Monday, October 31, 2011

"Our Destination: Freedom"

I arrived at the Istanbul airport at 4:30 in the morning. Hazy, I set my two ginormous bags through the screener and confronted my first hurdle. I should back up and say that my luggage this time around was less than traditional. I was carrying a 20kg flack jacket with ceramic plates, a large blue ballistic helmet, and a VHF hand-held radio and charger. Since these items are technically military equipment I had been given an “end user certificate” (really a letter with a lot of stamps on it) to provide in case of trouble with airport authorities. In Istanbul they pulled me aside over concern for….the radio. That’s right, flack jacket, of course you’d be carrying that through an airport. But a nice walkie talkie? Must be dangerous. After some wrangling I removed the battery form the walkie and proceeded to my gate.

My gate was populated entirely by old women and men dressed in off-white robes and headscarves. A few more western dressed folks gathered towards the front. Since there was nowhere to sit, I shoved myself up against a wall in the middle of the “white” crowd that was bound for Mecca later in the day. You could say I looked more than a little out of place. When my flight was called I got into line with a lot of men. Men and literally two other women. Myself and an Indian woman were the only ones uncovered.

I wandered onto the plane only to find my seat (the window in a section of three) taken. Unable to communicate efficiently in Arabic, the stewards had to move around five or so people until my seat was opened up and I nervously passed through the gentlemen I had forced to move. Before I left, people had spent so much time warning me of “aggressive Arab men” and how I should expect to be treated poorly that I braced myself for an unpleasant ride sandwiched against the side of the plane. My Libyan seat-mates could not have proven those people and me more wrong. And I should say, my Libyan friends and colleagues have continued to do so throughout my time here.

As we got set to take off, the young man next to me tried to strike up a conversation in very limited English. Through pantomiming and his father’s assistance we exchanged names, origins, and basic details. They expressed their frustration over the continued fighting in Libya and said they thought it made life worse than under Gaddafi. Since these two were businessmen I got the sense they may have been given some extra space from the now former dictator. They said that once they landed in Benghazi they would head to their home in Adjadabya about two hours to the west. Intermixed in all of this was how happy they were to welcome me to their country.

As the plane began to descend into Benghazi air space I was suddenly snapped out of a daze I was not aware I had sunk into. We flew over a small farm that had been burned out, now filled with spent rockets and weaponry. My trip to this point had seemed so normal and pleasant. I had left a loud, disjointed, and often dysfunctional (no offense my beloved Kenya) developing country for the sleek efficient curves and services of Istanbul. We touched down in Benghazi and I was jolted back into remembering where I was headed.

The plane taxied and we walked down a ladder onto the tarmac. In front of me was a large sign that proclaimed “our destination: Freedom.” Everything else was in Arabic. We took a bus a few hundred feet away to the airport door and walked into our visa lines. Someone from my organization was waiting up front, so after the oil executive was taken through I got to jump the queue myself. We walked downstairs to a single carousel. And then we waited. And waited. And waited while authorities checked our bags for contraband like alcohol. To my great relief my bags arrived and we set off for the office, after grabbing water and a tissue from a “revolutionary” Kleenex box with the words Feb17 written all over it.

Revolutionary flags were flying everywhere on the way to the office. With the exception of one or two buildings with burn marks or the occasional giant hole the city looked completely unaffected by war. Signs about freedom, revolution, and unity peppered the dry landscape, broken up by palm trees and sand colored buildings. 15 minutes of driving on well paved and marked roads and I was delivered to the office...err house AND office.

To be continued...

Benghazi Bound

As most of you know by now, I am doing a short-term contract with a refugee resettlement organization in Libya until the end of the year. In the usual development world last-minute fashion I didn’t have my ticket or official travel authorization until five hours before heading out for my new adventure. After packing like a maniac I set out from Nairobi to Benghazi with 40 kgs of luggage (80 pounds) and my travel guitar. I was blessed with a routing that gave me a 22 hour layover in Istanbul to explore.

I arrived in Istanbul around 10:30 in the morning and had arranged for a taxi to take me to my hotel in the old city first thing. It was a gray day of spitting rain leaving a cold layer of wet on everything, myself included. Undeterred I dropped my things at the hotel, checked my email and then set off meandering the narrow stone streets and storefronts. As my first order of business I stopped for warm shawarma and rice and a Turkish coffee before setting off to the sites. Even with the weather there was a line to get in everywhere. I saw the Ayasofya Church turned Mosque turned Museum; the blue mosque; tombs of former rulers; Basilica Cistern; the grand Bazaar; and wandered the Sultanahmet District. I topped my first set of wandering off with apple tea and a baklava sampler.

After a short drying out period and nap, I headed back out in the rain and found a nice restaurant carved into one of the steep hills descending towards the port. I set myself up by the window with a warming glass of red wine, my book, and a delicious meal. As the sun set and the streets filled with tourists heading to late dinners and bars, I headed back to the hotel, crawled into bed and attempted to sleep…of course waking every hour to make sure I had not missed my 4am departure.

