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Robbed. Or not.

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Flower on Lake Victoria

I had a dream last night. I had just arrived in a country on field mission, and had left my computer bag and suitcase in the car while having a quick bite in a restaurant on the way from the airport. When I came back, the windows were open and everything in the car was stolen.

Made me think of the times I have been robbed. Knowing I have been to the world’s worst (and poorest) places, only few times actually:

Once my attache case was stolen from the car in Goma. In Kampala, they opened a window on the ground floor and grabbed everything they could get hold of through the safety bars.
In transit from Angola to Malawi, they stole $1,000 from the double bottom in my camera bag in Zimbabwe.
And in Rome, they robbed the house I was living in, and nicked the GPS out of my car.

But once, I was really lucky. A few years ago, I was driving around in Kampala, trying to find a place that sold galvanized nuts and bolts – a rare commodity back then. After parking the car near the matatu station I sped out of the car to a shop, only to find that… I had no wallet. Went back to the car, and recalled I had put my wallet on my lap while driving. Probably it had fallen out of the car as I got out.
I was sitting in the car, my heart in my shoes (Flemish saying) while thinking of my wallet’s content: National and Ugandan ID card, credit cards, cash, drivers license, debit cards… God, it would take me ages to replace it all. And many phone calls to block all cards…

A guy knocked on the side window. He said “Are you missing anything, sir?”. “Yes”, I sighed. He asked: “I think I know where to get it, how much is it worth to you?” I answered: “Two hundred shilling”.
“Wait”, he mumbled and sped off.

A few minutes later, which seemed like hours, he re-appeared and gave me my wallet. I could not believe it. Everything was still in it. All credit cards, all papers, even the cash.

I could have kissed the guy. I gave him 300 shilling. He returned my gesture with a big smile. I waved and drove off. Thinking of how lucky, and how blessed I was that day.

Written by Peter

February 23rd, 2009 at 2:51 pm

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Technology and Humanitarian Relief Work

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I am a relief worker. Yet, I am not the one handing out food to the hungry, I do not help stacking bricks to build houses in remote villages damaged by floods. Nor do I work in a hospital taking care of those wounded in a civil war. I am a technical person and work in a technical area. I have a support function in the chain of things. Sometimes I feel far from the reality of the actual relief work (see this post and this one). Rewarding then are those moments when one of the technical products or services I am involved in, catches on, and is seen as having a direct and relevant impact on our relief work.

I just found back this article, written by Paul Harris in Alertnet (a Reuters subsidiary) ten years ago. It describes a system called DFMS, the Deep Field Mailing System. DFMS brought ‘affordable Email’ to the masses using ‘free air waves’, during the times where satellite communications costed USD 5 per minute at 9,600 baud…
This post might be a bit techy, but interesting for those interested :-) Allow me my 5 minutes of glory, ha!

By Paul Harris

KAMPALA, Nov 16 1997 (Alertnet) –
Peter is an enthusiast. Peter Casier, a 38 year-old Belgian, has headed up the World Food Programme’s Technical Support Unit (TSU) in Kampala, Uganda for the past two and a half years. Technical support may not sound exactly like the most exciting end of the aid business but, in fact, the Uganda-based operation has become the model for telecommunications operations throughout the UN: that’s why Peter and members of his team flew out from Uganda Saturday night – destination Honduras on open ended assignment to set up telecomms for the Central American relief effort.

Telecomms are just three years old in WFP. They started in Kampala with Peter and his team. Today, the 15-strong team – 13 locals and just two internationals – handle satellite, HF and VHF comms, IT, computers, provision of power, and repair and maintenance of all electronic equipment right the way across a broad swathe of central Africa from Brazzaville in the west to Dar es Salaam in the east.

The WFP telecomms operation is based on high frequency (HF) communications which are both prevalent and familiar to UN staff. Kampala has integrated 82 stations (including ten e-mail carriers) into the network and, most significantly, has devised the technology whereby e-mail communications can be reliably exchanged using HF radios connected to a data modem: what is termed the Deep-Field Mailing System (DFMS). Currently, the system is handling more than 200,000 e-mails a month, representing three gigabytes of data, both within the region and to and from the Internet.
Peter is justifiably proud of the achievement. “The great thing is we can be totally independent of any public infrastructure – telephones, electricity or communications.”

