Friday, November 30, 2007

Morning on the mara

It couldn't be more beautiful here. We just saw 3 lionesses with their babies. The noises they were making were so cute.

Earlier, we saw a warthog and David I were hoping it was Pumbaa. No luck.

Last night was loud - something (or someone) was howling at thew moon.

This is a radical departure from mu experience this past week and much needed.

The Guiness I had last night was perfect, and the food amazing. Guiness for power! The buffet was bountiful (is that a word) and had everthing from beef, indian, italian and more. I tried everthing.

Cheetah kill

After seeing a lion, gazelle, bison, elephant and more, we came upon a cheetah.

He wandered for a bit (and we followed), and then he took off (holy acceleration) and snagged himself an impala.

What a way to start a safari.

Safari time

I am sad to say goodbye to all my new IRC Kenyan colleagues and wish them the best!

We are off to safari, where I may have no access to the net. If not, the blogging and tweets will be back on Monday when we depart from Nairiobi to Addis in Ethiopia.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Regina, Guiness and Reflecting

That was a day.

I'm sitting by the pool at the Jacaranda hotel by the pool (pic later, sheesh) with a wonderfully stout Guiness in front of me and my noise cancelling headphones on listening to Regina Spektor sing about hope. The album is "Begin to Hope" in case you were wondering and she is wonderful.

Hope is an interesting word. It's one of those "things" that is hard to pin down.

The muslim woman in Eastleigh, Nairobi I met today and the community of 30 women she is the leader of are starting a chip business (selling potato chips from what I gathered). She said to me as we were leaving that she hoped one day to contribute to the IRC with profits from her business.

Realistically, what exactly are her chances? I'm not a vegas bookie or anything - but let's go with 1 in a tradjillion.

But she was serious. Dead serious and already planning who to give money away before she has made her first penny so that more women could get educated and start their own businesses. Where does that kind of strength come from exactly? Hope that unwavering is compelling beyond description (though clearly I'm trying).

Faith is another one of those words.

A man at Kakuma was offered resettlement to the United States. As legend has it, his business which is situated in the middle of Kakuma refigee camp does so well that he decided to stay. If this story is true, I have to wonder how this man is able to have faith in his decision to stay.

For the past 11 months I have been asking  myself over and over - what is the key to raising the visibility of the IRC?

Well, where is my own hope and faith? I think I met them in Kenya.

The people at Kakuma who run the disabled child physical therapy program are in danger of losing funding. What do they do? They ask and ask and ask and will continue to ask for help, funding, anything to let them continue. They give me a t-shirt advertising their progam and they ask and ask for help. To the death I'm sure if that is what it takes.

I couldn't sleep last night and ended up watching the CNN/Youtube Republican debate. It was either or both Huckabee or McCain who made a comment about how the American people have a higher standard (I think the topic was immigration, but I was so disgusted by the entire thing I might be wrong).

Either way, he was was wrong. That crap about Americans made me sick. We, as human beings, not as Americans have a higher standard to live up to - and it is clear we are not doing the job.

Abject poverty, AIDS, violence against women, blah blah blah whatever else is proof. The IRC and other organizations are doing what they can but it is not enough.

Not Even Close.

What I saw today is unacceptable to me as a human being. If you were here with me, I PROMISE YOU that you'd feel it too. The pictures don't do it. Bono talking about it doesn't do it. I had to see it.

Now let's see if the marketer in me can figure out how to raise some hell. I think I will try a little hope and faith for starters.

If you are still reading, look on the right column and click to make a donation. A buck if that is all you can swing. I realize I'm not the most eloquent writer, but I'm telling you, this is it. Save the cheerleader - oops, wrong blog....

Save others and save yourself.

Donate. Volunteer. Advocate. Apply for a job. Raise some hell.

Feels good, I promise.


Just so you know, I didn't freak out like a little girl, I only *almost* hyperventilated just a tiny, tiny bit. This morning, I visited Kibera which is I believe the 2nd largest slum in Nairobi. It's big, really big.

And scary to be a little bit honest.

We visited with a community group of women who are rebuilding their lives by educating themselves, starting business with micro-loans of less than $300 and banding together to save money as a community. The strength of these women is incredible and I was honored to have an opportunity to meet with them and learn a little about their lives in the slum and the business they are running.

From Africa 2007

We met in little more than a shack that serves as a "hotel." Hotels being nothing more than a coffee shop with many flies, they were able to sell coffee and other food in the community. Afterwards, we walked towards the market.

It's quite hard for me to capture how I felt, walking through one of the poorest slums on earth dressed in a sport coat and khakis. I couldn't have been more out of place. Aden and the group of IRC staffers who were with me kept asking me if I could believe what I was seeing. I could not.

