28 January 2017

‘Why Stop at Zero.’

hink about your day today. How much time did you spend on email? No matter what your answer, the result is the same: too much. Admit it. We all spend too much time on email. Me too. There are days when I go home later in the day, dispirited, realizing that I spent 4, 5, up to 6 hours a day answering emails, like a reactive animal in Skinner box, answering the torrent of emails after they come in, one after another, going home feeling as if I’ve been busy all day, but have accomplished very little.

I am old enough to remember the days of analogue. One summer I worked in an insurance adjuster’s office, where part of my job was opening physical letters, in envelopes. Each one was catalogued in a book, and then punch-holed and put into a binder after it was answered. The cost of sending a letter, and of answering, was high. If you made a mistake when writing a physical letter, you had to physically paint over the mistake with a special white ink known to old people as ‘liquid paper.’ I can still smell it now, a bit like the acetone of nail polish remover. If you’re too young to remember these days, let me tell you: it was a pain in the ass.

I believe that email, like many other current features of our digital life, is a remnant of an analogue world. We took the letter, which cost a lot to write, both in time and in money, and translated it to email, which could be dashed off in a second, cost nothing to send, and where mistakes were erased without effort. The cost, unfortunately, was paid by the receiver, who still had to open, filter, process, and sometimes respond.

Another problem with email, is the amount of latency it introduces. When I ask the members of my team about the results of a task that requires a counterpart, nothing frustrates me more than the answer, ‘I sent an email, and I’m waiting for an answer.’ My response is nearly always, ‘perhaps you can pick up the phone?’ This is latency. Latency is basically delay. Latency is what happens between sending an email, and getting an answer.

 heard an episode from the best tech podcast in the world last week featuring a vignette from a legendary session at Google. Executives had been pushing developers to push the latency in Google Search down from one second, to fractions of a second, to nanoseconds. A frustrated engineer stood up and asked one of the founders, ‘how far are you going to push us? What happens when we get to zero?’ The answer? “Why stop at zero.”

The point was that just as you can anticipate a friend’s sneeze and hand them a tissue before it happens, so too could Google’s Artificial Intelligence eventually be able to anticipate your needs demands, and give you what you searched for before you even knew you were searching for it. There are doubtless problems and challenges here, but there’s no doubt that the latency in email is a holdover from the much greater latency of snail mail, and that the next iteration will reduce this latency even further. I doubt that I’ll push my team to get latency below zero. Even in my own business of professional disaster response, where speed is of the essence, we have to prepared for a little bit of latency. But we’ve got to do better than email.

I, too, am remnant of an analogue world. Digital natives don’t have the memory of letters, nor do I suspect that the time-costing niceties of email – the ‘Dears’ and ‘Hope this finds you wells’ and ‘Best regards’ that take as much time to write as to decode – are of any use to them. I’m convinced that in just a few years, we’ll see the death of email, as faster, more nimbler forms of communication take place, with lower latency and  whose cost of sending and receiving correspond to their value. That’s why I’m ditching email.

I read somewhere recently that 100% goals are the best kind, and that made inherent sense. For my team, this year, the goal is a 100% reduction in email. We’ve enlisted the communications experts from Tokerød Plus to help us learn how to use an alternative, and from the 1st of January , 2017, internal email on the 10-person humanitarian response team of DanChurchAid – spread across four countries – will be dead. Unless we’re communicating with an outside stakeholder, we’re going to be using a collaborative chat platform. If you’re in software development, you’re probably already using Slack, or IRC, Let’s Chat, Mattermost, or Yammer. We’re just catching up.

here will doubtless be other changes as we spring into what many are calling the ‘Digital Transformation’ initiative at DanChurchAid. There are holdovers from the analogue world everywhere, and I believe that each and every one is an anachronism. The only question is, how far will we go? Files on a computer are just digital versions of the analogue filing cabinets we old people still remember. Most of them disappeared from the modern office long ago. Documents themselves may disappear sometime soon; the ad agencies that we’ve worked with recently only deal in slide decks. And what about slides, and slide presentations? Most people born after 1980 have likely never even seen an actual slide and a carousel slide projector (apart from that legendary Mad Men episode). You’re doubtless familiar with Prezi, but I’m thrilled to see what the digital natives cook up when they finally get the chance to share information via digital media that are truly digital, rather than analogue carry-overs. Just ask a digital native what ‘cc’ stands for; the analogue holdovers are everywhere.

For now? I’m just looking forward to the day why I spend very, very little time on email.

Postscript: That Feeling When You Realize You Have No

Original Thoughts

I had initially written this blog in December of last year. I went looking for a photo to accompany the article, then I realized that the blog I’d written, ‘The Death of Email,’ had already written by about a dozen other people. Five years ago. In fact, the ground had been so well covered that there were even a slew of other blogs that subsequently responded to the original thesis, claiming that the ‘death of email’ phenomenon was overhyped. Harumph. In despair I let my blog languish on my ‘desktop’ (yes, another analogue anachronism. None of my kids actually use their desks the way they’re ‘supposed to.’)

And then, in the wake of my despair, we went ahead and killed email anyway. That’s right, killed it dead. If someone on my team now writes an email, my Outlook Rule is this: sent only to me, by someone on my team; send an autoreply: ‘Send it on Yammer, I’m not reading this mail.’ Our goals? Less time spent on email. More open, seamless communication. Less latency in replies. More time spent on achieving outcomes, rather than feeding process.

We took a week out of our worklife and huddled together as a team, in real life. Apart from 3 days of planning, strategy and analysis, and another three learning security management, self defense, and catastrophic bleeding from SILC, we also got absolutely brilliant guidance, advice, and inspiration from the Harald Tokerød, the founder of Tokerød plus and a digital leader in Denmark.

In addition to slaying email, we also learned about working out loud, as well as exploring the MS 365 universe a bit more, dipping our toes into a lot of the features and apps we had but hadn’t known existed. We also unpacked our use of Skype, What’sApp, and yes, even email, and Harald is developing an action plan for the team. It was full of surprises, including more use of short videos to communicate internally and externally, as well as the use of Twitter in ways we never anticipated (and this is coming from someone who uses Tweetdeck, and found his own Innovation and Tech Manager only through the use of hashtags.)

Our Digital Transformation is also kicking off, not just for the emergency team, but for the entire 642 mio. DKK a year organization. I can’t wait to get started. And our lastest hire to support this effort is a project management and technology rock star who I’m absolutely thrilled to start working with, in part because I know she’s going to ask us all to step up our game.

So perhaps I’m not the first person to reflect on the death of email. Original thoughts are hard to come by, especially for Gen X’ers. And perhaps it’s not really about the ‘death’ of email at all, but how we’re all going to be using email differently – and less – than we used to. The bigger story is about this unique moment when our digital tools and mindset are still based on analogue world, one that is fast disappearing.


15 December 2014

Standards and Certification - Time for Evidence

It was hard not to feel proud last Friday. Many of us have poured our blood, sweat and tears into forging a Core Humanitarian Standard that could be owned by all, and after more than 2 years and countless meetings, we’d finally arrived to present the results at the launch meeting in Copenhagen. The CHS was launched, as was the end of the SCHR certification project, after an equally lengthy and labor-intensive process.

But as I left the meeting Friday evening, having shared congratulations with many of those who had invested so much time into the process, I knew that this was a beginning, as well as an end. As Nick van Praag of Keystone Accountability said over coffee in Copenhagen, ‘Creating the Standard is one thing, but using it, and determining whether it has the desired results, are something else.’

I’ve been proud to sit on the board of the Sphere Project for a few years now, and it remains the biggest collective success story that the has in the effort to develop standards in the ‘modern era’ of humanitarian assistance. I believe that its success is a result of its approach, namely on the reliance on evidence and the inclusiveness of the dialogue. Sphere has relied on a robust and inclusive dialogue between the world’s leading experts in its fields of enquiry, be they Humanitarian Principles, Food or Health. But the Sphere Project staffs and board have never sought to define standards themselves. Rather, together they’ve tried to make sure that the conversation happened, and that it was grounded in evidence. What mattered was whether it worked for affected populations, or not. It’s the evidence that counts; people and organizations use Sphere because they believe that it works.

But as a Sphere Board member, I’ve also been aware that it’s easier to establish standards and indicators – and evidence – for the technical chapters of WASH, food, health and shelter and NFIs that it is for other areas, and that the Project has struggled to ensure that agencies and aid workers use the Humanitarian Charter, the Code of Conduct and the Core Standards and Protection Principles as much as they have used the technical chapters, just as we all struggle to remind people, time and again, that 15 liters of water per person, per day is not a standard, but an indicator. (The standard is sufficient water for cleaning, cooking, and domestic and personal hygiene. Standards are universal, indicators are not.)

