Mood swings

It’s been that regular period of introspection (and blogging) otherwise known as the first week back from holiday. I haven’t always been victim to it, but there’s a phenomena in Freetown among expats which I call ‘re-entry depression’. It’s mostly described as the negative feelings felt when getting back on the plane to return to your job in Sierra Leone.

As I’ve written before, a few weeks in the West can be alluring. As was the case back in June, we holidayed in France, and were captivated by the quality of life. This was true even staying with my sister-in-law who earns a very humble salary and lives in social housing (surprisingly good quality in France). The flat had high quality fittings – of course running water, constant electricity, piped gas, super-fast internet and plug sockets that don’t come out of the walls. A well-stocked supermarket (Lidl) is 30 metres away and is incredibly cheap. And the metro station is less than 10 minutes’ walk, and puts you in the centre of the city in the same amount of time, and all the attractions there.

If the return to work had its difficulties, the first day back went well, and reminded me why I enjoy working here. Day two though was tough, with some colleagues driving me a bit crazy. On return home in the evening, I was immediately assaulted with a barrage of problems – the compound dog looked sick and was an infection risk, the generator was having problems, the water we’re buying looks cloudy, the caretaker doesn’t seem to be feeding his children or enrolling them in school… It’s a bit much after a hard and long day.

Day three involved some chats with friends about career moves as I look to transition to the next job. I also discovered that I was in-line for an unexpected pay rise next month (small, but still a welcome surprise), and I came across a bonus payment that I hadn’t heard of before, equivalent to a month’s salary, which gets paid to staff from their fifth year at the company (i.e. in two years’ time).

The evening though brought another wild change in mood. At our small church group that meets weekly, a friend who has been heavily involved in providing mental health support to those affected by the recent tragic flooding here unloaded some of the struggles of the past five weeks. The stories she told of the trauma of families reduced further into absolute poverty through losing homes, businesses and wage-earners, and seeing family members swept away by the mud, was humbling. Can we rich people ever really empathise with the poor? Can we really know the stress of having no hope for the future, extremely limited prospects and a daily struggle to survive? Who are we lucky people to believe in prosperity, life improvement and have dreams way beyond basic survival?

In sum, a week of mood swings. How different our lives look depending on the vantage point you’re currently at.

Thoughts on the way back from New York

When I was in New York last year, I came away thinking it would be a good place to work in the future. I’m currently on my way back from New York after another week there, and I fly back with a different feeling. My over-riding sense is that New York isn’t a city that corresponds closely with my values. Perhaps three things can be taken as examples to illustrate (which are far from unique to New York):

  • In Freetown, people like looking at their phones, but you certainly don’t see the constant fixation with being online, the walking the street looking down into a phone not ahead. Perhaps influenced by my recent reading of Cal Newport’s ‘Deep work’, I’ve become much more negative about smartphones and social media. I really believe time spent on social media gives very little of value, so to see a society obsessed with this is worrying.
  • Yesterday, I had a day free, so bought a few high quality magazines and newspapers and spent several pleasant hours in Central Park. Living outside the West, and then returning to it like this, draws into sharper contrast the consumerist messaging of ‘products you need to be happy’. I felt this last month, having my young daughter suddenly exposed to all the clever marketing of attractive things for infants in the French supermarkets. She was suddenly wide-eyed with all the wonderful things on offer, and begging her parents. In the magazines and newspapers, the message is that you need an expensive over-sized watch or a luxury car to really achieve success or be a true adventurer/hero. I can just about ignore the adverts, but it permeated the writing as well. For instance, a magazine about being in nature and exploring the great outdoors, was heavily focused on ‘amazing gear you need to buy’.
  • Style is much more polarised in New York. You get a large segment that is super stylish, tanned, extremely well dressed, and clearly gym regulars. Then you get another segment that is obscenely overweight and carelessly dressed. It’s very different from France, where a pot belly or a large bicep are both much rarer.

So, I like my New York trips, and perhaps later in life I can find a three month contract in the city to really explore with my wife. But it’s not the place to be long-term I feel.

