(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, January 28, 2013

Flashback to the holidays…

It already seems like it was a long time ago. In a way, it was. Every December as the holidays approach, I’m usually at some particularly high level of stress and fatigue. There are a lot of practical reasons for this and though I’ve often entertained the illusion that the next year will be different, I should know by now that it won’t. Like an inoculation, it’s better to simply brace yourself and just do it, all the while knowing that the pain will go away.

Some of the reasons why December will always be December are the fact that many of our grants begin in January. This means that you are simultaneously closing one (with all that it entails) and applying for new ones (with all that it entails). There is also the flood of activity as people try to complete projects and meet deadlines that were unable to be done earlier. Everyone is imposing deadlines on each other since it all needs to be done by the end of the year.  

On top of that were the activities I mentioned in my previous blog. These are things that were also influenced by the “need to be done by the end of the year” phenomenon but were somewhat excusable given the circumstances.

As such by the time I left, the whirlwind of activity had not abated. My travel was a bit earlier than in years past since I had some vacation days that I needed to use up (we’re only allow to carry a certain amount). Nonetheless, the time had come to leave and I felt that I had a solid team who would do great work in my absence. The back-up plan would be a daily, early morning, hour or so check in to follow up on things and intervene when necessary. It’s not great to do emails during holidays but for me it’s better, and less stressful, than to not do it. It’s just an unfortunate consequence that it always falls on my time in Indiana since that it where we begin the holiday.  By Christmas Day calm usually sets in and even some of the most fanatical staff generate less email traffic.
opening gifts

In southern Indiana we more or less took it easy with family. It’s a great way to start a vacation. We tried to get in some early shopping since I hadn’t begun to start that. By the third day, however, I had already come down with the flu. It ended up hitting me pretty hard and I wasn’t worth much most of the break. It last all the way through the return to Burundi. While I know there was a decent flu outbreak going on in the US, I also attribute it to my increasing lack of resistance to American bugs. I’m quite certain there is no scientific basis for such a statement but I’m okay with that.
not sure why my charms are not working on this guy??

We did make it to the Louisville Slugger museum. I’m not the baseball fan that I was as a kid but it I have to say that I found it quite entertaining. Priya’s brother Steve talked us into taking a few swings in the batting cage. It reminded me why I chose to pursue basketball in college.
hard to believe this package was delivered to us 18 months ago

Otherwise, Christmas was calm and wonderful. We were smacked by a big snowstorm that night and the next day we were greeted with a little obstacle for moving cars around and getting on the road to the airport. Fortunately the roads were clear and we were able to get to arrive at our check-in on time in preparation for our flight to Idaho. Or so we thought.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

'Twas the Night before Christmas Vacation

I’m back in Burundi after the holiday break. I’m quite sure that I lost a few readers along the way since it’s been so long and this isn’t that interesting anyway.

Flashback - Closing the Books on Mtabila
So where was I? Ah yes, December. All I remember was that it was chaos. The return from Mtabila camp in Tanzania was in full swing. Things were flaring up in the Congo threatening to send a flood of refugees across the border into Burundi. For a while I was concerned that the latter may create a need for resources (trucks and drivers) that were already dedicated for the former. As it turned out, we were able to complete the closure of Mtabila and the return of Burundians from TZ by mid-December. It was truly an impressive effort by our staff and the other organizations involved on both sides of the border. It wasn’t without hiccup but such things tend to be quite messy by their nature. Around 34,000 people, most with little or no education or skills, were “ushered” back to Burundi largely against their will during the heart of rainy season on slippery, muddy roads to one of the poorest countries on earth that offers a pessimistic economic outlook and future neighbors whom the returnees believed would be unwelcoming and potentially hostile to their return. Other than that, the task seemed easy.

in Mtabila awaiting transportation to Burundi - slightly more challenging travel preparation than mine

arriving in the transit center
taking photos as I visited the center

WFP can guitar

 But we did it, at least the return part. The reintegration part will be a long process. I’ll keep you posted.

Visitors from the Congo
At the same time we hosted some of our colleagues from the Congo who were evacuated due to the instability there. Though they were here only a week or so, the volatile situation there continues and we are keeping an eye on things, both with regards to the potential influx of refugees that we’d need to support but also the greater concern about the violence escalating and spreading to surrounding countries, including Rwanda and/or Burundi.

