Friday, July 30, 2010

It's really there. And it works!

Obtaining cash in the Congo is hard; even in Bukavu which is Congo's fifth biggest city (after Kinshasa, Kisangani, Goma and Lubumbashi). Thus when I heard rumors about an ATM in Bukavu in the weeks leading up to my previous trip to Bukavu I was exited. And indeed, the BIAC bank had a sign outside "cash point", and thus all thrilled I asked the clerk for the ATM... He looked at me as if I was crazy.

About three months ago I again received word that an ATM had been build. After questioning my informant intensely he promised me that he had actually physically seen it. Thus, yet again, I was all exited when I took the plane from Johannesburg to Bukavu last month. Today was the big day: I went again to the BIAC, indeed saw the ATM, took out my card, tried to withdraw money and... it worked.

After taking the picture below and "high-five"-ing the AK-47 carrying security guards, I returned to work a happy man. Incredible. It should not become much more crazy here in Bukavu; next thing you know they are building traffic lights.

Bukavu's (working!) cashpoint.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Ex-pat living in Bukavu.

The IRC has a big office, several houses for ex-pats and two storage depots in Bukavu. Each of these has guarded gates and each of these gates has a name. This weekend I moved from Hotel Chez Victoria to IRC's “golf 8”; “golf” is the radio letter code (i.e. NATO phonetic alphabet) of the letter “g” from "gate". This morning - specially for moms - I made some pictures of my new room.


Anybody said the EU isn't useful?


Indeed, I have my own bathroom and desk. And I haven’t even started about the house itself (read: it is big with a massive garden and a view on Lake Kivu). Ex-pats in Bukavu (especially the ones working for the bigger NGOs) have a comfortable live; something I did not expect for people living in one of the world's most plagued countries. When Simon and I arrived in Bukavu in summer 2009 and saw the large Unicef tent in the back of IRC's HQ, we expected bunkbeds inside and that we would stay there. People laughed when we told this out load. Indeed, how wrong we were.


Shortly after that we were in “golf 5” - a house similar to "golf 8" and the other houses that the IRC and other NGOs own in Bukavu. These are big houses with a garden and often a view on Lake Kivu. They have, in addition to the 24/7 security guard and the gardeners, a full-time cook and a cleaner. You're ready? After waking up you ask the cleaner for warm water. After the shower you choose your clothes from a cleanly washed and ironed pile; a pile that was still dirty the day before when you gave it to the cleaner. When arriving downstairs the table has been made and the cook has prepared breakfast; pancakes with nutella and fresh ananas. The cook, btw, also prepares the table for lunch and dinner; of course also the latter is made that day with fresh ingredients bought that same day in the local market. To get to the office (or anywhere else in the city) one calls a car; and after a few minutes a big 4x4 with driver picks you up. In the evening after work, you spendtime in one of the city's restaurants (l’Orchid, Cocolodge, Belveddere, Mama Kinja's, etc.) and you hang out with other ex-pats. Yep, indeed, the tough life.

So does one really live the lives of kings in Bukavu? Not really. First, while things have tensed down over the last few years, Eastern Congo is still a conflict zone and while security measures have decreased substantially, only the slightest thing has to happen and the radio checks, cars on standby, lock-downs, etc. are back. Second, building up a social live is very difficult for ex-pats because the turnover rates within (especially the bigger) NGOs are so extremely high; an average posting in Eastern Congo is maybe 1 to 1.5 years. It takes a lot of effort to get to know somebody - especially knowing that they are likely to leave in the months to come and that you can then start all over again. Finally, while ex-pat living in Bukavu is comfortable, one does know that a 100 meters outside of your guarded gate hundreds of thousands do not have it like you.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Fokke & Sukke.

I saw this comic this morning and liked it because it illustrates well how - in my opinion - many people behave these days (including me). Translated from Dutch: "FOKKE & SUKKE. Actually don't have much money. Fokke: "But I really need it! To... to... to... ipad.""

FYI: Fokke & Sukke is a Dutch comic strip created by writer and illustrator Jean-Marc van Tol, and writers John Reid and Bastiaan Geleijnse. The comics usually feature humor of a politically incorrect nature, and (likely because of this) became very popular in the Netherlands.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Random (housekeeping-like) things.