A week in France

A week ago, I was waking up in a small university town (Angers) in western France, at the end of a short break visiting my eldest daughter who’s studying there. Dare I say it, but I fell in love with France once again. From overseas (and reading too many articles in The Economist), France can look like a mess – poor integration, burdensome taxation levels, inability to reform, terrorism, etc. But on the ground, particularly in the ‘provinces’, you realise how much France works.

Angers is a small town – you come off the motorway and you’re almost immediately in the city centre. We parked up in a massive free parking area in the heart of the city under an avenue of plane trees. For an affordable sum, my daughter has a decent studio one step back from the river that runs through the centre. The ancient medieval fortress and cathedral are just 5 minutes’ walk away.

Picking up a local free newspaper, it’s immediately apparent the wealth of cultural activities taking place over the coming weeks, even in this small town. The day after we arrived there was a giant sports day for the city, with events all over the place, including kayaking and volleyball in the river. Over the same weekend there was a jazz festival, while the following weekend hosted a book festival and a tattoo festival.

In the interests of time, I won’t mention the medieval history (including the world’s oldest existing large tapestry), the ancient cobbled streets, the fine cafes and restaurants, the tiny bakeries and butchers around the corner and the incredible weather. Last Friday, I headed out around 10pm for a stroll around town, the sun still setting, the temperature perfect, and the town a buzz with families, as well as students celebrating the end of the academic year. It’s exactly 15 years on from my first real experience of France – three months spent in Grenoble living with students and trying to learn French. The same vibe was there, only this time I could understand everything everyone was saying.

The planned ‘2030 pivot’ is still a long way off. But after this trip, I felt more likely that this coming period of life will now see significantly more time in France. I know madame would be happy with that. Perhaps it’ll be a life split between the French provinces and Abidjan – the former for comfort, the later for engagement. We’ll see. L’homme propose, Dieu dispose.

Career goals

This past week has been the time for the annual personal evaluation at work – a rather painful process. It’s also often the moment for the supervisor (in my case, the head of the office) to offer career advice.

One thing I find interesting about this process, that I wanted to mention here, is that underlying the advice I received, and a lot of such advice, is the assumption that one’s career path should look to be plotting moves to get up in the hierarchy and in posts with even more attention and greater power.

I came very close to stopping my supervisor short, and saying that really what I wanted was just to continue working in interesting places, as long I was allowed to live with my family, the team were friendly and the work wouldn’t be life-consuming. He might have fallen off his chair if I’d said that. In fact, he almost left me worrying that if I suddenly announce that I’ve accepted a post in some less important country he’ll be disappointed.

I do get that being closer to power can be more interesting. I enjoy that in my current office I’m frequently part of teams working on the most important things, and working closely with senior management. But I think at base, I haven’t tied my job to the centre of my life’s ambitions. In fact, I care much more about what people might think of my role in the Ivory Coast community, or in academic/journalistic/writing circles, than whether in my current industry I’m considered a top dog. I do want to have a reputation of being a good worker and attaining excellence, but I feel quite acutely the fact that on the day after I leave the industry, other things will seem more significant.


As an addendum to the above, I also discovered this week that if I move to a higher grade in the system, my salary will actually go up very little even if I’ve risen from the middling ranks to the more senior folks. If I go and work in a tiny insignificant country, the monetary reward will be basically the same.

Books read in 2016

There are of course many downsides to spending five months of 2016 living away from family (back in Ivory Coast for the birth of our son). But on the other hand, not many fathers of two children mainly under two, can claim to have broken their personal best for books read in the year. So, here’s this year’s list…

