Posts Tagged 'Togo'


Everything aeronautical went like clockwork from the moment I left the hotel in Lome until Axel picked me up 25 hours later at Reagan National Airport. I got to travel the last hour in style with the upgrade I had coveted all along, just for the JFK-DCA leg. It got me a drink while the people in the back did not because we were given a very low altitude to travel due to inclement weather in the region. The upside of this, according to the captain, was that we didn’t have to wait for hours on the JFK tarmac and that we got a good view at the scenery below; the downside that it was very bumpy and (for those traveling in economy) that the flight attendants were asked to stay put.

I was in time to join our friend Larry for a celebration of his 70th birthday party. I have never traveled that far to a party. I was able to enjoy the festivities till the very end when I pulled on Axel’s sleeve and told him I couldn’t keep my eyes open.

I had tried to nap in our DC hotel room where Axel was already well ensconced. But there were too many impressions, as there always are, from the 25 hour trip rummaging around in my brain; a combinations of movies (Avatar, CSI), reading (Sapiens), and (electronic) puzzle pieces. I just couldn’t silence my brain’s attempts to make sense of all these data bits that were pulsing through my head to allow me to fall asleep; but I did rest.

Rest (and digest) is one of the many things Jon Kabat-Zinn writes about in his delightful little book ‘Wherever you go, there you are.’ The reading is a logical extension of our reading of Brene Brown’s ‘Daring Greatly,’ which has led to many wonderful conversations during the many hours we spent together (first in Holland and then in the car while Tessa was in the hospital). I suppose Axel’s reaching 70 and me 65 has sharpened our focus on what we want to be rather than do.

Reading Kabat Zinn, Brown, Tessa’s illness and my coaching course with its intense exposure to what happens in our brains led me to start a daily meditation practice again. Some years ago I used to meditate 20 minutes before going to work but when it became another thing on my to do list and required me to get up  even earlier I dropped the habit as the the ‘have to’s’ canceled out the benefits of my meditation practice.

During this trip, and encouraged by Kabat-Zinn I realized I was ready to practice again, especially with my hyper travel schedule and the stressful last few months. I set myself a goal of 8 minutes. Combined with my ankle and hip exercises I am good for at least 10 per day minutes of living in the present. I have set my sights on increasing this here and now time, starting today.

While we are celebrating Tessa’s 32nd birthday from afar (her annual birthday bash at Lobster Cove has probably just ended on this Sunday morning), we are packing up to leave for Chadd’s Fort in Pennsylvania.  Axel has organized a trip to the Brandywine River Museum where, according to the NYT, there is a once in a lifetime exhibit of the works of one (or more?) of the Wyeths. This is how we are making our way slowly back home, and enjoying this mini vacation before my next trip to West Africa in two weeks.

Shifting gears

The Togo trip is nearly over. I am halfway home (in Paris now). I had wanted to buy an upgrade for the night flight from Lome but didn’t think it was worth the 500 euro Air France wanted. Instead I took a sleeping pill and I might as well have been in B-class. You can buy a lot of sleeping pills for 500 euro.

During this past week in Togo we, or rather ICRC, had brought together teams from rehab centers in Senegal, Mali, Niger, Togo and Madagascar. I knew some of them. Over the past three years we had organized these events but now we have passed the baton to ICRC which, in turn, is passing the baton to the management teams of those centers. In the process ICRC is also passing the baton of accompanying the process to its local (as opposed to expat) staff. This is how things should go. From being in charge I am now a hired hand.

We have worked together on this initiative with several Geneva- and field-based staff for the last several years. Now, after two last trainings (last week in Bangkok and this week in Togo), the teams will be coached rather than trained. They have their marching orders and have to show some pretty compelling results, starting in the next few months in terms of baseline data, and then over the next three years to show these data show improvements. No more easy money. Accountability it is!

We divided the coaching of the country teams over the next three years among our MSH colleagues. One will  coach the Cambodia and Myanmar teams, another the Pakistan teams, another the Togo and Madagascar teams and I get to travel to Mali and Niger in the fall (when the Harmattan blows in the Sahel). MSH is contracting with ICRC for my three trips to these countries and have monthly calls.  It won’t be enough to keep me gainfully employed but it will be interesting. I just have to find some other work in the side.

It was nice to have newcomers and old-timers to our management and leadership development program in the room together. The old-timers re-assured the newcomers that change was possible, that they should stop saying that they needed more money to do their work, and that they should start to change themselves rather than focusing on others to change. It was so very satisfying to have other people pass the message. This is experiential learning: experience first, then decide whether you like it or not. Having the old-timers in the room was very helpful.

