Sunday, January 4, 2009

My week: Keith Mackiggan of DfID - Times Online

Rebuilding Basra with a dollop of help from Ben & Jerry


Every day is a work day in Basra - there’s no weekend. We live at the air base, which is about six miles across the dusty desert from the city, so helicopters are the easiest way to get around. It is my favourite part of life out here: you are skidding 100ft above the ground, swooping over the electricity pylons - it’s exhilarating. Commuting to work will never quite be the same again.

I’ve been living here since September as head of the Department for International Development’s reconstruction team for Basra, in southern Iraq. I spent the beginning of the week visiting some of our projects with my interpreter. He is from Sudan and fled his country about 20 years ago, settling with his family in Manchester. He’s a hero doing fantastic work and we couldn’t really do anything without him.

We touched down at a couple of primary schools for which we’d built eight new classrooms. Before that, there would be up to 100 children in each room; our efforts will cut the class sizes in half.

The children were so cute, dressed in their freshly pressed, gleaming white shirts and chanting their times tables. As we were leaving they shouted out, “Merry Christmas and a happy new year,” in English.


As New Year’s Eve approached, I began to get butterflies in my stomach. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Basra hosted a party with karaoke and I was forced on stage. A few weeks ago I played Widow Twankey in a production of Aladdin put on by the British military base and my colleagues now seem to think that I’ve found my vocation as a singer.

It was a beautiful starlit night: there was a kind of Arabian crescent moon in the sky and it was in this setting that I wowed the audience with my rendition of Madonna’s Material Girl. I wasn’t in costume this time, although the party was fancy dress. There were some great outfits - a Christmas present and a policeman - but my favourite was the consul-general who came as a beach bum, sporting an ironing board as a surfboard. There was some cross-dressing, inevitably.

The military clerk, whose name is Corporal Burley - highly appropriate for a a physical training instructor - uses any excuse to get dressed up in drag. Wednesday was no exception.


There were a few sore heads on New Year’s Day but no time to relax for the Brits on the airbase because it was the day of the handover of Basra international airport. I head a team of about 30 people coordinating efforts to improve infrastructure, train Iraqi officials and attract foreign investment.

The UK has been working with the airport authorities and they are now handling numerous commercial flights each day; indeed, about 5,000 local residents flew to the haj in Saudi Arabia last month. I’m really glad about this because in the past the airport was never used commercially: it was only ever used by Saddam Hussein. To me, that’s democracy in action.


Towards the end of the week I flew up to the marshlands, to one of the villages near the Iranian border. The area is neglected and remote but the scenery is stunning. Basra’s army chief, General Mohammed, was in the area recently and was horrified when the villagers told him that he was the first government official they’d seen in 30 years.

We’ll be working up there to create joint community action centres, which will provide access to basic services such as a school and a clinic for the first time.

I always look forward to Friday because that’s when I sit down to dinner with three of the other senior allied officials in Basra. We take it in turns to host the meal in our canteen and last week it was at the Donkey bar at the US consulate, where they have Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. You have to be careful not to get fat out here - the canteen food is so good.

I’ll be leaving Basra at the end of March and will be sad to go. It’s a weird and wonderful place and I feel lucky to be here. I don’t miss much about the UK - apart, perhaps, from cycling. I have a strict luggage allowance and I don’t think I could smuggle a bicycle into my suitcase.

My next posting begins in the summer in Mozambique, but I’ll need to go out there almost immediately to have some language training - everything is done in Portuguese and I’ll need to get fluent in three months flat.

Keith Mackiggan is the head of the Basra provincial reconstruction team for the Department for International Development

To see the full article click here to see it on the Timesonline

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