1. A Wilderness of Mirrors, by Mark Meynell
2. Notes from a Small island, by Bill Bryson
3. TOTC Hosea (commentary), by David A. Hubbard
4. The Leopard, by Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
5. Diary of a young girl, by Anne Frank
6. Common Sense, by Thomas Paine
7. Out of the saltshaker and into the world, by R. M. Pippert
8. Our turn to eat, by Michaela Wrong
9. The message of 2 Timothy, by John Stott
10. Money Counts, by Graham Beynon
11. Gloria, by Abidemi Sanusi
12. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
13. Peaceland, by Severine Autesserre
14. In the Name of the People, by Lara Pawson
15. The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born, by Ayi Kewi Arman
16. For the Glory: The Life of Eric Liddell, by Duncan Hamilton
17. A Piano in the Pyrenes, by Tony Hawk
18. Neither here nor there, by Bill Bryson
19. Comment investir et gagner à la BRVM, by Euclide Okolou
20. C’est la folie, by Michael Wright
21. Les flamboyants d’Abidjan, by Vincent Hein
22. A Hero of Our Time, by Mikhail Lermontov
23. A Poisonous thorn in our hearts, by James Copnall
24. Growth Groups, by Colin Marshall
25. Decolonising the Mind, by Ngugi wa Thiong’o
26. The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion
27. The Unexpected Christian Century, by Scott Sunquist
28. Money Counts, by Graham Beynon (second time)
29. Aid and Authoritarianism in Africa, by Hagmann and Reyntjens
30. Commitment, by Didier Drogba
31. The Places in between, by Rory Stewart
32. Jim Grant UNICEF visionary, by various
33. War Poems, by Siegried Sassoon
34. Far from the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy
35. The Strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, by R. L. Stevenson
36. Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome
37. You May All Prophesy, by Steve Thompson
38. Pour Me, by A. A. Gill
39. Cailloux Blancs, by Bernard Dadié

Status quo-ers

The weekend saw the sad loss of journalist-critic A. A. Gill, someone I grew up reading every week in the Sunday Times. I would devour his restaurant reviews even if I never had the slightest intention of visiting the high-class London restaurants he recommended. Instead it was the jaw-dropping style of the sentences and wit.

A friend posted one of his quotes today: « The interesting adults are always the school failures, the weird ones, the losers, the malcontents. This isn’t wishful thinking. It’s the rule. » This ties in with something I’d wanted to write about for a while – something that I’ll call the conceptual division between those who seek to thrive within the status quo, and those who look to change it.

We like to divide people – introverts and extroverts, men from Mars etc. As I see it, the status-quoers/system-battlers division is a useful one, with me firmly in the status-quoers camp. Particularly through working with colleagues, I realise that I have a strong tendency to put up with the world as it is, seek to excel within the rules, and not get too frustrated about the overall system. It’s the sort of approach that shows itself in good performance at school (not challenging the system), but doesn’t end up doing much to radically change the world.

We almost certainly need both. System-battlers seem to live in a world of constant frustration (in part because they struggle to understand how others can put up with the system) – this can waste a lot of energy and not accomplish much. But status-quoers are often blind to how they could much better results by doing things differently.


Regular readers will know I like to have several books open at any one time. I currently have three non-fiction books half-finished, plus a Hardy novel. For the non-fiction books, one is by the son of a noble family, who sent him to Eton and whose father was a British diplomat. Another is about the son of a noted public health specialist and the grandson of a medical missionary. The third is about someone who was raised by his uncle who was himself a professional footballer who had been capped for his country, Ivory Coast.

What did these three children go on to become? The first (diplomatic father) is Rory Stewart, who became a British diplomat after graduation and is now UK Minister of State at the Department for International Development. The second (public health specialist father) is Jim Grant, who was the Executive Director of UNICEF for 15 years (1980-1995) and brought about some remarkable successes in global health. The third (adopted by professional footballing uncle) is of course Didier Drogba. The point is rather simple – the fruit does not fall far from the tree. Exceptional careers often come from people whose parents have already excelled in the same field.

Does it mean that Drogba’s children will be professional footballers? Perhaps not. But people who become world-class have often picked up a huge amount just from hanging out with their parents. Powerful counter-examples could of course be cited. But I think we don’t often give enough credit to the family contexts that people come from. In my case, it’s less the career skills, than coming from a wonderfully loving stable home, that can perhaps help me in one of the most important areas – being a good husband and father.

Are my children likely to become professional footballers, medical doctors or government ministers? Quite unlikely. They’re also unlikely to pick up anything about business from me or the creative arts. Perhaps one could bet on some sort of international career, more social science than hard science, and multi-lingual.

Are they born into immense privilege? Absolutely.

Sunday morning thoughts

(This will probably be a rambling blog post following my train of thoughts this morning.)