I hardly left the hotel. One night I joined a small group to eat in a Chinese restaurant half a mile from the hotel.  A drunken motorbike taxi driver tried to recruit us to take a ride on his bike. He was ranting about how wonderful ‘les blancs’ were. We tried to ignore him but he ignored our silent treatment. At the Chinese we were the only guests, something that worried me but the food was good and freshly prepared. One of our ICRC colleagues has lived in China and dug up some Chinese words from his memory.

In front of the hotel is the beach which stretches all along the Bay of Benin for I don’t know how many miles. It is a beautiful wide beach with fine sands, the kind that would be any hotel’s dream in the US. But here it is, at least after dark, the territory of bad guys (‘brigands’). The hotel wouldn’t let us, two white women, walk the quarter mile or so to the water’s edge on our own even before it got dark.  And so a young hotel employee accompanied us and told us much about himself; when we arrived back at the hotel he wanted email addresses. This is all part of the dream of one day being sponsored to everyone’s dream – America. I let my younger colleague deal with this request. I get enough emails as it is from people desperate to leave the place they were born.

Change in the air

After what feels like a very long time on the ground (counting our California trip as being on the ground), it was wheels up time again for this last week of summer.

I am in Togo where I arrived late at night after an interminably long wait in Paris for an ever delaying flight. The airport and all the planes were packed with travelers for the ‘rentree,’ the official end of the French summer.

I caught some of the stragglers of the conference last week for African rehab officials. I know a few of them through our various projects with ICRC and the wheelchair folks.

We had 28 people in our program, focused on getting teams of rehab center managers and both local and expat staff from two major ICRC programs. Their role, upon their return, is to launch a leadership and management improvement initiative in their center or country.

I knew a few from previous events.  Some had participated in the senior leadership program that we completed last year, others had participated in the English version of this same program two years ago. One young man had participated in this English program claiming he could follow a course in English – but later we found out he could not and nothing much happened after he returned. With three new colleagues and the program delivered in French, we have hopes that we can jumpstart the stalled effort.

This was the first time I was working with two co-facilitators who, like our Togolese friend, had been in the English program two years ago, as members of the other francophone team (DRC). But unlike our friend, their  English was good enough for them to run with the new ideas. They were my co-trainers this time, giving me the immense satisfaction of handing over the baton.

Running into skepticism about the practicality of what we were proposing is normal and we usually counter it with something close to ‘trust us,’ which I don’t find all that compelling. But this time, when people raised doubts and anxiety flared up, our co-facilitators were able to tell the newbies that they too had been in their place, less than two years ago, with the same anxieties and questions – and look at us now!

I have done this training of trainers three times now, twice in English and this time in French. This last one was the best – we had a fabulous team, working truly in partnership during all the sessions; we also had great participants, from Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Haïti, Burundi, DRC, Togo and Mali. They were engaged and critical, keeping us on our toes.

The days were long and there was much work before and after hours, but this never felt like a burden. When people are touched ‘dans les tripes’ as the French say (in their innards),  you can see something shift – for some it’s a small shift, for other a leap. This is what I love about my work.

A long wait

And so I spent Saturday morning, tired from the interrupted sleep and distracted about Sita, with my friend A and his wife at a lovely beach restaurant, relaxing, eating fish brochettes and drinking fresh pineapple juice. We talked about his plans to start a rehab center in Cameroon and how to get ready for the big jump to actually set it up. It would mean leaving his paying job with ICRC and risking the savings from friends and family, his salary and savings, career for the sake of a dream. I encouraged him and added bits and pieces from our course to the conversation. I have never taken such a jump and am not sure I’d have the courage. But then again, I pointed out, just about everything around us, except for the sand, the wind, the flora and sea, started as a glint in someone’s eye. I pointed at his latest model iPhone, yes, that one too. It also carries the message that you don’t get to the supermodel right away, so start small to show that one can deliver the dream in reality. It was a wonderfully inspiring conversation. I promised to support him in whatever way I could.

We left for the airport in the hotel shuttle. A few miles before the airport we encountered a huge crowd of cars (with the opponent of the President at the head, who had apparently just come in on the plane I was to leave on). He was followed by thousands of followers, in cars, in trucks, on motorbikes and on foot. Many were dressed in orange, the color associated with Dutch football fans, playful and dedicated. But these people didn’t look so playful. They stared at us, white folks stuck in the crowd in our little bus that could easily be upturned. I kept hoping that the generally good natured Togolese would stay that way. Still, it remained unsettling to find oneself in an immense crowd of people. I know crowds can easily go from friendly to nasty – we see this over and over on the television.

