Sunday, August 12, 2012

Istanbul Aug 11


This is going to be short -- it is 3 a.m. in Washington and we've been going for 24 hours.

Quick trip to Istanbul after the Africa safari. These brief bites of Turkey really make me want to go back: seems to have the energy of China, in a Mediterranean setting of sea and trees and sun. Not that we saw much of that!

We got it at about 5 a.m from Ghana and headed to the hotel. I did sleep..maybe four hours? ... and then up again. As I was wandering the lobby of the hotel I ran into my old Nieman friend Holly Williams, who recently relocated to I'bul from Beijing. That was great - we had a quick lunch and caught up. Nice to see a friendly face from the past in this whirlwind!

Then Clinton had her press conference after her meetings with Turkish officials and Syrian opposition types. We'd been warned she wouldn't break new ground and for the most part she didnt, except that she did say (obliquely) that she had talked about a No Fly Zone with the Turks. This was presented as one of a number of options, and not immediate, so I put that in my first story, but the peril of wire service journalism is that editors far away will latch on to something and move it up, harden it up, and make it the lead. So our story went out quite strong on the NFZ, which altho accurate was sort of over emphasizing it. I had to scramble to try to tone the story down....and once I had done that with our Istanbul datelined story, I realized that the main Syria wrap had taken the hard lede from us so I had to start calling around to tone THAT down. Its hard because you want to get it right: they did talk about NFZ, which was news. But it wasn't as if they came out suggesting that was the next step (something which could give the Syrian rebels more hope than they should have at this stage). Stressful and lots of phone calls to London etc, but I think we got the right mix. I hope so.

After that we loaded into the vans to follow Clinton to a meeting with Turkey's president at his official residence. The embassy people had said there was nothing around in this suburban area, and that we would have to wait in the vans for up to two hours. But lo and behold we found a great place hardly 300 yards away: the "Secret Garden", a restaurant/wedding place/beer hall on the hill overlooking the Bosphorous. It was an ideal way to end the trip -- great, simple food (fantastic tomatoes, babaganoush, stuffed bell peppers, and this great fried cheese in philo dough concoction. The sun was up but we were in the shade, the breeze was blowing, the Turkish staff as nice as they could be. An hour to catch our breath and really feel -- briefly -- that we were in Turkey.

But that ended, and we were back in the motorcade and headed to the airport. Five hours to Shannon, an hour layover for Irish coffee, and then seven more hours to DC. I'm so glad to be home but this has been a fantastic trip! The South Africa part in particular was like a homecoming. Now I am going to bed so I can get up tomorrow and get the plane to Maine for a week off by the lake with Mom,Jim and Dog.

Final image: one of the views of the Bosphorous as we careened past in the motorcade on the way to the airport. Makes you want to go to Istanbul!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Abuja-Accra-Cotonou Aug 9-10


Well, pretty much as I feared – been to three new countries in the last 24 hours and I haven’t seen anything!

We flew from Cape Town to Abuja, Nigeria, where Clinton was to have talks with the president (the fantastically named Goodluck Jonathan) about the security situation and Boko Haram. It was a six hour flight, and we arrived at sunset. It was hard to make anything out of Abuja at night, but you got the feeling there wasn’t much to see even during the day. Its another of these new, fake capital cities filled with office blocks and bureaucrat housing. The funny thing was it looked beautiful from the air: very green (it is the rainy season) and the landscape dotted with bulbuous round rock hills – some geological phenomenon.

We went to the president’s office, waited outside while she had her meeting, and then dropped by the embassy for the traditional “meet and greet”. The best part of the trip was the trip back out to the airport. A “Nigerian motorcade” is something out of the ordinary: they don’t block traffic from the roads, but simply (somehow) use police outriders to thread their way through. It caused huge traffic jams and lots of people were trying to jimmy their way into the motorcade along the way to get where they were going that much faster. Strange system, but we made it.

