One more story by Enrico:
In most part of the world, people have learned how to curb the forces of nature. However, there are still places where this has not taken place yet.
One more story by Enrico:
Another story Enrico sent me:
Everybody knows Murphy’s laws, but nobody imagines how true they are until they get to South Sudan. If something can go wrong, it will go wrong, and in the most unlikely way and with the worst consequences. Finally, your Rest & Recuperation break has arrived, you can go back home to see your family. You get into the car and after a few moments of difficulty you manager to insert the key, the engine is rolling, but the car is not moving. Gee, a flat tyre. You get the spare tyre, flat as well! You control your murderous instincts and get into the second vehicle. It is still raining, the road is very muddy and slippery and the car starts sliding. Your hopes are not over yet, you try the 4-wheel drive, but you need to get socked to lock the wheels. It doesn’t work, but you proceed, the worst that can happen is that you end up in a ditch. You don’t give up, you really want to get out of that place. You keep driving at 10 mph.
You finally see the airstrip, you get out of the car and wait. The plane is late, you keep swearing and listening to the HF radio hoping for some good news. The airstrip is wet but it looks land-able to you, or maybe you are just being optimistic. You wait, until the croaking noise of the HF radio says that the plane is coming. You look up in the sky and start believing again that a God exists. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts the plane goes back. You are depressed, exhausted, you sit down on the empty fuel barrel and you think of quitting this job once and for all. Then you think of the people you are helping…and your mortgage.
All of a sudden, you have brilliant idea. There’s a road that can take you to the next airstrip. If the weather is not very unfavourable you can still make it, it’s only 5 hours’ driving. The road though is level 4 and requires a military escort, but not all is lost. It’s Friday, and there’s an organised convoy that you can follow. You keep driving, and keep wondering whether you are still sane to travel in those weather conditions on a level-4 road, but you keep driving. After two more hours’ driving you finally reach the meeting point. The convoy should be there by noon. You wait, the convoy is not there, but you are still hopeful. Three hours later you are told that the convoy has been cancelled, the next one will be on Monday! You drive back to your tent, miserable, hoping for a better day.
Picture courtesy Enrico Pausilli
You know one of my colleagues, Enrico, from a number of posts I published before. He recently moved from Rome, Italy to Bor, South Sudan.
He just sent me some interesting stuff he wrote about working in remote locations. And when we talk about Bor, we talk real remote locations. Something which we, in the humanitarian world, call the "deep field". How deep is the field? Endless it seems. And the deeper we go, the more basic our needs become.
Here is Enrico:
Just before leaving for Bor, I met a colleague who’d just come back from a field mission. “Where to?” I said, “Khartoum”, he replied.
Khartoum, an as-if family duty station, is considered by the UN an adverse place, bad enough to make you earn the famous hardship-reassignment notch. Khartoum, with its international airport, renowned university and air-conditioned houses and shops, was indeed considered a daunting destination by most HQ colleagues waiting for their reassignment. For me, Khartoum was just the first of the two transit points on the way to my final destination, and the frontier to civilization.
Once reached Khartoum, the prospective had rapidly changed. Colleagues based in Khartoum felt privileged to be there and looked down upon their unfortunate colleagues who’d been chosen for Juba, my second and final transit point (or so I thought), and its sub-offices. A colleague from Khartoum confessed me that he jokingly used “a mission to Bor” as a powerful threat with his staff: “how bad could Bor be,” I wondered? My many previous missions with WFP also gave me the certainty that Khartoum wasn’t that bad, after all … especially for the teetotallers.
The flight to Juba was pleasant and without surprises, thanks to the excellent services provided by United Nations Humanitarian Air Service. Juba, the capital of South Sudan and one of the three coordination centres of the WFP’s operations, had more of the familiar field looks: a poorly developed place, with lots of challenges, but a place where the bare necessities could still be satisfied. Half of my colleagues were still living in tents, office space was provided by air-conditioned containers, no local infrastructure, rough hygienic conditions and volatile security situation, but all types of food, drinks and a bit of night life were available. In my first few days in Juba, I however felt that that was the level of isolation and hardship that I was ready to tolerate.
At the mention of the word Bor, most colleagues in Juba squirmed, compassionate enough not to unveil the final surprise, but kind enough to give me some indispensable clues that would help me to be prepared for what was yet to be revealed.
