Tag Archives: Writer

Back to Africa: Nigerian experiences

Visas

I was reminded of just what Nigeria is like when I visited the embassy in Dublin’s leafy upmarket Leeson Place in late June. The visa application office is in the basement of this beautiful old building and it has its own entrance ensuring Joe or Josephine Public is kept far from the embassy offices.

If you’ve ever tried for a Nigerian visa, then you’ll know just how frustrating and protracted it can be. The first time I went to Nigeria I was travelling from Liberia while working for an NGO and it took me five trips before I could gain entry to the embassy. On my fifth attempt, I managed to get my foot inside the door and once achieve, I refused to leave. And that was just to get the application form.

Most of the Nigerians who were queuing in Dublin had Irish passports and required a visa to go back ‘home’. On my first two visits I came well prepared with a book but so swift was my visit I over-paid the parking metre outside. On my third visit Sod’s Law kicked in – I forgot the book and spent my time feeding the metre as I waited for the diplomatic visa to be processed and issued.

On that last visit for the visa, I ended up waiting so long I needed the bathroom. To my surprise, (okay I’m being facetious), the toilets were actually located outside the building; something I don’t imagine exists anywhere else in Dublin in the 21st Century. The inside of the visa application office was reminiscent of a dole office anywhere in Ireland 30 years ago, before the Department of Social Welfare decided they needed to  smarten up and pretend to show a little respect for its clients. The carpet tiles were curling at the edges for the want of a cleaning and the walls hadn’t seen a lick of paint for many, many years. There were notices posted everywhere warning that verbal or physical violence would not be tolerated. Notices also threatened that if you even stopped your car outside the embassy gates for just one minute, you may forget about receiving any service. The Nigerians themselves were true to form and vocal about the treatment of ordinary citizen by their government. One Nigerian man commented that he had lived in Eastern Europe where government officials also “sat upstairs (referring to the embassy offices) scratching their arse.” His words, not mine. Another woman told us she was at the embassy every day at 9 a.m. for one week and came prepared with her lunch box. I have to say – there were more than a few chuckles that day.

Nigeria was just a wee culture shock from my previous posting in the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, with its shiny towers, good public transport and general easy lifestyle. While the city of Abuja, the federal capital of Nigeria, is in the heart of Africa, it’s quite unlike any other African city I know (outside most of South Africa).

Renting in the federal capital, Abuja

Abuja was created just 40 years ago to gather the country’s civil servants in one spot. A planned city with huge boulevards and motorways, Abuja is like many cities in West Africa, full of (thankfully) Lebanese restaurants and supermarkets and the bonus of it all, some South African supermarkets. The city empties at weekends as most Nigerian civil servants travel back to their villages and towns after the Muslim Friday prayers. This sprawling city has a shortage of accommodation so rent prices are equivalent to the astronomical rents paid in New York or Geneva. Abuja is also where the UN agencies have their country offices and where I’m based for the next few months.

Accommodation is something else and like Dublin there is a shortage of properties to rent. There are an awful lot of very wealthy property owners who exploit the ex-pat community and civil servants who frequently travel to the city. The first apartment myself and another newly arrived colleague went to look at was dingy beyond belief. You could hardly see the hand in front of your face it was so dark and the ceiling was particularly low – the one-bedroomed apartment was renting for US$1,500 per month. It was such a depressing environment I would have ended up on Prozac within a week, if I had chosen to live there. We ended up in a ‘super luxury apartment’ paying half of my salary in rent. To add insult to injury there is a further charge for laundry, with no washing machine in the apartment.  Super luxury the apartment ain’t, but what is luxurious are the number of Mercs and Lexus cars parked outside each day.   There seems to have been some very big party (possibly a wedding) at the complex and a 600SL (but what would I know about cars?), parked outside for a few days with the number plate ‘Emir of Zunu’.

Extreme sports

The one positive aspect of the accommodation is that it is within walking distance of the office and the footpaths are more than decent, ensuring walking is not an extreme sport as it can be in many other cities across Africa. I wouldn’t feel safe enough to walk the 3.2 kilometres home alone and do so only when I have company. Walking back to the accommodation in deep conversation one day there was beeping behind us and as we turned around to see a car travelling at about 20 kph up the footpath we had to scramble to the grassy bank to avoid being run over.

I hate assuming stereotypes, but patience isn’t a strong point for most Nigerians. Sitting with the work driver one day and waiting for the solar powered traffic light to turn green, there was a horn honking behind the first car to make the right turn at the lights. When the driver, respecting the rules of the road and the pedestrian crossing didn’t move, the honking-horn driver mounts the footpath and bypasses the cars waiting at the lights to turn right.

Transport around Abuja is reasonably cheap but like everywhere else cars are held together with pieces of string and rubber bands. They frequently break down at the side of the road, or sometimes even in the middle of the road, where they can be abandoned.

I’m still in the process of trying to find another Issac, my lovely taxi driver from Nairobi and so far I’m not having much luck – but I will continue to try. The office drivers are available for a few months to bring us in and out of work, but there’s the supermarket shopping at the weekends and the trips to Blu Cabana, a rather nice place so chill out of a Sunday afternoon – not that there’s much else to do on a weekend in Abuja.

Exchange

Sundays’ are not the day to change money, unless you want to chance your arm with the guys lining the street sitting on the chairs under the trees. The official exchange rate for the Naira is fluctuating like a yoyo and frequent trips to the moneychangers rather than the banks will render you a rate of at least 20 per cent better on the official rate. When I arrived early July 2016 there was 260 Naira to the US$ – on 30 July the rate went from 316 to 322 on one day! Black market rates on 29 July were 375 Naira to the US$. Not only will the dropping Naira help make rents cheaper, it will also keep the price of red wine very reasonable, well at least until stocks run out! Some of the best South African wines are available in Nigeria so there are a few great aspects to living here for a few months anyway.

Now work and B0ko Haram antics…. well, that’s a different blog altogether. So until next time, I’ll leave you with some of the photos.

Yours, Fagan.

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Sweet Salone and life as a UN Volunteer in Sierra Leone

The women of Mabella, Freetown

All it took was one phone call on a quiet afternoon at home on a very dodgy line, from a woman in Sierra Leone for me to accept a job offer as a United Nations Volunteer with UNIFEM (the women’s agency). I managed to decipher that the job entailed training aspiring women politicians and I reckoned with my years in Toastmasters, it would be a relatively easy affair.  By the time I took up my position, in the usual bureaucratic fashion, the parliamentary elections were all but over, but the local elections were to take place the following year.  I couldn’t catch the woman’s name so I wasn’t quite sure whether  the offer was kosher or not.

Sierra-Leone mao 2It turned out the offer was genuine and I found myself in Freetown again in July 2007.  When I arrived, I had no rows with any drivers at the Freetown end unlike another hair raising experience the previous year and was met by the UN driver at the hovercraft port. I spent the first week in Hotel Mariam, not on any recommended website lists and as my good friend Francesco deducted a long time ago, every crappy hotel you end up in when travelling with the UN has got be owned by a first cousin or brother of the clerk in the travel department. There is no other ungodly reason why you would end up in such dump.  I’m at an age where I like a bit of comfort and even if there is no comfort available, then I look for clean.

freetown peninsula 1This was my first position in the UN and for all its bad reputation I felt at the time it wasn’t the worse place I ever worked.  I suppose it’s like most large bureaucratic organisations and has buried itself under huge mounds of paper.  I never signed so many documents in my life,  but at the end of the day, somebody has to shuffle the piece of paper from one desk to another, so I imagine it creates work. I ended up working with a super bright local woman, whose knowledge was quite impressive.  No crap and loads of good ideas.  We were not allowed use public transport so I was picked up in the mornings by a driver in a four-wheeled drive UN car, although, admittedly it did feel a bit over the top at times.  While a mere volunteer and way down the food chain of the very hierarchical UN, you’re still considered staff and on production of a driver’s licence I was entitled to have access to a UN car at the weekends, giving me great freedom to come and go as I please.

