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Sécurité (Friday, 2011 January 14)

January 14th, 2011

The reason we’re here in Yaoundé, of course, is a "workshop" about safety and security procedures, specifically in the case of an emergency. We’ve been arranged largely in "clusters", and I’ve been named the "contact Volunteer" for my cluster. Besides a free trip to Yaoundé, this means I get 2000 CFA a month to maintain the lines of communication. Apparently this position was pretty highly coveted among Volunteers. My postmate Cristina doesn’t understand why she didn’t get it and I did, and frankly I don’t know myself, since us education volunteers have more than enough to do anyhow. But then, I got out of class for two days, so I’m not complaining. The French word "sécurité" does double duty here, meaning both "safety" and "security" (to the extent that you can differentiate the two things anyhow).

The workshop was supposed to be two sessions originally, with one yesterday for a whole day, starring the facilitator Mike, and today for a half day. But Mike was flying in from Togo, and due to the political situation in the Ivory Coast, he wasn’t able to make it in time. (Little bit of a clerical screwup here where Mike fell off the radar for a while, ironic for a security officer. Turns out he was in Nairobi.) So instead we did the half-day yesterday and the full day today, complete with an extremely solid lunch. Uncommonly, the sessions were both quite well-executed and interesting. I think this was at least partly due to the high quality of the people running the session: a volunteer named Stephen who’s been here for, well, a long time, a lady named Ruth, and of course Mike. Part of it is also the subject matter: we get to discuss the realities of what might happen if the shit hits the fan. Mike is especially great for this; he’s a former Organization volunteer himself, also a director for an Organization program, also worked for some NGOs in this area. So basically a crazy old hippie in a position of some solemnity. So, when discussing a coup d’état, he says things like: "Yeah but, a coup, it’s like down and dirty for three, maybe four days, then it’s all over."

There’s a lot of fascinating terminology we use in these discussions. Of course there’s the standard battery of Organization acronyms, but there’s also stand fast, consolidation, and evacuation, which describe various kinds of contingency plans, and other terms, draw down, authorized departure, and ordered departure from the similar plans used by the US mission (to which the Organization’s plans are apparently Appendix L). Areas can be hot in times of crisis.

The material has basically two or three main lessons.

  1. Be in touch with admin. Make sure they know where you are, even when you aren’t supposed to be there. There are mechanisms for making this work, including one called the "whereabouts phone".
  2. In an emergency, your highest priority is being in touch. There is no one "emergency plan", and if there were, we could do better than to sit around memorizing it en masse. The plan is: be available, and keep the grapevine going, so that when the situation has been assessed, we can make it happen. (As elsewhere, it seems that communication and rapid correction trump planning.)
  3. Scary shit can happen.

We started the session with "one of our volunteers is missing", a session which included a few "case studies" of volunteers disappearing, and what went wrong in each case. These situations led to the "whereabouts policy", that volunteers need to be locatable at all times. The stories themselves are a little unsettling, even the happy ones, like the Kenyan Volunteer who had left his post and was playing tourist in other cities, no danger. And then there’s the Bolivian Volunteer who is still missing-presumed-dead now, ten years later. Another one, in the Philippines, was only a few years ago, apparently around the time Stephen was applying to the Organization, and made him realize that "Wow. Volunteers can die."

And against all of this is the background of the 20/20 episode, apparently coming on tonight, about some of the more horrific cases of scary shit in the lives of Volunteers. There’s a particular case that we’ve been talking about, involving a Volunteer in Benin whose throat was slit while she slept. I’m trying to find some support for the stories we’ve heard: this sure seems like part of it. The rumors we’ve heard: this lady blew a whistle on her program’s director, who was sexually abusing children, and when he found out who it was, he hired someone to kill her. This was 2009 (Stephen dates it because a bunch of volunteers from Benin came to Cameroon for a while to try to cope). It’s such a fucked up story that I still can’t really wrap my head around it.

Mike said, cutting to the chase, that everyone’s obviously frustrated with the situation, but nobody can do too much, because it’s a police investigation in a foreign country, and these things don’t proceed on American time. So the Organization is going to waffle about it, and that’s just the way things are going to be. Apparently every country’s administration had a giant conference call this week, presumably to summarize the talking points; Honored Directress, meanwhile, has been doing a great job of being supportive of us personally, and not discouraging us from speaking our minds about our safety, if our conscience calls for it.

Long story short, the importance of safety has been pretty thoroughly hammered home. To top it all off, as we were winding the session down, we were informed that Organization/Niger just evacuated its Volunteers. This is apparently based on the situation where some French nationals were kidnapped and murdered. The principle seems to be that Niger’s local gangs are performing the kidnapping, but then they sell the hostages to groups like Al Qaeda, and although the French are the target, the local gangs may decide that one white person is just as good as another. This makes one fewer safe exit from this country if we, ourselves, need to evacuate — Cameroon is a stable country, without history of political bloodshed, but our neighbors are all increasingly dangerous and hostile.

And now I’m sitting in the living room watching CNN. Apparently the Tunisian government dissolved?? What does that mean? It doesn’t sound great. Nothing sounds great. I’m in a Mood. Maybe a hot shower will make me feel better. If nobody hears from me in thirty minutes, please come looking..

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