Then it was an hour flight to Accra, Ghana where we were to spend the night before the funeral of the late president. Because all kinds of grandees were in town for that event, we were put up in the airport Holiday Inn. Compared to some of the fancy places we have been staying this was upretentious, but it was also absolutely fine and we were exhausted.

The next morning Clinton went to the funeral without press, and we waited at the hotel and worked on our stories about her Saturday meetings in Istanbul. The dead president, John Atta Mills, had died unexpectedly about two weeks ago and the city was in full on mourning, with almost everybody wearing red and black. It was an impressive feat of color coordination, but the colors themselves looked sort of ominous when everybody was wearing them.

Clinton came back – after a long wait, because they all had to leave the funeral in protocol order. And we went back to the airport where there was another long wait on the tarmac while all the presidents’ planes left in protocol order. But finally we got out, about two and a half hours late, and flew an hour to Benin.

I wish we had a chance to look around. This place is famous as the home of the voodoo religion, and the capital’s name Cotonou means (at least according to Wikipedia) “Mouth of the River of Death”. But we are seeing very little. From the airport we went straight to the ambassador’s house where Clinton met the embassy folks, and now we are sitting at the presidential palace (a ferociously ugly structure) while she meets him inside. The only good bit is the presidential guard – like Togo, they are outfitted Broadway-style in green, yellow and red, with capes, caps, epaulets and swords. When we went in they were all ramrod straight on either side of the red carpet. But when we came out ahead of Clinton, they were all relaxed and chatting: some leaning on their swords, others with their caps on crooked, some with their capes thrown dramatically over their shoulders. They looked fantastic.

Hope she comes out soon because we have a six and a half hour flight to Istanbul ahead of us, and probably won’t get in much before sunrise at this rate.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Pretoria-Cape Town Aug 7-8


This is what I woke up to this morning: The Mother City. Great to be back!!

Yesterday was sort of a blurr. We spent the whole day in Pretoria, where Clinton had a series of meetings at South Africa's brand new foreign ministry building. Its am impressive site -- modern, African, looks a bit like an airline terminal. We were parked in a holding room while she shuttled from meeting to meeting.

It was a nice day, tho, because I saw a lot of old familiar faces. Talked a bit to Nick Kotch, who hired me for Reuters South Africa, and saw some other South African journalists that I knew from my time here. Felt like old home week. Clinton did hold a final press conference where the story was about Syria (and specifically her warning that external powers should think twice about supporting "proxies" or "terrorist fighters" as the conflict grinds toward end game).

After that it was off to the State Guest House -- one of my favorite buildings in South Africa, a real Cape Dutch confection -- where there was a gala dinner. We were invited to sit at one of the tables and what had threatened to be a dull diplomatic dinner ended up being a lot of fun. The South Africans had arranged one of their big singing stars, Judith Sephuma, as the performer and she belted out a lot of familiar hits: Pata Pata, Brenda Fassie's "Weekend Special", and others. She was dancing and the band was great, and pretty soon Clinton and everyone else was up on the dance floor. The whole place had the atmosphere of an off-the-hook bar mitzvah -- balloons over the table, strobe lights, a weird mix of people on the dance floor. The last song was "Shosholoza", that great South African anthem, and everybody sang while Clinton and the South African foreign minister and all the others at their table stood holding hands and swaying. A little over the top maybe but a fantastic way to end the day.

Because we were there as guests and the dancing part was officially "off the record" there was some consternation about whether the photographers and the video crew would be able to use their pictures of the party. But eventually Clinton's people relented and allowed us to report it: the pictures and video got big play and I think were probably a PR bonus for her (not that she needs it at this point).

After the two hour flight we arrived in Cape Town. The weather was warming (it actually snowed in Johannesburg the day we were there, a rare event) and the city even at night looked beautiful. We are staying at a very nice hotel down at the V+A Waterfront ... a bit removed from town, but I can't complain when I woke up to a perfect sea view sunrise (not to mention a groaning breakfast buffet).

