Wednesday, August 30, 2006

totally gnarly dude

California. Land of convertibles, outdoor sports and gear. Four days ago I enjoyed all of these with Daniel and his Dad during my first ever wind-surfing lesson.

There are many great things about Daniel's Dad. One is that he loves the outdoors and is always up for an adventure. Another is that he probably has the gear for that adventure somewhere in his garage.

His is gear that was carefully selected from choice garage sales or neighborhood driveways with "Free" signs clearly posted. He'll pick up random parts along the way and see if they might improve any of his current stock. Many of the items were "top of the line" 20 or 30 years ago and offer an engaging piece-meal puzzle to the engineer at heart. We were able to pull together two boards and three sails with rigs for our outing.

Daniel's Dad is also a passionate teacher. He had me up and windsurfing within an hour and had rallied a cheering section from the shore. "Look at her go! Woohoo! She's sailing now!" He'd whoop and yell his unabashed support. Quite an introduction to the sport. Next lesson: tacking.

The Red Suitcase

"Where's the camera charger?"

"In the red suitcase."

"And our dvds?"

"The red suitcase."

"What about my tennis racquet?"

"The Red suitcase."

"And the kitchen sink?"

You guessed it. The red suitcase. The question is: Where's the red suitcase??

Before returning to the US our dear friend in Rwanda (same friend that gave us the stress test) warned me about re-entry expectations. She said that the first week was likely to be "wonderful". Full of wonder indeed! So many yummy restaurants and the most prized of all beverages--the French Vanilla Latte--so easily available. Mmmmmm. I must've drunk one a day that first week back.

The warning was that though things were tough in Rwanda, they wouldn't be easy in the US. I should be ready for that realization and frustration, she advised. Coming from a place where things never seemed to work as one would expect or hope, it's natural that I'd expect and hope for things "to work" at "home", she explained. Shouldn't it be easier in the US? After all, I'm an American.

I thought of her warning as I made my way to the baggage desk to report that my red suitcase had apparently not arrived with me to San Francisco. I thought of it as the Virgin Atlantic hotline for lost luggage hung up on me multiple times after I'd been on hold during those first days back. I thought of it yesterday as I pushed "4" on my keypad instead of "1" to denote that my bag had been lost for more than 21 days and learned that that office is only open from 9-5 British time. I'd have to call back later. I thought of it as I read that the airline will only cover a fraction of the total value of our things that they've lost. Argh.

Monday, August 14, 2006

kicked by a gorilla

A few weeks ago, with Corrie's parents and grandma in town, we took part in the most hallowed of Rwanda tourist experiences. Gorilla treking.

There are 700 mountain gorillas in the world, all hanging out on the border of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Congo (everybody check your maps now). A small number of those 700 are used to seeing people so you can visit them. I've never heard of anybody venturing into the Congo to see gorillas ('cause you're more likely to run into guerillas than gorillas).

The thing here is that you're not in a zoo. There are no fences, no concession stands. Our "path" was an elephant's track -- elephants apparently don't go around trees, just knock down the ones in their way, leaving a nice path toward the gorillas.

Then you're guide tells you you'll stay 7 meters away at all times and you think, "hey twenty-five feet that's really close!" And then he walks you right up to 7 feet away from a 500 pound gorilla. It's awesome. And he's so cute and soft and you had a gorilla stuffed animal when you were young so you just want to go hug him. And then you remember he's a 500 pound gorilla.

So there we were watching one of the big males doing his thing. And he decided he'd like to be where we were. So he came over to us, turned around, and stuck out his foot into my gut to push me out of the way. Being in the front of our little homosapien pack, I pushed back into the mass and knocked down Grandma (oops!). Then our gorilla grabbed our guide by the shirt and pulled him down to the ground.

"Playful" they call this. It was awesome.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Vive la France!

Just returned to Rwanda after two and a half weeks in France! We're feeling healthy again and I think our stress index might have dropped a bit.

