Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Ubiquity of Evil

For those blog readers who may have wondered: yes, M and I are safe in Nairobi. For those who have not heard by now, there was just a terror attack here. You can read all about the latest breaking news on BBC, CNN, AP, and many other outlets. The image above is a screencap from Citizen TV, the biggest TV station in Kenya.

The attack took place at 14 Riverside Drive, in the compound of the DusitD2 hotel, in the high-end neighborhood of Westlands, Nairobi. It is about 20 minutes away from our house, and we drove past it twice on the day of the attack, mere hours beforehand. (I was and am still furloughed and therefore not working.)

I won't pretend I have any idea what it was like to be trapped in the building for hours not knowing whether I'd make it, to be praying for my family member who works in the area, or to be on the ground during the attack. If I know anything about the intrepid reporters who call Nairobi home, those accounts will come soon enough. I only had a few thoughts I wanted to share with whomever happens to read this.

First, nothing sparks fake news quite like a crisis. From the moment the attack began, rumors began flying around on social media. I saw everything from false contact information for emergency services to rampant speculation about the terrorists' target to conflicting descriptions of the details of the attack (including something as basic as the number of attackers). The takeaway: very few sources can be trusted in a developing crisis. It's worth taking everything you hear with a grain of salt and to verify information with official sources - in this case, those would be the Government of Kenya security services (and, if you're a U.S. citizen, the U.S. Embassy).

That being said, if you're an American and you want information from the U.S. Embassy in a crisis, please register for STEP. This is the only way we know to email you when something like this happens. We do our best to disseminate information as widely as possible, including on our website and social media, but if you're not in the STEP system for that country you just might miss crucial information at a crucial time.

Aside from the practical things, I hope you'll indulge me to share a few reflections on evil. Hannah Arendt argues in her famous book Eichmann in Jerusalem that Eichmann, a man billed as an architect of the Holocaust, is more clown than monster and more average Joe than fanatic anti-Semite. In this book, she coins the now-famous expression "the banality of evil", concluding that the actors behind the Holocaust and their motivations are unexceptional even if their actions and the outcomes were extraordinarily horrific and cruel.

Well, if evil is banal I'd also say that it's ubiquitous. There are many people back home who might be worried for our safety, but the reality is we live in a fallen world with many broken institutions and people. In Kenya, there's the ever-lingering threat of Al Shabaab, the Somalia-based terror group that has claimed responsibility for the most recent Nairobi attack. Yet when I interned in Paris, France, the Charlie Hebdo shooting happened. Even in our beautiful home country, the United States, schoolchildren and parents prepare themselves for the next mass shooting. The perpetrator may be an incel or an ISIS-inspired recruit or just someone who didn't get the help he needed in time. In places like Kabul, Afghanistan, terrorism strikes with even more alarming frequency.

There's nothing separating you or me from the innocent victims of these unimaginable acts of violence except sheer, dumb luck. "There but for the grace of God, go I." So may our hearts and thoughts and prayers be with the victims, but let's do more. Let's donate our time and blood and resources to those who are most afflicted. Let's help bear one another's burdens, mourn with those who mourn, and comfort those who stand in need of comfort. Let's stand in solidarity together, strengthen partnerships between nations, build up each other's communities, expand access to education and opportunities, and pursue policies that will help us root out evil wherever it festers and mitigate its damage when it strikes...

For if there's one thing tragedy has taught me over and over again it's that, though evil may be ubiquitous, goodness is even more so. And with that goodness comes hope, love, charity, and - with time - healing. No terrorist or mass murderer or evil actor of any kind can change that, and at the end of the day that's why they'll never win. In the meantime, the rest of us have work to do.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

When They Go (Fur)lough, We Go High

I'm really proud of this post's title, a pun riffing on an awesome quote from former U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama: "When they go low, we go high." (And for those not already familiar with the term, furlough rhymes with "low" or "toe" with a long "o" sound.)

Anyway, I spent the past few weeks being furloughed due to the government shutdown. I already wrote a bit previously about what happens in an Embassy when the government shuts down. Last time, though, the shutdown was much shorter, meaning the consequences are quite a bit more intensely felt this time around. If you want some background on the political debate behind the shutdown, you can read about it here.