Post-conflict

Working in a post-conflict environment is challenging.  The survivors are scarred, both mentally and physically from war and there’s a lot going on under the surface that can take some time to figure out, especially when you come in as an outsider.  Education is one of the first things that suffers because it is not considered life-saving in an emergency situation, so when the teachers leave and it becomes too dangerous to send children to school, the whole infrastructure that supports education breaks down fairly rapidly and sadly can take years to restructure.

In my first week I attended a workshop of ‘would be’ women politicians and discovered their level of knowledge, understanding and education was abysmal.  My task was to help them be elected and understand the machinations’ of the political system. Within the first few weeks, I met just a small handful of women who could hold their own in a parliament.  I was informed there were a few good women candidates but for the most part, most of the women going forward had not finished secondary school and were unaware of the issues facing their country, which was really worrying. 

Peace train

freetown buildings 1I went on the highways and byways with some women’s groups in Sierra Leone, although they were like dirt tracks that roads. Part of my ‘mission’ was to conduct some basic communication training with the women prior to the main elections.  After the August 11 elections, the focus would shift to assisting the women interested in going forward for local elections the following year.

Violence and elections go hand in hand in countries such as Sierra Leone and there were genuine fears among the communities that elections would turn violent, which would result in fewer women turning out to vote. Some of the nastier politicians (and there are plenty across the continent of Africa) set out to use scare tactics, so people would not go out and exercise their vote.  

The women organised a peace train with some of the sisters from Liberia coming over to visit the areas where violence was expected to erupt. The woman who was to look after the logistics went off on a field trip to Guinea and left nobody in charge so there was no bus, no police clearance, no accommodation, no halls books, no speakers booked… diddly, nada, zilch.  She came back from Guinea on the Friday and the women were due from Liberia on Sunday.  Talk about creating stress – it’s all so unnecessary but it left us like headless chickens for the week prior to the ‘big’ event.

President Ellen Sirleaf JohnsoLeymah Gbowee, who subsequently won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 along with President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson (pictured  here in the right) for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peacebuilding work, led the group from Liberia.  

Leymah GboweeLeymah (pictured here on the left)  is certainly a woman who can certainly talk the talk, but her administrative skills were obviously not high on her priorities and as I chased her and the logistics woman for many weeks looking for the receipts of the trip, taking time that could be otherwise used much more productively.  Fair play to Irish Aid, who ultimately paid for the women to travel on the peace train.

Friends

sierra leone 3 africaFr Joe, with whom I was working the previous January, came down from Makeni and I had lunch with him during my first weeks in ‘Salone’.   He’s the local priest who is running the radio station and development studies centre and a good man, just a pity he’s so Catholic.  “Good morning Christians” is the morning greeting on the station despite the fact that 60 per cent of the population is Muslim.  The last I heard, Fr Joe was still working in Makeni and turning the development studies centre into Makenis’ first university. I’m not so sure of the standards that would be reached in the university though, but you have to start somewhere.  I also met up with my friend Emmanuel whom I trained in the Gambia in 2002 and who made life a lot easier for me around Freetown.   Having some local knowledge is always good in these situations.

Living Conditions

freetown sierra leoneI moved in to a ‘residence’ and shared with some of the Zimbabwean mafia that transferred with the Senior Representative of the Secretary General (SRGS), otherwise known as the boss of the mission, when he moved from Zimbabwe to Salone.  The accommodation was located across the road from the main UN mission, the converted Mammy Yoko Hotel, that housed the offices and support for the mission.  The offices were formerly bedrooms and frequently the headboards were still on the walls of the office, with each office also having its own bathroom.  Mammy Yoko’s is due to open in late 2013 as a Radisson Blu – I wonder how that will work out although the location is fantastic, across the road from Lumley Beach.

You would swear where I was living was all posh and upmarket, but in fact it was typical of a country where standards had dropped because of the war. The floors were tiled with little or no grouting and hand-made bed frames with wooden slats and lumpy mattresses – otherwise, it was a grand place.  There was a little kitchen off my bedroom which had a kitchen sink, two shelves and nothing else!  The bedroom had a balcony with a view of the Atlantic Ocean and there was a walkway across the road through a gate that leads on to the beach.

freetown sierra beachI shared with another UNV, a Zimbabwean woman Emily who was good fun and likes her glass of wine in the evening after work.  She was also a divorcee volunteer and paying for her 21-year-old son to go to university in Australia, her 14-year-old to go to boarding school, her  diabetic mother in Zimbabwe and her brother’s child who was orphaned when both his parents became victims of HIV/AIDS.  I had great admiration for Emily who was one of the most optimistic people I think I ever had the pleasure to meet.

Emily worked in the Department of Safety and Security (DSS) and knew everything that was going on – she was like the Oracle!  There was never a dull moment around her, she had some great contacts and very much a member of the Zim Mafia that inhabited the UN in Freetown at the time. The Zim Bridies as I nicknamed them, adopted me into their circle. They were a small network of some very lowly workers like myself and some extremely high profile people.  I knew more about hairdressing African style and how far apart the lines should be for the braids and how long it takes for black African hair to turn blonde (a very, very long time to have chemicals on your head).  I learned more about designers and handbags than I would ever find out in Ireland and dear mother of god they spend hours and hours doing hair and nails.  I would sit reading books about post-9/11 terror and female genital mutilation while Emily would sprawl on the couch with her nail polish, glass of wine and girly magazines. 

Fatimata

sierra leone rain bikeI had never quite come across anyone who could throw about orders the way Emily managed it.  Our cleaning lady was Fatimata, a local girl who lived close by. She showed up every morning for work, usually in time to have the washing handed to her before we left the building.  When Emily wanted Fatimata’s attention she could be heard in the next compound screeching her name at the top of her voice. Ibrahim, the Senegalese lived in the apartment below us.  His brother traded between Senegal and Sierra Leone so Ibrahim was a bit of a caretaker for his brother’s place and did odd jobs like switching on and off our generator when the electric went off.  I could never figure out who paid Ibrahim or whether he just came as part of the deal in the rental. A native French speaker, I often thought that his poor English language skills gave the impression he was a small bit slow, but in retrospect I think he just didn’t understand us.  There when days I felt sorry for Fatimata and would plead with Emily to lay off shouting orders.

Emily would have grown up with this and knew just how to put the pressure on to get the work out of Fatimata and Ibrahim.  I got home from work one evening and there was no sign of either of the pair of them.  Reluctant to shout anyone’s name out, I politely stood on the balcony calling for either of them to come, to no avail.  I ended up turning on the laptop for light as it was gone 7.30 p.m. and pitch dark.  Coming up to 8 o’clock and the sound of a car at the gates saw both Fatimata and Ibrahim falling over each other to make it up the stairs before Emily arrived at the door.  Seems like I had no influence on them at all and it only took the thoughts of Emily to make either of them inclined to do anything.

Electricity and repairmen

A child carries an umbrella in pouring rain in the slum of Susan's Bay in Sierra Leone's capital FreetownDuring the elections we had electricity practically 24/7, which was a real treat.  Most of Sierra Leone at the time was not connected to the grid, their system falling apart but we lived in the area with the greatest concentration of important people, so had access to the NPA (National Power Association) when it worked.  There were frequent huge surges in power,  so a body had to go searching to ensure that plugs were anti-surge.  Emily had bought a TV and unfortunately had no anti-surge so the telly blew a fuse one fine evening, not there was much to see except some dreadful Nigerian soap operas, so popular all over the continent.

We had two guys who called to the house and started demanding huge sums of money to open the back of the TV and tell us what was wrong.  Emily was having none of it and told them in no uncertain terms to ‘get lost’.  I threw in my tuppence worth of course, “Aah, they saw my white skin and the price quadrupled,” and I’m certain that it did.  Fatimata then proceeds to take it upon herself to listen in to the negotiation and speak on our behalf, pointing out to the guys that we are in their country to help with the peace and just poor volunteers. We managed to get a 50 per cent reduction, although I should have offered to open the back of the TV myself.   It subsequently went off to the workshop with no sign of return many weeks later.

In the subsequent weeks, Fatimata proceeded to take on the role of the TV and provide us with entertainment!  She began telling stories of previous tenants and their habits – she just didn’t tell stories, she acted them out, prancing up and down the living room wagging her finger and taking on a different persona.  I spent my time trying not to laugh out loud encouraging her further.  Fatimata would have made a great comedienne if life had been a little kinder to her.