Despite all, I was quite anxious to go to Bor and still a bit of optimistic that something was going to be good. Well, my optimism was soon to be betrayed.
When I reached Bor, I felt that that was the end of the known world, the very deep field. The office, located on the West bank of the White Nile, and the compound did not comply with any of WFP’s policies and procedures while food, sanitation and basic living conditions were a mere mirage. I really felt depressed.
Within 24 hours, I, however, discovered a new world. Bor, was the capital city of Jonglei state, the vastest of the ten South Sudan states: 5 times the size of Denmark.
Bor had its own governor, ministers and parliament; the Police; a local market, where a few basic items could be bought (these excluded fruit, vegetables and cleaning material); a would-be all-weather airstrip; and a hospital run by MSF.
Still all this wasn’t enough to brighten my spirits, until I spoke to one of our field monitors. She was about to go on one of her usual food distribution missions with 90 Kg of luggage. “What are you carrying,” I asked. “A tent, cloths, gum boots, water, basic food for 30 days, charcoal and a few other indispensable items,” she replied. “Why food for 30 days if you are going on a 3-day mission, and what are you doing with the gum boots” I replicated. “Well, during the rainy seasons the areas where we operate gets flooded, so sometimes the plane cannot land for weeks and the gum boots are essential to walk in swampy areas, although sometimes they level reach more than 1 metre.” What I had not immediately spotted during our conversation was that she had not been supplied with a satellite phone, a GPS, and an HF radio, and that her tent had holes.
After all, Bor isn’t that deep!
"When Bush addressed the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, the White House inadvertently showed exactly how -- with a phonetic pronunciation guide on the teleprompter to get him past troublesome names of countries and world leaders.
Someone call Dick Cheney and get that thing outta here! Hahaha...
Anyway. Real life Bush can be just as funny. From Yahoo news yesterday:
In The New Gypsies, posted on The Aid Workers Network, Shylock wrote:
"You're an aid worker with 5-10 years experience under your belt. You earn a pittance but it works for you because you are non-resident at home so you don't pay tax, you are catered for on assignment so you don't pay rent and your mortgage is covered by the people renting your place because you are never there. You can't hold down a relationship for more than 3 months and you secretly know that despite what you tell him/her its really not because you're only ever there for 3 months... its because you're addicted to independence.
Things are OK now but you're approaching 40. Shouldn't you grow up?
Seriously though... what does the future hold? What *can* the future hold for us?
Option 1. You go back to a headquarter job. Instead of doing what you want to do, you now advise people who are doing what you used to do. You earn the same more or less as you did before, but your costs of living shoot skywards because you're now paying tax, rent/mortgage and utilities... You consider sharing accommodation and, bingo, you're a student again!
Option 2. You go work for the UN. Keep the job you love and the lifestyle that goes with it. Your salary jumps to levels that used to get you all riled after a few dirty martinis back when you used to work for "honest" down-to-earth INGOs. Now you're cynical about them all and aggressively defend your need to raise a nest egg to plough the way for the family/dog/cottage/brats you're planning. You've done your bit after all. You do this for a while before you realize you sacrificed the very dream you were once working towards.
Option 3. You find something suitable in the commercial sector and live happily ever after. (By the way, if you're a logistician, forget it).
Option 4. You retrain and change course. You take a massive pay cut. Your skills and experience in aid work go unused. You marry someone named Steve/Janice and drive something practical that "gets good mileage".
Option 5. You write your memoirs and someone makes a movie out of it starring Leonardo De Caprio. You become an even more arrogant git, lose all your friends, and make a lot of cash. (This can happen to only one of us by the way).
Option 6. Remember the lonely, jaded expat sat at the bar in [substitute 3rd world capital here], letching over young local girls and making snide remarks about your naive ways? Welcome to your future...
Suggestions for further career options welcome.
Are we the new gypsy? I have visions of huge bands of ex-aid worker families roaming the European countryside in caravans (plastered in no-gun stickers of course), scratching out a life by erecting latrines and taking stock counts..... and maybe seeking charity door-to-door...
Is there an aid agency out there that *doesn't* bang on about work/life balance and how it cares for its staff? Is there an aid agency out there that actually has a program for actively rehabilitating serial aid workers back into western life? How could it work? How (if at all) is the situation different for our colleagues from Southern countries? How can we save our dignity, our salaries, our relationships and at the same time stay in the work we love and avoid wasting our skills and experiences....?"
