(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, May 26, 2014


I was in Rome for meetings with the UN High Commission for Refugees. I’ve been participating in a working group for a couple of years to discuss partnerships with non-governmental organizations. As in the past, it was a week filled with interesting yet sometimes heated debates. I suppose in the long run what comes out of this will be good. It’s a rather novel forum where the UN is soliciting feedback in a meaningful way and thus giving partners a voice in the end result. There already has been considerable evidence of the integration of partner input though I suspect in a few sensitive areas, the democratic process will face some limitations. Overall, though, it’s been a pretty good process and as some other working groups are feeding into it, we should be in a better place when it’s all said and done.

I arrived last Saturday morning at 3:00am. Meetings were scheduled to begin on Sunday morning at 8:30 (I hope this is not a new trend) so I pushed through my lack of sleep and headed out to spend the next 6 or so hours walking around the beautiful city of Rome.

I was here many years ago though I admit it took me a bit to get my bearings, relying heavily on my little hotel map. Once I got going I found myself consulting the map less and less and feeling my way around based on memory and sense of direction. There are a few key streets and landmarks that help. Besides, who cares if you get a bit lost? 

I started off sort of angling my way towards the Vatican. I’d roughly planned out a loop around the city that would take me from there to the Pantheon, to the Coliseum, the Fountain, the Spanish Steps and back to the hotel, with lots of other stuff mixed in, of course.

It should be said, the best parts of Rome are probably not the places I mentioned above. It’s what is in between, and the unexpected things you find around the various corners of the old, narrow streets. It’s the food, the wine, the cacophony of accents you hear milling about the city. I nonetheless felt the need for the pilgrimage back to these well-known places that I’d seen many years ago and that are portrayed in film and other media. It can be a disappointment for some. Seeing a lonely perfume model sitting, seemingly having the Fountain to herself in a romantic ad is in stark contrast to the reality of the hordes of tourists elbowing each other and pushing to get their snapshots.

This is partly what makes the lesser known parts of the city so appealing, at least to me. It’s still a little taste of old Rome. No one trying to sell me something. No one asking me if I can take a photo of them in front of something (happens to me a lot when I travel alone). Just a peaceful stroll through the cobblestone streets, taking in the sights, sounds and smells (good and bad). 

The weather could not have been better. Choosing to travel light, I opted for my point and shoot rather than the good camera. I figured I wouldn’t have much time outside of meetings anyway. I was probably a good decision though I must say there were moments I really wished I’d had the Nikon.
This is my last evening in the hotel. The plane leaves at midnight so I’m squeezing in some last minute tasks before the flight to Addis Ababa, Nairobi and Buj. It’s been nice but I can’t wait to get home.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Passing of a Friend

I’m in Addis Ababa. I’m on my way to Rome for some meetings and I have a few moments to type before my next flight. I won’t be leaving the airport which is a bit of a shame. I was just trying to remember the last time I was here. I think it was 2008. I was here for meetings and didn’t see much except the capital. There is a lot to see and I need to come back when I have more time. 

So to catch up, a few weeks ago I went through one of the most difficult periods I’ve experienced since I moved to Burundi. It was a Friday and I was in my office. I’d been receiving visitors and trying to squeeze in some emails here and there. For some reason Friday is a big day for people dropping in for various discussions, questions, signatures, etc. It must be people trying to get stuff in before the weekend. In any case, it was a busy Friday like most others.

a toast with Dorothee in May 2011
At one point our HR Coordinator, Dorothee, popped in to say hello and tell me about her week in Nairobi. She’d been attending a regional conference and she seemed in rather high spirits. After some exchanges about her meetings, I couldn’t help but to ask her about a couple of issues that had come up while she was away. I assured her that these were not time critical but just things she should know. I was taking advantage of the fact that she was in my office to simply make sure she was aware.
She bid her farewell and she walked out into the hallway, greeting people as she went. It was the last time I would ever see her.

one of her eloquent speeches
About 15 minutes later, a colleague came in and told me that Dorothee had collapsed in her office while talking to him and a couple of others and was unconscious. I was shocked but I didn’t want to overreact. It would not have been the first time that a staff had fainted and I was thinking that it had been particularly warm. To be honest, I didn’t know what was wrong but my colleague assured me that they were getting her to a vehicle and taking her to the hospital as quickly as possible.
A few minutes later a different colleague came in to say that she was on the way, but that her collapse was an ugly scene. He looked dazed and I was now starting to get more worried. And rightly so. Only a couple of minutes after that the first colleague came back to say that Dorothee had died before arriving at the hospital. There is no autopsy of course and given that she apparently had some heart issues, the assumption was that it was a heart attack.

in January of this year
It was like a slug in the stomach. I had known this woman for nearly 4 years and she had become a good friend and confidant. Now, in retrospect, I had no idea how hard it was going to hit me. Her passing has affected me on so many levels, both personal and professional. Over time had had grown very reliant on her support and wisdom. We would discuss a wide range of things in our weekly meetings and other ad hoc conversations from family, to work, to life in Burundi. Just a few minutes after seeming so full of life, she disappears.