Auntie Marie became the butt of Fatimata’s play acting. She was the maid for the Senegalese and we would get a blow by blow of Auntie Marie’s love life and the boyfriend who hangs out on the beach and the constant fighting that went on between them.  I often wondered what stories Fatmata would eventually tell of myself and Emily and to whom she would tell them.

Weather

sierra leone freetown rainIt rains for six months of the year in Sierra Leone and when I arrived it was weeks before it stopped raining.  Luckily Freetown is so hilly, otherwise it would suffer severe frequent flooding.  I have no reason to believe it’s any different when the side streets would turn into raging torrents of brown water and I often thought it must be possible to do some brown water rafting (as opposed to white water rafting) in the middle of the downpour, if you had the inclination.  The only shoes to wear are flip flops, that way you don’t get upset to see a good pair of leather sandals destroyed .  People regularly wade knee deep through the streets and whether you have an umbrella or not it doesn’t make any difference when there’s driving rain.  When the sun does shine in Sierra Leone the white strand beaches are stunning and the diaspora flock home during the Christmas season, when the weather there is at its best. 

Until next time.

Yours, Fagan.

DSCF1423
Orla Fagan Travel Writer

Back to Reality in Manila…. Mass… Malls…and Mamsir Episodes

SONY DSCI arrived back to Manila in the middle of a downpour, later to discover it was the start of a slow moving tropical depression making its way across Luzon Island, which eventually whipped itself into a Category 3 typhoon.  I didn’t believe I’d see my accommodation that evening as the taxi man manoeuvred his way through puddles, or rather lakes of water with rain so heavy on the windshield you could just barely make out the twinkle of a red light in front to indicate there was another car ahead.  The taxi man got a very nice tip as we both exhaled a sigh of relief when he pulled up to the condo and me and my luggage arrived in one piece and more importantly, dry and unscathed.

makati city shotManila is a funny city, made up of lots of smaller cities, Quezon, Intramuros, Makati (where I live)….. It’s a modern Asian city and quite sophisticated.  It has plenty of skyscrapers and decent footpaths, something not frequently found in other capital cities such as Nairobi and certainly a huge scarcity of them in Amman, where footpaths are the responsibility of the house owner.

MAKATI 1Traffic for the most part is crippling, our national staff colleagues often leave home a 4 a.m. to get to work on time when the weather is bad, so my choice to live a five-minute walk from the office makes a lot sense.  In Makati, which is the business centre, there are almost no shops at street level, just the Starbucks, McDonalds, 7/11s and a chain drugstore called Mercury (on a par with a typical US drugstore).  My closest supermarket is in the basement of a high-rise condo, a 10-minute walk away and for everything else there’s the mall and I mean for everything else.

MANILLA MEGA MALLThe mall is in fact about nine malls linked by a skyway (walkway) and begins just a few blocks from where I live.  Makati is a fairly sophisticated city in world terms, with no motorcycle taxis to be found although they make up most of the public transport around the remainder of the Philippines.

Mall 003There are subways for pedestrians to cross major intersections on the main Alaya Avenue, with stairs for the descent to the subway and escalators to take you up.  However, to save electricity the escalators are switched off after eight in the evenings and at weekends.   The subway itself is closed down about 10 p.m. so it can be a long walk home in an effort to find a set of traffic lights to allow you cross the road.

Mall 004

Brave Men Window Cleaning Skyscrapers  

Manila 004Walking over to the mall on the skyway takes you out of the direct fumes of the traffic for the 10-minute journey to Greenbelt.  Greenbelt is linked to Landmark, which in turn is linked to Glorietta Mall.  Other than Landmark, one huge fairly cheap department store with a decent supermarket in the basement, the others are marked in sections one to five, each with its own distinctive character, although not necessarily in sequence. There are sections where you can find speciality shops and almost all the hairdressers, material shops, computer shops, jewellers, electric shops are in their own little section.

greenbelt-parkGreenbelt has a beautiful garden in its centre, much of which is a water garden, populated with fish and exotic plants and comes complete with a Catholic church – not part of the water feature obviously.  On one side of this green area, there there are shop fronts, while on the far side you can find fairly decent up-market restaurants with a choice of indoor or outdoor seating.

Manila 007If you go to the mall on a Friday night for a bite to eat, you can have your glass of wine, dinner and have Mass thrown in as a bonus.  It’s quite a unique experience.  The church has a huge imposing roof but no walls, so it is not unlike the smoking areas in the pubs in Ireland, except a good deal bigger.  Mass goers rather than standing at the back of the church during Mass as they would in Ireland years’ ago, prop themselves outside the shop front windows and the loudspeakers blast the hymns and prayers throughout the open area.

chapel fifth floor landmark interiorThe fifth floor of Landmark apparently has a church (not that I have investigated) and they hang big posters around the store advertising healing priests and visiting cardinals. On weekends at the entrance to the supermarket in Landmark they have karaoke sessions and even a brass band at times.  Like most Asian countries Filipinos are in love with karaoke and do not possess even the slightest modicum of a gene in their physiology to tell them they can’t actually sing.  The music of the 70’s and 80’s is very popular so you get to hear many off-key Lionel Richies’ and John Denvers’ as you try and beat your way to the escalator to get to the relatively silent safety of the basement supermarket.  Taxi drivers are not immune to the bit of karaoke either and I frequently take taxis where I wished I had brought my earplugs for protection. There is no sign of embarrassment as they wail along to songs on the radio.

MANILL A CITY1At the centre of most of the mall sections there is an entertainment stage and some massive speakers.  You never know what you’re going to find there – it could be some company doing a promotion or a few karaoke singers, but whatever it is, I never hang around to find out.  Most weekends there are hundreds of chairs lined up and a full-blown concert belting out while you’re trying to buy a bottle of nail polish or a wine aerator in a shop. I find myself frequently shouting over the racket that’s going on inside the shop while the cacophony of what’s going on outside, seeps through the closed shop door.

Greenbelt-Shopping-Centre-420x0For the most part I have stopped shopping in the mall, except for essentials at the weekend. There are a mixture of reasons; one is the obvious assault on the senses and the second is the ‘good morning Mam’ phenomena.   Some friends reckon I’m a ‘good morning Mam’ magnet.  I can’t seem to put my foot out on the street without complete strangers greeting me with ‘good morning Mam’.   I wandered in to the hardware store one day and there seemed to be shop assistants jumping out from behind every aisle shouting ‘good morning Mam’ at me.  Try stopping to look at something you may wish to buy in a store and five people stand around you.  Staring. Waiting.

When you bring your goods to the sales counter one person rings in the purchase, another packs the bag, a third checked off the purchases against the receipt and yet a fourth confirms due process has taken place. It certainly seems a cultural thing, but not anything I have found it in other Southeast Asian cultures.  The Mam, Sir thing (and it’s Mamsir if you happened to be in male company; ‘good morning Mamsir’), is a throwback to the American occupation during World War II.   Certainly in terms of sport, every village in the Philippines has a basketball court and it’s the main sport in the country, shown on all the sports channels. The other main legacy left by the Americans is the ready availability of guns in the Philippines.  Manila is too big for me to know my way around all its sub-cities, but certainly in Davao City when I would go to the Marco Polo Hotel for a Sunday swim, we went by taxi through an area where four out of five shops were gun shops. There are as many guns as people in the country.

greenbelt friday night

Back in Makati and Friday night in Greenbelt is where the young and the beautiful hangout.  Every restaurant and bar heaves with locals and expatriates till the small hours of the morning.  Sex tourism and ‘romance’ is alive and well in Manila and the numbers of older, dare I say ugly white men, with young Filipino woman never ceases to amaze me.  Around Makati young Filipino men and women are very particular about their looks although I wonder sometimes about their sense of dress.  I frequently see people in the UN office, whose dress wouldn’t cost me a second thought if I met them on a beach in the same clothes.  Coming out of the bathroom in work at lunchtime, it’s always difficult to find space at the washbasin as the women comb their hair, brush their teeth and fix their make up.