Clinton visited a clinic in Delft, a township in the Cape Flats, where she signed a deal which will put South Africa in charge of more of its PEPFAR programming ... part of the broader effort to begin shifting the responsibility more to recipient countries. The folks on the street were sort of stunned to see Clinton's huge motorcade screaming past.

Then we headed to the University of the Western Cape, where she gave her big speech on South Africa. It was a good speech, if a little bit predictable: South Africa should be doing more to advance democracy and human rights around the world to honor the legacy of Nelson Mandela. It was personal -- she talked a lot about her own reminiscences of Mandela -- and firm but respectful. The nice surprise was that I saw Phiwe, the South African student who we had hosted just a month or so ago for his DC summer internship. We talked a little bit but there wasn't much time but we are do to go out to dinner tonight.

I was back at the hotel by 2 p.m, finished the story by 3 and went out for a walk ... all the way up Long Street back to Kloof, where we used to stay when we visited. Cape Town always looks spectacular, and it was a spectacular day with the sort of flinty summer sunshine glare. I bought a few things, and walked back down to the hotel. We are supposed to meet Clinton for an off the record social this evening, and then dinner with Phiwe & Co. I could easily hang out here for a lot longer, but if it has to be brief at least it feels like it was satisfying.

I'm a little worried about the next leg of the trip -- when we set off from Cape Town tomorrow morning, it is going to be Nigeria, Ghana, Benin and then Turkey all in rapid succession. We'll see how it all works out!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Qunu-Aug 6


We got up early yesterday for the day trip to Qunu, Mandela's home village in the Eastern Cape. Because Clinton was taking a small plane, there were only seats for two pool press people -- myself and the AP photographer. I was grateful to my colleagues for letting me take the print seat. I wanted to close the circle on Madiba since our time in South Africa, and the trip was wonderful

We drove back out to Waterkloof, the air base outside Pretoria where Clinton's plane had landed. There we got on a "G5" -- a sort of executive jet, with about 12 seats. This one had been brought down from the U.S. Africa Command in Frankfurt just for the trip. It felt pretty swanky ... nice big seats, wooden paneling, and big oval windows. On the flight out we flew over central Johannesburg and had a great view, and then down across Lesotho where you could see snow on the Drakensburg Mountains.

We arrived at Qunu airport, which is a pretty tiny operation. There was a short little motorcade awaiting us, and we set off for the hour's drive to Qunu. It looks pretty much the same as the last time I saw it: rolling, tawny hills, houses dotted around including some rondavels. No trees, big sky, and the foothills of the southern Drakensburg in the distance. It looks a lot like Montana, except there are sheep and goats wandering around.

We pulled into Mandela's house at around noon. It is fairly new, and looks like a big comfortable suburban house which sort of stands out amid all the much smaller houses of the village. There was a brick wall with a gatehouse, and we managed to get up to the entrance just in time to see Graca Machel, Mandela's wife, welcome Clinton inside.

We had been told not to expect anything newsy, and not to expect access, so we thought the next few hours might involve just sitting in the car outside. But Mandela's people let us in and we were put in a holding room, along with some of the Mandela staff, and given tea and coffee. I saw Zelda LaGrange, Mandela's personal assistant, and said hello and she was very welcoming and said it was nice to see me back, which felt good.

After about an hour, we were told that the photographer could take some pictures. We were brought into the room where Clinton and Mandela (and a select group of their various staffers) were meeting with Graca. It was an odd feeling -- Mandela (who is 94 and clearly in failing health) was in a wingback chair in one corner, his feet up on a stool and covered with a blanket. He looked almost entirely immobile, almost like a waxwork, and did not speak.

There was lots of conversation among the others and lots of loud and cheerful comment from Graca as Clinton posed with Mandela, who after lots of jolly coaxing, managed a smile. We were then led back out and Clinton and Graca went in for lunch, leaving Mandela in the living room with his medical people. We were given lunch in another back room (samp and beans, mutton, salad -- it was good!) and ended up chatting to a bunch of uniformed guys who turned out to be Mandela's military doctors. Strange to sit at a table in Qunu talking about blackberries and FOMO ("Fear of Missing Out" ..apparently the peril if our interconnected age) with the guys who are trying to keep this legend alive for as long as possible.