Check out this post with all the comments here.
This morning, as we were still preparing the emergency simulation exercise, on the other side of the base, the "real thing" was going on: They were loading a cargo plane with humanitarian goods bound for Uganda. (Check here for more photos and details)
In this post, Riverbend describes how it feels to leave Iraq, to leave her home, and to become a refugee. An excerpt:
"We were all refugees- rich or poor. And refugees all look the same- there’s a unique expression you’ll find on their faces- relief, mixed with sorrow, tinged with apprehension. The faces almost all look the same.The first minutes after passing the border were overwhelming. Overwhelming relief and overwhelming sadness… How is it that only a stretch of several kilometers and maybe twenty minutes, so firmly segregates life from death?"
Let us wish her well.
Picture (unrelated to the Riverbend blog) courtesy CBS
Brinland struck by Earthquake
Thursday September 20th, 2007 8:30 AM GMT
BRINDISI (FC News) – There are confirmed reports that an earthquake has hit Brinland at around 06.30 this morning. Early estimates indicate that the earthquake registered 7.2 on the Richter scale. There is no information yet on the extent of damage, and the initial death toll is approximately 500.
I am a relief worker. Yet, I am not the one handing out food to the hungry, I do not help stacking bricks to build houses in remote villages damaged by floods. Nor do I work in a hospital taking care of those wounded in a civil war. I am a technical person and work in a technical area. I have a support function in the chain of things. Sometimes I feel far from the reality of the actual relief work (see this post and this one). Rewarding then are those moments when one of the technical products or services I am involved in, catches on, and is seen as having a direct and relevant impact on our relief work.
I just found back this article, written by Paul Harris in Alertnet (a Reuters subsidiary) ten years ago. It describes a system called DFMS, the Deep Field Mailing System. DFMS brought 'affordable Email' to the masses using 'free air waves', during the times where satellite communications costed USD 5 per minute at 9,600 baud...
This post might be a bit techy, but interesting for those interested :-) Allow me my 5 minutes of glory, ha!
UN TELECOMMUNICATIONS BREAKTHROUGH PIONEERED IN CENTRAL AFRICA
By Paul Harris
KAMPALA, Nov 16 1997 (Alertnet) -
Peter is an enthusiast. Peter Casier, a 38 year-old Belgian, has headed up the World Food Programme's Technical Support Unit (TSU) in Kampala, Uganda for the past two and a half years. Technical support may not sound exactly like the most exciting end of the aid business but, in fact, the Uganda-based operation has become the model for telecommunications operations throughout the UN: that's why Peter and members of his team flew out from Uganda Saturday night - destination Honduras on open ended assignment to set up telecomms for the Central American relief effort.
Telecomms are just three years old in WFP. They started in Kampala with Peter and his team. Today, the 15-strong team - 13 locals and just two internationals - handle satellite, HF and VHF comms, IT, computers, provision of power, and repair and maintenance of all electronic equipment right the way across a broad swathe of central Africa from Brazzaville in the west to Dar es Salaam in the east.
The WFP telecomms operation is based on high frequency (HF) communications which are both prevalent and familiar to UN staff. Kampala has integrated 82 stations (including ten e-mail carriers) into the network and, most significantly, has devised the technology whereby e-mail communications can be reliably exchanged using HF radios connected to a data modem: what is termed the Deep-Field Mailing System (DFMS). Currently, the system is handling more than 200,000 e-mails a month, representing three gigabytes of data, both within the region and to and from the Internet.
Peter is justifiably proud of the achievement. "The great thing is we can be totally independent of any public infrastructure - telephones, electricity or communications."
There are several advantages to DFMS, which became fully operational during 1997, as usage was extended to WFP's Implementing Partners and sister UN agencies. The cost savings have been substantial; field security has been improved and operational effectiveness enhanced. Additionally, remote locations and field workers have been connected to the Internet. DFMs utilises a standard e-mail programme which can carry any type of attachment, be it Word document, digital picture or, even, sound. Each station - office, car or mobile HQ - has its own unique Internet e-mail address; all are connected by HF radio, or local telephone lines, to an e-mailserver which is, in turn, connected to the Kampala nerve centre by HF radio, local telephone lines or the Internet. Kampala is connected to the Internet via a dedicated 64 Kbps full time dedicated link to a local service provider "direct into the dish" to go around any local failures.