Man-ila 002I have an extension on my contract until Christmas, so it’s good to know I’ll be gainfully employed until then.  In less than a week after the typhoon, we had the Southwest Monsoons and it rained for four days non-stop.  Buckets of the stuff fell out of the sky and 60 per cent of Manila was under water while hundreds of thousands evacuated their homes.

Man-ila 005The stock exchange closed down for two days and Makati was like a ghost town with empty streets, as most people couldn’t make their way into the city to work.  My wellington boots, carried all the way from Dublin, were eventually taken out of the wardrobe and put to use.

typhoon 3

Manila wasn’t the only place to experience flooding and a colleague and myself went out to visit the evacuation centres in Laguna (an hour South of Manila) to see the response and take some photos for the record. The flooding is caused by water flowing in to low-lying areas, but exacerbated when people dump into the lakes, leaving no absorption and the drains are also totally blocked with rubbish. 

The Sunday morning market in AbancayWe went out to see what was happening on the third day when heavy flooding on highways had cleared and people began moving back to their homes.  In one way it was good to get out of Makati and see the real Philippines again, where people don’t live in high-rise condos and there are real shops along the streets selling bread and vegetables and repairing electrical items; where motorcycle taxis are lined up in ranks waiting for customers, the church is the centre of the village and there is community.  It is easy to forget that outside the bubble of Makati/Manila real life happens.

SONY DSCThe rains have settled down again and we get a good downpour almost every day with hair-raising claps of thunder and fantastic lightening displays.  It’s all over in a couple of hours and you can almost seeing the streets visibly drying off. For the past two years, weather systems caused havoc in the Philippines. Global climate change sees typhoons in areas where there were never typhoons before and too many Filipinos die as a result, while many are left without any income as the typhoons cause damage to infrastructure and wipe out agriculture.  

SONY DSCThe effects of climate change, unfortunately, can be felt long after the typhoon has dissipated or moved off towards another area.  It just seems that no matter what preparations are put in place, it’s never quite enough. Perhaps government investment in an education campaign on dumping would help reduce the damage and more attention to deforestation wouldn’t go astray either…. but that’s another episode.

Until the next time

Yours Fagan….

Keystone Cops, stalkers and the silly season…

Diary August/September 2011

jordanmapA couple of years back I realised I really did need eye glasses and they weren’t just a fashion statement.  Traversing through Connemara with a friend from overseas I pointed out some horses to her.  She mentioned that there were no horses in the field, but rather there were some cattle there.  I was wearing designer sunglasses at the time, and realised that not wearing glasses full time wasn’t a particularly sensible thing to do, but sense was never my strongest attribute.   I’m living proof of that by virtue of the fact that I work in the Middle East.

Males’ in the Middle East are a different breed to your average Western male.  I’ve pondered this for quite a while and I think it has something to do with the fact that women are so unattainable.  They perceive all infidel women to be game for sex with any stranger who comes along.  Despite the Jordanians image of being a liberal society, they are deeply conservative at times.   Not wearing a scarf around Amman can solicit arbitrary hissing from males, the way they would to a prostitute.  I find it rather offensive, but I’m a Western woman in a very different culture so I keep a zip on my mouth a lot of times when I would normally let fly if I was at home.

Gigolo stalker

A friend happened to be passing through Amman recently and I tried texting to see could we meet up.  Alas, I had no glasses on and I had texted a stranger by mistake.  It didn’t take much for me to become the proud owner of a real live gigolo stalker, who calls me morning, noon and night with silly messages asking me can we be friends.  When I was in Norway on my training course I received a message from him offering me sex for 30 Jordanian Dinar an hour – he is offering to make all my dreams come true for the equivalent of €30 and moreover I’m to pay him.  Up until that point I was coping with this as a nuisance but I thought it was a little more serious when the seedy texts began coming through.

DSCF0249As UNICEF are ultimately responsible for me in Jordan I went to our Human Resources person to let her know that a stranger was bothering me and I wanted UNICEF to take some action.  She was out of the office on a course so I ended up dealing with the national Jordanian HR officer who, when he saw the text, smirked and insinuated that I was lucky to be offered sex at my age?

My Stalker is obviously not very professional as a stalker, because he was giving me his email details to find him on Facebook and there’s a lovely photo of him.  Now, not only do I have his contact details, I also know what he looks like.  Our security officer Ziad telephoned the Stalker and told him to lay off or we would contact the police.  I found how to block calls on the mobile and life returned to its normal pattern. Then lo and behold a succession of calls came through early one morning from a private number and later than afternoon one Mr Rabee Adel pops up on Skype asking me to be friends.   He had also found me on my own Facebook account.

Cop shop

DSCF0105This time I went to our regional security officer, a New Zealand ex-cop, who advised me to go to the police and to bring along our office security office who would be needed to translate.   So after lunch on Wednesday myself and Ziad headed down to the police station on 3rd Circle (otherwise known as a roundabout).   We were ushered into a room with about 10 men, both police and civilian, and a locked cage in the corner measuring about 5 ft. x 5 ft.  The cage came with an offender, on his hunkers, on the phone, smoking like there’s no tomorrow.  Incidentally, it’s against the law to smoke in public buildings in Jordan.

The filthy seats were all occupied except for the one pushed up beside the cage, so I slinked in to my place and waited as Ziad explained to the young officer-lad with the rotten teeth, cigarette dangling at the end of his fingers, that we were there to file a complaint.  The room went silent, fingers were pointed in my direction and every man in the room sat listening to my tale of woe.

DSCF0015The officer-in-charge would be along in a moment, he explained, so we should make ourselves comfortable and wait.  There were great comings and goings in the room – with another offender brought in amid much shouting and general commotion.  By this time I had moved to the far side of the room as the newer offender was handcuffed and looked as if he was stoned out of his mind.  The whole inside legs of his jogging pants were all torn and he was sporting black underwear. 

Once inside the cage, with legs apart, and jutting his chin forward and back, like a Mir cat popping standing on its hind legs, he stood right up at the bars staring in my direction, head banging off the metal, as one of the police officers regularly banged the cage with his baton to get the offender to move back.  He lost interest in the sight of a woman in the room after a while and moved over to the first occupier of the cage as the two men began swapping cigarettes and sharing the mobile phone.

Meanwhile, the officer in charge has a sticking plaster across his cheek and takes up his position behind the desk to take details of my case.  He takes a few notes and wanders off, while another lad with eyes going in the opposite direction starts questioning me.  The first note-taker skips off down the corridor holding hands with another male officer and disappears for the best part of an hour while I assume they went for a late lunch.  An hour later and he reappears and complains when he has to write down the details of the dozens of text messages on my phone.  Half way through he got bored and said he had sufficient evidence. His advice at the end of it all was to delete the evidence because he had it all written down. 

DSCF0199With all relevant business completed, he presents me with a statement written in Arabic and asks me to sign it!  He could have been calling me every slut under the sun for all I knew, so I refused to sign because I didn’t know what was written.  Poor Ziad attempted to translate, with arm outstretched trying to read the text because he hadn’t brought his glasses.   I pointed out to Ziad that my telephone number was incorrect, so after a bit of huffing and puffing (on the part of the police), the number was corrected.

An hour later after I finish in the police station, I’m wandering around the supermarket and the police officer that had taken my statement, phones me.  He had taken down an incorrect number for the Stalker’s.  It was a shambles from beginning to end.  At least the guy in the regional office had the sense to realise the incompetence of the police force and the UN are taking a complaint to the Chief of Police, for all the good it will do.

Silly Season

I was never so glad I rented a car for the month.  It’s the real silly season in the Arab world.  It’s hovering around 55 Centigrade in Baghdad and not much better in some of the other Arab states.  For some reason Jordan gets this breeze and it’s at least 10 degrees cooler (just 40 Centigrade some days) in Amman, bringing everyone flocking here to spend the summer months.  Half the city’s apartments are empty for 10 months of the year, and come July and August, everywhere doubles in price and accommodation becomes difficult to find.

camel signNormally the summer travel is divided between Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.  The beaches in Lebanon are magnificent and it’s generally a good place to be unless the Israelis are shelling it.   However, most people drive up from Saudi, Dubai (a very long distance), Kuwait etc, and go through Syria on to Lebanon, with a considerable percentage remaining in Jordan.  This year, because Syria is going through a spot of bother people are not as inclined to travel through and have remained here in Jordan.  There must be no roads in Saudi because they drive like bloody lunatics.  The cars are enormous and they just bully their way on the road with no respect for animal, mineral or vegetable and women drivers are probably considered any one of those categories.