There was no visible presence of people representing the law; no uniforms anywhere in sight, only self-appointed traffic regulators with whistles in their mouth. But then, as quick as it started, the parade had gone by us and we resumed our trip to the airport. Our very alarmed French passenger let out a sigh of relief. I fear that in the excitement I dropped my travel (smart) phone on the floor. That my phone was missing I discovered too late after having gone through all the security check points. The receptionist at the lounge was not helpful and refused to let me use her phone to get in touch with the driver.

The phone was supposed to receive the signal that the baby had arrived. Now some unknown person has gotten that message, unless the phone is still in the bus but I am not counting on seeing it ever again. I can only hope that whomever found it, if not willing to part, will erase all names and phone numbers. If anyone who reads this gets a sketchy call from Togo, beware. It is not me.

And now I am waiting to board my flight from Paris to Boston. It will be about 14 hours before I will see the new baby. It seems an eternity.

Hip hop a l’africaine

I tried to replicate something that I had been enchanted with in Madagascar where a large group of people was randomly divided in smaller groups and each assigned a dance. The Malgaches are very playful. The idea, when transferred here, didn’t take quite as well. Our European facilitators weren’t all that hot about being silly in front of others,

My Senegal co-facilitator and I had left the session and taken two moto taxis to go to the market where he skillfully negotiated the purchase of 7 baseball caps for my team that was assigned to showcase hip hop. The caps had logos of random businesses and sports teams in US and England.

I had no Europeans on my team which was probably a good thing. The West africans were more playful and willing to be silly. One woman of high societal and hierarchical status, and always dressed in fine boubous and head dresses, took to the idea. She studied some You-Tube videos on hip hop and figured the main movements of arms and legs and the sounds one makes in the process. With the baseball cap sideways on top of her headdress she was quite a sight. We practiced to together whenever we heard music that we thought was hip hop, giggling like school girls.

The talent show, to be done during our soiree sociale on Thursday niight didn’t work out as planned. The restaurant was essentially a streetside cafe. There was no stage or room to perform. Two giant TV screens ran music videos, showing scenes that I would classify as soft or medium porn. I sat next to sister Annnemarie from Central Africa. She didn’t seem to mind. I couldn’t stand watching the videos and traded places, preferring to look at a bare wall rather than the screens.

But when the hip hop music came on (or what we thought was hip hop), Madame and I put our basecall caps sideways and started to dance. There are now videos floating around Africa with the two of us dancing hip hop (or so we think).

Although the food was lousy, the company was good and many of us had a good time.

Breakfast treats

I have been getting up early every morning, and have been able to take advantage of a fast internet. It disappears around 6 AM and remains slow from then on. Everyone in the hotel is on the internet at night, so I go to bed early.

The workshop is going very well. My colleagues from Yale are working on the planning process – something I struggled with in Addis when there were just two of us. With our two colleagues from Yale I can breathe, as they take care of it and the one who teaches the sessions is French, so no worry about language. My colleague from MSH, also a native French speaker, does the sessions related to governance, which allows me to focus on what I love most and that give people insight into the dynamics of their team and what they are contributing to that themselves. The teams were rather rickety when they came in. Now I see some movement.

Around 6:30 each morning breakfast is ready in the large “hut’ by the pool. When you are there early you get to enjoy the sight of about 30 muscled men in their 20s lined up along or inside the pool. Their bodies look elastic and silky. Out of the water they move like gazelles, but inside they don’t move much at all. At first I thought I had chanced upon the national swimming team. Our hotel might well be the only Olympic size pool in town. But then I watched them in the water and the action was rather confusing; a lot of splashing and bobbing but not much else. And then, as suddenly as they appear they disappear into the changing rooms, from which they emerge in their shorts and shiny soccer shirts, running in unison. The only thing missing is the music, Chariots of Fire kind of music. The women from Madagascar are also early and we stand there, looking at the men the way men usually look at women in bathing suits. They even take pictures!


I learned how to be a guide for a blind person, the signals one gives with one’s arm to indicate the road ahead. I had been watching how one of our nearly blind participants would always arrive with a colleague who he called his ‘driver.’  This morning I offered my hand. It turns out one doesn’t offer a hand but rather an elbow. The movements of the arm then produces the signal that an opening is narrow, or that people are coming this way, or that one has arrived.

In the world of (physical) disability one talks about ‘reasonably accommodation’ which is what we do for these workshops on the UN convention on the rights of people with disabilities. It is the choice of a hotel (ramps, elevators, wide doors, accessible toilets) and adjustments for the time it takes to do written assignments or self-evaluations. It also means reading everything that is written on a slide, against everything we have learned about presenting slides, and making the text available in 28 point, the smallest print our participant can read. None of these are automatic reflexes for me. This program has made me more aware of the complexity of living with a disability and how easy things are for me, even with the recent shoulder problems.

May 2018
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