Saturday, December 18, 2010

Where I work

Hi all! My camera stopped working back in July, while I was still in Sudan. However, I've managed to capture a few images from the past couple of months on borrowed cameras. I hereby present said images, to give you a sense of where it is I work. Click on the links below for more pictures.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Encounters with wildlife, Kivu Farming 101 and keeping the faith

The first one is easy; the wildlife has gone away. I'm sure there was a time when the mountains around Lake Kivu were covered with dense tropical forest, but no one here remembers it. Every vestige of the original plant community, and thus potential habitat for wild animals, has been wiped out to make room for crops - cassava, taro, corn, potatoes, beans, bananas, coffee, and the occasional eucalyptus grove - and often on near vertical slopes near the summits of roadless mountains that must take hours to reach.

Native forests remain in some parts of eastern Congo; relatively cheap gorilla viewing is even possible to the northeast of Goma (cheaper than in Rwanda on account of the security risks and treacherous roads on this side of the border, I suppose). But densely populated communities dominate the western shores of Lake Kivu, and a few colorful songbirds, some supersized millipides and the fish on my dinner plate are about all of the wildlife I've seen.

Which brings me to the second topic of the day: Agriculture in the Kivus, or at least the aspects brought up by the esteemed inquisitor Mike Brondi.

Regarding GMOs: I am far from an expert, but from what I have heard, there is a wilt-resistant variety of bananas under development, and it is genetically modified, but it has not yet been approved for distribution. So for the moment, the bananas that Kivu farmers grow, and that our program's beneficiaries propagate, as far as I know, are the descendants of bananas planted during the colonial period and come from unmodified stock. Our organisation does not have an official policy regarding GMOs, since nothing is proven regarding the risk that they pose for humans, but I definitely share the concerns about how corporate interests stand to exploit them for profit at the expense of everyone and everything else.

In terms of what is grown here, again, there is very little "nature" left. Most of the principal crops originated elsewhere - cassava, peanuts, corn and potatoes from the Americas, bananas and taro from Asia. I guess that's true most places, but here what I find shocking is the absolute lack of balance between human needs and the needs of the natural world. There's very little pollution, persay, since the area is so undeveloped, but no one works to protect native species, as far as I have seen. Also, for all of the mountainside cultivation that takes place, there's very little effort to control erosion. The rivers run brown here. But when I point it out, people say, "Oh, that's just the natural color of the water."

Which brings me to my final topic of the day, staying sane in an insane world. As innovative as my project is, there's no guarantee that it will actually change anyone's life for the better. On the days I spend in the field, I encounter many more complaints and pleas for further assistance than I do expressions of gratitude or satisfaction. Personally, I often feel that I have ceded my life (my relationships and the physical activity and independence that I value so much) for a year in order to be here. And yet I am content, for the moment. First, this job is an enormous challenge, and thus an opportunity for growth through perseverance. Then, there is the hope that something I help put into place will in fact have a lasting positive effect, on the food security team members if not for our project benenficiaries in the villages. Finally, there is the continual allure of all that I do not understand - the language, the history, the day-to-day existence, the hidden mountain villages - and these mysteries reveal themselves more and more the longer I stay. I do not consider myself religious at all, but it is perhaps through this search for belonging, for connection, amid the unfamiliar, that I express my faith.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Food. And goats.

It's hard to understand how malnutrition exists in eastern Congo. Food grows easily here, given the two rainy seasons each year, the fertile volcanic soil and the tropical climate. Although I personally haven't planted anything yet, I hear that you can grow a cabbage from a seed in two months. And practically all the land within view is cultivated, from the few flat parcels of land along the lakeshore to the near-vertical slopes of the foothills and mountains to the west.

But exist it does, or else my organization would not be here. The malnutrition rate is low compared to that in southern Sudan, around 5 % versus a staggering 20+%. But 5% is still significant. I'm not an expert, but I'd attribute malnutrition here to the frequent displacement of the population because of ongoing militia activity and conflict, which obviously disrupts agricultural activities, inefficient agricultural practices, such as broadcast seeding, and ignorance regarding nutrition in general and the importance of a balanced diet. In addition, there's very little investment in ecological agricultural practices such as terracing of slopes, which will no doubt have serious negative consequences on the food security of the population over the long term.

I, on the other hand, eat very well here. Normally I eschew dietary supplements, but given my rice, beans and bread diet in Sudan, there I indulged in a multivitamin each morning. But after a week in Congo, I put the supplements aside. Even in the relatively small village where I am based, food is abundant and varied. Despite the spread of bacterial wilt that is the focus of my program, the region still produces plenty of bananas. The price has gone up with the growth of the disease; the giant cluster of bananas produced by one shoot, which can weigh over 100 pounds, now costs around 3$ in the local market, as opposed to 1$ before the disease hit, but at least by expat standards it's remarkably cheap. Avocados, mangos, passion fruit, tomatoes and a plentitude of other fruit and vegetables are widely available. The local market sells beans, corn and various tubers, along with meat (turkey, chicken, goat, beef, pork), eggs and small but tasty fish from the gas-filled waters of Lake Kivu (I haven't yet heard of any studies examining the health effects of eating fish from the lake, but would be curious to know more.) For the more processed foodstuffs - tinned meat, powdered milk, jam, coffee, yogurt - Goma, an expat mecca, is only 90 minutes away, and generally someone from the base takes a shopping trip every week or two.

