Airplanes – Waking up the Airport

 We arrived first and when the noise of the engine stopped the deathly quiet was disturbing.  Then it was immensely pleasurable as I remembered a sequence of beautiful mornings in Zimbabwe several years before.  This is a feeling only an African morning can truly give.  Peace and quiet.  Yesterday’s heat has been dispersed into the sky, the nighttime insects have all headed for home with the impending light, the daytime ones are too groggy to make a difference.  Most people are still asleep.  You have the wide open landscape to yourself.  I often think that the African Sunsets are the most dramatic in the world, but the rare sunrises I have seen surpass even those.  Whereas the sun drops quickly at night, you have a long lead in for the sunrise.  The light increases Oh so gradually.  Deep purples give way to roaring reds which are reflected by duck shell blue in the west.  The starry sky lightens and only the strongest remain as the daylight advances.  The ground reveals itself; first its form, then its texture, finally its colour.

 Then noise echoes around.  A hundred cockerels greet the sun, children start to cry, galvanized buckets are clashed as people start to wash.

 Then, when its entrance has been suitably signposted, the sun emerges from behind the distant hills and rises quickly into the sky.  The beautiful soft air, slightly damp and refreshingly cool begins to evaporate as the heat of the reflected light radiates back into the air.

 I had twenty minutes to appreciate all this as I stood in Kigoma airfield, wandering around, kicking last night’s termite tunnels on the ground, in the vain hope that I might disturb a marching colony.  But these soil warriors had long since moved on.

 Another vehicle’s headlights came out of the bush and a man in a business suit with two lackeys turned up.  They greeted me well enough, but then jabbered in Kiswahili, the lackeys and my driver laughing respectfully at the suited man’s comments.

 I wandered further away.

 Two women arrived in another vehicle, loaded with plastic bags, holdalls and babies.  They sat in the vehicles, were greeted by the others and we all paced expectantly around the building.

I had realized that there was just one plane landed in the airfield, a small biplane some distance off.  I had expected that the UNHCR flight would come in from somewhere else (I couldn’t believe that a pilot would overnight in Kigoma).  But I was wrong.  Another vehicle arrived and several men got out.  One was clearly the pilot, dressed in the standard uniform with the meaningless lapels.  The other two were dressed also in uniform; the standard uniform of a public servant who did his job but no more – a striped shirt and a pair of jeans.  This was the UNHCR agent in Kigoma.

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Airplanes – Change of plan

Unfortunately there was one part of the equation that had been omitted; the efficiency of Air Tanzania.  I was disturbed to find out when I reached Bujumbura in Burundi that my Air Tanzania flight had stopped running two weeks before hand, and that there was very little option for getting out of Kigoma.  One option was to take a three day train ride through the centre of the country.  Another was to go back to Bujumbura, on to Nairobi and down to Dar es Salaam.  Expensive.

 The third and final route short of a back breaking drive across the country that would have taken the rest of the year, was to hitch a lift on a small biplane which made the journey across the western Tanzanian refugee camps.

 This was the option I took, courtesy of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).  Unfortunately the plane left at 6 am, and that was why, half an hour beforehand, I was bouncing along the tarmacced road out of Kigoma on the way to the airport.

 Kigoma probably counts as the smallest International Airport I have ever come across.  I had reached it after a forty-minute flight from Bujumbura, down Lake Tanganyika, bumping over the thermals that marked the boundary between the lake and Tanzania and rocking down to a grassy landing.  The taxi took thirty seconds (Heathrow please note) and we had to unload our own bags (Heathrow please do NOT note).  We wandered across the gravel into a small building where a very kind man filled in our immigration cards and stamped the passport, then we lumbered our way to customs where a nice lady prodded at my dirty clothes, smiled and we were on our way.

 On the way out of Kigoma, things were even quieter.  This was an internal flight, so there were no customs or immigration staff.  The airport is not on the main road, and you have to drive down one of the most rutted roads in Africa to reach the terminal.  It involved traversing several ravines, bouncing over many runnels and easing down and up several gullies before reaching the airport.  It had been dark when we left Kigoma, now the first rays of deep red light were glowing in the eastern sky.