Yet these non-technical issues and principles are also amongst the most essential for us to get right, and what lie in the heart of principled humanitarian action. Since the aftermath of the Rwandan crisis and the subsequent evaluation to more recent large-scale responses in Haiti and elsewhere, we know from countless evaluations that we humanitarians are not living up to our collective responsibility to be accountable to affected populations, and to give them meaningful and substantive roles in the response.

Why is that? It may be that different agencies, with different mandates, will always approach the ‘softer’ issues differently. It may be that they’re simply harder to establish measurable indicators for, that the ‘how’ is always going to be more complex than the ‘what.’ If you haven’t read the MSF UK blog on this subject, I recommend it. The basic point it this: it’s incredibly hard to provide standards on core issues without resorting to meaningless platitudes. And yet despite my agreement with this very sharp and well-written critique, it still begs the question, ‘what then must we do?’ The current standards system is failing us – and affected populations – on the core issues of quality and accountability. We lack a shared frame of reference and language to confront these issues. In this alone the CHS offers to give us a shared language and a set of standards that will belong to all. Don’t criticize the product, get involved in the process. Shared standards on these issues are probably not all that’s needed for us to collectively improve, but I doubt that improvement is possible without them. This is perhaps why the hardest part of the CHS – developing indicators and guidance notes for these standards - is still in front of us.

So now is the time to gather evidence. Now is the time to prove that all those meetings to create the CHS were worth it, and that they will make a difference for disaster and conflict-affected people around the world. We must have the courage and persistence to test that belief, to challenge our assumptions, and to put affected populations and southern agencies in the center of this effort. We must rise above and beyond the ‘verification as usual’ that we aid agencies so often rely on, be it through insider consultants whom we hire to report on our successes and shortcomings, or our own staffs’ efforts at collecting data on their own project outcomes. We’ve got to get evidence on the CHS that enables us to truly see international aid efforts – and the CHS and other standards – through the eyes of people affected by disasters. This evidence will be an invaluable contribution to the World Humanitarian Summit Humanitarian Effectiveness theme. But what will really matter isn’t what happens in Istanbul, it’s what will happen when the next major disaster strikes, and we foreigners and arrive with our logos, our landcruisers, and our standards, and we succeed – or fail – in the eyes of those we’re claiming to help. 

28 June 2013

The High Water Mark

The High Water Mark

Dear Khadija,

I hope that things are getting better in Damascus. I am sorry to hear about the loss of your nephew. Our thoughts are with you and the people of Syria every day, and we hope that one day soon the bombs will stop falling.

Greetings from all of us here in Geneva. I’m here at this big meeting to address the problems of our humanitarian aid industry, where we’ve got too many quality standards that are too confusing for many to put into practice, and where there are simply not enough quality certification systems to ensure that the organisations that claim to follow the standards ensure that it actually happens. The fact is, we’ve got a soup of standards. And the certification systems are not perfect, but they’re pretty OK, if only the big organisations would also sign up to them. But it’s still an important set of challenges to look at.

I was most inspired by the passionate and provocative comments from a woman in the back of the room. You would like her – she reminds me of you. She said that really, it’s all still about money, and keeping the current system in place. We the international aid agencies still look at ‘consulting’ with the people affected by disasters, and soliciting their feedback, rather than actually sharing more of the money and power with locals.

Her comments got me thinking. I still believe that better standards and certification systems are a step in the right direction for the big international aid organisations, and an important goal worthy of our time and effort. But I can’t help but feeling that she’s right; we’re missing the point.

I keep thinking about a project that I saw in Myanmar after cyclone Nargis, where the aid agency gave a big pile of money – about $6,000 – to each of the affected villages, without any conditions, and allowed the community itself to decide how to spend the money for its own relief.

I keep thinking about the amount of funding that went from diaspora communities directly to the disaster affected people in Somalia and Haiti – and even to your family, in Syria – and how much more important this kind of help is than the international aid organisations’ shiny projects.

It seems like the growth of information and communications technology, including mobile phones, is only going to support this kind of assistance to grow, and we the NGO crusaders should think more about this kind of assistance, and how we can build our programs to support it, rather than coordinating with it as an afterthought.

In some way, Khadija, it feels like we’re still stuck in 1995, reacting to the results our latest evaluation of our own US and European-funded operations, conducted by US and European-funded consultants, hired by European and US donors. In 1995 we set up standards and certification systems as the answers to the challenges, and we’re now saying better standards and certification are still the answers, though the challenges and environment have changed so much. The diaspora and the money they send home, the internet and mobile phones allowing information transfer on an unprecedented scale, and more initiative and self-help groups taking action have a massive impact overall.

I keep thinking about an organisation in Somalia that used these tools to transfer 30 million USD into al Shabab controlled areas in Somalia in 2010, only to discover that they were less than 10 percent of what the diaspora was transferring using those same channels. Perhaps that’s the real story. The 500 crazy, unprofessional organisations that showed up in Haiti are everyone’s idea of how it shouldn’t look, but independent groups, be they self-help or from foreigners, are in their essence a tremendous resource that we need to get better at harnessing, and that only appear to be growing around the world. If it’s either them or Halliburton to rescue me after a flood or an earthquake, I’d prefer a self-help group.

It still feels oddly like we’re looking at a pyramid, with power and money at the top, where the international organisations are coordinating a system which grows ever bigger and more complex, with vast masses of disaster affected populations at the bottom, and local humanitarian organisations somewhere in between. To say that the affected populations are ‘powerless’ would certainly be wrong, but it looks like the internationals still have most of the money, set the rules, maintain the monopoly on legitimacy in the public eye, and dominate the western news footage.

I keep thinking about that community in the delta of Myanmar. The work that a friend did there later showed that for most of the communities the international assistance was not the majority of the response, which instead came mostly from their own neighbors’ rather than the internationals. He always said that if the relief effort was a buffet, we always saw our own contribution as a big roast chicken, when really all that we brought was a salad…

Alongside all of these growing self-help initiatives and information and communications-technology-driven efforts, there are more international aid workers and aid agencies on the planet than ever before. I can’t help but speculate whether these two trends – one expanding at an explosive pace while the other reaches an all-time high – can possible co-exist. I wonder if the international aid machine as we know it is in fact a dinosaur, and the rise of disaster management degrees in western universities and the armies of aid workers around the world are in fact the signs that the industry has reached its high water mark. This is perhaps what it looks like right before the whole thing crashes and we find a better way of addressing these problems. I have to be honest that I hope that this is the case.

Don’t get me wrong. I really do believe that everyone here at this meeting is trying hard to meet a goal that they honestly believe in. They’re smart people, and they really are fighting with all their hearts for justice. And I really do think that our systems and procedures for humanitarian standards and certification need to get better. It’s a goal worth fighting for, and I’m going to go home from this meeting and keep working on this with anyone I can find.

It’s just that I think that perhaps just looking at how to improve the systems isn’t enough. I keep thinking that the woman in the back of the room was right, that what we really need is to turn the whole pyramid upside down and make what the fancy Europeans would call a paradigm shift. We the foreigners need to divest more authority, decision making power and financial responsibility to the disaster affected population itself. We well-meaning internationals need to let go and empower the affected populations to take charge, and stop trying to ‘check in’ with feedback and complaints and monitoring, making continual adjustments in our attempts to better meet their needs. No one can argue with more effectiveness and efficiency. But until we turn the whole system upside down, we’ll never work ourselves out of a job. And isn’t that really the point of it all?

I keep thinking about you and your family in Syria, where we the international agencies who claim to fight on your behalf for peace and justice still can’t do enough, either to help you with relief, security and protection, or to support you in your efforts to help yourselves and your neighbors.

Wish you were here,


10 March 2013

Saving the World- One Conference at a Time?

Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.
Barack Obama.

I started my life as aid worker in 1999 on the edges of the Sierra Leonean civil war, in the refugee camps of Guinea, before hitching a ride on a WFP helicopter to land a job with Merlin managing massive health program. It was a mere 14 years ago, but it was an entirely different era in the world of professional humanitarian assistance. I was a biologist by training, a former Peace Corps volunteer with a bit of experience managing basic construction projects, wells and latrines and basic concrete blocks schools, when I took responsibility for 7 international staffs, 24 health clinics and several units of hospital in a civil war paused for a fragile peace. I wouldn’t stand a chance getting that job now. The world of professional humanitarian assistance has undergone a sea change, from being a semi-amateur enterprise of cowboys and missionaries to a sophisticated, increasingly evidence-based profession with an ever more complex set of standards and benchmarks for quality and accountability.