France: Chocolate for breakfast, wine with lunch, and cheese for dessert -- what's not to like about this country? And what a great place to celebrate our first anniversary.

Here's the amazing place we stayed. Our new friends Rebecca and David have restored an old stone manor in Brittany, in the north-west of France. 15 minutes from the beach, surrounded by nothing but quaint quaint quaint. They've opened up the guest home to missionaries from their home church as a place of refuge -- we're not quite missionaries and we're not quite from their home church, but they welcomed us anyway and were the best of hosts.

We spent most of our time soaking in the countryside, reading, and recovering. The impressionists spent a lot of time in Brittany getting inspired and I can see why -- those haystacks Van Gogh painted really ARE that yellow (and all this time I thought he was a visionary).

Here's me at the westernmost point of France.

We headed to a local pub to watch France headbutt Italy at the World Cup finals (if you're reading from the US, the World Cup is a soccer tournament that everyone else in the world cares about. I think the US ignores it because there aren't enough commercial breaks in soccer.)

Here's Corrie cheering on the cyclists at the Tour de France! (France didn't cancel it this year even though Lance Armstrong isn't racing.)

Mont Saint Michel -- a church & small city built on an island you can only reach at low tide.

Then we spent the last few days with Corrie's childhood friend Florence in Paris.

Corrie and Monet's water lilies.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006


Yesterday our good friend (and trained pastor and counselor) gave us a stress test. Basically a survey that asks you a bunch of questions like "Did you change jobs in the past 12 months?" and "Were you mugged by congolese police this year?" (Okay, not that last one, but questions like it.)

So then you add up the points you get for all the questions and see how you score. 150-200 says you've encountered a moderate level of stress, 200-300 would be high stress, and over 300 is Extreme Life Crisis.

We scored 765.



Tuesday, June 27, 2006

the bride's big day

Our good friend Margaret got married this past weekend. Quite an all-day ceremony -- traditional drummers, dancers, hundreds of people, multiple preachers.

But the true cultural experience came a week ago at the Introduction Ceremony, where the men of the families sit across from each other and, well, barter for a couple of hours:

Groom's Family: "We need a woman from your family. Give us Margaret."

Bride's Family: "I'm sorry, Margaret is not here. You will have to find another woman."

(An hour later, after they'd agreed Margaret was in fact nearby)
Bride's Family: "You can not have Margaret because you are not a good family. You passed me on the road when my mother was sick and did not offer me a ride."

Groom's Family: "Ah, I remember that day and am very sorry, but I was taking a madman to the hospital!"

(This last joke, we didn't get at all. But apparently it was very funny. After that we stopped asking people to translate for us.)

Fortunately, they did settle on the number of cows to exchange. And the wedding did happen this past Saturday.

The pastor preached from Ephesians 5 and exhorted men that they need to love their wives like Christ loves the Church. Now I always thought this meant you had to be willing to give up your life for your wife, but the pastor gave some more practical examples:

  • If your wife's cooking is bad, don't complain to her family about it. Instead, you should bring someone in to teach her how to cook.
  • If you are getting fat, your wife should be getting fat, too. Feed her well.
Then the service culminated with a hug by the bride and groom. (A little different than Corrie and my 23-second kiss...)

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


Just returned from a weekend in Johannesburg, South Africa. Rwandair was launching weekly service to Johannesburg so tickets were 60% off.

They told us the flight would stop in Burundi. They didn’t tell us it would stop for 3 hours of cocktails with the Burundian Minister of Transport.

The flight down was packed full and felt like a spring-break party bus -- everybody was drinking and yucking it up. Turns out it was a spring-break party bus -- when we arrived in Johannesburg they announced “if you are returning to Burundi, please remain in your seat.” Half the people on the plane flew four hours each way just for fun (I’m assuming they didn’t pay for those seats). I suppose if you lived in Burundi you might, too.

