Monday, July 25, 2005

Chef de Mission


When we last let Erica she was soaking wet, cold and exhausted from a week in the wet, wet field; but she still had another day to go. I thought that day was going to kill me; 4 meetings all within a 20 km radius of Fianar, but before I'd even buckled my seatbelt my whole body was actually physically revolting against yet another day in the car. When we finally got back I refused to so much as get into a taxi cab and I gladly kept to my own feet for the next 4 days. Thanks to a little sun over the weekend my shoes finally got dry and I finally got warm(er).

But on Tuesday of this week it was right back at it again. After lunch, it started raining and I had my bags packed and was waiting at the curbside for our 4x4 pickup to come get me and take me away again. This time I was not going to take any chances: in my bags were 2 raincoats, one of the completely impermeable type, two ponchos, an umbrella, hat, mittens, extra socks and shoes, two sweaters, fleece vest, long underwear and a turtleneck, three flashlights and a real bic lighter, and these were all packed in waterproof bags inside my backpack. I was ready for anything Ranomafana could throw at me.

Halfway down the bumpy road, the sun came out – and stayed out. For all three days I was in the field. I didn’t complain very much.

The first full day in the field was an orientation meeting for our NGO partners and hospital staff, explaining to them what their responsibility would be in introducing our project to the communities as a whole and in assisting the communes in creating committees for implementing the project. My responsibility that day was to run the PowerPoint and make sure the projector behaved itself. And to make people laugh – I think I probably did the best at the last one.

But the real fun for me began at the end of that day - we had a final closing reception, said good-bye to our partners, packed up the equipment and put it all into the truck - and then I stood on the verandah of the hotel and waved good-bye as the rest of the SantéNet team left for Fianarantsoa.

That's when I officially became "chef de mission" That meant I was the person in charge - of me, myself and I (yeah, I'll probably never actually get to be chef when anybody else is around, that's life at the bottom of the totem pole for you), but I also got charge of my very own car and driver.

That was a very strange feeling. Our regular SN car and driver had gone back to Fianar, but in exchange I got a Tana driver and truck that had brought a consultant down. Deedee was the name of my driver, and as it turned out, he was also my guardian for the next two days. Now, you have to realize that I have lived in this country by myself for two years and in that time I have negotiated quite a number of situations and I have traveled alone on numerous occasions, both in the countryside and in the city, in cars and planes and taxi cabs, as well as on foot. I have eaten alone in little Malagasy shops and I have stayed in hotels by myself.

But within a couple hours of being in Ranomafana with Deedee, I got the distinct impression that our SN Fianar driver, Jean-Jacques, had given him explicit instructions not to let me out of his sight unless I was in my hotel room or actively working. It didn't seem strange that evening when I finished a little paperwork I'd brought and came out of the hotel to go looking for food to find him sitting out gossiping with the other drivers and have him jump up and offer to come with me. It was nice to have the company and he really was a nice guy to talk to.

But it happened again the next morning, and he dropped everything he was doing to walk into town. But later that afternoon when we'd finished our work and had returned to the hotel and I decided I was going to go for a stroll, there he was waiting discreetly outside of my bungalow and he immediately volunteered to wander with me (again, I was glad for the company), and then insisted on buying street food for me as we went.

Then that evening, even though he was painfully full of street food, he still came with me to get dinner again. And in no way was this creepy or like he was hitting on me - he was just being my protector. It was actually really sweet, just funny that in all the places I could've actually used a protector in this country, Ranomafana wasn't one of them (unless he wanted to protect me from all the white tourists in town, which I admit I found a little unnerving).

It was a lot of fun being Chef de Mission - but really strange too. My job on those two days was to observe our CRS partners as they did the first community introduction meetings that they'd been oriented about on Wednesday. Both towns were 10 and 20 minutes on a paved road from Ranomafana, so time and transportation wasn't a huge issue. Still, on Thursday the CRS team was short a car for the morning due to logistics and so they asked Deedee if a few of their team could ride along with us rather than have to make trips back and forth to shuttle people around. It is standard USAID procedure that the Chef de Mission approves such requests, but I found it almost funny when DeeDee approached me, all serious, to ask if I would allow it. Of course I'd allow it: it made sense, it's perfectly within our mandate to allow such things, and we had the room - but he was so serious about asking me if I was sure. It made me feel like I really had to be a grown-up all of the sudden. Funny how such a grown-up still needs a protector - but don't we all?







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