Back then, standards such as Sphere were in their infancy. I still remember a dark blue ring binder that held several individual brochures for the various standards. These were the days when I received a training in something called a ‘logical framework,’ which was then a new and exotic instrument to plan our work. One of my biggest complaints back then was the lack of a proper canon to define the discipline. Whereas my biologist counterparts, be they from Ghana or Canada, could all draw a common frame of reference from a year of chemistry, a year of organic chemistry, a year of cell biology, etc., my aid worker counterparts were just as likely to be poets as they were engineers.

Thankfully, that’s not the case anymore. I feel so privileged to have witnessed this development, and when I teach graduate students now in an advanced education for catastrophe and risk managers, I’m amazed how much has happened in such short time, and that I got the chance to be at the middle of this moment of humanitarian history. Programs like the one I teach didn’t even exist then; now there are dozens of them all around the world. The number of staffs working for humanitarian organisations, as have the number of dollars churning through these organisations, many of whom now represent multi-national non-government corporations, each with a global footprint and the ability to raise funds and deploy assistance anywhere, anytime.

But growth brings problems. An NGO I know of has recently made a corporate partnership with a gold and diamond mining conglomerate whose name used to be synonymous with human rights abuses; this is what they call, ‘public private partnership,’ and it’s supposed to be the wave of the future. And we can be too smart for our own good. Our standards have grown so complex and sophisticated that they may be losing touch with the average aid worker, especially if she’s one who’s just been hired and trained and needs to be deployed to help her countrymen after the sudden onset of a major disaster.

Responding to this last challenge is what the join standards initiative is all about. There’s no doubt that when the feedback from the Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwandan Refugees (JEARR) gave their debrief in Copenhagen in 1996, they weren’t imaging the plethora of standards that we have today – at some counts over 50 different initiatives and projects to improve humanitarian accountability and quality. Occam’s razor says that the answer that makes the fewest assumptions should be selected; the simplest solutions are usually the best. In the case of international humanitarian standards, our answers to complicated problems in disaster response also need to be simple as we can make them, without compromising on the quality that disaster-affected people are entitled to.

Having been part of this extraordinary moment in global humanitarian assistance over the past 15 years, it’s clear to me that we’re at major crossroads. Our profession has grown exponentially in its capacity and ability to assist those in need. Yet we’re also confronting the twin challenges of the problems that all this growth has brought, as well as an incredibly complex and changing external environment – due to climate change, urban population dynamics, and globalization, amongst other phenomena – has rendered our current set of tools increasingly inadequate.

Tomorrow we’ll convene a historic meeting, here in Copenhagen, to take up this challenge with some of the world’s humanitarian leaders. Perhaps it’s fitting that we’ll be meeting in the same venue where the shocking conclusions of the JEARR were first shared. Then the message was simple, if unsettling, and the call to action was clear: we had blood on our hands. The system wasn’t performing well enough, and people had died needlessly as a result. We needed to better. The Sphere project, HAP (initially the humanitarian ombudsman project), People In Aid, and ALNAP were created as a result.
Now the call for action is just as clear, but the solutions are not as apparent. We know that the wide range of systems we have developed are functioning well, but for reasons that are unclear, they’re not enough. From the TEC evaluation to the IASC Haiti evaluation, some of the same conclusions are eerie echoes of the JEARR; not enough informing of and working with affected populations and local governments, insufficient quality of response. The Copenhagen meeting tomorrow is one of many important events in our consultation with stakeholders to try to determine how to make our standards better and easier for agencies and individuals to use.

But in some ways, starting with a relatively blank slate, as the creators of Sphere did at the outset, is easier than reforming an existing system that’s functioning well, if in need of improvement. As chair of the Sphere project board, I’m always aware that I’m standing on the shoulders of giants. Hundreds of the world’s leading experts on humanitarian assistance have poured tens of thousands of hours into defining the standards, and it’s not something that can be tidied up and improved over the course of a few months, or even a couple years. We have an imperative to improve the system so that the set of standards are easier to use, but an equally compelling imperative not to compromise what’s already been achieved. This is no easy task. In fact, it’s enough to give a board chair sleepless nights. Feelings can also run high in such a process, and conflict amongst the fearful and the hopeful are at some point inevitable.

The price of being an aid worker is a certain amount of cynicism; compromises and pragmatic solutions to ethical dilemmas are fairly routine. Effective response to any human tragedy, at any scale, calls for equal measures of cool-headedness and empathy. When I look out over the meeting attendees tomorrow morning, I know that I’ll be thrilled to be in the presence of such greatness, but also wondering, as I always do, ‘what would a woman in a refugee camp think if she was here? Would we do better to save our high-minded rhetoric and good intentions, and use less money on top level meetings and more on response?’ Are we really ‘saving the world,’ one European conference at a time?

But the fact is, this is how change happens. When thousands of organisations around the world are invested in a given system, adapting that system takes an enormous amount of consultation, both to get buy-in and ownership of the process, but also to ensure that we’re gathering as much information and as many perspectives as possible. Some may come to the table tomorrow with ‘red lines,’ in the mindset of negotiators,, ready to take their hardest stance in order to protect the status quo. Indeed, there is a lot to honor, and ‘killing your darlings’ is not the answer to every problem. We have to be careful to embrace change, but not for the sake of change alone.

Above all, we have to remember why we’ll be gathered in that room, that historic 17th century building overlooking Copenhagen harbor, listening to Under-Secretary General Valerie Amos, and other distinguished and accomplished humanitarians. We are here on behalf of the world’s most vulnerable. We are here because we know that they deserve better, and the evidence has shown, from evaluation after evaluation, that we can perform better, and that standards are not a panacea, but they are an important part of the overall system of consistently achieving quality and accountable response. Now time to negotiate, and to think about us, but to think about them, the ones who won’t be in the room, the millions of refugees, internally displaced, and conflict and disaster affected around the world, and to think openly and creatively about how a more coherent system of standards can better empower agencies and aid workers to fulfill their rights. Because many things are negotiable, but the right to life with dignity is not one of them.

19 February 2013

From Tripoli to Bamako, by way of Washington and Paris

I was in Tripoli a couple of months ago teaching our DCA team security. They’re implementing a program down there to support women’s participation in civil society. I was completely blow away by the work that they’re doing. This is front line stuff; with many Islamist groups in Libya trying to roll back women’s rights and restrict their participation in public life, DCA is supporting local organisations to do just the opposite. I came away totally inspired by the young women and men who were taking risks on behalf of women’s rights.

While there I was faced a question typical on many trips to conflict-ridden countries with varying degrees of anti-Western sentiment: Where should I say I’m from? Canada? Usually a safe bet. Luxembourg? Nobody’s even heard of Luxembourg. Denmark used to be safe, but then they made those awful cartoons. The best answer, of course, is to be honest unless it’s dangerous, and it’s often not as dangerous as one might think to say that I’m American, particularly if I’ve made the effort to pick up a couple of words in the local language. In the occupied Palestinian territories, for example, where I lived during the second Intifada, it was no problem to say I was American. Many Palestinians had connections to the states, either having lived there, or through family. They understood the difference between foreign policy and an individual citizen’s views and choices.

But in Libya, it wasn’t so straightforward. In that surreal time capsule that is post-Qadaffi Libya, an atmosphere of fear and suspicion pervades. Our Palestinian Finance Officer told me that the easiest thing was to be French. ‘They looove the French,’ he said, and since I speak enough French to fake it (great accent, limited vocabulary), this is where I was from to people on the street and in the shops and restaurants, just to be on the safe side. Sure enough, every time I said I was from France, they practically kissed my feet. Luxembourg probably would have been simpler.

Flash forward to Mali, where I was last week. Same question, different place. Here I could honestly say that I was American, as there is no anti-American sentiment in the south, and since I speak local language after 2 years there as a volunteer in 95 – 97, I was easily accepted. But when I travelled with a French colleague, it was clear that he got the royal treatment. As in Libya, the French were the heroes. Americans? Sure, they were fine. But the French – who used to be hated for their vicious colonial rule – were universally loved.
As an American, I found this interesting. I am used to be either loved or hated, but more often than not I’ve found that Africans tend to love Americans, or at least the America they know from Hollywood. At least in some places, those days are over.

