Monday, January 23, 2017

The America I love!

Enough already with these religious tests, bigotry, and downright rudeness. This is not the America I love and serve.
The United States is not a Muslim nation or a Christian nation. America is a nation welcoming of all faiths and no faith; a nation of immigrants, a country that values and celebrates diversity, a land of opportunities where true merit, hard work, and compassion towards your neighbors is rewarded. A nation where we are ALL truly equal under the law, and we don't create laws to benefit or favor any one religion.
Just like we don't (or shouldn't) exclude women because the founding fathers were all men, we don't discriminate or denigrate someone because s/he doesn't espouse a certain view or follow a certain faith.
Yes, some of the founding fathers were christian, some were even agnostics, a few downright atheists. And, like I wrote in Michigan Tech's student newspaper 20 years ago, “it is quite apparent that the framers of the Constitution (and those who amended it) incorporated many beliefs and systems that make this country truly pluralistic. John Locke, who arguably of all modern philosophers carried the most weight among the framers said that, “the magistrate had no authority to rule over souls; religion must depend on inward conviction, not on external compulsion; and, that the rights of conscience in matters of personal religious faith must be treated with respect.””
The framers worked diligently to create a constitution (our founding legal document and supreme law of the land) devoid of any religious text. Let's work to preserve and protect that beautiful ideal. And, let's work to preserve the most ethnically, religiously, and culturally diverse nation on Earth.
True freedom means freedom to pursue any religion or none at all, and to espouse views, even distasteful ones, without fear of persecution by the State or by a majority. And, true freedom means keeping religion out of politics and the State out of religion (please enquire with the 'citizens' of any religiously-driven countries, if you doubt this).
And any system where one view (or the majority) overshadows the rest is imperialism or, worse, fascism.
So, practice your religion privately – it is your (and my) right; and, repeat after me: the United States is built on the concept of true liberty, free speech, a non-faith-based democracy, and the rule of law.
And, no, I will not "go home" or mindlessly "assimilate" whatever that means. What I will do is stay true to the ideals that brought us ALL to these shores -- whether escaping religious or political persecution at any time in the last few hundred years or 200+ years ago on slave ships or 20 years ago as part of the technology boom or ninety years ago under selective immigration rules or 120 years ago because of a potato blight or yesterday because of a job opportunity. The ideals of liberty, fairness, and equal justice bind us together and make us Americans and not the color of our skin or allegiance to a monarch or participation in a particular religious sect.
Plus, I am home already. Mine's in Virginia; where's yours?
I do, however, promise to love you (yes, even you, haters) and make you understand that everyone (brown, white, poor, straight, black, yellow, buddhist, tanned, atheist, pale, hirsute, conservative, agnostic, red, feminist, rich, muslim, gay, blue, hindu, transgender, bald, christian, confused, colored, jew, orange, sikh, liberal, lesbian, ...) is here in these United States to make a better life for themselves and their families. Yes, even those who came over illegally (a vexing problem, I agree; but one that requires discourse and decisive, compassionate action, not walls and shaming).
Let us do everything we can to ensure that we setup institutions, minimal laws, and sensible processes to give everyone a chance at making a better life for themselves.
Let us not just spend mindlessly on defense and pork, but come together and invest in education, health care, science and technology, elder care, skills training, upgrading our civic infrastructure, sustainable energy and innovation, smart weapons, caring for our veterans and first responders, protecting and preserving our precious natural resources and borders, and sheltering the homeless - all true hall marks of a great nation and a caring people.
Let us be mindful that we have been given a unique, pluralistic legacy that we must protect and sustain. Let us celebrate our diversity, since cultural democracy strengthens and enriches political democracy.
And, finally, for those of us fortunate enough to have plenty - let us feed the hungry, let us create businesses that provide wholesome jobs to the eager, let us serve with dignity to protect our nation, let us volunteer our time to assist the needy or care for the sick, let us speak compassionately to those who incite hate, and, above all, let us remain calm.
This nation, now more than ever, needs calm, mature, and rational thinkers, who can guide us successfully into the next great American century, while encouraging the experiences and perspectives of diverse racial, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic groups.
Let us stand together and be a true beacon of liberty to ourselves and to the rest of the world - a compassionate, strong, dignified, welcoming America that leads the world (not by hate, negativity, or bigotry), but by its positive talk, self-belief, innovation, and love.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Challenge of Tomaro