Sliders

jordan rush hourIn all the years I’ve been driving I’ve never had so much as a bump (expect when I reversed my Mini into Danny Breen’s car after he charged me the price of a 1 ct diamond ring to lay the tiles on the floor in my kitchen and I was in a bit of a temper when I left the house after paying him). Otherwise, I don’t crash cars… except in Jordan.  There are ‘Sliders’ here… people who slide across the road thinking nobody will notice, except when they hit you.  You need a sixth sense to be able to spot them.  I had a Slider career across the road and bang into the side of the rented car on the way back one evening from having a meal out.

Luckily I was driving an Indian colleague Subhash and his wife back home, so I let him deal with it.  He stood shaking his head and waving his finger, only the way Indians can do it, repeating “but you are not making sense my good man,” to the 20-year-old owner of the enormous 4-wheel drive.   We stood for a good 30 minutes waiting for the key stone cops to reappear when eventually, for the want of something better to do, I licked my finger, rubbed the offending paint and realised it would come off with a decent bit of elbow grease.  When I pointed this out to Subhash, we all piled back in to the car and in true northside Dublin fashion we did a ‘runner’.  As I drove away Subhash was shouting out the window to the Slider that we work in the UN if he wanted to find us.

And another crash

Not a week later I was driving to work and a taxi driver cuts across me.  I was on 5th Circle, the busiest circle in Amman, at the time and not far from the office, so I just kept going, with the taxi man driving along behind me beeping and waving his arms about.  I wasn’t dealing with an angry Arab taxi driver in the middle of rush hour on my own so I got in to work and brought out Ziad yet again; I’ve been keeping him very busy this month.

We got the young lad who makes the tea out with the polish (used for the previous crash) and he got to work on the taxi man’s car.  There wasn’t a scratch on it but I wasn’t so lucky this time with the rented car.  After the taxi was polished to within an inch of its life, the driver then demanded to be paid for the time he was off the road.  I won’t repeat what was used but apparently in English it was two words, the first begins with an ‘f’ and the second ends with an ‘f’.

DSCF0221I’m just glad I’ll be out of here for the first couple of weeks of Ramadan where driving will be even more insane as low blood sugar levels along with dehydration takes hold.  Whatever about not eating food during Ramadan I think they’re certifiably insane to actually go without water in this heat.  I’m not surprised there are no statistics of accidents, they must sky rocket during Ramadan.  I won’t even comment on the woman I saw in a full burqua driving the other day, or maybe it was a man, who knows.  I was just glad she was on the far side of the road as her vision is severely restricted in such a rigout.  As the booze shops will close down for the duration of Ramadan throughout Jordan, there’s good value in pre-Ramadan booze sales around the city as all the Christians stock up for the Holy Month!!

The exams results are out on Saturday so we were warned there will be random gun fire across the city and cars will be speeding along the minor roads.  The culture is so different and interesting at times but so often so exasperating.  I think I’ll be safe in Baghdad for the second half of Ramadan where there is little or no traffic in the Green Zone and eating in the work canteen doesn’t bring on waves of guilt that the national staff are sitting looking at you with their tongues hanging out!

Ramadan Kareem everyone.

Until next time

Yours Fagan…

Last Woman Standing, Jalalabad and a Lot Of Cold Water….

Diary April 2010

DSCF0015I’ve finished week four now of my glorious return to Kabul and between two minds about being back.  I had an extension on my contract for three months and to be honest I don’t think I’d fancy a longer extension since it’s either dust or pollution that ensures I need boxes of tissues everywhere I go because my sinus’ suffer so much.

Winter Istalif 059We’ve been lucky with the weather and the real heat hasn’t started, so far.  Spring is well and truly established though.  I’ve never seen anything as fast as the onset of Spring in Kabul.  It was like watching one of those fast-forward films of a flower that’s budding – one day there’s snow and the next Spring is in full flight.  I spotted roses in bloom at the beginning of April and our garden at work and the garden in the guest house (UNICA) are looking stupendous.

Istalif, Afghanistan 02.10.09 014It always amazes me that the Afghans, despite the war and violence they endure are so interested in nice gardens and put so much work into having pretty flowers around.

I retained Room No. 6 in UNICA, which makes me very happy.  Okay, so there’s cigarette burns in the carpet, it’s badly in need of a lick of paint and the shower curtain has more holes than curtain; but it has a desk at the window that overlooks the main garden and a very comfortable wicker chair; so when I sit to work, I can see all that comes and goes.

Summer in Kabul 018This guesthouse has been used by the UN for almost fifty five years and the owner has recently sold it for $5 or 6 million for an office block to be built on the land.  Property prices in Kabul are as expensive as Dublin was at the height of the boom.   It will be officially handed back to the owner on July 31st but as the UN own the furniture they will close it down on May 31st to do an inventory and sell off the assets.  UNICA has been written about in many books and the only place in Afghanistan that has consistently sold booze for more than 50 years and was also the only place in Afghanistan to boast of satellite TV throughout the reign of the Taliban.

UNICA is slowly emptying out as people move out of the compound.  I could very well end up being the last woman standing at one of the oldest international institutions in Kabul before the auditors and bulldozers move in.  When I arrived last September, the garden was in full bloom, the evenings warm and a bunch of us spent many hours sitting around eating, drinking and enjoying the wonderful oasis in the middle of a busy city.  Other than Kelly (who is from Texas and NOT the United States as she keeps reminding us), all the pals have gone and I must admit there are days when I question my decision to stay until the bitter end.

fagan profile pic in blueUNICA has seventy rooms and its impending closure has put pressure on space for international staff working with the UN.  There are MOSS (minimum operating security standards) regulations that buildings must meet, e.g. a building has to be a minimum of 30 metres behind the boundary wall and the boundary wall has to be a certain height.  This is to stop insurgents trying to lob grenades over the wall as they cycle past or drive their white Toyota Corolla cars through the barriers before blowing themselves up.    There are many reasonable guest houses around Kabul that comply with MOSS regulations but the department of safety and security (DSS) are playing games and trying to force as many UN organizations on to the huge compound (UNOCA) on the Jalalabad Road, the most bombed road in the country.  As most of the UN offices are in town, this requires travel to and from work every day down the Jalalabad Road.   Now it’s fine travelling down the Jalalabad Road if you are going to buy a couple of bottles of red wine from UNOCA but we’re having a REAL emergency now as UNOCA hasn’t had a drop of red wine since I came back from my leave.

I recently had a phone call to say that the red wine was back in stock and by the time I had organized a driver and we headed off in the armoured vehicle down the Jalalabad Road to arrive at UNOCA – they were out of stock again.  I bought a couple of the remaining bottles of white wine that would be best used for cooking!

Summer in Kabul 023The white wine did however come in useful when I was travelling to Jalalabad last weekend for work. They have Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) all over the country and these are run by the international military, who ‘assist’ the Government of Afghanistan to rebuild the country.  They are mostly very conveniently located to suit the needs of the foreign military, for instance the Americans have placed their PRTs strategically along borders of potentially unstable countries.  That means when it comes to aid and the distribution of resources, they are allocated geographically rather than where it is needed.  This is not only a waste of valuable resources but also denies those who are most vulnerable of badly needed assistance.

If the war was over, then the PRTs would be useful and viable, but with intensified fighting in many areas their sole existence is to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of Afghans as any reconstruction is pretty useless until there is peace.  One of the big downsides of this though is the perception of men in military uniforms handing out school books or building clinics.  This only serves to confuse the role of the humanitarian worker and the military in the minds of the insurgents and for the humanitarian workers in the provinces, this is proving to be dangerous and at times lethal.  My job was to make a presentation to the US PRT in Jalalabad on the need for neutral aid being delivered and the use of military as a last resort.  Not exactly within my scope of expertise but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to get out of Kabul and see something else of the country.

