Sunday, 16 October 2011

Will you take me seriously?

I actually wrote this near the end of my time in Kindu, but somehow never actually posted it. So may as well now.

As I normally do on Sundays, I’ve just listened to a downloaded sermon, this one from Jubilee. It got me thinking about some of the UK culture that prevents people from taking Christ seriously. Or to look at it the flip side, where other things are a higher priority than Christ.

By the lakeside, Jesus called Simon Peter to leave his fishing and follow him, which Simon Peter did, immediately and unreservedly. This was just after Peter had made the catch of a lifetime – did he even stay around long enough to even sell the fish? It would have dramatically increased his income for the year, but he gave that up to follow Jesus. And Jesus asks us to be willing to leave everything – our family, jobs, income etc. That doesn’t necessarily he will ask us to leave everything, but if we’re not willing to leave it, it shows there is something that we put as a higher priority than him.

In the UK, I think that people tend to put their security in property and jobs. Getting a good job so you can buy your own property shows that you’re ‘successful’ in British culture. You’ve reached a level of comfort where you don’t need to worry about money so much, and then can start considering raising a family and where to go on holiday next year. After all, what’s wrong with that? It’s wise to prepare for the future, and it’s being responsible to ensure that you’re able to take care of your children. And yes, these are good things to do. But this attitude has become so engrained in us that we now think it’s natural, that God wants our first priority to be towards our family rather than towards him, or that our first priority is to make sure that we’re financially secure so we don’t have to be a burden on anyone else. Looking after others is a high priority, but not our first priority. Relying on God for our everyday food can be more scary, but more faith-building and exciting as well! One couple that I met in Hong Kong found that God was calling them to leave their relatively comfortable accountancy jobs and organise a distribution centre of goods needed by the poorest in society. There were times when they and there two children had to get together and literally ask God for the food for that evening – and God always provided it. Now, the work that they’re doing benefits thousands of people and although they’re not living a hand-to-mouth existence any longer they’re still living by faith in God. They’re not the only family I know who have been in that situation, and it’s testimony that we can trust God to take care of things if we’re willing to give him the responsibility.

This has become more evident to me since being here. Congolese people, by necessity, have to hold more lightly onto their property, belongings and jobs than we do in the West. They’ve had to flee their homes because of fighting, leave everything behind and settle down in a new place. The homes of one of our staff based in Bukavu burnt down two nights ok – he and his family are ok but he has lost everything. That’s not a risk that we face in the UK – even if our home burnt down we would have insurance and would replace the items. Jobs are not definite, and you consider yourself very fortunate if you have any steady income. In short, property, belongings and jobs are not seen as a right here, but as a luxury. In the UK, people believe these things to be their right, and will therefore naturally assume that they should own them. As they’re more entrenched, it’s more difficult to hold them lightly and therefore harder to put Christ in their place, or even to recognise who or what we’re really trusting.

The recent financial crisis in some ways was a good thing. It made people realise that they can’t necessarily put their trust in money. When people are unemployed, they can struggle with feeling worthless – because having a job is one of the ways that success is defined in our culture and people define themselves by what they do. Here in Congo, people are likely to struggle more with not having children than by not having a job – success is defined by family. Every culture has different views of success, and different views of what our responsibilities should be. And it can be so insidious that we don’t even realise where it’s clashing with God’s kingdom culture, and what success means in his eyes – to follow him, no matter what it takes.