The boat pitched and rocked in the waves of Lagos’ harbor. The seven of us huddled together inside and peered out as our pilot guided the craft towards our destination. On the starboard side we saw a verdant island come into view. From a distance it looked beautiful, with a lush cover of vegetation. As we drew near we started seeing the dilapidated shacks and the half-completed buildings and the kids running around barefoot. As we approached the “beach,” on that early September afternoon, we saw an excited group of kids and adults gather to welcome us.

This was our first encounter with Tomaro Island - an island, and its community, which would grip our imagination and consume much of our free time over the next 19 months.

We were here to conduct the first of many medical clinics, under the auspices of our Regional Medical Officer (RMO) and her team of nurses. I heard of this trip, within a few days of my arrival in Lagos, and grabbed the opportunity to go along for the ride and for a chance to practice my rusting EMS skills.

That first clinic was an eye-opener. We were expecting about 50-100 patients. We ended up seeing and treating over 300. We went in thinking of some rudimentary infrastructure to assist us, but came away knowing that this island had none. We learned along the way that this island of 30,000 residents, 10 minutes by boat from the U.S. Consulate in Lagos, had not had any primary medical care in over 18 months.

This fact more than anything else gave the initial impetus to an idea that would germinate over the course of 19 months and result in a 1-room clinic being built to serve this under-served community. A building that would serve as a base for future medical camps and for involving the local medical community in some sort of semi-regular visits to the island.

From the start, one of the elements of success of this initiative was blissful ignorance. If I had known all the challenges we would face and the difficulties we would encounter, this project might never have gotten off the ground.

The next few months were a whirl of activity -- writing a grant proposal to the J. Kirby Simon Foreign Service Trust; figuring out the myriad challenges of mobilizing materiel (cement bags, steel bars, wood) to the island; and, getting enough volunteers energized behind this idea. The key, however, was to get the rather apathetic island community involved in this project; i.e., get them to build along side us so that they viewed the clinic as their own.

Inspiration came in the form of the U.S. Navy. Knowing the penchant for island residents to be seen in the local media as partners of the United States, I heard of a visiting U.S. Navy ship that was planning a visit to the island to paint the local school. Sensing an opportunity, and knowing that our Consul-General was likely to attend, I arranged for a meeting with the island Chief. That meeting, led to a formal exchange, and resulted in promises by the Chief to set aside land for the clinic and assure support in the construction.

In the beginning, we didn’t spend too much time thinking about the how, but focused on the what. We got our resident OBO team involved in designing a 1-room building (this had the unintended consequence of introducing us to a key volunteer, Smart Ajayi, who proved to be the single most valuable contributor to the project); we got our Management and GSO offices involved in planning the complex logistics of using Consulate boats during off-peak times to transport materiel to the island; we got our Regional Security office involved in granting access to, and providing security for, our island trips; we got Mission leadership excited in this outreach effort; and, most importantly, we coalesced around a core group (Prasanna Arvind, Dr. Jan Flattum-Riemers, Smart Ajayi, and myself) that would stay focused on the goal, as many, many other volunteers would pitch in to help over the course of the next several months.

The movement of materiel took much of the summer of 2011. Multiple trips made by local employee, Smart Ajayi, not constrained by security restrictions, ensured that materials got delivered to the island in time for us to start construction in the Fall of 2011. Wanting to involve the island community in every phase of this project, we also communicated a list of requests that resulted in assurances that a foundation would be dug and cement blocks ready by the time of our first visit in August.