  • I installed a “flag counter” on this blog 2 days ago (see above). It tells me from which country this blog has visitors. Awesome!
  • Over here in Bukavu we walk around with radios to call cars, update our location to the radioroom (IRC’s Big Brother) when moving around the city, etc. In brief, give Raul a radio to play with and you won’t hear him for the rest of the day.
  • When one prints in IRC’s TUUNGANE office in the evening the light goes off. Kind of fun.
  • The three of us – since our arrival on July 9 – have been staying at hotel & restaurant Chez Victoria. Not a bad place, but a bit expensive and loud on Friday and Saturday night (especially for us PhD students). Today or tomorrow we will move to IRC housing.
  • My phone number in the DRC for upcoming 6 months is +243998399330.
  • I like taking local transport – one gets to know local people. On Bukavu’s main road there are taxis (read: random cars that stop when you raise your hand) and for 400 Congolese Francs it brings you from the hotel to the IRC office. Some of these taxis drive fast, others drive slow. Both types claxon constantly to indicate they are a taxi. Question: What is a better strategy? Drive fast versus slow?
  • For now my stomach is beating those of Raul and Grant here in the DRC. Ha! (Knock. Knock.)
  • From next week onwards I am going to start a weekly post called “Architecture in the Congo”. I have seen some great buildings that deserve a picture online.
  • Internet is working quite ok here at the IRC office. The second time I was here (January this year) they had installed a large satellite disc, but were waiting for government approval before using it. Now it works. I still don’t have internet on my phone, though.
  • Most NGO cars here have stickers with an AK-47 on it and a big red circle around and a cross through it. Our car today was a bit old and actually invited people with AK-47s in. Nice!
AK-47s welcome.
  • The Primus and gin tonics taste great again.
  • A final and actually quite serious point. There is so much turnover among (white) ex-pats within NGOs. Of those that were at the IRC when I was in Bukavu the first time (summer 2009) nobody is here anymore. I am currently the 'oldest' TUUNGANE person in Bukavu! Think about it - I started a year ago! And we're wondering why the development world is constantly making the same mistakes!?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

How to make Peter's day.

One of my colleagues at Columbia University is a gorgeous blond lady. This morning I received an email from her with the words “Look, it's us!” and a link to the picture below:

Indiana Jones and Dr. Elsa Schneider in The Last Crusade

Two points. First, that colleague of mine is much prettier than Alison Doody (Dr. Elsa Schneider). Second, in The Last Crusade Indy almost obtains the holy grail, kicks some Nazi ass and - if I remember correctly - kisses Dr. Elsa Schneider. Ha! Try to beat that on an early Wednesday morning.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Joy of Fieldwork.

Fieldwork is fun for a number of reasons. First, one escapes the ivory tower of academia and sees the theories one normally reads about in books in practice (or – and this is more likely – one sees and experiences how wrong these theories (and you) were on so many points). Second, one flies to exotic places and gets to meet interesting people (do make sure you choose your dissertation topic correctly!). Third, and very important, one gets to dress in green and drive around in 4x4s and on motorbikes like a modern day Indiana Jones. But the fourth and nicest thing about fieldwork is how it combines both the intellectual and the practical. Let me give an example that recently arose.

At the moment we are piloting the evaluation of a large development project (TUUNGANE) in four Congolese villages; in two months the real evaluation will start in 560 villages. For this evaluation we want to interview 10 randomly selected people from a village-meeting of which the size is not know ex ante – people normally move in (arrive late) and out (get bored) of the meeting. So, how does one randomly select 10 people from a group of which the size is not precisely known ex ante? Needless to say, the approach should be theoretically sounds (i.e. a proper randomization) and also be easy to implement. For example, just asking “I need 10 people” and then taking the first ten people that show up, while practically easy, is not theoretically sound because those ten are unlikely to be a representative sample (when the number of village meetings go to infinity).

We came up with four different techniques.

