Killing 33 hours of time

At the airport in Addis I decided to kill the first part of my three and a half hour wait by treating my dusty and scuffed leather shoes to a proper (professional) shoeshine. The one-eyed shoeshine man told me he was studying for his MBA, is a motivational speaker, sells phone cards and rides a taxi. He is one of those jacks-of-all-trades whose entire life seems to be focused on getting his (four) children the kinds of chances he never had as a child. I suspect they will all end up with a degree and do better than their parents.

We had a wonderful conversation. Of course he could have made all of his stories up to impress me and get me to pay more than his stated fee. But when he showed me his crib notes – he had an exam the next day – and talked about Mr. Douglas’ Theory X and Y (referring to Douglas McGregor), and X being more prevalent in Africa, I was convinced he knew what he was talking about. I have yet to have a conversation about McGregor’s theory with a shoeshine man anywhere in the world. I gave him a 25% tip.

The airport was relatively empty, awaiting the arrival of passengers that would fill half a dozen jumbos to various points west and north.  I found a seat at the table of a very extraverted father-daughter couple. They has just flown in from Dad’s ancestral lands (Somaliland, not Somalia) and were on their way home to Toronto. The daughter had downloaded Fire and Fury on dad’s kindle who she said was not a good sleeper and needed to have something to get him engaged and enraged for the long flight home. We drank coffee, then a beer and chatted about the experience she had on her first trip to Africa as a woman in a strict Muslim society. She was wrapped daily in polyester clothes, and a hijab that was never tight enough, by her aunties and cousins. She could laugh about it now; it didn’t spoil the fun in spite of the heat. That too was a wonderful conversation and killed another hour or so.

And then it was time to board the plane for the 17 hour trip to Dulles. It is three hours longer than on the way out, partially because of the trade winds, and partially because of a one hour crew change and refueling stop in Dublin.  Since it was a night flight the missionaries, if there were any on board – I saw no groups in matching T-shorts – where sleeping like most other people. I completed one 1000 piece (electronica) puzzle, finished one of my friend Edith’s mystery books in a series about a Quaker midwife who solves mystery after mystery in 1880 Amesbury, knocked myself out for a bit and watched East of Eden. It was all in all a better experience than on the outbound.

In Dulles another 3 hour wait, which passed quickly once again because of yet another interesting conversation. This time with a fellow development worker who had been in charge of youth employment during the Carter years and is now flying back and forth to Africa and Asia, just like me.

I called Axel who is in New York with Jim and the grandkids to pay their respects and celebrate the life of the husband of Sita’s Brooklyn preschool teacher. He was one of the post 9/11 clean up guys and died with a body riddled with cancer.

Exactly 33 hours after I left my hotel in Bujumbura I stepped into our house where large bundles of flowers from Tessa and Steve awaited me for mother’s day.

The manual system

The Burundi airport system has a long way to go. Having done my check-in online I thought I’d be good but I hadn’t printed my boarding passes, only had them on my phone.  I learned this doesn’t count when the electronic system goes out and the manual system kicks in. There was this familiar phrase, ‘the system is down.’

A lot of people were busy running hither and thither, with little progress in the otherwise short line in front of the check in counter.  The Burundi Air guy in charge of the issuing of hand-written boarding passes did not have a discernible routine to deal with the circumstance (which he told me is common). Sometimes he would take a passport and disappear to some official upstairs as he later explained, sometimes he would fill in the blank spaces on a boarding pass, and sometimes he would shake his head and pointed to place where people were waiting for god knows what. One distraught UN lady told me the (handwritten) dates on her boarding pass were all wrong, and her name only had a remote resemblance to her passport name. I saw her again in the plane where she was waiting for her assigned seat on a non-existing row.

