The water belongs to God

Having wrested my next Ethiopia visa from the Embassy in Djibouti, I was free to re-enter the country and fly immediately on a field mission. The destination was Gambella, Ethiopia’s westernmost region bordering South Sudan. I was to spend two weeks there doing research among refugees and their hosts.

Gambella is beautiful. When I arrived in the spring it was green and orange, earthy, hot but not too hot. A huge river, the Baro, flows through the centre, although at the time of my visit it was so low that people could almost walk from one bank to the other. The streets were lined with coffee huts and pool tables, full at all times of day with young men and women. A visual proof of high unemployment.


The region is populated by the Nuer, the Anuak, and ‘highlanders’ – Ethiopians from the interior. The Nuer in particular are striking: very tall, very thin, and strictly geometric. Some of the men practice scarification and have thin lines traced across their foreheads. The Anuak tend to be shorter and rounder. They are both so black they glow a little. The Gambellans who speak English do so with a distinctive accent that I found hard to grasp, Ps interchangeable with Fs, so you hear we are haffy or the frocess, and pipteen or suppicient.

Gambella is one of the world’s classic refugee contexts: hundreds of thousands of people swirled together over decades by multiple layers of politics, vast, hubristic development and private business plans, ethnic rivalry, and the savage civil war in neighbouring South Sudan. I spent my two weeks interviewing a cross section of refugees and hosts, listening to their experiences of accessing the fundamentals of life: food, water, health care. Here as in other places I found the dignity and lucidity of people in sometimes deeply disadvantaged situations a humbling experience. I asked one young refugee lady how it was to have a host community village between her and her source of water: “because they are the ones near the river they may claim that the water is for them,” she said, “but actually the water belongs to God.”


I was in a team of three working to gather as much information as possible in a relatively short time. We worked all day for 13 days in a row, racking up over 100 interviews in Gambella town, far-flung villages, and one of the giant refugee camps. Interviews were punctuated by hours on dirt roads in white 4x4s and snatched meals, injera and goat at lunch and fish in the evening. It was privileged work, but hard, and tiring. As soon as my research was complete I was bidden to return to Djibouti. I needed to be in another part of Ethiopia for another mission in two weeks’ time, and as my visas only ever lasted 30 days my existing one wouldn’t cover that period.


Returning to Djibouti again was dispiriting. The guesthouse was fine for a few days but not much longer, especially over a weekend, when its shortcomings in comfort began to bite. There is precious little to do in Djiboutiville, especially during the hot season and more especially during Ramadan. In early May the temperature was building up to the debilitating summer months, peaking at 37 or 38 for the middle hours of the day and troughing at just under 30 at night. The air outside was humid and sour like a dog panting on you. I did not look forward to future visa runs in June and July.

Residency Card in hand, my time there revolved around the Ethiopian Embassy in Djiboutiville. My visa application was met with velleity by the Embassy staff, who made their counterparts in West London look like the US Navy SEALs. How long will it take for you check your emails? 24 hours? OK. And to fill out this receipt? Two days? Of course. Come back tomorrow. Come back tomorrow again. Come back at 3pm. Come back at 9. What took four hours in Knightsbridge took three working days here. I found myself getting short tempered with emails from friends and colleagues asking when I would be back in Ethiopia: it wasn’t under my control.

I coped by going running, carefully aiming for twilight when I could still see but the worst of the heat had subsided. I ran past the cargo ships coming into the port under great electric lights, the sun setting over the Gulf of Tadjourah, security guards who couldn’t leave their stations praying on flattened cardboard boxes. I ran and ran, coping, past teenagers playing volleyball in the dusk, past the high perimeter walls of the fantastic hotels, past the graffiti along the tidebreaker proclaiming Hope Is My Army.


Wagon wheel

I spent two majestic weeks in the United States. A crystalline spring day in New York City; a roadtrip looping southwest – Asheville, Roanoke, Morgantown, the Blue Ridge Mountains, Baltimore – and a second one from New York to Boston.

