Sunday, 10 June 2012

I’m surprised that time has slipped by so fast since my last post. Last week was a good one. We’ve got some TDY (temporary duty) officers joining us to help with some staffing shortages which has made a huge difference (in a way) with my workload. I still have 10 gallons of shit for a 5 gallon bucket every day and could probably work 12 hour days for a couple weeks to get caught up on everything, but having the extra help has let me unload a few responsibilities and just simplified the demands on my time.

I was able to get my travel arrangements for the summer mostly taken care of. I still need to book my hotel in DC and I’d like to change one leg of my trip back to Japan, but I will be able to head to Idaho and see family and friends for about 10 days, then to DC for training for a few weeks (including a side trip to Minneapolis for my 20th reunion, actually am really looking forward to it and hope that a lot of people show up), and then to Japan for a couple weeks. Obviously I’m excited about getting back to Japan, especially so this time because I will get to see both piano and ballet recitals.

Still assembling the bid list. Have pared it down to the posts we’re most interested in. Tomorrow I’ll do some last minute checking on pet policies and write up my short statements for each post and submit the draft bid list

Getting into shape is really hard when you’re as out of shape as I am. I’ve been doing modified crossfit workouts that are quite enjoyable but I’m so soft, there’s only so much I can do and it takes a toll. I go easy but there’s still (good) soreness for a couple days. The key is to not hurt too much or strain anything that then gets in the way of the daily workouts at home on the rowing machine.

Yesterday we had a full morning of interviews as overtime, then I did the workout, then went on the Hash, then dinner around the pool and on to a fellow diplomat’s party. We got the party late after everyone had moved on to the clubs so we followed along. I don’t particularly enjoy the club scene here but it was something different.

Of course, getting into the club is always a hassle. I didn’t realize we’d be going there and had on shorts and sandals and got hassled at the entrance. A friend of ours was there (she’s known to be connected politically and is a regular at the club) and we made inside into the back “VIP” section. All was well until I stepped out to go the bathroom and the bouncer wouldn’t let me back in. He let me out of the section 90 seconds before and I know he recognized me, but he hassled me. It’s SO loud in there conversation is completely impossible for me (I’ll store some earplugs in my truck for next time) but I went over to the other entrance and got in easy there.

Coming out, the guys who wouldn’t let us all wanted money for letting us in and then there were 6 or 8 guys wanting dashes for keeping my truck safe. Sometimes I’ll dash them something but I didn’t have any small bills. The bouncers who hassled us of course got nothing. My ears were ringing loudly from the music but I felt good. Got to talk to the Eminent Child and Wife when I got home for a bit before I started to drift off.

I was supposed to meet the bandmates for practice today and then was planning to make beer and have a couple friends over for pizza. But when I work up, my shoulder felt like someone had stabbed a knitting needle down my arm. Not a good way to start participation in a band, but I had to cancel that and ended up just lying in bed massaging my shoulders until late in the afternoon. After the soft tissue started to loosen up, I was able to get up and eat. I watched a couple episodes of Survivor and now I’m back in bed. Somehow its 10:30 already and I was ready for bed at 9:00


(Almost) The Worst Day Ever

Had my worst interview ever today, a young woman dying of cancer. The hard part was that she wasn’t qualified for a non-immigrant visa to the U.S., a fact that she’d already faced a few months ago when she first applied and one of my colleagues denied her. She was back, visibly sick, and under the impression that she’d overcome the aspects of her situation that had disqualified her before. Unfortunately, that was an incorrect assessment on her part.

I hated to have to deny her visa this time and I tried to express it in the most humanitarian and compassionate way possible. She broke down sobbing, pleading, begging for the visa, drawing attention to how much weight she’d lost and how her hair was falling out. It tore at my core and I don’t think anyone would really criticize me for issuing here in spite of the obvious ineligibilities because of it. This job is designed such that we don’t really have a whole lot of personal latitude in making decisions; we are mostly just arbiters of the law who seek to find out which cubbyhole applicants fit in based on various criteria.

The integrity of this job is similar to what I faced as a teacher. I was committed to being as consistent and transparent as possible and designed a grading system and mental philosophy/ approach to teaching that went as far as possible to ensure that personal biases, positive or negative, were removed from my assessments. It would have been so easy to issue the visa today but it would have violated the standards that I’ve spent the better part of a year developing and refining my mastery of. If I didn’t refuse that visa, there was no point in even having standards, at least when it came to cases like hers.