From Africa 2007

I asked if it was OK to take a photo as we entered the open marketplace - the scene opened up in front of me - hundreds of goats in large groups with men pushing and pulling them in every direction. I pulled out my camera and snapped two photos when I first heard the yelling. Men were rushing at us yelling for me to stop taking photos. What happened next was a blur.

We headed to the other side of the market to find the woman in charge, who would give us permission to take photos. When we found her, she immediately got a call on her cell phone and brushed us off to take the call. Men started yelling at each other and at us. I asked Aden what they were saying and he said everything was OK. I was breathing hard and trying to stay calm.

A man introduced himself to me as Mohammad and shook my hand, asking if I was with an NGO. He had never heard of the IRC (that darn brand awareness!). He wanted my help and would later give me a note (wait til you see it!) with his information. Things weren't out of hand, but I was really confused and getting nervous.

We headed back to the car pretty quickly and were followed by a large group of the men who were still yelling, but what about I have no idea. We got back to the car and got in and locked the door. After a few minutes, we pulled out and left the area. We all had good laugh as I wondered how white this white guy must have gotten. I do believe all the blood must have rushed out of my head at one point.

Oh yea, you can buy a goat at the market for as little as $1,500 ksh, if you are ever in town.

Here is the photo that kicked it all off:

From Africa 2007

Afterwards, we visited another community program, this time in Eastleigh, Nairobi's version of the worst parts of the Bronx and Harlem. This time however, there was no drama. We met with another women's group, studying math and English and also starting a business with a small micro-grant. While we were there , their freezer was delivered by UNHRC and I helped pull it off the truck and carried it into their small office/room/building.

After a nice lunch with a few regional and country staffers, I made my "Global Marketing" presentation, which I hope went over well. I think it did.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The best non-profit you've never heard of

From Africa 2007
Photo: Educating mothers on nutrition and healthy babies

It's an interesting position to be in professionally. I have come to the conclusion that the IRC is simply the best non-profit that you've never heard of. It's the marketing team's job to change that. Part of how we are going to accomplish this is by getting really good at telling stories and really showing people what we do. It's pretty incredible. Seeing it first hand has blown my brain wide open.

The list of services that the IRC provides at Kakuma refugee camp alone is overwhelming and impossible to completely describe. On top of the very basic camp infrastructure, we provide layers and layers of services that are not only impressive, but thorough, complete and completely surprising.

Even beyond our programs though are the people. I can't do justice to the quality of staffers that I met at Kakuma. What I can say is that they are beyond talented and dedicated. They are heroes in the purest sense of the word. Working is a desolate place like Kakuma and dedicating their lives to come to the aid of those in need is stunning. It's remarkable and wonderful. I'm humbled to be able to call myself a colleague.

Today started with a visit to the sanitation area where we saw how toilets are constructed. Malaria is the #1 cause of death in the camp and the sanitation department is also responsible for spraying huts and areas with bug spray that kills mosquitoes. In talking to the staff, we learned that IRC also does basic meat inspection and checks water sanitation - things I personally simply take for granted back home.

Our next stop was to visit a group of women being educated on caring for their babies. We spent a bit of time asking questions of the staff and learning that their programs are quite comprehensive and designed to help families raise healthy babies. I was reminded of the time I spent at the March of Dimes, and how hard it was for us to educate women - the fact that the IRC provides this level of care and education really threw me for a loop. Its one thing to read about these programs on paper but it's an entirely different experience to see it live and to watch as IRC staffers educate women.

From there, we visited our disabled kid’s physical therapy program where we were presented with a t-shirt and Kellie presented the women with certificates for completing the course. What was most interesting was that the IRC team was encouraging feedback on their course. The women, all mothers of seriously disabled children (mostly cerebral palsy) were quite vocal in providing feedback. The IRC team was writing comments on a white board and took each woman's concerns very seriously.

The t-shirt we were given said "Love has no substitute, love your disabled child" on the back. On the front was an IRC logo (yay for great branding!).

Speaking of branding, I think I should take some lessons from the Kakuma staff. Not only do they wear IRC shirts every day, they take pride in them. There is an unending desire for more IRC branded "stuff." I gave out a bunch of IRC lanyards and some lapel pins. I wish I had brought more.

As we drove back to IRC offices, we passed through a refugee marketplace. Apparently, there are 3 or 4 of these markets (named for different cities - Mogadishu, Hong Kong, Nairobi etc). Proving that the human spirit really can shine anywhere, you can find just about anything in these markets. I saw signs for CDs and MP3's, cell phones, computers and computer training and more. Merchandise ranged from Nike sneakers to Man U jerseys. INCREDIBLE! I'm not entirely sure how the economy runs, but there certainly is a functioning system within the camp.