The Arab spring has definitely put the US in a bind, and Syria and Egypt are telling examples. In Syria the US has been afraid to support the rebels – despite that they oppose an Iran-friendly, Hezbollah-supporting regime that has long been a foe of the US – for fear that they create another Taliban, or at least lose an election at home. The upshot is that they’ve ceded ground – literally and figuratively – to hard line militant Islamists. In Egypt, the US has prized the peace treaty with Israel and the strategic relationship with the Egyptian military above all else – including human rights. This has meant tacit support for the Muslim Brotherhood. That’s definitely the way they see it from the street in Cairo. The upshot? The US has ceded ground – literally and figuratively – to hard line Islamists, who have not been known to directly support violence, but from their short record in power it’s easy to say that they are no friend to human rights and democracy, either.

When I was in Mali in 1997, I remember first seeing women in Burkas at the edge of the Dogon cliff, in the North of the country. Our local guide pointed them out with curiosity, a handful of highly visible women on the edge of the market, with that strangely unsettling feeling one always gets from a woman in a Burka, those forbidding presences that deny any chance for you to view or come in contact with their humanity. They were a new arrival, he said, and even the local Dogon people did not know what to make of them. Flash forward 16 years, and those same women, and their husbands and sons, have succeeded in taking over the North of the country and introduced an extremist regime that required the French army to push out. And you’d be mistaken to think that all the villages were taken by force; the military conquest was the culmination of a long campaign for hearts and minds, as well as wallets.

I fear that the next chapter in the Mali conflict will look something like this: France withdraws, as Hollande has promised. With Figaro and Le Monde asking French readers nearly every day whether they still support the intervention, an opion-poll feedback loop is likely. (‘Do you still support the intervention? Do you? Do you? How about now? Do you support it now? How about now?’) The militants are likely waiting until the French leave, when they will re-emerge from hiding, acquire new weapons, and retake the villages, probably without firing a shot. The Malian army and whatever ECOWAS or UN force as may be left will struggle to maintain a hold on the cities in the North for as long as they can. But it is likely that the humanitarian agencies may be negotiating with the rebels for neutral, impartial, and independent humanitarian access to a lot of hungry people, a reality we might as well start getting used to.

An acquaintance recently told me that he’d regretted moving to Morocco. ‘I didn’t see it at the time, a couple of years ago,’ he said, ‘but they Islamists are clearly taking over. Soon it will no longer be a pleasant place to be, and I’ll have to move again.’ Perhaps it’s obvious to state that it appears that during the long period of reign under various dictators and monarchs across the middle East and North Africa, who ruled with various degrees of oppression but without any real freedom of speech and democracy, the only groups who were patiently, consistently organizing and consolidating were hard-line Islamists. And now their moment has come. It’s not hard to imagine Islamic regimes appearing across North Africa and the Middle East in the next ten years. What alternative, frankly, is on offer?

This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing, and though it’s likely, it does not necessarily represent a loss of US strategic power and influence in the region, either. While the US has supported the Wahabbist monarchy in Saudi Arabia for generations, it was followers of the same extreme form of Islam that gave militant extremists their first foothold in Mali. If and when Assad falls, the regime that takes his place is not likely to be a friend of Iran. From a human rights perspective, an Islamist regime might even offer more domestic opportunities for rights-based advocacy and civic participation than a rigid, pro-US monarchy, depending on that regime’s interpretation of Islam.

What it does represent, however, is a sea change. The US has found shale oil, and is content to poison its ground water. The US military budget is shrinking, and the Pacific theatre is now the one to watch. The failure of the US to capitalize any foreign policy gains is a hugely important phenomenon, and the rise of the French in recent conflicts has made it clear just how far the US has retreated from the interventionist foreign policy of the cold war, and just how big the vacuum is that they’re leaving behind. If nature hates a vacuum, how does geopolitics feel? Don’t ask me, I wouldn’t know; I’m just an American.

12 February 2013

Mali's Only Hope

When war comes to the place where you live, you run. You grab your family and you run. If you run across a border, you’re officially a refugee. But if you seek safety inside your own country, you’re officially titled an ‘Internally Displaced Person,’ or an IDP according to international refugee law. I always thought that this rather strange term could just as well refer to the internal states of many of the people I’ve met who’ve had to run for their lives from war. Running for your life tends to do leave one ‘internally displaced’ in more ways than one.

When I left Mali, West Africa, 16 years ago, I never thought I’d be coming back to a country at war, first at the mercy of a coup of rebelling officers, then under threat of being overrun by an alliance of ethnic separatists and Islamic fundamentalists. Back then Africa was the flagship of West African democracy, having seen an African Army Colonel who’d seized power by a coup step down voluntarily to make way for democratic elections. Yes, that’s plural; Mali held three democratic elections through the 90’s, until after two terms of the Konare presidency, that once-lauded Colonel – known as A.T.T. – returned to power by the ballot box, only to descend into the worst kind of corruption that spread like a disease across every level of the society.

But they say that this was not his fatal mistake. His fatal mistake was ignoring the needs of his own army, and ironically for a former general, this is what did him in. But according to a group of community leaders from the Northern cities of Gao, Tomboctou and Kidal whom I spoke with yesterday in Bamako, the seeds of rebellion up North had been sown long before ATT fled the country in disgrace.

‘The Jihadis have been travelling around the villages for a long time,’ says Agali Mohamed, ‘offering 30,000 FCFA to young men who are willing to join them and carry a Kalashnikov.’ This is about 75 dollars a month, a very decent salary for a young man with no education and very few options. Before the conflict, Ag has been leading a successful program in Tomoctou to gather small arms and light weapons and destroy them. For him there is no doubt that the conflict of his home town is not yet over, despite the French army’s recent military victories.

Starting in the 90’s Mali embarked on an ambitious program of political reform and devolution of power to regional and communal governments, intended to more fairly apportion resources and increase local autonomy and authority. ‘Decentralisation was actually a success,’ says Ag, ‘and despite the isolation of the North, the resources for schools and health care were slowly arriving in our communities.’ But perhaps it was too little, too slow. Ag also acknowledges a failed strategy to address the Tuareg ethnic group’s quest for a separate state in the North; ‘any time they needed to placate some rebellious tribal leaders,’ he says, ‘they would simply offer them nice positions in the army or in the army college, just buying them off. It got so bad that the young men from the South were jealous, and used to joke that perhaps they should start a rebellion to get equal treatment.’

But the situation truly began to deteriorate when ATT resumed power and begin his descent into corruption and neglect of the North. It couldn’t have come at a worse time, as militant fundamentalist Islam was also beginning an ambitious plan to spread across North Africa. I still remember seeing the first fully-burkha’d women in Northern Mali, South of Douentza in area of the Dogon ethnicity. Our guide at the time pointed them out, and remarked that the burkha was a new arrival to his village. When Qadaffi’s regime across Mali’s Northern border in Libya fell, a number of his weapons fell into the wrong hands, and what had been for years been a low-level Tuareg rebellion suddenly joined forces with the burgeoning Islamic fundamentalist movement and seized a moment of opportunity.
Ag tells me that the jihad isn’t really an ethnic issue, and most of the Tuareg who are now being harassed and chased from their own homes in the wake of the French-led reconquering of the North neither physically support nor even sympathize with the Jihadis. In this ethnically diverse country they are populated by Fula, Songhai and Tuareg men, as well as foreign Arabs.

For the moment, Ag considers it still unsafe to go home, so he is still internally displaced. ‘As a community leader I am targeted. I have received threats. I am calling friends and family who stayed behind every day,’ he says, ‘and I hope to return soon. When commercial transport to Tomboctou reopens, I will be among the first to get on the bus.’

But even if the French have retaken the city for now, the jihadis are far from giving up. Whilst Mr. Hollande has a 3 month plan, the Jihadis likely have a 10 year strategy. Their plans include linking what's happening in Mali with Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Egypt... It occurs to me and my colleagues as we sit and hold meetings in Bamako to plan our relief operation up North as soon as it becomes safe to return, our enthusiasm growing as we can see the various elements of funding, logistics, and local capacity taking shape in our plans for intervention, there is also probably another meeting taking place a few hundred miles to the north, where another group of men is likewise equally enthusiastic about their own plans, and equally confident of success, as they envision how the elements of funding, strategy, human resources, and logistical capacity will doubtless ensure their takeover of the North as soon as the French have left and the ineffectual Malian army is left to defend the cities.

