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

Friday, December 17, 2010

The ICC and Kenya's 2007 election, Part I

A lot of people have been asking about the ICC indictments announced yesterday for 6 Kenyan politicians and opinion leaders. What is going on is actually a really important moment for the testing of the international court, the concept of international intervention on issues of genocide and crimes against humanity, and more importantly, accountability in Kenya for years of planned violence around elections.

Since many of you have most likely not been following this story I’ll try to provide a little background and context. Since this could get a little long, I’m breaking it into two posts. The first post here is a very basic primer on the history of elections in Kenya, including the 2007 election. I promise it’s not as boring as it sounds…

Kenya suffered through a pretty brutal dictatorial regime under Daniel Arap Moi from 1978-2002. He had banned parties, divided up the wealth of the country for his supporters and routinely locked up and roughed up those who did not agree with him. Most if not all of the politicians in power today come from his era, at various times fighting against him and other times working with him (The current Prime Minister and his father were accused of leading a coup against Moi and were kicked out of the country in the 1980s).

In 1992, pressure from the international community and from within his own country led Moi to reintroduce a multi-party system, but he clutched on to power for another decade. The ensuing elections were characterized by pretty severe violence in contested areas, all organized and funded by political and business leaders (particularly in 1997). (A quick side note-none of these crimes have ever been addressed in a court or reconciliation process). Finally, in 2002, he agreed to step down and de-politicize the electoral commission responsible for ensuring the fairness of the election. And, unsurprisingly his guy (Uhuru Kenyatta) lost. This ushered in a new era of hope and progress in Kenya. The people saw the power of their vote and believed in their ability to make change in their own country. They were able to speak openly on the street for the first time, criticize the government and not fear they would be locked up or beaten up for doing so.

In 2005, a referendum on a new constitution only further strengthened the perception of a new and forward moving Kenya. The population voted down the constitution for fear it over empowered the executive branch and did little to ensure better access to government at local levels. Out of the referendum campaigns grew the presidential campaigns for the 2007 elections. President Kibaki, who had pushed for the constitution, headed the ‘yes’ team, symbolized by a banana on the ballot (most African countries’ ballots contain symbols next to party and candidate names since at least in the past a sizeable percentage of the population couldn’t read). Then government minister, Raila Odinga (now Prime Minister) headed the ‘no’ team, symbolized by an orange. He then formed the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) building on his success in the referendum. I’ll leave out a whole mess of very complicated political backstory on the relationship between the two of them and their various supporters, but suffice it to say it’s nasty and confusing.

This brings us to 2007. With all of the success and excitement of the past 5 years, the Kenyan public and international community expected another watershed election. Assuming that all would go well, people had already moved ahead to excitedly noting that Kenya would only be the third country in Africa to undergo 2 peaceful transitions of power (believe it or not, Somalia was first). Busy making plans for the creative governance initiatives that could come and example about to be set for the region, people failed to pay close enough attention to what was really happening in the electoral preparation. A few months prior to the election, the president had let the terms of the election commissioners lapse. Barely a month before the election he dismissed several commissioners, and replaced them with a slew of new people with no experience in election management and administration. Though concerned by the move, most people noted that the well-regarded election commission chairman had remained in his role and could handle the lot of under-trained and most likely politically motivated appointees. Unfortunately, as we would later find out, Sam Kivuitu was quite ill.

As the election approached there was a palpable excitement and pride. Campaign rallies were held across Kenya. ODM, perhaps the most animated, painted their headquarters-a big house in the middle of the city-bright orange, and decked out their supporters with orange cowboy hats and sunglasses with lenses spelling out Ralia’s name. Everyone knew the election would be close and expected a long wait for a final count. When the day came, voting went off without much of a hitch. There were a few reports of extra busloads of ballots and the usual minor attempts at electoral fraud. But there were many more stories about long patient voting lines, high turnout and few issues.

Where the trouble began was at the counting stage. Elections in much of Africa are run a bit differently than in the west. Because there is such a history of electoral malpractice, every party and often-independent observers deploy people to watch events at the poll. They are in the polling station from opening to closing, and then remain to watch the counting. There are countless images of electoral officials crowded around a table, counting large piles of ballots by candlelight. In the best election situations, election administrators must take a ballot, hold it up, declare its vote, and place it in the requisite pile. Everyone counts together, making it much easier to identify fraud at the next stages of counting. After ballots are counted at the polling location, a special form is filled out, and the form and ballots are sent to a regional tally center. The votes from polling locations are combined and tallied at the regional level and then sent on to the national headquarters for final checks and tallying.

Where things went wrong was in the transit. Unfortunately, no independent monitoring group deployed observers to count at polling locations so there was no independent count to verify the totals at local levels. Something happened to many of the verification forms en route to the regional tally centers and the counting slowed significantly. Though reports had been streaming in during the first day, on the 2nd day it abruptly stopped. Suspicious of tampering (many of the votes yet to be counted were from areas favorable to the president), crowds of people rushed to the national tallying center. Completely overwhelmed by the aggressive crowd, the Electoral Chairman shut down a public meeting reporting on the counting process. Information stopped dead in its tracks. No television cameras or reporters were allowed in the center and there was complete silence from the commission on the status of the vote. Finally, 3 days after the election, Sam Kivuitu appeared suddenly at a press conference, announced President Kibaki the winner, and disappeared back into the headquarters. It was announced that a mere half a day later, the President would be sworn in for his second term on the lawn of State House. Now just a reminder here that in the US, while the president is elected in November, he does not take office until February. This is intentionally designed to leave time for any challenges to the vote to be fully addressed. Now consider what happened in Kenya. The sudden and immediate swearing of the President opened a flood of anger and suspicion across the country.