1. Randomize the people-approach.
The people in the village-meeting take each one piece of paper from a bag or a bucket; the pieces of paper have a number on it that ranges from 1 to X, where X is the highest number of people that ever could be present (this can be higher than the actual people present). After distributing the pieces of paper, one can say out loud “number 1”, “number 2”, “number 3”, etc. until there are 10 people. While it is not necessary one can also do this a bit more sophisticated by creating a list before entering the village that has randomly selected numbers that can then be said out loud. The list could look like this:

# Lottery number
1: 120
2: 76
3: 5
4: 65
… …

Needless to say, in both cases it is in possible that a number that is read out is still in the bag; this is no problem because you then just read out the next number on the list. While this approach sounds great in theory, in practice it is more complicated to implement for three reasons. First, handing out numbers is associated with prices (like handing out lottery tickets) and people therefore rush to get more than one piece of paper. This could get chaotic quickly. A solution to this would be to line up everybody or be very orderly. Second, as we noticed during the pilot and what we should have know ex ante: not all people can read. A solution would be to have large numbers on an A4 paper and instead of shouting for example “122” hold up the A4 paper “1”, “2” and “2”. The third problem is that selecting people by making use of numbers has a connotation in Bantu tradition with witchcraft.

2. The x plus fixed interval-approach.
This is an approach we have used with previous randomizations. In brief, one randomly selects the first person and then have a fixed interval to select the other nine. In other words before entering the village one creates a list that gives for each meeting size (#people) a randomly selected number to start (Start Number) and the interval that needs to be used to get 10 people. The list would look like this:

# people Start Number Interval
… … …
121: 12, 12
122: 101, 12
… … …
130: 90, 13
… … …

It is ok that we do not precisely know the number of people present (as long as we don’t expect person 130 and 131 to be very different). In first instance we thought this (and the next) approach is theoretically wrong for the following reason:
“For example, let’s say that there are 130 people in the village-meeting of which 14 are elderly men. From experience we now know that these will stand or sit next to each other. Because the interval in this case is 13, you will always select an elder; i.e. the probability of an elder being chosen is 100%. However, if one would really have a clean random strategy there is only a 14/130 chance to select an elder.”
Upon further reflection we noticed that the above reasoning was wrong and that this (and the next) approach does theoretically make sense. The reasoning was wrong because one does not select one person, but ten times one person and thus one chooses an elderly with 10*14/130 change; i.e. larger than one.

3. Decrease the problem-approach.
Select every 10th person in the village meeting (or every 15th if the group is very large). Let’s say that you then end up with 40 people selected; now one knows the exact amount of people present and things are easy. Place 30 white and 10 red pieces of paper in a bag and let them take one. The people with a red piece of paper stay for the interviews. However, like the first approach things could get chaotic. How to make sure that only those selected 40 will come to you. A solution could be to give them a piece of paper. In addition, in first instance we thought (and we thought wrongly) that this approach was also not theoretically sound for two reasons:

“The technique has the same ‘fixed interval’-problem as approach 2. In addition, the starting number would have to be randomized. Let’s say you always start counting in the first row or the person sitting closest to you. Let’s say again that in a 130 people village-meeting there are 14 elderly in the village and they are the ones that sit on the front row. As a result, one of them will always be selected among the final 40 and will thus have an overall 1/40 change of being selected, while it should be 1/130. This also holds for when you start with people that are in the last row, in the middle, etc.; i.e. problematic if we expect people to be different on where they sit (something that we can’t assume away).”

4. Meeting size list-approach.
Because we thought 2 and 3 were not sound, we came up with approach 4. A list is created before entering the village. This list has for each size of the meeting (# people) ten randomly selected numbers (Ten Numbers) for the people that will be selected. The list could be like this:

# people Ten Numbers
… …
121: 12, 34, 56, 61, 64, 78, 95, 100, 101, 120
122: 23, 25, 34, 45, 46, 49, 67, 89, 100, 122
… …

Then one counts the number of people present. Say one count 121 people you then select person “12”, “34”, etc. Under this system it is not important if you are completely correct on the village size; it doesn’t matter if you choose row 121 or 120 in the list (i.e. count 121 people or 120 people); as long as you think person number 121 isn’t very different from person number 120.* In addition, people are allowed to move around a bit around. Even if they do it in a systematic way it is ok, because the number chosen has been done so randomly. Upon further reflection this technique is similar to approach 2, but without the fixed intervals.

