(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, April 23, 2016

Mara



I’m in Kenya. I arrived a few hours ago, here for seven days for a workshop and some meetings. I’ve been moving around a bit lately, to say the least. This blog entry is about our family safari in Kenya though which, in fact, was on a previous trip to Kenya a couple weeks ago. In the meantime I returned to Burundi, then went to Rwanda for a couple days, back to Burundi and now to Nairobi. I would like to think that after this trip I’ll get some down time but the reality is that I will need to return to Rwanda for a couple days and the following week possibly start making some field visits, something that has been neglected with all of this other travel and the fact that I have been short staffed. 

A while back Priya and I discussed the possibility of doing something over the two-week Easter break the girls have from school/crèche. I obviously didn’t have two weeks but we did consider what we could pull off over the period of something more like four or five days. Last year we went to the Seychelles which was great. This year we wanted to do something different. The top two candidates were South Africa and a safari trip (Kenya or Tanzania). Both would be wonderful options. I’d love to get back to SA but we were thinking that may be a bit more involved than what we had time for. We also were regular safari goers when we were in TZ and when we moved to Burundi it stopped. Not only does Burundi not have safari options (there are a couple of parks that tend to have few animals and lots of bad guys) but we also had children. A safari with an infant would be a challenge and many don’t allow it. 

Now the girls are a bit older and we thought, given the options we had, it was time to go back into the wild. If I’m honest, I have to say that the idea of anything urban didn’t appeal to me. It rarely does. Getting in an open Land Cruiser with the wind in my face definitely had its appeal. So off we went.
We took the 1:40 hour flight to Nairobi, arriving in the middle of the day and caught a cab to our hotel. Traversing Nairobi is ridiculous unless it’s between 10pm and 6am. After we complained of our 1 ½ hour taxi ride to a friend of ours, he said we had good fortune since it is normally much longer. I know there are lots of cities around the world where it’s like that and frankly, I can’t see living like that.

Priya had found online a hotel that also serves as apartments. As such it turned out to be great with kids – lots of room. It had two bedrooms, a full kitchen, dining room and cost less than the hotels where I normally stay nearer to the airport. We had one night there prior to catching the small plane the next morning to head to Masai Mara National Reserve. We would come back to the same hotel on the return for two nights before heading to Burundi.

I’d never flown out of this small airport. It seems to be use mostly for bush flights, private planes and some urban helicopter traffic. It’s adjacent to the city so it was easy and quick to get to. And it was Saturday. 
 

The plane was small (15-seater) and was similar to flights that went between islands in the Seychelles. It flies from one dirt airstrip to the next before returning to the capital. I think it took about 40 min. to get to our strip. It’s not the first time I’ve landed on a strip like this where you see topis, impalas, buffalo and warthogs roaming about as you land but I get a thrill out of it.

The vehicle was waiting for us near the thatched roof gazebo “airport”. It was quite muddy due to some rain earlier in the morning and it would by no means be the last of the mud that we would see given that the rainy season is just beginning. I was so happy to be back in the savanna and the acacia trees. Breathing in the air, I could feel a bit of the stress from work starting to dissipate. It would never go away completely but it was just what I needed.

The airstrip lies just east of the Mara River and there is a 20 min. drive up to the escarpment where our tented camp is perched. The camp is actually just outside the national reserve.  If you picture the reserve as somewhat of a rectangle tilted 45 degrees (following the downward sloping angle of the border with TZ) then we would be in the top corner. 

When we arrived at the camp, the hosts were waiting for us with passion juice and a spectacular view. We got settled into our tent – a large bed and two singles for the girls. The flap on one side was open to the east providing a floor-to-roof (screened) exposure to the outdoors. We had a loo that had a proper toilet and even a shower that was fed by a canvas bucket of hot water (usually at the end of a day out on game drive).
plunge pool with a view
Meals were served in a “mess” tent. There were tables outside as well if the weather permitted. It’s hard to say how many people were there while we were but I’d guess a little over a dozen. The tents were scattered about and, for the most part, were not in sight of each other. Plus people were on different schedules of game drives so, with the exception of maybe a special BBQ dinner one night, you didn’t really feel the presence of others that much. 