There were the usual duplicate security checks, one around the corner of the other. At the first one I had to unpack my bag because they had found something metal: a small tea spoon. Over the years I have had to hand over scotch tape (Afghanistan), a small nail clipper (Rwanda) and now this. But when they realized it was a tea spoon and not a soup spoon, I was allowed to keep it; if it had been a soup spoon I would have had to hand it in. Imagine the havoc one could create with a soup spoon!

We left 30 minutes late, which was actually quite amazing, given the cumbersome manual check in processes. Our first stop was Goma on the far eastern edge of the DRC, bordering Rwanda. This is where I bought toothpaste nearly 3 decades ago for two and a half million Zaires. The flight lasted all of 30 minutes flight and then required an hour for refueling and a crew change as the plane had come from someplace else before picking me up in Bujumbura. Then onwards to Addis.

In front of me was a Sikh family with two year old twins who would cry at the drop of a hat, in synchronized high pitched wails. Next to me was a young man reading his bible.  We started to talk. It turned out his worked on a DAI project. He proudly mentioned that the CEO of DAI was a Christian.

‘Oh,” I said (naively), why is that so important? A mistake. He started to read me all sorts of verses from the bible that showed that only those who had found Jesus were saved. Here was absolute truth. For him the bible was the source of all knowing, all advice and all comfort. “What about the Sikhs in front of us,” I asked? “No, no one can be saved except those believing in Jesus,” was his startled response.

He cosied up to me, moving into my personal space, pointing at this and that Bible verse. He clearly knew his book. With little efforts he found all sorts of passages (mainly from John) which he thought would make me change my mind about why Christians were the chosen – at least those who had found Jesus.

When he showed me a passage about jews I got lost. He started to ramble and I decided it was time to extract myself from his bible-supported monologue. He didn’t give up so easily though and kept asking whether I had found or was searching for Jesus (in the latter case he could help me).  I said I was tired and pretended to take a nap.

It makes me consider the success of the early Christian missionaries in Africa. They produced the kind of results (sustainable, ownership) that we development workers can only dream of. I suspect one of the ingredients in their secret sauce was education.

A tiny taste of Burundi

Although I have been in Burundi for nearly a week, I can’t say I have been to Burundi. All I have seen is the inside of a hotel in the capital city. During our lunch break yesterday I visited with some of my co-workers, an empty artisanat with unemployed woodcarvers listlessly working on yet another piece of statuary that no one comes to buy. It was kind of depressing. I asked who bought their stuff and people looked expectantly at me. The tourists are not coming anymore since Burundi is in the category – at least in the minds of travel agents – of politically volatile places.

I had to disappoint these carvers. I don’t like the gleaming ebony-looking statues of women and babies, hippos or turtles. I am trying to remove such things from my house – the many gifts I have accumulated over the years. It’s time for them to find another home.

One of my co-workers had ordered, during her last visit here, two very large carvings of hippos. They must weigh quite a lot, being the size of 6 month old babies (each). She brought two empty suitcases for a fitting so that the hippos can return comfortably with her to the US later this week.

My only oter escape from the hotel this week was arranged yesterday by a team from Burundi that participated in the Senior Leadership Program we did a few years ago with ICRC. That program had teams from several French speaking countries across the African continent. They took on a big challenge of changing services, policies, access, or some other aspect of inclusion to benefit people with physical disabilities in their respective countries. ‘

I had alerted the team that I was coming and they enthusiastically responded that I should reserve at least one evening to join them. They came to pick me up at the hotel last night and took me to a popular open air restaurant. Open air here means mosquitoes, hordes of them – Bujumbura lies on the edge of lake Tanganyika – a breeding site for mosquitoes; and mosquities means malaria. Although I am taking malaria prophylaxis, I had forgotten to bring mosquito repellent. In the hotel I had gotten away without this because of the airco and elevation of the hotel and my room – mosquitoes don’t fly that high and don’t like the cold air. But the restaurant had none of that and the mosquitoes were thick – something the restaurant staff knew and so a repellent cream was brought to my table.