* Do note that if 140 people are counted while there are actually only 130, it is possible that a number between 131 and 140 pops up; i.e. a number that does not exist in the village meeting. Solution: Continue counting at the beginning (i.e. number 12 if there are 121 people present). This gives no bias as “12” had been selected randomly.

We also wrote a little bit of code in the computer program called "R" that gives this list when one would like to randomly select 10 people:

seed = 20100715
max.size.meeting = 500
size.of.meeting = 10:max.size.meeting
{sort(sample(1:j, 10, replace=F))
for.all.sizes = sapply(size.of.meeting, get.ten.random.people)
x <- t(for.all.sizes) village.size <- 10:max.size.meeting cbind(village.size, t(for.all.sizes))
data <- cbind(village.size, t(for.all.sizes)) data<- names(data) <- c("size", "1", "2", "3", "4", "5", "6", "7", "8", "9", "10") View(data)

In the end all four approaches are theoretically sounds. After piloting we think that approach 1 is easiest to implement. All in all, this was one of those examples that shows the fun of fieldwork. One has a practical problem and has to find a solution. It is intellectually challenging: think through a proper randomization technique, write some nerdy computer code, etc. However, at the same time one also has to think about the practical implications of one’s theories (something academics hardly ever do), one even meets barriers that go back to cultura, and (again) one can dress in green and drive in 4x4s and on motorcycles to check out whether your ideas work! Fieldwork. Awesome!

Monday, July 19, 2010

We're busy...

... very busy playing frisbee.

And getting it off the roof (fltr: Raul and Grant).

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Back in the Congo.

Finally my first post from the Congo. On July 8 we crossed the Rwanda - DRC border at Rusisi and have been busy since. We’re in Eastern Congo to evaluate TUUNGANE: one of the world’s largest community-based development programs. The evaluation itself is also one of the most ambitious in the world; the program has been set up as an RCT, we have an incredible behavioral measure, and it is big; very big. In upcoming weeks I will (of course) write much more on the details.

For now we are busy with (among others):

  • Piloting the behavioral measure that will be implemented in 560 villages;
  • Getting geo-locations of 7,000+ villages in Eastern Congo (40+ people are now in the field for this);
  • Cleaning the data from the 2007 baseline survey;
  • Preparing the final survey which will be conducted in 1,120 villages (expected to receive information on over 40,000 people);
  • Preparing databases and computer code for the evaluation;
  • Organizing a 4-day workshop to collect information on the 2007 baseline survey;
  • Organizing a 3-day conference with implementers and international academics to discuss the evaluation;
  • Hiring 60+ people for the evaluation;
  • Training these 60+ people;
  • Buying 16 motorbikes;
  • Preparing 60+ PDAs for data collection.

This of course next to tens of smaller things: contact with the implementers of TUUNGANE, contact with Caroline and Macartan (both are working from abroad but arrive beginning August), paperwork, socializing with locals and ex-pats, and I’m taking French classes three times a week (and after that Swahili). In other words: All awesome stuff!

Last Monday and Tuesday we were in the field. [1]

I am here with two colleagues from Columbia University forming the ultimate power team. Raul (third-year economics PhD, blog here) and Grant (incoming Political Science PhD, blog here). Grant will be here until mid-August; Raul and I will be here until January 2011.

[1] This picture is made in front of a Mai-Mai flag. Mai-Mai is a form of community-based militia group often formed to defend their local territory against other armed groups; mainly against invading Rwandan forces and Rwanda-affiliated Congolese rebel groups. These groups popped-up especially during the Second Congo War (1998-2003), but many are still around exploiting the country's instability for their own advantage to loot, rape, etc. The driver told us that this flag (which was planted next to one of the main roads in Sud Kivu's territoire Walungu) belongs to the Mai-Mai group of General Padiri; seen as the most powerful and well-organized Mai Mai groups.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Peter finally techs up.