Our cook is a motherly and rotund but not particularly old woman whose dedication to her job is almost embarrassing at times. She arranges our salads artistically on the plate, minds her spices, fills your coffee cup and embellishes it according to your taste (milk? sugar?) and doesn't let you carry your dirty dishes to the kitchen sink if she can help it. She's been known to show up on a Sunday morning to prepare omelettes for the household, though it's ostensibly her day off. Unlike our cooks in Sudan, she's quite interested in learning new recipes and expanding her cooking repertoire. She's repeatedly asked me about how to obtain refugee status in order to be resettled in the States (and work as a cook there). I've tried to explain that it's probably something she'd rather not obtain, that refugee status is for the displaced and war-affected. She's intimated that war has indeed affected her life, and that most of her immediate family is dead, but we haven't pursued that subject further, not yet.

As for goats: They're here, along with cows, poultry and pigs, though this is by no means a herding society, but an agricultural one. Though you run into small herds while passing through the countryside, you rarely see them roaming free. They're normally tied to a tree or stick in the ground, which is advantageous for me, considering that their browsing can contribute to the spread of banana wilt. And goats, at least, are surprisingly pricey. We bought one for a celebration in honor of the first harvest of bananas coming from our macro propagation efforts (started back in 2008) last week, and it ran us a not insignificant 50$.

In brief, I eat well here (though I'm staying away from goats for the moment). The Congolese are quite a different breed from the Dinka, and many villagers are stocky, muscular and even a bit chubby. Given my lack of mobility, and the motherly cook hovering over my shoulder at mealtimes, Í fear I may put on a few pounds myself.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

tennis (or, perhaps more generally, recreational activities available to you and everyone else)

By everyone else, I assume you are referring to all the other expats, since very few Congolese indulge in tennis. What I have done "for fun" since my arrival can probably be counted on one hand, busy as work has kept me. Here goes:

1.) Joined expat crew for poker night at the home of an International Refugee Committee employee in Bukavu. Took a bluff too far and lost 20 bucks.

2.) Went dancing at Bukavu nightclub. Watched with amusement as persistent male prostitute tried to chat up a potbellied French male colleague. Performed a spirited twist to "La Bamba," and otherwise attempted to stay on beat to a stream of Congolese tunes, which is not always an easy task.

3.) Feted a costume-less Halloween at a swanky mansion with a bunch of consultants and entrepreneurs in Goma. Shivered the night away after being tossed into the swimming pool fully clothed. Admired the illuminated palm trees while sipping a cocktail.

4.) Swam in Lake Kivu, during a spontaneous day at "the beach," a small but sufficient and completely undeveloped strip of sand 8 kilometers from my base. Enjoyed a picnic lunch of cheese and beer while hundreds of curious village children looked on. Have since learned that swimming in the lake is against our security rules, so count this recreation option out.

5.) Spent several evenings at various Bukavu establishments: lakeside bars with pool tables, Nepenthe-like eatery on balcony perched above the water, pizzerias. Could not understand anything my French colleagues from the main office (both of whom speakin mile-a-minute slang) were saying, yet refrained from getting roaring drunk.

My field experience has been very limited so far by various commitments in Bukavu and Goma, so I can't say for sure what recreation at the base will be like. Security rules are strict; I'm apparently supposed to bring a radio every time I leave this walled compound, even if just for a 30-minute run. But of course I'm not really here to partake in "recreation," at least not in a traditional western sense. Some of my best moments so far have involved trips to the market and exchanges with my field staff. I get some pleasure from my attempts at yoga, which alleviate my burning desire for physical activity at least somewhat, and am looking forward hugely to actual trips to remote villages accessible only on foot, which should begin on Monday with my staff.

I cannot speak for traditional Congolese forms of recreation, if that's what you mean. Soccer is big, and that's about all I know. I can speak for my expatriate colleagues at the base, many of whom fill their weekends with booze, lovers and lots and lots of television. And for me, who is not a huge advocate of any of these things, but who could nonetheless use a lot more quality recreation in her current life.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Everything you always wanted to know about CONGO but were afraid to ask

Ok. I admit it. I am totally and utterly overwhelmed by this job. It's mostly, I think, because of my boss, who doesn't seem to appreciate the difficulty of trying to discern what is and what is not important during his unending rants that never seem to quite provide the information I am looking for. Today he expressed a desire to improve his English, and so perhaps my new coping strategy will be to speak to him only in English and let HIM sweat it out for a change.

I am trying to find a balance, though, so never fear. Played tennis (!) yesterday, with a lone goat on the other side of the fence, munching some weeds, and more spectators than such a blatantly mediocre match would possibly warrant. Met some very likeable colleagues last week, during a training on project management in Bukavu (hence the tennis; we certainly don't have that in the field), and am so feeling more at home with the organization, if not with my direct supervisor.

What I mean to say is this: I am too distracted by all that there is to do, and more so, by all that I don't realize there is to do, to pen a coherent blog entry at this point. So I need your help.

You are my audience, after all. What would you like to know about Congo, food security, humanitarian work, bananas, expat life, tempermental toilets?

Post a comment and I will respond. Your guidance will help the words to flow.

À bientôt.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Catching Up

My self-confidence is struggling mightily after a couple of very intense days of meetings with my technical supervisor. It may just be his way, but he has not made me feel particularly prepared to assume my place at the helm of this particular project. And yet lead I must, starting yesterday, since my predecessor has submitted his final report, turned his computer and phone over to me and left the country for good. Although I have half a mind to sneak out of the base, disappear into the mountains and never come back, I know that beginnings are always difficult, and that the learning curve this time will be steeper than perhaps any I have yet encountered, ever. I must continue to move forward even as I scramble to catch up. And there is ever so much to learn. In an unabashed attempt to soothe my battered ego, here's a sampling of what I've managed to pick up already:

Lake Kivu: The main feature in my landscape for the next year. Highest point in the entire Great Rift Valley, which transects East Africa, at 4,790 feet above sea level. Unusually deep (around 1,500 feet). One of three known "exploding lakes" in the world (the other two located in Cameroon), which means that its depths contain a large volume of dissolved CO2 and methane, which could theoretically rise to the surface, given the right provocation, and suffocate the two million people, including yours truly, living around its shores. (When the water layers of Cameroon's Lake Nyos overturned in 1986, 1,700 people died.) Apparently Lake Kivu's depth makes it relatively stable; it would take a truly impressive influx of heat or pressure to release the gas, which, impressively, is equivalent in volume to 2% of the carbon emitted on a global basis each year. Rwanda has big plans to tap into the lake's methane reserves, which are already powering a small-scale brewery. On top of everything else, it's a bit ridiculous that the people here have to worry about possible asphyxiation from poisonous gases, don't you think?

