Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Woke up this morning to the news that the one ODM party member that was appointed to Kibaki’s parliament had been murdered. An assassination is suspected. Gee, ya think? So much for peace and quiet. Been on the phone and email since 7am assessing security and revising emergency protocols. Things are getting ugly. I don’t think anyone cares about the election any more, it has deteriorated into what is simply tribal violence. We decided to try to make a run to Busia to get money and diesel in case we are socked in here but we got halfway there and the road was blocked by a massive burning log across the road. The police arrived 30 seconds before we did, jumping out of their truck waving kalashes and tear gas cannons. We simply turned around and went home. MENTOR is very clear in their guidelines for how to react to roadblocks; if it is not absolutely essential that you pass, you turn around. We do not pay bribes (this is the position of most NGOs, if you pay you encourage people to continue to practice this extortion). If we needed to get through we diplomatically and carefully negotiate with them, explaining that we are a humanitarian organization here helping people, etc etc.
Luckily we found diesel at a small local petrol station. We of course carefully checked the quality of the diesel (the station attendants thought we were crazy, staring at a bottle full of diesel for a half an hour) by watching it to see if anything separated out of solution. We bought 500L.
This has all been a very interesting learning experience. Things that I never would have thought of have to be carefully considered. Isabelle has worked for MSF, MDM, UN and many other humanitarian organizations and is extremely knowledgeable about security. She is very calm and patient and has been great at helping us get our plans in order. We park the cars in position ready to drive away. We carry copies of our passports with us at all times. We call each other before, during and after any travel. We have “evac packs” ready to grab in case we need to leave quickly. Don’t worry, all of these things are standard operating procedures for humanitarian organizations. Unfortunately nothing was put in place before I arrived and all indications were that the election would be a peaceful process. We are simply putting in place what should have been already done for any operation in Africa.
Isabelle was telling me about when she worked in Sudan, 10 years ago during the war. She is a nurse and worked in a refugee camp and feeding center literally in the middle of the war zone. She was dropped in by a UN flight and left there for 2 months. She had to evacuate as the rebels were approaching and bombing was getting closer. They had to divert a UN flight to come and get her. It’s interesting to meet people like Isabelle who have worked in this field for a long time. She speaks of her experiences in a matter-of-fact way, “yes, if the plane hadn’t been able to land on the airstrip if it had been raining we would have just run into the bush with our evac pack”. Organizations like MSF, MDM, Red Cross etc actually work closely with the various military factions in war zones and they negotiate agreements that ensure their safety. There is an unwritten “Geneva Convention” in bush wars that humanitarian organizations are supposed to be protected (again let me emphasize that this is not the situation here!!!) but sometimes aid workers are killed. The logistics and politics of aid during crises is very interesting.
Another funny story from Isabelle, her last posting was in North Korea for two years. She and her boyfriend were both posted there (he is also in the Aid Brigade, and works for the UN in Dubai) and she absolutely loved it. She said the people were lovely (although they spied on them and had to report to party officials weekly with a report on what she did and said all week) and that it is an absolutely beautiful country. People are not starving to death like the media wants us to believe. She said people are generally happy and very friendly but very mistrustful of the West (and indoctrination starts very young – pre school kids reciting anti-Western propaganda!). She said they went to a huge orchestrated and choreographed annual event in a gigantic stadium honoring “Dear Leader” and she caught a glimpse of him. She said she has never seen anything like it, with hundreds of thousands of people in the stands with little flashcards that they would raise and flip to create enormous dioramas of Dear Leader in various victorious poses while people marched and danced on the field, all after a huge military procession with tanks etc. She was not allowed to go anywhere without at least four Party officials accompanying her and her apartment was bugged but that was just a fact of life there that all expats accepted.
Anyways, that’s all for today, I have a feeling tomorrow is going to be another long day dealing with “the situation”. We are safe and sound here so please don’t worry!
