African relief worker thrives on crisis


BUJUMBURA, Burundi -- Colleagues at Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services jokingly call him "super action man" for his risk-taking, impatient drive in emergencies such as the refugee crisis resulting from the Rwandan war.

But the nickname doesn't fully describe the thrill that Chris Hennemeyer gets from his job, nor his ability, when the day's work is done, to set aside the overwhelming human suffering he witnesses and relish the good life.

In a single day last month, for example, he spent much of the time organizing food and shelter for 7,000 muddy, exhausted Rwandan refugees in northern Burundi. Returning here at night, he ducked into a hut to dodge gunfire between soldiers and Burundi rebels in a suburban slum. Then, head low, he rocketed his four-wheel-drive into the capital, bullets whizzing about him. A half-hour later, he dug into steak bernaise at a local bistro.

"I do this because I like doing it," says Mr. Hennemeyer, 38. "I'm not a modern-day saint."

Based here for the past eight weeks, his second assignment in Burundi, he has run food distribution for close to a half-million people displaced either from Rwanda or by Burundi's own violent ethnic turmoil while also arranging evacuation of CRS employees and dependents from the Rwandan capital of Kigali.

Now, as the new CRS director for Rwanda, he faces the more dangerous and complex task of getting desperately needed food and medicine to Rwandan civilians amid a raging civil war and an extermination campaign by elements of the military and local militias aimed at minority Tutsis and political enemies.

Mr. Hennemeyer shows none of the sweaty, unshaven dishevelment of some relief workers here. With his well-trimmed hair, immaculately white teeth, clear blue eyes and choir-boy complexion, he looks as if he's just come from a day at poolside. Trudging through soggy Rwandan refugee camps, his only change in appearance is a rakish leather jacket. He's at home in Africa.

A U.S. diplomat's son who grew up in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), Norway, England, Germany and Annapolis, he became hooked on this spectacularly troubled continent during two years spent in the Peace Corps after he graduated from the University of Maryland.

The Peace Corps sent him as a teacher-trainer to a mud-block Ghanaian agricultural training college that turned out to be run more as a business for its corrupt headmaster than as an educational institution.

Mr. Hennemeyer returned from a weekend away from the village to find that the school had been burned to the ground and the headmaster stripped naked, beaten severely and paraded through the streets by angry students. He finished his Peace Corps stint teaching Shakespeare to Ghanaian youngsters preparing for English exams and spending his evenings drinking palm wine.

Back in the States, Mr. Hennemeyer endured humdrum jobs at the U.S. passport office, State Department bureau of consular affairs and Voice of America, all the while figuring out how to get back to Africa.

Catholic Relief Services offered him a job in 1984. The organization, which derives only about one-fourth of its resources from church groups (more than one-half comes in the form of U.S. government food), works closely with local dioceses throughout the world. But it doesn't require its employees to belong to thechurch. Mr. Hennemeyer was raised as a Catholic but no longer practices.

He married a Rwandan, the daughter of refugees who fled here in 1959. The couple, now separated, have a 9-year-old son, Frank Peter.

Mr. Hennemeyer's career in Burundi, Mauritania, Morocco and Senegal offers a partial catalog of the pitfalls and frustrations encountered by development organizations in Africa.

A food distribution and agricultural development program in Mauritania was shut down after two years when CRS pulled out of the country.

In Morocco, he watched the birth and death of a program involving a CRS-developed, locally manufactured threshing machine for small plots of land. A "model factory" to demonstrate that textile manufacturers needn't run sweatshops proved a success, but suffered after the local municipality took it over.

Growing in Baltimore

Mr. Hennemeyer's skills in crisis management emerged, oddly enough, during two years spent at CRS headquarters in Baltimore.

Assigned as "desk officer" responsible for northwest Africa, he was soon thrust into coping with a ferocious civil war in Liberia, the nation founded by freed American slaves. Visiting Liberia three times, he helped supervise a massive nationwide system for food distribution that operated in both government- and rebel-held regions.

The nation, he said, was "a classically spooky place," capped by the sight of "multicolored painted skulls on sticks."

Despite little cooperation and even threats from the various local factions, CRS ended up distributing tens of millions of dollars worth of food to practically half Liberia's population, he says.

In honing skills for providing relief during armed conflicts, CRS adopted procedures that Mr. Hennemeyer believes served it well. One was a prohibition on weapons at CRS premises. Another was a refusal to pay bribes at checkpoints.

The experience prepared him for Rwanda in another respect:

"Liberia taught me never to be surprised by the level of violence people are capable of," he said.

He buries any inclination to take sides, even in the vicious Rwandan conflict, when deciding which civilians should receive aid.

"We have neither the ability nor the means to be moral arbiters. But we have no difficulty determining an individual's need," he says.

The humanitarian disasters he's witnessed have given Mr. Hennemeyer a closeup and somewhat jaundiced view of how various organizations operate. The ones that do best,he says, are those with a narrow mission: distribution, in the case of CRS; emergency medicine, in the case of Doctors Without Borders.

He has little good to say about United Nations agencies except for their ability to mobilize huge quantities of goods, people and equipment.

Lessons he draws from dubious achievements in the development field are practical: Wherever possible, target women. "Women are harder working and more honest," he says.

Curbs for corruption

Local corruption, he says, can be curbed by paying staff members well and offering them the chance of advancement.

Once the immediate Rwandan crisis is past and CRS' office in Kigali is restored, he hopes to draw on the organization's success in Senegal, providing credit through a network of village banks to expand agriculture beyond subsistence. He hopes to develop new sources of income beyond basic farming.

The job will be tough, he says, because Rwanda's political class and social networks have been shattered.

Not given to philosophizing, Mr. Hennemeyer scoffs at a middle-aged colleague's complaint that he felt "personally betrayed" by the destruction of a decade of development efforts in Rwanda.

But he acknowledges, "Development is a young man's game. Relief is, too."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad