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.


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.