Kigoma Airport

Kigoma Airport

Airplanes – Early Morning Call

“Knock Knock”.  I was already up but Leonard wanted another tip.  I struggled to put some trousers on and went to the door.  My half naked self met Leonard’s half naked self.  “Yes”

 “your early morning call, sir”.

 “Thank you”, I said, being as polite as I could at 5:30 in the morning.  At least I had settled the bill the night before.  I didn’t want to have the hassle over the laundry bill when I had a plane to catch.

 I hurriedly washed and got fully dressed, did the usual rigorous routine, Passport, bags, keys, wallet, cheques, passport, cheques, keys, wallet, passport, wallet, hotel room key, passport, wallet, malaria tablets, wallet, keys, airline tickets, passport, wallet.

When I was entirely certain that no matter how many times I was going to check, something was going to be left behind, and at least ensuring that it wasn’t something that would prevent me from getting out of the country and back to the UK, I locked the hotel room door, panicked, went back in and did a final check under the bed, and then lugged the suitcase up the few steps to the lobby.

 Leonard had kindly put on the TV for me while I waited for the driver.  It seems to all Africans that we actually enjoy watching CNN.  Little do they know that I would rather have a large hole drilled into my head while Tammy Winette is being played the background, but they don’t seem to care.  Perhaps they enjoy passing on this sort of torture.  The problem with CNN is that it is so in your face that when there is little else to distract your attention you are irresistibly drawn towards it.  And despite the fact that in the twenty repetitions of the same news story you get in twenty minutes, they manage not to convey any news whatsoever, you still watch hoping that something new might come on.

 It was only a matter of a few moments before the driver arrived at the Aqua Lodge in Kigoma, western Tanzania, where I had been working on the Lake Tanganyika Biodiversity Project.  I had been very efficient and booked an Air Tanzania flight from Kigoma to Dar es Salaam, my next port of call, while I was still in the UK.  It left at a civilized time of day and, via Tabora, reached Dar es Salaam in a couple of hours.

Sand in the Sandwiches – Won’t do this again

If you want to read the first post in Sand in the Sandwiches, click here

After Mauritania, I did one more trip for NRI as an employee, and two further trips as a consultant for them.  Then I moved to the Virgin Islands.  During that trip to Mauritania, I snapped.  Something inside me told me that short term consultancies like this were really not the answer, that we needed a bigger gameplan both for our own sanity and to ensure we kept our clients up with the progress.  I argued it out with both Bob and Judith one night.  I lost the argument, but only because Bob really was a client and Judith reacted to clients wishes and would do anything for anybody.  My problem was that neither of us were really computer experts, we were geographers who used computers to solve our problems.  I think we did it rather well and got a reputation in NRI as fixers of GIS.  But we never thought like computer programmers, and if you are writing complex applications which involve data, tools and interfaces, you need to plan very carefully how what the client wants before the work was done.  Although we had Ould Babah over a few months before, it was really Ba we should have talked to, and when we arrived in Mauritania with what we thought was a finished product, we found that we had to constantly make revisions and updates.  Some of these were trivial, spelling changes or new colour schemes, others were far from simple, although it was often hard to explain to the clients why.  I spent long hours during the day while Judith trained updating programs, reworking the database structures, and that work spilled over into the late afternoons and evenings back at the apartments.  When the changes were made, there would be further problems.  Occasionally they would change their minds and I would go back to previous versions (one thing I had learnt was never throw away the older versions until you were sure you had finished).  At the end of the whole trip, we still had a huge wishlist from Ba of what other changes he wanted in the database, the problem being that we had now used up the money for the project and any new changes would be under goodwill, something Judith was willing to give, but myself, with work in the Caribbean and elsewhere to get ready for, I just did not have the time or energy to do things for free.