For the first week I hiked in mountains, ate chicken biscuits and southern barbecue, and sang ‘Country Roads’ on country roads. I saw two landmarks of American architecture: the Biltmore Estate, designed by Frederick Olmsted, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Olmsted, already creator of New York City’s Central Park, had worked on the Estate at the same time as he designed the Chicago Midway for the World Fair of 1893. A circuit of a mere two floors of the main building was a half day walk; waiting in the exit hall at the end a teenager emerged from inside and flopped down in a chair and yawned, Jesus Christ, like a cat. Fallingwater meanwhile had been home to one of 20th century America’s richest families, the Kaufmanns, and was all graceful angles and equilibriums. The interior felt like being inside the world’s most lavish game of Jenga, tastefully decorated and bearing modest masterworks on the walls: a Hokusai, two Riveras, a Picasso. I flirted mildly with the tour guide, a handsome middle-aged lady whose name tag said Karen O, although she wasn’t that Karen O.

I returned to New York City where I bumped into a beloved Aunt and was plied with coffee and cake, and then met an old friend who rented a fast car and zoomed me around New York State, through syrup factories and stately college towns and into Massachusetts. In Boston we spent most of our time in aggressive confrontation with road transit infrastructure which appeared to have been designed by toddlers, but also found time for cocktails, a tour of the harbour, and the soaring monument of Bunker Hill. And then it was time to go home. Not that I had a home.

A week later I was standing in the interior of a tiny prefab office in Djiboutiville like a bat in a cave sheltering from the searing outside, and through a Perspex barrier a fat lady was holding in her left hand my Residency Card. Her right hand was holding a biro and she waved it around as she talked to the woman sitting opposite her, two ladies who gesticulated and swivelled and nodded but whose backs and bottoms may as well have been fused to their office chairs for all their actual bodies moved. She had a ledger in front of her with a little empty box at the end of a row that had my details written in in blue handwriting. The Residency Card was the culmination of two months’ worth of form-filling, fingerprinting, what felt like a dozen passport photographs, letters of request and invitation and guarantee from my organisation, and week after week of processing, but it still wasn’t authorised.

Without this card I would have to queue and pay and fill in forms and be thoroughly securitised in order to be physically present in Djibouti, or, theoretically speaking, risk arrest and detention. With it I would be able to enter the same space without hindrance. There is a kind of transubstantiation going on here, where the base material of plastic cards and ink on paper becomes instilled with the power of the Law, and it is ontological and woozy. The lady’s pen was swaying maybe thirty centimetres from the page and in this moment the fabric of my reality stretched a little. I could feel the walls bending around the movements of the biro. The lady finished her sentence and looked down, brought the biro down, and wrote in the empty box. She leant forward from her shoulders only and hovered the card near a hole in the Perspex. I took it. “Good” barked Mohamed. Mohamed was the office driver and the kind of guy who wound his window down to shout at beggars. He was thoroughly bored of ferrying me back and forth to administrative offices around the city. That was it. I was a resident.

The walls snapped into shape.

The sun, the sea

Upon returning I was dispatched to Djibouti, partly for visa reasons and partly to do some research for the team there. Although a sovereign country, having a population smaller than any of Ethiopia’s nine internal Regions meant that my organisation’s presence there is run from Addis Ababa.

Djibouti is a strange place. Historically a territory where the Afars of the north met the Somali Issas of the south, it was colonised by the French and named literally ‘The French Territory of the Afar and the Issa’. The colonial power had no interest in the Territory as such and invested only in Djiboutiville, the capital, which had strategic importance as a port and rail terminal connecting the African interior with the sea. Today the capital holds three quarters of Djibouti’s whole population, with the rest of the country comprising a few towns and villages scattered thinly across the surrounding desert. Its most famous feature is its foreign military bases, which it rents out at great profit to various countries who enjoy the convenience of being able to operate in Somalia, the Middle East, and the Gulf of Aden. The port, though, is Djibouti’s lifeline: it handles 90% of landlocked Ethiopia’s foreign trade goods and thereby earns money to import food, water, electricity, and everything else necessary for life that is not possible to produce in a tiny speck of land that is mostly dust and stone.

