Sunday, December 9, 2007

Final Thougths

It's 5am in New York, 1pm in Nairobi, and I have no idea what time my body thinks it is. Anyway, I'm up, everyone else is asleep, so I figured it would be a good time for reflection.

A bit more about Ethiopia. It's really an extraordinary place. Besides the fact that their calendar is a bit wacky, and they tell time differently, they're all very interested in education and learning. As we drove around Addis, I saw many many schools, both technical and non-technical. The local IT guy had to leave early one day because he had an exam in his web design class, and I'm told this is very typical. This may not seem so unusual to us, but given what the country looks like, and it's reputation, it was surprising to me. Addis is a booming city, with significant country influences. There is building everywhere - mostly small commercial buildings from what I can tell, but in a perfect example 0f the contradictions of Ethiopia, the scaffolding used to build these buildings is all hand-made! They use long thin wooden poles which don't look particularly sturdy, but they clearly do the trick. Among all this building there are people walking around with small herds of goats, or selling thing they grew in their fields. It's a very safe place, unlike Nairobi, and the people are very gentle and kind. It really makes me wonder why the country is struggling so much overall. They're ranked 144th out of 151 countries on the UN sponsored Human Development Index. From a business standpoint, they make it quite challenging to work there. There is only one Internet provider, for instance, and it's run by the government which means without competition, there's no incentive for them to provide quality service. The "broadband" they recently introduced is low quality consumer-level service, which means that when you ask for a 256K line, you might get half of that, at best. It's not unworkable for businesses, but it certainly doesn't make it easy. I wonder why the government doesn't embrace things like technology that could bring even more industry into their country, and hopefully raise the standard of living for everyone. Clearly this is a very complex issue, and I don't claim to understand it fully, but it was one of the more interesting aspects of Ethiopia, and I'm very interested to see how things develop over the next few years.

I should talk a little about the food. For those of you who know me, I don't think you'd be surprised to hear that I was a little nervous about what I would eat. I managed to find some energy bars to bring with me, along with a small jar of peanut butter. It turns out, much to my surprise, that the food everywhere was excellent (although I don't think I'm going to eat more goat anytime soon). Our last night in Addis, there was a goodbye dinner for two of the staff who were leaving, and we went to an Ethiopian restaurant which had a nice floor show. There was a buffet with all sorts of unidentifiable dishes, but I just jumped in an it was tremendous! Excellent sauces, rice, chicken, beef, and tasty bread. I was in heaven. The peanut butter didn't go uneaten, by the way. I should also add that my travel companion, who eats anything and everything, brought two large bags of treats, including mini Krackels, which I ate with abandon. We both agreed that next time, it probably won't be necessary, although it's good to know that the little mini Hersheys don't melt as quickly as a Peppermint Patty, for instance.

I'm going to upload more pictures now. More later...

Saturday, December 8, 2007


Relaxing in the airport after spending the morning walking around Amsterdam. Beautiful city. We arrived by train as the city was just waking up. It was pitch dark, and nothing was open, so we walked through the dark streets, taking pictures, and waiting for the sun to come up. We make it to museum square and found the only open cafe where we had great eggs and coffee. We wandered over to the Rijksmuseum and were blown away by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Jan Steen. Then we walked back to the station, poking our heads into a coffee shop for the aroma, and walking through the red light district, but I think it was a bit early for that crowd.

It was great to just be a tourist for a few hours and not think about bandwidth, marketing templates, or anything work-related. Very happy to be headed home. Big hug coming, kids! Be ready!

Friday, December 7, 2007

Nairobi at last

We're sitting in a lovely garden at the Fairview Hotel after a nice lunch and some yummy chocolate cake. The trip from Ethiopia was uneventful if you don't count sitting in crazy Nairobi traffic for 90 minutes on the way in from the airport. But we finally arrived, and it's heavenly here. We'll spend a few hours just relaxing before heading back to the airport for our 11PM flight to Amsterdam.