It’s been an absolute age since I’ve written on my blog, but I’m being inspired by my new team-mate who is busy typing away on hers.
I’ve just come back from a trip to Kinshasa, the capital of DRC. It might be in the same country, but it’s still a 4 hour flight to get there (compared to a few minutes to cross the border into Rwanda). I liked it far more than I thought I might – there’s a lot of greenery around and the roads are fairly open. The number of tarmac-ed roads also surprised me, in my head it was a bit like Goma but slightly bigger, but really it was more akin to Kampala or Nairobi. The one main boulevard has 4 lanes of traffic in each direction (yes! Actual lanes!) with traffic lights which count down so you know how long you have to wait (would be good to have them in the UK). There was definitely a higher level of affluence, with many clean, impressive buildings and shops similar to the UK with glass windows…
It’s taken me a year and a half in the Congo before visiting the capital, so I didn’t want to just stay in the hotel the whole time. With the Congo river just a couple of minutes from the main road, I asked if we could go and see it. However, apparently there’s only one place where you can actually *see* the river as opposed to the many industrial works, and that was a 20 minute drive away. It seems that no-one has caught on to riverside bars and restaurants… The river was pretty big, but not quite as large as I was expecting after seeing it in Kindu, half way through it’s journey. I think that it’s a bit further on, nearer the sea where it gets even wider. It was pretty big though, and we could only just see Congo-Brazzaville on the other side – Kinshasa and Brazzaville are the two closest capitals in the world.
We also found somewhere just around the corner from our hotel which had amazing pizza. It has to rank amongst the top pizzas I’ve ever had, and definitely compared to anything that I’ve had here. There was also a TV at the outside restaurant, and so we followed some of the Congolese news. Realised that it’s not something that I keep track of much in Goma, although I’m not sure if that’s me (i.e. not listening to TV/radio) or if that’s Goma – being so far away from the capital you’re less interested in what all the Ministers are up to and the forthcoming Presidential election.
The reason I was in Kinshasa was a meeting that ECHO held to discuss the strategy for next year. Was an interesting meeting, though I think I’m still not quite used to the life where you go on a 3 day trip with a 4 hour flight in each direction just for a 2 hour meeting…! It wasn’t as if it was very expensive though – ECHO has a free flight service for humanitarian workers, and I managed to get quite a lot of work done away from the interruptions of the office. Am glad I went – and glad to be back home in Goma again.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Another day in the life of....