DSCF0034Jalalabad is just 120 kms from Kabul but the road is dangerous and there is a flight for UN staff.  Kenny Rogers from Sierra Leone is the regional head of office there and when I asked him would he like some ‘cold water’ brought down to him (a euphemism for booze), he was delighted with my offer.  I wrapped one of the white wine bottles in a towel and threw it into the suitcase and put another into my computer bag.  Kenny lives in a small guesthouse with six others, so a lot smaller than anything in Kabul.  I was assured as I wasn’t taking a commercial flight that the cold water wouldn’t be a problem.

However, the security guard on the UN flight had a different idea and pointed out the directive from President Karzai saying that no alcohol was to be transported.  The security guard had spotted the bottle in my suitcase, but not my computer bag.  I offered to pour out the wine but they almost had a heart attack and the chief of security came along and waved me through with my two bottles of precious cold water.  It is a well known ‘secret’ that if you bring in two bottles of duty free, the customs officers will take one for themselves and leave you with the other – so much for the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

Other than work, there ain’t a lot to do in Jalalabad.  I went from the airport to the office and the office to the guesthouse, to the office, to the military base.  No TV in the room, no computer connection… nada, zilch, naught…. and nada to do while there, except work.  The lads were lovely and the only entertainment was a karaoke machine one of the guys from Ghana had in his room.  Kenny Rogers fancied himself as a singer…. but in the mode of Lionel Ritchie and going down to the kitchen for a drink of water at 2 a.m. in the morning and hearing Kenny trying to belt out some Lionel Ritchie love songs, was indeed some experience.  Okay, so he was in the privacy of his own room but he had no problems the following night when we all gathered to have a go at the karaoke and he screeched out the same song time and time again.  You’d need a lot of cold water to appreciate this version of Kenny Rogers!

Butcher Street, Kabul, June 2010Jalalabad itself is a lot greener and a lot hotter than Kabul.  You go down into a deep valley and the countryside is well irrigated from the many rivers that flow into the valley.  They supply a lot of the produce that’s available in Kabul and being on the border, it’s very much culturally influenced by Pakistan with highly decorated tuk-tuks as the favourite mode of public transport.  As 3-wheeler motorcycles with coverings on the back, they squeeze in about five or six people so not an ideal mode of transportation if you require safety.  It’s also a lot more conservative than Kabul, but then again everywhere outside Kabul is a lot more conservative.  There were hoards of young boys going to school on the morning I was leaving, but I didn’t spot one girl with a white head scarf (usually worn going to school) – I actually didn’t see one girl out that morning.  In Kabul maybe 10 percent of the people on the streets are women, in Jalalabad it must be less than 2 percent and you can only imagine that the women are locked up in their homes.

Travelling back on the UN flight and there is no terminal in the military base, so a guy arrives in an open truck and places his brief case in the back.  He has a stock of tags and labels the bags, checks your ID and tells you he doesn’t trust you enough to leave you with your hand baggage, so he takes it from you until you board.  He weights the bags by picking them up with both hands, shrugging his shoulders and then guessing the weight for the manifest.  He is also the baggage handler and his assistant gives him a leg up to climb into the luggage hold on the plane as you hand him up your baggage.  It all seemed so normal at the time.

Bread Shop, Butcher Street, Kabul, June 2010Winter is great for covering up and wearing a scarf when out in public is not a hardship.  However, with the onset of the good weather it’s very annoying to see men going around in short sleeve shirts, while as a woman I’m expected to wear long sleeve garments, that also cover my ass and then a scarf in the scorching heat, for fear of exciting a man!  Tawab is a young tailor who has a small shop beside Kabul Café and he’s very innovative and great at copying clothes.  I called down to have some tops copied for the summer and he was sitting with a copy book practicing writing English script and words.  His brother is importing carpets into Dubai and they’re setting up a website so he wants to be able to read and write English and access the potential customers who speak English.  Tawab is quite shy and he speaks English reasonably well, asking the difference between the pronunciation of colour and collar. It’s one of the things that really impresses me about Afghans, their desire and willingness to learn.

I’m planning my R&R break in India to see the Taj – I think I’ve wanted to see that since I was about 10…. Hopefully the Taliban will behave themselves over the next couple of weeks and I won’t have much to report… but let’s see!

Until next time.

Yours Fagan

Flagellation, Fast Food and Crucifixions

Diary April 2013

578099_10151593217747269_318518209_nAfter a short sojourn back in Baghdad, which was a gloomy affair and not worth wasting ink on, I arrived in the Philippines a couple of weeks ago and relieved to be out of the open prison that is the UN in Baghdad.

The Philippines, made up of thousands of islands, drifts from one natural catastrophe to another.  Earthquakes, mudslides, typhoons, volcanoes – it is all here. It was occupied by Spain for generations – and took its name from one of the King Philips’. When the Spanish left, the Americans took over and English is widely spoken along with their own local language.

Philippines mapI had forgotten what south-east Asia looks and feels like.   While I couldn’t point out the Philippines on a map before I came here, it reminds me a lot of parts of Indonesia, with the same vegetation, traffic jams, architecture and propensity for unabashed consumerism.  This makes sense when you do look at the map and realise its proximity to China – a hop, skip and a jump and you’re in Beijing.

phillipens floodsTouching down after the long flight, the chaos of the arrival hall in Manila was a bit of a culture shock. It was manic.  People were milling around with no obvious queue for passport control and an hour later I reached the booth and where I had the passport stamped.  I can’t figure out why there is such chaos, there is no fingerprint or iris scan like most other countries.   I probably should have booked a wheelchair – that queue seemed to be moving a lot faster.

In typical UN fashion they put me in to an expensive grotty hotel, with 20-Watt bulbs in the room so you couldn’t see just how grotty the room is, but I did notice the cockroach catchers strategically placed around the bathroom.  The ants scurried over my papaya at breakfast the next morning and the waitress noticed them just as she was putting the plate down in front of me.

Philippines FloodsOn my first evening my colleague Ivy, (a Chinese/Indonesian based in Australia), brought me around to view the place where she stays- a hotel and apartment suite. Finding my way back that evening became a little fraught, as I couldn’t remember where my hotel was located and nobody I asked had ever heard of it.  I am not sure whether it was just my pronunciation that nobody could understand me or whether I just have difficulties understanding the Filipino accent.  It took me the best part of an hour to eventually find my location, which was five minutes on the other side of the road.    I stuck out the grotty hotel for another two days until I just moved in to the hotel where Ivy has her apartment.

Filipinos are paranoid about electricity and go around after you unplugging everything, kettles, laptops, air conditioners.  You arrive back to your hotel and every single electrical appliance is unplugged.  There must be a lot of fires but it has to be more to do with poor wiring than anything else.  Look up at any electricity pole anywhere in the Philippines and it’s like a spaghetti junction.  I’ve seen some streets where the wires almost hit the ground there are so many hanging off the poles.

MANILL A CITY1Manila has no centre but made up of barangays, villages – and my local village is Bel Air Barangay.  Bel Air and village in the same sentence just doesn’t seem right. The office in Manila is based in a modern skyscraper in the heart of the business district, and there are several restaurants, a museum, a chapel and a gym in the building.

The Filipinos are not really in tune with fine dining, but I suppose it’s handy to run out and get a sandwich at lunchtime and the Korean restaurant wasn’t at all bad. McDonald’s and KFC are ubiquitous, a bit like Dublin before all the pubs closed down, where directions were once based on what turn you took after what particular pub; expect of course in the Philippines it would be either McDonald’s, KFC or Starbucks.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many fast food joints in my life and it is reflected in the numbers of overweight Filipinos spilling out of them.   At least though there is choice and I can’t complain if I compare to the auld crap dished up in Baghdad on a daily basis.

MANILLA MEGA MALLThe Philippines closes down for Easter.  The laundry, the shops, the taxis – there is nothing open from Thursday to Saturday evening.  The mall did open on Easter Saturday but most small businesses remain closed until Sunday and people escape from Manila. It makes travelling around the roads out of the city a lot more manageable for those who venture out, especially if you have to contend with the stress of daily traffic jams in high heat and humidity.

