Friday, November 30, 2007
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
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.
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
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 www.theirc.org – 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...
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
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
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
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.