Heading out to Nimba

Today Jerome (outreach nurse in the Nimba project) and I are heading out to Nimba. The roads are in good shape, so it is only a 6 hour drive. We drive halfway and meet a car coming from the other direction. We transfer ourselves, our two patients, their two caregivers, and our cargo over to the other Land Cruiser. Then each car returns to it’s own base. That way each base only loses a vehicle for one day, instead of one base losing a vehicle for two days and one night.

I will probably be able to post an update from Saclepea, Nimba County, Liberia in a few days once I have settled in.

My first few days in Monrovia

Hey, just a quick update to let you all know I got to Monrovia safely.

Arriving in Roberts International Airport was an interesting experience. First, the runway could use a paving job, so while the landing was perfect the deceleration part of the flight was a bit hair-raising, even for someone like me who doesn’t worry much about flying. Then as we taxied off the runway and almost immediately came to a stop, we passed about a million UN planes. They really gave me the “we’re not in Kansas, Toto” feeling! Getting through passport control and customs was very easy, but then all my baggage had MSF logos on it, and I was wearing my MSF t-shirt. I’m told it helps immensely with customs.

We drove in from the airport last night in a tropical storm. This morning there was another downpour, but otherwise the weather has been nice. It is hot, but down here by the ocean the air moves so it is not terrible. Certainly not as bad as Mississippi and Guatemala were. I’m looking forward, nonetheless, to getting back to the team house in a while and taking a nice cold shower.

I had briefings all day, and also took a little walk. I dropped by MSF-Belgium to see Leo, who departed New York for Liberia on the same day I did. He’s got a bottle of whiskey that I need to trade with him due to our poor planning with respect to duty-free shopping! I’m also trying to find the phone number for International Medical Corps in Monrovia to find out when Jon will be here so that maybe we can meet up.

My briefings are boring, because they necessarily cover ground that other briefings have covered. But there’s new stuff mixed in, so you really have to keep on your toes to get it all. The best briefings come from the national staff, who are really excited and serious about their jobs, and enjoy teaching me about them. After Amos gave me the radio briefing, I called MSF-Holland on the radio looking for Leo. Leave it to me to come all the way to Liberia, then forget which country Brussels is in… sigh.

I’ve met so many people, it’s hard to keep track, but I’m doing my best. Perhaps I’ll write a list tonight and study it before bed.

Tomorrow I get to visit Benson Hospital, our other project. When I get back in the afternoon, I will visit the US Embassy and register with them. My trip to Nimba county is not planned yet, but it might be as late as next Monday.

Got to Monrovia

Just a quick update to let you all know that I have arrived safely in Monrovia. We rode in from the airport last night in an MSF Land Cruiser through an evening rainstorm. The weather here is comfortable… it is quite hot and humid, but not as bad as Mississippi or Guatemala was. The tropical rainstorms are strong, warm, and short, so they are easy to deal with. My room is comfortable, with a nice mosquito net and screens on the windows.

The whole team went out to a typical expat dinner last night. The thing that’s somewhat disappointing about third world travel is that in cities, everywhere you go it’s the same. Liberia is almost indistinguishable from Guatemala and Senegal. That’s why you have to take the time to get out and travel to escape the city. Even then, the technology of cement blocks, diesel trucks, plastic baskets, mud bricks, generators, TV’s, cell phones, and tin roofing is universal. There is a level of technological development beyond which it takes real effort to pass, but otherwise the traders of the world (here, Lebanese) bring the baseline technology to every corner of the world where there’s someone who will pay for it.

I will be in Monrovia until Friday, and will probably spend the day traveling on Friday. The roads to Saclepea are in great shape, so there will be no difficulty traveling there.

This one goes out to all the proud moms out there…

jra in msf shirt

(Click for a huge version suitable for printing and fridge posting.)

Wrapping things up here in Geneva. I’m staying the night with Sima and Steve, and they are dropping me off at the airport tomorrow morning at 7 am. I fly through Brussels, Dakar, and then I arrive at Roberts Field outside of Monrovia about 6 pm.

I’ll send an update from MSF’s office in Monrovia in the next couple of days.

Life in Geneva – La vie genevois

I am currently in Geneva for my briefings. I’ve been having fun in the evenings with friends from the old days at Bunyip in Montreal, Steve and Sima. During the day, I go around meeting people and getting verbal briefings, and doing self-study with various materials. Yesterday my biggest problem was that I was overwhelmed with reference material and couldn’t figure out what to look at.

So far I’ve had a “general advice” briefing from Kath in New York, a meeting with the PR guys in New York (they are getting these updates; Hi Michelle and Michael!), a meeting about the political and program context in West Africa, a meeting about the purchasing system, and a briefing on how the IT and communications stuff works. My temporary office is in the logistics department, so I’m learning from them by osmosis, but I still need to make time to talk to some of the subject matter experts in detail, like how to maintain Nimba’s water system, what to know about the generators in use in Liberia, and how to maintain the fleet of vehicles.

The logistician I am replacing, Kenneth, was en-route to Geneva yesterday, but his airplane broke down in Dakar, and he got stuck there last night. He’s supposed to show up today. He’ll be super busy with all the human-resources debriefing stuff when he first gets here, but hopefully I’ll have enough time to digest his handover report and then ask questions. I think I’ll have some major homework to do tonight, then I’ll meet with him tomorrow.

My plane flight leaves on Sunday morning about 8 am. I get in to Roberts Field outside Monrovia around 5 pm, then it is a 1 hour trip in from the airport to Monrovia. I’m going to be carrying a bunch of baggage: two satellite phones that need to be moved down to Liberia, a bunch of care packages for colleagues and other mail from headquarters to the field. I’ll spend a couple days there getting the lay of the land, then head up to Nimba.

