Then, in July 2007, we took a trip with friends from home. The Ngorongoro Highlands hike takes place in the Maasai country behind the fabled crater. The long, arduous and always beautiful hike ends at the summit of the Mountain of God. That’s what he Maasai call it, Ol Doinyo Lengai. The peak is over ten thousand feet tall and it is an active volcano. The sheer mud and rock walls rise like an industrial smokestack, denuded and vertical. Both of my kids had already climbed it and told of the dangers and awesome views. Along with Nancy, they had both climbed Kilimanjaro as well. Kili is almost 20,000 feet at its peak.
Luke and I were to meet Nancy and Kate, along with our friends, in Arusha the day before starting the hike. On the way up the Rift Valley, a driver headed in the opposite direction lost control of his car. He came careening across the road immediately in front of us. His car raced up an earthen embankment and went airborne, landing on its roof. I was the first person to get to him.
I found him alive but wedged beneath the steering wheel. One of his legs had pushed through the floorboard of the car. Within seconds a group of Tanzanians joined me and some began issuing instructions. “We have to turn the car back over,” someone said, and instantly the crowd mobilized to flip the car. “Give me his cell phone,” another cried out. Within a minute he’d managed to get the man’s wife on his phone. They worked with partnership and confidence and soon had the guy out of the car and lying on the grass.
I went back to the car marveling at the display of courage and compassion. Their lack of institutional support has created a beautiful network of interpersonal support.
Luke and I continued up the road to our restaurant meet-up in Arusha. As we approached our group’s table, I felt my foot miss a step. I managed to keep upright only by grabbing the back of a nearby chair. The waiter going by me with a tray of glasses grabbed hold of a chair at the same moment. It took me a second to realize that the water jumping in the glasses reflected the trembling of the ground. “Earthquake?” I asked him. He smiled and nodded. “Get them often?” He responded that was the first one he’d ever felt.
The first was followed by a series of rolling aftershocks. The radio reported that the Mountain of the Gods, Lengai, was erupting. There was talk of shutting down the Ngorongoro Crater National Park. But Nancy insisted that we were still hiking and I agreed it didn’t hurt to go on out there and have a look. The Park is actually a ‘conservation area’. It includes a controlled-access game reserve at its cratered center. Unlike other game parks in Tanzania, the conservation area is home to both human and animals. And its boundaries are not fixed by a fence. As a result, no one was there to say the area was closed to hikers. We set out, as planned, the following day. The first hike was twenty kilometers across the Ngorongoro highlands. It ended on a mountain overlooking the smoking stack of Lengai.
Our friends were duly anxious as we approached the rumbling, smoking mount. When evening fell, they let us know they had made a family decision to turn back. I asked them to think about dangers involved with heading back at night. I urged them to sit it out in the shadow of the volcano. They were reluctant, but agreed to wait for daylight before trekking back.
I told Nancy what they had decided when I got back to our tent. She immediately lit in about what chicken-shits are travelling companions were. The moment she said it, an earthquake struck so hard it landed Nancy on her ass. I told her I took that as a bit of a sign and she finally gave in. We wouldn’t complete that spectacular hike until the following year. Here’s what Wikipedia says about that week:
“Volcanic activity in the mountain caused daily earth tremors in Kenya and Tanzania from 12 July 2007 until 18 July 2007 at 8.30pm in Nairobi. The strongest tremor measured 6.0 on the Richter scale. Geologists suspected that the sudden increase of tremors was indicative of the movement of magma through the Ol Doinyo Lengai. The volcano erupted on 4 September 2007, sending a plume of ash and steam at least 18 kilometers (11 mi) downwind and covering the north and west flanks in fresh lava flows.”
The last thing I want to mention is perhaps the most important to me. While working for USAID/Tanzania, I got routine messages about a new systems development activity. The system, called COPRS 2, was to be used for program management. It would track PEPFAR’s progress in achieving program goals. That meant it was exactly the type of system I had been working on for my entire systems career.
