International Landings

0104 - International Landings

The long way home is the last of many...

Malcolm:

Adam, by way of introductions -- we’re finally getting a hold of you to confirm the rumors... you've returned to the US?


Adam:

In 1975 when I walked out of Westminster I figured I'd have a pretty straightforward career trajectory as an academic scientist -- college, grad school, postdoc, faculty. There were a few detours along the way...


Malcolm:

I’m just going to kick back and let you tell this story!


Adam:

Okay then... from the beginning...


SCHOOL


Seriously, Westminster was varied, and it was pretty helpful for getting into Yale. At Westminster I think the highlights were doing the Bi-line (learning to write was a key thing) and working backstage on various productions. On good advice, I also self-studied for AP American History, and got a 5—a real self-confidence lesson. Altogether, it made for an easier time imagining different things to do next.


Like going to Yale, and in 1978, finding ourselves suddenly in a world that had email! It immediately shrank the size of the world; it seemed like there was a way that you could reach almost anyone.

By 1980, I was on a National Geographic expedition to northeastern Indonesia. I became deeply engaged with the country, so much that I later studied Indonesian at a college in Java.


1982 through ’84 was being at the University of Georgia (UGA) for a Masters degree. Then on to Cornell for a Ph.D. in 1990. From there things got pretty high speed - an intensive Japanese language program prior to postdoc work in Japan from 1990-92, then joining the UGA research faculty 1992-1994, where I knew other Wildcats, including Jean Martin and Jane Howell.


That was another flavor of the “small world” experience, but life was also getting spread out in other ways. My wife Diana was in DC while I was at UGA. Times were good, but in real time daily, it’s a long distance between those two points. I ended up with a parallel offer from Hopkins which would involve 3 hours of daily commute time. But Diana said she wanted to go back to Africa, so I resigned from UGA, and we moved to Tanzania.


Over time, I did 37 years of international service starting as a scientist on forestry in Indonesia through funded Ph.D. research funded by the USAID (Agency for International Development). In the US government’s three-legged strategy of diplomacy, development, and defense, Embassy has the statutory authority, but USAID has the money.


Diana eventually was abroad for 50 years, me for 37. There were some stretches where we couldn’t see each other, because we lived on entirely different continents.


WORLD TOUR


It was in Jakarta in 1987 that I met my wife Diana. I was in Indonesia conducting research for my Cornell Ph.D. in tropical forest biology. Next, we resided in Tunisia, me for about 1.5 years of her 3-year assignment. I picked up a job with the Desert Locust Task Force.


From Tunisia, I went to Japan... Kyoto. I met chimpanzee ecologist Michael Huffman there, and 2 years later, we met again in a field site in Tanzania.


Tanzania was a very intense part of the ride, but more on that in a bit. I arrived in Nairobi, Kenya in 2002 and was there until 2005. During that time, July 2003, there was a horrifying plane crash involving several Westminster families—a charter by a prominent physician, George Brumley, to carry families from South Africa to Kenya. Somehow, the plane or pilot became disoriented to conditions and slammed into Mount Kenya, killing all aboard. Partly due to our connection being Westminster, I wound up delivering the eulogy in Nairobi.


In 2005, my service took me to Jordan, followed by Army War College in 2007-2008. Diana became the first Foreign Service Officer from her Agency to attend.


Next, but not last, Stuttgart, Germany for 3 years – in the US Africa Command with three other Westminster alums, plus learning German. I eventually ended up in Special Ops as an Intel guy; my years of experience on the ground in Africa counting for something.


We departed Stuttgart in 2011 for Diana's next assignment in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.


TANZANIA


Flash back to 1994 Tanzania. With a 6-week-old daughter we lived in converted staff quarters in a house that also had a darkroom. We got a nanny, Sophia, who was then with us for 8 years. All these years later, Sophia is still like a family member. She remains in Tanzania; Diana just helped her to build a house there.


But at that time, currency controls had ended. We were helped by expats who had been there for decades. There were mostly individual vendors for whatever you needed, no comprehensive supermarkets or anything. We had to really ferret out supplies. Under those conditions, game hunting supplied us with meat; and we fished. Diana, who grew up in Africa, inherited her father’s Africa rifle.


Africa had Greeks and the British from the 1940s who came and established businesses in sisal and salt, also in tourism and hunting. In 1996, I brought the internet to Tanzania with a startup that I founded in 1995. The total national bandwidth was 38.4k; we paid thousands of dollars a month for 9.6kbps for an email only service! Netscape was the first browser to be used there. I sold the company in 2002 to the Tanzania branch of a multinational cellular investment company where I then worked for a while.


