Posts Tagged 'Addis'

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.

Nearly there

I had a long drawn out breakfast with my colleague. It was nice not to have to look at my watch. We talked for hours. We were the only ones from our party who had not left. Downstairs in the lobby an unmanned piano played Auld Lang Syne and other seasonal melodies.

I had planned to have a massage in the morning but my Ethiopian friend E said she’s come to pick me up for a coffee at 9. She never came and I never had my massage. Instead I finished some administrative chores and then went to the airport.

The baggage check revealed something metal in my luggage. To the man behind the computer screen this appeared suspicious. I had to unpack my suitcase. I knew what he was looking for, the bronze Nepali temple bells which I use to indicate that time’s up in my workshops. He asked what they were and I told them they were bells for praying. His supervisor was called and this time I told him these were bells I used for praying. He smiled and decided not to confiscate them when I indicated that I really needed them for my religious practice.

In Nairobi I stepped into the wrong bus, the one that went to the terminal. When I was asked to pay 20 dollars for a transit visa I protested. That is 5 dollars per hour for my 4 hour wait, I said. When the immigration official understood that I wasn’t going to leave the airport I was handed over to a nice gentleman who organized a small bus to take me across the airport to the transit hall.

The KLM double-decker Boeing packed us like sardines, and then, 8 hours later, deposited hundreds of us at a drizzly Schiphol airport before 5 AM. Here I am now, waiting for the next and final leg of this long trip. I feasted on beschuit met kaas in the KLM lounge. I didn’t touch the speculaas or the stroopwafels and licorice because I am still on a no-processed-sugar diet, quite successfully I might say. I am experiencing that mental clarity I was promised 6 weeks ago. Indeed!


My last assignment has been completed, goods delivered, people inspired and ready to change whatever they can around them. I think this is why I am an optimist when it comes to people (and a pessimist when it comes to governments, systems and structures).

We finished today with an Open Space session which was, as usual, a big hit. There were moving and honest conversations about the experience of working in a dysfunctional team, the undiscussables, the double agendas, and working in dysfunctional societies.

I recognize the privilege of going home to a peaceful place when I think about our teams: the team from Burundi returns to a volcano that is waking up, and rumbling ominously. The people from the DRC go back, with all their enthusiasm and good intentions, to a system that can never function properly as long as the top leaders drain the country’s treasury for personal gain, setting the tone for everyone below them. The Niger and Tchad teams go back to a place where Boko Haram roams free and with too many weapons floating across their deserts and environmental calamities always on the horizon. The teams from Madagascar and Togo are probably the best off, with Togo having made it peacefully through an election and Madagascar recovering from a bad spell.

One of our participants had a stroke, probably right after he landed. We noticed his bizarre behavior on the first day. When he started to get incoherent and when we saw his mouth drooping and his hands holding on to the walls when walking, we sent him off to the hospital where he remains until tomorrow.

Tonight we spent about 3 hours going back and forth to the hospital, the airport, the hotel and the hospital again trying to get all the paperwork arranged to fly him back to Lomé tomorrow morning, with the rest of the Togo team. He didn’t recognize us quite yet, although he has improved greatly, walks, and talks again; the attending doctor believes he will recover completely.

And now I am packing my bags for the last time and having some fun with numbers:

8 different hotels (ranging from -1 star to 5 stars); 10 take offs and landings; 1 B-class upgrade; 10 times unpacking and packing my suitcase; 1250 km on the road and 23000 miles in the air; 1 laryngitis, 1 sinusitis, 2 visits to medical establishments (1 for self, 1 for a participant), 6 events; 190 participants; 4 trip reports; 2 linguistic zones; 4 billing codes; 2 writing assignments after hours; 3 other jobs on the night shift; 2 pedicures; 2 massages; unknown numbers of monkeys, lemurs and zebras, 5 sim cards, 2 phones, and 3 passports.


I have transited to Addis – taking a whole day of flying, a stop in Lomé where the Togo team came on board, and then a two hour wait in Addis where we joined the Niger team. Both the Togo and the Niger team have a participant in a wheelchair and so everything takes a bit longer.

It was nice seeing everyone again at the hotel since we last said our goodbyes in Lomé at the end of July, the day Saffi was born and the day I lost my travel smart phone in the consternation of an election rally ambush.

After my zero star experience in Cote d’Ivoire I am now again wallowing in luxury, with real coffee (macchiato) any time I want.

In two days I am completing my trip and I am about ready for that, although I am still having a lot of fun with the ICRC teams. I have seen small and big transformations.

After having finished the Congo book I no longer believe that we can change a health system as long as the leaders of that system, as well as their political bosses, are lining their pockets with money at should have gone to education, health and agriculture. They are counting on US, European and Japanese taxpayers to foot the bill of their country’s development and we gladly obey. So I look closer, to the individuals that grow more confident, dare to speak out and, in short, start to exhibit behavior worthy of a leader, or rather, as we call them, managers who lead.

February 2019
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