 So my argument with Bob and Judith was that the whole project was topsy turvy and we developed the system incrementally instead of planning, and I said we had to draw the line somewhere and say no to some of these changes.  Bob in particular saw that as a refusal for a computer expert to meet the needs of the client, which happens to be my biggest complaint of software writers who would rather develop something they know instead of answering the clients needs.  My work on the RAMSES, Lake Tanganyika and Caribbean CRIS had shown I took to heart making systems useful for other people.  I was quite hurt when I heard it being used against me.  I could not get them to realise that what I was complaining about was the whole process of developing such an application; we should have iterations, there should be a prototype that is fully tested by the people who have to use the software day in day out, not the bosses, we then have a full version and then a final version and at each stage we needed to interact face to face with the clients, no matter how far away they were.  I vowed there and then that I would never work in this rather enthusiastic but haphazard way again, and I never have.

Mauritania was bloody hard work.  Most of my trips were bloody hard work, but even here, where I got very little time either to myself or out of the rigid routine, I managed to have some wonderful experiences, see marvellous sights, and above all, despite the fact I seemed to be turning into a tired old traveller, there were some incredible novelty to come to grips with in this enchanting country.

Sand in the Sandwiches – Soaking up others’ relaxation

We walked along the strand for a good half mile, joining many families from the city out doing the same. It was the first time in Africa I had really seen people out daytripping.  In most places I have been through sub-Saharan Africa, most leisure time is spent hanging round bars drinking or chilling out near the house; few people travel out into the country, go to the beach or promenade around city centres like they do in Latin America or the Caribbean.  Even in Sri Lanka, I was amazed at the number of coach trips, mainly run by religious organisations, that went round the major temples in the country.  I supposed it was the lack of spare cash in Africa that meant people were forced to relax close to their houses, but in Harare, Dar es Salaam and Nairobi I had seen sizeable middle class societies and very little of this kind of activity.

Saturday Afternoon Promenading

Saturday Afternoon Promenading

  And yet, here were many families from the city walking up and down the beach, many muttering their “Bon Après Midi’s” to us as we passed by.  Once clear of the fishing boats, there were few disturbances on the beach (except for a number of car drivers who were passing up and down along self made tracks).  I saw a large dead puffa fish with its deadly spines on the strand.  A couple of old skeletons of boats were half covered in sand.  Judith did not want to walk far, even though the air was curiously refreshing in the late afternoon.  We stopped near a small dune, which I climbed and looked out over the desert.  In the distance was a large beige tent, a cluster of Moorish families seemed to be heading that way for some event.

Tents in the desert

Tents in the desert

  It was a blast from the past, the idea of living in houses in gridirons streets in cities is still a novel one, and one which sticks in some people’s craws.  Ould Babah told me one day he felt he had to live in town with his job and all that, but he does not feel a free man unless he is out in the desert under his tent, living at one with the stars.

We headed back to town, trying to persuade the taxi driver to take us a different route proved futile; he was paid to go there and back, even a few more Ougiya’s would not sway him.  But he did stop for us on the very edge of the city where a couple of young daredevils were showing off motorbike tricks to a gathering crowd.  Nearby a bunch of youths were playing football; women and men mixed in the crowd that watched nearby.  Despite all the differences between Mauritanian society and my own, it was still clear we shared so much; they laughed, they cried, they hurt, they loved, they lived and died like anyone.  And here, on a Saturday afternoon, they were relaxing and enjoying all sorts of aspects of life like the world over.

