(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.)

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Chilly DC



As I type this I am in Washington DC. I’m here for meetings. The last time I was here was in late 2014 for the same reason. The purpose is to provide various government entities (and some journalists) with important information “from the ground” regarding what is going on in Burundi. Though there is much to discuss about the political situation, my focus is more on the humanitarian. I was often baited into speculating about the politics, and it’s tempting to do so, but I really need to hone in on the serious issues facing the population including food insecurity, malnutrition, etc.

For the visit I fortunately had the assistance of my colleague Natalie who is based in DC. She basically took my briefing information and turned them into talking points and makes sure I understand where the various stakeholders are coming from. I am admittedly a novice at this sort of thing. Yes, I’ve done it before but there were new people to meet with this time and I still have a hard time understanding the inner workings (vested interest) that influence what people want to know. One example this time was that Obama had recently released a draft budget and almost everyone brought it up. It was important to understand how it influenced what they wanted to know from me.
early morning run by Obama's

It’s obviously not altogether altruistic. We also need these meetings to make sure the organization as a whole stays on their radar, to make sure that people understand the gravity of the issues that I see and to some extent try to influence policies that affect the people we serve. It’s obviously a tall order and you need to be realistic about your expectations. But overall I was happy with how things went.
The first day began with a briefing at our DC office. We basically go through the agenda and discuss any questions about the talking points. They’d largely been hammered out in advance by email so it was pretty straight forward. From there we spent the next two days bouncing from taxi to meeting to taxi to meeting. Natalie is really good at this – keeping us on schedule, filling in gaps in my comments, sometimes refocusing conversations. I was the content guy and she was the one making sure we dotted our eyes and crossing our t’s. It worked as it is supposed to. 
capitol at sunrise

The key meetings were with the State Department, funding agencies (USAID, OFDA and PRM), the White House (national security), Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff, House FRC staff and two senators’ offices. Time was so tight that one of the conversations with a journalist had to be done mostly in a taxi going from one meeting to the next. By the end of day two I was pretty spent. As I said, it’s hard to know what impact the discussions may have but they are likely a small piece in a large mosaic of discussions these people have. I did get a nice email yesterday from someone in the State Department who was in one of the meetings saying how valuable she felt the conversation was for her to hear from someone based in the country. Good to know.

So now I’m off to NY. A full week of more meetings awaits. Sigh. I miss my family.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Back in Rwanda



I’m in Kigali. It’s my monthly trip to visit the program. It’s not as exciting as it used to be, given that we are slated to close the office this year. In fact it has been a bit of a struggle to manage even since I began in 2010. During my handover there were discussions of closure and the value-added of what is becoming a development context rather than humanitarian – which is at the core of what we do as an organization. 

I’m not staying in our house as I normally do. We have an international staff from Burundi staying there with her family (as they are transitioning to Burkina Faso). So I am relegated to a hotel. It’s actually just a couple hundred meters up the street from our house so it’s still in our neighborhood and near the office. 

The place is quite nice and tasteful. Rwanda’s getting pretty good at understanding what international people want in these types of services. I remember in Tanzania you could tell the places that had strong influence from outside (often from South Africa which is pretty good at such things). Those that didn’t usually had lots of florescent tube lights (which make even the healthiest of people look ill), gaudy furnishings, lots of doilies, creative plumbing problems, sofas that are either overstuffed and the size of small cars or, if it’s a cheaper place, faux Victorian ones that have high backs and are most comfortable when you are not sitting in them (or even looking at them). The beds are usually hard and have some sort of elaborate bedspread/sheet fold pattern. 

This hotel opened since I was in Kigali last, about a month and a half ago. I have been driving by this place going to and from our house to the office and has been under construction forever. I developed a curiosity about it but assumed that it would not be finished in my lifetime. I also thought it was going to be apartments so I assumed it would not be something we would use.

It’s apparently some sort of combination short-term, long-term stay hotel and has all that you’d expect for such things. It’s nice but it has some quirks. My room, I think the cheapest in the building, overlooks the rubbish and has a nice view of the compound wall. One interesting “feature” is as you enter the room. The curtain rod of an adjacent window is fastened above the door itself. It means that when you walk in you plow through a curtain, almost as if you are coming on stage.

The room has some expected plumbing issues, though a bit odd given the newness of the place. The soap provided is slightly bigger than a US quarter. There’s a fine balance between making soap small enough that you waste less and large enough that it’s usable. 

Then there's the communication issue. A few minutes ago one of the staff, who insists I speak to him in English though he doesn't understand it, came knocking at my door. He was holding a loaf of bread. We exchanged greetings and then he said, "Bread?" Puzzled by the unsolicited evening delivery, I said, "No thank you. Non merci." Now it was his turn to look puzzled. I tried the shoulder shrug to reinforce my point. Shook my head. He just stood there insisting that I take the bread. Eventually he gave up, dejected. Still not sure what happened but I suspect someone requested he fetch some nice bread and the room as confused, possibly due to a language issue. Communication is still a challenge in this country as people are increasingly encouraged to move to English, and people seem to genuinely want to, but they have their mother tongue of Kinyarwanda and many were educated in French. Unfortunately this guy is pretty much only Kinyarwanda and it's the one of the three that I don't speak.

The highlight has been the pool. It’s really nice and big enough to do laps. I had it to myself last night, taking a half-hour swim under the stars. May do that again this evening - after my run.

Tomorrow I’m back in Burundi but only for a few days before heading to the US. I can’t stand not being with my family. Travel is annoying. I think I chose the wrong line of work.