We had a joyous reunion. I asked the team to tell me how they acting as (senior) leaders now and to give me examples, and what had changed in their lives. It was so wonderfully touching and gratifying. I don’t claim to do much about health systems strengthening, which is MSH’s current niche. For me that is too big. I rather return to the orginal mission which is about helping people to bridge the gap between what we know and how we act. And so I prefer to focus on helping individuals be more joyful, less angry and feel more in control, despite being in places where there is little control over the circumstances of one’s live. We can always be in control of ourselves.

Flights of not so fancy

On Saturday I got up again at 3AM and retraced my steps to DC for the second time this week, this time to connect to an 11AM light from Dulles to Addis, the hub from which I would transit to my final destination. The Dulles-Addis flight took 13 hours, on Ethiopian Airlines, member of the Star Alliance for which I don’t have special status – the kind of status (gold or higher) that gets you in the short line or possibly into a lounge.

I sat in the back of the plane, surrounded by some people who were going home, others on their return trip probably people from the diaspora, on the outbound, to visit the relatives or try their luck. Diaspora Ethiopians were lured back some years ago with very appealing resettling arrangements. There were many Americans on the plane.. I assume some of them live and work in Ethiopia and some who go farther afield for their work, like me. Addis is a major African hub.

There are always (always) missionaries on the planes to Africa. They go there on short stints to fulfil their Christian duties – ministering to those less well off. On my plane there were quite a few. They were a peppy talkative bunch, waking me up and keeping me awake with their incessant chatter. The talk, the heat, the noise, the uncomfortably worn and sagging old seats, spaced so close together that my knees touched the seat in front, made this one of my more memorable unpleasant trips.

Among the travelers to Addis was a gaggle of young women wearing black T-shirts that gave them away: Christian nurses on a mission. Their T-shirts said ‘You see a leader.’ I could have gone up to them to ask what makes them leaders but I didn’t have the nerve. I suppose if you think you are a leader, then maybe you are. I only hope that they are leaders of the listener kind, not the telling kind.

I tried to watch some movies to kill time. I watched Blade Runner for a few minutes until the first violent act occurred. The audio was so bad I couldn’t understand the dialogue which might have compensated for the violence; then I tried the superhero movie, without sounds, which was amusing for a while before putting me to sleep. And finally I watched the story of Deep Throat, the ultimate whistleblower who brought Nixon down. It did make me think of Comey and the White house interfering with the FBI– there are more than a few parallels. Someone on my row was reading Comey’s book. It was displayed for impulse buys at the Dulles airport, for people looking for some light reading en route. Everything (nurses, movies, books) seems to be about leadership.

Good old days

Leaving an organization after 30+ years automatically makes you old, and departures lead to reminiscing. The former was evident when, back at the DC airport, I found an empty seat across from two men engaged in a conversation that, although in English, might as well have been in Sanskrit. I knew they were tech people but that’s all – they strung together words into sentences that made no sense, sometimes I didn’t even know which words constituted the verbs and which the nouns. The one already young looking man complained about young people he was mentoring. So if he was now old, what did that make me?

As for the reminiscences, I have been thinking a lot about the world of work I entered in, my first overseas jobs in Lebanon (1977) and then Senegal (1979) and the pace of life at that time.  I would not be saying on Thursday that I didn’t know whether I would be travelling on Saturday. Now, the only reason I still don’t know for sure, late this Thursday, is that I haven’t seen my Entry Authorization letter because it couldn’t be scanned all these thousands of miles east of us because the scanner broke down and the IT guy had gone home, otherwise I would have known and finalized my ticket. A glitch.

In the olden days I would have to have my handwritten ticket in hand – the one with the multiple red carbon copies. If it wasn’t given to me some days before a trip I couldn’t leave. No internet, no faxes, no nothing instant. I made about 3 trips a year – more would have been a stretch on what was humanly and technologically possible.

That was also the time when business class tickets were just a few hundred dollars more than regular economy seats, and the difference was not as stark as it is now. No flatbeds. There was a time when a trip of more than 14 hours door to door entitled us to travel in business class.