So not only will I cross the Rwanda-Congo border today with 3 netbooks, 7 GPS devices, 5 digital cameras, a Kindle and 2 external harddrives, I am particularly happy about the following four things.

  1. Don’t laugh, but I only found out recently that I have internet on my phone. About two weeks ago in Nairobi I was cursing (again) that I had no access to my email. Within 2 minutes a friend of mine got it working on my phone. Nice!
  2. I have installed Gmail Gears. That is, I now have 10,000+ of my emails with attachment on my computer. I can also write my emails offline and then it sends them out when there is internet. Ha!
  3. Knowing that internet is down often in the Congo, I have purchased a USB modem in which I can place a cellphone simcard and use internet. Awesome!
  4. Finally, and this is the coolest, via my phone I can send myself an email and then it will appear as a post on this blog. Knowing that in upcoming months I will be in the field often where there is definitely no internet, this rocks.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Perception of the (African) native.

Since recently I have a Kindle, which is a fantastic device when one reads a lot and travels. I just finished Michele Wong's "In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurz" [1] and am currently reading Marcus Roberts' "A Journal of a Tour in the Congo Free State" [2]. The latter was written at the turn of the century; the previous century!

It is a very interesting read. Roberts clearly defends Belgian involvement in the Congo (even dedicating the book to Leopold II). In addition, throughout his book he is very paternalistic to the African natives. In first instance I thought “ that must have been the Zeitgeist”, but after spending three weeks in South Africa, I am sure many people still feel strong for some of the quotes below:

"The natives however prefer all food in a high stage of decomposition and it is some time before the very smell of it ceases to make one feel ill. To see them eating kwanga fish or the flesh of elephants, monkeys, antelopes or other animals generally both rotten and raw is most disgusting and brings home the fact sharply that man here is of a very low type."

"Some traits of the native’s character were now to be demonstrated to us. His main idea always is, to do as little work as possible and he will often take the greatest trouble in his effort to accomplish this object. Each native endeavored to put his load as near the gangway as possible which was soon blocked and then he had to come back, hoist the package on his head again and carry It to its proper place. Although this performance took place every day, unless an officer was constantly on the watch, the foolish fellows in their attempts to shirk duty brought upon themselves extra work."

"Then to bed, but not to sleep, for the boys to save themselves trouble, had not fixed the mosquito net properly. In my innocence I merely ordered them to do it and had not stood by and watched. It is indeed necessary always to see that the native does as he is told, for the moment one’s back is turned, he is eating if there is anything rotten enough at hand to tempt him and if not, he quietly goes to sleep. Even the State’s servants who speak the native language and also a kind of French, really live the lives of animals, for they eat, drink, and sleep if left alone and only work when they are shown how, and watched all the time."

"In the midst of breakfast we are startled by the report that the ship is on fire, and smoke is seen to be issuing from the fore hatch, under which much of the wood used for fuel is stored. None of the Europeans, however, are more excited than the natives, who, leisurely and with due deliberation, hand up buckets of water. Nothing indeed could make a native hurry."

"This military education is certainly the best that could be given to a savage; it teaches him punctuality, regularity, obedience and collective responsibility; it shows him how to build houses and keep them clean it gives him an idea of justice for he knows he will be punished for wrong doing. The soldier therefore soon becomes an altogether different person and realizes that he is no longer an animal-man living wild in the forest, but a soldier-man and a friend of the great “Bulamatadi” who governs the country."

"They are really just like young children and are easily pleased by trifles."

Tin Tin in Congo. Had to think of this while reading the book.

Finally – and on a completely different note - the following quote is for Simon with whom I was in the Congo the first time for several months in the summer of 2010. Simon – to say it carefully –was not the biggest fan of goat:

"Above all things, remember curry powder, pickles, chutney and Worcester sauce, for even goat’s flesh can be rendered pleasant if it tastes of something else."


[1] Michele Wong. 2002. In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's Congo. New York: Harper Perennial.

[2] Marcus Roberts. A Journal of a Tour in the Congo Free State. 1905. Brussels: Lebègue.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Post Scriptum (after South Africa).

