Happy UN Peacekeepers Day

The compound has been full of military and police recently, in preparation for the celebration of Peacekeepers Day!


It might seem like a lot of ceremony, but I was certainly glad that these guys were around this week, especially the one with the trombone.

The International Day of Peacekeepers was established by a UN resolution in 2002 and was first celebrated in 2003. The Day is intended to pay tribute “to all the men and women who have served and continue to serve in UN peacekeeping operations, as well as to honour the memory of those who have lost their lives in the cause of peace.

Thanks to @mikeymushi for taking the video

Son of Bad Chair


Lean back, yo

Many of you will remember some of my fond memories of my first week in the office, having been given a chair that had razor blades where armrests should go.


Ah yes, the Saga of Bad Chair was a classic tale of acclimating to a new environment without accidentally slitting one’s wrists, and I know you were all relieved when I informed you that Bad Chair had found a new home and a room with a view. 

I am pleased to report that now Bad Chair has made friends, a small alliance of office chairs that haven’t fit the bill but each bring to the table their own special characteristics.

As you see in the photo here, Bad Chair (in the back on the left) has befriended this poor crippled soul, who we’ll call Leany.

Leany is almost certainly the victim of the chocolate croissants in the downstairs cafe, coupled with someone’s overenthusiasm to push back from their desks and get the hell home.

Leany is working with what he’s got, though.  Bad Chair reports that, together in this haven for the broken, they are teaching one another how to Dougie. 



Leany won’t let you keep him down!

Important Updates!

In the spirit of trying to make things work, we gave Leany a chance.

It didn’t turn out well.



So timing last week was bad.  First I got a bit rattled by the news of Camille Lepage’s death, then the presumption of safety in Nairobi was thrown into question.

Some things end up filtering out to the public. It’s now public knowledge that the UN has banned visitors to the compound.  The US Embassy (across the street) has reduced their staff on site and increased security, including marines and roof snipers. 

But what are the actual dangers?

After the escalating rumors last week regarding terrorism in Nairobi, we topped off the week with the Gikomba Market explosions.

What I found extraordinary is how immediately the Western news media picked up on the Gikomba Market attack. We’ve had about TWENTY IED/grenade explosions in Nairobi, many even since Westgate in September 2013.

I don’t know why this particular attack sparked the news media, but it certainly was the tipping point at the UN.   Speculation became reality, and the measures we’d been told were in consideration to keep us safe were put into effect immediately.

What does it all exactly mean for life in Kenya, though? 

Attacks happen a lot here. Lots of them impact us indirectly in some way, whether by location or personal relation. My colleague at work just had an attempted break-in at his house less than two weeks ago, where armed thieves dug under his fence, poisoned his dogs, tied up and beat his guard almost to death, and then engaged in a gun battle with the security forces responding to the panic button.

And, because attacks are a regular part of life, people tend to just be nonplussed and shrug off the danger alerts.

Screen Shot 2014-05-19 at 9.05.27 AM

Star is my house, pin is the UN, Gikomba is on the bottom right

Am I worried about the repercussions of the Gikomba attack?  No, Gikomba Market is in Eastleigh, quite far from both my house, and from the UN (see photo).

But we have been told that the UN has officially received credible information that the compound is a target.

Does that mean that my house isn’t safe?  Not at all.

Does that warrant my evacuation from the country? No.

Does it make me extremely anxious while I’m at the office? Absolutely.

We’ve been given some leniency in terms of telecommuting and flexible hours, which soothes anxiety a bit.

Life here will go on. Most Kenyan nationals are totally ambivalent and unconcerned.  We went to the Village Market yesterday and it was packed, people were shopping, and the palpable tension felt in the city on Saturday right after Gikomba seemed to have already dissipated. Explosions, as I’ve mentioned, are a total wrong place, wrong time kind of incident.

For UN staffers, however, it feels like we’re just waiting on the wrong time.



Arbitrary Danger

I was shocked and saddened today to see that a photo journalist, Camille Lepage, was found murdered in the Central African Republic. I didn’t know her, and, while my study site in DRC was close to the border with CAR, I haven’t actually spent any time there.

