Ancient Native American Mound To Be Destroyed To Build Sam’s Club

It’s been a tough year for ancient monuments, what with subway workers in China accidentally demolishing 3000-year-old tombs, a limestone quarry destroying part of the Nazca Lines, and pyramids in Peru and Belize being bulldozed by “developers.”

Now Alabama is getting in on the game. The city of Oxford, Alabama, has approved the destruction of a mound of stones and the hill on which it stands in order to use the dirt as fill for a Sam’s Club site. City mayor Leon Smith says it’s a natural formation and was only used to send smoke signals, but the State Historical Commission disagrees and says it’s about 1,500 years old and eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

Artificial earthen and stone mounds were common features of prehistoric Native American civilizations and are found in many parts of North America. Some were used for burials while others appear to have been ritual sites. There have already been protests against the destruction.

For more on this issue, check out this article by The Institute for Southern Studies, which includes many links to local newspaper articles and official reports.

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: A Globetrotting USAID FSO Serving in Afghanistan

USAID Foreign Service Officer David Thompson has lived in eight countries in the last 15 years and has visited countless others, but at 46, his adventures are far from over. He helped reconstruct homes in the immediate aftermath of the war in Bosnia, worked to restore democracy in Honduras after a coup, and has lived through attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul while serving there as the head of USAID’s Democracy & Governance office.

Thompson has been a Foreign Service Officer with USAID (The U.S. Agency for International Development) for nearly ten years and has served in Washington, Albania, Honduras and Afghanistan. The Alexandria native and father of two lives alone in 8 by 12 hooch and is a month shy of his return to the U.S. Thompson spoke to us about his unlikely career path, the challenges of working in Honduras and Afghanistan, and the difficulties and pleasures of working overseas. Thompson’s story also offers a ray of hope to those seeking a career change.

Tell us about the career path that led you to USAID?

My undergrad degree was in architecture. When I was in my mid to late 20s I was trying to sort out what to do with my life. I worked as a carpenter’s helper and built up a body of knowledge about construction. I had an abbreviated stint in the Peace Corps in Tunisia, and then I followed that with a year as a Vista volunteer in Waterbury, CT. In the mid ’90s, I was a construction manager, managing the construction of single-family homes in Northern Virginia and I wasn’t really enjoying my job.I got an interview with an NGO that was hiring people to work in Bosnia. I went into work one day and got laid off, but I went home that day and found out that I got the job in Bosnia.

I ended up staying in Bosnia for two and a half years in the immediate aftermath of the war. I learned about development and post-conflict reconstruction but what I learned was the complexity of development. People don’t just return to their houses – they need jobs and schools and health care so I decided to go to grad school. I went to Duke University’s Center for International Development Policy and got a masters degree from ’98-2000. And I met my wife there; she’s from Brazil and we had common interests.

I ended up getting a job with CHF International in South Africa as a Country Director and we moved to Port Elizabeth, South Africa in 2000. We loved it there but rather quickly we decided we wanted to be closer to home, so we moved to Brazil, where my wife is from. We switched roles in Brazil, where she had the good steady job and I was the one teaching English, and getting a few consultancies here and there.

And that led you to USAID?

I was looking at my enormous student debt and thinking, ‘I have to pay this. I wanted stability and the chance to work with the USG’s premier international development agency, so I applied with USAID, interviewed in 2002 and started with them in March 2003.

What advice do you have for those interested in becoming a USAID Foreign Service Officer?

The current program is called the Development Leadership Initiative. Getting a graduate degree is very essential for this work – especially with the level of competition these days.

I assume it’s also important to have international experience?

Yes. USAID wants to see the ability to live overseas and thrive in different cultures.

And not necessarily just a study abroad in London or Rome, right?

Exactly. It’s best to have experience in the more traditional development countries.

Should new hires at USAID expect to serve in Afghanistan or Iraq at some point in their careers?

Yes. They should expect and be prepared for that.

And if you have kids they don’t spare you, right? Do you have kids?

I do. Two girls. One 8, and the other will turn 6 next week. My wife and two girls live at my mom’s house in Alexandria, in the house where I grew up. It’s a one-year tour here and then my next assignment will be in Washington. It’s tough. It’s a challenge for everyone, not just for people with kids.

I have two kids and I’m not sure if I could leave them. It’s very difficult to leave for a year isn’t it?

We come here because it’s our duty. It’s part of our job. If I could be in Mozambique, I would but this is what the Agency decided for me and I accepted it.

How do you stay in touch with your family?

We have a U.S. phone number, so I speak to my family twice a day. We thought we’d Skype more but it’s kind of easier to call and sometimes less painful than it is to see your family (on cam).

Were you in Afghanistan during the Koran burning incidents?

I was. And I was here for the big attack on the Embassy on September 13. That was crazy because I remember being in a bunker when the attack started and all of the sudden there’s this realization, ‘Oh my God, my wife is going to see this on the news,’ so I wanted to contact her first.

Remind us about the attacks against the embassy that have occurred since you’ve been there.