It’s interesting to look back and think about how we ended up where we ended up. I was just reading my Kindle (a chapter on Ugandan authoritarianism and aid, co-written as it happens, by my master’s thesis supervisor. Yesterday I was thinking about the 11 years since I was at Oxford after seeing matriculation photos of a friend from Freetown who just started a masters there, choosing St Antony’s on my recommendation. I bought the book on aid after reading a review on the LSE Africa blog), switching on the wifi to download my latest book purchase, ‘The Places in Between’ by Rory Stewart.

I’d bought Stewart’s book after reading a blog post by Owen Barder on an event/discussion he’d held with Rory Stewart who is apparently now a minister in the new UK Government. I’d looked up Stewart’s profile on Wikipedia, as I like to see how interesting people get to where they are (perhaps to confirm my suspicions that it’s often a privileged path to the top), and I saw that he’d written a bestselling book about walking across Afghanistan (well from Herat to Kabul). That provoked two thoughts – firstly that in 2014 I was in Herat and Kabul, and that I’d been rather intrigued by the area in between, though sadly a planned trip had fallen through (I think principally because of heavy snow). Secondly, I recall reading a review in the Sunday Times when Stewart’s book came out, which must be over a decade ago, and I’d filed it in my brain as a book I’d like to read sometime.

Some time in my early teens, our family started to get the Sunday Times. I actually have no idea why this happened, but it quickly became a Sunday tradition after church, and each of us would have our favourite parts. It may have been that the first time we ever bought the paper was while on holiday in Switzerland, to get some news of back home, though this could be wrong. I was probably more thorough than most in flicking through every single part (job adverts aside), but my particular favourite bit was the book reviews (which later became a ‘Culture’ section as the paper grew exponentially in size and cost over the years). This led directly to my first book purchases on Amazon, which if my memory serves me correctly were a travel book (by another Stewart (Stanley) about riding across Mongolia on horseback. I recently recommended this book to a British colleague working in our Nigeria office who in August was riding across Mongolia on horseback) and Ryszard Kapuscinki’s Shadow of the Sun, a memoir of the Polish journalist’s time in Africa.

(The days before Amazon were distinctly odd. In my early teens I had an interest in the history of the Spanish Main after many hours spent playing ‘Pirates’ on our Amiga computer. I remember going to our local bookshop, and saying I wanted to buy a book on pirates. The old man fired up the computer and had some odd black and green database which showed up books with the word ‘Pirates’ in them. We chose one and ordered, though we can have had very little idea on whether the book was suitable. I don’t recall being too impressed by it. The two other books pre-Amazon I remember buying were a massive chronicle of the Second World War, which I received as a school prize giving gift (I had to combine several book vouchers from different prizes), and a book called ‘Darwin on Trial’ from an early flirtation with anti-evolution theory. The bookshop has long since closed.)

Shadow of the Sun is one of the books I think of when I wonder how I got this fixation with becoming a journalist in Africa (I read a blog post by ex BBC Angola correspondent Lara Pawson on this theme yesterday). Foreign correspondents often come from families with former colonial district commissioners, just like writers often come from academic/teacher/writer parents. In my case, it was a long time before I met an actual journalist or writer, so I think the encounter with Kapuscinski’s writings was formative. Other elements that I think pushed me in this direction were a Swiss friend I very much admired, who once suggested that he would give up teaching and do missionary work and freelance journalism in Africa (he did the former, I did the latter). I also knew from career books that journalism was one of the things that history graduates did after leaving university (the other main choice seemed to be teaching).

But I also think back to the odd sudden arrival of the Sunday Times in our lives, which actually later expanded into receiving The Times every day of the week (I think we got some extraordinary price for the paper through a mail offer). For several years, I would read the paper cover to cover after getting back from school. It must have pushed me to expand my horizons. Coincidentally this morning I had breakfast to a Tim Ferris podcast in which he was giving advice to parents that in their mid-teens, children would really benefit from becoming better at reading, good writing and public speaking – skills that pay off later on in almost every area of life.

Ramble over.

Back in Freetown

Over the last few months, a lot of my expat friends on returning to Freetown from vacations have said with a sigh that it was difficult to get back on the plane and return. For my part, there was a part of me that stepped on the plane yesterday with a spring in the step. Considering I was leaving behind a two week old son and a delightful 21 month old daughter, that may seem a bit perverse, but for the time being Freetown is home in a way that not many other places are for me – we have a family house, a car, space, good internet etc.