We had lunch and would start right in with a game drive that first afternoon. Throughout the time we had a guide and vehicle to ourselves. It’s not always the case on safari so this, particularly with the girls, worked out quite well for us. In my experience, guides can make or break safari trips. Most of them are very talented but they’re often very different. Some are all about finding the elusive animals, almost like this big quest and/or competition with other guides (they’re on the radio with each other throughout the day). Some are more informative than others. Some are more enthusiastic than other. Some are more in tune with whatever the guests seem to want to do, having a sense of when the visitors want to stop or move on. I think the latter fit our guide though I do think he also had a keen sense of finding that elusive safari moment (as I’ll mention later).

Over Christmas I was carrying Kinaya on a frigid Indiana night and, while viewing Christmas lights, she accidentally kicked my nice camera out of my hand. After taking a bounce or two on the sidewalk it hasn't been the same. I tried to get it fixed in Idaho but to no avail. No electronics repair place would even open it up to look at it. It basically only works in full zoom and even then, only about 80% of the time. So I brought a trusty old point-and-shoot and switched back and forth between the two. Wasn't ideal but it worked out okay.

Day one was relatively short since it was only an afternoon but it was amazing what we were able to see. The weather was perfect and Priya and I agreed, as we were driving along with the cool breeze, that just being out would have been wonderful even without the animals. 

The girls were great and would be the entire trip. We were a bit concerned, particularly on day two when we would be out all day, that they’d get bored and tired. But it never happened and they were great. They filled their time singing songs, playing with the binoculars and the two dolls that were allowed in the vehicle. As they gained safari experience, they quickly joined in the game of spotting animals and eventually became quite good at identifying them. We did have a few extra pee stops and a particularly bouncy road that dumped Kinaya on her head (seat belts in these vehicles were a bit like they were when I was growing up: either non-existent or stuff down someplace never to be found). But by and large the girls were fun safari companions.

At the end of the day it was back to the tented camp for a safari shower and tea. This is where you sense the difference in having kids along. At a time when, in the past, we’d normally be browsing through our photos, relaxing with our cup and animal books, we instead spent the time wrestling (mostly me), organizing all their crap, snacks, etc. (mostly Priya). I confess that we brought the ipad/tablet combo to provide us a least a bit of down time. It’s actually not a bad thing since what they see is often relatively educational and we do put rather strict limits on the amount of time they can spend on the devices.

The night was cool and nice. The cicadas and other insect come out in full force. We didn’t hear anything major the first night but the second night we heard a herd of zebras run through the camp at about 2am. They stopped at one point and you could hear them breathing and snorting. Then all of the sudden they took off.

 On day two we had packed lunches and we would be out until late afternoon. It gave us a chance to cover almost the entire reserve, starting south and then looping around counter clockwise.  We would have lunch just 3 km. from the TZ border in this idyllic spot on some high ground in the shade of a lone acacia tree. The only thing a bit less than idyllic was the fact that an unidentifiable animal carcass was rotting away up on one of the branches (I’m guessing warthog given that I’d seen some in the area). Apparently it had been dragged there by a leopard. Unfortunately unfinished dinner in a place like that is not very accessible to the hyenas, jackals and vultures (tightly enclosed area but high in the tree) that would normally scavenge such things. As such it generated some flies and bits of fur here and there around where we ate.

The highlight of the day, and probably now my top safari experience, was provided to us by a couple of emaciated cheetahs. We spotted the spotted brothers on a bit of high ground allegedly scoping out what they were going to have for breakfast. We heard later that they had made a failed attempt on a kill and that there was a likelihood they would strike again. When we commented on the fact that they looked too weak to pull off a kill, the guide said it wasn’t the case. On the contrary, he said, since they generally can go five days between kills, these guys were pushing that limit and they would be desperate.