It was a scorching hot day when Dr. Flattum-Riemers, Martin Thomen, Smart Ajayi and I landed on the island to start construction. And, we found … nothing. No movement. Nothing we had planned for had been completed. There was no foundation dug, no steel bars bent, and no cement blocks made. How could this be?

We later found out that the long history of undelivered promises similar to this one had inured the island residents into inaction. They were waiting to see if the Americans would appear before beginning any work. This was my first indication of the challenges we would face in involving the community in the construction.

But, first, we needed a hole to be dug … and fast. And, so we jumped in literally. With no real tools, we started digging in the dry sand, some times with our bare hands. Our indefatigable RMO jumped in and started digging. On seeing this, the island men, who were standing around looking at us, became mortified. They quickly joined us and we had a “crew” going. I asked one of them later, what had prompted them to join in; his response: “we could not bear to see a white woman dig a hole for our clinic.” I was amused at this, but also encouraged, as this was the first time I had heard the word “our” used in the context of the clinic.

At the end of that first day, we had barely completed one-third of the foundation hole. As we made our way back to the Consulate, the overwhelming feeling was one of despair. How were we ever going to complete this project at this pace and with this virtual non-involvement by the community? But, progress we did; in fits and starts over the next several months. We begged, cajoled, and persuaded several islanders to work on the project in our absence. And, they did.

We planned a trip every month or so and were heartened to see a slow, but steady, rate of work. Still it took another email requesting for assistance and an infusion of a small, but enthusiastic, group of volunteers to push towards completion. We just had one more hurdle to cross.

From the beginning, I was quite sure that all the accounting needed to be transparent and thus maintained a spreadsheet with every transaction recorded. I shared this workbook with the core team often and with others who requested it. We were fast approaching the point where the grant money was running low and we needed a couple of thousand dollars more to complete the building. I sent out an email to the Consulate community (both American and local staff) reporting on the clinic’s progress and asking for donations and was amazed at the immediate response. Within 10 days of the initial ask, we received more than $1,800 in donations and pledges – many of them smaller amounts from locally-engaged staff who wanted to be a part of this “local” initiative.

Heartened by this show of support, we planned and successfully completed 3 more trips to the island finishing up work on the walls, roofing, and the final painting. We also met our goal of involving the local community in the construction and celebrated by having a group of workers join us in placing their hand-prints, in paint, on one wall of the clinic – a sort of partnership signature of all the American volunteers and local workers.

Having completed the clinic, something I had dreamed of doing for many months, I thought my single biggest feeling would be one of relief. However, it was quite disconcerting for me, standing in front of the completed clinic, thinking about how this was just the first step in a long, yet still unknown process, of bringing medical care to the island residents. Instead of relief, all I felt was this feeling of how much more work needed to be done.

In reflecting on this over the next few days, I realized that such is the quandary of development work. For every step we might take towards meeting a particular need, a thousand other needs show up wanting attention. But I also realized that we can let ourselves be drowned in this ocean of need or focus on a single need over a particular period of time, meet that need, learn from it, and move on to other (bigger, better) needs.

The broader lessons I learned from this singular project are not unique to the Foreign Service, but probably instructive on how to approach future, similar projects:
  • Get behind something you are passionate about and champion it; every post has needs; find something that resonates with you. This has the unintended consequence of making a challenging tour more palatable and even exciting.
  • Set a bold, clear goal and communicate it widely – even if you have no idea initially on how exactly you will achieve it; the resources will appear.
  • Get a diverse group of people involved early on and share in the success widely.
  • When stuck, don’t be afraid to ask for help – the worst answer you can hear is “no”; the most likely answer will be” let me see what I can do to help.”
  • The Mission is wide and deep – don’t be afraid to walk in to a section you have never been to and communicate your need – again, you might be surprised by the answers you hear, and the assistance you receive.
  • Get leadership involved early on – once they commit early on, they will back you all the way to the finish line
  • Realize that most people want to help; all they want is clarity of purpose, a clear finish line, and assurances of integrity and transparency.