Sand in the Sandwiches – Trip to the Port Au Peche

We had little time to explore the country outside of work.  With just two short weeks we had to hit the ground running.  Additionally we got our weekends confused.  Mauritania, being Muslim, had Friday and Saturday off, but the Government decided to switch it to Saturday and Sunday during our stay.  We ended up working an extra day on the Friday to keep up, but then have to be back at work on Sunday and missing another day of the weekend the next weekend as well.  We only had about two days off in the 16 days, and on one of those we worked at the apartment.  On the other, we took the afternoon off and went to the coast.  Nouakchott is inland by about four miles, and the sprawl of the city has not quite reached the coast.  We had been recommended to go to the fishing landing site on the Atlantic coast to see what happened there and a taxi man snaked his way through the better suburbs of the north of the city to the road to the coast.  Where the city gave out the tarmacced road headed out across a sandy scrubland.  The most bountiful thing out here was no plant or animal, but plastic.  Millions and millions of plastic bags had been blown out here from the city.  I knew it was desecrating the natural environment the world over, but here where there was little vegetation, the bags were stark, and with few rain showers only the sun would eventually break them down, and while the older ones looked decayed, the quantity of new bags was increasing exponentially.

 The topography around Nouakchott was flat and repetitive, and only a few small sand dunes to the west marked the coastline, that and a number of superstructures on the skyline.  To the south was the port, and a set of silos that seemed to be connected to a concrete factory.  Immediately in front a bunch of concrete eggshells marked the roof of Port de Pêche, the fishing port.  It was hectic on this Saturday afternoon, but the taxi driver insisted on forcing his way to the centre of the throng by the ramps.  We got out of the vehicle and told him to wait for about forty minutes and started to explore.  Like the world over, fish were being sold by a bunch of women on the hard, the men were mainly smoking and arguing in little groups.  We worked ourselves past the plastic trays and basketry, large thick bloody pelagic fish in piles, their severed heads in a bucket nearby.  We walked towards the seaward side, passing traders, customers and loads of little kids trying to see what they could cadge.  To get to the beach itself, we had to weave our way through hundreds of boats, long wooden structures tapering upwards at both ends to ride the harsh Atlantic rollers, cross beams for a bunch of hardy fishermen to sit – up to twelve in a crew.  Most of the boats on the beach were unseaworthy, years of neglect leaving them to the mercy of the sand, the salt and the spray.  All the others were brightly coloured.  Out to sea too about a hundred boats buffeted by a high surf.  We could not quite work out how the fishermen got out there, whether they hitched lifts on the other boats launched form the beach or had little boats stashed away somewhere.  We saws why some were anchored, to haul these huge cumbersome boats up and down the beach took a Herculean effort.  Judith and I watched seven or eight guys manhandling one of the boats. Rather than try to bring them up bow first, they took them parallel to the shore and wiggled them first to the left, then up to the right and they zig-zagged up about a dozen or more times to get it beyond the high tide..  These guys were huge, most well over six feet and built as broad, but they still struggled manfully to move the boats.  The beach was full of these zig zag trails.  Most were wearing huge yellow mackintoshes and floppy sou’westers.  I was amazed they needed this so close to the heat of the desert, but when I tested the water, it was extremely cold, and there was a stiff cool breeze blowing onshore.  The cold water meant the fisheries here are very rich, upwellings were bringing vital nutrients to the surface and attracting large numbers of fish.  To get the fish from the boat to market, several ass stood by harnessed into two wheeled carts.  They would haul it back to the huge superstructure we had arrived at.

Sand in the Sandwiches – Email and Computers

Ghana was the first place I sent emails for work, from Nina Chachu’s British Council office.  It was a couple of years later before I sent  personal messages out.  But here in Mauritania, underneath the apartments was an Internet café.  Each evening, Judith who was an expectant grandmother, would head down there, get a little slip of paper with a password on it and get typing away.  There was a bank of about ten machines and mainly young teenagers were typing away on chatrooms and bulletin boards like kids across the world.  A few were doing research through the search machines.  Judith would get on her hotmail account in a few seconds and read her messages.  Typing was a problem.  Although the keyboard had the English QWERTY layout, it was connected to the computer using the French system.  About a third of the letters are in different positions on their keyboards and so when she typed a Q she got an A.  I would sit next to her, waiting so we could go to dinner and be sniggering away at her attempts at being coherent.

 This was development in its truest form, a technology that not only had transferred quickly to the African world (in 1995 even I was amongst the sceptics who thought it would be another ten years before email hit it off), but had become such an enabler to a new generation.  Communication had been disastrously poor in Africa for so many years, but the connection of the Internet had made it work at almost the same speed as the rest of the world.

