“The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off.”

Earlier this year, as I was moving to my country of assignment, I had to travel through a certain airport in West Africa taking with me many of my cherished possessions (ok, lots and lots of ham and cheese, I confess!). With every step I inched forward in the check-in line I regretfully gripped my soon-to-be-empty wallet tighter, imagining the look of pure glee on the face of the Excess Luggage clerk when he would realise how big my fine was to be. When it was finally my turn, I noticed the raised eyebrows from the agent as I struggled to lift my suitcases onto the scale, followed by a bulging of the eyes and flaring of the nostrils when he read the actual weight. Anybody who has ever witnessed an African family on a trip home from any part of the world will have heard every possible appeal to the generosity of a check-in agent (ranging from feigned surprise that the bags are 15 kg over even though they swear that when they weighed them at home they were well within the limit to outright begging) and I freely admit that I’m no stranger to the art. But this time I said nothing, lowering my gaze to avoid the full brunt of his condemnation, fully accepting of my fate. Continue reading


Growing up is hard to do…

All my bags are packed but I’m not sure I’m ready to go…I have been given an allowance of 3 suitcases to pack up my personal effects and move to another continent. In one, I’ve stuffed food and drink -enough pesto sauce to feed a family of Italians for…well, probably about a three days. In another, toiletries, in case there’s a mysterious shortage of deodorant, skin lotion and hair paraphernalia in Africa. And in another some clothes which will be dust and mud-stained beyond recognition within a few weeks. Yes, it’s finally time for me to move out and make a home of my own. Continue reading

The smug Samaritan

If you have even the vaguest interest in war and/or humanitarian intervention, the notion of neutrality is one that you will often be confronted with. Even outside of a conflict situation, as a foreigner coming to “help” a country, you still have to think about how your actions are perceived by whom to benefit whom.

In my case, as an election observer, it’s an absolutely integral consideration of the mission. The key thing, we are told over and over in briefings, is that the observation process should be impartial. The credibility of our entire presence hinges on the perception by all political actors and the voters that we are completely disinterested in the process, that we are somehow removed from it, observing but not participating.

Yet this idea of the observer as outside the process directly contradicts the other purpose of election observation, which is to credibilise the electoral process and to deter electoral fraud (which can fail, of course, in some spectacular ways)*. As observers, we are to be given access to every single stage of the procedure, should we demand it, because any denial would be seen as a sign of something to hide. This is not arrogance on my part, overstating how important we are –national election commissions themselves almost always refer to statements by international observers to demonstrate the transparency and credibility of the process. We don’t officially care who wins but we’re all hoping for a smooth process because, ultimately, all organisations that send observation missions have a greater ambition of supporting credible democratic processes.

So how do we reconcile being a part of something while staying out of it? To what extent do we have any right to be proactive to support a smooth process? There come times when it’s incredibly difficult to just observe…

Continue reading

Ramblings of a football fanatic

“Mourinho! Mourinho!Mourinho!” was the chant from the euphoric crowd. Replica jerseys were whipped around in a sweat-drenched frenzy. Real Madrid had just beaten Barcelona to win the Copa del Rey for the first time in 20 years and it was pure ecstasy for the fans. For 2 hours they had watched, mesmerised and nerve-wracked on the edge of their seats, as the two Spanish giants battled it out. When the winning goal was scored, an explosion of whooping and hollering drowned out everything else and the celebrations continued long into the night.

But the setting was not the Fontana de Cibeles in Madrid, where Real Madrid fans traditionally gather to celebrate their team’s success, or even a bar anywhere in Spain. Instead, we were in the middle of Guinea, in a tiny ‘video club’ –small buildings, or even huts, in which televisions have been set up for screening sporting events. In one corner lay the bed of the owner and, in the front centre of the room, two small-screen TVs. The rest of the room was entirely occupied by rows of benches, tightly squeezed together to cram as many avid fans as possible, each one having paid a small sum for this privilege. In these rooms, the temperature rises by 5-10 degrees just from the sheer volume of human congestion. It’s humid, sweaty, smelly, and there’s a very high risk of becoming intimately acquainted with your neighbour’s armpits. Continue reading

How to negotiate your own salary

Let me start off by saying I have no idea. Certainly not when I don’t have the career experience that would allow me to gauge the monetary value of my labour and give me the confidence to demand it. I find the whole subject awkward (hence how I last ended up working for 6 months without a contract!). I was recently forced to deal with it head-on, though, when I found a job application for which I could actually consider myself vaguely qualified (not requiring a PhD and 10 years of experience as Director of a UN agency). It all seemed great till I scrolled to the very bottom of the page:

“Salary: commensurate with education and experience.”

No range, no hints, nothing. In your application you are required to state your minimum salary requirements. Continue reading

Return of the Bush Faller

Bush falling (verb, Cameroonian slang): “refers to the act of one moving out of Cameroon to another country, preferably a more developed one, in search of greener pastures or the “prestigious” title of a “Bush Faller”. A Bush Faller is someone who has successfully accomplished the task of Bush falling.”

I’m not your typical Bush Faller. I didn’t make the decision to leave Cameroon in search of a better life –I had no choice but to tag along on the coattails of my parents as a youngster. As a result, today I miss out on some of the best aspects of bushfallerism –such as the large social network to celebrate your every homecoming and ‘gist’ (gossip) about who’s been up to what since the last time I was there, which Minister has been jailed for ‘corruption, etc. I also escape some of the worst consequences –endless queues of relatives (some more distant than others…) who never bothered to contact you while you were abroad, but somehow know your intimate travel details so as to accost you the moment you descend from the plane, with tales of their latest economic woes that only you can solve… Continue reading