Ultimately I’ve come to terms with this and I truly believe that I made the right decision within the expectations of the job. Part of the reason that there is such a rigorous selection process, perhaps, is to increase the probability that people who can make that hard call get the job. I know that others would criticize that, and they have valid moral points. The fact that she has alternatives to treatment in the US and even alternative paths to get to the US is secondary to the decision: I would have made the same decision regardless. But it does help soothe the pain a bit knowing that she could have sought treatment in a variety of other countries.

I’m not proud that I denied a visa to a dying woman who broke down sobbing and begged for a visa but I am proud that I could uphold the expectations of my job in the face of a very difficult decision. I wouldn’t criticize someone who made the opposite call and I hope they feel the same about me.

The only spot of good news that lead to this being (almost!) the worst day is that I got notice that I will begin bidding on my second post at the end of the week. It’s going to be a very exciting and anxious time. I think it will result in knowing where I’m going before I leave on my summer R&R in a couple months.

Kwara and Oyo trip

Last week I got to travel with the Ambassador on a 4 day trip to southwestern Nigeria. We visited a couple of Emirs, a couple of governors, and some small business sites that had received USAID support. It was a tremendous opportunity for me to get out of Abuja. More importantly, I wasn’t just along for the ride. I was responsible for helping run the trip. It reminded me of the work I did at OJC preparing our overseas program. The big difference is that we spent about 9 months preparing for that and official trips in the Foreign Service get planned in a few weeks. It was a lot of fun to be responsible for keeping things running and I saw a lot of the country that I never would have otherwise. I’d like to go back sometime on my own to spend more time but I know that is unlikely, alas.

I tried to take pictures but the two big challenges were that I was always shooting from inside a car and Nigeria is in the middle of its dry season so everything is BROWN. I want so bad to spend some time photographing the country but that too is unlikely due to both time and security constraints. Nigerians are generally pretty hostile to photography but if you take time to talk to people, let them know you, and then ask for photos, they can be very gracious and cooperative. Security-wise it isn’t too prudent to be wandering about by yourself, especially if you’re distracted through a lens and I don’t have any friends who are keen just to tag along to watch my back. So I have to settle for photos shot from a window.

The roads in Nigeria can be pretty bad, but some are really good. The flights were good, on time and professional. The hotels were nice. We stayed at an international research compound that was impressive. It was huge, with vast grounds that were very peaceful. I didn’t get to go on their tour but they do high end agricultural research and have some advanced technology buildings and resources. Self-sufficient, the water was potable and the best clean. Sitting out at night to relax listening to the frogs bellow was truly refreshing.

I won’t have another chance for anything like that during the rest of my consular tour but perhaps more chances to travel, maybe for election observations, will fall my way once I transfer into the Econ section later this summer.

Return to “What do I do again?”

Nice concise list of what this job is about.

The making of a Consular Officer part 2

I’ve been here two and a half months. Most of the first week is spent getting your bearings and going through a rather detailed check in process at the Embassy and I did my first visa interviews about nine weeks ago. I’ve been here long enough that I know everyone now and am no longer the FOB FNG. There are people here who are newer than me and I’ve seen some friends leave as they transfer on to their next assignment.  That’s kind of disappointing, just as you are getting to know people, they leave, but that’s the nature of the job. I’m happy that the new section chief and one of the other officers and I arrived at roughly the same time to provide some good continuity in our section.

The new officer is replacing a colleague who’s been my mentor these last few months. It’s exciting to have the new guy here; we’d met in DC before I left so that adds to the fun factor, and the departing colleague is still going to be at the embassy, just transferring to a different section for her second year of the tour.  She’s been a great friend, patiently enduring my non-stop questions and desires to probe the edges of knowledge and rationale for why things are the way they are.

I’ve gotten very comfortable asking a lot of questions, but I realize now that its time for me start to be a bit more self-reliant. We got a new section  chief a couple weeks ago which is great to have, as we’d been operating without one just as a scheduling gap. My more experienced colleagues did a great job of running things but it is nice for them to hand off those extra responsibilities as well as to have the veteran guidance. I’ve noticed that I’ve been a bit of a burden on her though, since I naturally turn to the boss for questions but she’s still settling into the role and learning how things work in the section as well as the unique aspects of the job associated with working in Nigeria.