I found I couldn’t read these messages without getting a little jealous of the guy who signed them as the systems lead. How, I wondered, did Mark Landry land a job like that? I felt very fortunate to have gotten a great position in the Global AIDS program at USAID. But I kept thinking about how much more I could do if I were in my native systems domain.
Shortly before the end of my tour in Tanzania, my good friend and split-time boss, Tracy Carson, called. She said she remembered me mentioning that I had a systems development background. She said that management was losing confidence in the systems team they had in place. They wondered if I was interested in helping them define a way forward.
I immediately accepted her offer. Then I outlined what I thought needed to be done. A few weeks later they asked me if I’d be interested in doing the work. I could hardly contain my enthusiasm.
I thought we needed a system with all the attributes proposed for the new global COPRS2. Our local system needed more granularity, down to the specific health facility. But other than that, the requirements were basically the same. My schedule had me going back to Washington for my current work, so I built in a meeting with the COPRS team as well. Mark, the team lead, was amenable to the idea of building these systems in concert. He took it a step further and made his systems development contract available to us.
When I got back to Tanzania, I thought long and hard about how to present my findings to management. I wanted them to understand my purposed approach and the value of the opportunity we had to align our work. I also wanted to do the work myself. The problem was that my term with USAID/Tanzania was running out and I was planning to return to Washington.
A couple days before the meeting in which I planned to make my pitch, I got the distinct impression that I was somehow destined to do this work. Two days later, senior management agreed to my proposal. They supported my leading the effort from back in Washington, DC. Then Mark got me a position as a contract employee on his team. When, a year later, Mark left his post with State Department, he told his boss that he should hire me to lead the global work.
Mark’s boss, Paul Bouey, asked me if I wanted to take a job as a State Department employee. I said yes of course I wanted the job. But I didn’t see how that was possible given the job requirements and competitive rules for awarding government jobs. The next thing I knew the State Department offered me a 5 year political appointment to do the work. It turned out to be the easiest way they had to offer me the job. A few weeks later, I was running the systems portfolio for the Global AIDS program as a State Department employee.
I retired from the State Department two years ago with a handshake from Secretary of State John Kerry. By the time I left in 2015, I had fielded a global program management system called DATIM. The system opened to 12,000 invited users the first day it deployed. It collected program results from more than 77,000 health facilities and other sites in 50 countries around the world. In its first month of operation, PEPFAR recorded 1.3 million unique results.
While I am routinely credited with delivering the system, that is not how I see it. First, there were tons of talented people involved. It never would have happened without each of them. But there is a second factor I think about. Over the five years it took to conceive of and deliver the system, we encountered obstacles at every turn. Yet every obstacle we met with magically vanished. And every time we needed something it wondrously appeared. For example, every time someone opposed this work, a boss stepped in to tell them to get on board. If we needed extra money, the money truck arrived.
I can’t explain how all the necessary pieces fell into place. I can only say that they all did. And there were tons of things that needed to come together to get this system out. But here’s my bottom line (as crazy as it sounds): it feels like deployment of a unified global health management information system had some unseen guiding hand.
Now, when I consider the time I spent trying to be a writer, I remember the Yiddish proverb: Man plans, God laughs. When I think of the compulsion I felt to take on the PEPFAR systems work, I think of Romans 12 6:8. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is…serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach. I am grateful for the grace of systems work.
Now, as I sit at my desk here in Tonga in 2018, I am happy I can say:
My kids, Kate and Luke, are both healthy and well credentialed. They are both working at jobs they love and living on their own. Nancy is the Peace Corps Country Director here – a position she has always hoped for. And I have had the great good fortunate of being married to her for thirty years.
I am still working with PEPFAR and the systems team at State. And I relish my opportunity to write most every evening.
Here’s my bottom line: If you’re one of those who finds they need a Plan B, I hope you find, as I have, it is in addition to Plan A. Because no matter what else I do, I will always continue trying to write a book someone might actually want to read.