Mts. Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira: Two of eight volcanoes in the Virunga Mountain chain, conveniently located within a day's walking distance of Goma on Lake Kivu's north shore. Nyamurgira is the most active volcano in Africa, although it was Nyiragongo that erupted in 2002 and decimated 15% of the city's buildings. Scientists (and alarmists) point to these volcanoes and associated geologic activity as potential triggers for the "rollover" of greenhouse gases mentioned above. You can climb Nyiragongo and peer into its lava lake, by the way, for a cool $200. The more spartan among us can enjoy gawking at its orange glow, reflected in a plume of smoke from the streets of Goma at night.

Bananas and their bacterial friends: If volcanoes don't kill you, banana wilt might. Only, it will be a slow and much more convoluted death. First, the disease will spread into your banana field, perhaps from a contaminated machete, a pollinating insect, a wayward goat's nibbling or from water passing through your field from affected slopes higher up. You may not notice at first, since your plants will continue to grow, and even produce fruit. If you're clued in to the disease's symptoms, you may notice your plant's new leaves turning yellow and then brown, and eventually snapping off the stem completely. Or the male buds may shrivel, or you may cut open an outwardly normal looking fruit only to find it blackened and inedible. You cannot sell these diseased fruit in the market, of course. (Not even the birds will eat them.) Nor can you brew beer from them. And because they represented a significant part of your diet (many bananas, plantains included, are an important staple food here, and delicious when fried), your family is now in trouble, with a significant part of your diet gone, little income with which to buy seeds for alternative crops, and scarce physical energy with which to cut down, uproot and burn your diseased banana plants. Although the bacteria will die within six months outside of a banana-based host, you aren't aware of this, and in any case there are many factors (marauding livestock, governmental corruption and apathy, lack of appropriate tools) beyond your immediate control that would make it near-impossible to to rehabilitate your fields, even if you were.

House kittens: A welcome antidote to all that hovering death. They attack mutant night insects, so that you don't have to. Should be supervised closely in the proximity of mosquito nets. You don't have to pick the bones out of their meals, though you should not be peeved if later that day they puke up a bony residue underneath your bed. Kittens don't care if you don't specify the width of the planks you're requesting, or if you muddle the future subjunctive tense.

There goes a mutant night insect now.

I feel better already.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Banana wilt, purchase orders, and other unknowns

Today marks the end of my first week in the Congo, and my final day in Bukavu, at least for some time. Tomorrow I'll traverse the length of Lake Kivu by boat all the way to Goma, and on Monday will head to my base, at the northwestern corner of the lake, where I'll stay for the better part of the next 12 months.
Despite the beauty of this city, I am more than ready to leave. Expat life here is incredibly closed in, at least for those of us who follow the security restrictions. The bulk of the city is off limits entirely, and even neighborhoods that are considered safe must be accessed by vehicle. We are shipped from one walled compound to another, without any real sense of life outside. For this reason I have tried to connect with the guards, cooks, gardeners and laundresses, who offer a window at least into the local reality. Most are quite friendly, if uncomfortably (to me)deferential, although a few appear disinterested, as if the worlds of locals and expats are too distant to be bridged.
My newfound claustrophobia has me pining for Sudan, ironically. But I expect that the restrictions on movement will soften with my impending move to the more rurally-located base. "In the village, you will be free, " said my supervisor yesterday, when I expressed my frustration at the cloistered existence here.
In any case, I've been too preoccupied with the tasks before me to dwell much on such concerns. At a glance, the organization's operations seem much better organized here than in Sudan, with better trained and more knowledgeable staff and at least semi-functional partnerships with other agricultural associations. Nonetheless, "program managing" is pretty new to me, despite my brief exposure to it over the past three months, and this week I was asked to prepare my first purchase orders as well as planning documents for the entire time I'll be here, in French, with my admittedly limited understanding of the normal protocol or of my project (banana wilt control). I have never picked a banana from the plant, and I had to look up the names of most of the pieces of the macro-propagators that we will be constructing in the dictionary. Apparently during all those years of schooling and living abroad I never had the need to say hinge, or drainpipe, or even sawdust. And African accents add to the difficulty. It took me a month or so to develop an ear for the English spoken in the Sudan, and will probably take a bit longer to puzzle out the Congolese French.
I am acutely aware of my shortcomings, and it is probably true that this assignment represents more responsibility than I've ever had at one time. (With all of my wandering in the past decade plus, my professional commitments have been quite manageable, and there has often been someone else to assign my next task--Weed the sorghum field, Set up a meeting for these people, Design this brochure, Teach these grammar points, Repair this section of trail.) Even in less challenging circumstances, it always takes me a while to adjust to a new situation, let alone thrive in one.
But I am resolved to stick this one out.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


This place could not be any more different from the Sudan. Instead of a tent, I sleep in a comfortably furnished room in a house. I sleep under a blanket at night, rather than a sheet, or nothing at all. There is fresh fruit on the table at breakfast--passion fruit, miniature bananas, pineapple, green oranges. My skills thus far seem superfluous, and I wonder very often if I am really needed here. My French is rusty, and this adds to my doubt. But thus far everyone has been extremely courteous, even when I have to ask for a translation of the word for "gravel,"or "wheelbarrow,"or "internal order form."