The Foreign Service seeks people who are independent, self-reliant, and able to deal with things on their own as needed. I’m comfortable with those expectations and responsibilities, but the nature of this job in particular requires that you hold back long enough to make sure you actually know what you are doing. US law is pretty comprehensive and it makes our job easier in a way.  Pretty much every scenario you’ll ever encounter is covered with some pretty good reference material that helps you understand how to apply the law.  But because it is the law and the decisions I make have a very real effect on people, I really want to get it right, you know? There are considerations when making an adjudication as well as general processes with the workings of the embassy.  I was also aware that my sectionmate in the desk next to mine was leaving for a different section in September and I wanted to get as much from her as I could. She was very patient, thankfully.

I realize that many of my questions recently have been more of the confirmation variety than of the clueless type. It always bugs my wife when I ask questions to just confirm my suspicions or expectations, but confirming what I think know gives me the confidence then to run with it once I know I’ve got it locked down. There is still plenty that I don’t know, but I’ve done a couple thousand visa adjudications, I’ve got a pretty good sense of what is going on. The new officer is going to depend on me for help and the chief needs me to step up as well.

I don’t really talk in specifics for a couple of reasons. The U.S. has very clear prohibitions on violating the privacy of others, be they employees, U.S. citizens, or visa applicants.  We have a very transparent visa process and there’s not great secret about how we make our decisions, but its important not to talk in specifics to avoid either violating privacy or revealing something that would provide applicants with an edge or a motivation to try to game the system. Many times ineligible applicants want more detail about why their application was denied. We can tell them that they don’t overcome the assumption of intending immigration (which is an assumption made about every applicant that they must overcome through the application process and interview). But there aren’t any magic bullets that will automatically qualify you for a visa, so if we provide any more detail, some applicants will believe that THAT is all that is needed and tailor their application (sometimes by misrepresenting themselves) in a certain way.  This information also gets shared among the applicant community and it isn’t fair to them or the officers who have to then shift through more crud to get to the underlying issues.

This has been kind of a rambling post (but if you’ve been reading this blog, you’re probably used to that).  I just wanted to try to explain how I’ve gone from the bewildered new guy trying to remember everything from the training to someone who knows is feeling comfortable assuming the mantle that is expected of me.  It’s exciting and to be honest, a proud development.

I absolutely love this job, in a general sense. I’m happy to be serving my country, I’m happy to be doing visas in Nigeria even though it is a pretty demanding job, I’m really really happy with the people I work with. Other than the obvious drawbacks of being separated from my family, I got no complaints, at least not yet.  We’ll see how well I hold up over the next 11 cycles of 2 months.

The unintentional hiatus (aka Hello, Stuff!!)

Arriving at a new post involves a huge transition in every aspect of one’s life. In a material sense there are always two and sometimes three major events that mark this transition: UAB, HHE, and POV.

UAB: Unaccompanied Air Baggage. This is 250 lbs of stuff (450 for a couple and 600 for a family of three, increasing by 150 lb increments for each additional member) that gets separated out from the bulk of stuff you want to ship over for your living quarters. It gets sent by air and arrives roughly 2 weeks after you do. Until that point, all you’ve got is what you brought in your suitcases, perhaps augmented by some stuff you mailed to yourself in advance of arriving and whatever you can buy on the local market.  Most people put in kitchen and bedroom essentials. I mostly had kitchen utensils and my pillows with a small amount of bathroom stuff such as some toilet paper, shampoo and conditioner, and so on. 250 lbs isn’t much but packed wisely, it can make a huge material difference in the quality of life.

HHE: Household Effects. This is the bulk of your stuff, sent by ship and typically arriving 2 months or so after you. Most housing in the foreign service is furnished and each family gets up to 7000 lbs of stuff.  You can have up to 18000 lbs total possessions, 11,000 goes into storage while posted abroad.  If you aren’t in furnished housing, you get a bigger shipment but I forget offhand if its 14K or the whole 18K.  Some posts also qualify for a Consumables allowance if the local economy isn’t developed enough to provide for the food and other stuff (shampoo, toilet paper, etc). I get 2400 lbs of consumables above and beyond the 7,000 limit for household effects. You can break the Consumables shipment into two parts and get the second delivered after the first year of a 2 assignment.  I didn’t have near the 7,000 limit for HHE and so packed all of my food and whatnot just as regular HHE, leaving the full 2400 lbs for delivery later on. I doubt I’ll bring that much over then, but it is nice not to have to worry about going over weight.