This means everything in Djibouti is incredibly expensive. A normal can of beer is six dollars, a pack of yoghurts is five dollars, a tray of six eggs is 11 dollars. Renting our joint office/guesthouse, a blemished little seven-roomed building swarming with ants in the hotel district, cost nearly 2,000 dollars a month. Fresh fruit and vegetables mostly don’t exist, even in the supermarkets frequented by expatriates. On the other hand the French legacy means genuine baguettes are sold in every corner shop, fresh twice a day, and the restaurants in town are excellent. The closest one to the guesthouse was The Melting Pot, a Japanese/French/Djiboutian fusion place where you can order a teriyaki camel burger or grilled octopus with wasabi.

The melting pot is an apt cliché for a port city. I would wander the streets of the city centre in the evenings and pass Yemeni traders, Qatari businessmen, American and Japanese soldiers with bulging muscles and crew cuts, Ethiopian chefs, and French and Italian immigrants leathery and ochre from life in the sun. Everyone speaks a mixture of languages: my new colleague Fathia spoke Somali, English, French, Arabic, and Afari, and seemed a little nonplussed when I said that was amazing.


Djibouti has three refugee camps sheltering people from Ethiopia, Yemen, Somalia, and Eritrea. It also contains a major artery of migrants traveling from various countries into – can you imagine – Yemen, where they seek to travel either north into Saudi Arabia or double back across the Straits of Bab-el-Mandaab into Sudan and there upwards into Libya. I visited all three camps and a migrant camp in my few weeks there, amazed after the vastness of Ethiopia that the furthest camp was a mere four hours’ drive from the capital. Minutes outside the city we hit fields of volcanic rock, as though we were in some Titan’s garden, that went on for as far as the eye could see. Very beautiful, in a harsh kind of way, but not something you’d want to walk through.

At every stage we passed migrants on the road, predominantly young men. Sometimes they’d shout for directions. Once one of them started running to intercept us and Fathia threw her bottle of water out of the window. “I don’t want them to die,” she said. The youth slowed and curved his run towards the bottle. Later, at the migrant camp on the coast, I would see people gathering in language groups and pooling money for food and water sold by villagers. Women arrived in groups, the men sometimes with others, sometimes alone. None of them carried anything with them; some of them were scarcely out of childhood.

Relative to the IDP camps in Somali Region I’d been in a month or two earlier, the refugee camps felt, frankly, pretty comfortable. That is highly relative of course but in the camps there were schools, health centres, solar lights, latrines, government presence, and few restrictions on NGOs beyond their own funding limits. I’m always struck by how permanent refugee camps feel: refugee response is nominally emergency work, as opposed to development, so I am forever surprised to see brick buildings and grid connections, but I shouldn’t be. The global average time a refugee spends in a camp is 17 years.

Djibouti’s biggest challenge with its refugee programme is financial: it typically receives less than a quarter of the money UNHCR says it needs each year. That’s partly, I suspect, because Djibouti is technically a Middle Income country – between the port and the military leases it generates around five billion dollars a year and has a total population, including refugees, of less than a million people. In this humanitarian’s humble opinion it shouldn’t need international aid at all: it should have a school and a hospital in every town, instead of what there is in reality, which is a barracks.


That is all a bit above my station. My immediate issue was attempting to get a Djiboutian Residency Card, which would allow me multiple entries into the country for the duration of my contract and, crucially, to get visas for Ethiopia in the Djiboutiville Embassy. I spent three weeks in Djibouti in total bookended by days filling out paperwork, submitting fingerprints, and sending a truly remarkable number of passport photos to various government offices. It was not enough. I left without the Residency, which was to take more weeks yet, but for a happy reason – a long-planned two week break in the USA.