I am in Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu, this week, getting "briefed"on the considerably complex security situation here, on my organization's activities in eastern Congo, on human resources procedures--how to hire and fire employees, how many days of vacation I get (8 days evey 3 months), on where I am allowed to walk in the city unaccompanied (nowhere). My program assistant has joined me in the city to help bring me up to speed on the banana wilt eradication project and help me develop a work and procurement plan for the coming year.

This week, Bukavu; next week, Goma, and finally, the field.

I am a smidge overwhelmed. I feel safe, and welcomed, and excited. I am just a bit intimidated by the responsibilities that I must assume in the near future, the nature of which I do not yet understand entirely, in a context that I cannot claim to understand at all.

So if my blogging slows down for a spell, that's why. I'll do my best to check in regularly, even if the entries are brief.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Sorry to have disappeared for the past little while. The evaluation I came to Sudan to complete was due yesterday, and during the past two weeks, it morphed into a much bigger undertaking that I had anticipated, for various reasons. It is more or less complete now, subject to the final revisions of my supervisor in the US. I left the field this morning and am in Juba now, in limbo, left to marvel at the wonders of asphalt, porcelain toilets, full-length mirrors and vegetable stands and mourn the absence of herds of cattle blithely blocking the roadway, of tiny tarpaulin and grass-thatched villages, surrounded by walls of sorhgum, whose names I have come to know, of familiar faces I have come to love. Tomorrow I go to Mombasa, a vacation city on the Indian Ocean, to relax, process the last three months, and prepare mentally and physically for Congo. There are still plenty of logistical details to sort out, so I'll go now, but I'll leave you with the (draft) conclusion of the report I wrote, which should give you a sense of the purpose of my work in southern Sudan.

___'s cash grant-supported IGA project was a pilot project, an attempt to see whether a long-suffering region in the early phases of post-war recovery and redevelopment could support successful small businesses, with some technical and financial support from ____. Human capacity and physical and economic infrastructure are extremely limited in Warrap State. Most project participants lacked formal education or extensive business experience, and all were considered at risk of malnourishment.

This evaluation has shown that many participants in this project were able to not only maintain their businesses over the duration of the programme, but to dramatically improve their livelihoods as well. Gains in income and nutritional status measured during the final follow-up survey, which occurred 20 months after the first cash grant transfer, were substantial. ____'s intervention in the businesses has been extremely minimal since mid-2009, and thus the surviving businesses’ continuing profitability speaks more convincingly about the project’s long-term sustainability than this report can hope to.

As with every pilot project, there is plenty of room for improvement. While many of the original IGA groups persist, many more have disbanded, for a variety of reasons. This report has thoroughly assessed all aspects of the programme’s conception, implementation and follow-through and documented many of the lessons learned, which, if heeded, should ensure more widespread success among beneficiaries of similar projects in the future.

Some organisations or donors may express scepticism that business development projects are appropriate in contexts like Southern Sudan’s, where severe malnutrition is endemic and environmental and political instability is the rule rather than the exception. Certainly, true emergency situations warrant different interventions, focused on immediate needs, such as food distributions. However, in contexts where the potential for recovery and growth exists, IGA projects offer humanitarian organisations a means of fostering that growth.

Five years after the signing of the CPA, Southern Sudan is slowly rebuilding. Its markets, institutions and other infrastructure are developing bit by bit. While the participants in this project are clearly better off in terms of food security and livelihoods now than they were at the time it was launched, some of that change may be linked to the broader changes occurring throughout the region. It is impossible to know how the same people would have fared if they had never received cash grants from ____.

Nonetheless, this report finds that carefully conceived and executed IGA projects have much to offer the vulnerable residents of Warrap State and other regions recovering from extended conflict. Cash grants provide the financial and motivational boost that can kick start small-scale development in places where resources and opportunities are historically scarce. In addition to promoting crucial improvements in beneficiaries’ food security and livelihoods, small business development projects foster the morale, dignity and self-respect necessary for self-determination and self-reliance, the “golden eggs” of the humanitarian world.

Sunday, September 5, 2010


This morning, my friend Jackie the cook tied a string of beads around my waist and tucked them underneath my shirt. They are the colors of the Pan Bol clan, she explained (or so I interpreted; she and I share a common vocabulary of about 100 words), and since you are Pan Bol too, you should have them.

I "joined the clan" about a month ago, when I started introducing myself with a Dinka name: Abuk Chol Deng. It makes greeting people much more enjoyable, and a familiar name is much easier for others to remember than my foreign western one. Names here are imbued with meaning, indicating your place in the family lineage as well as something more personal, such as the color of the ceremonial bull present at your birth.

Of course, my father's name isn't Chol, nor my grandfather's Deng, but I'm happy for the beads just the same. In the past 10 weeks I've begun to feel very close to some of the staff here, and it's touching to know that the affection is reciprocal.

At the same time, there are frequent reminders, some constant, some more jarring, of how little I really understand about this place. Like when we witnessed, while pausing in the market on our way back from the field, a 12 year-old thief being dragged off to the local police station by four grown men, screaming in terror. He will likely be beaten. 50 lashes should teach him a lesson, and dissuade others from stealing, according to my colleagues.

There's certainly a problem with miscreant youth in the Wunrok market. Dressed in tattered rags, they affix themselves to anyone who looks like he might have money with an impressive persistence. Apparently, most are not "street kids" in the usual sense, since their parents are usually nearby. So the hiding is as much a punishment for the parents as it is for the child in question.

Stealing should not go unpunished, I agree, but I can't stomach the beating of children. Yes, the "prison" here is an outdoor bench to which prisoners are chained, exposed to the whims of passersby and the beating sun. No, there are no social programs here offering alternatives to begging and other mischief for uneducated kids. Maybe physical punishment is the most effective way to manage crime in the circumstances. But it's still a shock, and one that leaves me feeling quite bewildered by the place where I now find myself.

