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Helter skelter

Tuesday October 10, 2006

Sam Nganga

Here?s a word of advice: if you ever get posted to a ?fragile state?, don?t read the newspapers and avoid all television; they will only drive you to desperation. If your fragile state of choice happens to be Haiti, I can tell you now that you will encounter tales of Jordanian peacekeepers caught in a hail of triangulated gunfire; friendly Canadian police officers shot in the thigh on the way to the airport; one and a half dozen skulls discovered behind a hotel in an upscale part of the capital.

Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea

I joined Population Services International in 2004; a non-profit organisation that uses private sector approaches to prevent the spread of HIV and other diseases in over 60 countries. I was coming out of two years at business school in London, and also Berkeley, California, where I had learned much about pricing financial market derivatives.

It was fascinating stuff but as graduation day drew closer, I was suffering from a severe case of existential angst. While the rest of my class was reading the Financial Times and preparing for first-round interviews with the banks, I was hanging out with a writing group and reading Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea. On the darker days I contemplated becoming a poet; and then the bank statement showing the size of pound-denominated school debt came through the letter box.

In a moment of angst-propelled bravery, I signed up for a short-term assignment in Malawi to help PSI develop a programme to get local subsidiaries of big businesses to provide employees with HIV/Aids prevention and treatment services. I recall a moment of nausea before I boarded the flight to Blantyre. What was I doing? I should be staying in London and getting a real job, not heading back to Africa to work for a not-for-profit setup. This was no way to pay off that school debt.  But I knew that sitting in Canary Wharf, building spreadsheet models, wasn?t where my heart was. If I was going to have to work to pay my way, I might as well do it in a field where I could make a contribution and learn something in the process.

And learn I did. I learned the vocabulary of disease and a poetic soup of acronyms, numbers and concepts. I learned of 40 million HIV infections, of generalised epidemics and opportunistic infections, of the impact of volunteer counselling and testing (VCT) and antiretroviral (ARV) medicines. Soon I could wax lyrical about problems and possible solutions to the greatest tragedy to ever strike my home continent.

An odd thing happened in the process. The more I spoke about it, the more the job morphed from being simply an attempt to quell my angst, and I became increasingly emotionally engaged in the issues. I couldn?t fathom why this problem was so difficult to solve. Why was all of our intellectual fire power being thrown at computing the valuation of derivatives and not being channelled to solving the funding and distribution difficulties that made the spread of HIV worse than it needed to be. I would eventually find out the complexity of the problem, but for now I simply basked in moral outrage.  

Towards the end of my three-month assignment in Malawi, my friend Rushad emailed me the text of an address by Bono at the University of Pennsylvania. He spoke of Africa and disease, justice and the ?great moral blind spot of our age?. ?What,? asked Bono, ?are you willing to spend your moral capital, your intellectual capital, your cash, and your sweat equity in pursuing??

And there I was, at 31, enthralled by an epiphany inspired by a rock star. If this were a movie they?d be playing Helter Skelter in the background and panning to a U2 concert. Despite the clichés, I?d found my niche; the work that would calm the angst.

After that it was helter skelter. I took up a new posting with PSI in Uganda where I discovered that although it was development work, the pay and perks were not half bad. I got to live in a little house on the hill overlooking Kampala, and at night when the town lights are on and fog rolls in over Lake Victoria, it looks a little like San Francisco in the summer. And because the house was free and the price of most things was about one-fifth of the prices in London, I could save enough to pay the bills and have a little left over for a holiday.

The education continued and I picked up the vocabulary of malaria prevention, encountered the tension between cultural practices and family planning, agonised over the divergence in the agendas of donor agencies and local governments, discovered what capacity building really means, and the joy of working with young and highly-motivated staff. I learned how to dance salsa at a nightclub in downtown Kampala, watched white-water rafting on the Nile, and lost my nerve when it was my turn.

One Friday evening, 18 months into my Ugandan adventure, my phone rang. It was my boss. ?How would you like to go to Haiti?? she asked.

Showbiz radio and no blood on the streets

This is how I now find myself at the Louissaint Toussaint international airport at Port au Prince, Haiti; how I headed into a city that I?ve only ever seen on the BBC, and read about in Graham Greene?s The Comedians.

There isn?t much comedy on the street when I leave the airport accompanied by a couple of PSI employees. It is 24 degrees in the shade. UN peacekeeping soldiers guard the airport exit dressed in blue hats, camouflage fatigues, and dark glasses. They look scary and tired. The Haitians go about their business. Tap-tap mini-buses clog the streets. There is no evidence of skulls or bleeding Canadian police, or marauding gangsters anywhere. Just the sound of air conditioning in the tightly locked Nissan patrol car we?re riding in.

On the car radio they have the entertainment news on air: TransAmerica has just won a Golden Globe and Felicity Huffman dedicates her award to ?all the people who risk ostracism to be who they really are?. Then they play U2, Helter Skelter, and we drive on into the city.

The coming months would bring much excitement and pain. I would eventually encounter policemen and peacekeepers, marauding crowds, gangsters, great joy and much stress. I would learn to tell the difference between automatic gunfire and rolling thunder; and an entirely new language.

Sam Nganga, a Kenyan national, is an 8-month veteran of Port au Prince. He is yet to go white water rafting but he now prefers Kompa music to U2.
Details about PSI?s work are on the internet at


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