Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas and a convoy...

So, we made it on the convoy to Burundi earlier this week. It was a much longer day than I had expected - not to mention tiring, even though all we did was sit in a vehicle for most of the day. We received a much needed stamp in our passport from the Burundian government, without having to pay for a visa though (score!). So, IF our work permits continue to be delayed we will at least have a cushion of time on our tourist visas.

It was quite a bumpy ride once we crossed into Burundi, which may explain our fatigue at the end of the day. We were jostled all over the place, with no operational seat belts to speak of, in the UNHCR Burundi vehicle we took from the Tanzanian border to the reception center in Mabanda - just a few miles away. The roads almost immediately took a turn for the worse as we crossed into Burundi. There were deep crevices in the dirt road, puddles that had yet to dry up from the rains, and a few scary steep cliffs we were driving on the edge of to avoid more bumps. We tried to focus on the view up and out over the misty green landscape, instead of down in the deep ravines. The view was a amazing, but the bumps and dips were a bit heart racing at points anyway though...

I was again surprised at the appearance of wealth in Tanzania, even after a short trip inside the Burundian border. Tanzania has always seemed to be so much wealthier than Mali. From the time I arrived in Dar, the difference between the two major cities in each country (Bamako and Dar es Salaam) was pretty stark - even aside from the obvious differences in landscape (Mali is land-locked and Tanzania has a huge ocean border, plus the island of Zanzibar).

However, I thought that coming out to a western, more rural area of TZ, I would see more people living like people in rural areas in Mali. I thought I would see a lot of decaying or collapsing mud houses with thatched roofs throughout the area, particularly during rainy season. Instead, I have seen a lot of construction of brick houses and preparation for paved roads. I saw more of what I anticipated I would see here in TZ in Burundi though. This could be because of the status that Kasulu has received because of its hosting of international relief organizations though. A lot of money has been poured into this area because of the ex-pat "traffic" here, which will most likely dry up as soon as the refugee camps are officially closed.

Even though Tanzania, thus far, has appeared infinitely wealthier than Mali - or even the sliver of Burundi that I saw this week, its per capita income is actually less than Mali ($442 in TZ compared with $470 in Mali Anyone have any thoughts on that?

In other news, Christmas has arrived and it is a lot wetter and louder than I had anticipated. There is a rather raucous thunderstorm that appears to be passing now, but it just might be laying low for a bit before gearing up for another round. We'll see...

Christmas Eve was spent here in Kasulu with an American, an Iraqi, and a 1/2 Iranian 1/2 Dutch colleague. We were laughing at how unlikely it would be for our countries to be sharing a meal together, never mind by choice - especially with Aljazeera English and CNN in the background. : )

It seems that prayer call from the mosque downtown has called the rain and thunder back...I just hope the roads (and runway) dry up enough before Kelly's arrival in Kigoma.

The rains continue, unabated, on Christmas Day in Kasulu. Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Christmas in Kasulu

I can't believe it is December 21st. Time seems to fly even when one day sometimes seems like three - i.e. yesterday. We went for a short hike in the AM, back along a road out of town, up a makeshift trail to the top of a hill where we could look over Kasulu. I once again had to stop myself from taking 100 more landscape shots of the same group of rolling green hills that I see here everyday. It is just really gorgeous. I have obviously been nature-deprived for a long while. After the hike, we all did our own thing - napped, listened to music, headed to the office to check email - or packed, in the case of my co-workers headed off today for two weeks to Burundi/Rwanda. There was so much downtime yesterday, it seemed like it was two days later by the time we ate dinner last night. Even still, I am amazed at how quickly time has passed overall. It will be 2010 next week - crazy.

It will be Christmas in Kasulu this year. Though luckily Kelly will be flying out from Dar to join me, and most of the rest of the international UNHCR staff, for Christmas. It will be an eclectic Christmas for sure, with staff from Iraq, Ethiopia, the Netherlands, and other places around the globe - can't wait for the food either. yum.

If all goes as planned, Kel and I will be heading off to see some chimps in Gombe National Park - where I believe Jane Goodall did most of her research on them back in the day - after Christmas and before New Year's. Though sadly I have heard their numbers have seriously dwindled, we are hoping that we might catch a glimpse of them. The journey should be interesting, as the only way that you can access the park - I believe - is by boat from Lake Tanganyika.

My colleague Lisa and I are still hoping to get on a Burundian convoy tomorrow as well. Will let you know if that pans out...

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Refugees

So, the week has been winding down a bit. We (the Asylum Access team) have almost wrapped up the RSDs and RRFs that we needed to get out this week. Though we are trying to get some more info from the refugees, along with COI (Country of Origin Information) in order to appeal one or two decisions already referred to Dar. We are also trying to hopefully avoid RSD denials on the other two pending referrals, but there are some major issues with the referrals that may not be possible to resolve. Though out of nine referrals, six have been approved so far. So, we are doing pretty well. : )

Unfortunately, we (my colleague Lisa and I) are still looking for permanent housing (we are currently staying with our project director and his wife), as Kasulu is filling up fast with ex-pats working on refugee issues here. There are only two remaining camps left open in Tanzania and one Burundian settlement. So, everyone has been moving here to facilitate the repatriation (sending refugees back to their home country), resettlement (getting them accepted to a third country - i.e. the U.S.), or in certain cases, Tanzanian naturalization, of the remaining refugees before the government tries to kick them all out next year. In Tanzania's defense, they had an extremely liberal refugee policy until about ten years ago or so. Also, I believe (feel free to fact check me here) they have taken in the largest number of refugees on the African continent to date. It still may leave refugees with few options but to return to places that they fled from in the first place, which is a rather petrifying thought - even when I have only read what these people have actually experienced first-hand.

