(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, November 16, 2015

Autumn in New York

How quickly the trip to NY seems like a faded memory. It was a crazy busy week in the days leading up to catching the airplane and the week following (last week) was even worse. Won’t go into all the details, of course, but it’s been an interesting time. 

Some highlights:
Prior to the trip I had a meeting at the US embassy with the ambassador and the US Great Lakes Special Envoy (the African Great Lakes just in case someone things I’ve taken a new interest in the American ones). It was a good discussion about the security and humanitarian situation in the country. I do enjoy meeting with people at high levels. It’s not just say I met with them. Depending on who they are or what they represent, they are generally there for a reason. They bring a certain level of expertise and insight that complements my own understanding and, to some degree, validates my, in this case, “on the ground” perspective. There certainly are exceptions to the impressiveness of people at higher levels. I won’t name names but there are certainly people of questionable expertise/experience that slip through the cracks for one reason or another. The Special Envoy was not one of them - happened to be quite brilliant.

Coincidentally I ran into him at the Nairobi airport while I was on my way back to Burundi. We were on the same plane. We chatted briefly though we didn’t have a lot of time. Then on Sunday, while at a coffee shop in Kigali, I ran into him again. I’m quite sure he thinks I’m stalking him. What are the chances?! Anyway, my daughters were climbing all over me needing attention and our conversation was cut short again. 

the beautiful art deco of Rockefeller Plaza
Back to NY. After starting off sick over the first weekend I was there, I was at least functional by Monday. My days were full with no respite from the time I woke until the time my head hit the pillow. Monday morning I had to get my photo taken. I think it’s to have in the database for various purposes. The event is noteworthy only in that I had to succumb to makeup. I admit it was just a “touching up here and there” as the lady told me. But it’s still an awkward thing if you’re not used to it. I mean, we’re humanitarian workers. Aren’t we supposed to look a bit roughed up? Isn’t that part of our bravado? As I said, I caved and let her have her way with my face. She grinned at one point saying that many times men confess to secretly liking it. I’m not there yet but it was pretty handy timing to hide the combination of jetlag and sickness that must have been quite apparent.

my usual early morning run along the East River
Wednesday was our big, annual dinner at the Waldorf Astoria. Country directors almost didn’t get invited this year (most didn’t) which would have been a shame. Not only because I enjoy attending but it would be criminal to have no one at the various tables who is field-based. I would hate to guess how many times I have had wealthy New Yorkers at my table gripped (or seemingly so) by news of what our staff are doing and the challenges they are facing day in and day out. Anyway, it’s not my call. 

Sir Patrick - I had a good seat this year
Speaking of people in high places that I respect, I briefly met Sir Patrick Stewart – one of my all time favor actors (voices). He’s been supporting the organization for a couple years and really seems to be engaged with what we are doing. He spoke a few words about the work we do and how he has been impressed (pressuring the donors in the room). Must have worked since we raised over $5m on the evening. Morena Baccarin (Homeland) was there but I didn’t see her (bummer). It was also just good to see all these people that I mostly see once a year. The former IRC president was there and he put his hand on my shoulder, gave me a good handshake and told the people he was with what a great time he had when I hosted him during his visit to Burundi back in 2011. Dozens of others. I will miss these events when I, for whatever reason, no longer attend.

my favorite, the Chrysler Bldg, from one of our mtg. room windows
By Friday I was exhausted. Prior to heading to the airport I had a couple of phone calls, briefing people who would be attending the UN Security Council meeting on Burundi the following Monday (or rather briefing their staff who would brief them). I quickly bought a few things to take back to Bujumbura and then hopped in my cab to head to JFK. I stared out the window as we drove through the unseasonably warm autumn in NY. My head was spinning thinking of the past week as well as all I needed to do when I got back. I missed my family and knew that they would be moved to Kigali for security reasons 24 hours before I would arrive.  I would return to an empty home, speculations of significant violence ahead and loads of work. Not pleasant thoughts but…gotta take the good with the bad.

the sunset that awaited me back home

Monday, November 2, 2015

Tossed Salad

Admittedly the past six months has been exhausting, not just for me but for countless others. The political crisis in Burundi drags on with no end in sight. Tension remains high and no one can predict what will happen next. We’ve passed so many milestones that were supposed to provide some sort of relief to the tension but no relief has come. Dead bodies continue to be found on a daily basis. The sounds of gunfire, grenade blasts and occasional mortars can be heard almost daily. It is getting old. For those living in the more troubled neighborhoods, I simply can’t imagine what they’re going through. 

We trudge on. We carry on our work in support of the Burundian population and Congolese refugees the best we can. In the interior of the country things are calmer and we’re operating normally. However staff there have stress too, not only that things in Bujumbura escalate elsewhere but most of them have family and friends in Bujumbura. 

