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

 

Hargeisaland

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I flew to Hargeisa on a Saturday and left for work at 7.15 on Sunday morning. Losing a weekend ordinarily would be a cause for resentment, but in this case minimising empty time was a good thing. There is very little to do in Hargeisa, especially if you don’t have an established group of contacts outside one’s own organisation, so half a day to unpack was about right. There was no food in the house when I arrived: meals were provided twice a day, but not on Fridays and Saturdays. Typically of DRC/DDG, no-one tells new arrivals this. I ate bread found in one of the fridges.

The guesthouse is a spacious two storey building, unusually for Somaliland without an accessible roof but with a little terraced area outside. There are 11 bedrooms, but during my stay there were never more than seven filled. Guesthouse life meant that only one person was there for the duration of my stay: around ten other people in total arrived, left, or did both during what turned out to be only four weeks.

The office had changed since my last trip. We stopped renting the old complex, what had previously been a school, and moved into a three storey office block. Happily it was much closer to the guesthouse, although until I arrived and put my foot down the driver still arrived at the same time, 7.15am, making us some 40 minutes early to work every day. The new office was very new, the concrete stairs noticeably uneven, the water supply barely reaching to my second floor. Outside my office was a balcony upon which mugs, flasks, teaspoons, a box of teabags, and a jar of Nescafe and sugar were presented at 9am every day. One of the flasks contained Somali tea, which is delicious. It tastes strongly of cloves and so sweet it makes me wince.

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We had our bags searched thoroughly, every zip and pocket checked, and were metal-detected before the gate into the office is unlocked for us, one at a time. A herd of camels walked past my window most mornings at around tea time. I shared an office with Muhamed Ismael, Mukhtar, and Ismael Abdi. Later we were joined by a charming Pakistani who also moved into the guesthouse and I did much of exploring of Hargeisa with. Mukhtar helped me with hello, good morning, thank you, and goodbye in Somali, and tried to teach me see you tomorrow, a formidable composition which proved a step too far. Muhamed Ismael sheepishly admitted to being an Arsenal fan and after much investigation and phone calls added me to the office Fantasy Football league. I am 13th.

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I was underworked, sadly for the context. The days were nine hours long because the Somalis stopped for prayer breaks and had an hour for lunch. Lunch for the internationals was brought from the guesthouse in little metal lunchboxes, and was usually rice or pasta with fish or vegetables. I ate on the balcony. January and February is winter in Somaliland so it was not as hot as envisioned; I usually wore a jumper or jacket.

Free time in Hargeisa was a different beast. Much of my week revolved around managing long stretches of time with nothing to do. Normally something to be maximised and looked forward to, here it was not exactly avoided but was certainly treated warily. Going out to a restaurant or friend’s compound was possible, but only around once a week, if that. Otherwise we were confined to the guesthouse. On my one excursion out of the office to a conference at a hotel I met a middle-aged man working for one of the EU’s maritime organs. He had been in Hargeisa for a year and a half and compared it unfavourably with being in prison. “At least there you know you didn’t choose to be there,” he said, half joking.

As an introvert I coped better than many; I read a lot, wrote, listened to music, ran on a treadmill for the first time. On the weekends I sat outside in the sun and watched with delight the weaver birds, Borussia Dortmund yellow and black, building their magical cocoons in the tree, being reminded of poring over my dad’s bird books as a child. One of the seven cats, Elán, the largest, oldest, and most domesticated, adopted me. He had belonged de facto to the previous Country Director and clearly missed the attention. I remember her saying that the cats were therapeutic, and they were: as I stroked Elán, feeling how fluid and cephalopodic he was compared to a dog, it occurred to me that living in such a conservative society meant physical contact was absolutely minimal. I would occasionally shake hands with other men, and that was it. Elán demanded my attention, sitting on my laptop keyboard or shoving himself against my book until I tickled his ears or chin, at which he would sink his claws into my legs in delight and start purring like a helicopter.

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I was happier. The weather was good, the food was good, the Somalis were lovely. Work was a little slow but I was glad to be away from the politics of Nairobi. Hargeisa began to grow on me: it has restaurants and coffee shops, good ones, and I had a couple of friends in other organisations. I would go over to Mine Action Group or HALO and drink smuggled whiskey on their rooves, listening to the de-miners swapping stories about Afghanistan and Iraq and partaking in the curious self-effacing humour of the humanitarian community. The curfew was 9pm, unless you had an armoured car, which, as I heard no end of, HALO did and we didn’t. I rode in one a couple of times: they look normal, but the doors are so heavy it takes two hands to move them.

After four weeks, though, I began to feel the tentacles of cabin fever. I wanted to go for a walk or out for a drink. I was living with a handful of middle-aged men of varying degrees of personability, and missed my women friends. My work permit was still processing but I had another three weeks in Somaliland before my annual leave, and then would be based there until October.