'What is the answer?’ I ask Ag. ‘How can we return Mali to the peaceful country that I knew as a volunteer in the 90’s?’ He’s not sure, but a few things are certain for him. ‘One, it must be a longer term strategy. Not just 1 year, or two years, but a five year or ten year plan to bring the North back to the rest of the country. Two, we must offer economic opportunity and development, not just military solutions. Three, we must address the local conflicts, and support local communities and peace building initiatives. And all of this must be done at once, and in a large scale, and with serious commitment.’

All of this sounds logical, but given the current state of Mali’s political leadership, it also seems highly unlikely. And I can’t help but shake the vision of a poor, disaffected youth in a village from my mind. I believe that this boy is the key to changing Mali’s destiny. This entire generation of young men – from 15 to 25 – who have little or no education, haven’t yet married, and have few opportunities. What the jihadis offer them is not just 30,000 FCFA a month. They offer a vision for change, a chance to join a movement, and a meaningful role in shaping their community’s destiny, and perhaps even the destiny of the nation. The only problem is that this vision is jihad; a fundamentalist totalitarian state where extreme sharia law is applied, where women’s rights are non-existent, where music is a crime.

But if we are to see Mali return on the path to peace, and once again lead the way – despite being amongst the poorest countries in the world – for the rest of the continent in demonstrating what democracy looks like, we’ve got to figure out how to offer that young man a viable alternative to jihad, to offer him a chance for a future. This means the kind of large scale investment in demobilization, demilitarization, and reintegration that was accomplished after the Sierra Leonean and Liberian civil wars, offering tens of thousands of young men sustained training in viable technical trades, and access to markets. Until then, picking up a Kalashnikov for 30,000 FCFA a month is still going to be the best opportunity around.

Note: Agali Ag Mohamed’s name has been changed to protect his identity.

03 March 2010

Palm Wine Story - Fiction

Fiction - any resemblance to any persons - living or dead - is purely coincidental. Yes, I made 90% of this stuff up!

In Gueckedou I worked with a young American logistician named Doug Mackintosh. He had an undergrad in something from Cornell and a master’s in operations planning from somewhere else, and one had the feeling that he was making up logistics as he went along. Kickbacks were a common feature there as in all of Africa, with the local staff getting the lion’s share and the expatriate bosses attempting to keep a clean nose, but there was one he couldn’t resist. A Lebanese merchant from whom the organization we worked for – the International Rescue Committee – bought all of its cement, had offered him a dyker as a gift of thanks for all the business.

I had never seen a dyker, which resembles a miniature deer. It has two small conical horns poking up from its head, and though ours was a female I am certain that both the male and the female have the same feminine aspect. In the way it moved its head – quickly, gracefully, and with carefully controlled movements – and looked at things and people for a considerable time, as if in contemplation, the animal appeared intelligent, at least as smart as the family dog. It proved this one day when it showed its jealousy after Doug took a girl home to spend the night in his bed for the first time. While we ate breakfast the dyker snuck into the house and made straight for his bedroom, and left a large pile of droppings in the middle of the bed. The message couldn’t have been more clear.

I am sure that the Lebanese man meant for the dyker to be cooked up and promptly eaten. It was only luck that it had been trapped alive, and to anyone in the area it would simply have gone for bush meat. But we all fell in love with the animal, and it became a fixture of the high-walled garden. It had two prominent gashes along the sides its face between its nose and its eyes, which were scent glands. It would rub these organs against anything at its face level, leaving a trace of its scent that was undetectable to humans, and as it did so, stick out its long tongue on the other side of its slightly open mouth. The animal’s tongue could reach to cover its eyes, a good six inches away.

Shortly after the dyker arrived we adopted a white bunny, and then a three-legged tortoise rescued from a refugee camp where it was being dangled on a string. We struggled to find the tortoise the proper food, and I never once saw it eat. The dyker and the bunny, on the other hand, ate whatever we would give them, and when we took our breakfast out on the patio off the kitchen in the morning the two of them would come springing over to join us for the meal.

After Gueckedou I went on to Sierra Leone, where I stayed for additional two years. While I was there the entire town was overrun by rebels whose identity was never accurately determined. The heavily forested, rugged area, known as the Mano river junction for the three countries that share its banks, Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, is awash in young disaffected men, guns, and diamonds. I never even heard what language they spoke. I only heard that the guards killed the dog – remember was his name – before they fled, lest he should meet a more painful end. That they started the attack in the early morning hours before dawn by calling all the Fula men to the mosque with the call to prayer, where they were slaughtered. That they overran the town and all the houses we lived in, and held the town for several weeks before they were chased out by the Guinean army and went back into the forest, likely to Liberia. It was a beautiful, dirty, awful place, a place where many bad things had happened before and many more were sure to come. While I lived there I witnessed a wave of child kidnappings there, used to feed the human sacrifices of politicians trying to improve their chances in the local elections. I have written about it elsewhere. It was something about the forest; it was so rich, so green, rugged and beautiful, and it seemed to breathe violence. The forest people were know for their deception, their black magic, their ruthlessness. In a part of the world known for its friendly, open people, those at the Mano river junction were suspicious and reserved.

There was place outside of town where we go and drink poyo, the local palm wine. If you stick a tap high up into a palm tree and gather the juice that comes out you will have alcohol, a milky white, slightly viscous sour fluid. It’s an acquired taste, and I acquired it. There was a building, if I remember correctly, but we never went inside, preferring instead to drink outside with all the regulars seated on the long trunks of felled palm trees. The name itself – cinq kilos, for the distance it was from town – was indicative of the kind of place it was; a no-name place, just the closest one could get to the source of the palm wine. The tappers ventured further and further away from town as all of the trees close to town were tapped out and killed. You would see them carrying two 20 liter plastic jerry cans into town, one on either side of a pole carried across their shoulders. They walked down the sidewalk-less two-lane tarmac road with a characteristically hurried-looking bobbing up and down that maximized the forward motion and minimized the effort required to keep the 40 liters off the ground.

Tapping was dangerous work; tappers died rather routinely. But in a place where work was scarce and cash even harder to come by, there always young men willing to climb the tree, just as sure as there were always customers, there large round pot bellies on otherwise skinny frames bearing testimony to their years of love for the stuff. The tappers climbed with bear feet and a simple loop of woven fiber cut from the forest, making a three-way pivot point with their two feet and leangin back into the loop which enclosed the tree and themselves. One false step and it was straight to the bottom, 8 meters plus with no brakes.

For us the only danger was worms, tiny white ones that you find floating in your cup or caught between your teeth. You had to bring your own cup, and often one of us would forget, and we’d end up sharing. You also learned to bring a piece of old pantyhose to slip over the jug to catch the worms before they made it into your drink. The other danger, of course, was getting drunk, but that’s what we were after. The fresh poyo was, to my taste, the best, while day-old poyo was much stronger, but also a lot more sour. Add a couple of spoonfuls of sugar to the bottom and the next day it would be even more potent. Poyo wasn’t the kind of drink we drank anywhere else; in town we’d drink Castel beer, an awful, formaldehyde-tasting pilsner bottled in the capitol, or Nigerian-brewed Heineken in cans, when we could get it. But it was a special pleasure to end the working day with a drive out to cinq kilos at sunset and drink as much poyo as you could before it got dark.

The place had all the character of a neighborhood bar in north America, and it was a rare day that you wouldn’t chat up another regular on the palm log next to you, or even buy him his next jug from the tappper most recently back from the tree. They were nonsense conversations, to be sure, and though I don’t remember the content of a single one in all the many hours that I spent at cinq kilos, I do remember much laughter.