If you are walking, run

In mid-December the email came through: a six-week consultancy in Ethiopia. Six weeks was not long but after two dozen unsuccessful job applications and counting I wasn’t in a position to negotiate. The contract was offered on a Friday and three days later I was at Heathrow.

I flew to Addis Ababa, and on arrival instead of going into the city I switched terminal and flew directly to Jijiga, the capital of Somali Region. Somali is one of Ethiopia’s nine devolved Regions and covers most of the country’s eastern flank. Jijiga is comfortably the biggest city and is towards the north, near the intersection of Ethiopia with Somalia and Somaliland. I was met and would be accompanied for my stay by Abdullahi, enthusiastic chauffer, city guide, and all-round companion. His first action was to drive me from the airport to a hotel so new he didn’t know its name – Blue Hotel, I ventured, as it was indeed painted a royal blue.

“Blue Hotel!” Abdullahi cried in delight and agreement. Blue Hotel it was. Blue Hotel had a restaurant that only served breakfast and large rooms that curved around a circular central reservation, giving the space a somehow nautical feel. The bed was as solid as a plank, but I had Al-Jazeera English on the TV and an en-suite bathroom with running water.

Jijiga felt more Somali than Ethiopian, although many women wore western clothes and had their heads uncovered. The days were punctuated by calls to prayer from the mosques. The weekends were Saturday and Sunday: despite an overwhelmingly Muslim population the Regional President a few years ago changed the working week from Sunday-Thursday to Monday-Friday as a gesture of harmony with the Ethiopian state. Camels sloped down the roads. Khat houses lined the street. Khat is a green shrub that when chewed produces first a mild, coffee-like boost and then a lengthy lazy come-down. Trade in khat is at the heart of all the Horn of Africa’s and Yemen’s economic and conflict dynamics and the first foreigner who maps its pathways through the region will be rich and sought after by western academies for life. In Jijiga the khat houses were little booths with mats spread over swept concrete floors, often five or six in a row, and every evening they would be filled with men chewing and chewing into the night. Women only chew in the home, but control the retail: Blue Hotel was owned by a particularly successful individual.

My own working weeks were spent meeting the DRC team, being driven around by Abdullahi, and interviewing anyone who’d speak to me about the displaced people in the Region. Internally displaced people – IDPs – are essentially refugees in their own country, lacking the same legal identity and internationally accepted protections available to a refugee. Here in Ethiopia there were almost a million IDPs each in Somali and neighbouring Oromia Regions, the product of an internal border conflict that no-one was eager to investigate too closely. My job was to discover what the political stakes were around the IDPs and advise my organisation on their humanitarian response accordingly.

After a couple of weeks in Jijiga I transitioned to a second location, Dolo Ado. Dolo Ado is five hundred miles to the south where Ethiopia meets both Somalia and Kenya, and is a town of corrugated iron shelters on orange sand with the occasional glareal shrub being nibbled by goats.

Upon landing, absent Abdullahi, I became in many ways an infant. I was reliant on other people to talk for me, to feed me, to transport me, and to shelter me. This they did with diligence and courtesy.

From Dolo Ado I visited the remotest places I have ever been. Dolo itself is a two hour flight from Addis; from Dolo, I drove a whole day in a 4×4 to a town called Filtu, where I was to be based for a few days, and after a night there drove a further half day to Deka Suftu. From Deka Suftu it was an hour or so to the IDPs.

I was gratified in Filtu, a mixed Oromo/Somali town, to find that the differences between the two were apparent to me. Somali people have distinctive features, angular faces with round eyes, and are almost universally Muslim and dress accordingly. Oromo shops and restaurants tended to have colourful banners or displays and serve traditional Ethiopian food; Somali restaurants were more reserved and the food much less good. Perhaps the biggest giveaway was music – both Oromos and Somalis like to play loud music into the street, and it’s easy to tell them apart because Ethiopian music is a strident disaster and Somali music is excellent.