The monthly running cost of regional DFMS is just US$10,400 comprising landline and Internet link costs. if this system were still to be running on conventional fax traffic, it is estimated that the monthly cost would be in excess of US$1.5 million and the annual saving in the region is reckoned at round US$20 million ! The saving on using commercial e-mail at $0.30 per Kbyte is still very substantial indeed - around US$8 million a year.
There have been some dramatic and successful uses of DFMS. HF e-mail stations were set up during the East Zaire emergency and an air ops base to cover evacuations from Uvira was set up at Entebbe within just six hours. WFP was among the first UN agencies to enter Congo/Brazzaville after the civil war. The TSU team entered Brazzaville armed with a mobile HF radio e-mail system installed in a car and a digital camera (Ed: see this shortstory). As the report observes, "Digital pictures were taken from Brazzaville town, the remains of our former offices and UN compounds, and emailed to WFP Kampala and Rome, as well as to UNICEF HQ while they were still shooting in the streets next to us...".
TSU in Kampala have also developed the '141',as it is known. Not just a Ugandan-registered WFP heavy duty Landcruiser, Peter says "it is a concept": a complete mobile emergency communications centre. TSU has equipped it with extra batteries for powering telecomms equipment; an e-mail station using HF radio; HF voice comms; VHF mobile radio; air band radio for communicating with helicopters and fixed wing aircraft; satellite telephone; computer, digital camera and printer; and radio masts. The vehicle is kept in a constant state of readiness: emergency kits are put in the back, it can be driven onto a Buffalo aircraft and landed in the bush. "All the main communications features are up as the car drives out of the plane, with full features deployed within the next five minutes. You can send/receive e-mails and photographs to and from anywhere in the world, telephone to/from anywhere in the world and support handheld radios to a radius of 30 km."
The concept has been well received further afield and a '141' will shortly be operating in Honduras. The Kampala-based unit has been favourably reviewed by UNSECOORD (the UN Security Coordinator's Office) and World Vision plans to equip several vehicles similarly. So successful has DFMS proved, a commercial imitator, Bushnet, set up by two 'breakaway'members of Peter's team, has established itself in Kampala and is working with both commercial and NGO clients providing deep field e-mail connections. They, in turn, have been so successful, two other companies in Uganda are preparing similar services. The NGO Uganda Connectivity has set up e-mail postal services in remote areas using the TSU's technology and manufacturer Codan, a name familiar to all NGOs and IGOs using HF radios, uses the Kampala TSU for consultancy work in exchange for equipment.
As Peter says, "The UN has developed a system that has been picked up commercially by big companies who want to exploit it. I believe this operation is unique."
His claims are graphically endorsed as the telephone rings in his office. It's the WFP Emergency Response Centre in Rome. He listens intently. "I guess we could be on a plane tomorrow," he asserts. And then, covering the 'phone with his hand, "Right, everybody. We're off to Honduras !".
The humanitarian relief work is a weird world. Check out this post if you want to have a clearer insight.
Once upon a time the Romans decided to build a highway from Rome to Brindisi, one of their main naval bases. That highway - the Appia Antica - still exists today, 2000 years later. Just four kilometers from the center of Rome, this old cobblestone road, littered with ruins, dotted with Mediterranean pine trees and cypresses, runs through wheat and grass fields as if it was laying in the middle of nowhere.
That is yet another thing I like about Rome: there are a lot of green strips, and the city seems very condensed. Drive for five minutes from the center and you are in the midst of fields and vineyards. Very different from home, where once you leave Brussels center, you never come to a point where you think 'Ah, now I am in the country side'.
As you might remember, I now work in the logistics section in HQ. First hand reports from disasters, conflicts, famine come in here pretty fast. Ebola outbreak in DRC, flooding in Ghana and Uganda, earthquakes in Colombia and Indonesia,... Most of these have an immediate and direct effect on the work we do, either in aid food dispatches or in the allocation of logistics support staff.
One example is Hurricane Felix. Even though the hurricane occurred early September, and has long gone from the news headlines, people in Nicaragua are still dealing with the aftermath of the disaster.