19 October 2008

Excruciating Pain in Beautiful Places

excruciating pain in beautiful places.
orters? Ha! I’ve never had a porter in my life!’ The man behind the desk repeated himself: for my trip up the 17,057 feet of Mt. Kenya, I would have three porters, along with a guide. Porters; I couldn’t get over it. It sounded so colonial, so Out of Africa. Half the ‘fun’ of climbing up a mountain was knowing that you’d ‘earned it,’ and part of earning it surely included carrying your own stuff, unassisted. Send one home, I told him. I can carry my own backpack. ‘No problem,’ he said, and with a ten second phone call, it was done.
About five minutes later, I came to my senses. I pictured myself later that afternoon, sweaty, tired, and struggling, cursing my heroics. Perhaps I was being a little too hasty about the whole porter concept. Who was I to hurt the local economy for the sake of my pride? If I had to be humble, so be it. I had paid for the damned porters already, so I might as well let them do their job. ‘Excuse me, sir?’ I asked. ‘I’ve changed my mind. Three porters will be fine.’ Well, he said, I’ve already informed them. ‘Ok, ok, no problem,’ I said, ‘two will be fine,’ not wanting to make a fuss.
About ten minutes after that, I realized just how much I was already missing that third porter I’d never met. I found the guy behind the desk in a shed across the gravel parking lot from the office, loading kerosene from a drum into a small plastic jerry can with the man who was to be my guide. ‘Excuse me, um, hi. Me again. Sorry to bother you. But if you don’t mind, I’d like you to call them back and have them arrange for that third porter.’ No problem, he assured me with a smile, undoubtedly glad that he would remain behind the desk while the guide shepherded this miserable git up the mountain for the next three days.
nd so we were off, my guide, my three porters and I, to conquer Mt. Kenya. Well, not exactly. Since I only had a total of 3 and a half days before I had to get back on an airplane, I didn’t have enough time to summit. The last part of the climb was also ‘technical,’ involving helmets and crampons and ice axes and all kinds of macho climbing equipment that appears great in photos but, in my experience, is not as fun as it looks. So I was content with the lesser of the 3 peaks of Mt. Kenya at 4,900 meters, point Lanana. Though I liked the idea of some kind of climax to the climb, I wasn’t obsessed with the idea of a summit, really I wasn’t; just happy to get out and do a bit of hiking.
From the lodge we took an olive green land rover that was held together with duct tape and bits of string. It had the delightful ‘vibration effect’ that all old land rovers get after 500,000 kilometers, whereby the whole contraption shakes violently over every pebble and emits squeaks from every one of its thousand joints and you feel like your teeth are going to shake right out of your head. On every steep uphill climb toward the base camp this particular vehicle insouciantly emitted exhaust directly into the cab, an effect which was judged to be somewhat less in the back seat, where I, the honored leader of our expedition, was given a seat.
After an hour long climb up a rutted dirt road through a lush forest we arrived at the gates of the national park, where I was requested, as chief of party, to sign the five of us in. After another half hour we arrived at ‘Meti,’ the first base camp, so called because it is a 100 meters away from a Kenyan national meteorological observatory. A few bushback, a sort of russet-colored forest deer, munched on the grass amongst the wood frame huts, while several dozen black Sykes monkeys roamed all over the camp’s green lawns, languidly munching on some non descript monkey food, leaping from the stands of bamboo to the roofs of the huts, and looking disinterestedly in our general direction to see if we’d dropped anything edible yet.
fter a little while I took off up the hill with one of the porters, named James, who asked me with a smile to call him, ‘Jimmy.’ When I found out that my name could only come from his mouth as ‘Elik,’ I decided to go for a hip sobriquet too, and asked him to call me ‘EJ.’ I had to remind him to call me EJ and not Elik just about every time he used my name, and after about fifteen minutes I gave up. Elik it was. Any attempt at conversation, in fact, proved to be agonizing. Every time he didn’t understand something I said (things like, ‘You find it difficult to understand me, don’t you?’), he would stop walking, turn around, cock his head to the side like a cocker spaniel who knows the sounds mean something, he just doesn’t know what, and say, ‘huh?’ Our ‘hiking’ was ten steps, followed by a pause to clear up our misunderstanding, followed by another ten, and so on.
That night, back in the hut, they brought in the food; rice and beans, fried fish, mushroom soup, and cut fruit for dessert, along with tea and warmed milk. It felt strange to be sleeping in a 10 bed hut by myself, eating alone at the table, while the rest of the guys ate by themselves. Near the end of the meal the 40ish guide Richard came in, and we chatted a bit about the trip. He wanted to make sure that I wasn’t expecting too much out of our summit bid, that we might just make a run for the top and then head straight down, and not the ‘circumnavigation of the main peaks’ that was advertised in the brochure. You may be too tired, he said. I assured him that I had learned my lesson with the porter debacle, and wasn’t planning to be a hero. That agreed, he said good night and we all went to bed.
t seven the following morning Richard and I walked up the same path that Jimmy and I had started the previous afternoon. The first hour and a half were through a fairly dense forest, and despite being well above the 10,000 feet of Meti camp, there wasn’t much to see beyond thick forest on either side and more path in front of us, as steep in most places as a flight of stairs. As it turned out I had been wise to accept the third porter; they were only there to carry our food, and I was expected to carry my own pack. Richard pointed out the numerous piles of buffalo shit and the one pile of elephant shit on the trail, and we talked about all the animals he’d seen over the years, and about the time several years ago when a lion had chomped on a guy’s leg while he was sleeping in a tent and dragged both him and the tent a good long way, crushing the guy’s femur before giving up and going away hungry. It took them a full three days to find that lion before they killed him, Richard said. Then we talked about the Masai for a while, and he told me what a no-good bunch of cattle rustling, trouble making, uneducated thieves they were, whom I nevertheless found endlessly more fascinating than the far more westernized and pacific Kikuyu.
e hiked for another half hour before we got above the first tree line and the sky opened up. There were broad meadows of yellow grass studded with rocky outcroppings and black succulent trees not unlike the Joshua trees of the southwest. The views were stunning. Though there were clouds in the valley we could still glimpse the dark outline of another low, nameless mountain chain on the other side.
By then I could feel the air growing thin. We had started that morning at 10,000 feet, and it was clear, to me at least, that oxygen was not as copious as one would have liked. The legs were willing, but the heart was weak. We’d pause to rest and catch our breath, but then five minutes after we started my heart would be pounding as if I was in full sprint. It was about ten in the morning and the sun was so strong that I couldn’t raise my eyes much further beyond Richard’s shoes in front of me. I took a long-sleeved shirt from my pack and tied the sleeves loosely around my head so that the collar was like a hat brim, and found that it kept the sun off of my head and I could actually see. Richard had a smartly tight pack with all the loose dangly straps neatly stowed away, nice hiking pants, and tight-fitting gators around his ankles. I looked like an idiot. When I turned around I could see the shadow of my pack, with about twenty loose straps swinging in as many directions with every step, and I had a shirt on my head. But what the hell. It was comfortable. And who was I trying to impress?
The farther ridgeline turned out to be a mirage, and just gave on to another, and another. The Joshua trees thinned out and we passed though an area of low scrub and more rocks, a few of which we had to grab on to with one hand and skirt our way around, but nothing too difficult. At one point the summit came into view over the near horizon where the trail disappeared over a ridge; three giant fingers of black rock jutting into the sky, crusted in snow and swathed in cloud. We hiked a bit more, and it disappeared again behind another ridge.
e had been hiking for about three hours when my head first started to ache. It wasn’t bad at first, but I knew it was the thinning air. I’m smart like that, having heard about it on National Geographic and having puked my guts out on a mountain once before. I drank as much as water as I could, but I knew that a headache setting in already at 12,500 feet was a bad sign. ‘It’s 10:45, now,’ I said, ‘and we started at 7:30. What time to do we arrive at Mackinder’s camp?’ I asked. ‘About two more hours,’ they said. Uh oh.
