DRC & Kenya - August 12, 2011

Even though I’m going to be here for less than 2 full weeks, I might be sending out multiple messages. I’m bursting with things to say.  So…sorry for the length of this e-mail, as always.

Yesterday morning I ate breakfast while watching a CNN report on Dadaab. It was very surreal to be watching the report from the place they are reporting on. Many of my coworkers were snickering or outright laughing at the reporting. I’ve only been here for 48 hours, which is not long enough to know the ins and outs so I can’t really comment on why they found it amusing. I think it was related to the stories the press was focusing on and perhaps some of the information which was not quite true or misrepresented.  They really seemed to get a chuckle from a report of a greenhouse that was started in one of the camps and how the newscasters were gushing over how great it was.

For the past few weeks I have been in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo. I had no idea what to expect when I was going there, other than thinking it was the Congo, like heart of darkness territory. Turns out Lubumbashi (or the Bumbash) is a pretty nice city. The roads are paved and generally in good condition, the buildings are kept up pretty well, there is a beautiful lake with a nice bar on the shore and a beach area where you can play soccer or volleyball. There are really nice, though extremely expensive, restaurants and the grocery stores are pretty well stocked. I was living in my own apartment with hot running water. There was even a gym near my apartment where I took a couple of classes. Tai Bo in Congolese French was pretty funny. With every punch and kick the instructor would say “Et voila. Et voila. Et voila. Et voila” All in all it felt pretty luxurious.

 The experience I got was mostly from the people I met and the work I was doing, as opposed to the crazy location. It was a great mix of people. One night we had a work dinner and there were 18 people from all over the world. It felt like a model UN meeting…USA, Canada, Belgium, France, Denmark, The Netherlands, Lithuania, Serbia, DR Congo, Uganda, Tanzania, Guinea, Cote D’Ivoire, and Jamaica. I don’t think I’ve ever been with such a diverse group of people in my life.  I ate some really great Greek and French food while I was there and my boss’ wife made me some wonderful home cooked meals, including frog’s legs, which I enjoyed. I also had some fascinating conversations with my European colleagues about the USA. It’s so interesting to hear what people from other countries think about us.

 We had a goat that lived at the office compound and was pretty cute. They called her Madame Brochette which means Mrs. Kabob in English. A village gave her to the Director as a gift. The Director’s last day was right before I left so we had a big going away party for him. Madame Brochette was on the menu until it was discovered she was pregnant. Instead they brought in this cute billy goat that followed her around until the afternoon when his day ended, permanently. He tasted pretty good, but, as is my luck with Africa so far, the last piece I ate turned out not be meat and had to have been some sort of internal organ, liver I think. It sort of ruined the whole experience, I must say. I posted pictures of Brochette on Facebook and the responses I got were pretty funny. No one wanted to see her become dinner, but the thing is, they don’t keep pet goats in Africa. It’s only us Americans that are so far removed from our food supply that wanted to save the goat. Everyone in the office had been ready to eat Brochette for awhile. I was the only one making sad faces about how cute she was. We had an all staff meeting and she even walked right through the crowd and sat up at the front near the Director, like she was the VP or something. Anyway, I’m sure after she gives birth and the baby is weaned, her final day will come.

The most exciting part of the assignment was when, one Friday morning, we he had to close the office down and all the expats had to “hibernate” which means stay in their houses. The leader of the opposition party was visiting the city Friday and there were a lot of supporters driving past our office on the main road to the airport. It wasn’t just opposition supporters though, the ruling party supporters were going as well. Buses and cars and trucks were zooming up the streets overloaded with people, flying their party flags and yelling and honking their horns. We weren’t expecting anything to happen, but you never know in this part of the world. When politics are involved and when people are gathering in masses and crowds, all it takes is one tiny thing to ignite trouble. My apartment building was also right on the main road and it just so happened that that weekend I was the only person staying there. So, rather than be alone if something went down, I ran home, packed my go bag and grabbed the food from my fridge (which consisted of cheese and bread) and went to stay at our other apartment compound where there were some other expats. I was the second in command for security issues, so I was dealing with our security company and serving as the contact point for our Director. It was all rather exciting I must say, but only because there were no concrete threats. To cap it all off, one of our local staff passed away late that Sunday night from a prolonged illness. It’s pretty standard for NGO’s to help when something like that happens to a staff member. So I was liaising with my Logistics Manager who was arranging transport in one of our vehicles to a morgue and we paid for the casket and provided transport at the funeral. It was an interesting weekend to say the least.

 Overall the work I was doing was pretty challenging, mostly because it was all in French. Really it was just an office job (but with an office goat). I can get along pretty well, but I’m far from fluent. Having every e-mail and document and conversation in French, day in and day out, was getting to be a bit tiring. The first few days I was struggling, then there were a few days when I felt super smart and could understand and speak well, and then it just disintegrated and I got lazy and by the end it was hard to even string a whole sentence together. Anyway, due to the emergency in Kenya with the drought in East Africa, they pulled me out early. Despite the “luxury” (which is relative, by the way…luxury for me compared to Liberia…maybe not luxury to most others, lol) I was actually pretty glad to leave. I was already itching to get back into the field.

