Saturday, February 11, 2012

From sweating to freezing and back in under two weeks

16 January 2012, Martin Luther King Day in the US, but not in Rumbek, South Sudan
Another new year in a new country, literally.  South Sudan only gained its independence from the Khartoum government on 9 July 2011, after 25 or so years of civil war.  So the Republic of South Sudan, or ROSS as it’s abbreviated here, is barely six months old.  I was in Kosovo for the first anniversary of its independence and don’t recall any violence on anniversary day.  I hope that is the case here because the conflicts that were supposed to stop haven’t.  The Khartoum government has caused problems on that border, but more disturbing for their violence, are the internal conflicts between feuding clans. One recently nearly annihilated another on purpose.  While that was geographically far from Rumbek, we do get the occasional flare up of tribal or familial feuding here.  But rest assured, dear family and friends, that the safety and security of myself and my staff are Job One.
The start of a new year is always tough on me since it falls so close to some significant negative anniversaries -- my mother’s death, my ex Bob’s death and both of my son Peter’s diagnoses.  My colleague Lucy, the few staff not on holiday, and I were so busy during the year end/year beginning that I forgot to prepare myself.  So when I learned of another death, though far less close to me, it all hit at once.  
Jennifer at 5 was the flower girl in my wedding; her father Dick was the minister who performed the service; her mother Joy had helped me get a great job in the Connecticut State Training School for Girls when I was in college.  I saw little of any of them after that: I was in Southern Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, overseas, and they left for other churches.  Until she died, Mom was my Facebook, keeping me connected with people from my growing-up years in particular.  That’s how I learned of Joy’s death to cancer. I used the Internet to reconnect with Dick after finding a photo of him, Joy and their son at my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary, and we’ve stayed connected with the electronic Facebook.  
Dick emailed me about Jennifer’s death to cancer on New Year’s Day.  The family requested bottles of wine in lieu of flowers.  They will toast Jennifer’s memory over the years.  A colleague from my work in Macedonia, John, sent two bottles of wine from his winery for me.  (I blogged about Sierra Ridge Winery in Sutter Creek CA after visiting there with friend Jean.)  I specifically requested a bottle of vranac, made from grapes whose vines originated from cuttings that John bootlegged back from Macedonia.  I thought it was fitting to send my former minister Macedonian wine since when I moved to that country, the best way I could identify it for people was to remind them of Paul’s letters to the Macedonians in the New Testament of the Bible.
Wish my staff could read this and hear me extol the virtues of the Internet. Mostly they hear me curse the vagaries of how it operates here ... and frequently.  We were required to use the Internet service of our landlord, rather than install the VSAT that we have.  But they promised we’d have dedicated bandwidth of the same size we had and give everyone after hours access in their accommodations to the compound’s system at no cost.  The Internet service is separate from the compound, so they charge for its use.  The problems are multiple, beginning with the fact that we weren’t told in advance that they were not capable of providing the dedicated bandwidth until they upgraded their equipment and system.  If I’d known that, I would never have recommended signing the lease.  So in December we had virtually no connectivity, and I refused to pay for the service.  Problems in January have been fewer but still mean frequent unexplained and unannounced outages.  So my dulcet tones are often heard in the compound.  Cables are arriving tomorrow and supposedly will mean no more outages ... we’ll see.
Speaking of the Internet, in organizing some downloads of favorite TV programs over the holidays, I learned that my web-based backup MobileMe is being replaced by iCloud in June.  Because my MacBook is three years old (but still tickin’), I needed to buy some inexpensive upgrade to make the switch.  Went online and bought it, started to download and, you guessed it, the Internet went down.  Being busy, I decided to wait to deal with restarting but at one point had to reboot the laptop ... and there went my download icon.  Maybe not a big loss to you computer geeks, but to a Luddite like me, a major crisis. How to get it back without buying the software again. I surfed the Apple sites and finally found the right support spot, reported the problem, surfed again to find the phone numbers, Skyped to the UK number on my office laptop in case I needed to reboot. Not an ideal connection plus a thick accent, but the nice Brit told me what to do. The next day, I did all that and the download started.  It will take one day and 17 hours.  I paused the download ... will try again when I’m in Kosovo at the end of the month.  Perhaps I can get the time down to a few hours.  (BTW, it takes a minimum of four hours to download one episode of NCIS or Bones, both of which are under 50 minutes of programming.
