Saturday, August 6, 2011

Nabad Gelyo (Translation: Goodbye)

Despite the fact that this is very late in the coming (I have now been away for nearly three months), I decided that I would like to close this blog properly. My departure from AT was sad. I have never been very good at leaving. Leaving AT – the country, the project, the community members, the students, the teachers and local staff – was one of the hardest things I have ever done. The girls spent an entire week surprising me daily with my favorite activities, which included a scavenger hunt, a sunrise walk, fish feeding, a two on one basketball game (me versus Amal and Muna – hilarious) and a hike to Sheikh. It was incredible and I was constantly overwhelmed by how deeply I cared for everyone there.

Once I finally boarded the plane out of Berbera, I began the mourning process of letting go. I embarked on a six weeks adventure travelling overland in West Africa. Surprisingly, this turned out to be a great exercise and remedy to my feelings of loss and anxiety over separation. Hours and hours on public transport buses and bush taxis was fuel for thinking as I watched the landscape change out of the window. The more miles we covered, the more distance I began to put between myself and Abaarso Tech. I was able to commit time to process and reflect on everything I experienced there and how much I grew through those experiences and how fortunate I was to have participated in that opportunity.

I am now in Bungoma, Kenya, where I have been settling into my new job with the One Acre Fund for the past three weeks. My set up here is lovely and I work with a team of absolutely incredible individuals. I still follow the news coverage out of the Somaliland obsessively and email/Skype with our kids regularly (whom, by the way, are now on summer vacation!) and keep tabs on the progress of the school through our teachers. I feel immense pride when I recall everything that we have done there and take great joy in the knowledge that the students will continue to grow, as will the project, in my absence.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Leaving AT

Three full months since my last post – for anyone that reads regularly and monitors my well being through my blog, I am sorry for the time lapse in posting.

Things are going really well for the school and AT the organization. We are now two weeks into the final term of the school year. Our form two students will soon be in form three. It’s crazy how quickly time passes. Anyways, last term was extremely busy. Some of the highlights include selecting students to go on exchange next year at Worcester Academy in Massachusetts. We held ‘AT Opening Day’ where we invited the Hargeisa community to see all of the incredible academic work that our students have accomplished. This included a science fair, student speeches (topic was ‘the role of the nation-state in caring for asylum seekers’), a math competition, a basketball game and recognition for the finalists who applied for the Worcester Academy exchange. It was really incredible. Since I don’t see our students in class every day, I am always so shocked and so proud to see how much they have developed periodically. We had our second practice SAT test for the form two students. A couple of students are already starting to get near perfect scores on the math and decent scores on the English – great news since they will have to take the real thing next year. Our girls and boys basketball teams played their first games against Hargeisa teams. Harry Potter club began reading book four. AT received a decent sized grant the Education Development Center (EDC). We launched a new Adult English Program that had 200 students enroll at one point or another over the course of the term. There is truly never a dull moment around here.

In addition to all the exciting and positive things we have been working on, I have been mentally preparing for a big transition. I am leaving Abaarso Tech and Somaliland on 27 May. I expect this to be one of the hardest things I have ever done – I’m not good at leaving places to begin with and leaving a place and a project that I have poured myself into for the past two years and seven months, leaving all of our students who I have grown to know and love, turning my life upside down and moving… well, it’s going to be the hardest thing I have done in a long time.

The plan from here is to take six weeks and travel in Senegal, Sierra Leone and Liberia. I am meeting a friend in Dakar on 1 June. At the end of those six weeks, I will fly back through Dubai, pick up my luggage and move to Western Kenya to start work with the One Acre Fund as a Program Associate. I know that I should be extremely excited about the new position, new organization and new place… but, right now, it’s hard to be excited while I am struggling so much with leaving.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Monday, February 7, 2011


Administratively, AT has always been understaffed. This year has been a drastic improvement over last year, as we have teachers who want to be involved with the operations/admin side. Still, there are some gaping holes in AT the organization. I believe the biggest hole is in the area of human resources, which has been handled periodically as an afterthought. With AT’s recent growth, we’ve hit a point where the lack of HR manifests in different ways throughout the organization. I have found it interesting to see where these manifestations pop up and have been surprised by how important HR is to keeping an organization running smoothly.

We are finally starting to address some of these issues. Jonathan and Abel have been spending significant amounts of time on strategic planning and developing an organizational structure with a clear division of roles. Part of working with a start-up is the opportunity to see the project develop and learn first-hand the importance of concepts and processes such as this.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Kitchen Drama

There are many different operational pieces necessary to keep the boarding school running. One of them is running a small restaurant. We produce breakfast, lunch and dinner plus two tea breaks with fresh baked bread for 100 students and 30 staff members every day. Food is a third of our operating cost and quite an emotional issue for the staff and students who need to eat! Keeping the kitchen running and running efficiently is an important part of our operation.

Lately, there has been quite some drama down in the kitchen… and it ties a much deeper seeded conflict we are addressing with Abaarso Village. Two of our main cooks, Osman and Ali, are from Abaarso Village. They have been working with us for almost 18 months and have never done a particularly good job. We have tried everything to get them to improve and still, some days, meals are served late or there is no tea or not enough food. This all is added to the fact that their food is just bad.

