Saturday, February 03, 2007

A long journey to Africa

It was the longest series of flights I’ve ever experienced. In fact, as I write this, I still have one more flight. I’m onboard, in my seat, on the ground awaiting the last of four flights — this one from Nairobi, Kenya, to Lilongwe, Malawi.

My journey started at 5 a.m. Thursday when I arose to prepare for the first flight from LAX to Detroit. There was only a 45-minute turnaround and everything seemed OK until a flurry of snow sent up circling over Saginaw. When we finally landed, there was about 12 minutes to get to the next flight — the long flight to Amsterdam. The held the door for me.

That fight was quite nice. Since my journey exceeds 16 hours, government regulations say that government contractors must bump their workers up to business class. That meant some really comfortable seating.

The gentleman who sat next to me approved of the high-tech seats. And he seemed to have the authority. It turns out he was on his way to India to check out some car seats his company, Lear Corporation, was considering buying. Scott Ziolek is an engineer who specializes in how people interact with things that engineers design. His official title is Senior Human Factors Engineer. His specialty is called occupant biomechanics. He works in Lear’s Seating Systems Division in Southfield, Mich. Apparently, it’s a fairly new specialty. It would seem that we would have little in common (except for how our backsides enjoyed the seats in business class), but soon we embarked on a conversation that was stimulating and I think beneficial for both of us.

He typically recruits volunteers to sit in a couple different styles of car seats and rate different aspects. Then, they test the seat experience on the road. They never know which of the seats are the ones Lear wants to buy. The others are part of a control group.

Our two professions overlapped in the area of the interview process and the objectives of the interview. As a journalist, my goal is to get people to tell me stuff I didn’t know — whatever they say is fine with me. After all, it’s their story to tell and they can have their own opinions. My goal is to get good information and lively quotes.

On the other hand, Scott uses a rule he calls the 10-80-10 rule. He can’t expect everyone to love the product — that would be an impossible goal — so he hopes to find cumulative answers that indicate that 10 percent of the people love it, 10 percent of the people hate it and 80 percent of the people think it’s OK. He has others ask the questions of the participants — he processes the responses. I shared with him some of my open-ended, no-questions-asked techniques and he said he’d consider trying it out.

It was a lot of fun.

We arrived in Amsterdam at about midnight Los Angeles time. I had an 11-hour layover. I found places where I could connect to the Internet and a few other places where I could sleep somewhat. Then, about two hours before my next flight, I checked with the people at the gate and found out that I needed could have spent the entire time in the First Class Lounge for KLM. Dang! I went up there and discovered a paradise of refreshments, serenity, clean bathrooms and free internet connections as wonderful work spaces. You can bet that I’ll spend my entire time there on the layover on the way home.

The flight to Nairobi left Amsterdam at about 11 a.m. Friday, California time. It was 9 p.m. in Amsterdam. The overnight flight provided a wonderful opportunity to get a little sleep. In the morning, I looked out and saw the Saturday morning sunrise beyond Mount Kenya.

Now, we’re about to take off, It’s 9:30 a.m. Saturday. The flight is about an hour and a half. I’m not sure if there will be anyone to great me. If they don’t, however, I’m sure I’ll find my hotel.


That’s about all I’m thinking of right now. I hope I can get to the Internet before long so that those of you who work late into the night or get up before dawn can get a glimpse of the Saturday sunrise long before you get to experience it.

My assignment, by the way, is to conduct four week-long training sessions with journalists in Malawi. Three of the groups will be newspaper reporters — the fourth will be with broadcast journalists.

The program is part of Malawi’s attempt to improve many of the systems that have a positive effect on human rights. In order to receive oceans of aid from the United States, the Malawi government must first take steps to show that it deserves the help. Hence, they’re receiving assistance from USAID (United States Agency for International Development) through its Millennium Challenge. USAID contracts with non-government organizations (NGOs) to help the Malawi government get on the right track so that it can qualify. The NGOs hire people like me — people with expertise in key areas — to help the Malawi people and government get a better pre-aid report card.

Does any of this make sense?

Oh, I’ll end this posting with a challenge for your sleuths at home:

The winner will be the first person to translate this:

Boya la kujiokoa liko chini ya kipumzisha mkono. Funga mkanda unapoketi.

I’ll bring a special (cheap) gift to the first person. And, of course, I’d like you to tell me the language.

Good luck.

Quick update. I’m here. I’m sleepy. More later.

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And a final note. I've tried for two days to get this text in place and struck out. Maybe this time it will work. On Sunday, we flew to Blantyre where I'll be doing a weeklong seminar. I finished the course outline at 2:40 a.m. and went to sleep. I just woke up to realize I didn't turn off the paid Internet. So before I do, I'm trying again to post this text.
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