There are more such stories. I hear them in bits and pieces, never quite understanding the whole picture. Each is a glimpse into a dark, hard and wild land that my ordered American mind cannot really imagine. Remember our deaf cook, who when we last visited her was recovering from a miscarriage? Her sister was murdered and dumped into a river a few weeks ago, by a group of girls who invited her out into the bush to collect firewood.

I just discovered that one of our guards, whose name I have finally learned and who when I last saw him was cheerfully preserving a cowhide, is a known pedophile who was imprisoned last year for impregnating a young girl, something he had apparently done six times before. Although our organization will not be renewing his contract, thankfully, he will remain at large in the local community. He has made amends with the families of the girls by paying them off with a few cows.

I was in Africa once before, in a small village in southeastern Burkina Faso. I was chatting with two French women with much more experience in the country than I had. I was four months into my stay, and I remember remarking that I felt like I was starting to figure things out. Their reaction was severe. No, they said, you do not understand anything about this place.

I would like to think that I understand some things, that the connections I feel are real, that reaching out consistently has not left me empty handed. Yet as much as I would like to join the Pan Bol, my father is not Chol, and I don't yet have a grandfather named Deng.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Taking Care of Business(es)

My camera is still down, but one of my co-workers snapped a few shots yesterday while we were conducting surveys with current and past small business owners. The survey asks about household income and expenditures and nutritional status, which means we get to measure the mid-upper arm circumference (MUAC) of all children under 5 we can find. Yesterday's children were relatively calm; some of them shriek like crazy, as if we were coming at them with machetes rather than string and measuring tape.

We're asking for a lot of data in these surveys, and we have to complete a lot of them. So that our interviewers and interviewees both don't get totally bored, we've tried to keep things as engaging and interesting as possible, using pictures (especially useful for the illiterate majority of our respondents) and interactive evaluation tools.

For more photos, click here.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sudanese Funk

It's Sunday, and I feel obliged to write something, though the words are slow to come. I have felt strangely withdrawn these past few days. My energy remains; yesterday I coached 30-odd local staff members through their first wheelbarrow race and several more "team-building" activities, culminating in a cross-dressing relay race. But what I'd really like is for someone from on high to sit me down, commend me for my efforts up to this point, and articulate exactly what it is I'm supposed to be doing, and how to do it.

I am on track. By the looks of things thus far, the evaluation I mentioned last time will get done in time for me to move on to Congo. This despite the fact that on Monday morning on of our key program staff turned up distraught because his wife had "run away" from their village after a fight with her mother-in-law, and he needed the week off to search for her and smooth out the situation. With the help of the remaining staff members, we nonetheless had completed 24 of the 30 needed surveys by the end of the week, and I am now back in Twic to kick off the project here.

I don't know where my current mental malaise stems from. Maybe it's just one of those periodic things that kicks in. There is little direct feedback here. The expats are, like me, in foreign territory, and though the challenge of the lifestyle here, along with the exotic quality of this place, are doubtlessly part of the draw for all of us, they can also be draining, when week piles upon week. The expats perform their work and escape into their own worlds, televised, virtual, and occasionally social, when they do not have to. But they rarely step back and discuss the organization's broader purpose, methodology, effectiveness, with their colleagues--what are we doing, how could we improve, what would we as individuals like to know in order to do our jobs better?

In general, most of the locals are not in charge. Though of course they have the right to speak up, they rarely do, except when money is involved, e.g., because they have noticed a discrepancy in their paycheck. If the rest have thoughts about the effectiveness of our programs or the tactics of their line managers, they keep quiet. And yet this is the kind of insight I would love to hear, now and then, just to remind me why I'm here and what I should be doing.

This is a fleeting funk, I'm sure. There's no reason I can't finish my work on time, and will no doubt feel reinvigorated after a week of r&r and a journey to a completely new place, with a whole new host of characters and tasks to keep me busy. And I am in no way unhappy, even now, just a bit lethargic.

Maybe it's the moral conundrums. Should this NGO be here at all? And despite our academic and professional qualifications, are my fellow expats actually able to make effective decisions in this environment, even though we all, I believe, genuinely want to help?

I suppose we must simply trust our inner instincts, bear with these periodic doubts, and take solace in the good things we have achieved, the rows of shoulder-high tomato plants, nearly ready to pick, the teacher stopping by on a Sunday with a list of 50 students interested in his school's new vegetable gardening club, the 30 cheering men screaming frantically for their teammates, clad in sarongs and women's headscarves, to be the first to cross the finish line.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


An uncomfortably humid night in the tent, listening to the distant rumbling of thunder and hoping for rain.

This week has brought clarity on several fronts. First of all, I discovered that the rumors are true: Scorpions exist, and their stings are intense.

I had gotten into the habit of turning my shoes upside down and shaking them before daring to put my feet inside. After a couple of months of this turned up nothing, however, I guess I had become noncommittal, and my shakes lazy. After the obligatory lackluster shake this Thursday, I thrust my left foot into my shoe before experiencing, milliseconds later, a sharp stab of pain, followed by a second.

My first reaction was actually laughter; this was one of those nightmarish scenarios I've feared every single morning since arriving in Sudan, and now it was really happening. Then I wrenched off the shoe and turned it over, and out popped this:

Or something that looked a lot like it, at least. (My camera is still out of commission.) I was stunned, and so was the scorpion, apparently. We both stood frozen and considered each other. Then I smashed it with my shoe. It seemed like a reasonable thing to do at the time.

The pain was pretty mild for the first couple of minutes, like a bad bee sting, but then a burning sensation began creeping up my leg, to my shin, then my thigh, and soon my lower back. My lips and face started tingling, and my arms felt bizarrely weak.

