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The people who have come to this workshop are quite diverse, as compared to the typical workshops we organize for health professionals.  We have representatives from various community organizations, managers and chief medical officers from hospitals and representatives from the local administration (the prefecture) – recognizable by their khaki uniforms.

We talk a lot about ‘engaging the community’ but when you have barely literate women sitting side by side the doctors you quickly see what the challenge is. I can now imagine what some of those COGES meetings are like. Even the body language of those concerned speaks volumes.

In the groups, 3 or 4 people sitting around the computer brought by the hospital manager or doctor – the local administration and community group representatives have no computers – one can see the dynamics just by noticing the physics: the women with their chair slightly pushed back, sometimes even in second rows, some leaning back; the men in khaki – some leaning back, some on their phones while several of the women in khaki are bent forward and appear quite engaged; and then the hospital folks at their computers, they are at the wheel – I suspect this represents reality.

Many of the hospital people, and some men in khaki, had already gone through our leadership program and knew the process, the way we work. They are by and large better educated than the community reps.

But when the district teams had selected their challenge it included nearly always ‘the problem of the women’ as it is sometimes referred to. This meant that the men had to listen to the women to understand the issues – mostly that they were appointed to the committee without any orientation or training in how to function well on a committee.

There is much implicit bias. Even those supposedly ‘enlightened’ showed this implicit bias by their words and behaviors.  You can ask ‘why?’ in two different ways, expressed by two similar sounding but entirely different words: inquisition and inquiry. Yet, even if the ideal of equality is still a faraway goal in this country, I see movement. In this workshop one in four participants is a woman. This is progress. And of those not representing women’s group, many are women in khaki, representing the power of the state at the local level. That too is progress.

Details, details

What is it with bathtub installers in the hotels in the provinces here? During a previous visit in another town, the faucet was installed in such a way that it didn’t reach all the way into the tub and splashed all over the bathroom when inadvertently turned on.

Now, in my otherwise quite pleasant and spacious room, the bathtub is installed in such a way that they had to hack an edge out of the wall to slide in the tub and the reclining side of the tub is placed right under the faucet.

I wonder when I see such things what happened prior to the installation. I imagine there was no diagram and the installers themselves may have never sat in a tub like that. So how would they know that the side that slopes down at an angle is to be on the opposite side of the faucet?

But then I wonder, wasn’t there a supervisor or a contractor who inspects the work? Again I imagine the supervisor checking the plumbers’ work. Did they not notice? Do they themselves have no familiarity with modern tubs? Did they never check or did they notice and realized that it would be too much re-work?

The puzzle for me is that some workmanship is excellent and elegant, like the rosettes on the ceiling, and others is sloppy, like the three doors of my closets that don’t close and can’t even be locked despite the keys dangling from useless locks. Again, who was checking and if so, why weren’t those things fixed? I can’t help but think that these symptoms reveal much about why Africa keeps needing help, despite the billions of dollars poured into the continent.


Our hotel is the strangest structure. I constantly lose my way as I walk from our meeting room to restaurant. There are narrows passages and uneven levels, floor one on the left is at a different level than floor one on the right. There are meeting rooms everywhere, and workshops going on in some of them.

As for the structure itself, it is as if someone dropped a bunch of concrete pillars and walls from the heavens, covered everything with a sticky substance and then threw a collection of tiles of every color and size over the result.  Or, and this is more likely, it was a small hotel that discovered there was money in hosting training events, and kept adding halls. Everywhere are citations or bible verses in haut relief inscribed on the walls. I live under ‘God will protect you.’

It is definitely not a structure that is friendly to people with physical disabilities. And yet we have one such a person in the group. He is a hospital manager who walks with great difficulty using two crutches, one leg useless for walking. Since I have been working with ICRC I am very much aware how rarely buildings are designed to accommodate people with physical disabilities. And this makes it hard for some groups to participate. But participate he does, climbing all the crooked stairs, three levels up clutching his crutches and his briefcase. We started to talk about my work with ICRC and the people I worked with, what I learned from that. He was pleased. I promised to introduce him to the chief of the Paralympic Committee in Niger.

The first night I discovered the restaurant where we are served breakfast was dark. I returned to my room – everyone had disappeared someplace. I lived that night on a banana and a bag of almonds. The next morning I found out there was another restaurant at the entrance to the hotel which I had not noticed before. I went downstairs and sat down – the TVs were, as usual, showing football matches and one man was watching. It quickly became clear that it was not the kind of restaurant where one sits down and is served, even though it looked like it was. I should have ordered food at lunch time and then it would be served in my room. If I did not want to eat in my room I would have sat there for at least an hour, all by myself, and watch football or some mother sketchy program on TV. I thought I had ordered something simple, grilled chicken and a tomato salad. One hour and a half later the food was served in my room.

Just in time

There was no time to rest. After the short flight (from Amsterdam to Paris), a stop in Paris and the connecting flight to Abidjan I arrived in my hotel late Sunday evening. I was able to negotiate a chef salad with the two remaining servers in the empty restaurant where the lights had already dimmed. I think they were willing to serve me because there were two giant screens with football (soccer) matches going on. They watched while I ate the leftover meats and cheeses from breakfast and lunch served on a bed of iceberg lettuce. The best part of the meal was the mustard mayonnaise, which I ate right out of the bowl.