I won’t say much more about Istanbul except I would really love to go back and explore some more. It is a beautiful city full of diverse rich history, good food, and great public transit. Plus they have some pretty wonderful leather makers…and scarves. We all know how I feel about scarves. There is such wonderful shopping to be done and I simply could not partake since I was already overloaded with bags and on my way to a new country…

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Year in Four Paragraphs

Well folks it’s been a pretty crazy year. The fact that it’s been a year is pretty crazy. To make up for my horrible blogging record here’s a summary of what you would have read starting in January when I stopped communicating:

I’ve had a stressful, busy, and incredibly exciting year. In 12 short months I’ve been in Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, Tanzania, Djibouti, Egypt, Israel, the United States, Turkey, and now Libya (more on that later). I’ve monitored an election; witnessed a social network and political movement form organically; trained lawyers, politicians, and youth activists; met with the speaker of the Somali Parliament and spoke with the new Somali Prime Minister. I raced camels; swam in the ocean; played with elephants; was licked by a giraffe; volunteered with disabled children and on other Rotary projects; played guitar at a few bars; attended 4 weddings in 2 different countries; mourned the loss of a great man and former candidate; snorkeled; shot clay pigeons; moved 4 times; completed all my coursework; wrote approximately 350 pages worth of papers; and met some wonderful people. Not so much sleeping.

I’ve learned an immense amount and had a wonderful if not always easy time. I’ve learned to love what’s to love about Kenya and miss what I miss about my home and wonderful country of the United Sates of America. And now to begin a new year of adventure and growth…

I arrived three days ago in Benghazi, Libya to start my next phase of fun and will do my best to improve my blogging for a bit. Yell at me if I don’t. Thanks for all your support, messages, friendship (be it from afar or up close), and good times this past year. Look forward to more of the same and better…

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Rotary District 9200 Conference

Hello blog followers. Though I am getting ready to upload a number of delayed posts I figured it would be best to go in reverse order here and begin with the most timely. I am sitting here at the Speke Resort in Munyonyo, attending the 86th District 9200 conference in Uganda. There are 1700 East African Rotarians, Roteractors, Interactors, and guests in attendance. It’s quite the organizing feat. I arrived yesterday, and met up with another Ambassadorial scholar from Nairobi, who I interestingly had yet to meet. We took the day to get to know one another and find our way to our much less resorty hotel.

Though last night they had an unbelievably nice cocktail reception by the pool, today is the first day of the conference and has proven quite interesting. The morning was filled with introductions and formalities and then led into an address by the President of Rotary International. He spoke of the need to modernize Rotary to reach out to younger generations…noting that district 9200 is already one of the best in attracting young members.

The real fireworks started with the second session right before lunch. There are a number of high profile, incredibly intelligent, sometimes controversial professors from east Africa. Perhaps the most contentious is Ugandan Professor Mahmood Mamdan formerly of Columbia University, now more full time at Makarere in Kampala. The other, less contentious but equally hailed is Professor PLO Lumumba of Kenya. When Lumumba speaks you are instantly thrown back to the cadence and sound of civil rights leaders in the 1960s. He speaks forcefully but inspiringly. He spent his time discussing the ills of Africa and lack of leadership. But he used the opportunity to praise Rotary for creating a community of citizens that looks at impossible tasks and rather than turn away responds that one must try because there is no other option.

Mamdan was a bit more grounding, choosing bravely to speak on a topic of extreme relevance. For the past 3 weeks Ugandans have been engaged in a protest called “Walk to Work” or Walk2Work on twitter. In response to rising fuel and food prices, a few Ugandan opposition leaders called on citizens to avoid taking their normal transport and instead walk to work. Not too many showed for the first protest because the opposition is poorly organized and fairly unpopular. The police however responded harshly, arresting the lead opposition leaders, shooting tear gas into crowds of walking citizens, and arresting many on charges of walking without a permit.

The response shifted the spotlight to the protests and on the second walk to work day 2 days later hundreds of people showed up to walk with opposition leader Besigye. When the police intervened this time, protesters pushed passed only then to be confronted by military police shooting rubber bullets and more tear gas into the crowd. We are now on our 4th walk to work day and true to form the opposition has yet again been arrested on non-descript charges. Today unfortunately, the protest has seemed to turn more violent. A 4 year old child has been reportedly shot and killed and protestors in the west of the country have responded violently towards police with unconfirmed reports of a few dead.

You could be completely unaware of all of this, sitting in the quiet Munyonyo resort, but Mamdan gave a brilliant speech contextualizing it in the broader struggle in North Africa, the historic struggle of South Africans in the 1960s in Soweto, and what it means for democracy in the country. We are now breaking for lunch, but so far the conference is proving fun and inspiring. Well done Rotary!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

World's most inconsistent blogger

It's true. I am the world's most inconsistent blogger. But while I prepare some more substantial postings I can at least give you a brief accounting of why I have been so MIA and perhaps a hint of some things to come.

Last we blogged I was finishing a two-part series on the ICC indictments for the 2008 electoral violence in Kenya. While completing the second post I got caught up in the nightmare of this holiday’s European storm, stuck in Uganda, re-routed and held in Egypt, questioned by Israeli Mossad, flown to Israel, and then finally on to the states (a story for another time).

I then spent 2 weeks at home with family (unfortunately some of that time taken up by mourning the loss of the last candidate I worked for), returned to Kenya, started up a new semester, and was promptly called out to help with the Ugandan elections. I spent the better part of a month traveling back and forth between parts of Uganda and Kenya, keeping up with classwork, and my actual job in the meantime.

So I am now back and recovering from the madness and trying to organize myself for the rest of the semester. I promise some posts soon on the Ugandan election, comments on the recent Sudanese election, updates on what’s going on in Kenya, as well as a post on this weekend’s Rotary sunshine rally for disabled children in the area.

*The picture is a wall of election posters in Kampala