The IDP sites around Deka Suftu were desolate. They were sticks and sand. We picked over rock for an hour in our 4×4 to get to them. I don’t think it would be physically possible for a water truck or food trailer to make the journey.

More than anything, I was struck by the dignity of the people I interviewed. Most of them had fled violence from people they had been neighbours with for decades; many of them had lost children in the flight. They had been living in these desperate scrublands for months, sometimes years. All of them, without exception, were courteous, respectful, and patient. I remember talking to a woman whose arm had obviously been broken and reset where it was, twisted and scarred, telling me that what people needed apart from food and water and healthcare was clothes. Most of the people in the community had run away in what I saw them wearing today. This conversation took place in a shelter made of dry branches: the floor was covered in a rug and my colleagues and I were presented with tea. At the end all I could do was to say that I hoped my visit would enable my organisation to help them. “If you are standing, walk. If you are walking, run”, replied an elder. I left and have never been back.

The IDPs were “sensitive”. Every interview I conducted was off the record; very quickly I reached a limit of what it was possible to learn. My research established a crude portrait of the conflict, a mix of competition over land, competing trade interests, and political rivalry that resulted in IDPs being regarded as pawns rather than people. Because the IDPs were so politicised, the international community was at a loss. If you accidentally help one side in a conflict, you violate the core humanitarian principle of impartiality.

I hoped my work was able to help, in some indirect fashion. The final two weeks of my contract were spent in Addis writing reports and presentations that were delivered first to my own organisation and later, with redactions, to a wider audience of donors, diplomats, and humanitarian agencies. The gap between the needs and response seemed enormous but I had a sense that there was a possibility, at least, of helping in some small way to narrow it by giving the people with the resources a slightly better understanding of what it was that needed doing.

To my great relief, as the consultancy drew to a close I was offered a staff contract. In early February I was obliged to return to UK for a new visa. In characteristic humanitarian fashion it was never clear to me exactly when my consultancy ended and my staff contract started, but no matter – after another appointment with the Embassy in London I was set to return to Ethiopia for another six months.

Regarding exit

After four straight weeks in Mogadishu, for reasons that were never entirely clear I was sent to Hargeisa. For one week I stayed in a hotel and texted friends excitedly that my bathroom had hot water. For the next I stayed in the work guesthouse and was sorry to find the cats had all moved on. For the middle six of ten working days I sat in all-day meetings, 8 to 5, that mostly had very little to do with my work. I volunteered as minute taker in order to keep awake. One of the meetings was an induction, to which I was scornful of being invited until I arrived in the meeting room and found a Somali lady who had been in the organisation for ten years. She had never been inducted until now either.

I went to a party and a restaurant and both times had to send a Sorry email to the Security team for being caught returning home after curfew. Curfew is 9pm. It was better than Mogadishu but Vegas it was not.

What non-meeting time was available I mostly spent locked in administrative death grips with the Ayatollah of HR in DRC’s Somalia Office, a tiny lady with an sweet smile whose pedantry has been known to bring staff to tears. Applying for either Annual Leave or R’n’R takes two separate paperwork processes that have to be signed by a number of people in precisely the right order. If you would like to combine R’n’R with Annual Leave, as I did, you have to submit four separate pieces of paper with a total 14 layers of approval, each in the right order both within and between the four documents. There is, as you can imagine, a great deal of scope for pedantry in this procedure, and woe to any innocent Knowledge Management Officer who imagines that no-one really minds if you get one or two of the 14 layers of approval out of order.

Emerging at the end of two weeks barely alive but with my R’n’R and Annual Leave approved, I offered ambrosial thanks to HR for their kind assistance and fled to Kenya. I spent four days in a cottage outside Nairobi sleeping, listening to the radio, and reading, and thought about things other than work. It was good.