I’m not normally one for making New Year’s Resolutions because I usually break them a nanosecond into the new year.  Lose weight, exercise regularly, eat better, talk more softly, pay more attention to my spending, cook more, eat out less -- all made and broken.  But I did make one this year.  I resolved to have one hassle-free, smooth running week when I don’t have to deal with my predecessor’s crappy legacy, just one. I thought I was going experience that last week, then came Friday.  
After a week of not sleeping well, I slept all night and awoke feeling refreshed at 7 am last Friday.  No critters on the sink, lots of hot water in the shower, a new African dress to wear.  I put the dress on, tied the scarf on my head as instructed by Veronica, the trainer who shortened the dress and made the scarf from the overage.  Looked in the mirror and saw a happy, not bad looking, woman of a certain indefinable age.  A few hours later I gave up on my resolution.  
We have many employees who are becoming redundant since we aren’t enrolling new participants here and are moving to a new state in a few months.  The service contracts of our temporary trainers were not renewed.  We’ve begun to identify how we’ll roll off permanent staff as their contracts expire and add back those we need on short-term contracts.  We will be finished in Rumbek by year end.
This week I was trying to lay off two regular security guards made unnecessary because our obligation at the old compound was over and our new landlord provides armed security.  In lieu of the two weeks notice in their contracts, I agreed to pay a month, per the law, plus for the days they worked this month.  I had met with them on Wednesday, explained this in detail through an interpreter, and asked them to come on Friday to get their final pay, service certificates and a ‘thank you’ from everyone.  Sounds simple, right?  Well, not when you’re dealing with folks whose jobs were as muddled by my predecessor as many here were.  Forget that they are also illiterate, probably never saw a contract until asked to sign one last year, and believe their family obligations are your responsibility.  The more vocal of the two said he’d worked for us for five years (we have only one contract for the past year), he guarded the stores at the other compound in 2010 (we didn’t rent that place until January 2011) and he was always paid by our accountant (who was also the accountant for my predecessor’s personal NGO).  He wanted his job and his “pension” (not included as a benefit in his contract).  He has a pregnant wife and children who return to school shortly (I really do sympathize; I’m not totally unfeeling.  But they aren’t my responsibility.)  I finally offered a compromise when they said if they could have jobs, they’d forget the “pensions.”  Lucy agreed to put them to work -- one at our bakery and the other at the farm.  We told each of them their responsibilities would be whatever was assigned to them.  I told one that he would be chasing cattle from the gardens, which will be a far cry from napping most of the day in a chair by our front gate as he did as a guard.
This is a classic conundrum here. While I totally understand their naivete and sympathize with their plight, I have absolutely no way of getting them to understand any of this.  They have absolutely no frame of reference around jobs, contracts, payroll, benefits, labor law, and what little experience they got was distorted by how my predecessor’s regime operated.  In their minds they were paid by our accountant, therefore they were our employees, and no one would have told them differently.  
19 January 2012, Juba, capital of South Sudan
Another hot day.  I haven’t seen a thermometer but my guess is that the temp is in he 90sF (mid 30sC).  By 10 am my shirt was soaked.
I flew here on Tuesday morning to try to finalize our registration.  The state commission responsible for that had requested additional information, which I brought, and an interview with me.  Our lawyer had taken care of the first step, a general registration, and I now have that certificate.  Step two is a certificate that allows us to operate.  
The director wasn’t available but his assistant looked over the material, politely lectured me on our being late (guess why we’re late?). I apologized several times.  And he finally said the documents seemed complete, and he’d call me if the director wanted to see me.  No call so I asked the lawyer to follow up on Monday to see if the process had been completed.  Their notice says three days.
20 January 2012, back in Rumbek
The Juba airport gives new meaning to the words “teeming masses” and “packed in like sardines.”  There’s one departures entrance, which some also consider an exit, so as departing passengers are pushing to put their luggage and carry-ons onto the scanner belt and go through a security gate, others are pushing in the opposite direction.  