There are several advantages to DFMS, which became fully operational during 1997, as usage was extended to WFP’s Implementing Partners and sister UN agencies. The cost savings have been substantial; field security has been improved and operational effectiveness enhanced. Additionally, remote locations and field workers have been connected to the Internet. DFMs utilises a standard e-mail programme which can carry any type of attachment, be it Word document, digital picture or, even, sound. Each station – office, car or mobile HQ – has its own unique Internet e-mail address; all are connected by HF radio, or local telephone lines, to an e-mailserver which is, in turn, connected to the Kampala nerve centre by HF radio, local telephone lines or the Internet. Kampala is connected to the Internet via a dedicated 64 Kbps full time dedicated link to a local service provider “direct into the dish” to go around any local failures.

The monthly running cost of regional DFMS is just US$10,400 comprising landline and Internet link costs. if this system were still to be running on conventional fax traffic, it is estimated that the monthly cost would be in excess of US$1.5 million and the annual saving in the region is reckoned at round US$20 million ! The saving on using commercial e-mail at $0.30 per Kbyte is still very substantial indeed – around US$8 million a year.

There have been some dramatic and successful uses of DFMS. HF e-mail stations were set up during the East Zaire emergency and an air ops base to cover evacuations from Uvira was set up at Entebbe within just six hours. WFP was among the first UN agencies to enter Congo/Brazzaville after the civil war. The TSU team entered Brazzaville armed with a mobile HF radio e-mail system installed in a car and a digital camera (Ed: see this shortstory). As the report observes, “Digital pictures were taken from Brazzaville town, the remains of our former offices and UN compounds, and emailed to WFP Kampala and Rome, as well as to UNICEF HQ while they were still shooting in the streets next to us…”.

TSU in Kampala have also developed the ‘141’,as it is known. Not just a Ugandan-registered WFP heavy duty Landcruiser, Peter says “it is a concept”: a complete mobile emergency communications centre. TSU has equipped it with extra batteries for powering telecomms equipment; an e-mail station using HF radio; HF voice comms; VHF mobile radio; air band radio for communicating with helicopters and fixed wing aircraft; satellite telephone; computer, digital camera and printer; and radio masts. The vehicle is kept in a constant state of readiness: emergency kits are put in the back, it can be driven onto a Buffalo aircraft and landed in the bush. “All the main communications features are up as the car drives out of the plane, with full features deployed within the next five minutes. You can send/receive e-mails and photographs to and from anywhere in the world, telephone to/from anywhere in the world and support handheld radios to a radius of 30 km.”

The concept has been well received further afield and a ‘141’ will shortly be operating in Honduras. The Kampala-based unit has been favourably reviewed by UNSECOORD (the UN Security Coordinator’s Office) and World Vision plans to equip several vehicles similarly. So successful has DFMS proved, a commercial imitator, Bushnet, set up by two ‘breakaway’members of Peter’s team, has established itself in Kampala and is working with both commercial and NGO clients providing deep field e-mail connections. They, in turn, have been so successful, two other companies in Uganda are preparing similar services. The NGO Uganda Connectivity has set up e-mail postal services in remote areas using the TSU’s technology and manufacturer Codan, a name familiar to all NGOs and IGOs using HF radios, uses the Kampala TSU for consultancy work in exchange for equipment.

As Peter says, “The UN has developed a system that has been picked up commercially by big companies who want to exploit it. I believe this operation is unique.”

His claims are graphically endorsed as the telephone rings in his office. It’s the WFP Emergency Response Centre in Rome. He listens intently. “I guess we could be on a plane tomorrow,” he asserts. And then, covering the ‘phone with his hand, “Right, everybody. We’re off to Honduras !”.

The humanitarian relief work is a weird world. Check out this post if you want to have a clearer insight.