Hargeisa

And then we had a security incident. The news arrived on a Thursday afternoon and we were instructed not to leave the guesthouse for the weekend. On Tuesday I received an email from my boss and 48 hours later I arrived blinking back in Nairobi. My work permit was rejected.

Having had too little to do in Hargeisa, Nairobi was a shock. The boss was leaving and the organisation going through a significant restructure. I was put in a meeting with two Regional Advisers and told that management didn’t have the capacity to “spar with us” as much as they would like; with an average age of 29 and a combined 11 months of service in the organisation, we were designated a “self-managing team”. I worked until 8 or 10pm most nights that week. I couldn’t stay long; Nairobi was over its limit of foreign staff, Hargeisa obviously not an option, Kampala was full, and Mogadishu was judged unwise given the elections there had only just finished. I was sent to Addis Ababa. On a tourist visa, I have now spent a week sitting in a guesthouse on my own. I have four more days here before a much needed break in UK.

What I’m listening to:

  • Sybille Baier, Colour Green
  • Riton ft. Kah-Lo, “Rinse and Repeat”
  • Card on Spokes, As We Surface EP
  • Sons of Kemet, Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do
  • Burial, Untrue

What I’m reading:

  • Still Aeneid
  • Aldous Huxley, Mortal Coils
  • Emmanuel Katangole, The Sacrifice of Africa

Challenging environments

After a 48-hour turnaround in Nairobi I flew to Lodwar, capital of Kenya’s north-western Turkana County. I was to spend ten days there interviewing staff in our field offices about the cross-border work they’d been doing with Uganda. It was only a 90-minute flight but landing was like arriving in another hemisphere: Turkana is essentially desert. The ground shimmered in the sun.

I was welcomed by Raphael, the burly, good-natured Programme Manager, who introduced me to four somewhat sullen staff and Pius the driver. Pius spoke no English apart from “fine” and “seatbelt”. I stayed a couple of days in Lodwar, little more than a village really, with three or four tarmacked roads that simply stopped and turned to murram near the edges of town. It was dusty. The electricity failed several times a day, sometimes for five or six hours at a time, taking the air conditioning with it. The normal daytime temperature was 36ᴼ.

 

I stayed in the grandly named County Palace, a little hotel complex past the Save the Children compound and opposite a smartly hand-painted road sign indicating Lumpy Bumpy Lane. County Palace had half a dozen little huts, some single-occupancy, some double, surrounding a spacious courtyard with plastic deck tables and single speaker that broadcast Radio Maisha every waking hour. Radio Maisha appeared to deal mostly in jingles and adverts, and loudly promoted phone-in competitions with cash prizes of ten to a hundred dollars. The A/C in my room was jammed on 29ᴼ. Dinner took two to three hours to prepare, even when it comprised no more than a stack of chapatti and a plate of oily spinach. Some mornings I awoke to the brief, desperate squalling of the day’s chicken attempting to resist the inevitable.

The next eight days were two whiplash circular field trips out of Lodwar into the desert. For the first I was part of a three-vehicle convoy with staff from two other NGOs. We drove south, stopping at Lokichar, Kainuk, and Nakwamoru before looping back north through Lomeremudang. We sped through the desert at sixty kilometres an hour, criss-crossing each other’s dust clouds and listening to execrable techno mixes on the stereo. Some of the villages we passed were scarcely believable, tiny clusters of huts a hundred miles from anywhere. Some of them were riddled with bullet holes. How did their occupants get water? What did they do when they got sick? We passed herds of goats, fat and brisk, and occasional groups of languorous camels.

After three days we returned to Lodwar, a booming metropolis of civilisation with wifi, running water, and roads as smooth as waterslides. Over that weekend I bade goodbye to the staff from the other organisations and was lucky to be able to visit Lake Turkana, hidden behind a row of palm trees that sprouted abruptly in the middle of the desert two hours from Lodwar. The lake was vast, big as a sea, and so flat that people, Jesus-like, a hundred metres in had water barely over their ankles.

Four more days in the pickup followed, looping east this time, towards the Ugandan border. The driver had a mixtape of ten tracks, two each by Madonna, Michael Jackson, Jermaine Stewart, Whitney Houston, and Rick Astley, that he played on repeat for the duration. I saw Mount Moroto, the burned-out husk of a truck that had caught the sharp edge of an inter-clan dispute (“These are not serious guys,” scoffed Ekuwam; “if they were Kikuyu they all would have been back tomorrow to collect the metal to sell”), and a mine where ex-raiders were pulling rubies from 30 feet within the earth. I learned how to eat ugali, a kind of super-viscous porridge, by rolling it into a ball with my fingertips, pressing with my thumb, scooping a mouthful of beans or greens into the depression, and hoisting it neatly into my mouth. It was a privilege. Nonetheless, by the final couple of days I was missing my friends, tired of being bitten relentlessly by ants, mosquitoes, and flies, wearied by the heat, and irritable at spending four to eight hours a day being smashed around in the back of a four wheel drive. I was glad when the trip was over.