Thursday, January 24, 2008
Interesting name for a town - an eating disorder:
Fanette in our "boardroom", where we carried out job interviews, with an interesting applicant:
Excellent African road repairs: they came with a load of boulders and dumped them in a pothole, making the road completely impassable. We had to get out of the car and move boulders to make a path that the pickup could get through. This was at the beginning of December. No one has come back to do anything else.
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
I think I’ve met a second. Fanette. Except she calls it schumunn (pronounced skuh-moon), which I can’t find any translation for, I’ve looked in Yiddish and German and Scandanavian dictionaries and it doesn’t appear. Anyways, it is what she calls bad karma, and I’ve come to realize that it is the reason why everything that could possibly go wrong, on a daily basis, has gone wrong recently.
Fanette swears she did not have schumunn until she worked with Jean Bernard, the MENTOR Technical Director, in Chad. Jean Bernard admitted that he has had schumunn since he was a child. It seems to have rubbed off on Fanette, and she brought it with her to Kenya. Jean Bernard says it is contagious.
I’m serious!!! It’s gotten ridiculous. On top of having a small-scale civil war break out, everything from vehicle breakdowns to fires to running out of water has happened here. In the past week here has what has happened:
-Fanette got malaria.
-The Landcruiser broke down on the way home from the office because of bad diesel we bought in Busia (when Fanette was in the car, clearly it was her fault we got bad diesel) – new diesel pump and filter needed plus major cleaning of injector nozzles
-The other Landcruiser is still not functional because we haven’t been able to go to Busia for spares because of protests
-The battery died in the other Landcruiser
-We ran out of water again
-Fanette is very ill with malaria and shivering and sweating in bed
-I cut my finger very badly while slicing a lemon (well I can’t really blame that on schumunn as I am a menace in the kitchen)
-All of the doctors in the District are away and we don't have a first aid kit in the house
-The (now repaired by cannibalizing parts from the other landcruiser) broke down again in Osieko, which is at the end of the earth in the southern reaches of the distict, with me in it.
The driver gets a pikipiki (motorcycle) to get me back to the office. It runs out of gas in the middle of nowhere. It takes 2 hours to get back
-They manage to get the landcruiser back home, having to stop and hand-pump diesel every couple of kilometers
The bad diesel is in not just one but both tanks of the landcruiser so they both have to be removed, taken to Busia for pressure washing and replaced. The diesel has mud, sticks, kerosene and water in it…I’ve never seen anything like it before.
-Joseph has gone in the now-functional old landcruiser to Busia to get the tanks cleaned. Fanette, Isabelle (the new Clinical Coordinator who arrived yesterday, after being stuck in Nairobi for a week) and I (driving) take the pickup to go to the office. While it didn’t rain at the house, halfway to the office the roads turned into grease. There are trucks stuck on the road, and we stop and attempt to turn around, in the process slide off the side of the road into the ditch and a foot of mud. Takes an hour and 20 guys to get us unstuck. Turn around and go home.
-battery is completely dead in old landcruiser. Joseph had to get towed to hard start the engine in Busia. The battery factory in Kisumu burnt to the ground during riots so not a battery to be had in Western Kenya. Ask Nairobi office to send one by bus, but they have no money because they are waiting for a wire transfer from HQ. We are back down to one functional vehicle, the pickup.
These are the major events but it’s been pretty much a constant stream of unfortunate incidents….schumunn. Beyond even the usual cockups that always happen in Africa.
All we can do is laugh, otherwise we’d be going crazy.
Anyways, Isabelle got here yesterday. She is absolutely lovely, a French-Canadian with a Scottish accent (her partner is Scottish). She is a nurse and has years of humanitarian experience, working all over Africa, in Afghanistan, etc. She will be a great addition to our little team. She will be doing the Clinical side of things, capacity strengthening at Health Centers, clinical coaching, ensuring adherence to national malaria treatment protocols, monitoring drug dispensing, etc.
Otherwise everything is fine here and we are well. There are supposed to be more rallies starting tomorrow but I get the feeling that everyone here is absolutely sick of it and wants to move on. I know we do. Kofi Annan is here so maybe he can talk some sense into the knuckleheads who are behaving like children.