As an Entry Level Officer (ELO), I often wondered during the Tomaro Island project, if I was crazy to grapple with something this big. The many challenges that presented themselves, some of them seemingly unsolvable by a mere ELO seemed almost too much at that time.

But, looking back now, the unequivocal answer is that this project provided great opportunities. It provided me with an opportunity to understand how a Mission works and how to bring diverse groups of people together towards a common goal. It also afforded me the luxury of making some crucial mistakes in a non-work setting (and to learn from them). And, finally, it made me realize that this Foreign Service that I am a part of is made up of caring individuals with a broad world-view who are willing to set aside personal differences to work towards a common, compassionate goal.

And, that, to me, is a resounding affirmation of this career choice.

Hometown Diplomat

It's taken a while to sink in, but ever since we heard that Chennai was going to be our next post I've been wondering what it will be like to be a diplomat in your hometown.

I visited Chennai in Jan this year (as a private citizen), and got a glimpse of what lies in store. Many people assuming their visas will be "taken care of" -- well, not quite - the rules for us at the Dept of State are quite explicit.

Plus, not much I can do on the visa side, since I will be working in the Management section. Still managing expectations is going to be quite a job. My thought is just be direct and upfront and let people know that I will not be involved in anything consular-related during my tour there ...

Of course, our families are thrilled; and, we are too; Chennai is a good post - the school's great, the food is cheap and options plentiful, and, it seems like a well-run post ...

Still, I guess it'll only really hit me when I enter Chennai on a diplomatic passport in October ... until then, 4 more months of Lagos!!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

... ramblings from our South African+Mauritian adventure ...

Confusion, as usual at murtala mohammed airport -- hence, late departure from lagos and late arrival in jo'burg -- but, very impressed by OR Tambo intl airport's facilities and colorful and spacious layout -- very thankful for our diplomatic passports that got us through immigration, baggage, and customs in record time (20 minutes!) -- on to the city hopper van for a drive to our first stop in our south african adventure -- watched a beautiful sun rise as we arrived at the Ann van Dyk cheetah center right in time for our early morning tour.

And, wow! First, we watched the center's famed cheetah run - 3 cheetahs taken through their morning run - awe-inspiring to watch the cheetahs accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in under 3 seconds! This was followed by extensive tours of the campus -- watched, filmed, and learned about caracals, african wild cats, antelopes, storks, king cheetahs, vultures, ostriches, antalusian hunting dogs, wild goats, impalas, hyenas, honey badgers, a multitude of birds, and, of course, africa's most maligned, grossly misunderstood, and probably one of the most devastating (and, now, almost extinct) hunter - the african wild dog!

The highlight of the day (on a day filled with highlights) - petting a cheetah - fantastic to stroke the pelt of this awesome predator!!

Finished off the day at the cheetah lodge with - a quiet walk through their beautiful herb-filled garden, perusing their library of bushveld wildlife books, doing kriya yoga on the lawn facing the setting sun, enjoying a delicious dinner (crunchy salad, pumpkin soup, basmati rice, veg curry, and an awesome dessert plate), followed by some quiet family time by the fireplace.

What we enjoyed immensely is what we miss the most living in frenetic Lagos - the absolute stillness and astounding quietness of the african bush.

A perfect first day and a great introduction to our 2-week South African/Mauritius field trip!!