Sometimes it really feels like the ‘olden days’ were better. At least they were slower. I try to remember whether we were all more patient then. Now I see impatience everywhere. “Why didn’t you reply to the email, the text, the call I made a few minutes ago?” I remember setting up a phone call with a Peace Corps volunteer who lived 100 kilometers away from the closest phone that could be used for intercontinental calls, about 6 weeks ahead of time, using a cable to communicate via the nearest post office, most likely in the local capital and then dispatched on a motor cycle or a bush taxi.

An uncertain new world

My new reality will be that nothing is certain until it is certain – in the past when that happened, when trips got canceled, I was still paid, but after June this will no longer be the case. I will have to sign contracts that will be to the contractor’s advantage – there will be clauses about Intellectual Property (IP) and cancellations without cause. This has already happened with the World Bank assignment in Saudi Arabia – it was canceled, at least for this fiscal year I was told, so there is the possibility of a be chance in the next fiscal year, whenever that starts in Saudi Arabia. It’s quite disappointing and also a cause of worry that if it comes around again, I will already have promised my time to another project. “Welcome to the world of consulting,” say my free agent friends.

In the meantime I am enjoying the last of the paychecks that will continue to come in with great regularity until late June, while also enjoying the prospects of being free from the early morning commute and the dependence on weekends to do the extracurricular things I like to do.

I am busy filling in all the paperwork for a brief teaching stint this summer in a Simmons College MBA program, covering the organizational behavior (OB) part of business administration. It’s a well-designed curriculum that covers all the things I am passionate about. I don’t have to design anything, just read tons of articles and books, though some of them I already know, and some have been written by my OB friends. I am excited about having access to all these articles and reading up on some OB topics I have neglected.

Ticking faster

Axel had a pacemaker installed – it is to correct a very slow resting heartbeat. He has always had it and thought it a badge of honor when his heartbeat would not go up during a stress test, no matter how fast the speed or incline. Over the last months this turned out not to be such a good thing and the cardiologist suggested a pacemaker would help the heart beat faster and get more oxygen to wherever it was needed.

We did spent time reading up on pacemakers. His father had one implanted decades ago when the device was just a couple of decades old and there was still much learning and improving.  I remember seeing the big bulge under his skin, it was the size of a bicycle bell, but it kept his heart going and extended his life. We also learned that the device was invented, originally as a transistorized metronome, by a Scandinavian/Dutch doctor/engineer duo who became the founders of what is now a multi-billion dollar company that is keeping countless baby boomers’ hearts ticking at the right rate.

Last Monday he went into the hospital and had the pacemaker installed while under local anesthesia. He would have preferred to be put out for the procedure because he was very hungry (Tessa taught me the word “hangry” which describes people who become very unpleasant to be around when hungry – fasting is of course a requirement for any medical procedure). It also meant he could feel the electrical shocks his body sent out, whether in protest or acceptance of the alien wires we don’t know and don’t understand. He spent the night with a very impatient room mate who escaped to get a real coffee in the morning but was caught.

The timing of Axel’s procedure was very unfortunate as I ran a two day workshop with 6 Japanese women who had come for the month to Boston to learn from big and small NGOs about architecting social change programs. Since I was bringing in younger staff to learn from me and eventually take over the program, I could not cancel at this late stage and the dates were set in stone. Luckily we have two daughters who are very dedicated to their dad. Tessa was the most flexible and came for the day to pick him up from the hospital and look after him until I came home. She saw to it that he was not doing anything the doctors told him not to do, such as lifting things with his left arm, showering and being busy, telling him to quiet down and do nothing.

Now, a week later the stitches are out, the wound is healing well, the wires inside his heart are implanting themselves nicely into the heart muscle and he can drive and shower again. He happily tells everyone who wants to hear that he has gained about 15 extra heartbeats a minute. Imagine what one can do with those!

May 2018
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