It was to be my last travel for some time. Shivering in the Baltic 19ᴼ of Nairobi, I returned to the office and my project on summarising the learning from our borderlands projects. I worked alone and largely unsupervised: a number of personnel changes left me reporting to three people who each deflected me on to another, resulting in a near total lack of communication. For five weeks in a row I sat at my computer and shuffled information around. It was rainy season. I tired of living with colleagues, whom I started my day with at breakfast at 7am, sat next to in the minibus that arrives like an automaton at 7.20 every morning, sat next to in the office for eight hours, and then came home and spent the evening in the living room with. It made it hard to switch off from work, and work was frustrating and dull.

My disillusionment spread to Nairobi. Although my work is very similar to the last time I lived here, this time I am within a set of expectations, social frameworks, and security guidelines that previously I wasn’t. I no longer discover new areas of town; I barely ever catch a matatu or a boda-boda any more. There’s nothing forbidding me from doing those things, it just wouldn’t make sense: I live within a set of demographic norms that regulate my behaviour as effectively as any written contract. I mix by default mostly with a class of people for whom English is a second or third language and use words like palliative and neologism and germaine, and bump into each other delightedly in Istanbul, Goma, and New York. I drink cocktails regularly, and think $7 a pop is a good price at which to do so. I grew bored and lethargic, and was not enjoying myself.

The routine was broken by Christmas. Over the four-day weekend I booked a trip up Mount Kenya and found myself in the company of a Kenyan, a Spaniard and an Australian. We walked for four days: seven kilometres the first, 11 the second, ascending steadily, watching the peak, Point Lenana, grow ever nearer. We slept on bunks in wooden huts and ate noodles and fried meat and vegetables prepared by the team of porters. Day Three was the big one: we left our hut at 3am with the goal of reaching the peak for sunrise. We climbed the steepest part of the mountain for three hours in the dark, scrambling up fine, loose shingle that every few steps ripped our feet from under us like Velcro coming apart. Stars carpeted the sky like the lights of an infinite city. It was -5ᴼ without the wind. We cursed each slip in the pitch dark and the freezing cold, leg muscles burning, trying not to think that we were five hours away from breakfast, and arrived at Point Lenana soon after 6am.

The peak was a place of profound communal misery. People from other groups sat around as in an outer circle of Hell, anger and confusion with the world upon their faces. We huddled in the lee of rocks and were slack and silly with pain. A disgustingly cheery middle aged lady posed for a photo with a watermelon. The Australian later confided to me that the only reason he didn’t kill her was because he was spending his remaining energy on not throwing up. We were so frozen we could barely use our cameras. I put my head between my knees. We sat for fifteen minutes in pugnacious silence before the Spaniard announced that he felt he was going to faint. We descended.

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It got better from there, although even three hours later at breakfast, choking down chlorine-y purified water and sliced bread wrapped around lumps of defrosting peanut butter, I was wondering why I was doing this to myself on Christmas Day. The temperature rose steadily, though, and the landscape was spectacular. For the rest of the day we walked steadily downhill, the terrain changing around us: rockland, senecios, bamboo, woodland, lemongrass. After 24 kilometres we arrived at the final camp and had a celebratory Tusker.

The fourth day was just an hour or so’s walk until we were picked up by the car and taken to a matatu stop back to Nairobi. It was good to shower. The combination of sun and wind burn left my skin peeling in the sun vampirically for days afterwards, but the more the ache in my knees receded, the more it felt like it had been a good experience.

I was back to work the next day, and troughed. That week I was forced into sending a polite but firm email to my bosses saying I was unable to work effectively and things had to change. They did, just enough, and three weeks have passed tolerably since then. I delivered a presentation to thirty people on my borderlands project and was received with moderate approval. I wrote an article on it to submit to a journal. I am largely free to do what work I want, which produces inertia, frustration, and enjoyment in various doses, often at the same time. It’s an odd working environment and one that probably will feel better in the long term than the short, but now, for better or worse, is about to change. On Saturday I move to Hargeisa.

 

What I’m listening to:

  • Songhoy Blues, Music in Exile
  • Alikiba, “Mwana”
  • Yusef Lateef, The Three Faces of Yusef Lateef
  • Inside Llewyn Davis: Original Soundtrack

What I’m reading:

  • Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind
  • Virgil, Aeneid