By this point I had alerted my coworkers, who, alarmed, had gathered round and were considering various courses of action. Some Dinka staff smeared rubber cement on my toe, and a Kenyan woman prepared to make an incision with a surgical blade so that a blackstone (a local remedy for snakebites) could be inserted into the wound to draw out the poison. My American friend stopped her, fearing infection, and I was hauled off to the nearest Doctors Without Borders clinic and promptly sedated with a vial full of morphine.

There are over 1,000 species of scorpion on the planet, and only maybe two dozen of them are potentially lethal to humans. The rest just hurt like hell. The sting's effects were painful and uncomfortable, and I was happy for the morphine, but the experience was more frightening than anything else. Frightening because of such a prehistoric-looking, mythological creature, the first scorpion I've encountered in Sudan, emerging from my shoe, frightening because of the threat of infection from hastily-administered folk remedies, and because of the bizarre burning and numbness radiating from my leg into my face and arms. My scorpion was one of the "good" ones. I know because we brought him to the clinic with us, in a coffee cup, just in case.

This week, I also found out where I may be going next. It's a place called Minova, in eastern Congo, on the border between North and South Kivu provinces. If you google "Minova," you get alternately spectacular

and disturbing

images. Eastern Congo has felt the brunt of the deadliest conflict anywhere since World War II, and the UN has called the region the worst place in the world to be a woman. It also boasts incredibly fertile soil and is known as the "fruit basket" of Africa, producing a huge quantity of bananas, among other crops, for export to neighboring countries. It has gorillas and mountains and militias and minerals. I am both excited and terrified to go, and I am placing a great deal of trust in my organization to keep me out of the thick of the danger.

My position there, which would focus on various efforts to help combat banana wilt, an exotic fungal disease that is devastating local farmers, is not yet definite. Funding from the donor must come through, and I must finish my work here in Sudan promptly enough to be available by late September.

Hence my third major point of clarity for the week: I have one month to go, and I have barely started the project I was supposed to accomplish here, an evaluation of a small business development pilot project that my organization launched in late 2008. This is not exactly my fault; I have been helping with more pressing activities (such as distributing vegetable seeds while the rainy season lasts) and filling in for those out of the country, on leave.

But now I must begin my project in earnest. This weekend I barely rested, spending my time instead preparing for the 55 lengthy surveys that still need to be completed within the next two weeks, provided I can adequately train our staff and instill the sense of urgency that I feel in them. And provided I can master SPSS (the statistical analysis software that I should have made more of an effort to understand in school, I now realize) adequately enough to make sense of the resulting data. And provided that the rains are merciful and don't wash out any essential roadways, and that no one (myself included) comes down with malaria at a crucial moment, and that our vehicles remain operational, and that the scorpions and I manage to maintain a respectful distance.

Monday, August 16, 2010


"You are a funny animal," he said at last. "You are no thicker than a finger . . ."

"But I am more powerful than the finger of a king," said the snake.

The little prince smiled.

"You are not very powerful. You haven't even any feet. You cannot even travel . . ."

"I can carry you farther than any ship could take you," said the snake.

He twined himself around the little prince's ankle, like a golden bracelet.

"Whomever I touch, I send back to the earth from whence he came," the snake spoke again. "But you are innocent and true, and you come from a star . . ."

- Antoine de Saint-Exupery

The insect population on the compound fluctuates from one evening to the next. After a heavy rainstorm two nights ago, the mosquitoes are attacking in full force. I am practicing the art of squishing them between thumb and forefinger as they flutter before me, drawn to the bright white glow of my computer screen.

The shower stalls at night are alive with activity. Insects buzz around the three uncased light bulbs. Some thump against the tin walls, miscalculating, and others plummet to the ground after brushing the heat of the bulbs too closely. In their turn, bats swoop in and out of the darkness, picking up a mouthful every time. Enormous frogs rest on the concrete floor as if at a buffet line, gulping up the morsels strewn around them.

It is the frogs that attract the snakes, I am told, and so I always peer into the showers warily, both dreading and hoping for a glimpse of one of these legendary creatures. I saw my first snake today - a bit of a letdown, actually - a young, bright green thing winding in and out of the tendrils of the viney tree outside our office. Not dangerous, according to the scornful Ugandan contractor who was summoned to kill it. In comparison to what? I wondered, remembering the woman who once told me that a decisive bite from a full-sized green mamba can kill an adult cow in 30 seconds.

Night comes as a reprieve of sorts, a return to the primal (the predatory instincts of nocturnal beasts, the draw of light) and the universal (the stars, still bright despite the soft illumination of the lampposts, the welcome return of a yellow sliver of moon) after the inevitable madness (by turns invigorating, bewildering and frustrating) of the workday.

Today the government representative who has for two weeks straight greeted us with excuses about why he could not produce the lists of beneficiary names we have requested offered me a chair, and then a lukewarm soda. He is welcoming and likable, and even though I would like to admonish him when he asks if we don't have a packet of vegetable seeds for him, a salaried government employee, as well as for the malnutrition-racked households we are trying to help, I find myself instead explaining to him the art of seed saving. We chat some more, and I discover that he, the 40-something official in charge for miles around, has completed the equivalent of eighth grade, and only 8 years ago.

A woman at the nutrition center points to her child's ear insistently, jabbering away in Dinka far too complex for me to understand. I peer into the boy's ear canals, though he is clearly unnerved to have me so close. The left ear seems a bit inflamed and crusty, the right normal. I have no idea what she's saying. Is the ear simply infected? Does he have hearing problems? More than likely, she simply wants money to treat whatever the problem is, and everyone wants money, presuming that white skin equals wealth. I know my strengths, and personal wealth is not one of them. In any case, blind distribution of cash is not to going to help anything in the long term. But it is exhausting to deflect one appeal after another from strangers, even if we end up smiling in the end.