This is the only Christian country in the region and the population are 90 per cent Catholic.   Other Christian religions vie for sinners and the biggest competitor is Iglesia ni Cristo (INC), started by a Filipino who left the Catholic church.  When the Protestants didn’t do it for him he set up his own version of Christianity.  INC reminds me of McDonald’s with the same style of distinctive church every couple of kilometres. There is of course a big Muslim population in parts of Mindanao in the South, where they want to cede from the main Filipino government. They’ve managed to kidnap more than a few Irish priests over the years and it’s not a particularly accessible area, especially when a typhoon hits and the people who require assistance are put out of reach when the rescuers are in danger of kidnapping or indeed murder.

On Good Friday we hired a car and driver and headed to San Fernando, a fairly industrial town about 100 kilometres north of Manila.  It’s not a place you’d normally visit as a tourist, except around Easter when visitors from around the world and locals come out to see the re-enactment of the crucifixion. Along the streets of San Fernando men walk in procession, with bare feet and bare upper body’s with heads covered with black cloth bags.  Some wore a crown of thorns and they whipped themselves as they walked along.

734491_10151593217782269_1846790030_nWe arrived just in time to see these men in the throes of self-flagellation making their way along the street.  Old women came out to give them water and juice and they lifted the black cloth to take the drink.  It was impossible to get to the front of the procession without becoming splattered with blood and with no umbrella and wearing a white shirt, I didn’t risk the splattering.  Even if I had an umbrella with me, I don’t think I would fancy a blood-speckled brolly. The men stopped, I assume outside their individual home’s, where they prostrated themselves.  One young woman took off her shoe and patted, (as opposed to beating), the penitent relative on his wounds.  Outside the front of the church, they came to a stop and tossed their crowns of thorn on the roof before dispersing.

While the self-flagellators most likely made their way to the local hospital for some pain killers and dressings for their wounds, we moved on to see the re-enactment of the crucifixions, which was held near the basketball arena.  A couple of hundred people gathered to watch the events.  The arena has a corrugated roof and no walls, to protect people from the scorching sun.  Men sold ice cream and water from bicycles and did a thriving business as the heat of the afternoon began to take its toll.  The proceedings took place outside, with relevant gospel readings and hymns blasted through megaphones.

8067_10151593217812269_174705287_n‘Jesus’, dressed in white, was raised on the cross and they used ropes rather than nails, thankfully.  They also provided him with a little platform to stand so he wasn’t hanging off the cross.  Only one sinner, dressed in red was raised beside him.  They had a bit of difficulty with the third cross and it came down as fast as it went up.  I assume they hadn’t assembled it properly – probably should have gone to Ikea.

I expected it to be a more gruesome affair.  I suppose if there were a few screams or shouts from the self-flagellators it would have made it worse and certainly Jesus didn’t seem to be having that much of a hard time.  When they took him off the cross (using a ladder), they put him on a stretcher, but I didn’t go see if they buried him alive, nor did I go back on Easter Sunday to see if he rose from the dead.

There was a piece in the newspaper coming up to Easter warning people of the potential damage caused by hammering nails through your hands and the consequences of hitting the wrong spot.   The weekend newspapers then pictured a screaming Jesus who was literally nailed to the cross, so I was glad not to witness that particular crucifixion.

philippines1The remainder of the day was spent in Tangatay, a volcano South of Manila, where they charge outrageous prices to take a small boat over to the volcano. Rather than feel as if I was indeed going through self-flagellation by paying the €50 for the 10 minutes boat ride, I found a restaurant selling beer and happily viewed the volcano from the bottom of a beer glass.  Nothing like a nice cold beer all the same after day of flagellation, fast food and crucifixions.

Until next time.

Yours…. Fagan

Anarchy, Boobs, Camels and Goats

Diary September 2012

DSCF1432Somalia is a funny kind of a place.  Not a funny ha ha place, but a complex and intriguing part of the world that continues to function despite a 20 year civil war.  I first visited back in 2006 in the Gedo region with Trócaire and spent a week documenting the work of the one-doctor hospital they supported.

While the anarchy and lack of any infrastructure was blatant, it was fascinating at the same time to see how people coped with no government or governance.   The Gedo region borders the Ethiopian border to the West and the Kenyan border to the South.  Mogadishu is situated along the coast to the East of the country.

DSCF1228Once a modern thriving city now it’s just one big settlement, with temporary shelters pitched everywhere for those who are displaced by the war and hunger.  Once grand buildings including the Catholic Church, are riddled with bullet marks and many former government buildings are also occupied by displaced Somalis.

Not a lot changed in Somalia in the intervening years, except many more women and children have suffered and certainly plenty of them died unnecessarily.

Once abandoned by the international community, the increasing incidents of piracy and the prospect that there is oil in Somalia, sees the international community trying once again to put some form of structure into the country.

The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) was put in to power by the international community and comprises of mainly corrupt elders (all men) who vie for power and control.   You also have Somaliland and Puntland in the northern part of Somalia that have declared themselves as a republic, have their own currency but are recognized nowhere else in the world.

DSCF1235Within Somaliland and Puntland, there are sections who want to secede to form yet either smaller states, so conflict flares up and people (mainly the women and children) take off seeking refuge.  That is compounded by the odd drought and a bit of famine thrown in.   The ubiquitous AK47 dictates much of what happens in Somalia, and not likely to see much improvement in the near future.

A good portion of Somalia is a desert, sparsely covered in thorn trees which catch the plastic bags and it looks as if plastic-bag trees grow in Somalia.  Sometimes when travelling through the countryside and approaching a settlement, it is akin to what you would imagine the aftermath of a devastating world war where the inhabitants of the planet, except for a few, have been wiped out.

DSCF1208I don’t think I have ever visited a country with such a sanitation problem, but if you don’t have a functioning government, you don’t have an infrastructure to deal with these problems.  We drive through the rubbish dump to get from Ethiopia to Somalia.  I travelled through a few weeks ago not long after somebody had put a match to the plastic bags, bottles and general garbage.  We drove on the sand track through the smoking plastic, where hundreds of buzzards about 4 feet in height and much bigger than the goats, all trampled around foraging for food.  Unfortunately buzzards, goats and children are all vying for the same food. It was a biblical scene.

Further South across the border, in Dadaab in northern Kenya, there are a half million Somalis who fled famine and conflict and settled in huge refugee camps.  The Kenyans don’t particularly want them there but the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees means that they can’t force the Somalis to return home.  Some have been there for over 20 years.  The Somalis are now heading for the Ethiopian border and there are 160,000 refugees registered in five camps in Dolo Ado, Ethiopia.

DSCF1416Both Ethiopia and Kenya have sent troops into Somalia to try and stop Al Shabaab, the local terrorist organization, from gaining ground.  Alongside other African troops and the TFG forces, they are gaining a modicum of control and for the first time in years Mogadishu has a sort of functioning government.

My contract with the coordinating body of the UN is coming to a close.

Based in Nairobi, I was brought in to write reports and analysis of the situation in Somalia, and I ended up also trying to train people on how to write reports, gathering stories and taking photos.  It would have helped a lot if they had reasonable English, but these are the little trials and tribulations that are sent to try a body.   Some bright spark thought I didn’t have enough of a challenge and that I could be useful in Somalia coordinating the humanitarian efforts there, so I ended up back in Gedo attempting to foster some cross border cooperation to try and stem the flow of refugees into Ethiopia.

DSCF1223The Somalis are not particularly welcome in Ethiopia either and the Ethiopians don’t make it easy on them.  They put them in camps where their movement is restricted, where they have no access to any casual labour or a functioning telephone network.  Somalis love to talk and the loss of a mobile network is real hardship for them.  The Ethiopians have been paranoid about security for some time and it’s so bad that my Irish mobile doesn’t roam there.

I was travelling through the airport in Addis Ababa on my way to the border, the morning they announced the prime minister’s Meles demise.  Trying to get a cup of coffee was almost impossible as all the waitresses in the coffee shop were weeping into the coffee cups because their leader had died. He may have facilitated greater access to food for the masses, but during his 20 year reign the population almost doubled, leaving twice as many people living in poverty and misery.