After another hour or so, the lunch wrapped up and Clinton went back into to have tea with Mandela and say goodbye. At this point everything became very relaxed: people were moving in and out of the living room, Graca, who was coming back to Johannesburg with us, was bustling around getting her bags ready, and more pictures were taken. Mandela seemed a little more animated and smiled for more pictures. The AP photographer had helped out taking pictures of some of the staff with Clinton, and so she got her photo taken with Mandela himself..he smiled and waved for the camera..really something to save for the grandkids. I didn't, but that's ok -- it was just a very warm feeling to be standing in the room, watching everybody so happy and relaxed. You really got the feeling it was a family house. Clinton finally said her goodbyes, and we got back in the motorcade for the airport.

It was a fantastic chance to see the legendary man one more time. And it also felt good: he seemed well cared for, and happy in his own house. If anyone deserves it, it's him.

We were back on the plane (here's a picture to give a sense of what it looks like) and back to Waterkloof and the drive back into Sandton. I went to our bureau to talk to some of the guys: it felt pretty much the same as when I was there, albeit with a few new faces. The whole trip to Joburg has been eerie -- it really feels so much like home, I keep (almost) thinking that I could just hop in my car and drive home to Parkview, and resume my old life here. Of course that's not possible, but it is great to have it all feel so familiar. Makes me want to come back for a longer visit.

Today Clinton has a day of meetings in Pretoria, and then a nighttime flight to Cape Town. More from there.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Nairobi-Lilonwe Aug 4-5


This trip is moving pretty quickly, so some things are going to get short shrift. Nairobi is one of them. We flew in from Uganda, and Clinton immediately went to see the president, the prime minister, the chief justice, and the speaker of parliament -- visiting their offices in rapid succession.

We were placed in various holding rooms, so the day was pretty much in and out of the press van, in and out of featureless rooms, and not much to show for it. Later in the day at the hotel Clinton met with various leaders from Somalia, and gave a statement for the cameras saying she was encouraged by progress there. She also met members of Kenya's electoral commission, and made a statement for the cameras urging Kenya to get next year's elections right and avoid a repeat of the horrific bloodshed that occurred last time around.

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So I had two stories to write, but nothing terribly exciting. That night we all went out to "Carnivore", a Nairobi institution. It's sort of a kitsch African version of a Brazilian stakehouse -- the guys come around with great skewers of various kinds of meats (including crocodile, ostrich etc). They also periodically break out into song. It sounds cheesy and it sort of was but it was also fun and the food (or at least the meat) was pretty good. We all went back to the hotel and collapsed.

On Sunday we were up early for another busy travel day. The first stop was Malawi, where the welcome was terrific: a military dance team, in full uniform, was shucking and jiving as we got off the plane (see picture above). It was a nice first impression. There isn't much to Lilongwe -- its another made-up national capital -- but it has wide orderly streets and not much traffic. We went to State House, where Clinton met Joyce Banda, the former vice president who had faced down a leadership crisis following the death of the president and enforced her constitutional right to take the top job. Since then, she has been making changes as quickly as she can, ditching some of the weird policies of her predecessor, allowing the currency to depreciate, enacting an austerity budget, and winning back the donors who had stopped giving to the country (including the U.S.).

She's a former women's rights activist, and it was clear that she and Clinton got along well. They met for about an hour, and then we set off for the ambassador's house where Clinton was to do her usual "meet and greet" with the embassy staff and we were supposed to file. I had been having comms problems all day (my blackberry wasn't working for email in Malawi etc) and when we got to the residence they continued ... I couldn't get blackberry to work, my computer wouldn't find the wifi, etc. It is so frustrating when this happens, particularly when you don't have a lot of time to figure out what the problem is. I ended up calling up the bureau in Joburg and dictating the story -- not ideal, but at least it got it out there. But whenever my comms fail it makes me incredibly nervous: what if they don't come back? What if the computer is broken, etc. It's unsettling.