We have finished our activities for the day and are waiting for the car to return us to the base. A scattering of villagers and our organization's nutrition team members lounge on plastic chairs and a mass of tangled tree roots. Two girls walk by selling fresh cow's milk from a hollow gourd, and a colleague proceeds to guzzle down a half gallon. Another colleague rests his feet on the table, eyes half closed. He is sick, and knows it, but out of solidarity declined to stay home today, even though he has spent most of the workday immobile and blatantly miserable. One of the nutrition workers complains of a sore back, so I show him some yoga moves, which sets off an exchange of increasingly impressive physical feats (cartwheels, headstands, military exercises) that draws to a close when the Land Rover chugs through the gate to take us home.

I love this nighttime, its starscape, its otherworldly vibrancy that pays me no mind at all.

Friday, August 13, 2010

People Management

Working in southern Sudan is stressful, although maybe not in the ways you might think.

I have actually had an overwhelmingly positive, if tiring, week, filling in this time for my mentor himself, who is as I type probably enjoying an exquisite five course meal during a (hard-earned) week of leave in southeastern France.

One of our program assistants was out this week with typhoid. That left myself, the remaining program assistant and two extension workers, neither of whom speak much English, to manage vegetable seed distribution and training for about 500 beneficiaries. We had our fair share of glitches; in one case, we failed to bring the appropriate number of seeds, and so had to ask a group of would-be recipients to come back another day; in another, our vehicle's 8:30 am departure was delayed until 11:30, thanks to the logistics department's "planning," or lack thereof. All of the distributions featured non-beneficiary bystanders who naturally wanted seeds, too. Although we of course can't just give seeds to anybody, and must adhere to the list of vulnerable people supplied this time by the interim government of southern Sudan, it's never a good feeling to have to refuse a young man with a deformed foot, for example, or a toothless and gaunt elderly woman. And while they would no doubt query ANYONE dishing out freebies, my pale skin amplifies their intensity and persistence. I can't help but resent what comes across as the sense of entitlement behind these requests, and at the same time I feel incredibly guilty turning people down, knowing full well that I will go home each evening to a filling, if unappetizing, meal and more per diem than I have immediate use for.

And yet it seemed to me that this week marked some modest forward progress, for both me personally and for the Food Security program. Despite the language barrier, an extension worker and I eventually worked out a system for foolproof distribution (after two almost laughably botched attempts). I facilitated a meeting with the Alek gardener to arrange for continued management of the garden after I am gone, and to get him the rubber boots and raincoat he has been requesting for months now. I feel like the program assistant and I are working as pretty effective and mutually respectful partners. And today, upon invitation, I talked to local secondary schoolers about why more girls aren't in school (they're not stupid, just home tending the chilluns), appropriate agricultural technology (ox plows) and how to become President of southern Sudan (stay in school!) after an invitation from the friendly and earnest Ugandan teachers that run the place.

I have heard countless times that learning to manage people is the hardest part of almost any job. Perhaps it is the stressful situation we find ourselves in, but I feel like the higher-ranking staff here do a pretty shoddy job in this regard, and the burden of their deficiencies rests on the local employees. For example, the gardener today said that until now, no one has thoroughly explained to him what his responsibilities are or who he needs to report to. When one of the extension workers came in this morning to request permission to take some time off, in order to help out his brother, whose front teeth were recently punched out during a heated dominoes game (!), our admin officer in charge of the relevant paperwork snapped at him impatiently for hovering near his desk. Before heading to France, my mentor failed to arrange for the annual leave of his program assistants, whose allotted days will expire at the end of the month.

The environment here is undoubtedly stressful, from the spiders lurking in the recesses of the tent flaps and the early curfew to the intermittent internet connection, the formidable communication barrier and the constant attention, both benign and unwelcome, that being a foreigner here brings. Yet I find the callousness with which many of our managers treat the local people truly disturbing. We are here, I would have thought, because we genuinely care about the plight of the Dinka, who have suffered prolonged and intense hardship. To treat them as inferior simply because they are poor and uneducated, or simply because we are stressed out, is not only poor "people management," it is inexcusable.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Pictures I would have taken if I could

It's probably the ubiquitous orange dust, but my digital camera isn't cooperating. So as not to overwhelm you with all text and no pictures, I took the liberty of poaching a few photos off the web, for your viewing pleasure.

Soldiers from the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). We see them all the time, conducting drills on the airstrip in the evenings, piled high on passing vehicles. I'm not sure having them around makes me feel any safer...

Nothing says Welcome to southern Sudan. Enjoy your stay. like a landing strip full of downed aircraft.

Manute Bol, the 7' 7" Dinka from Turalei (right here in Warrap State) who became the tallest player ever to grace the NBA. He apparently made up for his lack of technical basketball prowess with sheer blocking power (aka height). Sent a lot of his earnings back to southern Sudan to finance schools and weapons for his kinsmen.

(Most people here are tall, but not quite that tall.)

The Dinka don't have bank accounts. They have cattle.

Facial scarring is very common 'round these parts. Often dots on females' faces and lines on males. As I understand it, scarring is a traditional rite of passage for young adults, and a way of marking individuals' affiliation to specific clans.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Flabby expats (and other security risks)

A rainy afternoon in Wunrok. Spent the morning sorting through vegetable seeds that were supposedly sorted yesterday, while I was out in the field. The instructions seemed simple enough: (1) Put the seeds into packets of 11, one of each kind, and (2) Fasten together with two rubber bands. I poked my head into the storehouse this morning, just to make sure the packets were complete. The first packet I picked up had two watermelon sachets; the second was missing both tomato and eggplant; the third was leaking pepper seeds, since the pepper sachet had somehow come open.

Three hours later, I emerged from the store, having gone through all 220 packets and fixed approximately 170 of them.

