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Peacekeeping and Blow drying, Leaving CAR

In CAR, Career Development, Sustainable Development, Travel on November 23, 2014 at 12:46 pm

Coming home

November 22, 2014
Aboard Royal Air Maroc flight to Casablanca

Bangui bid me adieu with a thunderstorm. Grey skies, lightning not too far away. Local people trying to start their day, dealing with their normal hassles but with the addition of mud and rain.

There was a huge congregation of trucks near the halfway point near where the UN base is – it was the convoy for the Cameroon border. The routes in all directions are full of bandits and militias, so all NGOs and commercial trucks have been advised to follow various UN convoys on set days per week. The convoys basically clear the way, providing the security and scouting. A helicopter actually follows the convoys looking out for the worst.

According to a report from a few days ago, MINUSCA, the peacekeeping force here, assumed control of the Bangui airport. They’re the soldiers checking your vehicle on the way in, and they provide the security around the airport. In fact, I saw the peacekeeper soldiers deployed to clear the runway of locals so our plane could land. The airport appeared to allow regular people to cross and walk along the runway to pass through to the other side. I noticed they used the UN convoy escort helicopter to dry off a puddle that had built up on the main runway, on its way out.

There were a bunch of UN helicopters at the airport. It was basically a humanitarian airport that lets commercial flights move through. The UN had their several helicopters and UNHAS (United Nations Humanitarian Air Service, usually managed by WFP) has a few planes. MSF and ICRC had their own planes. Usually there are others but I wasn’t looking too hard. There is a camp next to and spilling into the airport for displaced people who were fleeing the Seleka. The Seleka are cordoned off in a part of town that most people on their way to the airport need to pass through, so any time something would flare up it stresses you out, wondering how you could get out if things got really dicey. But, I was confident that the omnipresent peacekeepers would be able to put a lid on anything these guys could throw at them. Indeed most violence is internecine now, the Seleka are divided, and the Antibalaka,who oppose them, take their opportunities to hit them when they can. Any time foreigners are hassled it’s pure criminality.

Getting through that airport was not awful, as usual I go into my traveler zen mode, where nothing can make me mad and I will myself to have absolute faith that I am not the only one being hassled. As long as I get to the airport on time I know I should be ok. The Bangui airport isn’t as bad as Juba or Khartoum, it’s just super small, although it wasn’t as jammed and dysfunctional as Juba. They seemed to move people through reasonably well. They checked my bag no less than 4 times, before I checked in, after I checked in, security scan, and then one final time. The last spot was where they took my spray deodorant and my nail clippers, both of which have been in my carry-on bag around the world with me a few times without hassle. Oh well.

They had a decent lounge upstairs where you could get an egg sandwich and Nescafé. That’s the most expensive Nescafé I’ve ever had, it was about $2 (1000 cfa), the egg sandwich was $4. I can afford it but they know they’re getting a premium from foreigners.

In the end I don’t care too much, this country has had a truly rough time of it. The people are weary, the local people on my flight seem to have this sense of solidarity having gone through some difficult experiences together. Maybe this is how New Yorkers were around 9/11.

Long flights home but I’ll be happy to be back. I had a much better trip than my last one for work, and much better than my last time in Africa. It was good to put Juba behind me. I was happy to speak a lot of French, I was able to get some stuff done and I hopefully was able to make some new friends. So I can’t complain. I’m lucky to have a job like this.

As always, I remain inspired by my colleagues. The heroes are the Central Africans trying to help rebuild their country. All we can do is help them help themselves.

Disaster Professionalism and Weekend Life, CAR Part 5

In Appropriate Technology, Capacity Building, CAR, International Development, Organizational Development on November 19, 2014 at 1:30 pm

11/18/14
10am, Bangui

Working conditions here can be really up and down. Maybe a lot of people interested in working in humantarian response and recovery or international development would be into understading the context…

Like I said in a recent post, staff capaity is low. So most international program managers find themselves either covering other’s shortcomings or spending all their time following up to see if things got done and were completed the right way. There is a lot of settling for “good enough.” You can react in one of two ways – you can be angry and gruff and complain all the time and get terse with your colleagues. Or – you can try to see it from the side of the locals – they are doing the best they can and they probably could wait you out. They know we won’t be here forever. There are a handful of expats that love it here and have been here forever. The vast majority though are here 1-2 years and they move on, having “done their time.”

Each viewpoint is understandable, there is enormous pressure here, both from the political and physical context, to the professional. You have to deliver on the promises of your organization; the NFI’s (Non food items) have to be delivered, the farmers have to be trained, the displaced have to be sheltered. All this has to be done under various donor regulations, which can be difficult to meet when there is such little understanding on the part of the local staff about the minutae of federal acquisition regulations.

The main street I take to work every day, they’re building a culvert along the road for drainage, it’s a pretty big project, probably funded by a melange of the UN and other foreign governments (France, among others). The other day they were painting crosswalks at various points where there are bridges to the other side of the culvert (it’s several feet wide). The idea of crosswalks must be so foreign… I can imagine standing at these crosswalks for hours without a vehicle even once thinking that because I’m in the crosswalk they should stop – there is just no foundation for having these crosswalks here – but it’s probably being done to be compliant with donor regulations. WIthin 24 hours they were covered in the omnipresent red dirt and invisible anyway… The metaphor being that the local context will always prevail – we have to adapt to it.