After that we went to a school where they had a sort of Girl Scout camp for young women, run by the Peace Corps. Clinton gave a good speech about reaching for the stars, etc, and then walked around the room and shook everyone's hand (about 150 kids in total). It was a nice gesture, and I think it showed how much Clinton really loves these events. From there, it was on to a "milk bulking" station where Clinton got a readout on efforts to boost Malawi's dairy industry.

The road out to this place started out pavement, but the last 10 km or so were dirt and it was very bumpy. It is funny to see the whole motorcade winding down a dirt road in the middle of the bush. Local people just stood there staring as we bumped and clanged past. When we got to the event, they had everyone decked out in bolts of USAID/MALAWI cloth -- used for turbans, skirts, over the shoulder etc. Its too bad the cloth itself was so ugly! Clinton got a quick tour, met a woman who explained why her family's cow was so important, watched someone test milk for freshness, and then gave another speech about U.S. assistance to Malawi. There was also a purebred U.S. dairy bull which the U.S.had given to the program humphing around in its pen. Weird. I wonder how many bulls the Chinese have given them.

Then it was back up the dirt road and back to the airport. Two and a half hours later we were in South Africa, where I am now sitting in a hotel in Sandton. This morning I am the "pool" press person for Clinton's personal trip to see Mandela in the Eastern Cape. They weren't sure we were going to get a seat so this is great, although I'm bed they don't let me in to see the man himself. But stay tuned for the next update to find out.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Juba-Kampala, Aug 2-3


We flew from Dakar to Kampala on Thursday morning. It was a funny day -- we left at 9 a.m., flew seven hours, and arrived at 7 p.m. thanks to the time difference. Nothing much accomplished news-wise. We went from the airport into the hotel (a long drive) had dinner and went to bed.

It's a good thing that we did, because we had a very early start on Friday. This was probably the longest/toughest day of the trip, and we were told to report to the motorcade at 7 a.m. That was just enough time to wake, up, get showered, make some coffee in the room, and peruse the latest on the Ebola outbreak.

Ebola is the kind of thing that gets a lot of press, particularly outside of Africa. But while the Ugandans were certainly concerned (they made you not only go through a metal detector to go into the hotel, but also squirted you hand sanitizer). But it didn't feel like a crisis and people weren't panicky. These things are pretty hard to contract unless you are in very close quarters with someone who is infected, and there had been no sign of it in Kampala.

By daylight Uganda looks very crowded. Kampala is a city spread out over a number of hills, and it was hard to get a sense of it but there were lots of people, lots of cars and lots of advertisements. In places like this Clinton's motorcade,with the enforced traffic stops for everyone else, must be infuriating for the local drivers. The drive out takes you through sort of suburban countryside -- again lots of people, some big new houses, some township/slums, and then toward the shores of Lake Victoria. It all looked very green and very very fertile. It must be banana harvesting season (or perhaps every month is banana harvesting season in Uganda) because there were trucks of bananas, guys riding mopeds with big bunches of bananas, bananas everywhere.

T

he flight from Kampala to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, only takes an hour but in every respect the places are different. Where Kampala was hectic and green, Juba was semi-deserted and brown (see picture at the top). Its the world's youngest nation and one of the poorest, and "capital" is a grand word for the fast expanding but still pretty basic settlement that is going on. But they have a new-ish airport and as we arrived a fleet of Land Cruisers pulled up to take us to Clinton's meeting with the president.

We honestly hardly saw anything except the inside of the presidential office building (which looked like a small-town Holiday Inn) and then a few streets of Juba. Some had lots of new building, some like the one pictured above were still just shacks and goats. It has the feeling of a wild west boomtown -- lots of people pulled in by the intrigue of this new country, both its possibilities and its dangers.

