Posts Tagged 'Rwanda'


All of yesterday I walked down memory lane. I arrived in Amsterdam around 6 AM after a long trip that started at 1PM in Gisenyi, a three hour ride up, down and around a thousand hills to Kigali, a long wait at the airport, a 35 minute flight to Entebbe, an hour refueling wait and then the long run to Holland. With about 4 hours of sleep I entered the cold and clammy air of the polder where Schiphol is located in a bit of a daze. It’s home and not home anymore.

S. picked me up, and brought me to her lovely house, that, although right under coming and going planes, looks our over a large lake. I had a real breakfast, real coffee and outlets to recharge all my batteries. At the end of the morning I took the train to Leiden to meet with some of the women with whom I started my studies in Leiden in 1970. It was a slightly delayed reunion after 45 years. My trip to Rwanda has made my participation possible.

The experience of walking from the station (entirely unrecognizable) to the (still unchanged) center of the city is hard to describe. There was the restaurant where I last saw my first husband, some 6 or 7 years ago; both he and the restaurant are gone. The roads that crossed here are gone, both literally and figuratively.

There were dreams and plans and hopes and then everything slipped away, making room for new dreams and plans and hopes, some realized, some abandoned, some adjusted to new realities. For me this meant: a different husband, a different country/continent and language, a different profession and a different application of what I studied here. At one point this was a place where I had expected to live forever – how different everything turned out.

I am used to being a tourist at home, or rather at old my homes, and so this was no different. I ducked into my leather coat to handle the cold, noticing how no one wore gloves and many were lightly clad, as if it was a cool fall day. I have lost my ability to deal with the bone chilling cold that is not about low temperature but about wind and clamminess. I take New England snow storms over this anytime.

We met up with a few for lunch in a lovely restaurant; more coffee but also yummy Dutch fare like a ‘broodje met kaas’ (brown bread with cheese) and ‘karnemelk’ (kind of like buttermilk). Afterwards we strolled to the old and ugly building of what used to be the male students’ society clubhouse with which we were merged in 1971. For that we had to leave our elegant old mansion on Leiden’s main canal, a shift that many never accepted.

When we entered the building, made of concrete slabs and enormous wooden beams, it smelled of stale beer, just like all these years ago when we first entered, shy and uncomfortable. The building itself, its large halls and committee rooms are made to withstand large crowds of beer drenched and rowdy twenty-somethings and lots of testosterone. Its indestructibility also makes it the biggest eyesore in the city that stands in sharp contrast to our most elegant women’s clubhouse that still sits so prince(sse)ly on the canal, no longer ours.


We are nearing the end of the retreat and doubled in size. Social workers and psychologists have streamed in from all corners of Rwanda. The hotel has set up a tent on the lawn to accommodate us. This is a challenge as there are no more walls. The hotel staff has populated the tent with an odd assortment of tables and plastic chairs.

The tent comes as a surprise. With the tables removed in the conference room we had used so far we could have accommodated everyone inside, but it was too late – the tent is up and paid for. Now there is even less comfort with English and so we keep on snipping away parts of the ambitious agenda.

In the meantime the per diem issue has been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. Also, the excitement of turning from renters into owners is beginning to insert a new energy in the room/tent. The participants are now mobilizing themselves (as measured by the number of people in the room at each day’s starting time).

There is another sign that the ownership we want is materializing. The participants of the core group, the 40+ people who we started with on Tuuesday, are now the new guides, explaining the 50 newcomers what we have done in the last 2 days. It is very exciting to see this happen – the design holds and is working exactly as planned, in spite of all the adjustments. We are now on the sidelines. We can let go. The baton is now in their hands. I am watching people who were at times reluctant or confused participants share the products of our work as if they were car salesmen. You’d think they had owned the design from the get go.

Owning or renting

We left Kigali at daybreak in order to arrive early on the shores of Lake Kivu to set up the room, get our instruction slides in order, dot the ‘i’s’ and cross the ‘t’s’. Official starting time was 2PM

I had put in a lot of padding for the afternoon sessions as I was aware of the many factors we would have no control over. One such a factor was the actual versus planned departure of the participants from Kigali.  Planned for 8AM, the last bus left Kigali around 11:30AM. By the time they arrived everyone was tired and grumpy, even more so when they discovered that their per diem was half of what they expected.

The time buffers around each activity paid off. We ended the day only slightly behind schedule and caught up by the next day.

The language barrier is omnipresent. Although it is true that everyone in HQ or field lead positions can speak English, comprehension by many is more limited. We had to insert quite a bit of translation.

The processes, from historical timeline to mission to vision to contradictions to strategic directions was taxing at times. The inductive processes and our requests to look for patterns and naming them is new to many. Concepts and tasks needed much more explanation, and often translation, than we had expected. In addition, the chief’s English is also limited. Her second language is French, which none of my colleagues speak well enough to use. And so I have parallel conversations in French – there is much that gets lost in translation.

In addition to the language complications (a continuation of what we experienced in Bangkok) there were many taxing moments with client requests, needs and desires a constantly moving target. This too may be related to none of us communicating in our first language. Adjustments, re-budgeting of time, making short cuts and dropping things altogether were the order of the day.

We were aiming for ownership, which is always hard in the beginning. Getting ownership means people go at their own pace and the products of their thinking may not quite be up to the standards one would want. It is the tradeoff between owning and renting someone else’s ideas.


We moved into the Gorillas hotel in Kigali for two nights. Monday was an official holiday. We used it to align expectations around our roles and how to function well as a team. In the afternoon we met with our local colleague who is seconded to the organization, about which I have yet to learn a lot. My MSH colleagues who are here with me have worked with this organization for several years and provided me with some critical contextual information.

