Category Archives: Travel

Lesley on Africa practices small talk

On my About Me page, I alluded to the possibility of writing about my experience traveling in Africa – to add an entertaining counterweight to my more analytical rants and musings on the events unfolding on the continent. The following is a story about my attempt to bridge the gap between my previous work on conflict and my expanded portfolio, which sometimes includes health:

Guide: South Africa’s health facilities are among the best on the continent. Many people come here for medical treatment.

Lesley: Yes, I understand South Sudanese warlords come here for treatment.

Guide: (Awkward silence)

Lesley: (Makes mental note to draft better small talk points and practice with close friends. Or avoid social interactions altogether.)


“No Escort Required?”

On my About Me page, I alluded to the possibility of writing about my experience traveling in Africa – to add an entertaining counterweight to my more analytical rants and musings on the events unfolding on the continent. The following is a story about an awkward experience I had while trying to get an interview for a project some years ago:

In the District of Columbia, one normally needs an appropriate badge, or even an escort, to access some U.S. government facilities. This is the world with which I am most familiar – and the world that, for better or worse, I project on my experiences entering foreign government facilities.

It is for this reason that I failed to ask for directions when I was doing a drive by of a national security establishment in African Country X in an attempt to make an appointment to interview someone. After showing my passport and explaining to the front desk why I was there, I was directed to walk across the yard to my left and into one of the identical white buildings. I was like, you’re just going to let me wander around your premises? I don’t need a badge or an escort? And the guy was like, that sounds about right.

So wander I did.

I stopped at Ambiguous White Building #1. Looked for signage. Seeing none, I opened the door to what appeared to be a kitchen. I continued to Ambiguous White Building #2. Looked for signage. Seeing none, I opened the door to a non-descript storage area. Frustrated, I wandered around that upper left quadrant of the compound where the front desk guy had told me to go and weighed the merits of returning to him for idiot-proof directions.

Finally, an important looking guy and his entourage spotted me. From that distance, I couldn’t tell what he was saying, but I assumed it was the vernacular equivalent of “What the (insert expletive here) is she doing?!?” The entourage summoned me over and I explained why I was this random American wandering around their national security facility. They directed me to Ambiguous White Building #3, which was not a kitchen or a storage area, but the office of the minister I was stalking attempting to interview.

This, my friends, is how I learned to always ask for an escort to avoid such shady appearances – even if one isn’t required.


Return to the Mothership

Yesterday was my first day back at CNA, the place I’ve affectionately called “The Mothership” for the past fifteen months of my assignment at the Center for Complex Operations. While at CCO, I was working on an analysis of the Trans Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP), which is an interagency U.S. government program to counter terrorism and violent extremism in the Maghreb and Sahel. I’m hoping my report will be published by the end of February – inshallah.

Working on this project, I learned a lot about the complexity of foreign assistance, and how much more I have yet to learn on the topic. I’m a very hands on learner, so fortunately I had to travel to nine of the ten TSCTP countries. At the time I traveled, I’d accordingly code-named them for security reasons: African Country A (Niger), African Country B (Chad), African Country C (Mali), African Country D (Senegal), African Country E (Morocco), African Country F (Algeria), African Country G (Nigeria), African Country H (Mauritania), and African Country I (Burkina Faso).

Here’s a few pics from my travels & some blurbs about the kinds of things I got myself into when I wasn’t working.

Niger River, Niamey

View of the Niger River from my hotel room in Niamey

Niger Grand Mosquee

Entrance to the Grande Mosquée de Niamey

Niger Prayer Rugs

Prayer Rugs at the Grand Mosque

Police Academy

Niger Police Academy course

Lesley & the Gendarmes

Chillin w/the Gendarmes. As you do.

Bamako Sunset

Bamako sunset

Grilled Capitain

Grilled Capitaine fish in Bamako. Nom nom.

Dakar skyline

View of Dakar skyline from overloaded speedboat. When asked if the boat would make it back to Dakar, the guy driving said “On va essayer!” (We’re going to try!)

M'Bour Poolside

Terrace in M’Bour (south of Dakar) on a dune overlooking the ocean. Best office I’ve had to date.

Hassan II Mosque (I)

Grande Mosquée Hassan II at sunset in Casablanca

Moroccan Countryside (1)

Moroccan village on the road to Ouarzazate

Hassan II Mosque (2)

Inside the Hassan II Mosque in Casa

Sunset on Camels

Selfie on a camel. What what.