If you would have asked me a month ago, of the entire organization, which staff’s death would have the most profound impact on the organization, I would have probably said Dorothee. She will be missed.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Good to be Home

When we returned from Singapore, I had to quickly turn around and go to Rwanda. We’ve been having some problems with a nutrition project there and it’s been a battle to get it fully off the ground. I won’t go into details but it can be a tough place to work, in spite of the fact that the infrastructure has advanced so much. 

The morning after returning from Rwanda I then turned around and headed to our Burundian field site in Makamba. It’s supposed to be about 3 hours from Bujumbura but it keeps getting longer as the road deteriorates. We were about an hour and a half into the trip and all of the sudden we saw trees and rocks blocking the road. My driver asked a guy who was walking along the roadside where we were supposed to go to continue on. He said there is a side road back a few hundred meters that is serving as a detour.

This is annoying. This is a main road. There is no sign that there is a blocked road ahead. No sign that there is a detour and where the detour is. It doesn’t take much to put something like that in place. I found out later that this has been like this for many days and there doesn't appear to be any progress on getting the road open. As is often the case here, if there is a functional workaround, nothing gets fixed.

So off we went up the dirt road passing through a couple of crossroads, turning where we thought there were the most vehicle tracks indicating the likely way to go. No signs anywhere of course. Eventually we made our way back to the main road and we carried on. 

The reason for my trip was Workers’ Day, or May Day in some countries. It’s a public holiday similar to Labor Day in the US but taken much more seriously. Instead of taking the day off to devote to family or recreational activities, workers expect to be wined and dined by their employer. There are speeches and in most places they have parades where people walk in groups wearing the matching shirts of their respective employer. While I’ve never done the parade thing, I have done my duty as an employer and not only supported the event but participated in various places where we have offices. Last year I was at our office in Ruyigi (which I blogged about; I brought the family with Kinaya in the womb). This year it was Makamba’s turn.

These things are not that animated generally. Drinks are handed out. People usually sit in a semi-circle facing a head table where I sit with my head of office next to me. Because of the anti-social arrangement of the chairs, people either talk to whomever is on their left or right or their heads are bowed looking at their cell phones. 

Then the food comes. There is usually meat, a starch (fries in this case) and some “salad”. I use quotes since it’s usually a couple slices of tomato and a little lettuce or cabbage. It’s more like decoration. Often there is no expectation that you would use utensils and none were made available on this occasion. A lady had earlier walked around with a pitcher of water and a stainless steel bowl with a small bar of soap in the bottom. As she leans over towards you she pours the water over your hands as you scrub up. If you see her coming, it’s often a sign that in this place forks are for chumps. Besides, with the type of food most people eat utensils aren’t needed. Most don’t touch the salad and I just scooped it up with my shiny, greasy fingers.

The speeches came next. It’s always better to give a speech after people have eaten. And after the drinks have been passed around. People with low blood sugar aren’t the best audience. Later, after a few conversations about politics and what Burundians seek in relationships, it was time to head back to the guesthouse and call it a day. Our house in Makamba is situated on a nasty little road in a neighborhood of walled compounds. It’s not a bad place but it suffers from lack of love. Since it’s nobody’s home, it’s simply functional. 

The town is quite a bit higher in altitude than Bujumbura and is usually cool in the evenings (4,400ft/1,341m vs. 2,800ft/853m). It’s been rather warm in the capital lately so it was nice to get away from it briefly. I nestled into bed with my laptop, did a few emails, listened to a podcast and drifted off to sleep. 

The next morning I awoke to the call to prayer coming from the mosque. Even though Burundi is about 85% Christian, Makamba has a decent sized Muslim population, largely due to its proximity to Kigoma region just across the border in Tanzania. Even though Kigoma is in the interior of the continent (and the Swahili coast is generally considered more Muslim), the history goes back to the East African slave trade and the fact that Kigoma was a hub for the trafficking of slaves towards Bagamoyo (near Dar es Salaam) on the eastern coast. Many of the traders and those affiliated with the trade remained in the area. Thus the horrors of the slave trade extend even to today – waking me up at 4:30am. Actually, when the call is a bit fainter, it’s actually quite pleasant and takes me back to when we were living in Dar.

I shouldn’t blame it all on the call to prayer though. Within minutes after the call faded, the clanging of the church bells began. No matter the faith, thou shalt not sleep until daylight. It’s ok though. Soon I was back home, replacing the religious institutional noise with a cute yet needy toddler as my 4:30 wake-up. Good to be home.