Wake up at quarter to seven by the arrival of the day and its corresponding sounds. Roll over and snooze for another 35 minutes.
7.28 Get up and throw some water over myself.
7.35 Pack bag for a visit to the field
7.40 Go and discuss the plan for the day with the Beneficiary Accountability Officer (BAO). Discover that representatives from the Ministry of Health can’t make it that day and we’ll have to postpone one of the ceremonies to declare that the village no longer defecates in the open air (i.e. they’ve built toilets after sensitisation that made them realise they’re basically eating each others poo). Am thankful that we don’t need to leave for the field immediately and it gives time to make other arrangements.
7.50 Realise that the generator has been turned on and the cook has made some pancakes. Eat a couple with sugar and a lemon that’s been sitting in the fridge for a while.
8.00 Devotions start. A couple of songs, I’m leading the ‘thought for the day’ today, then pray through all the stuff we’ve got going on. Lots of notices today – what we’re doing with handover ceremonies to the community for the end of the project, some visitors from Bukavu and their work schedule, reminders about exactly what time work starts each day.
8.40 Ask HR administrator to phone Bukavu to follow up on a contract issue. Stamp some documents. Cleaner comes in to explain that her daughter has been taken to hospital – can she have the day off? Find out if her daughter is going to be ok, and send her to HR. Find out that contract issue isn’t yet resolved and wonder what to do.
9.00 Talk over the objectives of the day with the Food Security Manager. Put some documents on my usb stick for him to work on. Quick chat over the wording of the training certificates.
9.30 Call in people for a meeting on the grand closing ceremony to take place Monday. Discuss invitations, logistical arrangements, the programme, the budget and who does what. Discover that it’s not possible to have just some biscuits and cake as refreshments but that any celebration is not considered complete without some meat, fish, banana plantain and groundnut. Feel worried about what this is going to do with the budget.
10.45 Visit from another NGO wanting information about our WASH activities. Give him the information as concisely as possible and link him up with another staff member who can help.
11.15 Time planned to leave office for the handover at 13.00. Get delayed by someone requesting a requisition to be signed. Give documents to Food Security Advisor. Get lifejackets out of store. Check where Church visitors are. Ask Logistician to get the fuel requisition for me to sign so we can order it immediately. Sign authorisations for the motorbikes to leave. Wait for Church visitors. Wait for their motorbike to be filled up with fuel. Starting to rain and hoping it will stop so people won’t get wet. Wait for someone to check that they have the right ID. Get fed up of waiting.
12h15 Arrive at river. Get a phone call from agronomist saying that he needs help in transporting the drink cans for the ceremony – send off motorbike to collect him. The contracted pirogue (boat – hollowed out tree trunk) driver isn’t there. We ring him, he’s ill and says his son has the boat the other side of the river. Wait for him to come. Wait for motorbike and staff to return. They finally do. Decide that it’s getting too late to wait and hire another pirogue. Remind myself that it’s not the end of the world if we’re a bit late.
12.40 Finally cross over river. Thankful that the pick-up is ready and waiting on the other side.
13.20 Arrive in the village to do the handover. The 30 or so people introduce themselves, our Agronomist gives the background to the project, BAO asks for feedback. The big chef of the area stands up to give a speech, clear that he’s had a drink or two before he arrived. Spend the next 40 minutes hearing about how they don’t want Tearfund to leave them, as abandoned children, and what my responsibilities needed to be in finding funds for route construction, education, water, health and buildings. Most of that was addressed directly to me as ‘Mama Anna’ in a loud and forthright way – except that I don’t understand Swahili and had to reply on the quiet translation into French in my ear. Some interesting impressions of chickens laying eggs as well. I give a response, but the Chef has wondered off and doesn’t really listen. For everyone else, I emphasise my confidence in the Church, my explanation that we’ve given them the inputs for them to take forward, to share the knowledge and the tools, and that it is for them to think about what vision they want for their village and that they are able to go ahead and achieve it. Some feedback and stories of the impact are shared by the farmers, the person from the Church gives a speech. We hand round a can of orange fanta and do a toast to the project. People sign for $3 of ‘transport’ money and walk back to their villages some kilometres away. Drive back – discussing plan for Thurs and Fri en route, load up the motorbikes onto the pirogue and cross back over the river.
17.15 Arrive back at the office. Check in with HR about whether there’s a resolution to the contracts issue. Get told there’s an email waiting for me. Take a copy of the draft invitation for the closing ceremony and sit down with the BAO to work on the wording. Check that everything is ready for tomorrow and Fridays field trip.
18.00 Persuade the Logistician to give me a lift to the Bishop’s house. He’s a key person for the ceremony and we need to make sure he’s available. Some people are in his garden practising a dance for a wedding to take place at the weekend. Have a quick conversation with the Bishop, get a positive response, leave an invitation and am glad that he’s easy to approach.
18.15 Back in the office. Get my things together and go to the internet cafĂ©. The email I’m waiting for isn’t there.
19.00 Am hungry. Eat chapatti, beans, a piece of meat and some avocado that looks as if it’s going to be rotten but is actually ok. Half watch an incredibly melodramatic South American soap opera that the other two are in the house are watching.
19.30 Go back to the office and sign some requisitions that are waiting. Look up the budget codes and try and see how much money we’ve got left on those lines. Try and contact Benoit in Bukavu, but it’s not getting through.
20.00 Decide to finish for the day and write a blog post.
20.40 Have a shower
20.45 Get through to Benoit and discuss a load of outstanding things
21.35 Finish chatting. Play guitar for a few minutes then realise my colleague might be wanting to go to sleep so stop.
21.45 Bed. Sleep. Hooray.

Sunday, 13 February 2011


A Canadian NGO was in the news a week or two ago for publishing their failures. The fact that this made the guardian website is slightly sad – is our culture now so failure-shy that it’s newsworthy when someone is brave enough to acknowledge the mistakes they’ve made? Everyone makes mistakes – and it’s in our mistakes that we find the greatest learning. It’s tacitly acknowledged throughout the aid world, but there aren’t many people speaking about it. In donor reports, you try to phrase things in a way that doesn’t sound so negative as ‘we screwed up’. The donor wouldn’t be willing to accept that (or at least, that’s what we believe); and donors have the power of future funding and the life of the organisation. We want to keep the reputation of our organisation good, clean and professional. But who says that it should be unprofessional to be honest about our mistakes?