A final post on South Africa; this one from Nairobi Airport where there is free wifi (just like at Kigali Aiport). Schiphol, Newark, JFK, Heathrow, and all those other European and US airports: do you hear that! Free internet!

In contrast to many people Roy and I did not have a pre-organized trip in South Africa, did not fly from city to city, and did not stay over in hotels. First, this was much cheaper. Second, because this was for both me and Roy the fourth time in the country we felt comfortable not knowing where we would end up the next day. Ex post we are so happy we did this; we have slept in so many different places, met such nice and friendly South Africans* and were able to experience part of their lives.

In Durban we stayed at a nice B&B where a young couple just started managing it and did everything to make us feel at home. In Plettenberg we had one of those real backpackers places. In Capetown we slept in Kathryn’s living room and met her friends. In Bloemfontein we lived in an Afrikaner family’s house with the rest of the family. In Amanzitoti we stayed in an empty backpackers where the owner lived as well. In Uitenhagen we stayed in a beautiful B&B, and in Pretoria we stayed with Jaap and Dora where we were received as their lost sons.

All these people were so hospitable and with all of them we talked much - and often until late in the evening. It helped a lot that Roy and I speak and understand Afrikaans. There were two common themes. First, people perceive the state of South Africa to be worse since 1994: crime and corruption were the keywords. Second, the World Cup is seen as having brought black and white closer together. Now let's hope it is enough and that it will last. Anyhow, it was really special for Roy and me to have been part of that! Also, a few more days to go and the Dutch will have the Cup.

* That is, we have met and interacted mainly (and unfortunately!) with white South Africans.

Last days in South Africa (Total kilometers driven: 6,320)

We left Amanzitoti early in the morning as we had a long drive ahead towards Uitenhagen. The latter is a small town about 20km from Port Elizabeth (PE); the city where the Dutch would play Brazil the next day. After a beautiful 1,112 kilometers we arrived around 9pm in the bed and breakfast where, because it was full, Roy and I cozily shared a bed. The next day I heard that I am a persistent snorer; sorry Roy.

Early in the morning after a healthy breakfast of baked eggs with bacon, we left for the Fanfest where – once again – before noon thousands of people were dressed in orange, drunk and singing. We walked (again) in a parade towards the stadium where we magically beat the Brazilians by 2-1. It was so amazing to have experienced this event! After the match, because we don’t know PE well, we asked a group of orange-dressed people where we could find beer and celebrating people. They said “At our place”. Half an hour later we were with lots of people at a party of a group of Dutch-supporting South Africans. Such a nice evening!

After way too little sleep and too much beer the day before we were in the car once again: with a 1,070km to Pretoria ahead. Roy and I have lived in Pretoria for more than half a year and consider it home. We stayed at Jaap and Dora’s place; close friends of my grandmother who moved to South Africa about 40 years ago. When I studied in Pretoria they were my surrogate family. Jaap en Dora are so sweet and although we only called them the day before we were welcomed with open arms.

Because I am heading from South Africa to the DRC, Pretoria was the last place to buy stuff. A pair of trousers and my belt passed away, and for some children of Congolese friends of mine I always like to take study books and material along, I had to do my favorite activity: shopping. Luckily Roy and I are efficient and in no time we were out of the shopping mall again and had time to spend time with Jaap and Dora; who had cooked a great dinner and had invited more of the family because ‘Peter and Roy were back in South Africa’. It was so nice and talked until late in the evening.

At 2pm from Johannesburg’s OR Tembo Airport I got on my flight to Nairobi where I am currently writing this post. Tomorrow I meet up with some friends and then at 6 pm I have a plane to Kigali where Raul and Grant (fellow PhDs) have been working for the last few days. Then on the 8th we’ll cross the border together into the Congo; definitely more adventures ahead. Roy took a plane a few hours later to the Netherlands where he will marry Faten in less than 2 weeks. They met each other in South Africa six years ago. I am so happy for them; and hope I ever get as lucky as Roy.

Orange parade to the stadium.

Brazilians clearly afraid for our Robben.

We won from Brazil!

Some Brazilians handed us the Cup. It will be on Roy's bookshelf in the years to come.