If I didn’t know myself I would think that I get a kick from the adrenaline that comes with being in a crazy dangerous situation when I travel, that I have a death wish.
Whereas this may actually be the case I have had the incredible misfortune of being caught up in coups, wars, political crisis, demonstrations and violence in several countries. These are my top-5 worst timed trips:
1. Uganda during the riots
In September 2009 I was working in Uganda on the launch of a mobile operator for the bottom of the pyramid. This remains, till today, one of the most hopeful projects of my consulting career. The entire management group were true believers in making communications and development available to those who could not even afford the very low price of a SIM card.
We were at the beginning of the project when all of a sudden the situation in Kampala deteriorated in what was later called the Kayunga riots. The unrest emerged when the cultural leader of Buganda tried to visit Kampala and was prevented from doing so by the police. Violence and rioting ensued. Roads were blocked, cars and tires burned and a general state of emergency took over the capital for two days. As always, the international press made it look like war had erupted whereas the reality on the ground was far from that. It was a tragedy, one not to be brushed off, but it was not the start of a civil war. That would have brought more coverage and interest from the voyeuristic international press so they certainly used sensationalist headlines.
We considered an emergency departure but the roads to the airport were closed and were the epicenter of the struggle so we resorted to staying at the hotel for as long as it was required. Obviously, family and friends back home thought that we were caught up in the middle of a full blown civil war whereas in fact we were trying to pass time in the Hotel. We even got to share some fried chicken with a couple getting married on the hotel lawn on that same day. Life in downtown Kampala went on while the police killed 40 innocent people, allegedly hit by stray bullets. In a country so used to revolts, riots and fighting, this did not seem like a good enough reason to the couple to postpone the wedding.
On the Saturday night we ventured out of the hotel and into a nearby bar for a couple of lukewarm beers and jazzy African music. Eventually after two weeks trapped in Uganda we made it out, unscathed.
2. Kenya’s post-election violence
I travelled to Kenya for a very long time, almost a year when I count all the various projects that involved the beautiful East Africa country but the most heart breaking time was during the ethnic violence following the 2007 elections.
After Kibaki’s victory was announced the opposition leader, Raila, called for mass protests to denounce the manipulation, confirmed by international observers. The protests quickly evolved into a wave of ethnic violence, first against the Kikuyo group Kibaki belonged to, and then spread over the course of a few months to all the other tribes as the Kikuyo defended themselves.
Since this took place during the very important Christmas break most of the Kenyan population had gone up country to their homes and Nairobi was emptier than usual. The ethnic killings, reminiscent of the Ugandan genocide, went on for months. News of what was happening in other parts of the country were patchy as communications had been cut off. Some weeks the situation was so dramatic that we even left the country mid-week in two occasions when we feared we could be stranded in the middle of a full-blown civil war.
When the crisis exploded we considered our options and decided that we would continue traveling to Nairobi. Most of the airlines stopped flying, reduced the number of flights or instated rules whereby the crew would spend the least amount of time possible on the ground. Emirates continued flying, business as usual for an airline so accustomed to flying to danger zones, but the seats were almost all empty. We were not fools, the situation was indeed to be accounted for, we couldn’t go about pretending everything was ok. And we took measures accordingly, among which were a stack of cash in case we needed it, a satellite phone and an emergency evacuation company at the ready should we have to be airlifted into safety. We also moved hotels to one that was closest to the airport and monitored the situation daily. A curfew was imposed so we were simply going from the airport to the office to the hotel and back.
For the most part, life went on, despite most of the economic activity came to a halt. The population were stranded in the rural areas, unable to get back into the city and went into civil war mode. The fear of a Ugandan style genocide escalated for the first few weeks and so the population cut back on any non-essential expense and stocked up on food and fuel. Working for the mobile operator we tried to control the cut-outs and downtimes but some parts of the country were isolated and couldn’t be reached safely so fuel for the towers could not be re-stocked.
On the ground, the reality was scary and sad. I had spent so much time in Kenya it felt like a second home to me. It was the first country in Africa I worked on, a year before that already, and I held a special place in my heart for it. Seeing the suffering, the deaths and the massacre that took place in some parts of the country was devastating.
Eventually things calmed down and normality returned, but not before months of killings and violence. The remnants of the ethnic fighting still lingering on everyone’s minds
3. Madagascar’s coup
In January 2009 Madagascar suffered what was later called a coup. Although I was not specifically on the ground on that day, I was scheduled to fly and I had a team in the country. I was regularly visiting Antananarivo for a 6 month period. Every week I would visit at least 2 of the 4 countries where our project was taking place: Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Madagascar. As soon as the violence erupted, as the Mayor of Tana proclaimed the President’s loss of power things worsened. The instability and the back and forth between the Mayor and the President ended with fleeing and with illegal declarations by the Tribunals.
On the ground violence was more tamed than in other conflicts because it did not have the ethnic connotations but for a population so peaceful it was indeed striking.
4. Sudan’s attack on US Diplomat
I love Sudan. I can’t explain why or how or even what it is about the country that I find so special but it isa country where I spent a significant amount of time. Like Paul Theroux I fell in love with this dusty desert of sand dunes and simple living.
If you spend any significant amount of time there you are likely to live through some dramatic moments. In Sudan I constantly lived the drama of Darfur, so long forgotten although it remains Humanity’s saddest crisis, the war and subsequent independence of South Sudan, the kidnappings, the threats, the violence. And also, occasionally, despite Khartoum is one of the safest cities in Africa, the risk of terrorist or other indiscriminate attacks on foreigners.
If you visit any of the Foreign Ministries of any Western Government Sudan has been deemed a dangerous place to be avoided unless strictly necessary for the best part of the last two decades. While this may be an accurate image of certain aprts of Sudan Khartoum always felt extremely safe. Except for that one time a US Diplomat working for the Agency of International Development was shot dead on his way home.
Reports were unsure as to whether he was the target, whether he was caught up in the middle but as a result, several Embassies on the ground closed down, including the UK one. The American embassy sent out a reminder email to its citizens and all other embassies followed suite.
“Terrorist groups continue to seek opportunities to carry out attacks against U.S. interests, U.S. citizens should be aware of the risk of indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets in public places.”
On the ground there was tension and I remember feeling slightly squeamish because Khartoum had always been such a safe place. We used to hail down regular cars to get a ride back to the hotel in the evenings as taxis were not always available. This certainly made us all slightly more aware of the realities of a country where so much suffering and war is taking place.
The crime was later credited to an unknown military group.
5. Nigeria’s shooting
Nigeria is on the top of my list for places I would never return to. This is because of a mixed bag of reasons both factual (violence, kidnappings, ethnic strife) and also because I just never felt welcome, wanted or even respected in any aspect. For the 3 months that I traveled to Lagos all I felt was corruption, bribes being asked at all points, officials trying to steal my clothes from inside my luggage or money from my wallet, rudeness, queues, humidity, pollution… I could go on.
But a moment that summarizes it all happened on day we were working in our office on the, theoretically, safest part of the city, Banana Island, where all the main business center is.
As we were working away on our laptops we started hearing shooting outside, by the main door.
it turned out that two men were arguing about a parking spot and one had decided to take the gun out and solve it like that.
Needless to say we moved inside far away from the window.
The entire time in Nigeria was a lesson in truly living in a place where safety is a major concern. we had tinted window cars with curtains, kalashnikov-wielding guards accompanying us to and from the airport, stopping at nothing and we were, obviously, never outside of the hotel or office. It was claustrophobic and extremely dangerous. The worst part of all was dealing with the authorities/police. Being in Nigeria, anytime, is being at the wrong place at the wrong time.