Heyyy Camel

Riding a camel was on the bucket list, even though it’s très touristy. But I didn’t like the way this dude was looking at me.

Tombouctou Sign

Famous sign in Zagora that says 52 days to Timbuktu by camel

My Tajine

I made my first tajine! It had chicken, peas, and artichokes. It was compellingly mediocre – but my teacher was not to blame.

Moroccan Countryside (2)

Road trip through the Atlas Mountains


The real reason my tajine was uninspiring was b/c THERE WERE KITTENS!!! I played with them instead of listening to the instructor.

Mauritanian Ice Cream

My favorite Mauritanian ice cream: “Beat milk goat for a long time to get dessert.”

Toilet Sign

In case you forget how to use the toilet, here are some overly details instructions.

Burkina Lounge

If you fly Air France enough, they sometimes decide treat you a little better than something they wiped off their shoe. Here’s the lounge in Ouaga. Klassy!


Lesley on Africa LOVES Fieldwork (or In Praise of Fieldwork)

As the title of this post so emphatically declares, I love when my projects require fieldwork. I’m working on a project in FY13 that has had me traveling to African Country A (Niger), African Country B (Chad), African Country C (Mali), African Country D (Senegal), African Country E (Morocco), African Country F (Algeria) and African Country G (Nigeria). (I’m currently in African Country H and am traveling to African Country I in early September.) And because of my fieldwork, I’m being forced to learn more about these countries and the United States’ relationship with them.

I love doing fieldwork not because I enjoy the unending abuse from Delta/Air France, but rather because I’m a hands-on learner. On this project and the others that preceded it, I’ve found that the assumptions I had before conducting fieldwork were contradicted, or my understanding of how a process did or did not work became more nuanced. I’ve learned, as government-types like to put it, how the sausage is made, and why said sausage sometimes comes out as a cob of corn to the dismay of the people responsible for designing and implementing programs. There is very little that can substitute for this type of learning experience.

Here’s an example of the types of things I’ve learned during my fieldwork in various African countries. Out of necessity, this description is in the abstract and combines the characteristics of multiple countries:

The United States sees the extremist Prophet’s Revolutionary Militia (PRM) as a threat and makes countering the PRM a focus of its programs in the neighboring African countries of Azania and Matobo. However various U.S. government agencies perceive the PRM threat differently and can’t agree on a comprehensive approach. State is concerned about the militarization of U.S. foreign policy, while DoD believes the U.S. isn’t doing enough to counter the threat. Dissenters from both agencies believe the PRM isn’t even the right threat to be countering, and that U.S. programs should have a more comprehensive approach to support state stability. However, Azania and Matobo are marginal to global U.S. strategic interests, and a more comprehensive approach reeks of nation-building à la Iraq & Afghanistan. No thank you.

All U.S. government agencies are on the same page about working with the government of Azania because it has a history of democratic transitions, there’s freedom of the press, and the military has a close, longstanding relationship with the U.S. In Matobo, it’s a different story. The State Department is reluctant to work with the government of Matobo, which is a corrupt, nepotist dictatorship. The Defense Department, however, sees Matobo as a key counterterrorism ally and would like to increase military assistance, but State is concerned about governance, human rights, and upsetting the local balance of power within the country. The difference of U.S. government views on Matobo creates discord between State and DoD, whereas interagency relations with regard to Azania are much smoother.

The U.S. government wants Azania and Matobo to increase regional security cooperation to go after the PRM. Yet, Azania and Matobo are reluctant to work together to counter the PRM because the former believes the latter’s military intelligence leaks like a sieve and there are whispers that people in the Matobolese government have a tacit agreement not to go after the extremist group. In addition, Azania and Matobo have historical animosities due to Azania’s support for the independence movement in the Zangaro region of Matobo. This is why when the U.S. tries to hold multilateral exercises or regional conferences geared towards facilitating regional security cooperation that are held in either country, Azania will invite everyone but Matobo, and vice versa. This refusal to work together persists even though the PRM is increasingly gaining revenue from smuggling along the Azania-Matobo border.