Expatriate staff here have very little to do other than work all the time. The security situation makes it difficult to go on excursions, such as to a game park or hiking. In better times, I could imagine boat rides on the Ubangi or camping along the river somewhere. Some expatriates go running but it’s only really recommended (or tolerated) in certain areas. There are some restaurants in nice spots, but I’m struck with how shabby they are. Even when I was in Niger, just as poor as CAR if not more so – restaurants run by internationals were usually pretty nice; they would understand the little things like having a clean bathroom, keeping the tables clean, etc. Here it’s like everyone’s just let it all go. While there is a certain charm to that – you can only take rustic for so long. After a while you need to just get off your butt and clean, make sure the toilets work and buy some bleach. It’s not like it’s not available here. This is something that would take time for me to understand, to comprehend how they prioritize.

The internet is so bad, even with a private connection, that going home to watch YouTube or stream anything is difficult, let alone download new movies. So there is a certain disconnect with popular culture, even with CNN, Al Jazeera, and other French channels available. But in some ways that’s not a bad thing, it gives an ascetic vibe where you can choose more deliberately what to focus on.

So, in general – if you’re going to work in the humanitarian realm, you have to go where the large emergencies are. This is where a large emergency is, one of the largest in the world right now – there are at least 4 UN designated “L3″ emergencies in the world and CAR is one (Iraq, Syria, and South Sudan being the others, not to mention Darfur and Somalia, etc.) As this is a man-made emergency, this is a chronically poor place with structural and cultural disadvantages that a place like the Philippines would be less affected by under a natural-disaster context, for example.

In the end it’s all about loving the mission and having patience, and enjoying being with lots of different kinds of people. That’s as simple as I can make it.

Finding My Pants and Some Deep Thoughts – CAR, Part 4

In CAR, Environment, Governance, International Development, Travel on November 18, 2014 at 1:41 pm

11/15/14
9:20am Bangui
At the moment, I’m most concerned with my pants. They’re the only pair I came with and they’re drying in the sun right now. It seems to rain pretty frequently here and it’s pretty humid, so I need to keep an eye out for rain. I washed them last night for the first time since I got here, I figured it was only fair.

I’m wearing a pair of swim trunks that a colleague’s husband generously loaned me, I’ve been wearing them without underwear when I sleep, while my lone pair of underwear dries overnight, along with my only pair of socks. I’m never checking a bag again when I come to these parts, or when I fly Royal Air Maroc.

My bag may or may have not come on today’s RAM flight that arrived about 90 minutes ago. I tried calling a bunch of times but to no avail. I’ll check in on it in another half hour I guess.

Yesterday was a busy work day, I gave my first presentation in French yesterday, well at least my first since grad school 8 years ago. My first professional presentation… not saying much. But it made the day exciting and it went by fast. I leave a week from today! So there’s that.

Even though there’s some insecurity here, it’s still nice to be with Africans again. I still like the pan-African vibe I get here with more enlightened people, which is to say most people. While there is kind of perfunctory pride in their countries, there is still more feeling of African-ness than being “Central African” or “Nigerien” or whatever. I think people probably feel more kinship with their ethnic group or family clan than they do in their colonially drawn up country.

7:30pm
As it happens, my bag arrived! After I stopped writing and started to arrange my day… I got a call from the airport, and my bag had indeed arrived!

I went to the airport, it took a while because, as my driver told me, we have to pass through an area of town where a lot of displaced people live. What I had thought was a bustling market is actually an overcrowded ghetto with stuff to buy in it, and people are living there because they’re afraid of getting killed in the other neighborhoods of town where they used to live. My driver told me this, he’s one of them. In this neighborhood, it’s mostly non-Muslims fleeing from Muslim-associated violent militias (the Seleka basically). There are other similar areas scared of non-Muslim militias (the anti-Balaka). He also told me about how the Chadians and other various military mercenaries were causing a lot of the unrest these last few years. What an insane mess – so many moving parts.

So with that sobering conversation tempering my enthusiasm, I was happy to get my bag. At some point in the journey they’d wrapped it in cellophane, which I guess was well-intentioned. Everything was there, nothing was stolen. I’ve got my clean pants on and fresh skivvies! It should be a good second week to my trip.

I spent some time just sitting today, for the first time in a while. Got tired of looking at my phone or watching BBC. It’s Saturday and the office is closed, and after a while the internet makes me crazy, a lot of what would feel productive for me involves a lot of internet access to a cloud site.

In any case, I sat on the front porch of my guest house. Across the street is this really pretty and lush hill with a “Bangui” sign up on it. I’m told it used to say “La Coquette” underneath but it’s overgrown. The hill is full of a diverse range of trees and undergrowth, and the guardians told me that there are normally monkeys up there, that come down and steal stuff. I was just kind of reflecting and feeling a weird sense of positivity. Mostly about how amazing the world is – think of how many cool birds there are up there, you can hear them. Think of how beautiful it is here – the river is flowing year round, there’s tons of water. You can grow anything here. There are a ton of natural resources. How easy it would be to be prosperous here if they could only get their shit together. It’s both beautiful and extremely infuriating at the same time. Mankind is the root of all evil.

Anyway, those are my deep thoughts for the day.

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