Posts Tagged 'Sierra Leone'

Pushing and letting go

The second week of our assignments showed us that transformations can happen in a very short time. We saw people grow in confidence in front of our eyes. Where someone was mousy and shy in the first week, by the end of the second week they stood up straight, projected their voice and confidently explained materials that were completely new to them only one week before. It shows one should never give up on people and judge them by their cover.

I knew this already because I had seen those transformations in Nepal, in Ghana, in Kenya, in Cote d’Ivoire, in Madagascar and now here. I see the same thing. It is kind of liberation from self-imposed judgements that include self-talk such as “I can’t” or “I am not good enough.”

My Kenyan colleague would hold extensive feedback session in the afternoon with those we had trained the week before. They’d sit in a circle and talk about what went well, what could be improved and what was not a good practice. The quality of the feedback the TOTs gave each other got better and better to the point that we had little to add.

We also noticed during the sessions that they began to support each other, and take action when the energy started to drop. They also started paying attention to people on phones and checking out FB during a session and redirected their attention. It was fabulous to see them do this, something that a week earlier they probably wouldn’t have dreamt of.  The newly minted facilitators started to take responsibility for whether people were learning or not.

After the daily feedback sessions the facilitators up for the next module (the next morning) would practice in front of their colleagues who provided some last minute feedback and encouragement. These sessions made a huge difference as we saw people rising to the challenge and doing better each time. If we were to put our own standards of facilitation at 100%, we felt that they had reached about 75%, just in one week.

While my Kenyan colleague W. was providing the news TOTs with feedback and support, I sat with the newcomers, the actual participants of the LDP, and improvised how to manage the quick sequence of modules that should have been delivered with 2 weeks intervals allowing for homework to be done at the workplace. This new, and less than ideal formula, tested our creativity.

What was testing it even more is that our client decided that completing the remaining 6 modules was not necessary. And so we are leaving without any clarity on how this program is going to be completed, if it is going to be completed at all. There is a time for pushing back and a time for letting go. We made our best effort and left a proposal but this is no longer in our hands.


Part of our leadership Development Program is an Alignment meeting. We call it the SAM which stands for Senior Alignment Meeting or Stakeholder Alignment Meeting, take your pick.  The purpose of this event is to make sure that the superiors of those we are training understand what and how they are learning to lead. We also want (and need) the bosses to allow their newly trained subordinates to train others, and finally we want to showcase our approach to other donors. Everyone clamors for better leadership but few actually know how to get to the behavioral changes that influence the way people work together better – as evidenced not only by better results but also by better relationships. We have quite a bit of stories to tell.

Organizing the SAM is always tricky. Since it is an experiential event it is hard to explain. There is often a fear among even our own colleagues (in country and from HQ) to ask senior ministry folks do anything experiential. I can’t begin to tell how many times I was warned ‘we can’t do anything with senior people that involves more than listening to presenters with PowerPoints or speechifying.’  Really!?   Drawing a picture with colored markers? God forbid. Creating a future scenario with clay? I have  to do a lot of cajoling and this is where the grey hairs help.

And then there are always other surprises that come out of nowhere, like the morning of our meeting, where we expected about 60 people (food ordered and paid for 60 people, press invited, etc.) when an email from the minister summoned everyone we invited to an urgent meeting at the ministry, government people and development partners alike. I have learned over the years to not get upset about it. I have adopted Harrison Owen’s mantra (from Open Space fame): whomever comes are the right people. It is always true.

During our first week we had prepped our new facilitators to actually run this alignment meeting and had rehearsed multiple times. The last rehearsal was good enough to wow people. The actual performance was even better. We had told the audience (we ended up with about 35 people, who were the right people) that this was a first public performance of the facilitators.  They quickly forgot and got completely engaged in the various activities. At the end, when I wrapped up the meeting I asked them what they had noticed about these four pharmacists who had run the meeting. The response was immediate: ‘excellent, passionate, energetic, knowledgeable’ and gave them a big round of applause.

That was the third of the four parts of our assignment. The last would include all of the TOTs as they facilitated four modules in a row for the next four days.


The blogposts are retrofitted, I am writing them while relying on my memory. It is not as good as writing daily but it will have to do. I was too exhausted every night to write. I made 14 to 16 hour days and this time period I clocked an all-time high of 184 hours (92 per week), which is more than double MSH’s normal 40 hour workweek.

There also was no respite. We worked all day on Saturday (since I had left on Saturday this was now a 7 day workweek) because the Directorate we were working with was being re-organized and my pharmaceutical colleagues decided that having everyone in one place was a good opportunity to finalize some of the restructuring tasks.

Originally I wasn’t supposed to be part of this but since I had re-designed the event to be more participatory, I was given the task to also facilitate the day. My Kenyan colleague worked with the TOTs to do more facilitation practice, and rehearsing upcoming sessions. The design was, after all, to have all of them conduct the leadership program to their colleagues, including a new batch of pharmacists who came from the districts. Our roles shifted to coaches and organizers of feedback and support sessions.

Sunday was supposed to be off but many tasks came in over email that needed attention, unrelated to the Sierra Leone assignments. And so Sunday turned out not a day of relaxation as I had hoped  (and wanted and needed). I put in another 8 hours of work taking care of things I could not postpone, such as  tasks related to the closing of the Madagascar program which starts happening next Tuesday. I owed it to my Malagasy colleagues to provided them with as much support as I could muster from a distance. And then there was my vacation, just days off, that I did not want to spoil with urgent tasks I could take care of now. Sigh!