I’m in New York. I just arrived for a week of meetings. It’s always strange coming here, particularly in the first 24 hours. I live in the poorest country on earth (GDP per capita) and to be in the middle of Manhattan from one day to the next can make your brain explode. Yesterday, while walking with my friend Liya we strode past rubbish consisting of a few dozen containers of salad. Unopened. At a glance they looked perfectly fine but the restaurant that tossed the salad (sorry) probably did so because of an arbitrary “sell by” date. Regardless, there it was, good food, clean, spilling out of a garbage bag. Did I mention that Burundi ranks number one on the Global Hunger Index – and the ranking was done based on date BEFORE the current crisis.

gotta love NY in autumn
Being in NY can make your head spin even if you’re not coming from the middle of Africa. But I can’t help thinking about the disparity. I’m reading a book called the Citizens of London, recommended to me by Priya’s mom. Great read, particularly if you’re into history. At one point in the book, Edward R. Murrow, an American war correspondent who was based in London during WWII and the attacks on the city, took some leave and went to the US. He had a hard time adjusting. London was hammered by bombs for fifty seven days straight. Much of the city was ruined. Goods were in short supply. People lived of meager rations. It was prolonged devastation. A friend of his said of his visit to NY, “He walked along Fifth Avenue and Madison and saw the stores stocked with beautiful things, and it positively made him angry. He’d see all the food in the restaurants and say ‘I don’t think I can eat when I think of what’s going on back there.” In a letter to a friend, the English socialist Harold Laski, Murrow said he was “spending most of my time trying to keep my temper in check,” seeing “so many well-dressed, well-fed, complacent-looking people” and hearing “wealthy friends moaning about the ruinous taxation.” He added, “Words mean something entirely different here…Maybe it was a mistake to come.”

(Coincidentally, it was just off Madison Avenue where I saw the salad, though it could have been almost anywhere in this country.)

for the record, not a crumb was thrown away
I’m not the man Murrow was and I fully intend to eat while I’m here, but this passage, as I read it on the airplane, certainly gave me pause. It’s something I feel to some degree each time I go to Europe or the US. But it’s not the kind of thing with which you can beat people over the head while you’re there. People don’t want to hear it. It feels like an accusation, which for the most part it’s not. It’s an observation of a situation. Yes, it’s a situation that should change, particularly because the wealth disparity gets worse each year. I can’t remember what the statistic is but it’s something crazy like 90% of the planet’s wealth is in the hands of 1% of the people. Or something like that . Whatever the numbers are, it’s shocking and in my opinion unacceptable. 

We can do more. We should. But we probably won’t.
my wonderful friend Liya

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Field Trip

A little over a week ago I was fortunate enough to fit in time for a trip to the field. As I mentioned previously, it was a longtime in coming. While I think staff are generally understanding of the circumstances that have prevented me from coming sooner, I do appreciated that over time they begin to feel abandoned, that there is an excessive focus on Bujumbura and not enough towards those out implementing the activities – our raison d’ĂȘtre.

I get it. I remember back when I was a Field Coordinator in Tanzania. You’re in the grind all day long, day in and day out, and you wonder sometimes not only if the efforts are appreciated but also whether the focus of the organization is really where it should be.  Is it truly on the people that we serve or have we become what NGOs are often accused of – organizations focused on their own existence (fostering careers, raising funds, etc.) rather than on serving people who are in need.

I remember having a technical advisor who came to visit us in Kibondo. I think he spent about two weeks with us supporting out youth and livelihoods activities before returning to New York. A couple weeks later I received an email with his trip report. There were a few things about it that took me aback. In fact over time the report has sort of become a symbol of what to avoid in this work. One thing he did was include loads of activities with deadlines that he had not discussed with my staff or me. Needless to say, I got pretty angry. That’s a serious no-no (and it’s disrespectful).

I was graciously offered up some boiled cow hooves for a little appetizer. I mean, how can you pass that up...
The other problem I had with the report was that it was 95 pages long. Yep. Graphs. Footnotes. Rambling. I figured out quickly that though this was the result of a visit to our field site, it was ultimately not about our activities and beneficiaries. It was about him, impressing his supervisor and probably his career. I ended up making a pretty big deal about it and it was the last I saw of him.
Anyway, back to my trip. I went to Makamba for parts of two days.  One focus was to talk to the team and get an idea of what was going on in the province. I need to know how the security situation is evolving get their participation in the brainstorming as to how to position ourselves to better support a potential return of refugees from Tanzania. 

Nice spot. A bit off the beaten path. Very clean given the water is drained and replenished every few minutes.
The second day involved a teambuilding activity, including a trip to a hot springs and a nice lunch. Though it previously was our largest office, in recent years activities have declined there and it’s now the smallest. So the event was a bit more intimate with around twenty or so staff.

Amazing spot at the southern tip of Burundi. Fishing boat cruising past. Tanzania border off in the distance.
While I was traveling with the team I was receiving text messages regarding an assassination attempt in Bujumbura on the head of the army. You never know when this things happen if they will be some sort of trigger for instability. For a period of time some roads were blocked off, including of course the one where the attack took place – the road I needed to take getting home. Fortunately the road had been cleared long before I was back in the capital and I was able to return without incident. 