Clinton's meeting appeared to go pretty well. She came out and gave a press conference with the foreign minister, emphasizing that it was time for the two Sudans to put their dispute over oil revenues behind them, start pumping again, and avoid economic catastrophe for both. Her key quote was "a percentage of something is better than a percentage of nothing", which must ring true for a people who have fought decades for their own country.

With that, it was back to the airport and back to Kampala. Two hours in South Sudan doesn't leave you any wiser, but at least now I have a visual image of the place. It feels like everybody is hoping for the best, but there doesn't seem to be a lot to work with there.

In Kampala, we were using the old Entebbe airport, scene of the famous Israeli commando raid that freed hijacked airline passengers in the 70's. There are still bullet holes on the control tower, and apparently Israel's Netanyahu (whose brother was a lead commando and got killed in the raid) visits every once in a while to pay his respects. Otherwise it is now used as a VIP terminal.

The rest of the day was a blur. We went to the president's office where she had a meeting with President Museveni -- and apparently urged him to think about retirement -- and then to a military base where she watched a demonstration by U.S. and Ugandan soldiers of the U.S.-made drones that the Ugandan military is now flying over Mogadishu as part of the AU effort to turn back al Shabaab.

I'd never seen a drone before and it looks remarkably like a model airplane, fitted with several cameras in in then nose. There demonstration involved a team flying a drone over our heads, demonstrating how well it could make out surface features and people. Weird and spooky if you ask me, but Clinton seemed intrigued. She spent some time talking to the "pilots" and said she foresaw a day when similar drones might be used to hunt Joseph Kony, who is on the run in Central Africa.

After the demonstration one of the embassy guys told us that they did not want to "land" the drone when the TV cameras were on, because it was designed to split into pieces to avoid damage. They were afraid the TVs would make it looked like the thing crashed and burned.

From there it was on to a health clinic for more talk on HIV. After years of doing so well in the fight against AIDS, Uganda is now the only African country where prevalence rates are going up. Some experts put this to a lack of emphasis on prevention (and especially condoms), thanks to more conservative elements in society and religious types. And then back to the hotel to write the story (or stories in this case), and then to bed.

We've had a a full day in Nairobi today but I will try to get that into the next post. Tonight we are off to "Carnivore", a famous Nairobi institution where you get skewers of every kind of meat (Imapala, Crocodile etc).

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Dakar, July 31-Aug 1


This is the view I woke up to this morning. Dakar is on a spindly peninsula that stretches out into the Atlantic, so you get sea views almost anywhere you go.

We're at the start of a 7-country, 11-day trip to Africa. Clinton is doing this scarcely two weeks after she wrapped up her last marathon trip -- that one to Asia and the Middle East. She's already broken all kinds of official travel records, so I guess this grueling pace must be sheer doggedness (plus it keeps her out of the country during the presidential campaign, which might be a good thing).

The flight over from Washington is not as long as you might think -- only about seven hours. West Africa stretches well into the Atlantic, so its actually closer than a lot of places in Europe. Tomorrow's flight, from Dakar to Uganda, is also seven hours, which tells you how broad Africa is.

She's starting off in Senegal because they had a successful election in March that saw one of the old guard of African rulers sent packing (pretty much against his wishes). The U.S. wants to spotlight Senegal as a model for the kind of institutional, regular democracy they hope to see in other African countries. Clinton paid a visit to a U.S.-funded health clinic, and then gave a speech at one of Dakar's big universities. It as a good speech, but pretty similar to the one she gave at the African Union last year -- time for the old guys to get out of the way, the U.S. is a better partner for Africa than China, etc.

Surprisingly, after the speech (and a HUGE rainstorm) we are back at the hotel and her schedule is done for the day. They never would have done this in the old days...there was always another group of people to see, another project to inspect, another hand to shake, campaign-style. But perhaps now that she is in her last six months, they feel they can ease up a little.

I'm not complaining: I went to the gym! And now I am watching the Olympics with chattery French commentary, featuring frequent use of words such as "Voila!", "Hoopla!" and "Ai-yai-yai!" ...