In Ethiopia, the Children Call Her ‘Grape’

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Carmit Keddem, deputy director for the Center for Health Logistics at John Snow Inc., a health consultancy, in Jerusalem. Credit Merav Kalik Lerner
Carmit Keddem, deputy director for the Center for Health Logistics at John Snow Inc., a health consultancy, in Jerusalem. Credit Merav Kalik Lerner

New York Tmes
Carmit Keddem

I AM the deputy director of the Center for Health Logistics at John Snow Inc., a public health consulting firm. We work in dozens of countries, and manage logistics for the Agency for International Development’s health supply chain. Basically, that means we work with governments to make sure that health products are available across health care systems in each country.

I like to travel, but I’m a bit of a homebody and like being in Boston. But I do understand that travel enriches the work we do, since you can only develop relationships so far through teleconferencing, email or phone.

When I get to my destination I start working almost immediately, and I have a bad back. I have to get as much rest as I can on the plane, and that can be tough with back pain. Plus, I fly economy, so space is always at a premium. To help relax I stick on a bunch of those self-heating pain-relief pads, earplugs and a sleep mask. Then I bring out this very strange-looking banana-shaped sleep pillow, which gives you the feeling that you’re sleeping on your stomach. Once I get all my gear together, the person next to me on the plane has absolutely no desire to talk to me.

I’m a seasoned traveler and try to make sure I have everything I need to get into a country. I learned my lesson the hard way.

Several years ago I traveled to Nigeria three times in about six months. We’re always required to have an invitation letter from the Ministry of Health. But on my last visit I didn’t have the letter, though I did have my visa. Everyone recognized me at the airport and said hello, so I didn’t think I was going to have a problem. But the immigration agent that I saw said he had to follow protocols.

He did recognize my company’s name, and knew that we provided family planning supplies, like contraceptives and condoms. In fact, in many places that is what we are known for. So he asked me if I had brought him some condoms. I thought he was joking and said I was sorry, but I wasn’t carrying any condoms with me. He actually got a little irritated. All I could think was that no letter and no condoms meant I would have to spend a lot of time at the airport. Fortunately, everything worked out. I have not forgotten my invitation letters since then, but I still don’t carry family planning supplies with me.

I do love meeting people when I’m in other countries. I was in Ethiopia looking at the supply chain for an antibiotic that treats trachoma, an eye infection. I was in a rural village and had to travel an entire day to get there.

I went to the health center in the village and saw that the antibiotic supply was in good shape, and suddenly I noticed there were hundreds of beautiful children outside the clinic. The regional director told me that most of them had probably never seen a Caucasian woman before and they would love to practice their English. Apparently, the last white person who came to the clinic was a man who arrived by parachute about seven years before. That’s a tough act to follow.

The director told me I needed an Ethiopian name. I told him that, according to my mother, Carmit loosely translates to vineyard in Hebrew, so he called me “woinshet.” The children thought it was the funniest thing in the world, and they couldn’t stop laughing. “Woinshet,” I was told, means grape. I laughed too, and sharing that laughter with those children made any travel hassles worthwhile.

As told to Joan Raymond. Email: [email protected]

Q. How often do you travel for business?

A. About twice a month; international trips can sometimes last a few weeks.

Q. What’s your least favorite airport?

A. I have three: JFK, Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai and Addis Ababa Bole International Airport in Ethiopia. Tough navigation and missed connections top my list of miseries at all three.

Q. Of all the places you’ve been, what’s the best?

A. Zimbabwe. Despite hardships, the people are incredible and I think it’s the most beautiful of the African countries.

Q. What’s your secret airport vice?

A version of this article appears in print on April 8, 2014, on page B6 of the New York edition with the headline: In Ethiopia, the Children Call Her ‘Grape’. Order Reprints|Today’s Paper|

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