Next day: early morning flight in to quaint little Hoedspruit airport, Kruger NP  -- on the road, and suddenly, 3 giraffes, with one of them trying to kick down an electric fence to get to a female on the other side -- nice welcome to the Pondoro Game Lodge (part of the Balule Nature Preserve in Kruger) -- a quick lunch followed by an afternoon game drive -- more majestic giraffes, zebras, kudu, baboons (with one of them using a stick to pry ants out of a giant ant hill), water bucks, impalas, chameleons, and a family of startled warthogs that ran wildly when we chanced upon them -- the best part was coming upon 2 elephants drinking water out of a recently dug hole in the sand -- one of them was in a playful mood and mock-charged us and then showered us with mud and water several times -- the last time he did that and we screamed, he took off at a trot -- P's favorite animal among the big 5 putting on quite a show for us!
Back to the lodge at sunset for a delicious dinner under the stars -- our table is set on a raised wooden deck between 2 crackling wood fires and overlooking the Olifants river  -- our meal is accompanied by the ever present sound of the rushing river and the increasing cacophony of a multitude of nocturnal jungle creatures -- early to bed followed by a knock on our door at 0515 - time for our early morning game drive -- this one proves to be the best one yet, as we go off-road (more on that later).

From today, our daily routine is set - wake up at 0515, off for a game drive at 0600, breakfast at 0900, followed by a bush walk, then lunch at 1300, followed by some quiet time (reading, napping), then off for our second game drive at 1530, back for the evening sherry at 1900, dinner at 2000, fireside time until 2130, bed at 2200. Perfect.

On our first morning game drive at Pondoro, we go off-road hearing of a leopard sighting on the radio - what a chase it turned out to be. We followed marked trails for a few clicks and then spotted an adult male leopard and started following him into the bush. We soon found out that he was stalking a small herd of bison -- we watched mesmerized as he crept along and we followed getting some quality 'face time' with the prince of the jungle. Cool. Our game drives that same day got us close to 3 rhinos munching away at vegetation, a large herd of elephants with 3 cute calves, some black-backed jackals, a family of baboons, some giraffes strutting their stuff, a few stupendously colored lilac-breasted runners, some daft guinea fowls running in front of us, kudu, impala, and a couple of white-faced owls standing sentinel in the dark as we returned home for another superb starlight dinner by a roaring fire.

Our first 2 days at Pondoro were magical for another reason - we were the only guests there and were treated like royalty. Customized game drives, specially prepared and served meals, and all the staff's energies and attention tuned towards serving us. We felt like we 'owned' the place!!

June 06 -- family safely in bed -- enjoying the perfect stillness of another african night -- on the deck, wrapped in blankets -- watching the orange and blue flames dance in the fire -- listening to the soothing sounds of the nearby river -- looking up to see a million stars and a  crescent moon on display -- breathing in the cool breeze blowing off the Drakensberg mountains --- feel very grounded and connected and calm and blessed and alive.

The next day's game drive proved to be one of the best as we came face-to-face with the king of the jungle.

After 2 days and 5 game drives that had netted 4 of the Big 5 and countless other creatures, we drove for about an hour on Tuesday morning, before cresting a hillock and catching sight of a lioness in the distance. Racing to the spot we were startled to find an entire pride of lions walking leisurely along. From their distended stomachs it was apparent they had just feasted on a meal and were looking for a place to rest. We followed them over some rough terrain (thank you, land cruiser) to a clearing where the lions, 12 in all, settled in. For the next 30 minutes we sat a few feet away and watched in amazement as the pride settled into the clearing, while chatting with our guide in whispers. It was all quite peaceful as we continued observing the lions stretch, yawn, roll with their paws up in the air, and walk around trying to find comfortable spots to nap; some lions sitting down right on top of others!

Suddenly we heard a loud snarl coming from the rear of the jeep. We turned to see a young lion dragging one of our blankets from the back seat of our jeep. Luckily we were occupying only the first 2 rows; it would have been quite a different story if one of us was in that back seat and the young lion had tried to grab the blanket off one of our laps. When our hearts returned to beating normally, we turned our attention to the lions once again while keeping a wary eye for any more intrepid lions. We watched as most of them fell asleep, the heavy breathing causing their distended stomachs to rise and fall in a fast, rhythmic cadence.

Finally, satisfied with our few hundred close-up shots of the pride, we slowly backed out of the clearing and made our way back to our lodge, thrilled to have been part of some feline drama in the african bush.