From there I went to Ethiopia, where my sister and a close friend from London were meeting me for a long-planned holiday. We spent ten days together and it was wonderful. We ate pizzas and dish after dish of Ethiopian food, danced in bars, compared ourselves to skeletons of the first human ancestors in the Natural History Museum, took a bus journey that we thought was from Addis Ababa but apparently was from Hades itself, saw castles, vultures, waterfalls, and baboons, got 3,700 metres above sea level, played cards with mountain guides, and drank little Ethiopian coffees boiled on charcoal stoves shared with incense. We didn’t get robbed or get sick. Everything that could have gone well, went well. Such holidays are a rare thing, and it will live long in the memory.

At the end, it was back to Somalia. I returned to work in Mogadishu with three weeks left on my contract. To my disappointment, but not my surprise, there was nothing in my inbox about it. No offer of an extension, no notification that an extension was not being offered. I wrote an email to my boss and two other people stating my end date and saying I hoped they were aware. My boss wrote back and asked if I was intending on staying, to which I said no, and asked what would happen in that case. He sent this:

>>From: M
>>Sent: 11 September 2017 15:51
>>To: Dominic Naish
>>Cc: S and J
>>Subject: RE: My contract ends on 4th October

>>Dear Dominic,

>>Ok, thank you for your response.

>>Regarding exit, there is normal procedure that HR would introduce you to.

>>I have copied in R so she can inform you about the process




And that was it. 12 months of employment wrapped up in three or four short sentences. Later the same week, M, my boss, told enquirers that I’d quit. This past week I have sat in an office on my own filling out departure paperwork. I had an exit interview with HQ and a final meeting with a Director on Friday, but at this stage even a sympathetic ear won’t make much difference. I feel weary and resentful of being treated so dismissively, and angry at my boss in a way I haven’t been since at school and being angry at unkind teachers.

Still. The benefit of such an abrupt ending is that it will be over soon. And I have to remember, and not take for granted, the many great privileges this last year have brought me, in learning and growing my professional skills, meeting people, and seeing some remarkable parts of the world. I hope in time that the management I’ve experienced will similarly feel like a benefit, as you surely learn more when things are tough than when everything goes smoothly. For the time being, though, this chapter is closing, and soon I will be able to look on it with hindsight.


What I’m listening to:

  • Angelo Badalamenti, “Dance of the Dream Man”
  • Kwesta, “Ngud”
  • Martina Topley-Bird, Quixotic
  • The National, Trouble Will Find Me
  • The Seraphims, “The Consciousness of Happening”
  • Synthesise the Soul: Astro-Atlantic Hypnotica from the Cape Verde Islands 1973-1988

What I’m reading:

  • Still Tristes Tropiques
  • Edith Warton, The Age of Innocence
  • Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel
  • Sebastian Junger, The Perfect Storm
  • John Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven

White Pearl

“I hate travelling and explorers” grouches Lévi-Strauss, famous traveller and explorer, at the start of Tristes Tropiques. I am beginning to agree with him.

Ethiopia fell through, involving a trip to Knightsbridge from Addis Ababa, which was a long way to go for a botched visa process. My patience failed; I wrote to my boss and said it wasn’t possible to work like this. He responded that the job comes with a level of uncertainty and I should question whether I could live with that. After a few days of ill-tempered exchange, he handed me over to the Somalia team and returned to ignoring me completely. I spent two weeks in UK, 10 days in Kenya, and then moved to Somalia.

Bouncing between countries with such frequency and so little planning was beginning to tell. I found myself forgetting the names and jobs of colleagues that I know fairly well, and getting a gluey, cold-like illness every time I took an aeroplane. Keeping in touch with friends began to slide, as I barely knew myself where I was and what I was doing. As I write, the plan for getting me a work permit in Somalia has already derailed and I have a meeting with a senior staff member next week to come up with a contingency plan. I am tired of being so poorly managed.