This fall, we brought in a lady from Hargeisa named Deka to direct the kitchen and improve the food. She was doing a phenomenal job. Cafeteria food suddenly had flavor and we were no longer having to feed students cornflakes for dinner when the rice and sauce ran out. Unfortunately, as soon as Osman and Ali became comfortable with her around, they reverted to their old habits times ten. During school vacation, when we still had employees to feed, they stopped showing up to work at all. That was the last straw.

So, we fired them. Unfortunately, nothing is that simple here. Somaliland life is still dominated by clans and tribes. Osman and Ali are from the same tribe as the two guys who donated the land that the school is built on. AT has been engaged in a land dispute with them ever since we moved in. Since, we are already at odds with this family, the village refused to allow us to fire Osman and Ali.

In the US, this would never fly. Here, we are guests in someone else’s country and culture. Our relationship with Abaarso Village is extremely important. That is our community. We are trying to teach our students about community service and giving back. Abaarso is also our first security defense as they know everyone who comes in and out of that village. We ceded to their temporary demand not to fire the cooks only to allow Osman and Ali to begin sabotaging the kitchen and verbally abusing Deka. AH! At one point, we stationed an armed guard down there to force Osman and Ali to be nice and take orders from Deka so that the kitchen would produce the necessary food.

We are still in this holding pattern – Osman and Ali working and not doing a good job at their job, Deka coming into the office periodically in tears, staff doing everything we can to support her while we wait for a consensus between AT and Abaarso Village. We held a meeting with them this week and after three hours, still had no agreements. The village feels let down because the school is not providing more direct services to them. Jonathan feels that the villagers are acting inappropriately entitled and ungrateful for all the good that we have brought to them (land prices are up five fold, we send students to teach in the village school every afternoon and are exploring ways to help with power).

All of this said, we expect everyone who works at the school to put in a full day of work. Most of the villagers have never had a 'job' and come to AT with very different expectations of what a 'job' will be like - they mostly expect a paycheck at the end of the month. So, there is an education process as we learn to train workers who do not immediately meet with our expectations and as village employees learn to meet with our expectations. We've had many successes and many fails to this end... inshallha, we'll get the kitchen where it needs to be soon.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Back in Sland

After six full weeks in the US, split between Idaho and Boston, I have finally returned to Somaliland. While a little apprehensive about leaving my home country, I am really happy to be back. I missed my home here, the students, our fabulous teachers, the local staff and community members and the Abaarso sky.

I returned while AT was on its three week winter break. This gave me a chance to settle in, re-adjust to the time and get caught-up on everything that I missed during my leave of absence. Already, we have a new program launching – that Abaarso Tech University Adult English Program and have added a new entering class of Executive MBA students. Never a dull moment here at AT.

The students all moved back into the school last Friday and began classes on Saturday. Our Hargeisa based programs kick-off on Thursday. Harry Potter Club has picked up where it left off and is moving full speed ahead. We now have twelve fish and six chickens plus two new baby chicks living on campus. There has been quite a bit of drama between the school and Abaarso Village lately… but , we are working to fix that as quickly as possible.

By far the most exciting change to observe has been how settled our new teachers are and how much they have taken-on outside of the classroom. Our school is running better and more efficiently than ever before and that is all to their credit. I am thoroughly enjoying watching people thrive at different jobs here.

All for today.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Waking up on the other side of the world

Prior to departure for my trip, I spent a fabulous four days in Berbera with a group of our teachers. We visited Las Geel (Somaliland’s pre-historic cave paintings), spent time on the beach, swam with dolphins, went snorkeling on the Berbera, which was reef teeming with fish life, and visited a hot springs in the mountains behind the city. It was a lovely Eid vacation trip.

Then, I spent an extended flight layover visiting Teresa in Doha, Qatar. She picked me up from the airport in a convertible mustang, we stayed at her I don’t know how many star, 16th floor hotel room that is home for the next three months and then spent the following 12 hours showing me all around the modern Middle Eastern city. It turned out to be a nice transition trip – I was able to adjust a little to the feel of a modern city but one that still felt foreign and a part of Arab culture.

Finally, after four days in transit, five airports and TEN times in and out of security, I arrived to a snowy, 10 degree night in Boise, Idaho. I went straight to bed that night and woke up the next morning physically feeling the change… feeling that I woke up on the other side of the world.

In the last two days, I have spent a lot of time with my sister and my family. Visited a variety of coffee shops. Eaten a lot of cheese. Got stomach sick yesterday (I’m not accustomed to the different types of food I am eating here). And, already, I feel like I am already on the right time schedule – a quick recovery from jet lag. I find it very strange that Abaarso Tech continues to operate while I am in such a far removed place... but, I am starting to adjust.

Early return observations, after a year plus of living abroad: I have no idea what to do with my hair, besides wear it up in a bun (this exacerbated by the fact that I am in desperate need of a hair cut). I can plug my computer directly into the wall, which is super convenient. People all look huge compared to the stick thin Somalis I am used to seeing. Not being tethered to my Abaarso Tech cell phone is lovely. The dial up internet at my parent’s house is actually slower than the connection I have in Africa.