Our last game drive at pondoro -- dhaika, more elephants chewing up vegetation in the dark (a fully grown african elephant will eat about 450 kgs of vegetation and drink 150 litres of water daily), buffalo, yellow hornbill, jackal, giraffes, and our favorite pride of lions - still napping after their meal this morning.

Morning transfer to Simbavati River Lodge on the Nhalarumi river after a quiet last morning at pondoro -- saw a 1-week-old baby giraffe (with the umbilical cord still hanging) with its mom -- settled into our chalet overlooking the river and saw some hippos in the water -- first game drive at Simbavati - and, right away, a pride of lions feasting on a zebra (including 2 very rare Timbavati white lions), and then, wart hogs, wildebeest, giraffe, impalas, baboons, and a lone bateleur eagle sitting on a tree (this eagle flies like a trapeze artist 'balancing' on its wings since it has no tail). Beautiful!

Similar routine here at Simbavati - morning and afternoon game drives, with our meals served in a tented dining room overlooking the river, and breaks spent watching wildlife from our deck. Early thursday morning - woken up at 0430 by the loud harrumphing/grunting sounds of our resident hippos -- morning game drive - more elephants, a large male kudu with a very impressive set of antlers, hawk eagles soaring overhead, a lone male bush buck, horn bills (yellow and red) that we were finally able to capture on film, and when we stopped for our mid-morning break on the wall of a dam, an orange-striped tiger snake clinging on to a crevice on the wall trying to swallow a scorpion!!

Early afternoon, pre-prandial nap disturbed by a vervet monkey sitting on our deck outside.

Game drive #8 - usual animal sightings (elephant, impala, kudu) and then - a leopard. Female, small, but still gorgeous; her sleek golden coat glistening in the evening sun. We follow the cat as she meanders on the track and off. She walks into some bushes and then explodes out as some birds scatter and we see her launch about 6 feet in the air unsuccessfully trying to catch one of the birds. Wow! We follow for another half-an-hour or so as she tracks a steenbok and then lose her among the thick underbrush. Back to the lodge for some castle and windhoek beer and dinner. Tomorrow is our last full day spotting game in the African bush.
More impalas, hornbills, water buck, steenbok, kudu, baboons, giraffe, buffalo, and vervet monkeys; and, finally, the elusive, reclusive hyena (O's favorite animal and one he has been dying to see). This one was male and alone - we watched as it walked in and out of some bush, its spotted coat acting as perfect camouflage.

Wake up from an afternoon nap to observe an elephant walking up the opposite bank of the river; a little later on, spy a hippo swimming along, its snout and ears clearly visible above the waterline.

Our 10th and final game drive - antelopes, a giraffe family, wart hogs, elephants, water buck, 2 rhinos, 3 vultures (white-back and hooded) and a lone martial eagle sitting on a treetop, beautifully set against the setting sun. On the way home, spotted a female leopard resting in the brush; then spotted her kill (an antelope) wedged half way up a tree; and then a male leopard stalking nearby. We stop and watch these wonderful cats rest in the bush and watch with bated breath as one of them walks casually by our jeep just inches from our door - could've almost reached out and stroked its beautiful, gorgeous pelt.

A beautiful 'salakahle' (farewell) to our bush adventure.

Tomorrow, it's off to Jo'Burg.

Jo'Burg -- city of gold -- warthog burgers and roti -- curry and bunny wraps -- claimed as the world's largest urban forest -- 2 nights at beautiful Impangele guest house, next door to a bird sanctuary -- killer view from the living room windows -- all of us, of course, love the 6 lively, friendly resident Rhodesian Ridgebacks.