Written by Peter

September 20th, 2007 at 12:07 am

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One Thing I Didn’t Do This Sabbatical

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As I said before, there was no set plan what I wanted to do during this sabbatical. One thing I did think off was to write a novel. A love story partially set in Africa.
I wrote the first twenty pages in the Caribbean but never completed it. Oh, and I wrote the ending too.
I don’t have a plot. Not written anyway. It is all in my head. That, and the title. Here are the first lines:

At Last the Sun Rose.
A novel to be finished. By P.Casier

At last the sun rose, in a veil of pink, orange and red, bright, and vivid. The clouds forming a low mist ring around the hills, tried to hold on as long as they could, sheltering the valleys from the warm sun to come. Wrinkles of smoke coming from some huts and villages in-between the hills mixed with the mist, creating the unique intense smell of humid wood fire –almost sandalwood – he always linked to this place. The leaves from the banana trees, the palms, the mango trees in the garden would be dripping of dew by now..
The mango tree. ‘The big one’, she called the one in the corner of the garden in his house. ‘You know, Jack, the big one, is one of the reasons why I always come here, to your house’, she once said laying with her head on his chest on the deck chairs on the terrace, ‘Him and you.. The big one always gives me shade when I want to sit here on your terrace, and you… you… give me everything else.. almost..’ Her mouth had curled into her typical mysterious smile.. Sometimes she was so difficult to follow, to understand, to grasp. Spoke in a symbolic language one moment, and was so direct in her remarks and questions at other times that it hurt. Jack remembered that moment. He had kissed her forehead and stroke her hair. The moment, that weekend had been perfect, and there were no needs for words.

The sun climbed fast, and he got out of the vehicle, looking at the sky.. ‘Where were they?’ Wagonga, from the air control tower, called him on his walkietalkie. ‘Jack, channel 14, HF’. He jumped back in the car, switched on the shortwave radio, and tuned the antenna. The background noise disappeared and he heard clearly ‘Roger Entebbe Control, runway 14, approaching and switching to VHF 118.2. United Nations UK95 out’. Good old Sam’s voice… He did not see the twin engine plane yet, but he knew which direction it would come from, and tried to focus his sight on the horizon. Once again both Jack and Sam were connected to her. Both of them had, without hesitation, taken control of the situation and done what needed to be done. ‘Lisa, my god, Lisa.’ He looked over Lake Victoria at the end of the runway, trying to spot the approaching plane, and imagined how the fishermen must be making their way for their daily catch of Nile Perch, the local delicatessen, and then tie the fish over the back of their bicycle and ride them to the market later today.
The Beechcraft plane had switched on its bright white landing lights, and for a while this was the only thing he could see, those lights, as it approached. Sam made a perfect landing, idled the pitch of the propellers and turned onto the tarmac in front of the airport building, coming to a standstill fifty meters from Jack’s car and the Red Cross plane next to it.

For a moment, there was no more Entebbe airport, no more people rushing about, getting the Red Cross plane ready. No more friends and colleagues standing around him, no more doctor and nurse walking to Sam’s plane. He just focused on the door of the plane. It swept open, and Sam, good old Sam, pulled the stairs out, and started to give orders to the ground crew. Sam came up to him: ‘Jack, come with me.’ and snapped him out of his daydreaming. No more shouting now, but a soft, considerate, determined voice. ‘Jack, she came to conscience just for a minute during the ride. She called for you. Go with her, you have my blessing. Take care of her, she is in a bad shape.’. As he turned away his head, not to show his tears, his voice broke ‘Please take good care of her, she is now in your hands. Yours and God’s.’

Jack’s mechanical and practical mind took over, as he walked to the stairs of Jack’s plane. He instructed the handling crew to take her stretcher slowly and horizontally. The nurse held the plastic bag of serum up, and slowly they moved her to the waiting plane. Before he knew it, the engines started up, and he was sitting next to her.
‘Lisa, Lisa’, was all what his heart said, whispered, shouted, cried. It was weird, she did not look different from the last time he saw her, about two weeks ago, when she left for her usual one month tour of duty in Gulu, about one hours flight north of here. A normal goodbye, a hug, a kiss, a ‘be careful’. But he forgot in this line of work, each goodbye might mean two people might never see each other again. ‘How much we all had taken life for granted. Did I really enjoy every single moment I shared with her? To the fullest? It might have all been past now, with no more future. Never a word again from her, not a glance, not a touch, not a breath’, he thought, as he touched her hand and moved a brush of her long black hair way from her face. Her face felt hot, but it looked like she was sleeping, in a soft deep sleep, resting. The doctor lifted the white sheet covering Lisa, and only then Jack saw the wound in her side, and the blood on the sheet. The deep cut from the machete.

