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.