We do do that to a certain extent. Many donors have a ‘lessons learned’ section and we do internal learning reviews as well. However, these seldom get shared between programmes and the knowledge tends to get stored within the individuals. There are some opportunities to chat things over when you meet up with people from other projects but when there’s the huge pressure of time and too many things to do, the learning can sometimes fall down a hole. In aid work (probably in most things, but particularly in this setting) you’re never going to have a perfect project. You’re never going to be able to meet all of those targets, indicators and objectives you wrote in your project proposal (unless you were spectacularly un-ambitious in writing it). The staff have a low education and capacity level and are going to let you down. A broken bridge in the heavy rains is going to stop you being able to deliver the material in the time that it was expected. This particular approach, which had a lot of success in another country, is not necessarily going to work in the same way. This soil is lacking the right amount of phosphorous for groundnuts to grow well. These committees are going to sequester some of the materials. This seed is going to be spoiled during conservation. These things are part of the parcel of doing this type of work

Do we get punished for not being perfect? Sometimes, yes. There are some donors who will refuse to pay the costs of this or that expense because the process was not correctly followed. Whilst I can understand the need to have the rules (which help to promote a high standard), it does put a lot of pressure on the NGO and prevents flexibility on the ground which would result in a better project. As the donors hold the purse strings, they automatically have a lot of power and their requirements are being forced to come before the requirements of the beneficiaries. I can think of a few things that would have been better to do differently if we had been allowed to by the donors. This suggests to me that there is an over-regulation of projects – something that donors and NGOs are grappling with in the effort to have the best possible impact of the projects. Aid work continues to evolve, with new understanding and approaches being tried out. At one point, there was far too much leniency for NGOs and this allowed for money to be squandered. We will continue to search for a good balance.

There is a commonly held worry that by sharing mistakes (or weaknesses) than the other person will think less highly of us – we worry about losing their good opinion. Yet I know from line managing people that I would always prefer to hear someone say ‘I screwed up’ – and thereby take responsibility for their actions – rather than try to give this or that excuse for their actions. I have a lot more faith that they won’t make the same mistake again if they’ve recognised and acknowledged it. If we continue to justify our actions or lay the blame on someone else’s door (‘I was waiting for him to give me the documents’, or ‘everyone does it, so it can’t be that bad’ then we are not going to accept the fact that we have to change.

I heard someone give this quote this morning – ‘we want our ceiling to be your floor’. We want you to take where we are as a starting point, so you can quickly surpass us and go and do greater things, and do them better. If we don’t learn from the mistakes of history, we are doomed to repeat them. How can we do that if we don’t even share them?

Thursday, 11 November 2010

The vegetarian's test

I'm quite proud of one of my latest achievements, which I therefore want to share with you.

Albert and I

I was given Albert (pronounced in the French way without the t) when I visited one of the villages - apparently it's very rude not to accept. I therefore became the proud owner of my very first chicken.

Albert and I

After being woken up at 5.30am the next morning by Albert announcing that it was day time, his fate was sealed. I have to admit that I didn't actually do the knife to his throat part (our guard did), but I was there and I now know how to do it for next time. It was much quicker and easier than I thought it would be. I did then help to pluck him and to remove the insides.

Albert and I

And very tasty he was too.

I am now qualified to eat chicken.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Needs Assessment

We have been thinking about extending our programme into areas of the neighbouring territory. In May-July there was quite a lot of displacement in those villages, arising from various military groups that were looting some of the communities en route. Whilst it’s more peaceful now (i.e., the groups have moved onto a different area) the impact of that looting can still be seen.

I’ve been wanting to be involved in a Needs Assessment for a year or two. It’s always intrigued me about how you can quickly assess the situation in a new community in sufficient enough detail that you can then design (even in rough) a project.