 It was interesting departing through the airport in Lubumbashi. It was a mad crush of people and bags and really just utter chaos. Thankfully we have a staff member at the airport to facilitate people arriving or leaving. Without him I’d probably still be there wandering around, wondering where I was supposed to go. There wasn’t even security. Well, on the tarmac just before getting to the plane, there were two folding tables where they sort of opened your hand luggage and peeked in. Then a lady with a hand wand came up to me and despite it going off at least 5 times, just let me right through. So, if that counts as security, but I say it doesn’t.

 I arrived in Nairobi on Monday afternoon around 4:30. The drive from the airport to my hotel in the city center was probably the worst experience of my entire life. The traffic was just insane with millions of cars and motorbikes and crazy local mini-buses that randomly crossed all lanes to let people in and out and then those people would run across the road right in front of us. What made it the worst experience was that every single truck or bus on the road was belching huge black clouds of exhaust. The weather was pretty mild, but sitting at a standstill in the car was getting hot. So the choice was either have the window open to get a small breeze and have clouds of black smoke billow into the car, or have the windows closed, feel really hot, and still smell the smoke, though a bit less intense. I was tired, hot, hungry and thirsty, feeling mildly car sick and suffocating from exhaust fumes…for about 2 hours. I was in hell. Honestly I can say that I was hating Nairobi and wanting to go back to the airport and get the hell out of there.

 The only bright side was watching street vendors walking between the cars trying to sell their gear. They were selling really random things. I can understand the cell phone scratch cards and food and even the car accessories like windshield wipers and floor mats. But Scrabble board games? Couch pillows? An iron coat rack? It was totally random.

 Once I got to the hotel I started feeling better. It was in a nice area of town and next door was a really nice hotel called the Fairview. I went and had dinner at the Fairview’s garden restaurant and all my tension melted away. I ate under a wooden trellis covered in crawling vines, next to a large rock waterfall, with candles burning and a little wooden fire pot next to me to keep me warm. A guy was playing the guitar nearby and singing a lovely mix of African music and soft rock. I had great food, a nice big bottle of water and some chocolate ice cream. I figured I would give Nairobi a second chance.

The next day I walked to the office which was a block away and spent any remaining free time at the Fairview. It was great. Then on Wednesday morning I headed out to Dadaab, well really Hagadera which is about 10km from Dadaab. There was a complication with the UN flight so I wound up having to drive there, which took more than 8 hours. Driving through Nairobi traffic again at 8 in the morning, I realized that, nope…there are no second chances. Nairobi totally sucks…unless you live at the Fariview and never have to go more than a block away in any direction. Traffic in Kampala sucked too, but it wasn’t nearly as bad and the city was cleaner and nicer and all around superior. Sadly I have to go back to Nairobi for a week at the end of August for a conference. The only good thing is that I won’t have to leave the hotel for 3 days straight, so I can pretend I’m somewhere else altogether.

 Once outside Nairobi I was mesmerized by the Kenyan countryside. We drove straight East, out towards the border with Somalia. Outside the city, the landscape was fairly green with some large hills in the distance. We passed coffee and Del Monte pineapple plantations and through some little towns and villages. Everyone on the side of the road seemed to be leading a donkey or two with yellow jerry cans slung over the their sides. I have never seen so many donkeys in my life. I was driving with one of my local colleagues and the driver. They were listening to music from the Kikuyu tribe, which is apparently the largest of the 40-odd tribes of Kenya. It was fantastic. Watching the scenery and people pass by while listening to African tribal music was truly magical. It was the perfect soundtrack for my journey.

 As the hours wore on, the landscape and people started to change. The temperature started to rise as the land became more and more arid. The houses changed to these little round stick huts covered in fabric or cardboard or random assortments of plastic bags. The women became covered up as we were heading into the predominantly Muslim area and the people in general became taller and lighter skinned as the ethnicity became more Somali. Kenya is divided into Provinces and we did a vehicle swap at the border between the Eastern and Northeastern Provinces.  I switched into a vehicle that came down from Hagadera to pick us up. The rest of my journey, another 4 hours through the dessert, was set to Somali music that had a much more Arabic feel to it. Again, it was the perfect soundtrack for that part of the journey.

 The more desolate it became, the more and more shocking it was to see the people and their houses. All I could think was “how do people survive out here? There is nothing around but dry, thorny looking bushes.” Most of the native people in this area are nomadic goat and camel herders. The little villages and towns all had big wooden posts stuck into the ground where you can tie up your donkeys or camels while you are there. The villages were also covered in trash, mostly plastic bags. The bags were all along the roads and hanging from every tree and shrub. It was really quite shocking. There were piles of bags and trash along this one path and these boys were just playing soccer right in the middle of it. I am already someone who avoids using plastic bags as much as humanly possible, but now I never want to see one again. I think it is a blessing and an evil that we in the West don’t really have to deal with our trash. We put it out on the curb and someone magically takes it away and we never have to see it again. That makes us forget that the trash has to go somewhere. I’m becoming fascinated with waste management and, whenever I move back to the US, I really want to know where my trash is going and what is happening to it. If all the garbage companies stopped collecting for a month and people had to deal with their own trash, I think people would start to really rethink what they throw away and what it means to reuse and recycle.