I often recall a newspaper picture from this day. President Kibaki is standing on the lawn of his official residence, being sworn in for a second term by a white wigged judge (a bizarre hold-over from British colonial times), while smoke begins to rise from riots in the background. Kenya was literally burning. Mass pandemonium had instantly erupted. ODM supporters, claiming that the election was stolen took to the streets in anger. Many of the ODM supporters were among the poorer residents of Kenya, attracted to Odinga’s more populist message. They saw this as yet another instance of the elite ensuring they had no access to power or basic resources and rights. The most well-known and largest slum in Nairobi broke into horrible violence. Houses were burned, angry young men took to the streets and key parts of Kenya went into bunker-mode. At this point, all media across the country was shut down.

In the midst of this chaos, some ODM leaders took advantage of the anger to organize horribly violent retaliatory attacks against PNU supporters. These are those awful images you most likely saw in the New York Times of churches full with frightened people burnt to the ground, and others where people identified as Kikuyu, were pulled from cars and hacked to death. The violence took a dark turn. I should note here, that while up to this point the electoral violence had very little to do with ethnic identity and very much to do with class identity, this changed very quickly.

Politicians and leaders looking to capitalize on the chaos began manipulating long-standing tribal differences into political fights. While it is true that the majority of PNU supporters came from the central province, composed mostly of Kikuyus, and the majority of ODM supporters came from the Rift Valley, composed mostly of Luo (and in this case, allied Kalenjins), the turning of tribe on tribe was very much orchestrated.

In the next post I will dive into this post-election violence, the organized element, and how the conflict was brought to an end. Read on…

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Farasi- My Trusted Steed

If you want to get around Nairobi you have a few choices. The first is a decent public bus system. You’d be hard-pressed to find a schedule or map but a few conversations with local folks and you can figure out the basic route and pick up locations. The second option is matatus- usually VW mini-buses, almost always pretty broken down and driven by questionably-licensed and certifiably insane drivers. They also run set numbered routes, stopping along the way to shove as many passengers as possible into the small vehicle. As horrible as it sounds they are a really good way to get shorter distances during the day for the cost of about 25 cents. The third option is a taxi, which surprisingly ends up being about as expensive as in Washington D.C. None of these options, except for specific taxis are acceptable for after dark.

Which leads me to my car. Between the post-dark transport restrictions and the 1.5-hour commute each way between Nairobi proper and my school, I decided I either needed to get a car or kiss my sanity good bye. This raised a new question…how does one purchase a car in Nairobi?

The used car market in Nairobi is an interesting one. Every shopping center has a dedicated space for posted advertisements for everything from homes, to cars, to appliances, to entertainment. Each topic is given a separate board. People post pictures of their cars with listings on price, year, and contact information. If searching the boards doesn’t do it for you, you have two other used-car options. One is to work with an importer to bring in the car you want, most likely from Japan or Singapore. They only problem with that is that you have to pay duty taxes on the car, which usually ends up almost doubling the cost. If that doesn’t do it for you, you are left with the car bazar.

The car bazar is pretty wonderful. Imagine Craig’s list, but in person, on a field. People trying to sell their cars, buy a spot at the bazar and park their cars for the day. People looking to purchase a car pay the equivalent of $5 to walk through, ask questions, test drive, and arrange a possible deal. Knowing I would need some back-up, I asked a taxi driver I had been using quite a bit if he would be willing to go with me and check out the car options. Luckily, my friend Emily was in town at the time as well so she agreed to tag along. We went there on a Saturday morning and were amused to find the bazar located just down the street from the giant tent church and across the road from the polo field.

The bazar is pretty big, with hundreds of cars all organized by size and type. One section has predominately sedans, another has cross-over cars, another with small SUVs and yet another with large SUVs and trucks. Interestingly, the valuation of cars in Kenya is very different from many other places. A Toyota of any make and any year always goes for the most. A not so nice 1997 Toyota Corolla could easily go for $6000 and would not decrease much more in price as it ages. On the other hand, older Nissan sedans can go for $3000-$4000. With all of the cars, year doesn’t seem to matter as much as make and model. Trucks are always more expensive than SUVs because people who buy them expect to make money with them (use them for work). As a result, no one purchases trucks commercially.

After looking around for a few hours I exchanged contact information with the owner of a 2000 Subaru Impreza, that my friend Emily noted was “Colts blue.” Over the next few days the owner and I negotiated until I got to a price I was ok with. Once we had agreed, he prepared the car agreement and I took the car to a mechanic of my choosing. Unlike in the US, mechanics tend to be in the informal sector and it is very hard and extremely important to find a good and honest one. Lucky for me, my friend Leah and her husband had been using a great mechanic for years who agreed to take a look at it for me. He gave the car a clean bill of health so we signed the documents and made the exchange.

Unlike the US, cars are registered as themselves not to an owner specifically, so no need for DMV visits or new license plates. The number on the plates signifies the year the car was brought into Kenya and stays that way throughout. Technically you are supposed to register the car under your 'pin' (a national ID number). But since foreigners don't have pins, I'm still working on transferring it...thus is Kenyan bureaucracy.

Since Emily had so aptly pointed out my car was in-fact two obnoxious shades past Colts blue, I decided to name my car Farasi, or Horse in Swahili. She has treated me well on the insane roads of Nairobi, which deserve a blog posting of their own. Until next time...