The town that we were heading for was about 100km from our sub-base (itself 100 km from our office). Now in the UK, you can probably do 100km between major towns in about an hour. It took us 9 ½ hours. The situation with the bridges was nothing compared to other bridges that I’ve seen. There were four occasions when our cars fell down where it required significant effort to rescue them. We had two vehicles with us (really not possible with one!), two motorbikes and an 11 person team. The worse bridge required 1 jack, 1 winch, 15 people pushing and carrying and 1 ½ hours to free the vehicle - which first slipped between the logs on one side, and then on the other. I have to admit that my role (and Madelaine’s -the other female on the team) tended to be rather negligible – official photographer only. The guys seemed to quite enjoy this problem-solving team-building exercise, although it was rather stressful and tiring for the drivers.

Approaching the bridge with caution...

No good! Fallen through the logs, having to winch up and put another log in place. Some of our staff get into the river to help.

Precision driving

At another bridge, there was not physically enough space for the vehicle to pass so we had to wait whilst they dug away at an embankment on one side, before laying logs to create the bridge, before rescuing our car that then got trapped within them. It was a rather long day. Then, when we arrived at the town we had to find some accommodation – the place that we were recommended was full – before meeting with OCHA (who co-ordinates humanitarian affairs), arranging a meeting with another NGO and briefing the team.

The next day, the team divided with some visiting some of the surrounding villages, others getting info from the local health services, others doing some technical assessment of the water situation and Benoit and myself visiting various other local stakeholders. We met with the office of the Administrator (first thing to do when arriving in a new place), 2 international NGOs, 2 local NGOs, UNOPS (responsible for logistics), MONUSCO (UN peacekeeping operation), surveyed the local market, chatted to the some of the leaders of the local Church and did a debrief of information with the team. Again, quite a full day from when we were woken at 5am (who does announcements over the public tannoy at that time?!) until we stopped working and fell into bed at 10.30pm.

The next day, we had to head back to our sub-base, stopping at a few villages en route. This time, I got involved with more of the community discussions – particularly with the women. I really enjoyed it, though at times I felt quite a sense of helplessness. Madelaine and myself asked the women what their priorities were in the village (which tend to be different from the men’s!) – in one of the villages this was for NFIs (Non-Food items, such as jerry cans for collecting water, cups, plates, blankets etc) as these had recently been stolen by one of the military groups. Some of the women were sharing about how the group had arrived at about 1am in the morning (when they had no chance of escaping into the forest), forced the women to cook for them before demanding to share their rooms. Early the next morning, the community were able to flee into the forest and hide. When they returned two weeks later, it was to find their houses burned and their belongings (including their seed for planting, their cooking equipment and their livestock) stolen. They have no money, no way of making more, no access to markets, no NGO has helped them and not even any seed to plant in order to grow next years crops. They’re living on ugali and sombe (mealie meal thing and cassava leaves) which is not the most nutritious food around. We saw a few kids who were definitely malnourished, and many others with extended stomachs. Earlier in the year, between January and June, there had been one or two other military groups in the area roaming the forests. This time, they were restricted to staying in their villages, fearing to go and work in their fields (1-3 hours walk away) due to risk of attack. This meant that they haven’t been able to grow their crops. In one of the villages, Apolina was telling us how she’d ended up with physical injuries after being raped – she hasn’t stopped bleeding since. Her husband has abandoned her and married another woman, and she’s been left to care for their children with no form of support. She asked us what we would recommend for her to do in her situation…. What could I say? There are no easy answers and little that I could do. Madelaine did find out more of her story and is going to see if another agency can help her. Whilst there is another organisation who helps women in her situation, they do not have the resources to stop at all the smaller villages along the way.