 The last major town we came to was called Garissa. It’s along the Tana river so it’s much greener around the town. Just past Garissa the tarmac ended and we took off into the sand. It was pretty much like the dune bashing I did in Dubai, except maybe not quite as hilly. Everyone refers to it as a road, but really it’s just sand with the brush and bushes cleared off. I’m impressed that the Land Cruisers could drive it so well…generally I’m just impressed with Land Cruisers full stop. They are pretty kick ass vehicles and have been my second home for the last few months. Although there haven’t been any major incidences, almost all the NGO’s move with armed UN or police escorts when driving around out passed Garissa. I’m in Hagadera now, which is only 80-100 km away from the Somali border. This area has had its share of arms smuggling and armed banditry. It’s a bit challenging to always arrange movements with escorts, but better safe than sorry.

 There are three major refugee camps in the area of Dadaab with a total of close to 400,000 refugees and more coming every day. IRC operates in the Hagadera camp, which is the oldest of the three and has been here for 20 years. We provide the hospital and health services as well as Gender Based Violence services. Our compound is located right at the camp next to the hospital. This compound is amazing. Not luxurious, more like survivalist. I seriously felt like I was in a move when I first arrived. Like there was a zombie apocalypse and the only safe place left on earth was out in the middle of the nowhere dessert. The survivors have banded together and created a commune where they live and work and eat together. There is a canteen area (made from a concrete floor, wooden poles and a tin roof) where breakfast, lunch and dinner are served and where staff congregate in the evenings to socialize and watch tv. Next to the canteen is the kitchen shack. Then there are some tents throughout the compound and 5 or 6 permanent accommodation buildings. Thankfully I have a real room so I at least have a toilet and a shower with (cold) running water. This living compound is fenced and a gate connects it to the IRC hospital compound which is a sprawling complex of buildings and tents. My office is right next to what I’m told is the old maternity ward. However, I keep hearing crying and right now I’m listening to what sounds like a woman chanting her way through labor, so who knows what is actually going on inside the building. Whatever it is it sounds pretty horrifying and is giving me chills. It’s amazing what they have created here in just the past 2 years…literally out of nothing in the middle of the dessert. The town of Hagadera is just a series of tin huts for shops and a handful of stick houses.

 I haven’t actually been inside the refugee camp itself. There is a whole host of security protocols and you have to be escorted and right now there is no real reason why I need to go inside. I hope I get a chance to visit before I leave just so I can see it. My mission here is to help the team set up an emergency health post in a new camp that the UN is opening for the new refugees that keep arriving. It’s about 4km from Hagadera. They have started to erect some tents but the refugees have not been moved there yet. The land is covered with these thick, hard bushes and trees and it has to be cleared for tents to be erected. We’ve managed to clear some of our space and put up a tent to serve as a temporary health center. Essentially we will have some tents, a water tank, some very basic latrines, a fence and an ambulance to bring sick/injured people to the hospital in Hagadera.

 Yesterday I spent the morning in the new camp looking over what works had been completed and talking with the local Somali-Kenyan workers who were clearing the bush. One of our biggest challenges is relations with the host community. They have welcomed the refugees because even though they are Kenyan, they are still the same ethnicity as the Somalis. However, they are not as welcoming of the NGO’s. They are very demanding and want all the jobs and contracts. That is understandable. There is really nothing else here for them so they should benefit from the work that NGO’s bring. But they are not always qualified and there is a lot of politics and it is definitely a struggle. I was amazed at how long it took to discuss digging a latrine pit with the supervisor of the workers. In the end, they refused the work because it is Ramadan and they are fasting and tired. Essentially they work half days, and not very productively, during Ramadan, all for a full day’s wages of course.

 We finally managed to find some workers who were not fasting and willing to dig the pits. Then it took forever to explain what it was we needed. And I wasn’t even the one doing the explaining. Naturally I had local staff who were helping with the communications.  By the end of all this endless talking, I was ready to grab the shovel and just dig the pits myself. I could have had it done.  Anyway, it all worked out and now the pits have been dug and lined with sandbags to shore up the sides. The challenge I’m now facing is how to move 400kg concrete latrine covers (essentially round concrete slabs with a hole in the center to squat over) about 4km through the dessert. Our cargo truck’s flatbed is too high off the ground to load and unload the slabs. The NGO who makes the slabs has a truck, but of course it’s out of town for servicing. So now I’m trying to find a truck to use. Then we have to fill the flatbed with sand to cushion the slabs from the metal or they will break during the journey. Then I have to get day laborers to load and unload the slab. And I have to have it done like yesterday because they could be moving the refugees as early as tomorrow.

 Well, that’s all from me for now. I’m sure I’ll be writing again soon! Thanks for reading! Attached are a few pictures.