We continued on. After a little while the porters hiked on past us and it was just Richard and I, taking turns with the lead. We eventually left the sight of the towns in the valley behind us. We could see three bare, rising ridgelines; one across a valley to our right, another across the valley to our left, and the one we now snaked along, following a high trail just below the crest of the ridge, gradually gaining altitude. Each of these high ridges was bare of trees, just a carpet of dry grass a shade lighter than rust and black rock outcroppings. At some point we turned a corner into another, higher valley, and the summit was visible at the end of the sloping valley, a huge bowl of scree topped by the black rock ridge of the three snow-covered black fingers of the summit at the far left side. The landscape had changed at once. There were strange succulents everywhere, rosettes of spiny leaves curved upward to catch the dew at their base, some with tall, geometrically prickly cones shooting three or four feet from their centers, and several other odd-looking high altitude plants, including a six foot tall stalk covered in what looked like a thousand shaggy green dreadlocks. And there were innumerable Joshua trees, spaced far enough apart that you could see each one, both on our side of the valley as well as the far side, but so many in number as to make the mere idea of counting them inspire dizziness. Or perhaps that was just me.
ecause at this point, the air was really starting to get to me. My head was pounding. If the frequency of my rests was making Richard grow impatient, he didn’t show it, though I was getting fairly annoyed with myself. My legs were fine; they wanted nothing more than to continue moving. It was more like a total failure of my body’s central energy system. No force of will could make my head stop pounding, my ears stop ringing, or my heart stop screaming out for rest or ritual suicide. After a half hour along the rising ridgeline trail of this, the last of the valleys before the summit, we could see the lodge. The long zinc roof caught the sun, still at least two kilometers away at the top of a small hill at the bottom of the bowl of scree, impossibly far away at the bottom of the opposite side of the valley.
After an infinite number of rests and footsteps that went one, two, one, two, we went down one side of the valley, across a four-log footbridge over a small rushing stream, and up the other side. At the first rocky outcropping there were a bunch of hyrax, small innocuous brown animals that look like giant guinea pigs and are said to be the closest living relative of the elephant. Like the monkeys at Meti they were almost totally unafraid of humans, and only slightly more curious. They were fascinating little creatures, and I couldn’t give a damn. I was wasted. I collapsed on the grass in front of them. More hyrax emerged, until there were 7 or 8, nibbling at invisible little morsels, sniffing my scent on the wind, and looking at me with half hearted curiosity. Somehow the presence of these disinterested, overgrown guinea pigs only seemed to heighten the absurdity of my situation. A sign said, ‘Mackinder’s Camp 200 Meters.’ I think the last two hundred meters took me a half hour.
When I arrived Richard was waiting with a cup of hot tea. All I could say was ‘bed.’ My head felt like it was in a vise, but that my nameless torturer hadn’t thought that sufficient, so he decided to insert several invisible wood screws at strategic intervals in my temples and forehead, which he drove further in with a quarter turn of each screw, every ten minutes. I was nauseous. I was shaking. There was no denying it; I had altitude sickness.
On the way in to the lodge I had briefly glimpsed the summit; stunningly beautiful, incredibly close. The whole place was magical, otherworldly, as summits always are; utterly rare, like a place on another planet. Though the features of the landscape were in enormous disproportion to the scale of everyday life, their size was commensurate to their sparsity. It was a space as empty as a desert, where every feature stood out in stark relief, as if the image of every boulder and crest had the volume turned up. A single black bird of prey circling on the updrafts was the epitome of solitude. Broad waves of scree rolled down the sides of the peaks, and a single white cloud jealously caressed the tallest finger; while the other peaks on the bowl ridge were cloudless, the white tuft endlessly changed shaped in the wind, but never left its place.
At least, that’s what it looked like in retrospect. At the time, my thoughts ran closer to, ‘Look at – ow – that – ow – peak, it’s so – shit that hurts – beautiful – the way the – goddamn my ears are ringing – sunlight falls on the – oh my dear god this can’t be for real – surface of the – ow, ow, ow – summit.’ I went inside and crawled into bed and proceeded to get a fever. With chills.
little while later I heard a young Australian woman talking cheerfully with her guide. She complained about the cold, saying that she had every single item of clothing on. I came out to find that she was in fact doing her best impersonation of an Eskimo, wearing a scarf, hat, and parka indoors, trying to write in a notebook with gloved hands. Still, she was nowhere near the agony that I was in, and I hated her for it. She wished me well as I sat down to eat my dinner. ‘I hope you feel better,’ she said, ‘it’s no fun.’ Indeed.
I ate a bit, and I managed to keep it down. I conferred with Richard. If I felt this bad in the morning, there would be no Point Lanana for me. Any thought of edema, brain hemorrhage, or stroke aside, this simply wasn’t any fun. If the gods of the mountains were kind enough to endow me with a clear head in the morning, as they had after a previous bout of altitude sickness in the California Sierras many years ago, I would say a prayer of thanks and march my way up the last 700 meters to the Point. But if not, I would head straight down. Anything to take that vise and those screws off my head.
I was lucky enough to find a sleeping pill that I had left in my bag, which I swallowed after dinner for some a good three hours of sleep, from 8 pm till about 11:00. Then I tossed and turned, shaking and sweating on fever dreams until Richard came in at 2:00 in the morning to ask if I wanted to make the moonlight ascent. Alas, I had fallen out of favor with the gods. I told him that we would head down to Meti after breakfast, and he looked pleased and said that he would go back to bed.
I slept a total of two hours after that, at intervals. One of the particularly evil things about altitude sickness is that it won’t let you sleep. At six the first light crept through the window, and I decided that I could take it no longer. I struggled to sit up like a man with the worst hangover in the world, packed my bag, got some water outside for my parched mouth, found Richard in his bed and told him I was heading down. Now. He could catch up with me on the way. I loaded my bag, walked bout 150 meters, and puked all the water I had just drank, then dry heaved and spat for about five minutes, and continued, one foot after another. I turned around and snapped a few pictures of the summit. Needless to say, the summit at sunrise was absolutely breathtaking.
hat’s the deal with climbing mountains, anyway? Though it’s a rare person who would call altitude sickness fun, most of us who enjoy higher mountains have had it at least once or twice in our ego-driven quest for more peaks. But even without altitude sickness, anyone who has been at the top of a mountain will tell you that a summit is rarely a pleasant place to be. The wind is generally howling, and you are usually the coldest you will be all day. Yes, the views are amazing. But so are the views of sunset out the window of a 757. And you can see that with a bloody mary in your hand. Heck, I had already seen the summit of Mt. Kenya through the window of a plane, on my way up country on an earlier trip. So there was no mystery. And while I stay in fairly good shape, I have yet to come down from a high climb feeling anything other than wretchedly tired, aching in every muscle. Yet I still crave them. Even the most gut-wrenching climbs I’ve made still stir something in my memory; I rarely remember how painful they were, only the views, the ascents, the last steps onto the top. Is it all just an ego trip? For some, I suppose. But I don’t claim to be a serious climber, and will promptly shut my mouth in the presence of one. I’m just someone who likes to climb whenever I get the chance, and the memory of a good hike will often sustain me for months to come.
o I was more than a little dejected. They caught up with me after an hour. After another hour we stopped to rest and without meaning to I actually fell asleep for a few minutes. They woke me and I felt worlds better. Though the vise was still on, my tormenter had actually turned the screws in the opposite direction. We continued down, and in a four and half hours we were at Meti.
I met the caretaker of Meti at the bottom, and we fell to talking while I waited for them to make my breakfast. For once, I was confident about being able to keep it down. He told me that in addition to being caretaker, he was a guide, too. He said that he had led 11 Japanese up the mountain, just last week.
‘Eleven Japanese? That’s a lot of Japanese.’
‘Eleven? Oh no. Not for Japanese. I’ve led twenty, even thirty Japanese. They always come in great number.’
‘How many porters for eleven Japanese?’
‘How many made it to the top?’
‘All of them. Japanese always make it to the top.’
‘Japanese are very deter-mined. They always go all the way to the top.’
‘Even if he is vomiting, sick, his friends will push him, push him! Very… deter-mined.’
‘Very deter-mined.’
‘Me, I get sick, I come down.’
‘Yes! Much better. Could be serious! You should come down. Is better. Edema, anything. Dangerous. You can get very sick.’
‘Yeah. And besides, if it’s not even fun anymore, then what’s the point?’
‘Yes. Exactly. If it’s not fun anymore, if you are sick, why keep going?’
Naro Moro River Lodge, Kenya
15 March, 2006