Visitors from the US
As if I didn't have enough to think about, I also had a quick visit by two of our organization’s vice presidents. Neither had been to Burundi before and it was a good opportunity both for them to see on the ground what we do and for me to get their perspectives (NY and Washington DC) on some particular issues. The plan was to meet them at the Tanzanian border on Thursday morning, the day before I was to leave for the US. There was a bit of confusion that morning as to what time they would arrive. After finding out about a change at the last minute, I hurriedly closed my laptop and my driver and I hopped in the Land Cruiser, sped through Bujumbura and headed south along the lake towards the border crossing near Mabanda. I honestly had no idea what time they’d be there but I certainly didn’t want a high-level delegation waiting on me. After the 2 ½ hour drive we announced ourselves to the border guards (we had to get permission from the Burundi side to be able to drive 1 kilometer to the Tanzania side without needing to officially leave Burundi). As we drove up the hill to the Tanzania border station we saw their vehicle. My heart sank thinking that they’d been waiting on us. It turns out they’d arrived not even two minutes before.  It appeared to be a well-coordinated rendezvous (when in fact it wasn’t).

 I had developed an extremely tight schedule that would be ambitious in a country with a well-developed infrastructure. In a country like Burundi, it was probably ludicrous but I didn’t have much choice. Circumstances during their visit to Tanzania altered their arrival in Burundi such that the amount of time available for our leg of the trip was severely compromised. So it was either shoot for the moon or have our guests, with a unique opportunity to visit, go away without meeting their basic objectives in the country. I had used strong language to prep my leadership team who would be supporting each step of the trip. We couldn’t afford any mistakes. Not only would it affect our ability to carry out the agenda, it could potentially put us on the road after dark – something that is against policy and simply not safe.

After a short drive we stopped in Makamba for a brief lunch. The meal was served about fifteen minutes late. Normally I could care less but I really needed those fifteen minutes and, to be honest, it was unnecessary. Sigh. I hoped this was not a sign of things to come. We then loaded up and off we went towards Ruyigi where we would stop briefly at our field office and then head on to the refugee camp, one of the critical items on the agenda. It was a day where I was more the task master than normal, pushing things forward, steering conversation such that it remained focused, cutting the inevitable wayward monologues, etc. 
visiting a masonry skills training

After rapid but successful visits and meetings in the camp, we benefited from a police escort back to Ruyigi. We fit in a couple of late afternoon meetings and then had a dinner with staff. This particular field site generally gets less attention than the others and they seemed to appreciate the high-level visit to see their work. It's not often they get to share a drink with a vice president of a large international organization.

Exhausted, I made my way back to my room in the guesthouse where I proceeded to address all my critical emails from the day. I would be on my feet only five hours later to start it all over again.

The next morning we met briefly with the governors of three of the border provinces before heading back to Bujumbura. I needed to tactfully push that one along since those meetings can go on for a long time if left unchecked. We said our farewells and once again climbed back into the vehicle for the drive back across the country to the capital.

In Bujumbura we had meetings with the US embassy and the UN. In between we had a quick lunch near the lake. As we left the UN compound in the late afternoon sun, I began to relax a bit more. We’d accomplished all we’d set out to do and now it was just a matter of a brief debrief at our office and then they would proceed to the airport. They would not even spend a night in Bujumbura. 

All indication was that the visit had been a success. They were tired. I was tired. After the driver took them to catch their plane for Nairobi, I was left in my office alone to collect my thoughts. It was about 6pm on a Friday and I now needed to close up my office and head home. I wouldn’t be back for three weeks. My flight to the US for the holidays was in a few hours and I had yet to pack. I hadn’t had much time to think about the fact that I was finally going to see my wife and child after more than a month. 

Christmas was around the corner though there was no sign of it in Burundi. I hadn’t heard a single Christmas song. I hadn’t attended any Christmas parties. There were no Christmas decorations in our house. It was simply a normal, warm, muggy, Bujumbura evening as I began to toss things into a suitcase and imagine the radically different world that awaited me.