(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, June 25, 2015

Back to the Fire

“We are condemned to hope.”
Syrian playwright, mid-90s

I began this post in the lobby of the famed Mille Collines hotel in Kigali. I wasn’t able to get very far and then the document sat unattended as my stay in Rwanda never really afforded me much time for non-work, non-family commitments. Then I wrote another paragraph in the Kigali airport where I thought separation from office and family would present me with a spare moment (though electronics have indeed not fully separated me). That didn't work since I ended up chatting with some people I know.

I’ve traveled through that airport on a near monthly basis for the past four and a half years or so. Generally when I’m there it is in the anticipation of seeing my family. However given the turmoil in Burundi and their relocation to Rwanda, there was a rather odd feeling of impending separation.
Fortunately it will not be for long. In a couple of weeks I will return to Kigali, round up the family and head off on holiday to the US. At least that is the plan.

Back here in Burundi, the situation is dicey at best. Grenades and gunfire are now a daily occurrence as we move closer to the elections. As I'm sitting on my bed I periodically hear the sound of automatic weapons and an occasional grenade blast. Doesn't sound to far away.  Just received a message that there are ongoing firefights in at least three different neighborhoods. A helicopter hovers overhead monitoring opposition movements.

Parliamentary and local elections take place on Monday and the presidential elections take place a couple weeks later. Officially 106 thousand people have fled the country as refugees. Many thousands more have relocated to surrounding countries and beyond as “tourists” or some other status while they escape the dramas unfolding in the country. 

I agree that the thought of returning was not pleasant. Even if I don’t feel that I am necessarily in any particular danger, it is nearly constantly uncomfortable. No matter what side you are on it is troubling. Because this country is notorious for two degrees of separation, death and/or injury often involves someone people know or someone who knows someone they know. Or it’s in your neighborhood. Staff morale is down. I'm not sleeping well.

Almost worse than the idea that things may get dramatically worse, is the uncertainty surrounding how long this may last. The longer it does, the more dire the humanitarian consequences. Even if things were to turnaround today, the reverberations would be felt for months if not years to come. As is the case for many sub-Saharan countries, this is a government driven economy. The crisis has caused the suspension of millions upon millions of direct government donor support which is subsequently sending the economy into a tailspin. Some estimate that about a third of the GDP dried up overnight. And things were desperately poor to begin with. 

With only a weekend between now and the parliamentary and local elections, it's as tense as I've ever felt it. All of our other expats are out of the country. Though one might have the sense that this is the 11th hour, this unfoling drama has a way of adding new twists and turns making it unpredictable. Just when you think doom is near, something happens that gives you a brief feeling of optimism. And then it goes away.

I met with some staff representatives this afternoon and at the close of the meeting they said they wanted to tell me something. They said that they were very happy that I chose to stay while so many others have left. They said that it has had a positive impact on staff morale. As I drove home I thought about what they said. I'm happy they feel that way and it makes me glad I'm here. But I have a hard time escaping the profound sadness I have for them and their country. I pray that somehow we'll all get through this without a great deal of carnage. We shall see.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Mr. Roboto

This morning on Al Jazeera one of the journalists started a story by saying, “A couple decades from now your job will likely be done by a robot.” Yeah, good luck with that.

There would be a lot of advantages to being a robot in what I do. Caring about the people around you would not figure into the equation. That would make things a whole lot easier. As it is, I’ve needed to train myself over the years to not think about certain things or at least not dwell on them. I have seen so many people crumble or at least make horrible decisions due to excessive emotional investment in certain aspects of their work. One example is that you would end up keeping people on staff even if you don’t have the resources because they so desperately need the income, and in this context it will likely impact not only the immediate family but also the extended family as well, all living off one person’s salary. It’s a brutal decision to make but sometimes you simply need to.

“The best people possess a feeling for beauty, the courage to take risks, the discipline to tell the truth, the capacity for sacrifice. Ironically, their virtues make them vulnerable; they are often wounded, sometimes destroyed.”
 -Ernest Hemingway 

It’s not to say you should be devoid of empathy. By no means. If I ever lose my compassion for the people we serve then I need to get out. It happens a lot unfortunately. I see them in meetings from time to time. You can tell rather quickly. They are often people that were filled with compassion when they started and over the years the challenges we face in doing this work just beat it out of them. From time to time I draw inspiration from a friend of ours in Tanzania that is doing some incredible work getting a school going (I think the kids are all orphans). He’s faced ridiculous opposition, obstacles and greed on the part of the government time and time again (no good deed goes unpunished). He just keeps going. He’s an amazing guy, driven by his faith in God and his compassion for what he’s doing. Most people would have given up long ago or at least become so cynical that they are rendered useless.

So I try to keep one foot in the idealist camp and the other in the cynic camp. If I lean too far in either direction I’m doomed. I have to believe that we are making a difference in people’s lives. But I also realize that human greed will often thwart the most venerable of efforts. Just as I said in the previous post that I’ve seen courage beyond belief, I’ve also evil in humans beyond belief. Both help me understand the context in which I work. I do love what I do but I’m also very aware that humanitarian work is not always pretty.

Today is the first full day without my family. Yesterday morning they “relocated” to Rwanda for security reasons to join most of the rest of my international staff who are already there. I heard quite a bit of gunfire late last night and early this morning and it tempers the sadness of missing them. They don’t need to be here for this. It sucks but I can’t complain. I’m not a robot and I’m fully aware that the tens of thousands displaced by this violence don’t have anything close to the support that we have. 

It appears that the elections will be postponed. We don’t know how long this is going to last but the longer it does, the most drastic will be the humanitarian consequences. Seatbelts are securely fastened.