Although limited by State’s resistance to military engagement, DoD conducts minimal training in Matobo. However, they routinely have to change their security cooperation plans if an exercise is planned when the dictator is in Europe receiving medical treatment. This is because no military assets are allowed to move if he is out of the country – this is how he prevents a coup. Engagement is also delayed by requirements to do Leahy vetting for each unit. In a country like Azania that has a long history of military professionalism this is not a problem, but the majority of units in the Matobolese military have been accused of involvement in the country’s three most recent coups, as well as of human rights violations within the disputed territory of Zangaro – even though the Zangaro incidents happened 20 years ago and didn’t involve the current soldiers in the tainted units. On top of this, Matobo is not great at keeping records, so it’s difficult for the U.S. to ascertain who was and was not involved in these violations. And on top of that, there’s a dispute within various elements of the U.S. government as to whether these units were involved in these violations. And on top of that, the dictator recently attempted to change the constitution to stay in power another 5 years, so the military just deposed him and intends to support a transition to democracy in 9 months. Since this is technically an unconstitutional change of government, all U.S. military assistance has been cut off.

The money originally designated for Matobo is reprogrammed to help Azania develop more robust border security, but both the Embassy and the Azanian security forces have a problem with absorptive capacity. Since Azania is a permissive environment for government & NGO programs and has few mechanisms to coordinate and deconflict these programs, funds obligated for Azania are not spent until two fiscal years later. In addition, donor nations eventually discover that they have parallel training programs that are training the Azanians on conflicting doctrine and tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs).

The current Azanian president is very receptive to receiving more specialized military training from the U.S. However, the U.S. wants to train Azanian forces to go after the extremist PRM, while the Azanian government sees the PRM as more of a U.S. and European problem. Plus, everyone knows the PRM has a safe haven in Matobo from which they launch attacks into Azania, and the Azanians are annoyed that Matobo isn’t pulling its weight in countering the PRM. To complicate matters, the Azanian force designated for U.S. training is not well resourced by the Azanian government because they only have a Captain in charge of their unit. Other Azanian security forces, which may have overlapping missions and compete for influence, have Brigadier Generals in charge and they have the background and political capital to ensure that their forces are well resourced. For these reasons, the force led by the Captain stays in a training cycle and never becomes an operational force that can operate independent of U.S. assistance. Therefore, specialized training never takes root in Azania.

Oh and guess what. There’s been an election and the new Azanian president was indicted by the ICC for his alleged incitement of violence during a previous election cycle, so security cooperation is now experiencing a “strategic pause.” The Azanians have wisely anticipated that U.S. military assistance has strings attached and they’ve recently diversified their security cooperation relationships. They now receive most of their training from European Country X and Asian Country Y.

Hopefully, this little story gives you a sense of the types of factors I’ve come to understand better once I see them in play🙂

That Time I was a Volcano Refugee

On my About Me page, I alluded to the possibility of writing about my experience traveling in Africa – to add an entertaining counterweight to my more analytical rants and musings on the events unfolding on the continent.

Early yesterday morning, the international arrivals terminal at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in Nairobi, Kenya was gutted in a four-hour blazeFortunately, no one was injured, and measures are being put in place to resume full operations at the airport by this evening. Regardless, as JKIA is a hub for air transportation in the region, with some 16,000 passengers transiting dailyit is difficult to imagine that such transportation in East Africa will not be crippled until JKIA fully recovers – or until a regional alternative is sought out.

Those of you who travel frequently to the continent know that there are relatively few hubs where you can fly from one African country to another, or nonstop to the U.S. So here’s a story about my efforts to get to one of those hubs from JKIA and get home to the U.S. – while avoiding European airspace.

A few years ago, I presented a paper at a conference in Nairobi. My flight to DC via Amsterdam was scheduled to leave on Friday night, so I had planned a whole day of sightseeing and shopping all over the city before heading to the airport. The night before, my mother had warned me via email that my flights into and out of Amsterdam might be canceled due to the volcanic ash from Iceland.

On Friday, in the midst of playing with baby elephants and feeding giraffes, I overheard several American and European tourists lamenting the fact that the airlines were not able to determine when they could fly home. They spoke of delays not in terms of hours or days, but in terms of weeks. Rather than going shopping, which I had been looking forward to for weeks, I raced back to the hotel to see if I could get the conference organizers to book me another flight through Addis Ababa, Ethiopia or Johannesburg, South Africa – two of the few hubs for transcontinental air traffic in Africa.

