After the trip to NY, I returned to Burundi to, among a million other things, prepare for the visit of our organization’s president, David Miliband. We hosted our previous president back in November of 2011 and it wasn’t nearly the work this was - even though the former visit was four days longer. However given his previous role as British Foreign Secretary and his current high profile in the international humanitarian community, he’s a bit more of a celebrity. Coincidentally, shortly after the visit last month he was listed on Fortune magazine’s world’s top leaders.
So we had our hands full. To make matter worse, I was (am) incredibly short staffed. It’s a long, sad story but suffice to say I haven’t had a lot of leadership in country, particularly the expats, and organizing something like this was challenging. My Burundian staff have very much stepped up to the plate but I think my stars are starting to wear thin. They’ve been pulled in so many directions and, though it’s been impressive to see what people can do when pushed to their limits (and I think it certainly has contributed to their professional development), I am very much looking forward to getting my new team in place. I think they are too.
The morning of DM's arrival, I was reading my email and sipping my coffee at around 5am as I normally do. The house is dark and quiet and I can concentrate for a bit before getting ready for work. While in transit through Dubai, David wrote and said that his flight was late and wasn’t sure he would make his connection in Nairobi. My mind immediately went into contingency mode. The only other flight of the day would be late afternoon and that would obliterate an itinerary that was already limited to a little over 24 hours in country and finely detailed. The plan was that he would spend afternoon and evening in Bujumbura before heading off to our field office in Makamba, then cross the border into Tanzania and continue the visit there (visiting refugees, staff, partners, etc. there).
Fortunately by 7am I had confirmation that the flight from Nairobi was going to be late and thus he would be able to make his connection. We were back in business.
He arrived about 45 minutes later than planned but I’d built in a bit of a buffer just for this occasion. We did the meet and greet. He visited the office compound and we went over the itinerary. He had an entourage of about four including a communications person and a photographer. Haven’t seen any of the photos yet but hopefully there will be some good ones.
Lunch was with UN representatives and I was happy to see that almost all were able to come. It was a rich discussion and I could see that David was in his element. He’s quite impressive in these situations. I’d sent him tons of briefing documents and you could tell that he’d read and digested them all.
From lunch we moved on to visit a couple of activities not far from Bujumbura. We don’t have a lot going on near here, particularly right now, so it was fairly limited what we could show him. We’re also moving forward with some new humanitarian response activities that weren’t off the ground at the time he was in town. Nonetheless, I think what we did show him was interesting and my team did a good job of providing a glimpse of what they do.
From there we sped back to the office for a brief roundtable discussion with NGOs. During this time I was getting word that a high-level military leader was assassinated. These things can be cause for concern depending on who it is and who did it. There can be repercussions initiated by the government. There can be a number of things that could happen and we were scrambling to get information on the security situation in the city.
The only impact on the visit was that some of the roads were blocked and people that were supposed to attend the meeting didn’t come due to security precautions. Our office is a ways from downtown and it’s understandable that someone couldn't venture out to attend a meeting that was scheduled for only 30 minutes.
From there we had an all staff assembly in our large meeting room. We’d installed a couple of air conditioners for the occasion given that the weather here has been unseasonably warm. Normally when we’re in there, particularly in the afternoon, we just suffer through the heat. No more.
The staff visibly appreciated his presence and I think it went well. We just had a half hour and then we were off to a reception with the team. After about 10-15 minutes of mingling, we had a couple of short individual meetings with staff and then it was off to the hotel where we would meet with the donors/ambassadors.
This ended up being one of my favorite parts of the overall visit. David was again in his element. He’d had a couple of moments earlier in the day where the jet lag was visible but by evening you could see he’d caught his second wind. It was a rich discussion and I think the ambassadors were duly impressed. My hope is that the conversation, like the one at lunch with the UN, will further the shaping not only of David’s understanding of the humanitarian situation but help push forward our key talking points. With all that is going on in the world today, keeping Burundi on the radar is no easy task. The needs are great and, relatively speaking, meeting the more critical ones is actionable. The international community needs to make it happen.
The next day, we were off early heading south towards Makamba. We had to change routes, partially due to a landslide that washed away a section of the road into Lake Tanganyika. The route we took was longer than I anticipated. One cause was that we were rotating staff two at a time in David’s vehicle, half hour a piece, such that he could continue his briefings and use the transportation time effectively.
We arrived in Makamba just as a massive rain storm was hitting. We proceeded to have a short meeting with local partners which had all the communication challenges you might imagine. We had English, French and Kirundi all mixed together. We had the downpour on the corrugated metal roof which didn’t help one’s ability to hear and understand. I was particularly stressed given that I knew that we would have another meeting with staff, lunch and a drive to the border all to happen within the next hour and a half.
Eventually I was able to politely make our break and move on to have our meeting with the field staff. I felt bad given that they had gone to such great preparation, decorations and so forth. But we had no choice but to keep it short given that the Tanzania team would be at the border waiting for us.
Before long we were off towards the border. David thanked me for all the work that had gone into the short visit and seemed appreciative of the work we were doing, particularly given the circumstances under which we have been working over the past year. But he did encourage me to seize the occasion – to continue to position ourselves as the humanitarian leader in the country and reinforce our support for the Burundian people. He would do his part to advocate on the issues we’d identified. He knows he has a voice and he wants to use it to benefit the work we are doing, something he told me when we had lunch in NY three weeks prior.
The Tanzanian officials allowed me to cross over to the Tanzania side to properly escort David to the welcome awaiting him. It was good to see some of my former staff. For most it had been six years since I’d seen them. We did a quick visit of the health facility our organization runs for the asylum seekers as they arrive in Tanzania. I then said my farewells and headed back to Makamba where I would spend the night. There was no time to get back to Bujumbura given that it was already mid-afternoon.
As we headed on our way the driver crossed from the left side of the road to the right (interestingly there are no signs, of course, to indicate where you do this), I was reminded of when I was based in Tanzania and we had a head-on collision nearly ten years prior at a different border crossing as the driver rounded a bend and momentarily forgot which side of the road he needed to be on. The crisis in Burundi is likely contributing to the fact that there were no other vehicles to be seen on the newly paved road. No danger of accidentally hitting anyone else as I headed back to my troubled, adopted home.
I looked out the window at the beautiful, rolling Burundian hills. I was tired. It had been an intense 24+ hours but it was good. Glad it went well. But I was looking forward to catching up on some work, having a drink and dinner with a couple of colleagues and then going to bed early. The air in Makamba is cooler than Bujumbura and makes for good sleeping. I was fatigued enough; I didn’t need much help.