Passengers for six or eight flights (WFP and several commercial airlines) are all in the departures area, and WFP has two or three lines, hard to tell which and a bit of a misnomer to call them lines.  Then another line, actually two but it was hard to know that, to get through more security to the departures lounge.  I learn there are two lines as I near the entry ... one is for women and slightly shorter.  Computer tote and purse inspected, I literally inch through the security gate and forward.  I already know from previous experience there will be no seats.  But I want to find a place to stand that will let others by and give me some breathing room. Eventually I end up near the exit which means occasional breaths of fresh air but a steady intake of the last-cleaned-during-the-previous-century stench from the men’s toilet on the other side of the wall.  Passengers push by to board flights to Khartoum, Addis, Kampala, Bor, Wau ... and finally Rumbek is called.  
Later, back at the office ...
Lucy (who was acting CD while I was gone) was leading a staff meeting, so I decided to let her finish.  I went to my tent to turn on the a/c, dump my bags, use the facilities, unpack dirty laundry for collecting tomorrow.
And tonight, I acquired a new roommate.  As I sat down on the bed to take off my sneakers, a small light beige gecko raced from from that bed toward the other.  I tossed a shoe at it but missed.  And since it’s only a gecko, I didn’t pursue further.
21 January
“Another Saturday night, and I ain’t ...”  Or should I say, another Saturday afternoon and we’re working.  The senior management team (SMT) and I had to make some adjustments (read: reductions, of course) in our budget which we needed to do together.  But our finance manager is in Nairobi, we’re here and thankfully we have email and Skype and an Internet connection that is working better today than usual.  With interruptions by local staff also putting in some weekend work time, we managed to finish by mid afternoon.  Then I did the final inputs and sent to HQ.  I have to “defend” the plan and budget on Tuesday.
One thing I’ve said to HQ and told the SMT too: I have one of the best SMTs I’ve ever managed.  They rival my last management team at The St. Paul Companies for teamwork, competence and communications.  They’ve put in long hours many week days and weekends without complaint.  They are incredible at coaching and mentoring local staff.  They don’t hesitate to speak their minds.  Plus they’re already used to me.  They know that when I “yell” about something that’s gone amiss, I’m not yelling at them; I’m venting.  They are incredible!
No further gecko sightings, and today it was so cool that I didn’t even turn on the a/c.  Now that’s a feat.
28 January, Pristina, Kosovo
After traveling for more than 25 hours on four different airplanes from prop to Boeing 747, this “quotation of the day”  that I clipped from the New York Times a month or so ago just hit the spot and not in a good way:
"Obviously the first-class passenger is a very senior person in his company, coming a long way around the world, and probably doing something very important for his business. He requires to be able to sleep, work on his speech, perhaps take a shower upon arrival, so he can hit the ground running." JOHN SLOSAR, the chief executive of Cathay Pacific Airways, on increasingly luxurious services in first class.
Obviously I am not the passenger Mr. Slosar referred to.  Although frequently expected to ‘hit the ground running,’ sometimes literally to another flight, sometimes to an important meeting, I’ve never worked for anyone who’d pay for first class.  Perhaps because I’m a “she” and not a “he,” I don’t have the same requirements for sleep, hygiene and comfort.  ‘Nuff said.  I’m pooped.  
And it’s cold.  Maury forewarned that there was two feet of snow on the ground.  (Maury is a friend from my Booz Allen days, who graciously offered me their spare bedroom.)  I will be ever so grateful for my boots and winter things that my wonderful sister shipped to DC for me and my wonderful boss is bringing tomorrow. 
Winter in Rumbek
Winter in Pristina
30 January, Pristina
Yesterday I spent a delightful morning playing Lego with Maury and Andrew’s almost-five-year-old son Roland.  We built a fire station, complete with pole.  And Andrew and Maury made pancakes, something I haven’t eaten in years ... seriously.  What a treat to just kick back on a Sunday morning.
Maury and son Roland 
Which was especially great given that the trials and tribulations of South Sudan have followed me via email.   Before leaving, I fired our receptionist/guard because he had not returned from his leave for three weeks.  So of course, the day after I sent the letter to the local Ministry of Labor, he returned with five different excuses why he couldn’t call or even send a message via someone to tell us he would be late.  I stood by our decision.  When our HR manager went to the ministry to get a signed copy of our letter, he was interrogated in a very hostile manner.  And the drama continued as the employee harassed our staff until he was told to stay away until the issue was resolved through the ministry.
Back in Pristina, last night could qualify as a ‘most embarrassing moment’ in my life.  I took a taxi from Maury and Andrew’s to the hotel where the rest of the WfWI Global Leadership Team (GLT) was staying.  We were going to all have dinner together.  Although I had met three while waiting for our connecting flight from Vienna to Pristina, most were unknown to me but of course knew each other.  So as they joined the group, they automatically greeted me and introduced themselves, and we shoot hands.  One woman joined us and I put out my hand, ready to shake hands and introduce myself when she said, “I only get a hand shake?”  That’s when I realized it was Karen, my boss!  I was mortified that I didn’t recognize her, but in my defense, she was wearing glasses and had a different hair style the one time I saw her before, during my interview in DC. 
Karen presenting Global Programs’ plan

11 February 2012, Rumbek
As usual, I'm a bit late in posting.  Looking back at my first January post, I see that I commented on the potential for a non-violent celebration of South Sudan's first anniversary of statehood.  After reading a lengthy article in today's New York Times about the continuing battle over oil (South Sudan has the oil; Sudan has the seaports), I'm not so sure.  As one person was quoted, give two options -- hurting the Khartoum government or helping its nation, the South Sudanese are more likely to choose the former.  A sad state of affairs.  

Stay tuned ... keep those Skype calls and emails coming.  Much as I'd love the care packages so many of your offer, we have no postal service.

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