 Computers themselves had been a relatively novel idea in Africa when I first started travelling there.  I remember walking in on the Technical Contractors working for DFID in long term posts and seeing a gleaming IBM 286 with this amazing new package called Windows on it that meant you did not have to type every command in from scratch.  In the whole outfit that worker was in, it would be the only computer.  The boss had nothing like that – if he needed typing done there was a secretary in the corner of the room or behind a door that could type out any dictate on an old Remington.  Memos were hand written.  Data were stored on large logs bound in leather, growing dusty and brown with age and susceptible to any local termites.  Calendars were on desks or on walls.  Pictures and files were stored in huge filing cabinets.  Most of all in those offices in Africa, the rooms were almost always Spartan and sometimes near empty.  A desk with a drawer would sit in the middle, a couple of wooden chairs were around, a picture of a president on a wall and the odd map crumbling away to join the dust.  A white shiny box that hummed was completely out of place here.

On so many projects, I would have to install a computer when I arrived.  Most of my time waiting to go on a trip was waiting to confirm that a machine shipped from UK had arrived in the country and had cleared the weighty bureaucracy.  When I got there I would usually be knee deep in plastic bags and polystyrene trying to fix wire A in socket B and plug X3 into gap N34, making sure that it did not get twisted with part N33 (usually an odd shaped piece of plastic that looked best suited for garrotting a chicken) and so on.  It was always the most nervous part of a trip.  If the machine had become damaged in transit, or something had been missed off the order, then the rest of the trip could be completely screwed.  In Ghana, the two machines were left in an open-sided customs shed at Accra airport, which meant that during the heavy rainstorms of the two weeks before my arrival, the cardboard container had more or less disintegrated.  Despite the fact the computer itself was sealed in plastic bags, some damp had seeped in and I had great difficulty making those terminal s boot up properly all the time I was there.  Once the machine worked, I had to load all the software I had brought with me and the data.  The first machines I worked on overseas had no CD driver and I had to spend hour after hour dumping large zipped up files on floppy disk over to the machine.  When CD’s came along, the data could be transferred in one go, as long as the CD had written properly at the other end and the machine was compatible with the type of CD I was using.  The pitfalls were endless and I was never completely happy until the application I had written showed up on the screen in a similar way to how it had appeared in the UK.  I always scheduled two days when setting up machines.  People were amazed, and indeed it was no problem if the machine was assembled without a hitch – it took nor more than two hours.  But if there was a glitch, I could spend days trying to get things going, and when you are only on a short term trip it is extremely difficult to justify big chunks of time to being an amateur electrician.  The fear stemmed from the fact that if there was anything seriously wrong with the machine, there was no way of fixing it.  For many years, for one set of software, the local representative was based in Cairo; great if you were in Harare.  There was no such thing as a computer repair shop and even if there was, it was no guarantee that they could repair the workshop. There is always that anxiety that if you went up to the store to fix a memory problem, you would see a man walk across to your beloved box with a welding tool.

 Which is why it was amazing when I was in Mauritania that there was a computer workshop.  When we had a problem with the machine (some noxious electrical smoke came out of the modem when we tried to connect it to the Internet), we just drove to the centre of the city and were able to fix it.  A rather smart shop frontage had all the paper, printers boxes and razzmatazz that you could find in a computer superstore back home.  Ba had friends in this company, so we were taken through to the workshop behind.  In a dimly lit room, with the slightest of  air conditioning and no dust control, computers were being opened up all over the place.  There were pieces of memory, hard disk, fans and half opened keyboards all over the place.  Ba’s friend took our machine and roughly opened it up and took a good look at the modem.  He could see no problem and he booted it up, plugged in a bit of Ethernet cable and was able to show a website up on the screen.  So at least we knew it was not a hardware problem.  He sorted us out with new numbers to plug in for setting up and closed the machine up.  We were back in the office within two hours.