POV: Personally Owned Vehicle. Pretty self explanatory.  This also gets delivered by sea.

For Abuja, my HHE sailed to Europe and then was flown into Abuja and delivered by truck. My POV sailed into Lagos and then will be carted up to Abuja before being uncrated. Getting my UAB really helped with life here, but getting the HHE two weeks ago changed this experience from feeling like I was on a long vacation into living here. The first weekend I had my stuff I was totally occupied with unpacking, organizing, and setting things up.  I got most everything down now but there are still some piles of clothes and books that need to be put away.  But now I’ve got my TV, stereo, DVD player, XBox, computer desk, rowing machine, beer (!!) and food.  This is MY house now. But I was too preoccupied with taking care of business to update this blog. I’ve been reading a lot more too, which is nice, but MAN, do I have a lot of books.  If I read one a week, I might finish what I brought before I get out of here…

During the week, there isn’t much going on to report here. I get up, go to work, get home between 5 and 7, eat dinner, work out, go to bed. Without a vehicle, I don’t really get out of the house much on weekends either. There are barbecues and dinner parties, but those aren’t really good fodder for this either (not because they are scandalous but just because they aren’t very interesting after the fact). There is a really good community here that I am very grateful to have, but really, it’s just hanging out with friends.

The following weekend I was still settling into the house, but was surprised to find how much at ease I was at the weekend parties. I know people now, so the whole self-introductions and “I met them but am not sure if I remember names” is mostly past. It was the best weekend I’d had here, really just relaxing with friends and then of course celebrating the Eminent Child’s birthday.

She had a great weekend that started off with a pizza party with friends after school. They each got to make their own pizza and then made their own ice cream sundaes for desert. Her closest got to sleep over and the Eminent Wife set them up with a futon and goodies downstairs and just them stay up and play.  The Eminent Friend got a little unnerved when the lights went out (which is understandable considering that Japanese families often sleep in the same room well into elementary school), so the E.C. got the E.W. to come downstairs and provide a sense of security. E.C. emphatically pointed out that she was just fine without adult supervision; she just called her mom down to help her friend out.  Of course, the E.W. wasn’t allowed to sleep on the futon with them though and had to make do with the nearby couch.  At first I thought I’d dodged a bullet by being here, but then realized I wouldn’t have been invited down anyway because of my monstrous snoring.

This is all a long-winded way of saying I’ve been distracted the past few weeks as a result of getting my HHE.  Life is pretty good though. I still need to get some UPS (I mistakenly bought 60Hz units and Nigeria is 50Hz; was sure that I’d checked that out before buying, alas) and some propane tanks and attachments for my burners for the beer brewing and I’ll be fully settled in.

My POV has yet to arrive but it’s in Nigeria and just waiting to get processed through the port. It was supposed to be here last weekend and then this weekend but the beloved system here in Nigeria couldn’t deliver on those expectations, so I’m holding out hope for next week.  I did get my license and I know my plates are ready, so once its here, I’ll get to go out and watch it come out of the container, pay my local insurance fee, and I’m ready to roll. A new arrival at post agreed to include my new camera body in their UAB (thank you for giving me some of that precious early arrival weight!!), so hopefully within the next two weeks or so, I’ll have my car and my camera and can start exploring the city on my own.


Good fences?

They say good fences make good neighbors, but I can vouch for the opinion that good scotch makes for great neighbors.  Following the UN bombing, I really wanted to just relax with a glass of scotch and my neighbor let me raid his cabinet. The only scotch I found was a 15 year The Balvenie, Single Barrel and he insisted that it was okay if I opened it. It was absolutely perfect for the occasion.

I ended up making a dent in the bottle and he suggested I just take the whole thing and replace it when I get a chance. He revealed that it was a retirement present when he left the military, which really impressed me with his generosity. We also discovered that they had a 12 year Macallan that I would have been plenty happy with. Now I just need to find someone who will bring a bottle of scotch down with their stuff for me.  I’ve asked one friend but I’m already indebted to them for agreeing to bring my new Nikon camera down after it got turned away from overseas shipping (I’m guessing the battery violated a rule) and I may be pushing my luck asking for them to front me an expensive bottle of scotch.  I’ll figure something out, or maybe just give him one of my Lagavulin’s.