Apartheid museum -- entrance for whites and non-whites --  stark and poignant -- pictures and words chronicling the infectious spread of apartheid and the rise of the ANC and Mandela -- ultimately like any other oppression, a record of man's inhumanity towards fellow man -- on to the Africa crafts market, top floor of Rosebank mall -- R50 thai shoulder massages and bargains for the argumentative, amid many over-priced artifacts -- a fun half-day picking up knickknacks and watching street theatre, african style -- thai for dinner -- early morning flight to Mauritius for the third leg of our southern african adventure

Mauritius, 1800 sq km of verdant hills, sugarcane paddies, beautiful beaches, blue-green ocean -- Le Canonnier on the northwest corner of this delightful island, our home for 6 nights -- scuba diving in the mornings for me, relaxing on the beach or archery or table tennis in the afternoon for all of us, later, early dinner for the kids, candle-lit dinner by the pool for us, full-moon meditation on the beach before bed -- visited the US embassy and chatted with the charge d'affairs (wanted us to bid this post next!) -- shopping at the india hand loom house in port louis followed by a drive up a hill for a panoramic view of the historic Champs de Mars race course and surrounding hills -- on Thursday, while I was 80 feet under water following 3 graceful eagle rays and diving the stella maru wreck, p and kids visit the historic Pamplemousses gardens (giant water lilies, cat fish, massive ferns, beautiful flowers, ...) with some shopping at the Caudan Waterfront.

Enjoying some french, creole, and indian food, though slightly disappointed with the spread at Le C (a little too dull and uninspiring) -- funny to find Indian-origin folk who are more comfortable with french and euro cuisine, but don't know many of the standard Indian dishes! -- P talks to the exec chef, and presto, we get special veg food (some weird version of pongal, fried potatoes and pappad for breakfast, tofu curry masquerading as paneer masala, mauritian tamarind rice, etc) -- we are outnumbered by germans, and  italians, french, and a few brits, who seem to love this place -- we are the token americans, though most mistake us for 'locals' :) -- live band every night - a drummer on a tama drum set, lead, and bass, striking up some cool jazz and blues tunes - we sit and listen and applaud, especially taken up by the light-touch drummer -- hansin is off collecting bottle caps -- and, we slowly, reluctantly wind down and get ready for our long trip back home. After 16 days with NO email and not having looked at a computer (aaah!), it's time to be connected again!

Memories we will carry with us forever --- the ubiquitous helmeted guinea fowl trying to outrun our jeep on the trails, esp. this one fowl that determinedly ran in front of our jeep for more than 500 meters before veering off into the bush; a young giraffe calf with its umbilical cord still hanging from its belly; a pride of 12 lions with distended bellies relaxing after a big meal; a young lion's snarl as he snatched a blanket from our jeep's back seat; learning about the many different antelope (kudu, impala, waterbuck, steenbok, roan, duiker); a young female leopard leaping gracefully in the air trying to nab a bird; rare white lions feasting on a zebra kill; a huge male buffalo with deformed horns rolling in the mud; sighting a rare spotted hyena slinking away into the bush; bateleur and martial eagles against a beautiful setting sun; a majestic giraffe trying to kick down an electric fence; enjoying 'sun downer' drinks in the middle of the bush; a cheetah zipping past us in a burst of speed; a pack of wild dogs yelping and whining while fighting over a meal; the vervet monkey sitting right outside our room and watching us; the group of wild, but tame, resident mongoose at pondoro game lodge that let us pet them; a surprised warthog family scurrying and leaping out of our way; the innocent looking, but lethal, honey badger scampering on the deck of the lodge; diffident hippos disappearing underwater at the slightest sound; the distinct sound of the go-away bird; the stunning colors of the lilac-breasted roller and the graceful red-billed horn bill; a leopard sauntering just inches from our jeep; a tiger snake trying to swallow a scorpion; diving the various wrecks around Mauritius; eagle rays brilliantly sillouetted against the aqua-green waters of the Indian ocean; the beautiful, beautiful beaches of Mauritius; and, finally, we will always remember, the thrill of a mock-charge by a playful baby elephant and ducking for cover as an adult elephant sprayed us with mud and water!!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Observing Elections ...