Looking forward to the flight as an opportunity to decompress and process what I've seen and heard. U'm definitely returning with new perspectives - the question is how to channel those into improved service to my colleagues in the field.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Ethiopia Day 2 & 3

Ethiopia Day 2 & 3
The two-day trip to the field was extraordinary. It’s all a bit of a blur to me, so I’m going to combine both days into one post. I woke up at 6 and got some wonderful pictures of Addis Ababa at sunrise. Very peaceful. We left around 9 for a three hour drive to Asbe Teferi where the IRC has a number of programs. The drive was quite something. The landscape was sometimes desert, sometimes moonscape, sometimes a little green. There were short stretches where we wouldn’t see anything alive, and then 50 camels would appear on the side, or sometimes in the middle of the road. More often we saw individual Ethiopian farmers moving their sheep/cows/goats/camels along the road, or carrying large bundles on their heads. It was something out of Lawrence of Arabia. We would also pass through small towns with shops lining the road, diesel trucks everywhere, lots of goats, of course, and people walking everywhere. A world apart, that’s for sure.

The drive gave us a chance to chat with our hostess, the deputy director of Ethiopia. We stopped for a quick bite of roast chicken – quite tasty, I must admit. A bit later, we met up with the local IRC team for a tour of some of the work we’re doing. We turned off the nice paved road, and made our way through an endless series of turns in local neighborhoods and fields. To say that we were in a remote area is a major understatement. After about 35 minutes of seemingly endless turns, we ended up at a pond site. One of the major issues in this area is water. There isn’t enough, or even close to enough. So, the IRC is helping the local people to come up with ways of preserving what water they do have. We helped them to build a small pond (approx 25’ square and 3 meters deep). This pond is lined with plastic sheeting and outfitted with a manual pump which is attached to an irrigation system for a small plot of land which grows vegetables. This pond collects rainwater and allows them to grow crops which they can eat or sell. The money they make goes into maintaining the pond and irrigation system, among other things. The interesting point is that the IRC is working with these people and involving them in the solutions. We help them to create a water council that manages the pond, they excavated the site, and they maintain the pump. The IRC’s role is to advise, consult, and arrange (and pay) for contractors when necessary. But once things are setup, they’re really in a position to run things on their own. It was quite impressive. The other amazing example of this was a bore hole which brings water about 5km from a reservoir to a local village. The pump for the well is operated by a diesel generator which is housed in a small shed nearby. This generator is maintained by a member of the community who was trained by the manufacturer. To say the generator was clean is an understatement. It was spotless. The dirt floor was spotless. Very impressive and inspiring.

We visited a few more sights (Marc’s blog might have more details) including a school with 91 students in the class. Marc and I both reacted that if it were the states, we’d be raising hell if there were over 25 students in a class. We visited another school where they were teaching young kids who’d otherwise be working for their families getting water, getting firewood, cleaning the house, and taking care of their younger siblings. We helped the community to get these kids in school by bringing the water closer, and getting some of the older folks to care for the youngsters. Now these kids can learn to read and write, and may be even more help to their families someday.

After a quick stop at the IRC office, we checked into our “hotel”. It was about as basic as it gets, but it was comfortable. After a brief nap, we went for dinner. Our hostess asked me if I preferred Ethiopian food or pasta. Not a hard choice for me – pasta. She said there’s a good place that serves both. Turns out she was wrong – only Ethiopian food. OK – I’m game. She ordered something called Shekla Tips, which is basically small bit of goat meat cooked on a grill with onions. What can be bad, right? It turned out to be pretty good, but goat meat is very tough. My favorite part was dipping the bread (thank god for bread!) into the juice and onions. Then back to the room where I watched Alice Adams, a very early Katherine Hepburn movie, and fell asleep.

I was awoken by loud screams, and when I peeked out of my window I saw about 10 vultures scrounging for food just outside my room. Odd way to start the day. Breakfast was interesting: something called Special Fool (Foul?), which was a mixture of eggs, lentils, garlic, and spices. It was pretty tasty (I think there’s a picture on Marc’s blog) and filling. Combined with an excellent macchiato. Again, rather incongruous to be sipping a macchiato in a place like that, but that’s one of the many contradictions of Ethiopia.