In the past year, there have been two attacks – once, the American embassy was the target, that was on September 13, and then on April 15, several Western embassies were attacked. There were no serious injuries; we were taken to a safe place by the security guards. In the first incident, some local people in the consular waiting room were hit with shrapnel.

I had left the embassy just minutes before the second attack occurred. I was on my way to a meeting and we ended up having to stay at a base overnight because we couldn’t return to the embassy right away.

What did your wife say when you told her you were going to Afghanistan?

We knew it was coming. If I could have avoided it, I would have. But we get three R & R’s where we get to go home during the year. Our military colleagues are here for a year and only get one two-week R & R. So we’re well taken care of.

We’ve gone through some scary times. The former President Rabbani was assassinated just a stone’s throw from the embassy but I do feel very safe here. The guards here are fantastic. Our colleagues here on the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT’s), some of them are under fire almost daily and they survive, so we can certainly survive here in Kabul.

Has your wife been able to continue to pursue her career?

That’s been the biggest challenge about the Foreign Service for us. I’ve been fortunate to live overseas and expose my kids to these cultures but it’s been much harder on my wife than it has been on me, so I would definitely advise couples to talk about the realities of this career choice.

Tell us about the hooch you live in?

It’s kind of a nice little trailer. I have no complaints, it’s about 8 feet across by 12 feet long, with a nice ¾ bathroom with a shower, and it has a nice TV with the Armed Forces Network. I find it very cozy quite frankly. We have hot water and water pressure.

And what does your job entail there?

As head of the Office of Democracy & Governance, I help manage the USG’s development assistance that goes toward governance, rule of law and anti-corruption, civil society and media development, elections and political processes.

How many USAID missions are there and where should people expect that they could be sent?

There are about 130 posts. For the most part they’ll be in developing countries. There are a few odd positions in places like Tokyo or Rome dealing with donor coordination but not many. You can be in Pretoria, Cairo, New Delhi, or you could be in Chad, or South Sudan or the Congo or Uganda. So there’s a big variety in terms of size of the mission and conditions you live in. The better posts are four-year tours, the more challenging ones would be two-year tours. The really special hardcore posts like Afghanistan are one year.

In the State Department, it’s hard to get promoted if you don’t go to the really tough places. Is it the same in USAID?

Yes, you have to show a willingness to serve in different types of situations and on different continents. People used to stay in one region, like Latin America, and now they really encourage people to break away from that.

Do USAID officers usually get language training?

It depends if their job is language designated. I didn’t get language training for Albania, but I did get 3.5 months of training in Spanish for Honduras.

You were in Honduras at a very momentous time. Tell us about the coup.

I was there in the summer of 2009. My family was in Brazil and I woke up to a coup. All of the sudden, what was known as a sleepy post turned into something else. The U.S. didn’t recognize the de-facto regime. We said, ‘No – this was not a constitutional transfer of power, this was a coup.’ When you take someone out of the country in his pajamas, it’s a coup.

So we responded that way but we didn’t entirely cut off assistance because we didn’t want to put ordinary Hondurans in jeopardy, so we cut off a variety of assistance programs, particularly the programs the government benefited from. Our office supported the embassy’s strategy of trying to help get Honduras back on track through the November 2009 Presidential elections.

Despite all the political instability, were things operating as usual in the country?

Things were pretty normal. There were clashes between police and protesters in the major cities but you didn’t see that unless you went looking for it. The schools were closed for a few tense days but then they reopened, stores stayed open. It was my first coup, so it was crazy just to experience it.

You’ve been outside of the U.S. for a long time now; do you lose touch at all with your hometown and feel rootless?

When I go back to USAID in Washington, I’m going home and that’s the most important thing. After being overseas for most of the time since 1996, I’m happy to be going home. I’ve always had my mom’s house to go back to, so that’s been some stability. We just bought our own house in the DC area, so we do want to put some roots down there. We appreciate going home. The green trees, the sidewalks, the security, the different kinds of food, the playgrounds for kids, the museums – we love it. But that said, I love being overseas, learning about new cultures, studying languages and seeing how my kids respond to that.

What do you love about your job?

The ability to contribute to the policy of our development assistance. Also, the exposure to different countries. It’s an incredible life. If you’re going to be in international development, being with AID is a home; it’s a career.

I will work for USAID for the rest of my career, but every few years, I’ll have a new job in a different place in a new office. I’m constantly learning and that’s really exciting. Even if you’re down on one job, you know that you’re next job will be different.

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service” here.

(Photos of David and his hooch supplied by USAID, photo of the Afghan sunrise in Kandahar via the US Army on Flickr, Afghan cycler via the US Embassy Kabul, and Honduras coup photo by David Nallah on Flickr.)

It’s time travel writers stopped stereotyping Africa

Pop quiz: where was this photo taken?

OK, the title of this post kind of gives it away, but if I hadn’t written Africa, would you have guessed? It was taken in Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania. This isn’t the view of Africa you generally get from the news or travel publications–a modern city with high rises and new cars. A city that could be pretty much anywhere. That image doesn’t sell.

And that’s the problem.