After watching them a bit we moved on, though not entirely. We positioned ourselves further away but kept watching them creep closer to a herd of topis. Initially we thought that might be breakfast but fortunately for the topis, there was a lone impala nearby that ended up in their cross-hairs.
The guide tracked the cheetahs with his binoculars that were now no longer visible to the naked eye. They were a few hundred meters away and also crouched down in the brush. I kept staring in their direction and all of the sudden you could see the cheetahs lunge forward from opposite directions. The body of the impala flipped up in the air. It all happened fast. Immediately the guide started the Land Cruiser and we were flying across the bumpy savanna towards the action. Another vehicle arrived about the same time we did and two others were on the way. We stopped about 10 meters from the cheetahs. Soon all the vehicles engines were silent and we watched the event unfold. I’m taking photos as fast as I can and taking in the moment. All of the sudden I look down and Kiran is staring at the scene, apparently a bit horrified. Our angle was actually quite good in that we were spared from seeing the majority of the gore. Nonetheless, both girls seemed to have a grasp of what they were seeing. 

I started what would be an ongoing conversation about the cycle of life and all that. I can look back on similar things that I experienced growing up that sent a shock through my little brain. One in particular was when I was on my grandparents’ farm. I’m not sure how old I was but as I recall I was something like five or six years old. My grandpa and I were going to feed the cows one warm summer evening. Grandpa used these big hooks to hoist hay bales from the stack and into the feed trough. As he lifted a bale that was at the bottom of the stack we noticed a family of tiny, pink baby mice in the moist rectangle where the hay had been. After dropping the bale into the trough, Grandpa turned back around and, as I was leaning over admiring the cute little things, he drove his heel into them and crushed them one by one. I was stunned. While I don’t think he realized how horrified I was (he was actually a pretty sensitive guy), he must have gathered that at the very least I didn’t see that coming. He proceeded to tell me what a nuisance mice are on a farm and how it was necessary for farmers to protect their farms from not only mice but other critters. At the time I couldn’t picture how a creature the size of tater tot could ever threaten farm work but many years later, while I was doing the farming and watching entire ditch banks wash out due to the extensive mouse tunnels, I thought back to that evening with my grandfather. 

So yes, it was a tough moment for the girls, particularly Kiran who is a bit older, but I think it’s part of her education. I don’t think she was too traumatized but in the days that followed she has mentioned several times that she doesn’t like cheetahs.

Interestingly, at the airport as we returned to Bujumbura, I ran into the acting Dutch ambassador and his wife at the baggage claim area. We chatted for a bit as we were awaiting our bags and she asked Kiran what her favorite animal was, she replied, “Hyena.”  

It’s not the answer you’d expect from most safari goers. But it was not unanticipated. On our first afternoon we were driving along and came upon a family of hyenas sitting in the grass, very near the road. Pups were yipping and playing near their month. They seemed more like house pets than the power-jaw scavengers that they are – or will become. Both girls seemed to enjoy the scene and it was probably far more relatable to them then a more distant giraffe or topi.

The other reason I knew Kiran might saw hyena was that the liked the word. She said it was a pretty name and, to be honest, I never thought of it that way. Probably not a name I’d give to a child but if it was a type of flower, who knows, it might have been popular.

A list of animals seen on this trip: lion, waterbuck, topi, cheetah, warthog, elephant, zebra, hippo, croc, hartebeest, mongoose, impala, Thompsons gazelle, baboon, jackal, hyena, ostrich and giraffe.
I’ve been on many African safaris in 8 different parks/reserves and they have all been special for different reasons. This one will obviously stand out for it being the girls’ first such experience. It is hard to know how much they will remember given their ages. Kinaya likely won’t remember a thing. Kiran, being nearly five, likely will retain a couple of the key things. The photos will help.
Another thing that made this special was the dramatic and successful cheetahs’ hunt of the impala. It’s a rather rare occurrence for the standard, recreational safari trip. Pretty amazing.

Two weeks later, here I am in Kenya again, only this time I’m sequestered in a Nairobi hotel day and night working and attending meetings. It’s a much different experience. Having said that, it’s a nice hotel and we’re on the edge of a national park. Animal sightings are not very common, certainly not close given that we are also on the edge of a noisy city, but one could do worse. The view of the savanna from the terrace does make me long to return to the true safari experience – a sort of trigger for thoughts of what we were experiencing not long ago. Sigh. Back to work.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

David's Visit



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.