Thursday, January 17, 2008
Again, please don't worry! MENTOR has strict security procedures in place, which we have been following very carefully. We have developed contingency plans for all possible situations. I am in contact with the Canadian High Commission and there is a Warden 30km up the road should we need assistance. We are not in any danger. If you read the news reports, not a single foreigner has been injured. We are safe where we are. MENTOR is an organization that works in emergency situations much worse than this and we have been getting support from headquarters during this time. It's been a big learning experience and has actually been very interesting to learn about how to operate during a crisis. Very very rarely do aid workers become targets in security crises. In fact, they normally develop relationships with the various factions of any conflict so that they can work to help the people who need help.
As I've mentioned my concern is for the people here who we have not been able to get to in order to reduce the risk of malaria. There are far more people being killed by malaria during this conflict than being killed in the protesting. This fact has been completely lost on the international community and the media. The world is all upset about people dying in clashes with police but they turn a blind eye to the thousands of people, mainly children, who die of malaria every day. Or diarrhea. Or pneumonia, all diseases that are so easily prevented. It's criminal that we take so much for granted in the West while people here suffer.
Anyways, I'm not going to rant about that any more...just know that I'm safe and sound, if bored and frustrated. Thank goodness I bought the second season of Lost last time I was in Busia. We are almost through the first season, I thought it was really stupid for the first few episodes but now I'm hooked...once we get through Season 2 we really will be in a crisis. We may have to call in an airlift of Prison Break season 2!!!
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
Meanwhile, people are dying. We can't work and people are dying of malaria. There are an estimated 250,000-300,000 IDPs in makeshift camps across the Rift Valley and Western Province, the vast majority Kikuyu. I visited the police station in Busia yesterday (people are camping at police stations because they feel safe there) and there were 3,000 people there, sleeping under plastic sheeting, in wrecked buses, cars, whatever shelter they can get.
My job has turned into figuring out the logistics of security, supplies and keeping things running during this situation, which is not what I signed up for but that's OK. I call the police several times a day to get security updates. I've been coordinating with MSF in Busia to get diesel (petrol stations had no fuel for almost a week), figuring out how to organize to ensure water at the house every day, assessing security on the road to work and to Busia to determine if travel is safe, putting together emergency rations at the house, planning when to go to the bank ahead of potential unrest to ensure we have money, etc etc etc. It's stressful, but never a dull moment.
My biggest concern right now is for Joseph, our driver, who is Kikuyu. He finally managed to make it home after spending nearly a week in hiding near Nakuru and now he's having to hide again. He is the only Kikuyu in the area, and I'm worried that he could be in danger if things get tense here. We spent the afternoon on the phone and online with HQ putting together an emergency plan for various levels of security for Joseph. He can't stay with us because then we are potential targets. Worst case scenario we provide him with a tent, food, water and a radio and he hides in the bush behind our house. I'm not worried for our safety because foreigners have not been targeted, but I am very worried about Joseph.
I'm also very upset with the reaction I got from the Catholic Mission when I called them and asked if they could take him in for a few days. The (white European) priest said "Don't send a Kikuyu here, it will cause us problems". It's absolutely outrageous, just when I was beginning to think that the church had actually done some good here. How Christian is that? Did they guy think that he might be serving a death sentence to this poor man? I'm absolutely stunned. Maybe I'm wrong but I thought that churches were supposed to assist people in crisis.
Anyways, odds are everything will be fine but we need to be prepared for all possibilities. Parliament has convened today, with Kibaki's Cabinet of cronies installed. Everyone is glued to their radios, and so far there has not been a barroom brawl. Tomorrow will be the test of the situation and perhaps Odinga will call off the protests.
Again, please let me emphasize that we are very secure and that no one should be concerned about our safety. MENTOR HQ has been providing great support and direction and they have a lot of experience working under much worse conditions than this. It's been a huge learning experience, having to plan for all possible contingencies, having to think creatively about solutions to problems, and how to keep one step ahead of the "game" of the political situation and the fallout that might happen here. The Canadian consulate knows I'm here, I spoke with them today, and there is a local warden 30km up the road. Their advice is to stay put, which is what we are doing.