The upside of being an accessory to this mélange is getting to go to unusual places. I have spent the past three weeks in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital city, and a site of some mystique to me ever since my brother lent me a copy of Black Hawk Down as a teenager. Peering through the gaps in the fence on the roof I can see the checkpoint at Kilometre 4, the south-west corner of the blocks within which the US Rangers’ mission unravelled in 1993.


The DRC compound contains an office and a guesthouse within a few paces of each other. The compound’s four-metre-high walls are lined on the inside with metre-thick concrete blast absorbers, topped with razor wire, and manned in each corner by an armed guard. Inside, entrance doors are lined with reinforced steel. Moving from the dark of armoured corridors to the white light of the Indian Ocean coast is hard on the eyes, and a well-timed sweep of sunglasses from the top of my head to my eyes is an essential skill.

International staff are not allowed out. The only time you leave the compound is to go to the airport, either for a flight or a meeting – Mogadishu International Airport, MIA, is the heart of the Green Zone and the hub of all international activity in South Central Somalia. Unlike Hargeisa, here DRC has an armoured car, which is mostly used as shade for the office cats as it stays parked conveniently close to the kitchens. Unusually for an NGO vehicle, it isn’t marked. Anything referring to Denmark is a bad idea in Somalia: you may have forgotten the Danish cartoonist who drew the Prophet in 2005/2006, but Al Shabaab have not.


Being in such an enclosed space gives time a cyclical feel: the unchanging (unchangeable) daily routine (breakfast-office-lunch-office-dinner-evening-sleep), the guards running loops around the guesthouse, the office smoke detectors that let you know they’re on by emitting a staccato bip at fire-alarm volume every couple of minutes all creating a sense of circularity. I watch the fan go round on my bedroom ceiling and fancy myself as Captain Willard in Saigon, waiting to go into the jungle.

The guesthouse itself is very comfortable. At first the TV was fixed to one channel only, and we watched a great deal of coverage of the build-up to the Kenyan elections, but now it’s back to a full array of satellite options. Internet is slow but reliable, and water is usually available, if not always strong enough to have a proper shower or flush a toilet. It’s warm enough that the fact the showers are unheated is not an issue. Food is provided three times a day.

I spend my evenings and weekends reading, listening to music, and running on a senescent treadmill whose belt sticks and skids on the mill unless your weight falls in just the right place. I’ve started doing equipment-free workouts, and am vaguely perturbed by the idea that my housemates can hear me choosing to spend my free time being shouted at by enthusiastic YouTubers. One of my good friends has been here virtually the whole time I have, which makes a huge difference: being so enclosed with a random selection of colleagues can be wearing.

Not always, though – one more gregarious workmate organised a barbecue on the roof during his short stay, somehow arranging a delivery of meat, bread, cheese, and charcoal that he fired up as the sun set last week. We were not many and nor were we a natural group of friends, but doing something different, with good food and the sound of the AMISOM troops practising in the firing range nearby, was a highlight of my stay.


It should also be said that Mogadishu is beautiful. I can’t go out and see it, of course, but from the roof I can see green avenues lined with white architecture, inspired by the city’s Italian and Persian heritage, which also gives it its name: Mogadishu is believed to derive from the Persian Maq’adi Shah, the seat of the Shah. In more recent times, before the civil war that erupted in the 1990s, it was known as The White Pearl of the Indian Ocean. The weather is delightful, and the long white beach that lies behind the airport is reportedly sheltered by a reef. In another life, it would be a tourist’s dream. Like Kabul and Baghdad, though, the city has lost decades to avarice and destruction.

I can stay here another nine days, and then visa issues begin again. My plan to get work from other colleagues in the de facto absence of a boss worked for a few weeks, but is now getting a little stretched. Both of these things will resolve in some way, but I look forward to a job where I don’t have to constantly force through a plan to have work to do and a country to stay in. I also look forward to a hot shower and going for a walk. I quite like Mogadishu, though, and would not at all mind coming back.