Talking with the women

On our return back to the base we started collating all the information that we had gathered. This was both by sector (water needs, food needs….) and by geographical area – there were differences due to the location of some of the villages. We identified the three biggest priorities as Water, Food Security/Revenue and NFIs. Health was also a priority but not one that we as an organisation can respond to. As we had a particular donor in mind, we then compared this to what this donor is willing to fund, which is specifically emergency situations. This ruled out one geographical area where the needs are ongoing rather than emergency (rather unfair for them, but we hope we might be able to get some other donor interested). We then ruled out another geographical area where another NGO is working, and another because it’s currently not logistically feasible for us. Again, it’s unfortunate that some of the most needy communities are neglected for the very same reason that they’re needy (that they’re too inaccessible); but when there are also huge needs in more accessible villages where we can help far more people far more quickly then the decision has to be made. To get any cement into the area involves flying it from Bukavu (meaning it’s costing $80 locally rather than $18), then a few hours drive via dodgy bridges and then to the more inaccessible villages it would be a few days walk. Some aren’t even accessible on motorbike.

Anyway, in looking at the needs we decided that we needed to do an integrated project with both food security, water protection and NFIs – the needs in all of the sectors were too acute to not address. We’ve written the concept note (forerunner to a proposal) to see if the donor would be interested in funding it…. Now we just have to wait and see…..

Congo, Rwanda, Kenya....

It’s been a while since I’ve written in my blog… though time seems to pass in a strange way so it’s hard to quantify when or what. Think I haven’t been in a writing mood.

I’m writing this sitting on the banks of Lake Kivu, in Rwanda. I’m on the hotel balcony, watching as the silhouettes of the palm trees fade into the darkness of the water (see the photo for the view early morning). If you haven’t guessed, I’m on my R&R. I’d been in Kindu for 9 or 10 weeks, and was feeling ready for a break. There was a doubt/cynicism that it would actually happen though (very easy for UNHAS to break down again) which meant that it was only when I was on the plane that I realised I did actually have a few days off. Of course, everything didn’t go quite as expected – I was hoping to jump off the plane at Bukavu and go to Burundi on R&R, but the plane decided not to go to Bukavu that particular Friday so I went to Goma and Rwanda instead. That’s actually worked out really well – I enjoyed spending time with Matt (Tearfund colleague in Goma) and my friend James, who I know from uni. Having been in Kindu with limited social interactions for the last 2 months, I was wanting to be sociable rather than introverted this time!

Don’t really have much to say. Am obviously feeling very uninspired at the moment.

2 weeks later: Never got round to posting that. When I returned from Goma I went straight to our sub-base and then directly onto another town to do a Needs Assessment (see next post). Then it was spending time with our visitors from the UK (dairy milk chocolate!!!!) and designing/writing a new project. Now, I’m in Kenya (yes, I know, difficult to keep track of which country I’m in!). I’m on the DMDP (Disaster Management Development Programme) which is a week of training with other people from Tearfund from the North & South Sudan programmes, the Afghanistan programme and a couple of partners. This week is on the Quality Standards, which looks at how to integrate Accountability (giving beneficiaries influence on the programme and the resources to be able to hold us to our promises), Conflict Sensitivity (looking at whether our project is positively or negatively impacting tensions in the area), the Environment and Sustainability. Some of the stuff I know already, through either reading or previous experience – it’s good to have some space to think about how we’re doing with our projects in Maniema though… A lot of the concepts are actually quite straightforward. The difficult thing comes in finding the time/resources/staff capacity in actually implementing them. There are other aspects with are really complex and very situation dependent – they’re really difficult to gauge and it’s a case of making the most informed decision that it’s possible to make.

It’s quite a treat staying at this conference centre. The food is AMAZING – choice of a large buffet of dishes by some excellent chefs, including salads and vegetables. The desserts are slightly weirder and I sometimes avoid them, but that might be just as well considering how much main course I’m eating. Think I’m regaining weight! We went on a bush walk yesterday, where we walked out of the centre and 5-10 minutes later we were watching a large number of giraffe (14!), zebra and wildebeest. I particularly like the giraffe – they’re such graceful animals. It’s also been really good to get to know some of the people from the other programmes – swapping experiences with them and also being able to relax with people of a similar age and culture. There is quite a range of nationalities, but there are 5 or 6 other people from the UK. Wonder how many of the people on the course I’ll end up working with in the future?!

By the way, please don’t think that all this talk of Rwanda and Kenya means that I’m on holiday all the time… It’s true that these weeks came fairly close together, but I do work hard at other times. Honest!