Stopped at a couple more sites before heading back to Addis. The drive was equally interesting on the way back. The road wound through the hills, dropped into the valley, and rose back up to Addis. I think we went through at least 3000 feet of elevation change. Arrived in Addis in the late afternoon, had an early dinner and crashed hard.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Ethiopia Day 1

I’m back in my hotel in Addis Ababa after visiting the field yesterday. Before I get to some of my impressions, I have to mention two interesting facts about Ethiopia:
  1. The current year in Ethiopia is 2000. Yes, you read that correctly. The Ethiopian calendar is 7 and a half years behind everyone else’s. Their year consists of 12 months of 30 days, and a 13th month with either 5 or 6 days. The explanation I read in my guide book is that it’s based in the Coptic calendar, which has it’s roots in ancient Egypt. Very strange, don’t ya think?
  2. They keep time differently. Sunrise is 12:00 (6am our time). When the sun sets, it’s 12:00 again (6pm our time). I’m told that when you schedule meetings, you need to make sure you’re talking about the right time keeping style. Again, rather odd.

We arrived in Addis Ababa on Monday morning (on a nice, large plane, thankfully) and were met by David ?, the IRC’s country director for Ethiopia. The drive to the office was quick as it’s pretty much across the street. It’s a very nice office – lots of space, and very open. We met some of the staff, and then Marc and I sat down with David to get an overview of what he’s doing in Ethiopia. David’s been at the IRC for a while, so he has a good perspective on what we’re doing. He gave us a very succinct overview of how camps are established – very interesting. Then we had lunch with his current deputy director, and the new one who’s taking over in February. Pizza was good, and sprite was cold. After lunch, I met with the local IT guy, who was very shy, but seems very capable. He had good documentation of his environment, and seemed to run a tight ship. The challenge here (and many other places) is bandwidth. It’s miserable and expensive. They typically get about half of what they pay for. I got online with my laptop, and it’s barely usable. This is really throwing off some of my plans because without decent bandwidth, I can’t deliver any applications to them over the Internet. I’ve known this was going to be a challenge for a while, but it’s taken a visit to really understand the issue first hand. I put a call into my colleague at Save The Children, and apparently they do deliver applications over the Internet. I’m going to visit their local office on Thursday to see how they manage.

In the afternoon, the office organized a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. It turns out, not surprisingly, that coffee is a big deal here. It’s their largest export, and it’s really good. The women performing the ceremony had new, unroasted beans that they roasted right there, then made a fresh pot of coffee for everyone to drink. It was very good. I can’t imagine how someone could live here without drinking coffee. After some more discussions with staff, Marc and I were driven to our hotel where we discovered (with much joy) that there was free wireless in the rooms. Again, painfully slow, but it works. We had dinner and crashed in preparation for our trip to Asbe Teferi in the morning.

Sunday, December 2, 2007


In the Nairobi airport on the way to Addis Ababa. Likely there won't be any connectivity there, so no posts for a few days. Had a very nice dinner with the senior team from the Nairobi office last night. So interesting to talk with folks who have devoted their professional lives to international aid. They've all lived all over the world, which seems so unusual to us. More to come.


The internet connection is unbearably slow here, but I did manage to upload some pictures from the first afternoon. Click on the pictures in the slideshow on the left to get to the Picasa album. Enjoy!

Back in Nairobi

The safari was quite something. I hope to upload pictures soon - words cannot really do it justice. We have a free afternoon in Nairobi today, then off to Ethiopia very early in the morning.
A quick word about small planes. I don't like them. Simple as that. Unfortunately, this makes travel in Africa quite difficult. Fortunately, I had Mick, Keith, and the boys to keep me company on this flight. Marc, on the other hand, slept like a baby. Go figure.

Friday, November 30, 2007


Just watched a cheetah chase down a gazelle! Spectacular!!

Safari so far

Lions. Elephants. Cheetah. Baboon. Gazelle.

Safari Bound

After two meeting-filled days in Nairobi, we're off to the Masai Mara for two days of stalking animals from a jeep. I really haven't been too focused on this part of the trip since my primary reason for coming to Africa was business. Now that it's upon me, I'm starting to get excited. Doubt I'll have any Internet connection there, so this will probably be my last post until Sunday evening.