Trust fall

I found my co-facilitator at breakfast the next morning, as well as my colleague who was responsible for getting me there, after a chance encounter at the airport in Brussels, both coming and going, when he went to Sierra Leone and I went to Liberia – the plane touches down in both countries.

My co-facilitator used to run the MSH leadership program in Kenya and turned out to be the best thing that happened to me. I had never worked with her in those days but knew of her reputation, which is why I had recommended her. She is a first rate coach and facilitator, besides being great company. She is a consultant now, since her MSH project ended, which is such a shame – all that talent not being used, whether in Kenya or elsewhere in the world. I am intent on finding her more assignments, preferably with myself.

The first week of our assignment was to create a pool of leadership developers. We had three days to turn some 17 lecturers into facilitators. We sometimes scratched our heads those first 24 hours. On the last day of the TOT all the participants, in pairs, had to do a session. Many of them lectured their way through the practice session or improvised and tied themselves up into knots. Lecturers are supposed to have all the answers – it was both funny and sad to see them trying to be more knowledgeable than they were. We knew they had a ways to go.

When people are used to giving lectures and presentations they tend not to do any of the things that our Leadership Development Program (LDP) facilitators have to do: prepare, follow the instructions in the guide , arrive early, have all their materials, flipcharts and resources ready (no PowerPoints allowed), read the room, pay attention to the energy in the room, do something when half the room is on Facebook, watching a soccer match, are texting or looking at pictures of full-breasted women, etc.

We selected the best 4 (2 women and 2 men) of the TOTs as we called them (for training of trainers) and spent some intense prep time with them because we wanted them, rather than us, facilitate the stakeholder alignment meeting that was planned for the Tuesday in the following week.  The purpose of this was not only to provide them with an immediate opportunity to put their news skills to the test, but also to show our audience that they now had a new resource in the country that could help implement the renewed attention to leadership and governance. It was a trust fall.

Chinese outing

My Ethiopian colleagues (both from HQ) had been talking about the Chinese restaurant nearby and took me there on my second night. It was a lovely walk along the beach where people were enjoying themselves with food, swimming and listening to good music.

The Chinese restaurant is located in a complex that includes a hotel, a casino and a restaurant, all decorated with bright neon lights that light up the neighborhood. The restaurant entrance takes one into a kind of alleyway, past the kitchen and a bunch of tables with people just sitting there; the smell is not encouraging. Large vats with liquid (water?) line this alleyway. It is clear we are not yet in the restaurant. This is hidden behind a simple door which lets one into a bright white and very cold room with more bright lights in pink and orange that flicker on and off. Another section is closed behind sliding doors. This is where the important Chinese hang out we assume. We see people going in with platters but never see anyone come out.

The place is frequented by Chinese who are drinking a white liquid in green bottles (when we asked the waiter what that was he told us ‘milk’  but we don’t believe him) and endless cups of green tea poured from an elegant copper tea pot with a long spout that makes you think you are in the Middle East.

The menu is provided in print form and on an iPad. We discovered Bull Penis with Old  Chicken Soup and other dishes that I remembered from our trip in China. We stuck to more acceptable dishes such as Chicken with Cashew, Spicy Beef and such and order too much. We had the leftover wrapped up and give it to the guard who lets us in the back door of the hotel grounds.

The food at the hotel is mediocre. A two week stay at the hotel would pretty much exhaust the choices and I tried most. Heavy on animal protein and starch, it was getting a bit tiresome, but two escapades to the Chinese were enough. I am craving the fresh vegetables that must be starting to arrive in the markets in Massachusetts.



Car, boat, bus, plane

I had used one of my ‘thank you’ rewards from Delta for my loyalty and countless trips. It is good for a one way upgrade to business class. It is supposed to get you all the way to your destination but the award program of KLM is not aligned with that of Delta, so when I connect in Amsterdam for the KLM flight the business class deal was over.

I was glad that I got the B-class seat as I was feeling increasingly lousy as I boarded the plane. As soon as we were airborne I put my seat into sleeping position and didn’t wake up until we arrived in Amsterdam. I kind of sleepwalked to the lounge in Amsterdam and slept there as well until it was time to board for Sierra Leone and then I slept some more.

I arrived around 10PM at the hotel in Freetown. The trip from the airport to the city is quite an adventure. I had heard about it (it involves a bus and a boat) but never experienced it. My Sierra Leone colleagues had given me detailed instructions and everything was exactly as described: someone with my name on a sign handed me a boat ticket and took me to the bus stop. I boarded the bus and gave my suitcase to an attendant. The bus drove for a while and then dropped us off at the beach where a simple concrete structure with plastic chairs served as our way station. We hang around until the boat returned from the other side of the lagoon and we filed on board, all 40 or 50 of us.

We squeezed into seats around tables as you expect on a yacht and the 45 minute trip started. It was all very congenial – for a brief moment we were a community with a shared goal: getting to the other shore and either to home or to our place of assignment. Total strangers started sharing why they were on the boat. It was really quite nice, and not the pain in the neck I had expected. It is true that the bus and boat trip added another good hour and a half to arrival time (and thus also to departure time), but if you are not in a hurry (and I had slept a lot) then it is OK.

The Radisson Blue in Freetown is, as it claims, an iconic hotel; I have been in other so-called ‘iconic’ hotels that didn’t seem very iconic to me (maybe they used the same advertising agency). The hotel has carpeted floors which I think is insane in a climate with 80% humidity. Everything was musty, a smell I stopped noticing after a couple of days. My clothes were also always damp.

July 2018
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