What else can I say about Kakuma? It's worth noting, even though I'm pushing my writing skills to try to communicate this properly that there is an overwhelming sense of hope within the camp. Unless 60,000 refugees and staff were faking it for David and my visit, these are people who have no real home. They are not allowed to own land and cannot go back home, yet they persevere. They better themselves by taking courses, raising their families and figuring out ways to simply survive. I didn't expect to see so much hope. I expected to see poverty, desolation and despair. I think though, that the IRC and other NGO programs bring real, palpable hope to the refugees. Hope for their futures. It gives me hope and restores my faith in human beings.

My wish is that every IRC staffer in New York could experience just a few hours of Kakuma. I hope some of the pics (and eventually video will help in some small way).

And now... my brain is fried, so good night!

PS - check out the updated photos in the gallery - in particular the horribly, disgusting and compelling pic of the Camel head. Trust me, it's gross.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Under the African Sky

On the way back from dinner (lentils, pasta and potatoes - I'm carb loaded for the night!) I looked up and was greeted with an amazingly beautiful star-filled sky. The pure blackness against shining stars was stunning and I tried to suck it in and imprint it into my memory. Wow.

I am also having some fun tonight in my own sick way. I've set up a bed net to protect me from bad guy buggers and realized that I also get to be a princess! Sydney, I'm thinking of you! (Pictures to come eventually).

This afternoon we drove the 6km or so to the northern edge of kakuma camp and met some Darfurian women who had just completed a 4 day hygene course. Kellie, IRC Kenya country director, had the good fortune to hand them their certificates. It was a nice moment.

On the way back to the car, we were mobbed by kids ranging in age from 4 to what seemed like 17 or 18 - all smiles and hand shakes. I think David was a bit freaked, but I really enjoyed it. Looking into their faces was odd, I couldn't tell if I was looked at as a curiosity or something else. I wanted to feel sad, but they were all so excited to see us that I don't think I stopped smiling until we drove off.

Time for some perspective

It didn't take long to get slapped with some much needed perspective this morning at Kakuma.

We visited the camp hospital, tun by the IRC and several programs including a sign language class for deaf and disabled children, a boys program where they performed an amazing rap song about HIV/AIDS and finally a women's aids group.

A woman stood up, and told us in Swahili thay she appreciated IRC programming very much. She appreciated it but needs more. She cannot feed her children because refugees here are not able to work or own land. Even if they did own land, it is impossible to grow anything here anyway.

She is trapped, but hopeful she told us. The only alternative for some of these women is to trade for sex so they can provide for their babies.

I think I heard my heart crack. I wanted to tell her, and all the women that I would be a proud father if my own girls could one day look impossible odds in the face and remain hopeful and strong.

Like I said in the title, time for some perspective.

PS - new pics in the gallery.

Monday, November 26, 2007


We landed at Kakuma a few minutes ago and had a nice chat with William, the camp manager. Afterwards, I cleaned up a bit in my WFP room, and realized the the water I stashed in my bag broke open, drenching my underwear, which is surprisingly absorbant!

Off to a full day of briefings!

Can't sleep

The bed is terrible! I get 2 hours of sleep and then keep waking up.

I just watched Beyond Sunrise with Ethan Hawke and Jukie Delpy - yikes that is a romantic, awkward and hopeful movie. I think Ethan should do a PSA for the IRC. Anyone know him?

Earlier today I read Shawn Wallace's "The Fever" which is a play in which the main character is in a hotel room looking out at poverty and death in a 3rd world country pondering his life, good fortune and place in the world (thanks for the book Tim). It's a quick and powerful read, but I fear that I can't relate quite yet but that a cure is forthcoming.

I am excited to see Kakuma in a few hours. After reading "What is the what" and "They poured fire on us" - and watching "God grew tired of us" I have an image of what Kakuma is going to be like. I think it will be surreal to actually be there.

I need to get back to sleep!

Travel Day

From Africa 2007
Caption: Goodman playing with his GPS.

Finally... we made it to Nairobi after 2 long flights and one crying baby (the baby wasn't that bad to be honest.) I managed to get up to speed on our Kenya and Ethiopia programs, reading a thick stack of papers on the Amsterdam to Nairobi leg. I also knocked off 2 issues of Golf magazine, Fast Company and a Fundraising Success mag.

The first flight from JFK had this cool interactive entertainment system on which I played some mini-golf, watched "The Simpsons Movie" and caught up on an episode of "Arrested Development." I also listened to a Shins album, proving that KLM is one sweet airline.