So why was this story resonating so strongly with me?

My friend John made a comment that this girl was like a metaphorical sister, and that, perhaps of my over-empathy with her scenario, that it was hitting me harder because of my personal experience.

Blue Helmets – UN Peacekeepers

Lots of people could say that Camille died because she made dangerous choices, but that sort of blind safety netting irks me deeply. I live in Nairobi, and recently, we have been deluged with security alerts. Rumors have been running rampant, and when we arrived at work yesterday there were blue-helmeted peacekeeping forces doing double security checks at the entrance (not a normal occurrence).

No one is sure what is going on, aside from the receipt of the always nebulous term “credible threats.”

One could very easily argue that Nairobi is dangerous. But where do you draw the line between “kinda dangerous” and “really fucking dangerous”? Is there enough threat for me to get to bail on work? Of course not.

But today at lunch, when my colleague and I wanted to leave the compound for lunch so that we wouldn’t die of food poisoning   we did make the conscious choice not to eat at the Village Market because it is almost certainly a target, as a haven of wealth and expats.

At what point, though, are you living a life dictated by fear? Are you being smart, or scared? Where can you actually be “safe” by someone’s definition other than the moment’s?

In addition to the numerous emails I get from the UN’s Security department, I got an alert from the US Embassy here in Nairobi:

we would like to remind U.S. citizens that targets for these attacks could include hotels, nightclubs, shopping malls, diplomatic missions, transportation hubs, religious institutions, government offices, or public transportation.


Now, not to sound cynical, but is there a location that’s been left off this list, aside from LAURA’S BACKYARD? Or maybe the bathroom?

In comparison to the bulk of my colleagues and friends, I am generally nonplussed about the omnipresent dangers of living in Nairobi. I was living in NYC during 9/11, as I’ve mentioned, and it just makes me feel worse about something like Camille’s death.

She spent years in Juba, South Sudan. I spent years in DRCongo. I’m sure she felt, as I would have, that if you’ve already made it through something shittier and more dangerous that you’re probably okay in some place that is less obviously dangerous. But again, not only is the definition of “dangerous” completely arbitrary, but you’re using the same mentality as people who say they won’t get hit by a car because they never have been.

In today’s connected tech society, it becomes so easy to feel invulnerable and protected.  Your tendrils to the “outside world” make you feel like someone has your back, but it’s really just a fallacy. Here was Camille, tweeting away, 26, finding it hard to imagine that some instagram hipster filter would be the last view of her adventure anyone would ever get.

John suggested that maybe awesome stuff gets done by 20-year-olds because they’re unaware of how stupid and dangerous they’re being.

And maybe it’s because I’m older, but the thing that keeps resonating with me is how Camille’s parents must feel.  Proud of their daughter’s adventuresome spirit, and her ability to contribute things to the world view? To show a side of the world that few are brave enough to encounter?  Her killers will almost certainly never be found, and absolutely never be brought to justice. Does that mean that her parents must just mourn quietly, wondering why their daughter couldn’t have become a lawyer in Europe?

I’d ask my parents for their stances, but, as I’m currently living in a country that the State Department deems too dangerous to be in, I don’t think I want to know the answer.

RIP, Camille.  At least one person in the world will never question the choices you made.

Full Circle: A Weekend with Jane Goodall


Peace Doves 4Eva? JGI-USA team circa 2003

Long ago in 2002, I worked for the Jane Goodall Institute in the US – at the time, the office was in Silver Spring, MD.

In retrospect, I was so young. I’d just come back from working in Kakamega Forest in Kenya, but I worked hard at JGI and made my way from volunteer to intern to full staff member.

It was grueling work; we had a huge amount of things to administrate, from Dr. Goodall’s lecture tour to a variety of projects the Institute ran in Africa. I worked 50-60 hour weeks. I loved my job, but it was hard.

And, as a fledgling primatologist, I got to meet Jane Goodall and be a part of her work. Even now, 10 years later, I can remember how my knees shook the first time I met her.

