Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Here we go again.....

After a day of feeling like we were on top of things the situation has deteriorated again…we got all of the vehicles operational yesterday after having batteries shipped here from Nairobi, and we all did a little happy dance and thought this week we’d be sailing. Yesterday went well, Isabelle and I went and visited a couple of the health facilities in the area and I introduced her to the District Public Health Officer and District Medical Officer, and we discussed how Isabelle will assist the District with improving malaria case management, distributing drugs, training health workers, beefing up the malaria surveillance protocols, etc. I knew there were some problems in Nakuru and Naivasha, cities in the Rift Valley a couple hundred miles from here, over the weekend but it seemed like things were fine here

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!

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