I will try to keep posting more regularly especially over the next few days.
Tuesday, January 8, 2008
But seriously. Bread in the shops means goods are moving on the roads, so that means fuel and other necessary commodities like beer and coffee are also on the way. I called the bank in Busia today and they still have money (most banks have run out) so that's also cause for celebration. The price of fuel has quadrupled in Uganda to something like $4 a liter, and there is none to be found here.
And the best piece of news from today is that Kibaki has sworn in his cabinet. I guess he is quite serious about negotiating a power sharing agreement with Odinga (not). The rally planned for today was cancelled late yesterday afternoon but I'm sure will be back on the agenda for tomorrow or friday, just in time to disrupt things all over again. I'm sure Kibaki is quite aware of the short attention span of Westerners...just like Nigeria, Zimbabwe and a million other places where democracy has been subverted: wait a few weeks and they'll forget about it, there are more important things to pay attention to like Britney Spears' nervous breakdown.
Sunday, January 6, 2008
Our driver is Kikuyu, and against our advice, decided to travel to reach his sister in Eldoret on the 21st. He got halfway there and had to stop and hide at a police station. He spent the week in hiding with a friend, but several nights had to flee to the bush to hide as mobs were looking for Kikuyu to lynch or set fire to their houses.
Anyways, we have been stuck at the house, and water ran out two days ago so we've been hauling 40L jerry cans from the house below us (the pump for our house seems to have broken and the caretaker for the Mission left to go to his village and took the keys to the pumphouse with him - a typical African scenario - "the man with the key has gone"). It’s really amazing how little water you need to get clean when it consists of a jerrycan and a margarine container. Makes me feel very guilty for filling the tub to its brim to have a bath at home.
We also ran out of cooking gas yesterday so have been boiling water and cooking over a charcoal pot (well, we haven't been, our cook has). Nothing left in the shops except tomatoes, rice and beans. Had to get a friend in Uganda to send airtime as there is virtually none left in the country. The icing on the cake, however, was that we discovered the spare tire from our only functional vehicle was stolen while we were away so we had no means of transport, which is a huge no-no in this situation. We scrambled around trying to find a wheel but the only place it was available was in Busia, which was inaccessable to us. We sent word out to see if anyone around had a spare tire that would fit on the pickup, and someone finally brought a spare from a Volvo that happened to fit the Toyota pickup yesterday so we could move.
No, wait a minute, the real icing on the cake was on Thursday, when the hillside behind us caught fire. There was a huge brushfire behind the house (people set fires all the time to clear brush and encourage fresh grass to grow for their cows and goats). It was literally 50 feet from the house. Of course this was the day the water ran out as well. I will admit I was pretty freaked out...I had my money, passport and laptop packed and was ready to leave. Thankfully it petered out (with the help of the local "fire brigade", a bunch of kids beating the burning bushes with tree branches).
I thought, "what's next, an earthquake? volcano? plague of locusts?" After it was over Fanette and I just laughed hysterically. What else could we do?
We watched all 22 hours of the first season of Prison Break this week. We almost cried as we watched the last episode…and are seriously considering calling in the Marines to airlift us the second season. This is truly a humanitarian crisis!!!
Anyhow, calm seems to have returned to most of the country. Reports from Nairobi indicate a sense of normalcy breaking out. Transport in Nairobi is moving, businesses are opening, and there is talk of some sort of negotiations occurring between Odinga and Kibaki. Archbishop Tutu is here trying to bring the two sides together (although initially Kibaki had refused to see him, saying "he wasn't invited". Brilliant, turn away a Nobel Laureate when he comes to visit). An American envoy arrives today and I'm sure the threat of withdrawal of American aid money will provide an incentive for both sides to seriously consider working something out. Kenya, and Kibaki, has been an important American "ally" (which means recipient of aid in exchange for intel) in the "war on terror" (ech, I hate that term) and has provided a base in East Africa and the Horn for their surveillance activities. In fact, the first reaction of the US was to send congratulations to Kibaki on his victory. That statement was quickly retracted when the US realized it was the only country in the Western world that didn't condemn the elections as being clearly rigged. Oops! My Bad! It's very interesting when you start to look below the surface at politics in Africa...so much manipulation by foreign interests and a historical context that most people are not aware of.
