On 8/26/2010 11:00:18 AM
Danielle Skinner, U.S. AFRICOM Public Affairs Office wrote
Jambo! That means hello in Swahili. I’m here in Mombasa, Kenya attending the Kenya Government’s Pandemic Disaster Response Tabletop exercise. It’s a really exciting time to be in Kenya the week when their new constitution will officially become law. As the deputy chief of mission for the U.S. Embassy in Kenya said at the opening ceremony for the exercise, the August 4 referendum, backed by the majority of the population (67 percent), begins a new chapter in the nation’s history.
Friday, August 27, is a national holiday for Kenya, as the nation celebrates the promulgation of the new constitution by President Kibaki. Although we will be working that day, I am looking forward to sharing this occasion with our Kenyan partners here for the exercise.
Security issues during a pandemic
The exercise itself is going very well, and I’m always impressed by the dedication and enthusiasm shown by the participants. There are nearly 50 civilian and military representatives here from Kenya, along with representatives from international agencies. Throughout the week, they have been working together to practice coordinating among the various agencies to respond to different disaster scenarios.
In observing the briefings and focus groups, I have been learning a lot about how important interagency coordination is and how a pandemic can impact the government on so many levels–it extends beyond a health concern, also impacting security of a region.
For instance, a pandemic could shut down ports making it difficult to bring in necessary vaccines, medicines, food, and other aid. It would also damage the country’s economy. We visited the Port of Mombasa on Monday to talk with Kenya Ports Authority managers about their contingency plans for disasters such as pandemics, tsunamis, oil spills, and acts of terrorism. The KPA staff talked to us about their disaster response plans and answered questions.
Known as the Gateway to East and Central Africa, the Port of Mombasa is Kenya’s only deepwater port and links Kenya to Uganda, Rwanda, Southern Sudan, among other land-locked countries. Its main imports include crude oil, fertilizers, salt, sugar, and wheat and its main exports include coffee, tea, canned fruit, and cement. Being prepared for any kind of disaster (oil spills, pandemics, tsunamis) is so important, especially for a regional gateway port such as this one.
What they told us is that they have disaster response plans which are integrated into the national plans. They practice oil spill drills annually, and are also compliant with International Health Regulations (IHR). A recently built control tower standing at 89 meters enhances navigational safety and security in the port.
Their most recent disaster was in May 2005 when a tanker punctured a cargo ship with 300 metric tons of oil. They were able to combat the oil spill in 24 hours and cleaning the beach took two weeks.
After the meeting, we got the chance to tour the port area, which was a really unique experience. It opened my eyes to the huge scope of the port activities, and made me more aware of the very serious impact a disaster would have on the nation if the ports were to be shut down.
Whenever I travel to events like these, I try to see as much of the area as I can during our off-hours. Kenya is a popular destination for its amazing safaris, and so I made sure to fit that in over the weekend. On Saturday morning we set off bright and early (5:30 AM) for Tsavo National Park which is about two hours from Mombasa.
We saw mostly elephants and zebras and a few giraffes, but towards the end of our safari we stumbled upon some female lions resting under a tree (and a lone elephant moving dangerously close to them). One of my favorite parts of the safari was when all the animals (zebras, elephants, and warthogs) were running from different directions to the same watering hole. I have never seen elephants move so fast before! I got some great photos. of them all together sharing the water hole. We also saw a few black-legged zebras (or zebras who played in the mud too long leaving their bottom half black).
I really wish I had a few more days here in Kenya to make the trip over to the Maasai Mara and see the famous wildebeest migration. Every year between July and October, more than a million wildebeest migrate between the Serengeti in Tanzania and the Maasai Mara in Kenya in search of grass and water. It’s supposed to be an amazing experience to see the masses of wildebeest crossing the rivers. The Maasai Mara was too far from Mombasa for me to visit in one day, but I hope to come back another time to see that.
Old Town Mombasa
On Tuesday I had the opportunity to accompany Brigadier General Stayce Harris, U.S. AFRICOM’s mobilization reserve assistant to the commander, to tour the Old Town of Mombasa. It’s a very small section of town with a lot of history. Our tour guide showed us the old port which is now used only to ship things between Kenya and Somalia. He also showed us the first post office (now an antique shop), and the first mosque in Mombasa.
Mombasa is the second largest city in Kenya with a lot of Portuguese influence. In Swahili it means “Island of war” because of all the fighting over it during the time of colonization. The main attraction in town is the Portuguese fort built in 1593 called Fort Jesus to protect the old port. The fort is built in the shape of a man with a head, arms, and legs. It was given the name “Jesus” because of its shape and also the Christian influence by the Portuguese. Also on display at the fort is the first train between Mombasa and Nairobi. It was literally a chair on a platform with wheels on a track. It had to be pushed, and our guide told us it took six months to get to Nairobi. It makes you appreciate today’s speed trains! Fort Jesus was captured by the Oman Arabs in 1698 and became a government prison in 1895. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Africa site–a must-see if you are in Mombasa!
In spite of our busy work schedule, I’ve managed to see a lot of the city and the coastal area. The people here are all so friendly. Everyone I meet asks me if I know their “cousin” Barack Obama, and I’ve gotten some “good deals” on purchases because of it.
The exercise ends tomorrow (Friday) and we fly back on Saturday. I hope I can return to Kenya someday to see more of this beautiful country.