What I’ve been up to

During the last two weeks I’ve been pretty busy. I worked for a week at International Medical Corps in Santa Monica. During that time I spent a lot of time with a new mentor, Jon Thompson. He and his wife have worked in Liberia, and it was partly them that gave me the confidence to accept the posting with MSF.

At the end of the week I visited old college friends in Los Angeles, then I drove back up to Redwood City (6 hours). I spent the afternoon and evening doing errands. The next day I drove to Roseburg (9 hours). I visited with family there. Mom made a great combination congratulations and bon voyage meal. The next morning I drove to Portland and commenced work on the Humaninet Simulation Day event.

That came off as well as I expected. Things didn’t work perfectly, but we showed, in addition to the technical capabilities we were demonstrating, that we can overcome problems and make the show go on. The biggest challenge for Humaninet right now is finding a Jeff replacement; I did all of my work for them knowing I’d be leaving, so it’s all documented. But it does take a certain set of skills to manage the technology side of a show like that. I’ve recommended a friend to them, and they are going to follow up with him this week about maybe volunteering. (Sorry Brent!)

It was also a chance to get back into management mode, as I knew from experience that it takes a very strong leader with a clear vision to make a network come together in a hurry. I’d like to think I was a benevolent dictator, but I do remember dropping the axe on at least one guy during the day: I pointedly rearranged his priorities when I found him arranging marketing materials for a technical demonstration which he hadn’t proved worked yet. I told him, “go make it work, then we’ll talk about how you will show it off”. Sigh.

I’d sent my mom a flyer that MSF-USA made which is called, “I never leave without packing…” which is returned American volunteers talking about what stuff they take with them. It was factually very useful to me, and my mom found it very comforting to see that real people go off on (and come back from) MSF missions and have enough fun to write about it in a fun personal way when they get back. I gave her a 1 pound (500 gram) budget in my bag for her to send stuff. When I arrived she had a huge basket full of about 5 pounds of stuff, but actually it wasn’t that much when we edited out duplicate things (she wasn’t sure on what type I wanted) and took things out of packages.

I went on a shopping spree today to get some more stuff I wanted. I’ve been taking Jon’s advice pretty literally, since I can tell he and I think about things the same way. He’d sold me on a North Face duffel bag he uses as a suitcase, but I’d talked myself out of it, opting instead for my Gregory backpack which I’ve used on several trips and which I know intimately. Jon also gave me some useful pointers on pants (cotton + equator = mildew). Well, as it happens the pants I ended up wanting were at North Face, so I got to go see Jon’s duffel bag up close and I instantly fell in love. It’s super well made, water resistant, and has backpack straps. I wouldn’t use it for other types of traveling, but for wet, muddy Liberia where I’ll be traveling mostly in MSF’s Land Cruisers, it makes all the sense in the world.

Off I go to Liberia

I got my posting! And so the real adventure begins… the rest of this has just been academic.

I’ll be working as a “log-admin” in an MSF-Switzerland project based on Saclepea, Nimba County, Liberia. The log part of my job is making sure things go smoothly so the programs keep running. The admin part of my job will be to handle paying salaries and keeping the books.
My contract is for six months.

I leave San Francisco for New York on a red-eye June 18th. I arrive in Geneva June 20th and spend several days there getting trained and talking to the previous log-admin from Saclepea to get a handoff from him or her. Then I fly south to Liberia, perhaps via Ghana or someplace. I spend a day or so in Monrovia, then make the trip out to Nimba. It’s the rainy season, and the road is not great, so it’s unclear how long that will take, or if it will even be possible to travel by road. I might have to fly to Saclepea.

mapHere’s a map showing the area where the project takes place. Click the map for a larger copy.

If you have Google Earth installed, you can click here to download the KML file. Other maps in PDF format, usable by all computers, are here.

The latest UNMIL Situation Report gives interesting information about the reality on the ground (if you need an acronym explained, ask and I’ll do my best). You can find other information about the humanitarian situation in Liberia at the UN’s Humanitarian Information Center for Liberia.

Where’s Jeff?

Sorry I haven’t sent out an update in a while. I’ve been visiting family and doing paperwork to get in the MSF system. I got my medical clearance from my doctor, extra eye glasses, etc.

Kat the Dog and I traveled up to Oregon to see my parents and grandparents. A consulting job back in the Silicon Valley fell through, so Kat and I continued north to Seattle where we helped prepare my step-brother’s house to be sold. Good thing too, because he bought a new house while we were there!

I’m now in Santa Monica. Why? Because I volunteered to work in the headquarters of International Medical Corps for a week. Through Humaninet, I got in touch with a logistics guy here at IMC, and he’s acted as a bit of a mentor for me, long-distance. I figured it was about time to come help him out and return the favor. He also suggested that IMC might want to interview me for a job, and that’s perfectly fine with me!

So, tomorrow morning I will show up to my new job at 8 am and work there for 5 days. Then I’ll leave poor Jon, just when he’s finally trained me… I have another committment, this time the other direction.

I am serving as the technical coordinator for the Humaninet Simulation Day up in Portland next week. Practically speaking, this means that I send a bunch of email and write a bunch of ideas down while all the poor Portland people do the real work. I think I’m getting good at this consulting/managing thing!

For those of you wondering, Kat didn’t get to come to Santa Monica. She’s being dog sitted by Karl, my housemate. Dan and Iris are also thinking about giving Kat a sleepover at their house, because they are considering adopting her when I go overseas. She will get to come to Portland with me, though.

I’ll write another update next week telling y’all how IMC went, and what I’m doing for Humaninet.