Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Roughing it in Zim: cholera, cocktails and rock'n'roll

It’s been a while but here I am again, typing on the sleight while chairing a life-saving workshop in Harare, Zimbabwe. Or “Zim” as it is affectionately known among those of us who try hard to show nonchalant familiarity with the region.

A Zim old-timer, I have had the pleasure to be invited back here by a coalition of HRI affiliates, who understand that in principle donors appreciate like no other to hear that the work they have funded during the cholera outbreak in 2008 is slowly been wrapped up in lifesaving lessons learned workshops, known in local development circles as “post mortems”.

And so, here i am, sitting at the panel in front of a packed room decorated in by the strict standards of the Plastic-Chairs-Covered-In-Cotton-Condoms School of Interior Design. It is a bit too early in the year to enjoy the legendary jacarandas that have made Harare such a beloved destination among HRI consultants as well as intrepid backpackers, but the plastic flowers on the panel table, contrasting nicely with the hue chosen for the conference banner, make up for it, as do the tastefully arranged sets of water bottle,mints and purple napkins spread meaningfully among the participants.

As one of the presenters was getting into the second part of her presentation – appologizing to Mr. Chairman for running behind schedule before starting the section of challenges and lessons learned from the role played by the organization she represents in the unprecedented “scale-up of aid in the wake of the outbreak” - in my peripheral view I caught a glimpse of the garden, where a young unkempt looking girl was being removed from the premises by a dignifiedly clad servant. She couldn’t have possibly jumped over the electric fence so her presence here must be a case of human failure (which has become too common in ZIm, what with the brain-drain and all). I made a mental note to mention my concerns about security to the hotel manager before making a point to personally close the curtains, to avoid witnessing further scenes that would distract participants from the topic at hand.

With the room freshly darkened by my inspired gesture, the powerpoint slides become more vivid and meaningful and I have allowed myself a rare moment of reminiscence.

Zim really is an ideal HRI location and the past few years have been good to us. For the average HRI employee, Harare is a suitably comfortable location, featuring a vast choice of dignified accommodation as well as a solid infrastructure and a vibrant expat community, served by what may very well be the region's best "domestic support", conveniently accomodating due to the current unfortunate economic realities. To the outside world however, Zim is a very rough place where access to the most basic supplies is a rare and expensive luxury while oppression, poverty and despair consume a once-glorious country making the misery index soar to very respectable levels.

Both camps are right of course, which is not only good for HRI staff’s street-cred, but also for that small matter of hazard pay and the monthly shopping trips to Johannesburg and R&Rs to Cape Town.

Sure, inconveniences such as having bank accounts in Botswana or, at least over the last two years or so, the difficulty to source quality petrol with suitable octane content as recommended by the manufacturer of our brand new fleet of Ford Explorers (purchased during the cholera outbreak with emergency funds made available to HRI by one of our main donors) are real and they do diminish the quality of life ever so slightly. But somebody has got to do this job and we take pride in the readiness of our staff to rough it when there is no other way.

Anyhow, I’d better intervene and bring the proceedings to an end. The organizers of the currently ongoing Harare International Festival of the Arts have gracefully offered us a few VIP tickets and I really must have a nap before cocktail hour.

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