On the way home. Massive, lethal landslide from earlier this year. Not much progress on repairing the road.
Since things generally ok for travel, I will likely to carrying out similar visits to other sites over the coming weeks. I have some catching up to do.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


I’ve been told that if I ever stopped what I am doing to pursue something a bit more mundane, that I would be bored, that I enjoy the rush of what I do. As time goes by I tend to increasingly dispute this theory. It’s not only that I have kids (and that certainly does make me more risk averse), but it’s also about dealing with the prolonged uncertainty of the security situation and the fatigue of being tense for extended periods. It’s less like barreling down a steep single track on a mountain bike or attacking a precarious ski slope (which I love) and more like running a series of marathons in bad neighborhoods.

I’m currently in Rwanda. I just arrived for my regular visit. The team is smaller now since we recently had a project end. Nonetheless, it’s important that I come to support the team, possibly even more so than before. And the fewer meetings give me a chance to get some things done.

As the title suggests, we had a little break-in at our Bujumbura office a couple weeks ago. I normally would have dwelled on it more at the time, written a blog posting immediately and made a bigger deal of it but the pace of life seems to get away from me and I'm simply forced to move on to new dramas. It’s hard to spend too much time on anything to be honest. You have to deal with things as they come, respond as necessary and just move forward. 

This particular drama began between 2 and 3 in the morning. I, strangely, was fast asleep. Since we returned from the US I’ve slept better than I have in a long time. Part of it is that both girls are now in the other room but for whatever reason, the light sleeping that has been my nature for years has at least temporarily given way to frequent nights of deep, unfettered slumber. 

On this particular night my phone rang and I didn’t hear it. That’s a new thing for me since I normally awake at the sound of a pin dropping (or distant gunfire). It’s not that I needed to respond to the situation immediately. We had people doing that. But I would have been informed earlier of what I would witness a few hours later. As I pulled into the office compound at around 7am I knew immediately something was up. The guards had somber faces and the front doors of the admin building were open. Because I normally arrive before any of my staff, I tend to be the one that unlocks the doors.

Once inside it was apparent what had happened without anyone saying a word. The reception area was trashed. Papers were everywhere. Chairs were overturned. Drawers were on the floor. A couple of police were chatting with my two security focal points. I was briefed on what had happened and then I made my way to my office to see the damage there. It wasn’t as bad but in addition to breaking the door lock, the bathroom door was shattered. Apparently they’d rounded up the six guards who were on duty, tied them up and locked them in my office loo. The door was eventually broken open to get them out, thus creating the mess.

one of the two desks in the reception area

In all, four rooms were broken into in addition to the reception area. They made off with a safe and some other small equipment. They notified the guards they were looking for a document and that they would kill them if they didn’t find it. This would explain the rifling through the drawers. However we have no idea what they could have been after besides money and electronics. So far we’ve been unable to think of what sort of document that could have such value that they would make such a huge effort.

where it started

The attack began by the piercing of a hole in the compound wall. Once big enough for a human to pass through, around twenty armed men entered and began by rounding up our guards. They seemed to know: a) where to bore the hole in the wall and b) which building to target. It’s likely that someone internally had provided them with information. We think maybe it was someone from the guard company but we don’t know. 

empty compound adjacent to ours

It wasn’t all gloom and doom, however. When I asked our finance controller how much we lost in the safe, he said not much. In fact he smiled and said probably three dollars. I know that we don’t keep much money in the office for just that reason but I didn’t realize that it was THAT empty. I should also say that the safe was huge. A few years ago when we moved it into that office it took about six rather strong men to lift it. The poor bandits had to get that heavy thing out of the office, out of the building, out of the compound and into a waiting vehicle. Then they had to transport it someplace where they would put tremendous effort into getting the door open. Only to find that it was empty. I can only imagine the expletives. Later than morning the controller came into my office with three dollars in his hand and announced that the loss was even less than we had anticipated.

the bits of wood that used to be my door
They also took an old laptop (hard drive completely cleaned) that I was procrastinating in donating and a no-longer-usable computer battery that I had recently replaced. Strangely, a small projector which was sitting on my desk (worth about $500) was left behind as was my scanner, computer screen and printer (??). For me it ended up being quite handy in that I was able to get rid of some obsolete equipment.

In any case, we all felt a bit violated. It’s never a pleasant experience to have something stolen, all the more when it’s such a large and dangerous force that carried it out. We found out that over a three-week period a number of other places in the area were targeted as well, also by a large group of armed men. So we’re hopeful it’s a one-off thing and they won’t be back. Nonetheless we’ve further strengthened out security, added/changed locks, added lighting, etc. As people always say in these situations, it really could have been worse. We were thankful that no one was seriously hurt. We clean up, fix things and move on. 

“It's a shallow life that doesn't give a person a few scars.”
-Garrison Keillor