Here is an absolutely brilliant article from the Washington Post regarding the roots of the current conflict in Kenya:
DIVIDE AND RULE What's Tearing Kenya Apart? History, for One Thing.By Caroline Elkins
Sunday, January 6, 2008; Page B03
As Big Ben struck midnight, Londoners welcomed in 2008 by cheering a blaze of fireworks above the Thames skyline. But the new year has been marked by far less happy conflagrations in several fledgling democracies that had once been part of Britain's empire. Days earlier, Pakistan had been rocked by the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. Iraq seems trapped in a cycle of terror and counterterror. Afghanistan looks much the same. Zimbabwe squirms under Robert Mugabe's thumb.
Now Kenya, too, appears to be on the brink. The East African country -- widely seen as a model of economic and democratic progress since 2002, when the 24-year dictatorship of Daniel arap Moi was swept aside -- has been moving toward an ethnically charged civil war since a disputed election on Dec. 27. President Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner of a second term after a vote that opposition candidate Raila Odinga denounces as rigged and that European Union observers agree was seriously flawed. As tens of thousands of Kenyans flee their homes and hundreds lie dead, part of the blame rests with Britain and its imperial legacy.
The immediate cause of the crisis was Kenya's delicate ethnic balance. The incumbent president, Kibaki, is a member of Kenya's largest and probably most powerful ethnic group, the Kikuyu, who total about 22 percent of the population; his rival, Odinga, is a member of the Luo, who comprise some 13 percent of the populace and live predominantly in western Kenya. In their bitter contest, in which Odinga promised to end ethnic favoritism and spread the country's wealth more equitably, ethnicity was the deciding factor, and a marred victory on either side had always been likely to spark violence.
Both men are rich, elitist African politicians who have far more in common with each other than they do with their supporters; in their struggle over power, both are using their followers as proxies in a smoldering war. Still, Odinga has a real point about vote tampering; the chief of the E.U. election monitoring mission said that his officials had been turned away from the central vote-counting room in Nairobi, and even Kibaki's hand-picked head of Kenya's electoral commission, Samuel Kivuitu, told reporters that he did "not know whether Kibaki won the election."
Enter Britain, Kenya's former colonial ruler, which now prides itself on being a purveyor of global democracy. Foreign Secretary David Miliband and his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, issued a joint statement calling for compromise. Prime Minister Gordon Brown rushed to the phone lines, offering Kibaki and Odinga a quick lesson in democratic principles. In a Kiplingesque touch redolent of the colonial "white man's burden," Brown reportedly told both men, "What I want to see is . . . ." Miliband directed the Kenyan leaders to "behave responsibly."
I doubt that the irony of Brown and Miliband's message was lost on Kibaki or Odinga. Today's Britain, between its botched war on terror and lack of checks on executive power (to name but a few flaws), falls far short of the democratic ideals so paternalistically espoused by Brown and other British leaders. Still, the prime minister's jaw-dropping chutzpah -- on display not only in Kenya but also in former imperial possessions such as Pakistan and Iraq -- is rooted less in Brown's own tin ear than in the nature and structures of yesteryear's British colonial rule. So are today's crises in the former empire. If you're looking for the origins of Kenya's ethnic tensions, look to its colonial past.
Far from leaving behind democratic institutions and cultures, Britain bequeathed to its former colonies corrupted and corruptible governments. Colonial officials hand-picked political successors as they left in the wake of World War II, lavishing political and economic favors on their proteges. This process created elites whose power extended into the post-colonial era. Added to this was a distinctly colonial view of the rule of law, which saw the British leave behind legal systems that facilitated tyranny, oppression and poverty rather than open, accountable government. And compounding these legacies was Britain's famous imperial policy of "divide and rule," playing one side off another, which often turned fluid groups of individuals into immutable ethnic units, much like Kenya's Luo and Kikuyu today. In many former colonies, the British picked favorites from among these newly solidified ethnic groups and left others out in the cold. We are often told that age-old tribal hatreds drive today's conflicts in Africa. In fact, both ethnic conflict and its attendant grievances are colonial phenomena.