Actually, I think I’d better just find a replacement bottle.

I guess this is a good a place as any to mention that I’ve run into several people who have brewed, one of whom is departing the country in a few weeks and dropped off several cases of big bottles. They’re dusty but in prime condition with a few unique shapes and markings on them. There are even a couple Grolsch in there too.

4 Days without hot water….and counting

Actually it’s only been three days but it will be four tomorrow and we’re not getting hot water before then.  A pump went out and its proving difficult to get things working again. One of my neighbors mentioned that we’ve only been without water 6 times in 2 years, not too bad.  Depends on your standards, I suppose.

It’s all fine and well with me.  I’m still showering, just not for as long, and I’ve switched to morning showers for the time being.  Looking at the amount of sediment in the tap water makes me wonder how clean I’m actually getting.


More info on the UN attack and Nigerian domestic problems

This article has an overheard photo showing the distances between the US embassy and the UN compound.

The BBC has some photos of the aftermath.

Here is information about Boko Haram, the domestic group responsible for several recent attacks and the prime suspect for this attack.

Background on the city of Maiduguri, where Boko Haram is from.

Jos is a current hotspot. It blew out of control after the election, with a lot of killing and burning of houses and businesses, but it still sees regular violence that just doesn’t make the news outside the country. I was able to visit there a couple weeks ago. The guy we met with said that the city itself was safe but the outlying areas were not. People were still attacking families at night. My co-worker explained that Jos used to be a great place to visit because its higher up and thus cooler than the lowlands, with a languid pace and good cheap food. It was really a nice place, she said, before they ruined it.  I did shoot a bunch of pictures from inside the car that I’ll upload once I get my cable for my camera.

I don’t know how detailed your interest is, but here’s some info on the tensions within the country.

They* blew up the UN

Friday morning a suicide driver crashed through the gates and into the lobby of the UN building here in Abuja. It’s only a couple blocks up the road from us; a few people at the embassy said they heard and felt it. I happened to drive by it for the first time on Thursday when I was returning from an errand. Terribly tragedy. Last count I heard was 18 killed, 40+ wounded.

This marks a significant change in the violence in Nigeria. There have been regular attacks on civilians and government institutions in recent months. The civilian attacks are blamed on Muslim/Christian violence and have recently been characterized by night time raids on residences. Pretty horrific stuff. There was also some general civic (read: religious) violence following the elections earlier this year.

The attacks on the government have been perpetrated by Boko Haram, a militant Islamic group from the north of the country.  They’ve attacked the military and the police, including the police headquarters here in the capital, not far from the presidential villa.  The military has also been active in pursuing them and I’ve seen regular news reports about militants killed or militant attacks. The general level of violence doesn’t get reported on much internationally; it’s only when there is a significant development or changes in trends.

*Before the attack on the UN, it had solely been civic and domestic targets of violence. This marks either an escalation by the Boko Haram or reveals the presence of other actors in the area. There are rumors that Al Qaeda has or is trying to establish a presence in Nigeria, perhaps in association with Boko Haram but I don’t know how much of that is conjecture and how much has been established as fact.  Regardless, it’s a troubling development for this country.

Nigeria has so much incredible potential both in its natural resources and its national character. It’s hobbled by bad governance and a culture of corruption that tolerates exploitation by the oga (big men) who get control.  It is a tribal society, still, and this fact is more important for understanding the corruption than the violence. As I understand it (and mind you, I still don’t know much about this country) the corruption continues with every power shift because “now its our turn”. There is tremendous pressure and responsibility on those in power (and I’m not just talking at the federal cabinet level) to take care of their own. They don’t see is a corrupt as much as just the way the system works and now they’ve succeeded.

The people of Nigeria have it very very rough. They are upbeat, optimistic, friendly people though, and are constantly using every chance they can find to get through to the next day. They are resilient and smart and very enterprising. If Nigeria can reduce the corruption and instill a sense of civic virtue with a level of fundamental services that let people get past the survival level, things could really take off.  If the system gets clean enough for more foreign investment, that would both improve the economy and provide mentorship and a system of good standards that I believe most Nigerians really do want.  They just aren’t willing to give up what they have right now so they keep running game.  The more I see, the more I feel like this society is right out of The Wire.

This post is dedicated to those who lost their lives at the UN, working for the betterment of their nation and its people.