Maybe for the next sabbatical?

Written by Peter

May 3rd, 2007 at 9:56 pm

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My Head Fell Off the Cabinet

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I got this hat in 2002 as a good-bye present from the staff in our Afghanistan and Pakistan offices. It is an Afghani Chief’s hat.
A colleague of mine kept on referring to it as my ‘ead. I understood ‘head’, and had no clue what he was talking about. “Nice ‘ead!”. “Gee, well, thanks, I had it all my life!”. “No, the ‘ead, not your ‘ead!” Anyway, since then, I referred to my hat as my ‘head’. This morning, it fell off the bookshelf, where it had been sitting quietly for the past few years. My ‘ead fell down.. (and was nicely dented).

Anyway, that is besides the point, also besides the point is that I got this ‘ead at a party the Islamabad staff threw for me the evening before I was to fly to my new duty station. That was just before Martin and Robert thought it would be a good idea to have a ‘last one’ in the Islamabad UN club, and they introduced me to a bottle of “Skone Aquavit”. I could not remember much anymore after that. I do remember, I missed my plane the next morning, and had the worse hangover ever! I went back to the office. Martin and Robert looked at me with a real wide grin, and C. turned her head away… I must have had a look with question marks on my face, as Robert said “You don’t remember anything anymore, do you?”. Well I did not. Apparently, we got pretty jolly, started to dial everyone who was so unlucky to have their number stored on my mobile phone. ‘Last numbers dialed’ revealed we called all over the world. Once again my public apologies to all!!! I know it must have been late in Sydney, and early in California! And sorry if I said anything to offend you!
During that ‘dark’ period, we seemed to have run into C. plus husband who had a late dinner in the club. I must have made a disgrace of myself, as since then, C.’s husband does not want to talk to me anymore.
Martin also told me that the traffic cop did not think it was funny when we stood at the crossroad on the way back home, and I pulled out a whistle from my pocket too as I claimed to do a better job than him.
I think that was the last time I got drunk.

Written by Peter

February 6th, 2007 at 1:35 am

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The Ugly Duckling

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I thought Mats was joking in the email he sent me, while I was out on mission. ‘It finally has been put out of its misery, Peter.’, he said, ‘It is done now. Its suffering has ended. Your Landrover is no more.. A wall fell on it.’

I looked at the pictures showing how the seven meter tall wall surrounding our office parking had collapsed. My car was covered with tons of rubble. I could barely see part of the side window and a tire sticking out.

The guys in the Kampala office always took the piss out of my Landrover. They said the car could only make it from the workshop to home and would then break down. “As your house is up a hill, you do not need the engine to come down anyway”, they joked, “Just release the hand break – correction, that does not work anyway -,so pull the stone from underneath the wheel – and let it run off the hill until you reach the workshop. You let them work on it for a day, and in the evening you can make it up the hill again!” They exaggerated a bit, though… It was not that bad! Most of the time, I could make it home twice without a repair pit stop! The funny thing was, as they repaired one thing, something else broke. I suspected they used my car for spare parts. Or took out a working piece, only to put it back again once I returned the car the next day, charging me an arm and a leg for the work done.. The fuel tank always showed ‘empty’ when I picked up the car also. And my light bulbs would disappear.

The car was a challenge, I have to admit. I bought it second hand. Well, fifth-hand was more like it. It was a dirt-blue, 10 year old short-wheel base Landrover 90. It looked sturdy and quite macho with its squared shape and minimum of comfort. The seats were a sheet of plywood covered with foam filled pleather, which always glued to my legs in the heat. There were no electronic car accessories and those few electrical features like the headlights or the windscreen wipers were controlled by sturdy handles, not touch buttons. The gas and break pedals squealed like a piglet readied for the slaughterhouse. I had to refill the brake fluid every other day. I had a spare gas tank installed, as the car consumed so much fuel I had to stop by the gas station every three days. To get the fuel from the spare to the main tank, I had to switch on an electric pump which I think they got from a washing machine. Well, at least the noise resembled that of a washing machine.