DSCF1415Despite all the plaudits from people like David Cameron about Meles insightful vision for Africa, there was no democracy in Ethiopia and most members of the opposition and many journalists who criticized Meles now languish in jail along with people who were caught using Skype.

The Ethiopians have invested heavily in trying to stop Al Shabaab making progress, they are afraid that the war will cross the border into Ethiopia and  so sent in the troops, along with the Kenyans and other African countries.  When I travel in through Ethiopia, I travel from Addis to Dolo Ado, where I then make the crossing to the sister town of Doolow, Somalia at an unrecognized border crossing.

I rarely travel directly from Nairobi to Doolow, which is a much easier trip and doesn’t involve getting up out of my warm bed at 1 a.m. for the airport to eventually arrive in Doolow at 10 a.m. ready for a days’ work.

DSCF1018I moan about these things and the container where I sleep which measures 3 metres x 2 metres, with a small single bed and a tiny wardrobe.  The loo is about 300 metres away and there were one or two occasions when I could have qualified for the London Olympics with a middle of the night sprint.

Then I meet people like Mary T who works for the Irish NGO Goal and stays in something akin to a hut and thinks she’s lucky, because she has a room on her own.   Then I realize that my container is the Hilton Hotel of Dolo Ado and I am indeed the lucky one.

I arrived in Doolow Somalia on my birthday this year as part of a larger mission to visit Belet Xaawo (pronounced Haawa) and Luuq, areas recently taken over by the Ethiopian forces.  We had the company of the UN Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS) who was organizing the road trip.  Our armed escorts were members of the Somali TFG forces, who apparently organize a lot of the kidnappings in Somalia.

Somali AirlinesJust as well I wasn’t aware of that small fact when we travelled.  There is a gravel road between Doolow and Luuq, put down by the Italians a number of years ago, but driving on the sand is a lot easier on jarring bones, so we opted to travel across the desert.  Although we had ordered and paid for cars with air-conditioning, there was none, and the windows were opened wide as we chocked on the dust kicked up by each car in front.

Not the most pleasant journey I have experienced.  Half way there, the convoy came to an abrupt stop as the escorts jumped off their pick-up truck and began running through the bush.  Apparently they had spotted three deserters, still armed with their AK47s heading out into the bush.

Our DSS guy had to tell them that standard operating procedures would dictate they inform their base, who would then go chase the deserters, rather than leaving us literally like sitting ducks in the middle of the desert.

We travelled during Ramadan, where drinking and eating is forbidden during daylight hours.  When we arrived in Luuq we had the usual meeting the authorities before heading to a settlement to see what conditions were like.  The escorts had a different idea though, when they brought us to the air strip and proceeded to play chicken, speeding up and down at hair-raising speed, with dust flying everywhere. The poor DSS guy was back out lecturing the lads on standard operating procedures before we regrouped and headed off to visit the displaced.

Driving towards the settlement, a few women walking along noticed the convoy.  With that some of them lifted their long skirts and took off at the speed of light towards the settlement.  I have to say I was scratching my head wondering what they were up to.  In the middle of Ramadan people tend to conserve energy during daylight hours and it was indeed an unusual sight to see skirts lifted and women, of all things, running.

It transpired they were heading towards the settlement, which was set up for the benefit of the visitors and totally fake.  They were burning green wood for cooking at 10 in the morning… not something normally done during the fasting month.  You’d need to be up early for the Somalis all the same.

During Ramadan there wasn’t even a cup of coffee to be had on the Somali side, so we crossed to have Ethiopian buna (coffee) on the far side of the bridge.  As we approached the check point, the DSS colleague opened his arms to be searched by the soldier on the bridge.

When I approached the soldier reached out with his two hands aiming for my boobs.  The other soldiers stood with their jaws dropped, until I waved my finger in the offending soldier’s face, explaining that I’m from the North side of Dublin and if attempted to as much as touch me, he’d be very, very sorry.  Funny thing was that while he did not speak English he understood completely what I was saying to him.

My most recent visit in to Gedo was to conduct an assessment of the two settlements in Doolow town. One of my colleagues visited some settlements in Mogadishu and some of the displaced people were holding up signs saying ‘no more assessments’, in English of course.  In the Doolow settlements, there hasn’t been a comprehensive assessment so I spent weeks organizing it.

The smaller settlement had decreased by 20 per cent, which is a rather large figure.  As there wasn’t a 20 per cent increase in the numbers crossing over to Ethiopia, it is assumed that the residents of the smaller camp were in fact residents of Doolow who moved in to these awful settlements, hoping to get the handouts.  In fairness the residents of the bigger settlement are in dire need and of decent shelter and food.

I stayed on the Ethiopian side and went to cross the bridge on the first day, to be told that foreigners were not permitted to cross over as it is an unrecognized crossing.  After a visit to the Ethiopian development body, I received permission to cross and proceeded down to the bridge only to be stopped on the Ethiopian side.

A deeper paranoia has set in since the death of Meles and all sorts of excuses from ‘you need to leave your laptops with us’ to ‘we think you may be spies’ were offered as reason for us not to cross.  I smiled and waited as dozens of phones calls were made, mainly on my phone, to get permission for the crossing.

My colleague wanted to go back, but I was a bit more persistent about getting across to complete the assessment. The UN compound on the other side has only recently opened.  They employ security guards and I was reliably informed that one of the cleaning ladies was trained to search the women coming in to the compound.

We approached the gate and the guard on the gate, an auld lad with a henna-dyed beard, wearing a sarong, pushed a male colleague out of the way and lunged at my boobs to begin a body search.  Unlike the soldier at the bridge, this pervert succeeded.  The wagging finger came out again and like the soldier on the bridge he fully understood that I was not a happy bunny and his behavior was unacceptable.

I had to wait for the local security officer to eventually show to report the incident.   News travels fast in Somalia, in fact news travels very fast and the whole town seemed to be aware of the boob incident. The following day I was busy at a meeting when word came that the elders would like to meet up.  I naively thought it was about the hassle of the border crossing, but no, it was about the incident.

They arrived mid-morning, the deputy district commissioner and two of the elders – all men of course, no women elders.  They told me that a meeting of the local authorities had been called the evening before to discuss the incident and not only was the guard’s behavior un-Islamic, it was also not within the Somali culture and they had great respect for women.

It’s not often I get an opportunity to lecture some Muslim men on feminism and the benefits of equality for women, so I laid it on about how they had to accept that women outside their culture were in positions of leadership etc.  etc.  They requested that I wouldn’t report the incident to the powers in the UN, so another opportunity for me to lay it on by pointing out that I needed this to go through DSS, otherwise women wouldn’t feel safe working in such an environment and it may even prevent women from working in Somalia.  Oh, I enjoyed it all.

DSCF1428When I eventually drew breath and they had an opportunity to interrupt, they told me that the meeting had decided that I needed to be compensated in the Somali way and they had voted to compensate me with a camel…… yes, a camel.

Then they informed me that the camel was valuable and worth $300. I was impressed, thanked them for the camel, pointed out the difficulties in exporting the camel to Ireland and said I’d like to covert the camel to goats and donate them to the poorest women in the bigger settlement.  Four goats, that’s what they told me the one camel was worth.

I travelled back across the border that evening and was told that a camel with three legs would be worth at least $1,500 and up to $2,000 or more on the Ethiopia side.  The fecking elders were trying to short-change me.  Talk about giving it with one hand and taking it back with the other!

I had to send word back to the elders to say that indeed I will be picking up my camel and if I have to march it down to the settlement, to hand it over to the women myself, then that’s what I will do.  I return on Thursday for a one-day trip and will pick up my camel and hand it over.  Let’s see how much the thing is really worth.

This has been a really interesting assignment, being able to get out and see what’s happening on ground puts real meaning on the work.  Other than Erbil in Iraq, I never got outside the Green Zone in Baghdad to see any of the 1.5 million displaced people around Iraq.  At least I got to Mogadishu, Garrowe and Gedo to see first-hand the condition the people are living in and it certainly gives a greater empathy and sense of urgency.

I’m not sure where the next assignment will be, but life full of surprises and hopefully I’ll be back working again after my much awaited holiday in the US of A in the month of October.

Until the next time….

Yours….Fagan