After the quake

he city looks like it has been leveled with a nuclear bomb. Only comparisons to Hiroshima or perhaps Nuremburg can convey how completely this city of 25,000 was annihilated just six weeks ago. But the impact on Balakot, Pakistan, came from the earth itself, a 7.6 magnitude quake that reduced the entire city to rubble in sixty seconds. I arrived at the city from the main road that winds up one side of the mountain valley, crossing the river that cuts through the valley over a bridge at the city’s center before switch-backing up the opposite side of the valley. From there I could see the remains of the entire city, up into the suburbs on the distant ridges. The scene of the destruction was impossibly vast, with demolished buildings stretching from one end of the horizon to the other; it was impossible to fit into the camera’s frame. I have seen the capital of Sierra Leone after it was ransacked and burned to the ground, the West Bank city of Jenin after it was leveled by Israeli missiles and bulldozers, the shores of Sri Lanka after the tsunami. I have never seen anything like Balakot. We had arrived there on our third day in North West Paksistan after we had already heard countless horror stories and seen thousands of demolished and damaged homes spread out across the mountainsides. But when I saw Balakot, the tears came without warning.
From the roadside vantage point up the far side of the valley I could hear the scrape and crunch of the few bulldozers at work clearing the remains, absurdly dwarfed by the enormity of the ruins around them. Down the hillside to the edge of the river, and across the other side and up the opposite side of the valley, I saw hundreds if not thousands of tents dotted here and there in the spaces between the collapsed buildings. Some of them are higher quality than others, and many bear the name of the donating country; China, UAE, ‘Gift of the American People.’ A cold wind blasted down the valley, shaking the flaps of the thousands of tents that had sprung up here and there around the demolished buildings. On the road behind me a half dozen men prayed outside on top of the ruins of their demolished mosque, while in front of me an older man and woman sifted through a pile of donated clothes dumped by the roadside, looking for something worth keeping. The flimsy tarpaulin behind them looked hopeless against the cold.
Kashmir made an easier story for western journalists already struggling to keep the Pakistan earthquake in the public imagination, because it could be tied to a recurrent news story about Indian and Pakistani fighting over the disputed territory. Because some of the militant groups in Kashmir are Islamist, some journalists could even tied the earthquake story, indirectly, to Al Quaeda, and from there to the Global War on Terrorism. The worst stories wrapped the story in an ironic, bittersweet package that western journalists seem to love best; ‘amongst the wreckage, hope for peace in Kashmir.’ But the quake’s fault line ran from Indian-held Kashmir, through the Pakistani side, and onward to North West Frontier Province, where Balakot and thousands of smaller towns and villages suffered just as much damage, yet received none of the headlines. Many in the west have now heard of the Pakistani town of Muzaffarabad, yet despite what happened there, almost none have heard of Balakot.
It has been estimated that 70 percent of the town’s population died, though to stare down at the wreckage I couldn’t believe that even 30 percent had survived. Of the hundreds of structures once standing, only a few dozen remain. Nearly all of those that collapsed have collapsed completely, two and three story buildings that now stand like stacks of concrete pancakes five feet off the ground flanked by twisted fingers of iron poking at the sky.
In addition to the thousands of blue and white tents that punctuate the hillsides adjacent to destroyed homes, hundreds of larger, more organized tent camps – or tent cities, as the Pakistani military is calling them – line the sides of the road that snake up through the valley. On subsequent days we drove up the road for 6 hours, about a third of the way to China on a route still used by smugglers. It was hard to reconcile the utter hopelessness of the humanitarian situation with the breathtaking beauty of the scenery; through valleys and over ridges the road wound past golden brown, geometrically terraced hillsides, tall pine forests, and rushing turquoise rivers against the backdrop of the distant snow-capped Himalayas.
With 25,000 inhabitants Balakot was the largest city in North West Frontier Province directly on the fault line, yet due to the number of villages affected, the scale of the devastation is impossible to comprehend; over 73,000 persons killed, and three and a half million persons were rendered homeless, in a mere 60 seconds. Hundreds of villages are scattered across the mountains, and not one we saw had escaped without damage; many had been completely flattened. Hour after hour on the road revealed hillsides peppered with hundreds of villages and small hamlets perched halfway up the hillsides and nestled in the valleys, each with dozens of blue or white tents scattered around the buildings. With line of sight access to the main road, these villages were among the luckier ones, more accessible to the Pakistani army and the international aid organizations. The outlying villages, many of them accessible only by helicopter, have not been so lucky. Though snow was not far away and the earthquake had struck over seven weeks ago, many were still receiving tents for the first time. The army simply didn’t have enough helicopters to reach them all.
I had come to Pakistan on behalf of the non-government organization I work for to monitor the local NGO we were funding. On my delegation were a local politician, as well as a member of Parliament and his videographer, both of whom were there to raise more funds for the earthquake survivors. I was happy to find that the organization we had been funding was, indeed, highly professional, and though there were a few emerging problems to address in their camp, the conditions there were among the best I saw; the tents were properly spaced; the number of latrines – 1 per 20 persons – conformed to international standards; channels had been dug to quickly drain rain water, and the trash was being disposed of properly.
Other camps I saw were not so well maintained. Hundreds of smaller and inexperienced organizations flooded the region when the earthquake struck, many of them armed only with a bit of funding and good intentions. Some of the Islamic and jihadist parties have also pitched in to establish camps, and while some of them have been offering the region services like health care for years, most of them have no experience managing large camps for displaced persons. The difference between the good and the bad organizations will be measured in dead children.
I saw one camp where three hundred tightly packed tents shared three latrines, far below the number required by international standards; I doubt that this camp was unexceptional. Such camps will breed disease, and the first to suffer what aid professionals refer to as ‘morbidity and mortality,’ or sickness and death, will be children under five. Unicef has reported that measles outbreaks have already claimed the lives of some children south of Muzaffarabad, a disease that can also cause blindness if left untreated. In the unsanitary, tightly packed conditions of the more poorly run camps, public health-related diseases will spread more quickly. This earthquake has already been dubbed ‘the one that killed the children’ because a disproportionate number of the dead were killed in schools while many of their parents were outside working the land. It is a tragic reality that as the winter comes, the snow begins to fall, and both aid agency funding and conditions in the camps will undoubtedly deteriorate, the children will again be among the first to pay.
It is difficult to determine if the survivors in the camps – the vast majority of whom have lost everything – are worse off than those that remain in their villages. Road access to many of the hundreds of villages scattered across these provinces was difficult in the best of circumstances; now it is impossible. Landslides have covered many of the major roads, and the backcountry roads may not be cleared by bulldozers for years. Aftershocks and landslides occur with such regularity that they have ceased making headlines. A 5.5 quake struck while I was attending an outdoor meeting in a camp at the bottom of one hillside, and the ground beneath our feet vibrated like a trampoline. Everyone fell silent and looked nervously looked to each other for reassurance, and a few moments later the meeting resumed without comment. But many people are still afraid, especially the children.
Snow will further complicating access to villages, many of whom are not accessible all winter. I attended a food distribution for one village that was completely inaccessible by road; the residents had to carry their 40 kg bags of wheat and two 10 liter cans of oil two and a half kilometers from the distribution point. On the sunny, cloudless day that the distribution took place – the first food assistance these people had received in the six weeks since the quake hit – they reported that last year at the time the first snow had already fallen. By the height of winter, it was seven feet deep. I asked the aid agency doing the distribution how they planned to continue reaching this village through the winter, and they didn’t yet know. Some of the villagers were old, crippled, blind or widows, and needed help to carry their supply to their tents; I shuddered to think how – or if – they will survive the winter.
All of the villages are still heavily reliant on air assistance overseen by the Pakistani military, with the assistance of some UN and NATO helicopters. The logistical challenges imposed by an airlift to hundreds of villages through the five to six months of winter have led them to encourage the residents of the higher villages to come down to the camps, but many are reluctant to do so. Many have livestock that they cannot take with them, and many others are emotionally tied to their land and their homes, and for whatever reason, they do not want to leave.
On the day of the food distribution, two days after we’d seen Balakot, the local politician on our delegation had a breakdown. Of Pakistani background, he spoke fluent Urdu, and he was helping some of the disabled residents navigate the distribution process. When he said that the suffering of these people was getting to be just too much for him, I told him to take a walk by himself and try to shake it off. A half hour later I saw him wandering around in a nearby field, crying wildly. I saw a farmer approach and lead him by the hand into his compound, and I followed them in.
When I arrived he was still crying uncontrollably. He turned to me and through lines of spittle hanging from his lips, confessed that he didn’t want to go, that he wanted to stay and help. The family – a married couple, an old man and woman, and several children – looked on bewildered. I told him that these people were much stronger than he realized. I told him that he was right to want to help, and he shouldn’t forget how this experience made him feel. He said later that the only thing that stopped him from staying was the knowledge that there was not much that he could do to help them. The family made us cups of sweet tea before showing us the missing walls, the fractures splitting the mud ceilings, the piles of rubble. I dutifully took pictures. The politician eventually pulled it together, giving his winter coat to the grandmother before he left.
But I wondered what will happen to them, or to the three million other displaced persons that warrant barely a mention in the latter pages of the international sections of the larger newspapers, a scant 2 months since the quake hit. International donors’ memories are only slightly longer than those of the media and the general public, and when the next large catastrophe hits, Pakistan will likely be forgotten altogether. Though the story may never be written, tens of thousands more will likely die.
On the roadside hilltop in Balakot I met a man and his daughter, living in a tent on the roof of their demolished house, now just a few feet off the ground. They showed me the three holes that the father and their neighbors had pounded in the concrete roof to rescue the daughter from inside. The girl had been home with her mother when the earthquake hit, and both had survived, trapped by the rubble. They spoke to each other during the nine hours that they waited to be rescued. Just a few minutes before the girl was pulled out, her mother uttered a prayer and died. Show him, the father said, climb in the hole and show him how we pulled you out. I begged him not to make her go down there, and he relented.