Pictures courtesy Mirjana Kavelj (WFP)
I swear, there are several things the Italians got right. Enjoying life is one. Once per year, the centre of Rome closes off for a whole night of partying, singing, performances: the Notte Bianca ("The White Night").
One of the highlights this year were tens of thousands of translucent bulbs set up in Circo Massimo, lit up with lights in changing colours.
Pictures courtesy of Mallory5
I was having a coffee on a terrace (yep, it is still 25+ degrees over here!) with one of my closest and dearest friends. We were talking about Italy, the difference in culture, mentality and food between the different places we lived in.
I asked her: "So, as a woman, how do you see the difference between Italian men and others. What is so typical for Italian men?"
She answered: "Well..., Italian men are almost human!" :-)
It was a slip of the tongue, and she actually meant something different, but I thought it was a nice quote...
We -men- still have some work to do on ourselves... I tried to describe some of the challenges of being a woman in a men's world (for as far as I -as a man- see this) in this short story...
I do not like to wear shoes. Most of the time I wear sandals. Ok, ok, ok, everyone will say I wear sandals ALL the time. I bought my first pair, in 1996 when I joined WFP. I wore them every day until about 2004 when the rubber sole completely pealed off. (Some friends said I wore them until they pealed off my feet). The next pair, real expensive ones, I bought in Dubai. And they only lasted for three years -snif. The soles just disintegrated. After only three years ! :-) I know, I know, I can't help it. I get attached to things..
I kept on tripping over them, and left a trail of small snippets of rubber behind me where I walked. So I took a major decision: I bought a new pair. Threw the old ones away. Hopefully no-one at work will fish them out of my waste bin, and frame them, like they did with my worn out safari jacket.
Since I came back from my sabbatical, I have been based in Rome. At first it was not clear how long I would stay, so I started off in a hotel, then moved for a couple of days to a serviced apartment, and ended up at my friend Robert's place for two months. After the holiday, I went back to a serviced apartment, and then... I had enough.
Since I left Kampala for Kosovo in 1999, and the family moved back to Belgium, I have been living out of a bag most of the time. Hotels, friends, short term rentals, a bit everywhere. That is 8 years living out of a bag... Enough.. Need to get firmer feet on the ground.
Even though with the type of work we do, we typically move duty station every two, three or four years (dependent on the type of duty station), I am pretty sure I will be in Rome for a while.
So I took the step to (finally) find a real place to live. Some permanency. A home away from home. This week, I am moving to one of the three apartments in the house in the picture above. A lovely, quiet place in Fregene, 30 km from work, 200m from the beach, in a pine forest.
Just the process of finding this place was a proof of 'when the time is right, things will come'... I was looking for a new nest since a while, but did not like any of the places I saw. During an occasional talk with an ex-colleague, she said "Oh, but I work in Fregene, and there are loads of lovely places coming up for rent!". One hour later, she forwarded an email from one of her colleagues, listing some apartments for rent. I called that lady, got the telephone number from the landlady, went to see the places three hours later. By the evening of the same day, I walked into one of the places for rent, and felt 'this is it!'. One week later, I am moving in.
Home away from home. A small step for mankind, a big step for a small man...
Let me take the opportunity to thank all those who helped making this happen: Enrica and Patti for the links to the landlady, Evelyn for all the translations between me and the (Italian-only speaking) landlady, Monica and Lerna for the hours they spent on the phone with the gas and electricity company trying to get things reconnected, E. for the final inspection of the place and the upcoming Ikea shopping trips...
Bolstered by windfall oil profits, Venezuelan president Chávez's government is now offering more direct financial aid to Latin America and the Caribbean than the United States. This article states Venezuela pledged more than $8.8 billion in aid, financing, and energy funding for its neighbours so far this year.
Compare that to the $3 billion of US grants and loans reaching the same region in 2005, and you can see who gains more influence...!
Add to this, a previous news round-up showing the UAE investing $10 billion USD in an education package, and you easily see international (financial) aid shifting from the US and IMF's lead "Western Alliance" to... well, to others... Good! Hopefully the same will happen also with the economical power in the world!
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|Peter. Flemish, European, aid worker, expeditioner, sailor, traveller, husband, father, friend, nutcase. Not necessarily in that order.|