One time because of a dispute with the Tanzania government I was in a situation that resulted in losing a lot of money. Dealing with it also involved avoiding the police… but I handled the situation behind the scenes quietly and later was shown appreciation by the Ministry of Communications when they invited me to join the official Tanzania delegation to an International Telecommunications Union event! It was quite an honor for them to ask me, an American, to join the official delegation. That was a lot of excitement, with an outcome that was not bad.


But in 1998, we went through the infamous Tanzania Embassy bombing! Prior to 9/11 and Iraq, it now seems almost quaint. But the shock of it at the time can’t be minimized.


East African Embassy Bombings - FBI

On August 7, 1998, nearly simultaneous bombs blew up in front of the American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.


I was a first responder after the bombing and went to the hospital to locate wounded Americans; I helped get the one seriously wounded American citizen medevacked to London for emergency eye surgery.


Later, the Embassy asked me to assist the FBI with their investigation. I was surprised to receive a letter of commendation and cash award for my assistance when done.


There’s not a day in my life when I don’t recall the bombing.


AFRICA


But there is so much that is memorable. Tanzania wildlife is what made it unique.


With all of the possible diversions in Tanzania, we chose to focus on games parks. At that point, starting in 1994, we were lucky to have access to them. With little tourist infrastructure, our favorite park got only 800 visitors a year and you could camp on your own by a river. Every three to four weeks, we had a 12-hour drive in the Land Rover to camping in National parks. Giraffes loping across the road at sunset… hippos in our bush camp.


One time, in 2013, in our favorite part, while we were making a roadside pit stop in a really dry area, a lion went after Diana and she just made it back to the Land Rover, which took a good whack from the lion in anger/frustration.



Now, there are 24,000 visitors a year and no camping. We believed in 1995 that wildlife would be under threat, and in the intervening 25 years, two-thirds of Tanzania’s elephants have now been slaughtered.


America has fundamental issues that Americans themselves don’t understand. But also, Americans don’t understand how good they have it.


You can come home and shower with your mouth open. The electricity usually works. You complain about elevators being too slow.


Africa? Things are so fragile on the continent today that it’s really hard to develop any long-term framework for success. Things that are missing, broken, or violent are common. There’s food insecurity, along with drought and the intimidation of Russia. Toilets, and infrastructure – where? Ebola… And the unpredictability of the politics, and the pandemic.


We were safe enough but also involved. If those problems weren’t already enough, there was also the matter of unexpected wars…


The Lord's Resistance Army, is a Christian extremist and a terrorist organization which operates in northern Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was founded in 1987 by Joseph Kony during the Ugandan civil war. -- Wikipedia


In DRC [The Democratic Republic of the Congo] I was part of the mission to find, and eliminate, Joseph Kony, which involved field work in remote areas of eastern DRC.


TODAY


We’re ready to settle into the last quarter of our lives with a different orientation.


After five super years in a tough and exciting place, we left Democratic Republic of Congo, departing in summer of 2016 for our posting in Timor-Leste. We left our 18-year-old daughter Clarissa behind, where she interned with the Prime Minister’s office there. In 2016, we felt that she was safer in Kinshasa than in Manhattan! Now she’s a theater professional, employed as a stage carpenter at the Geva Theater in Rochester.


Overseas was difficult. And at the end, Timor-Leste, where we resided from 2016-2019, we were living in one of the poorest places on the planet.


But it was a GOOD life. There was a lot of art in the challenges of getting stuff done. Here I just whip out my AMEX and the problem is solved.


But that's not important. Staying in the same place now, in USA, means family and friendships, and time spent with them doing things differently than they could be done before. Being reachable and nearby.


I invest in private equity, startups, primarily in space — satellite technology, remote sensing, precision navigation and timing. It’s not unusual territory in the West. But I got connected with the startup community as a result of running a forest analytics startup.



And, I currently possess two airplanes that I fly. Pre-pandemic, there was a lot of scuba – although, technical diving that is different from recreational diving because of the planning, the mix of breathing gases, and other things. But resuming recreational diving is coming up! We can fly to dive sites in the Great Lakes in less than two hours...



Adam Messer

(West ‘75)

Contributor


Malcolm Ryder

(West ‘72)

Contributor