I learned a tremendous amount in the two days in Nairobi, and I feel much better prepared to tackle the technical and organizational challenges of operating in Africa. I can't wait to get back and try to implement some of the ideas that came up. Before then, however, is Ethiopia.

Flight's leaving now. Another tiny plane. Woohoo!!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Kakuma to Lokichoggio to Nairobi

Woke up feeling much better this morning – slept well, and feel well hydrated. After a quick breakfast of bread, French toast, and a donut, we were off to see a program that educates women about the benefits of breastfeeding, and post-natal nutrition. I half expected something like a Lamaze class, but instead there were a bunch of women sitting under a tree hearing a health coordinator explain that all a baby needs for the first 6 months is breast milk. The program coordinator was explaining that their culture (either Somali or Sudanese – I can’t recall) was to give the baby something sweet so they’d grow up to be a sweet person. They would also supplement with water or cow’s milk. It was clearly an uphill battle with these women, but as Marc suggested, since this was a voluntary program, they were all interested in learning how to have healthier babies. I kept thinking about how difficult it must be for them to go against generations of culture. Their forbearers have been raising children this way for generations – who are we to say it should be done differently? Just another one of the challenges of working with refugees, I suppose.

After that we went to visit a program where they construct the latrines, and do a variety of other things like spray for mosquitoes. There we met a few of the “incentive” staff. These are refugees who help the IRC staff in projects (almost all the projects have them). The ones we met here were very impressive – clearly working very hard to rise above their situation.
After some lunch (goat again), we got into a jeep and, along with a few other cars, were escorted to Lokichoggio which is about 100Km south of Sudan. From here we were going to take a plane back to Nairobi. We had to be escorted because there are occasionally incidents of bandits along the way. Interesting. Everyone else seemed pretty calm about it, so I figured I’d be calm too. It was a very beautiful drive through the Kenyan countryside. There were lots of nomadic tribe herding goats, many tall termite mounds (as high as 15 feet), and we even saw an upside down boat on the side of the road. I was told it was being shipped to Juma to be put onto the Nile river. Hmm. The nicely paved road went through the dry riverbed a few times, and our hosts told us about a recent incident where an IRC health worker was driving with some colleagues from another NGO and they got caught in a flash flood. Their jeep was immediately submerged in the river. Two of them made it, two of them didn’t, including the IRC health worker. Very sad. The river that we saw was dry as a bone, but we were told that when it rains, the river floods, which causes serious issues in the camp since it’s basically along the river, and there’s no bank. When the rain stops, the water is absorbed into the earth, and it becomes dry as a bone again. Two states: flooded and dry. What a place.

We arrive in Lokichoggio a bit early and went to a lovely safari hotel for a soda and few minutes of relaxation. Getting there, we drove on some of the worst roads of the whole trip, but then there were these gates and inside was an oasis. What a nice feeling, but somehow hard to absorb something so nice being right next to such a poor neighborhood. Oh well – the contradictions of Africa, I guess.

Short jet to Nairobi, taxi to the hotel, an excellent Indian meal with Marc, and collapse in the hotel.


I finally got a moment to upload some of my pictures. If you click on one of the pictures in the slideshow at the left, you'll be taken to my Picasa album and can seem them a bit bigger. You should also be able to view them on a Google Map if you're interested. My favorite so far is the one of the guy with a camel's head and neck on the back of his bicycle. Crazy!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Kakuma Day 1

How to describe what I saw today. I think the best approach is to start with the facts. After arriving at the camp and meeting the staff, we were ushered into the office of the Camp Director, an employee of the Kenyan government. It was a rather surreal meeting. We all introduced ourselves, and he proceeded to talk for a few minutes about what the Kenyan government is doing to help refugees, and how groups like the IRC are a critical part of the process. What was strange was that it felt as though we needed to pass muster in some way in order to be let into the camp (not that there’s any entrance, btw). I guess in the end we were there to pay respects, but it had a very odd feeling. Then we drove through the camp to the IRC office. Refugees everywhere, all of them walking or riding bikes, all of them looked like they were going somewhere. Many people in traditional dress (I was told they were mostly members of the local Kenyan tribe who live in this area), and many in a mish-mash of western clothing. Everyone looked at us as we drove past, but no one seemed to pay us any particular mind.