The boys and their toys.. I had always dreamed of owning a Landrover. Something to do with the pictures from the Camel Trophy. I often thought of the Camel Trophy, driving around in Kampala with roads flooded from a rain squall and water almost reaching into the cabin. Most of the time I had to take off my shoes and roll up my trousers when driving during the rainy season. Negotiating my way up and down the hill to reach home was no less of a challenge. I did not want to spend money to replace the old tires, which had no more grip – I needed all my money for the mechanical repair anyway. This made driving in the lowest gear, skidding left and right in the slippery mud, in between potholes and ditches the rain had cut through the steep mud track up ‘our hill’, certainly resembled a Camel Trophy challenge. I was always glad I made it home in one piece. You might not believe it, but I always actually looked forward to the adventure of driving home in the evening. Like arriving home in the evening was an achievement.

When Tine joined me in Kampala and saw the car for the first time, she laughed and called it ‘our ugly duckling’. She needed a car as there was not one shop to buy everything that keeps a household running. Even just the food, we would have to buy from different shops, spread all over town. Often the wives of the expats would call each other with the latest shopping news.. ‘You know near Nakasero, there is a small shop on the corner where they had French cheese yesterday.’ or ‘Remember the butcher in Kabalagala? They start selling packed lamb chops as of next week!’. ‘Fresh yoghurt at the Star supermarket near the matatu station today!’. So Tine got the Landrover. I admired her, six months pregnant and racing around town, from shop to shop. She said it took a bit of planning to find a parking spot facing down hill, so she could jump start the car in second gear, as the battery was dead most of the time. She explained in certain flat areas of town, the kids would recognize her – and the car – and hang around until she got out of the shop, as they knew she would ask them to push-start the car. Tine would always give them some change when they helped her.

At first Lana, two years old then, did not like the Landrover. Having only front seats, we had to fix her baby seat with straps and ropes in the back. But each trip we did, she would cry her heart out. We could never figure out what was wrong, until we noticed she always tried to get up to look through the windows while her shoulder straps would keep her down. So we raise the baby seat by strapping it onto two big aluminum packing crates. Then she was happy. As the car would bounce around over the unpaved roads, we had to fix the seat real well with straps and buckles. It looked a bit like a pilot’s jump seat in a fighter plane. Our two year old in her jump seat…

My Landrover was not only famous for its mechanical problems. I never got its paperwork fixed either. First it took me a year to get the registration papers from the previous owner who had left the country. To get the car officially transferred to me, it had to go through inspection. The official inspection shop was not much more than a shack with a huge pit dug in the ground, and a guy holding out his hand asking for ‘Pesa’ (‘Money’). I always refused to give bribes and would answer him ‘Hakuna pesa’ (‘No money’). So my car never made it through inspection, even though it was in much better shape than the thousands of wrecks driving around in town…

And now the wall killed my car. Finally, the car was put out of its misery. I thought…! However, Edward, the landlord of our office building, felt so guilty about his wall falling on my car, he paid for the repair, in an ultimate attempt to revive it. Call it car-CPR ! The axles and chassis were still ok, it just needed ‘a bit’ of body work. He paid a ‘body work shop’ – another shack with a pit in the ground, to bang out all the dents and put in new windows. To top it all off, he had the car spray painted so it looked better than it ever did before. We towed my Landrover from the body work shop and left it parked in front of the office, as the body work had not solved its engine problems… If it was a human being, we could say, it was kept alive artificially, but could not live without external help…

To be honest with you, I almost gave up on our ugly duckling, by the time I got reassigned to Kosovo and had to sell off all of our belongings. Fred, one of our local technicians, bought the car for about a tenth of what I paid for it. That was not including all the repairs. Months later, my teasing colleagues wrote to me, a modern age miracle had happened: Fred had put a new engine in the Landrover, got the car registered in his name, and the ‘ugly duckling’ was now on the road again. Guess miracles do happen. On the other hand, probably it took a miracle to keep the old Landrover on the road in Uganda. With a bit of bribing. Or maybe it is just the patience needed to sit next to the car as it is being repaired to make sure they don’t steal parts of your engine, siphon off your fuel and run off with your light bulbs…

Continue reading The Road to the Horizon’s Ebook, jump to the Reader’s Digest of The Road.

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Written by Peter

January 20th, 2007 at 10:50 am

Posted in Stories

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