An editorial by Munir Daya for the Tanzanian newspaper The Citizen recently criticized Western media coverage of Africa, saying it only concentrated on wars, AIDS, corruption, and poverty. Daya forgot to mention white people getting their land stolen. If black people get their land stolen, you won’t hear a peep from the New York Times or the Guardian. If rich white ranchers get their land stolen, well, that’s international news. And look how many more articles there are about the war in Somalia than the peace in Somaliland.

Daya was objecting to an in-flight magazine article about Dar es Salaam that gave only superficial coverage of what the city has to offer and was peppered with statements such as, “Dar es Salaam’s busy streets are bustling with goats, chickens, dust-shrouded safari cars, suit-clad office workers and traders in colourful traditional dress.”

Daya actually lives in the city and says you won’t find many goats and chickens on the streets. But that wouldn’t make good copy, would it?

Travel writing has an inherent bias in favor of the unfamiliar, the dangerous. Some travel writers emphasize the hazards of their journey in order to make themselves look cool, or focus on the traditional and leave out the modern. Lonely Planet Magazine last year did a feature on Mali and talked about the city of Bamako, saying, “Though it is the fastest-growing city in Africa, Bamako seems a sleepy sort of place, lost in a time warp.” On the opposite page was a photo of a street clogged with motorcycle traffic. If Bamako is in a sleepy time warp, where did the motorcycles come from?

I’m not just picking on Lonely Planet; this is a persistant and widespread problem in travel writing and journalism. Writers, and readers, are more interested in guns than concerts, slums rather than classrooms, and huts rather than skyscrapers. In most travel writing, the coverage is simply incomplete. In its worst extremes, it’s a form of racism. Africa’s problems need to be covered, but not to the exclusion of its successes.

As Daya says, “there is more to Africa than famine and genocide.” There are universities, scientific institutes, music, fine cuisine, economic development, and, yes, skyscrapers.

And if you think Dar es Salaam is the exception rather than the rule, check out’s gallery of African skyscrapers.


Controversy over development near Victoria Falls

Environmentalists are complaining that the tour company Shearwater Adventures has violated national and international law by expanding their luxury resort into the rainforest near Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.

Shearwater has constructed a new restaurant, bar, kitchen, and information center next to the public entrance to the World Heritage Site. A lawyer for Shearwater insists the development is a legal replacement of earlier structures that had fallen into disrepair and that none of the new buildings go outside the area already reserved for facilities. Opponents to the construction contend that the buildings are on a much larger scale than the previous ones and are forbidden by a 2007 moratorium. This was put in place after UNESCO threaten to rescind Victoria Falls’ World Heritage status after a local businessman tried to build a hotel and golf course in the World Heritage zone.

Without being on the ground it’s hard to say if who’s telling the truth here. Last week The National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe ordered that no new construction take place. It is now running the site along with the National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, which used to have sole authority. The government is currently trying to decide which body will run the Falls.

As this shakeup is going on, conservationists say Shearwater is planning a giant $6 million development next to the VIP entrance to the Falls. This will include a complex of buildings close enough to the Falls to threaten its World Heritage status. There’s also worry about the development’s location only a few yards from the Zambezi River.

[Photo courtesy user colmdc via Gadling’s flickr pool]

Ethiopia tops list of African nations improving quality of life

Ethiopia suffers from a bad image thanks to the war and famine of the 1980s. As my series on travel in Ethiopia showed, however, this is a land of friendly people, beautiful nature, and fascinating historic sites. Infrastructure is slowly improving and the Ethiopians are making serious efforts to boost education, access to clean drinking water, and other improvements to the quality of life.

These efforts have been recognized in the UN’s 2010 Human Development Report. It ranked Ethiopia as number 11 in the world for improving human development since 1970, the highest ranking in Africa. The report was prepared by the United Nations Development Programme and measures progress in health, education, income, gender equality, and other areas. Researchers then formulate a “human development index” (HDI) for 135 countries.

Other high-ranking African nations include Botswana (14th), Benin (18th) and Burkina Faso (21st). All of these countries and some others have done especially well in the past ten years. Only looking at the past decade, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Rwanda, and Uganda all come out in the global top ten.

One of the biggest areas of improvement was in education. Literacy has almost tripled in Sub-Saharan Africa in the past 40 years to 65 percent. Also, life expectancy is up and infant mortality is down.

Sadly, not all the news is good. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia, and Zimbabwe were the only three countries in the world where quality of life actually went down.

Good news for Ethiopia is good news to travelers too. While the country is still an adventure travel destination, it’s not as rugged as many people think. I spent two months there and my wife spent three weeks, and in all that time we never got sick. Chalk one up for good sanitation and clean water! Also, Ethiopia scores well of gender equality, which meant that, unlike some countries we’ve been to, my wife didn’t get harassed by obnoxious guys. Good education meant we met lots of people who spoke English and wanted to improve it by chatting with us. Improved infrastructure meant there were more paved roads along our route than there were ten years ago.

When it comes to improvements in a country’s Human Development Index everybody benefits, even people who don’t live there!