Next, after a brief stop at the IRC offices, we were given a few minutes to freshen up in our rooms. We’re staying in a UNHCR guest house. The rooms are spare, but there is air conditioning and a mosquito net. After regrouping at the IRC compound again, we were off to see the hospital, which is one of the larger components of the IRC’s program in Kakuma. What a drive. The roads are abysmal. Even in a Land Cruiser, we had to slow down to a crawl every 20 feet or so to negotiate a large hole. Even when it’s relatively smooth, the jeep shakes like it’s about to fall apart. The main impact of all this, besides loosening everyone’s teeth a bit, is that vehicle maintenance is a major issue. Land Cruisers last about 4 years, and these are about the toughest vehicles you can get.

The hospital is very impressive. We were given a tour by the head administrator. They have just about all the services of a modern hospital, and provide services to everyone in the camp. They also run 4 clinics that are located in various places within the camp. What I was most impressed with were the Kenyan staff who run the place (and most of our activities in Kakuma). Many of them are highly trained professionals who have chosen to work in one of the most difficult environment on earth. And they are all incredibly positive and hard working.
After the hospital, I came back to spend a little time with Nenad on some of the IT issues in the Kakuma office. The most significant issue, of course, is bandwidth. They can’t afford what they have, and that isn’t even sufficient. We talked with the local IT staffer (who’s based in Nairobi and comes to Kakuma every other week or so) and discussed various options, none of which are particularly good. They also have issues with inconsistent power, dust, and, of course, the typical IT issues of replacing old equipment, tracking what people have, getting them the latest software, etc. One interesting issue we uncovered was that they can get to any website except – our own website! Very strange. The best theory is that the ISP is blocking access for some unknown reason. As Nenad, my International IT Manager says: It’s Africa.

After the tech session, we had lunch, and I took a much needed nap. I was feeling pretty lousy at this point, probably because I hadn’t been drinking enough water. I need to be more focused on this. After the siesta, we went to visit a program which is educating Darfurian women on basic hygiene, then went to see the location for the newly arrived Somalis. They were relocated from another camp in Kenya, and were put in the most desolate part of Kakuma. It’s really hard to imagine how these people are going to rebuild their lives, but with the help of groups like the IRC, it’s definitely happening.

Had dinner with the IRC team. We had goat, among other things, which I ate like a trooper. Luckily, there's always plenty of starch at these meals. Very tired now - must sleep...

Quick Flight

Sitting in a rather small UN plane on the way to Kakuma. It's a beautiful sunny day. The landscape of Kenya is hard to make out from up here. There are a few big lakes, which somehow seems unexpected. On the right side, Mt. Kenya looms large. It appears to be floating in the clouds. Quite a sight.

The plane is nearly full. The young Irish bloke next to me is an intern with UNHCR, halfway through his 6 month internship. I'm wondering about who all the other people are, and what brings them here. See they all aid workers? Do some of them live there?

Managed to grab my iPod before we left. Nice to have a soundtrack for a few minutes. I should probably be grabbing some shut eye like everyone else, but somehow there's too much to look at - too much to think about. I'm sure I'll hit the wall at some point.

Getting close now. The landscape is much more barren. Descent is starting. From the air, you really get a sense of how huge the camp is.

Well, we're here.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Early Morning

It's 5am Nairobi time, and I've been up since 3. Very much looking forward to some strong Kenyan coffee. Should be an interesting day.