When we finally arrived in Nairobi, my bag took it's sweet timing coming off the plane, but it finally did come off to my extreme relief. The hotel is pretty nice, I'm watching what I think is live NBA basketball, but it may be a day old, I'm not sure exactly. The room has free wi-fi, it's pretty slow, but working so far. Not bad!

When we got out of the car at the hotel, the first person I saw had a Yankees cap on. I pointed to it and gave him the thumbs up. He is indeed a Yankess fan. I stopped short of asking him what he thought of ARod re-signing.

Tomorrow, we are headed to Kakuma at 5:45 am, so I'm about to try to get some sleep.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

KLM/Northwest to Amsterdam

We've boarded and I'm already hungry. Funny how that works. The plane has this cool controller/joystick thing that I want to play with badly - I've already button mashed it, but it doesn't work yet as we haven't taken off. Ominously, it has a credit card reader built in.

The plane is jam packed and thank god I am on an aisle.

Entertainment on this leg of the trip is the newly remastered Joshua Tree album and the book "The Fever" by Wallace Shawn. I also have a stack of golf mags to go through.

Special shout out to Bitty, JuJu and Toes.
Marc Sirkin
The International Rescue Committee

Packing; Part 2

How come I packed so much? I couldn't stop myself and had to pull back at the last minute, taking out 2 pairs of pants and a few shirts. Out of curiosity, I weighed the bag (45 lbs) and myself (182 lbs, not bad).

I packed an extra overnight bag in case my luggage gets lost (which I've been told is most certain to happen).

I'm in the car headed for JFK listening to the Giants lose, and hearing Eli toss his 4th interception and possibly his career away.
Marc Sirkin
The International Rescue Committee

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Packing: Part 1 - Technology

From Africa 2007

Laptop, MP3 Player (loaded with music and movies) Flip Video Camera, Nikon camera, solio charger, batteries and adaptors. The Nintendo DS is being left behind, the kids revolted when they found out I was going to take it.

Friday, November 23, 2007

My Trip Expectations

I've been really looking forward to this trip, despite the extended time away from my family. More than a few people have told me how much this trip could change my perspective and my life. It's interesting, in my experience, those things that really change you aren't planned activities. So while the trip itself has been planned, I've been thinking about what expectations I have of this trip and what I hope to get out of it, both professionally and personally.

As a marketer, I'll be specifically looking at how the IRC brand (and other brands) are represented overseas. I think it will be especially interesting to see what sorts of marketing and advertising other aid agencies are doing in Kenya and Ethiopia.

I am also more than eager to meet and get to know my international colleagues. These people are amazing and every time I have a chance to meet them and get to know them gives me more and more respect for what they do, how they do it and where they do what they do. I really have no framework in my own experience for working full time outside of the United States, let alone in dangerous areas of the world. My eyes are wide open.

Ever since I took the job at the IRC I've been learning more and more about the rest of the world. One of the more interesting things I hope to discover for myself is how the rest of the world perceives the United States. I hope to find smart people who can talk to me about what America looks like from the outside. I think this is the thing that will be most interesting for me because it affects not only my own perceptions of who I am, but how best to start to transform the IRC into a truly global brand.

I expect that as an American who grew up in New York, and lived in California, I do have a set of rose-colored glasses as to what the world is really like. The more and more I've read, the more I question the core principles that I hold to be the truth. The American Dream concept and the notion that "if you can dream it, you can do it" feel shallow when I think about the refugee experience. I feel confused in thinking that those bromides aren't true for all human beings. I have this feeling I'm about to jump out of the matrix into the real world. This is making me both nervous, and excited simultaneously.

Perhaps there will be a woman in a red dress. We'll see.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Look Who's Also Blogging

My colleague David Goodman has his own blog to document his trip. It'll be interesting to see how different the content is on the two blogs given our professional perspectives. He's a tech guy, I'm a marketing guy.

More on the trip prep after I stuff myself with Turkey. Happy Thanksgiving all.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Trip

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First Post

Starting to get ready, and nervous for this trip.

Our agenda right now includes a visit to an urban refugee program in Nairobi, a trip to Kakuma near the Sudan border, a visit to Addis Ababa and a camp in eastern Ethiopia called Asbe Teferi. Plus, we're doing a safari for 2 days at Maasi Mara.

I haven't ever been away from my family for so long, almost a full 2 weeks, and will miss them badly. I presume they'll be reading the blog occassionally as well and I'm sure I'll post the occasional shout out.

Because I won't have any connectivity during the trip except SMS, I've added my twitter feed to this blog, that will most likely be updated more often than the blog itself.

As for my travel companion, it's David Goodman who is the CTO at the International Rescue Committee. It's both of our first time in Africa, which will be interesting I'm sure.

More to come... I leave in less than 1 week.