(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