Posts Tagged 'Ethiopia'

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.

Ups and downs

Before heading to the airport I had a most inspiring coffee chat with an Ethiopian (woman) friend I worked with 7 years ago. At the time she worked with a government institution mandated to train senior government officials. What we proposed somehow unnerved them as it was out of the ordinary. We had hoped we could partner but they didn’t bite. The meeting with them was mostly memorable because of the excellent macchiato they served during our meeting; imagine that, at a government agency. But then again, this was Ethiopia.

My friend is busy teaching life skills to young Ethiopians and empowering women of any age. I learned about the Digital Opportunities Trust, a social enterprise that focuses on young people all over Africa. Her stories were both inspiring and sobering. She has moved away from senior leadership training because of the unwillingness of those at the top to examine their own behavior. This sounded familiar.

And as if to emphasize this point I learned that Robert Mugabe was elected to be the new Chairman of the African Union. My friend and colleague PT in Lesotho wrote in response to this news, “[I] am so disappointed. Something is terribly wrong with African leaders, their decisions and choices. Unfortunately no one will save us but ourselves. They know he will promote and protect corruption, and promote culture of impunity. It will take ages for Africa to be emancipated politically and economically. The continent is desperately in need of fresh ideas in order to progress at a desired pace.”

Further illustrations of the big egos and bellies of African officialdom accompanied me on the plane from Addis to Nairobi (in front of course). They kept their AU delegate badges around their necks even though the conference is over.  I looked at their big bellies and watched the young female handler – carrying the boss’ hand luggage which was a large carry-on which she carefully repacked with the many boxes of tax free whiskies,  champagnes and Dunhill cigarettes. They were treated to a special van and a security person who took them to the transit lounge. Once there they had to mix with the likes me.

Symptoms and roots

At breakfast this morning I watched how hotel clients puzzled over the three large hot liquid dispensers that were not labeled. We all knew there was one with hot water, one with hot coffee and one with hot milk. But they were not labeled. One risked completing the tea with coffee or the coffee with hot water or the hot water with milk. It was a bit like those shows where you have to pick a door that hides a prize, two you don’t want and one you do want.

One gentleman stood there for a long time, looking for a staff member to help him with his choice but none was in sight. He was clearly not one of the trial-by-error types.

Eventually he spotted one of the wait staff. Recognizing the helplessness of the customer, and without exchanging a word, she resolutely put his cup under the right spout and he walked away relieved. She had solved the problem but it will recur again and again. I was surprised that it didn’t occur to her to put labels near each of the containers – I knew they had them as they were there yesterday. But clearly someone had forgotten to put the labels and this was obviously not her job.

It was such a perfect illustration of a phenomenon I observe over and over in the places I work.  There is something missing in their customer service training and that is root cause thinking, something we include in all our programs so that root causes rather than symptoms are dealt with and some of these easy-to-solve problems don’t keep recurring.


We have arrived at the end of my three assignments, the last completed yesterday and celebrated at a cupcakes place in Addis with spicy chicken sandwiches and macchiato. The participants in our senior leadership program, conducted jointly with Yale University’s School of Public Health, have quickly become our new French and Swiss ICRC friends. Two we met last November when I was in Addis as well. They manage ICRC’s assistance to rehabilitation programs in Madagascar, Niger, Tchad, the DRC and Burundi.

On Thursday morning they presented the current landscape of physical rehabilitation in their respective countries. All of them are pretty bleak, with Tchad and Niger at the top of the list. These managers are not shying away from difficult places and most have lived a good part of their professional lives in hardship posts: Iraq, Pakistan, North Korea, Somalia, Afghanistan, etc.  They are after all the kind of clinicians and technicians that help civilians who have stepped on mines or are otherwise physically injured in such places of conflict. It is a remarkable group of professionals who care deeply about the people who have become or were born disabled yet work in places where such people are shunned, put away and generally neglected. And if there are any services at all, these are poorly staffed, poorly equipped or entirely non-functioning. Their tolerance for frustration is tested every day.

For two days we sat around a table and talked about the senior leadership program we are about to embark on over the next 11 months. We will meet again in April when they return with a team of, hopefully influential or motivated, peopl, feom their countries to advance the agenda and implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of persons with disabilities (UNCRPD).

Although all are English speakers and some of the sessions were done in English, their default language is French. And not African French, which is what I have been exposed to for the last 30+ years but French French, spoken rapidly and with all the wonderful gestures and facial expressions that the French use when they speak.  When we next meet the language will be French only, the singsongy French from Madagascar, the staccato-ed French from West African and Congolese French. It will be a French linguistic feast.


The driver who took me to the airport early in the morning has a son who is a 3rd year neuro sciences student at Harvard. The aspiring neuro-scientist has a younger brother who is also trying to get a free ride at Harvard.  My driver wants to go to the graduation in 2016 but for that he claimed a miracle would have to occur. Going to Boston at graduation time is a little out of his league, money wise. He is praying hard. It must work here as I assumed he also prayed for a Harvard scholarship, but his son’s talents must have been a factor as well, a God-given talent no doubt.

He told me his son was invited to spend Christmas in California with his ticket paid, both ways, he added, by a woman who turned out to be a friend of mine. Small world!

I was once again at the airport with plenty of time to spare. As a result I was able to enjoy the brand-new Kenya Airways lounge (the Pride Lounge) for hours. Having left too early from the hotel to partake in its breakfast, the lounge made up for this serving a full breakfast: eggs Florentine, cappuccino, a fruit platter and freshly squeezed juice.

I arrived in the middle of the day at an empty airport; a quiet time before the arrival of 100s of diplomats to attend what is the African equivalent of the UN General Assembly this week. Traffic is already tied up but with VIPs moving around the capital it will be even more so. The road out of the airport was already closed and we had to find side roads to get to the hotel.

I procured myself a simcard which means I can connect with friends and colleagues a little easier to use the little time I have here to get together. That started last night when former and current MSH colleagues, most of them having lived in Afghanistan, met for dinner and caught up. As usual, the conversation turned to flying, frequent flyer schemes, upgrades (or rather non-upgrades) and close calls. After all that is the one things we in common.

I was slated to have yet another call in the evening but the internet was too fickle to sustain a connection even though half an hour earlier Axel managed to show me on Skype what the snow accumulation looked like.

October 2018
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