I was picked up at 6:30AM by our driver to take me to a regional capital some 100 KM to the north of Abidjan, to arrive just in time for the training of trainers’ workshop that would start at 8:30AM. Getting out of the city at this time of the day requires navigating endless traffic jams. We arrived about 8:30AM and found the team at breakfast.

Luckily I knew most of the 12 or so people in the group. I had trained some of them several years ago and watched them perform earlier this year, to my great delight. I had effectively passed the baton, at least to some of them.

I had rearranged the two-day program earlier to consist mostly of un-programmed time so that we could practice simulate parts of the governance workshop and practice. This turned out to be good intuition and the facilitators grew in confidence in front of my eyes.

Our Cote d’Ivoire project team always arranges for a brief training of trainers before any event. They have done this for years, more so than in any other place I have worked. As a result there is now a considerable pool of confident and experienced facilitators who do the work I used to do. Now I limit myself to introducing new techniques and methodologies which they absorb like sponges.

The event for which we were preparing was a governance workshop for representatives of Community Management structures (COGES) tasked with the oversight of the district hospitals. The adoption of practices of good governance is something of great importance here. The challenge is to reduce the gap between words and deeds when it comes to good governance. The gap is big.


Our group of women were about the last from a period when the men’s and the women’s clubs had separate existences, separate buildings and separate governance bodies before the two clubs merged in the early seventies. My sister who completed her studies in Leiden before the merger, was never part of the new ‘mixed’ club that was named Minerva.  Only the women who joined after the merger were invited. As a result we were a tiny minority standing out in our colored clothes amidst a sea of dark suits.

The women’s building that we inhabited before the merger was an elegant house on Leiden’s main canal – but it was clear the men could not move in with us. And so we ended up moving into the men’s building, a large, hideous and indestructible building, reeking of beer (and cigars in the olden days) on the main drag of Leiden.

We had decided to enter the large room together, there is force in numbers. At the coat check some older men looked at us with, what I assumed to be a question mark on their head (‘what are these women doing here?’) or made awkward jokes about ‘shouldn’t we have separate places for men’s and women’s coats?”

We had agreed to join the men for the cocktail hour. After all some of the men from our year (or just above) were no strangers; we had studied together, we were related (like me),  some had husbands, ex husbands or boyfriends in that group, or we had served together on committees. After the noise levels had deafened us enough and our voices became raw from trying to get ourselves heard over the din, we left to dine together in the intimacy of a small elegant restaurant in town – the opposite in all aspects of where the men were congregating. It was a most exquisite restaurant (‘Puur’) which I promptly gave a five star review on Tripadvisor.


Leiden memory lane

I left on the 3rd to fly to Holland to be at a reunion of friends I studied with. My showing up from afar pulled in others who would otherwise not have come. The occasion was the annual reunion of people who had joined the student clubs during a period that included 1971, when I had started my studies.

I flew in a very full plane to Amsterdam. The plane was so full that people were offered money to give up their seat in a clever reversed auction system – you bid an amount you want Delta to give you in order to give up your seat. You can ask for $100, $200 or even propose you own amount.  The approach is full of delicious anticipation, possibly followed by disappointment.

On long trips we are allowed to overnight in Europe, a perk I never use since my trips are often too close together. But this time the timing was perfect. I reserved a small hotel close to the action in Leiden. It is funny that people who go to Holland always want to go to Amsterdam while the provincial cities are so much more pleasant, as interesting and much less a tourist trap.

As it turned out the hotel was a tiny (5 room) boutique hotel on Leiden’s main canal, where the original university still stands. I was given the room under the roof in a beautifully restored old ‘grachtenhuis’ (canal house) that was probably built in the 1600s. The hotel was even nicer than I had imagined from the already very nice webpages. I gave it a five star review on Tripadvisor.

The room wasn’t ready when I arrived early in the morning and so I missed the chance to take a little nap or even shower and change before my brother and sister in law came to pick me. They had organized a nice side trip that included a visit to a delightful museum in Wassenaar (Voorlinden) I had heard about. It is located in one of the old mansions in the, a wealthy suburb of Den Haag, the former home of a wealthy art collector, now open to the public.

Afterwards we visited my nephew and his young family in Den Haag for tea and catching up. And then it was time to go back to Leiden to my charming little hotel which I was anxious to show my brother. There we would meet up with another friend before going to the festivities that had triggered the stop in Leiden in the first place.

New routines

I arrived home on a near perfect Indian summer day, but the swimming days were over. This left as the only option the joining of a fitness club to keep up the swimming that had so become a part of my daily routine. I joined the Manchester Athletic Club. Axel is already a member but doesn’t use it much, preferring yoga at the gentler local Yoga studio – no bulky sweating men or women there.

As part of the membership orientation one gets a fully evaluation by a fitness professional. It was fun and very interesting. I had earlier embarked on a significant lifestyle change which I was able to maintain during my travels in West Africa: more exercise, more walking (no elevator use wherever there are elevators) and eating only what I need rather than what I want – at least when in hotels where breakfast buffets were probably responsible for my average weight gain of 5 pounds per trip.

I experienced what people who are exercising regularly have always told me: at first it is a bit of a chore – shall I ride my stationary bike at home or do some I find more enjoyable. Now that has changed – I look forward to the routines and miss it when I cannot.

In less than two weeks I will fly out again. The suitcase remained open and ready – I will be going back to West Africa for my last work trip this year.

December 2017
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