Related to this, I remember speaking to a retired UN friend of mine who spent several years in non-family postings. He told me a few months back that he used to find it quite hard adjusting to life with his family in Nairobi during return trips. Suddenly there were responsibilities and family needs, when before he had plenty of personal time, and few jobs outside of work. There can be a certain claustrophobic-ness in suddenly landing in a space with loved ones, babies to look after, and little time to pick up a book. When you do this in a small packed flat, the feeling is increased.

But life without family loses much of the colour – and it becomes a life largely revolving around being the master of your own free time. I’m determined though to avoid a non-family duty station in future at almost all cost.

Depends how you look at it

I had a feeling it’d be one of those days, and that’s kind of how it turned out. The fact that we had a major donor proposal due to be submitted by 5pm today rather spoiled my weekend. To start the last minute work on bringing all the contributions together, I skipped the morning exercises and left for the office at 615am. This involved going under the bonnet, as the car battery had been left disconnected overnight, as I seem to have an electrical issue with the car which is draining power.

Work was intense – seeking last minute contributions, working to a looming deadline that couldn’t be shifted, while at the same time fending off several really important things that will have to wait till tomorrow. At the same time, due to my issues waiting for a US visa waiver (I’m due to travel on 30 August, I applied for a visa waiver on 11 August, but everytime I visit the website it says ‘Authorisation pending’ promising a result in 72 hours after application), I’m rushing through an application for a standard visa at the local embassy. A guy who helps me out, Lamin, was at the bank first thing to pay the visa fee (you have to pay cash at the bank and get a receipt). After three hours queuing, they told him that he needed my passport, which he came to get. After three more hours queuing, the told him he needed my application receipt. As I explained on the telephone to the man, none of this information was detailed on the website explaining how to pay the fee. At least they accepted a photo sent via Whatsapp.

Work finished late, I squeezed a session in the gym, and then on the way back from work my car lost all power, and came to a stop just as night fell, about 200m from the office. The car was supposed to go to the garage today to fix a probable alternator problem, but it didn’t because my friend was tied up at the bank on the aforementioned duty. I sat for 20 minutes on an unlit street waiting for help, with the added bonus of having taken the electric window down to handover an office key, and not being able to get it back up when the power failed. Mosquitoes are not my favourite creatures.

So an expectedly bad day. But there were some bright spots. I was trying to remind myself all day that these momentary dramas quickly lose their stress after a few weeks. In the scheme of things, they don’t amount to very much. In fact something similar was said on a podcast I was listening to this evening.

The other positives:

– After all that stress, the day is over, and here I am in a comfortable house, with electricity, and the chance to write down these things down. Even if I got home late, I still have a good hour of free time before bed.

– I’ll write a blog post soon on ‘right hand men’, but Lamin was really the hero of the day – he spent a rotten day queuing at the bank, and then rescued me this evening – swapping batteries so that my car could be deposited in the work car park and arranging a taxi to take me home.

– At the gym, I was alone with the new gym instructor, so he led me through a one-on-one training session. My shoulder injury from May still doesn’t allow much weight lifting but it’s slowly healing. The session made me feel good about my fitness and core strength.

– When the car broke down, I was not far from the gate, so I asked one of our security guards to sit with me while I waited for my rescue. We had a nice conversation, including him telling me about his plans to study economics at university. He didn’t know a huge amount about the subject, so I took him through a basic explanation of the demand curve. It takes a car break down for me to have a proper conversation with someone I see almost every day and get to know his life story, dreams and struggles.

– The taxi that took me back home, stopping for fuel at the local petrol station at a busy junction I pass everyday. I realise now that I miss West African taxi rides – it’s one of the things you no longer have in your life when you own a car. You get to observe so much more – the main thing is not having to drive and concentrate on the wild driving. But there’s also the fact that the windows are down (no air conditioning) so you feel closer to things. A busy West African junction is always full of interest, even at night.

So, light and dark today, and one person’s drama, is another’s refreshing life experience.