After two 7-hr flights, and a layover in Amsterdam, we’ve finally arrive in Nairobi. Everything went very smoothly – both flights were comfortable and without incident. Luggage arrived, taxi was waiting, hotel was a short drive from the airport. It’s hard to give much of a first reaction to Nairobi since we landed at night, but it reminded me a bit of Panama. The only odd thing was when we turned off the main road, it seemed like we were going onto a fairly small road. We passed a few official looking building, and I think I might have seen the word “prison” on one of them. We went through something called a “friendly checkpoint”, which was basically some large concrete blocks in the road that made you slow down and swerve around them. I wonder what an “unfriendly checkpoint” is. A few yards later, we turned into the hotel’s compound. There were no less than 6 guards standing behind the large metal gate. When we pulled up, one of them came over with a serious look on his face. He looked at us and with a huge smile said: “Welcome – a very warm welcome to you”. We (at least I) breathed a sigh of relief. We checked in, bought some water, and both went to our rooms to collapse. We have a 5am wakeup call so we can make the 7am flight to Kakuma.

During the flight, I continued to read What Is The What by Dave Eggers. It’s the slightly fictionalized version of the life story of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the Sudanese Lost Boys. It’s incredibly moving, but what’s most interesting is that the IRC plays an important role. Not only is he resettled by the IRC in Atlanta, but the person who finally tells him his parents are alive is a midwife employed by the IRC. Also, he spends 10 years in the Kakuma refugee camp, which is exactly where I’m headed tomorrow. I’m very glad to have read this book before this trip – while I can’t imagine being fully prepared for what I’m going to see, at least I now have some understanding of what at least one refugee went through. This really should be required reading for anyone working at the IRC, particularly anyone working in a support role (hear that IT staff?).

OK – off to bed now – very early wake-up call tomorrow. Didn't really have a chance to take many pictures, but I'll try to post a couple.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Getting Closer

I'm starting to pack in earnest now. Can't seem to find my sunglasses, but otherwise I think I'm in pretty good shape.

I had a number of opportunities during the two Thanksgiving celebrations I attended yesterday, to talk about my trip. One of the other guests at the first meal had done a safari in Tanzania, and had some good information for me. To most people, though, my trip is something very exotic and foreign. I heard myself explaining both my trip, and what the IRC does many times, and each time it all made more and more sense to me. Let me see if I can sum it up here: The IRC helps refugees. We help them when they come to the US, but we also help them when they're in refugee camps. In order to be an effective member of the IRC team, I have to understand what we actually do when we help refugees. It's no different than when I worked in advertising, I needed to understand how we helped out clients get their message out. In order to do this, I need to visit the field. Pretty straightforward.

On the technical side, a significant part of my responsibility is to make sure that all of our worldwide staff has access to all the resources they need to do their jobs effectively. This ranges from bandwidth to PCs to applications. Providing these services to our headquarters in NY and our other US-based offices is challenging, but there are many good models to follow, and with the right approach can be done well. The rest of the world, and Africa in particular, is a whole different kettle of fish. Bandwidth is a real challenge there, which makes everything else harder. My hope for this trip is that I will accomplish two things relative to technology:
1. Get a real sense of what it's like to work from these locations, how painfully slow the Internet connection is, how our intranet functions, etc.
2. To meet and talk with people who are on the ground doing IT support. These folks work for the country offices, not for my IT group, so I have a lot to learn about how they get things done. My hope is that by getting to know them and their issues, I'll be able in the future to help them be more effective.

Of course I'm excited to see Africa, but my real focus is on the IRC's work, and how I can help.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


As the CTO of The IRC, I'm off to visit "the field" for the first time, along with my colleague, Marc Sirkin, the Chief Marketing Officer. It will certainly be an interesting trip. Neither of us really has any idea what we're going to see, or how we're going to react. We're visiting both main country offices (Nairobi and Addis Ababa), and field sites in refugee camps.

It's been a bit of a challenge getting information on what to bring, and how best to prepare myself, but I'm feeling in pretty good shape now, thanks to some key advice from colleagues.

Unlike most trips where packing is done in about an hour, I'm going to set aside a good half-day either Friday or Saturday to lay things out. I'm sure I'll be needing to make a run to a store for some last minute supplies - a good excuse to get some new gear.

At my wife's strong urging, I bought a travel book for both Kenya and Ethiopia so I could familiarize myself a bit more with where I'm going. They both look like extraordinary places. The combination of the country and seeing the work we do will certainly be a potential life-changing experience.