came to (which I would have). 

Empowered by the security of my surroundings, I decided to go back and confront the guy. Was he just entertaining himself (sometimes people here do weird stalking things but don’t really mean any harm) or was he after my phone and ipod? Either way, I wanted to know. Also, I knew I was going to need to go out the gate to get food a bit later anyway. I set my things down on the bed and went back out. I didn’t see him at the gate so I trotted up the steps to see if he was around. I could see a few figures in the semi-darkness but none of them appeared to be my guy.

As I left the hotel a half-hour later, I opted to accompany myself with a magazine rather than my computer just to be safe. Never saw the guy after that so who knows. In any case, no big shift in how I view security in Kigali. I still think it’s safe-ish. In a little over a week I’ll be jogging in the even safer Central Park. Crazy.