I went into this process (as part of a larger team of neutral, international observers) slightly cynical and wanting the comp time it offered, more than the experience. After witnessing countless polling booths and hundreds of ordinary people patiently queuing up in the African sun, I came away a little chastised, a bit more educated about how & why democracy works, and quite fascinated by the whole process. 

I have lived (& was raised) in the world's largest democracy; and I now call home, the world's oldest (modern) democracy. Having participated in many prior elections and having watched with disdain the politicking and the shenanigans (in India and Illinois), I did not expect much this time around ... in Nigeria.

I was pleasantly surprised ... by what I observed, but, also by what I learned.

Below are some (sanitized) snippets of my observations of the elections over the last few weekends:
  • From a couple of weeks ago: "Youth corps staff seemed quite dedicated and focused; crowds seemed cheerful; some arguments heard, mainly due to people cutting in line and/or the heat. ... At one booth, I asked 3 of the nysc women whether they had voted. They smiled and said no. One of them stated that she wasn't registered here. Similar stories at other booths. Strange that many nysc staff slog away at the polling booths over multiple weekends diligently allowing hundreds of thousands of nigerians to exercise their democratic right, but can't or don't vote themselves. Poetic injustice? A statement we overheard seems to neatly capture the essence of what we observed today: "not perfect, but good enough."
  • From a week ago: "The entire crowd of about 40, mainly males, were slowly, rhythmically counting off the votes as we walked in. Surreal, like a bunch of school kids learning math in a classroom ... Seems like the party is beginning early tonight."
  • From today: " ... am standing next to a group of about 25 moms (with their babes strapped to their backs) and they are getting impatient. Volunteers are now explaining the ballot paper to the queued voters. A young volunteer curtsied to an older woman sitting down in the booth and patiently explained the process to her. Things are quiet-ing down ... I am amazed at the single-minded determination of this (and other crowds) - waiting, waiting patiently to have their votes count and their voices heard. Thus, democracy spreads - in fits and starts  - with some jostling, lots of arguing, and heavy doses of patience. Beautiful!"

Finally, throughout this process I was quite fascinated to observe the women - mothers, wives, sisters - who participated in this historic election quietly bearing the heat, the dust, the chaos, to have their voices heard.

And, I am in awe of the African Woman - she who walks many kilometers in the summer heat to be in line and on time to cast her vote; she who patiently waits countless hours, usually with her baby tied in a small bundle behind her back, to cast her vote; she who puts up with rude men cutting in front of her, but can hold her own place in line; she who is quite verbose when it comes to making her opinion count and voice heard; she who waits a whole day in line and yet has to be home in time to get dinner ready for the family; and, finally, she who, more than anyone else, has everything to gain from credible elections that may turn this country around and finally give her the peace, justice, and prosperity that have long been denied her.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The U.S. Navy Is In Town

One of the Navy's Guided Missile Frigates docked here last night and US Navy personnel, in their usual understated style, began working on a number of community projects in/around town. 
I accompanied the USN team today as they started a project at Tomaro Island. I worked along side a team of Seabees constructing desks & shelves at the island's community school. It was great to be out in the warm African sun working with the Navy's finest ...

... a nice, albeit hardworking, break from consular work!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

It's days like these ...

... started off the morning with some yoga and then it was off to participate in the 'Run for a Cure - Africa' ... walked/ran 6.5 km with hundreds of others across downtown Lagos. Then, it was back to the school grounds for a "concert" by someone who calls himself the "Liberian Michael Jackson" ... a quick nap, some lunch, followed by the 4 of us watching Fellowship of the Ring. Then off to a quintet performance by the Opera Di Milano horn players and a fantastic tenor performance by Giuseppe Veneziano. Back home for some panneer curry & rice while watching Quantum of Solace.

Yoga - run - concert - nap - food - movie - popcorn - nap - opera - food - movie. Aaah!