We checked several assumptions that are implicit in the retreat design and fine-tuned or micro-designed sessions wherever possible. The design won’t get tested until we take off, always an important moment when we learn about language and other challenges. Until that moment the whole enterprise is theoretical.

Later we discovered many more unverified assumptions as well as a number of miscommunications and misunderstandings which led to some very challenging facilitation acrobatics. One lesson I learned is that if the client says we meet from 8:00 in the morning till 7:30 at night I better challenge this right away. I know such long days are counterproductive but sometimes we give the client the benefit of the doubt. That was a mistake.

Back and forth

Our presentation before USAID of the work plan for year one was so much better than the rehearsal, as it should be. The meeting had been shortened by 30 minutes but we managed to stay within those boundaries and even leave some time for comments. We digested the experience over lunch and then everyone went their way. I stayed for a brief orientation of a few diehards to make sure they know what kinds of resources we have in the wider MSH family and how to access them.

Upon the return to my hotel  I rewarded myself for the successful completion of my first assignment with a 90 minute hot stone massage – something I had been looking forward to. Managing short openings between calls with Boston I managed to enjoy a short dinner and sat by the poolside. It was ‘African night’ and the buffet offered only African food (at least for the main course). It turned out to be the only African food I have eaten here (if you exclude the lunch dishes at the office).  It included an astonishing array of starches, any kind of meat and a few veggies – delicious but filling. It was also music night with the same band as last week singing the same mournful songs.

The driver, who besides being the top driver and an ‘arranger of everything,’ showed up on the dot at the appointed time. He had told me I had to be at the airport 3 hours before my departure at 9:10. That turned out to be way more time than was needed to make one’s way through the various check-in steps. As a result I was the first and one and only passenger and made for a very quick check-in process. The only delay was caused by a search in my baggage for ‘a radio with antenna,’ which the security staff claimed I had in my duffel bag. It turned out to be an electric toothbrush.

By now my Arlington colleagues have arrived in Amsterdam and are waiting for their plane to DC.  One of them was part of the team I joined 28 years ago at MSH when we started a 30 year run of management capacity building and laid the foundations for MSH’s later reputation in management, leadership and governance for health. We did not work much together after 1990, moving in different directions. And so we did a lot of reminiscing about the memories we have in common. I remember when I was young I found listening to old people reminisce boring. Now it is my turn.


Today all the team leaders and their teams put the final touches on the year one work plan. It is now one day to ‘lift off’ – the first official presentation of the work plan to USAID  Getting ready for this was a massive undertaking which required great attention to detail and alertness to version control, while working on the less than user friendly interface of Excel. Excel focuses attention on detail, the trees, making it hard to see the forest. One can get lost.

This afternoon we rehearsed the presentation to USAID. It was a real feat to get all the pieces come together into the required formats and have everyone in the room to rehearse. I am glad we did – everyone learned something and we will all be the better for it tomorrow when it is show time.

We have tried to work on Google Drive – something MSH is pushing and for which I have advocated. But the experience here, at a distance from the more or less guaranteed and fast internet and power we have in the US, is less than ideal and the experience frustrating.  It’s a good reminder of the conditions that make the work of our colleagues in the field so challenging – at headquarters we sometimes forget that.

At headquarters we also sometimes forget that changing the time of calls is inconvenient for people many time zones removed.  For us travelers between field projects and headquarters, with initiatives or work with other field projects that don’t take a break while we are away, this makes for long work days.  When our work day in Rwanda ends the work day starts in Boston and DC.  On Tuesday I rushed back to the hotel to be seated at my computer, connected, headphones on – foregoing the 6PM cocktail hour to decompress – only to find out at the last minute that the meeting has been cancelled and another one, following a bit later, was delayed.  It makes for frequent room service dinners and few occasions to disconnect from the computer and work.  But then again, this is the reality of our work, and for us travelers always a temporary condition.

On Friday night my other two colleagues return home to DC and I will be by myself. I have made an appointment with Hanna who is reputed to be the best hot stone massage therapist in town. I reserved 90 minutes for this; afterwards I will treat myself to a nice dinner, a glass of wine and go to bed early to get up before dawn for my early morning flight to Nairobi.

On track

We are now fully immersed in the work planning exercise. It is disciplined, collegial and as rigorous as these things go. I think this is probably the most engaging and inclusive exercise I have ever been involved in. By Friday everything needs to be ready to present to our funder for a before-final sign off . And then the project staff will meet with their government counterparts for final approval. By then I will be in Addis and on to my third assignment of this trip.

Axel is busy planning his trip to Angkor Wat and then a boat ride do join me in Phnom Penh. It will be the second time I am in ‘striking distance’ of the famous temple complex and missing it again. I will visit it vicariously through Axel’s pictures, much like I did when we were in Japan and Axel told me about his fabulous trip to Kyoto. We have reserved a few days at the tail end of the Bangkok conference, to have a vacation together before heading home and preparing for surgery.

My colleague went to the handicraft center and asked if I wanted to come along. I said no, as I am not interested anymore in buying local souvenirs. I have distributed those I accumulated over the last 30 years among my colleagues and our house is already full of knickknacks (inside and outside boxes) from around the world. I could be easily seduced into buying more fabrics but I already have trunks full of them.

My work days are long. I leave for the office at 7:30 and when I get home at 6PM I order room service and have my phone calls with various teams and individuals at the home office. The massage place closes too early  (last call at 7:30PM) – I wished they’d be available at 11PM. It would make for a good start of the night.

With my job in Rwanda winding down I am casting my eyes to assignment 2 in Kenya which will be a nice combination of play and work for my short stay there.

April 2019
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