With the amount of information available to us at the time on the projected spread of the ash, I was clearly more bent out of shape than the conference organizers about my prospects for getting stranded in Nairobi, where my options for returning to the US would be extremely limited. Knowing that I needed to be back at CNA by Tuesday morning for an Africa maritime security seminar for my project, I told the conference organizers that I didn’t care what needed to be done or how circuitous the route, but if I wasn’t back in DC by Monday night, I would lose my job. True or not, my flair for the dramatic paid off. With little time to spare before their flight to Addis departed, they packed me up and took me with them, promising that I would get flights home from there.

I had informed my boss and my project sponsor that it was quite possible that I would get stranded indefinitely somewhere in Africa, as most flights from Africa to the US go through Europe. My boss replied by mentioning some Eyjafjallajokull thing. I didn’t know what that was. I assumed he’d fallen on his keyboard and made a massive typo. My sponsor’s response – “Sorry to hear that. Can you write a quick turn around paper on the situation in Sudan?” So, in the midst of my last minute dash to the airport, I frantically typed out some poorly spelled, poorly worded key points on my Blackberry as the taxi swerved in and out of Nairobi rush hour traffic. And oh yes, my mother was also sending me frantic emails saying “You’re leaving Kenya for ETHIOPIA??? I don’t understand. There’s a State Department warning against traveling there close to the elections!!!”

Normally when I travel to new countries, I like to arrive well informed about my surroundings. I boarded an Ethiopian Airlines plane without a visa, without sufficient knowledge about traveling in the country as a single female, and concerned that I was affiliated with these conference organizers who came from a think tank whose activities had been severely repressed over the past few months as the Ethiopian government prepared to steal hold elections the next month. The last elections had been accompanied by violence, and although the U.S. and Ethiopia were on decent terms, I wasn’t mentally prepared to be around if the excrement hit the oscillating unit.

I arrived in Addis on Friday night and the conference organizers gave me a flight leaving Monday at 1am to Istanbul, and then on to New York, and then on to Dulles, arriving Monday night. Having received an email from my mother saying the cloud was moving south and east, I asked for an earlier flight, but to no avail. They gave me 2 days in a hotel near the airport, a $100 bill which was actually too old to use in Ethiopia, and pointed me in the direction of the visa office. The visa officials asked me how long I would be staying, and I said I didn’t know. At this point, I was really concerned that my flight from Addis would be canceled if the ash moved into Turkish airspace. To lighten the mood, I was about to make a joke about being a refugee in their country until I realized it was incredibly inappropriate. So I got a 6 week visa and prayed that I could get out of the city before the elections in May.

Still in shock, I was delivered to the hotel, which was an oasis of calm in a sea of construction chaos. I was given a lovely room with a flooded balcony adjacent to an abandoned building. Ordinarily, I would have been thrilled to explore a new city, but the hotel staff was not at all helpful in explaining to me what their city had to offer and how they could arrange for me to go sightseeing. Over the course of the next two days, I was glued to the TV and the internet awaiting the latest news on European airspace closures and plotting out scenarios of flying home through Dubai if Istanbul didn’t work out. Occasionally, I would have a panic attack that I would be indefinitely stranded in Addis. I left the hotel once – only to prevent an international incident that was almost brought on by non-functioning internet at the hotel the day before I was scheduled to depart.

During one of my interactions with the hotel staff, I met a random Sudanese businessman who consulted for Saudi companies investing all over Africa. Prior to our meeting, I had no idea the extent of Saudi investment on the continent. Over tea, he advised that I take a flight to Jeddah and head east to get back to the U.S. if Istanbul didn’t work out. That night, I got down on my knees and told God that if he got me home soon, I would do whatever He asked – even if it meant quitting my job and giving up all my worldly belongings. I am not a religious person, but I just wanted to go home.

Thanks to Turkey not closing the airspace over Istanbul even as the ash was closing in, I was able to land there in the morning and catch my flight to JFK in the afternoon. Upon arriving at JFK, I begged the people at the ticket counter to please give me not only an earlier flight to DC, but to also make me not fly in to Dulles. I knew that I was far too stressed and tired to bother to make it home to downtown DC if I didn’t fly into National. Heck, I was so relieved that the ordeal was over that I almost gave up at JFK. I arrived home on Monday night at 8pm, after 81 hours in transit from Nairobi to Addis Ababa to Istanbul to the United States. So if I quit my job and sell all my worldly belongings, you’ll know why.

The following Wednesday (the 21st), KLM notified me that my Nairobi to DC itinerary from the 16th had been cancelled and sent me a ticket to leave Nairobi on the 24th. Way to be on top of things, KLM.

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