If anything this past weekend, my coordination and conducting Jane’s visit to Nairobi felt like a tangible, visible ring on my tree of life.

Working for the Institute in 2002, I was on the bottom of the totem pole. There were tons of exclusive events, but I, of course, was not at any of them. I felt honored to be a part of the team, and to facilitate Jane’s various visits to worldwide locations, but the likelihood that anyone, outside of my immediate team, knew what I was doing or who I was would have been extremely unlikely.


Exponential Facilitation – 2013

Since then, I’ve conducted independent research on chimpanzees, plunged myself into one of the most difficult places to conduct science, and have a barrage of field stories of my own. I’ve come into my own.

The bulk of planning and organization for Dr. Jane Goodall’s visit to Nairobi fell into my lap when I arrived here, because of my familiarity with Jane events and considering Jane’s connections to GRASP. After all, she is a GRASP Ambassador.

I was a bit nervous; she usually travels with a familiar troupe, and I never knew even back in the day what the exact protocol was of the inner circle. Would I talk too much? Too little? Forget her white orchids and only-green M&M’s?

Me and John Sibi-Okumu

Me and John Sibi-Okumu (as Jane and the Kenyan leprechaun photobomb)

As it turned out, everything was perfect. I shuttled her first to an interview at Kiss-TV. While I was filmed for the camera during her entrance, I didn’t make it onto the final broadcast. WOE to my MISSED OPPORTUNITY FOR KENYAN TELEVISION FAME.

I felt super prepared. I was super prepared. I had every base covered. I had key talking points written in my notebook. I had the schedule perfectly timed. I kept us on schedule, even in Kenya.

The second event, a busier, more chaotic affair replete with gaggles of school children, 500 expected attendees, and a simultaneous Hindu prayer conference, could have been an absolute nightmare. Yet with careful pre-planning and serious logistical frameworks in place, it went smoothly.

I may not feel different than I did 10 years ago, but the fact is, I am. If I can concede anything, it’s that I’ve certainly become a logistics wizard.

And sitting in the back of the car for the extremely lengthy trips on Friday, I got to hear incredible stories firsthand that I’d never read in any Jane Goodall books. Even more amazing, she asked me questions about my work, and we talked about issues facing great apes, and she laughed at my Congo stories, encouraging me to write them up.

I’m in no way as accomplished as she is, but sitting there, chatting and laughing casually, I felt like a peer. Take that, impostor complex!

On Saturday night at my big event, I was behind the scenes, greasing the wheels and making things happen. I sat out on the terrace away from the hubbub, happy, with my friends in a more casual atmosphere, happy that everything had gone so spectacularly.

And because my parents will plotz, enjoy some photos from the weekend.


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Thanks to Yikun Liu for the photographs

The Phalangus on the Hill

I'm showing you the finger

I’m showing you the finger

When I first arrived at my new job, I couldn’t help but notice the statue that was on the hill right by the front visitors’ entrance.

It stands alone at the peak of a hill, and usually, casts its long, phallic shadow on the hill below where lots of people take naps in the grass after lunch.

I’m a former student of anatomy, but I’ll admit, I didn’t realize that it was phalanges – finger bones – and metacarpals until someone actually told me.  I’d thought it was some sort of abstract sculpture like some sort of lumpy totem pole.

So what’s the story?



Finger gift

Finger gift

Apparently, Chile gave the UN the finger in 1988. Is there more to the story? Not that I can find online. Why an index finger? Why a finger at all? Who thought that this sculpture would be a good idea?

I dunno, but the UN includes it on the tour. 

Here’s the problem:

There’s no distinction between the bones of the fingers.

See a difference between the bones of the index finger versus, say, the middle finger? Or the ring finger, for that matter. The fact is, it’s pretty variable person-to-person how long fingers are, so if you give someone one finger, you’re basically giving them all of them.

Here's pointing at you, kid.

Here’s pointing at you, kid.

So next time you’re wandering through the UN complex in Nairobi, and you think it must be a joke, such a blatant phallus on the peak of the hill, be calmed:

It’s just the finger.