It's no wonder that newly independent countries such as Kenya maintained and even deepened the old imperial heritage of authoritarianism and ethnic division. The British had spent decades trying to keep the Luo and Kikuyu divided, quite rightly fearing that if the two groups ever united, their combined power could bring down the colonial order. Indeed, a short-lived Luo-Kikuyu alliance in the late 1950s hastened Britain's retreat from Kenya and forced the release of Jomo Kenyatta, the nation's first president, from a colonial detention camp. But before their departure, the British schooled the future Kenyans on the lessons of a very British model of democratic elections. Britain was determined to protect its economic and geopolitical interests during the decolonization process, and it did most everything short of stuffing ballot boxes to do so. That set dangerous precedents. Among other maneuvers, the British drew electoral boundaries to cut the representation of groups they thought might cause trouble and empowered the provincial administration to manipulate supposedly democratic outcomes.
Old habits die hard. Three years after Kenya became independent in 1963, the Luo-Kikuyu alliance fell apart. Kenyatta and his Kikuyu elite took over the state; the Luo, led by Oginga Odinga (Raila Odinga's father) formed an opposition party that was eventually quashed.
Kenyatta established a one-party state in 1969 and tossed the opposition, including Odinga, into detention, much as the British had done to him and his cronies during colonial rule in the 1950s. The Kikuyu then enjoyed many of the country's spoils throughout Kenyatta's reign.
The Kikuyu's fortunes took a turn for the worse when Daniel arap Moi, a member of the Kalenjin ethnic minority, assumed dictatorial power in 1978. He managed to hang on for more than two decades. Western Kenya enjoyed the economic benefits of state largess until Moi was voted out of office in 2002, at which point the pendulum again swung back to the Kikuyu, led by the incoming President Kibaki.
Fears of ethnic ascendancies, power-hungry political elites, undemocratic processes and institutions -- all are hallmarks of today's Kenya, just as they were during British colonial rule. This does not excuse the undemocratic behavior of the current Kenyan president, nor that of his opponent Odinga, both of whom are bent on seizing power and neither of whom is necessarily a true voice of the masses. Nor does it excuse the horrific violence that has unfolded throughout the country or the appalling atrocities committed by individual Kenyans. Rather, it suggests that the undemocratic historical trajectory that Kenya has been moving along was launched at the inception of British colonial rule more than a century ago. It's not hard to discern similar patterns -- deliberately stoked ethnic tensions, power-hungry elites, feeble democratic traditions and institutions -- in other former British colonies such as Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Iraq that share similar imperial pasts. In retrospect, the wonder is not that Kenya is descending into ethnic violence. The wonder is that it didn't happen sooner.
Caroline Elkins is an associate professor of African studies at Harvard University and the author of "Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya."
Wednesday, January 2, 2008
I have also been asked what MENTOR is doing for us...remember that MENTOR works in crisis situations, including much worse places than this. Fanette spent a year in Chad where there were rebel incursions into her area frequently. Since we are in a safe area, we have been advised to stay where we are and use our best judgement, but since we are not in any danger, there is no discussion of leaving.
We are just bored out of our skulls! We decided to delay going back to work until Monday, and we don't have much to do at the house. Thank goodness I have my books and can study, but that gets boring too! We have watched 12 episodes of "Prison Break" (great show by the way if you haven't seen it) and have 10 more left. Then I suppose we will move on to "Desperate Housewives". I am so glad I bought those DVDs!!!
Please don't worry, we really are in the best place we can be and have no intentions of going anywhere until it is absolutely safe. Fanette and I both understand the situation very clearly and we are not going to take any risks. We are in an oasis of calm here. Hopefully we can carry on with our work very soon as the longer we delay the more the risk to the people for malaria.