What I’m listening to:

  • Thelonious Monk, Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington and Mulligan Meets Monk
  • Sonny Rollins, Sonny Rollins & The Modern Jazz Quartet
  • Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Ears
  • Sudan Archives, Sudan Archives EP
  • Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II

What I’m reading:

  • Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost
  • Ronald F Thiemann, The Humble Sublime
  • Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques
  • William Gibson, Neuromancer
  • David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster
  • Stephen King, Carrie

A rudimentary stage of construction

“I hope you’re having fun, and not too sad!” This was the parting sentence of a voice message left me by a European friend, the unorthodox English as so often neatly capturing the sentiment, midway between my last blog entry and this one. She was responding to the information that since the two weeks of holiday that followed my last update, I have been struggling in an almost total vacuum at work, unable to stay in one country for longer than a few weeks and adrift in my professional remit.

Leave had been wonderful: a succession of friends and family and time in England, Wales, and Scotland packed into an expeditious two weeks, but was soured by a desperately disorganised return to work. In the handover from one boss to another all the things that had been repeatedly promised before I went away were simply not done; no visa, no contract, no job description, nothing.

In the end I went to Kenya as a kind of default option. I had two meetings with my new boss: in the first he told me the reason my paperwork was undone was that I wasn’t a priority, and in the second he removed around 70% of my job description (that I had written) because he didn’t see the value in it. He didn’t replace it with anything, but said there might be something for me to do around July. Two months later, that remains the last interaction I’ve had with him.

I’m now writing from Kenya again, with thirty of the intervening days between then and now spent in Ethiopia. Mercifully the majority of those thirty days were busy, the Ethiopian Country Director and Head of Programmes keen to take advantage of my presence and largely undefined purpose. For three weeks or so I was involved in research and analysis on internally displaced people and refugees in Ethiopia; hardly my area, but I found with a modicum of direction and structure I was suddenly able to be effective again, and enjoyed it.

Addis Ababa itself is somewhat less developed than I had framed it. Very safe, yes, and home to a huge number of UN, African Union, and East African regional government bodies, but also dirty, lacking in infrastructure, and short on things to do. Meeting people has accordingly been slower than in many other cities, and I was grateful for four whole weeks in a row to begin to establish some tentative friendships. Perhaps the most eye-catching feature of the city is its expansion. I was amazed to read Evelyn Waugh writing in 1930 on a visit to Addis that “The whole town seemed still in a rudimentary stage of construction. At every corner were half-finished buildings…” – this is exactly my impression of it today, nearly a full century later. I look forward to discovering the city a little more fully over the coming months.

I realised recently that my challenge was not to elicit the fundamentals of management, but to incorporate the absence of management into a structure that allows me to work. It took me a while. July brings the vague promise of new projects, but in my lack of faith in external factors I have enlisted two friends in more senior positions to give me their excess tasks. The hope is that this will provide me with a steady source of things to do, not worrying too much about whether I’m “supposed” to be doing them or not, and enable me to be constructive without requiring anyone’s time.

The subsequent challenge is to break out of the lethargy that I’ve sunk into over the last few months. I haven’t been able to stay in one country for more than a few weeks since the turn of the year. That may sound dynamic or exciting, but in truth it’s draining, especially as it’s the result of disorganisation and a lack of will to do anything about it rather than being driven by goals. Even worse has been the lack of a clear role. The combination has become dislocating and demotivating, and in this brief few days in Kenya my objective is to work on my mental approach to the coming months. I have one more week here, another week in Addis, 48 hours in UK, and then (hopefully) will be able to stay in Ethiopia for a few months at least. I want to make the best of it.


What I’m listening to:

  • Dorothy Ashby, In a Minor Groove
  • Antoine Brumel, Missa Et Ecce Terrae Motus
  • The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico

What I’m reading:

  • Peter Godwin, Mukiwa
  • Kate Fox, Watching the English
  • (Finally finished) Aeneid
  • Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Emperor
  • Slavoj Zizek, The Fragile Absolute
  • Olivia Laing, The Lonely City