In other news, we are trying to get on a convoy headed to Burundi to repatriate refugees there next week. We all are hoping to get on the convoy (just a day trip) to see what this process looks like, to see more of TZ by land, and hopefully to get our passports stamped so that we can avoid having to leave the country at the end of January, if our work permits don't come through before that time. Fingers crossed...

As for the weather, the rain continues to pelt the red earth and tin roofs here. It is loud and angry, with the thunder increasing and lightning flashing like cameras in an amphitheatre. It is amazing how much rain this earth can absorb, though it does make the roads treacherous for drivers. If the earth doesn't have enough time to fully dry on the surface before sunrise or sunset, the mud becomes like ice. Even the Land Cruisers operate at a snail's pace, if they can operate at all on the slick surface. Walking isn't so easy either, especially if you are wearing flip flops like a lot of the locals do here.

Help 120 Women in Dio, Mali build a better shea butter facility

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Welcome to the Jungle

It has been a busy two weeks, but I finally got out of Dar and back into the African bush. The last week in Dar was a bit hectic (and expensive - yikes!), but the training was really good. I learned a lot and got to see most people that I had met there before heading out.

It took about 12 hours from the time Lisa and I got up until we arrived in Kasulu, but we were glad to get it done in just one day. Our flight left out of Dar at about 8:30 AM and we touched down first in Tabora, on our way to Kigoma. When they opened the plane door to let some folks off and let some others on, we were bracing ourselves for the heat that we thought would be blasting into the plane from outside. To our delight, it was a cool breeze and just lush greenery all around. Of course the runway is only sort of paved, but Tanzanian drivers (of any vehicle) are pretty formidable and seemingly can handle anything. It is pretty amazing.

So, after enjoying about 20 minutes of a welcomed change of climate, we headed on to Kigoma. We were again greeted by calm, cool weather and CLOUDS upon arrival. It was pretty awesome to be comfortable walking outside around midday - after broiling in the hot sun and dust of Dar. It was just green, green, green, with this deep red earth that ran through the landscape - creating a gorgeous view.

We were greeted by the UNHCR driver at the airport, along with some other UNHCR employees headed to Kasulu with us. We were in a LandCruiser heading out of Kigoma. The paved road ends pretty soon after getting out of town and that is where the real "fun" begins. Thank god we were in a UN vehicle. I can't even imagine what the trip would be like in an old, beat up bus on its last leg. though I may find out soon enough, if my plan to head to Burundi/Rwandan pans out...

To say the ride was "bumpy" would be an understatement, but the view more than made up for it. I have had to stop taking pictures of the green mountains and red earth because they surely will get boring after looking at 10 pictures or so, nevermind a few hundred - which is where I still may be headed at this point. It is just TOTALLY. COMPLETELY. GORGEOUS. I am HOPING to post some of them, but since the only access we have to internet is using UN computers, it might be an issue, unfortunately. Will keep you posted...

So, we are staying with our colleagues at the moment in a 3 bedroom house, that has electricity about 4 hours a day (from roughly 7pm to 11pm), running water about half the time, toilets and showers. It is pretty posh compared with Sofara, Mali though. Plus the town has SO much stuff! They have all kinds of fruits (i.e. pineapple, passion fruit, bananas, etc...). Also, bread (sliced even), canned goods, loads of spices, and beer, liquor, and even some wine here. It is pretty sweet.

The rain and mud are a bit insane though. There is an amazing amount of rainfall during rainy season, which began last month and will stretch into May I think. It makes for some beautiful scenery, but it is no good for keeping clothes presentable for the office...

Our co-workers apparently are totally partiers...they headed out after a work party last night to the "disco" in town, until the wee hours apparently...after beers, gin, and Amarula (South Africa's version of Bailey's). We may end up there with them next weekend after the end of the year party. Could be interesting...

Our office, which is just down the road (hallelujiah we don't have to take taxis or bajajs everywhere), has electricity 24-7 and internet access. This is where I am now, actually. This week we spent getting RSDs (refugee status determination briefs) together for a committee at UNHCR. So far 5 of the 10 we have submitted have been approved, which is sweet. We will be working on RRFs (resettlement registration forms) this week on those asylum seekers who have been given refugee status based on our RSD submissions.

The work has been great so far - and I haven't even been to the camps yet. We are hoping our work permits will be approved next week and that we can start interviewing refugees (the people in the camp where we will be working have already been granted refugee status) in two weeks. So, we will hopefully be on track by Christmas. The COI (Country of Origin Information) has been so interesting to read, even though it is atrocious what people are doing to each other in the Great Lakes region. It has been awesome to actually get to do this full-time. Enjoying your day at work, even when it is hard, is pretty amazing - and I am so thankful for it.

So, hopefully it will not be another 2 weeks before I can update you all again - and hopefully there will be photos too.