What I’d heard about Johannesburg was that it was unsafe, violently racist, and dirty. Not at all what we found.
  • Johannesburg is heckof developed. There are freeways with off-ramps and malls and movie theaters and banks and fancy cars. When you are on vacation from New York, camping is great. When you’re on vacation from Kigali, you just want to go to the mall.
  • We took a city and township tour. General conditions seem to be a big step up from Kigali’s and the government is building tons of housing and providing portapotties in the meantime. We felt relatively safe. Still, I’m sure we were getting the government-sanctioned tour; a friend tells me the electricity and water in the townships has been turned off because the poor can’t pay. At least in Rwanda there’s no pretense (and no power).
  • We saw quite a few young mixed race couples -- a definitive end to the apartheid era?
  • Took a tour of Nelson Mandela’s old house in Soweto. Random fact: he was once an amateur boxer.
And it was a great vacation for us.
  • Boy did we eat. There’s a Smith & Wollensky in Sandton which serves a $12 fillet mignon which is to die for. We also found sushi and Thai curry and orange juice.
  • We saw two Hollywood movies. With popcorn.
  • The shower worked, the bed had springs in it, and you can drink the tap water. Wow.

Friday, June 09, 2006

lessons from partners in health #1: don't half-ass

There really isn't much money in the development business. To stay alive, non-profits have to appear efficient (or cost effective, as their grant requests say) to the donors who give them money. In turn, the people who manage donor organizations (like USAID and the World Bank) have to be able to brag about their efficiency to the people who employ them.

This means that non-profits can only get money to do things if they are cheap and reach lots of people. In developmentspeak a cheap thing to do is a "scalable intervention."

I'm a good economist and MBA, so this makes great sense to me. Scale. Leverage. Efficiency. Cost-effective, high-beta, hard-edged, chest-pounding stuff.

Partners in Health taught me that this is dead wrong. The value of the half-assed solution (er I mean, scalable intervention) is zero. Or less.

Let's say instead of spending a year with a hundred farmers showing them modern farming techniques, you decide to hand out fertilizer to a thousand farmers. So they burn their crop or pollute their drinking water or (most likely) just throw the stuff away because they don't know how to use it. Highly efficient, zero value.

Or you want to put 1,000 kids in school instead of 100, so you triple the class sizes and hire cheap, illiterate teachers. And your thousand kids learn nothing.

In public health it's even worse. If you hand out drugs for TB or AIDS but don't make sure your patient can get those drugs every single day, the bacteria or virus will mutate until the drugs have no effect at all -- then that "drug-resistant strain" gets passed on to their neighbors. Not long ago, people assumed that this meant that poor people with TB or HIV were doomed to die. PIH was one of the first groups to figure out that people with serious illnesses didn't have to die if you treated them the same way you treat rich people. Said another way, they didn't have to die as long as you didn't half-ass (= pursue a scalable intervention).

So if you give money to a non-profit, learn from Partners in Health and look beyond the metrics. Give to organizations that do good work, not cheap work.

(Caveat: this is my pragmatic MBA analysis of the Partners in Health method. They don't care one whit about my analysis -- they do it because they believe good health care is a human right and lousy health care is an injustice. Either way, they’re doing good work.)

Wednesday, June 07, 2006


They're playing the Titanic elevator-jazz-mix sound track in the lobby of the Intercon this morning.

Ah well, at least no one's called me a muzungu.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006


Being close to the equator, there isn’t much weather change in Kigali. But we’re learning to tell the season by the bugs.

For example, there was termite season back in October. We’d see the cloud of termites outside our window and yell “turn out the lights! turn out the lights!” Because if we didn’t get the lights turned out quickly enough thousands would swarm to our balcony and squeeze under the crack below the door, then flop around on our floor and lose their wings and die. Apparently this is how termites mate and migrate.

Then this Spring we seemed to have a fly season. And there was the period where we just couldn’t get rid of the ants in our kitchen. (The ant season started on our arrival and seems to be continuing. Much like mosquito season.)

Sadly, it appears we’ve gotten to cockroach season. Corrie lived in Miami long enough that she considers them “just little roaches.” I guess its all perspective.