Being furloughed means I (along with about 400,000 other federal employees) haven't been allowed to work (or get paid for those weeks) since the shutdown started on December 22, 2018. What's happened with every modern shutdown is that Congress approves back-pay for all of us who were furloughed. In other words, 400,000 employees including me will get paid, late, with taxpayer dollars, for sitting around wishing we could work. A lot of other countries find our system a little nuts in this regard, and quite a few Americans seem to agree.

For work during the shutdown, we keep a low profile and limit our operations in unfunded departments (like mine) to those that are deemed "essential": mostly pertaining to life and safety. (In other words, no #throwbackthursday Embassy Tweets for now.) Thankfully, we have strong contingencies in place for the shutdown that have allowed our essential operations to continue relatively smoothly. (We aren't experiencing anything like our poor colleagues at U.S. National Parks, for instance.)

I did learn something else about furloughs this time around, too. You can be furloughed based on your current position and then un-furloughed to fill an essential position. When my boss is out and I need to fill in for her, I go from being "non-excepted" (i.e., non-essential - no offense taken) to "excepted" (i.e., essential). Even if the government is still shut down, I'll go back to work in that unique case.

It's a little complicated, but like it or not it's all part of one of the biggest quirks of our government. And until I have to go back in, I'm taking advantage of every spare minute to catch up on reading, spend quality time with M, and get a strong start to my New Year's Resolutions.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

All I Wanted for Christmas Was Family

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and a Happy New Year to all! I had an extra special holiday season this time around because my mom and sister came all the way to Kenya to celebrate with us. When you live as far from home as we do, you can't take seeing family for the holidays for granted.

They were only here for a short amount of time, and we stayed around Nairobi, so I tried to cram in as much fun into as short a time as possible. The day they arrived, we picked them up from the airport around 4am (those long-haul flights to Nairobi are pretty brutal no matter which route you take). We had a relaxed lunch at the River Cafe in Karura Forest, which boasts tasty food, a peaceful ambiance, and a convenient location. Then, we all had pedicures done by P, my dear friend and nail technician extraordinaire. We swung by Spinner's Web for some souvenirs and then tried the new Village Market location for CJ's restaurant. The menu was huge - it took M and me an embarrassingly long time to decide what to order.

On Christmas Day, my sister and I worked out (mostly because she's an awesome exercise buddy and I would never have been motivated enough to do Pilates Intense Interval Training on Christmas on my own). Then, we went to Nairobi National Park, the Giraffe Centre, and the Karen Blixen Museum. My favorite stop was the Giraffe Center, where we got to feed giraffes from our hands (!) and learn about giraffe conservation efforts. My mom, though, was especially delighted by the visit to the Karen Blixen Museum, devoted to the legendary late Danish settler Karen Blixen, a.k.a. Isak Dinesan, famous for her book Out of Africa and its Hollywood adaptation.

We followed that up with a day trip to Naivasha (fun fact: Karen Blixen honeymooned there), including Crescent Island, Sanctuary Farm, and Hell's Gate. We enjoyed great views of wildlife and landscapes all day. At one point, a baboon even jumped on our car!

The next day, we booked a tour of the United Nations Headquarters in Nairobi - one of only four in the world. (The others are in Geneva, Vienna, and of course New York City.) We took a picture in front of the "Karibuni" sign, which means "Welcome, all" in Kiswahili. I also brought my family to the U.S. Embassy to show them where I work.

Sadly, my mom had to leave right after that. My sister stayed for a few more days, so we went fabric and souvenir shopping in downtown Nairobi with my friend A (the same one who came over and cooked Kenyan food soon after we arrived). We also woke up early and hiked Mount Longonot, got massages at Serenity Spa, checked out a new trampoline park, and volunteered at a local orphanage called Mogra.

I also brought my sister to church and introduced her to some of my friends in Nairobi. We rang in the new year by hosting a laid-back evening with card games. My sis was also kind enough to bring her Nintendo Switch so we could even play some of her video games. Eventually, though, she had to get on a plane to head home, too. I miss my family already, but I'm so glad I got to spend this special time with them. I'll always treasure making these memories and sharing our adventures with people I love so much.