If I were in a position of more authority, I might be annoyed; as it stands, I am mostly curious. Where is the breakdown in the system here? Do the casual workers we hired to do the job simply not care? Can they not differentiate between the different types of seeds (being unable, as they are, to read the names of the seeds on the sachets)? Does the local guy we left in charge not feel comfortable exerting any kind of authority over his fellow kinsmen (e.g., correcting them if they make mistakes)? I don’t know, but I’m sure that there is no NEED to do every job twice, and everyone involved was intelligent enough to do this job well.

While sorting, I was mulling over how my perception of danger has changed since I arrived. After my security briefing, I was (I think, justifiably) terrified about a number of things, namely:

1. Drunken soldiers toting guns
2. Snakes
3. Scorpions
4. Being in a vehicle that runs down a cow, or worse yet, a person, and watching, helpless, as the street mobs come to enact justice on the guilty foreigners, spears, sticks and rocks in hand
5. Getting caught in the crossfire of cattle raiders

None of these threats has completely faded, yet after six weeks in the field, several more immediate (although perhaps less deadly) dangers have emerged:

1. Expat potbellies. Apparently a steady intake of beer and/or soda, combined with virtually no physical exercise, takes its toll after a few months. Thus far, I seem to have escaped the dreaded gut. But it taunts from a distance, every time one of my Kenyan colleagues strolls to the shower, towel around protruding waistline, or when another offers me a third beer for the evening after a stationary day. Stay tuned…
2. Infected mosquito bites. Yep. It doesn’t take much to turn an innocent insect bite into a crater weeping yellow pus. Some nighttime scratching and a little locally-abundant bacteria, and Presto! infection. Fear not; a short round of antibiotics seems to have saved me this time, and yes, I promise to be more careful from now on, swathe myself in Deet come nightfall, etc.
3. Television. If I have allowed myself to succumb to “En el Nombre d’Amor,” it is only because I am trying to bond with my compound-mates, who often spend all of their evening and weekend hours glued to the wonders of satellite television, which more often than not involve Africa Magic, a station devoted to Africa’s finest programming, which tends to feature traditional healers waving spears and muttering in unintelligible English, or portly husbands beating their wives, who respond with piercing screams, or cocky teenaged boys boasting about how good they are in bed. If I fail to make lasting friendships with my colleagues here, it is more than likely because my tolerance for Africa Magic lasts approximately three minutes.
4. Poo. Given that the vast majority of southern Sudanese defecate directly in the bush, having a latrine at all is a big step in the right direction. However, even the most spacious pits eventually fill up. The one here in Wunrok, aided by encroaching water here in the midst of the rainy season, caught the staff unawares and actually began to overflow, to the point where you couldn’t go to the toilet without your tallest gumboots, to protect not only against the feces-infused liquid at your feet but also the healthy maggot population (I kid you not) that was colonizing the latrine floor. Thankfully, an emergency toilet is now up and running, but it presents a different sort of menace. The platform that covers the hole is made out of a pliable plastic that creaks and bends suspiciously when you stand on it. I can’t help but think, each time, of the legendary Peace Corps Volunteer who fell into her latrine, where she stayed until some concerned neighbors found her, THREE DAYS LATER.
5. Snakes. Still haven’t seen one yet. Still terrified. Have you SEEN what a puff adder can do to a person? Let me aid your imagination with some visuals (see below).

Snakes are scary

Why you don't want to surprise a puff adder in the shower, courtesy Google images.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Each Friday, the Food Security team is supposed to submit a "movement plan" for the following week, which helps the logistics managers to allocate the proper number of cars and drivers for the appropriate days. I involuntarily chuckle inwardly at the term "movement plan," probably because it makes me think of bowel movements. Anyone who can plan theirs accurately, in rural southern Sudan, a week in advance, is accomplished indeed.

This week's movement plan had me returning north, to Twic County, to join my mentor in launching vegetable seed distribution and horticultural training. I was here once before, during my second week in the Sudan, but am noticing new and different things this time around. Twic (say "twitch") lies at the northern limit of southern Sudan; during the war, violence was especially concentrated in the north-south border regions, and many people from this area were displaced to other parts of South Sudan. According to our local staff, this explains why returnees in Twic (who have been trickling back slowly during the past five years of relative peace) are more tolerant, more receptive to new ideas than are their neighbors in Gogrial West, the county to the south, where most people stayed more or less in place during the war. The conservative local leaders in Alek, for example, forbid Arab presence in the market, which therefore carries only the extremely limited selection of locally made products, whereas Wunrok's market is thriving, full of Arab traders from the North. The experience of moving, of being exposed to different cultures, places, livelihoods, apparently helped the Twic Dinka accept diversity.

The travel writer Bruce Chatwin describes movement with almost religious intensity. It is man's natural state to wander, he claims. The New England biologist and ultramarathoner Bernd Heinrich concurs. "Movement," he writes, "is almost synonymous with life."

Until Monday, I had been "stuck" in Alek for almost a month, gradually getting more familiar with the staff and their peculiarities, coaching the garden towards bounty, developing daily and weekly routines. Definitely struggling to adjust to a life behind compound walls that, though modest by most definitions, remains quite removed from that of the villagers on the other side. Coming to terms with my expat colleagues, all very likable, who nonetheless spend most of their off hours glued to the TV or internet and who can't be bothered to walk ten minutes down the road to buy their own sodas and so command the local watchmen to do it on their behalf. But there is much comfort in familiarity, as well as the danger of complacency, and I was actually somewhat sorry when told that I'd be moving northwards.

Deep as we are into the rainy season, Twic is mostly swamp. The croaking of frogs is drowning out the burbling of the TV as I type. The seasonal floods mean that much of the land, though fertile, is uninhabited, and many of our target villages are over two hours away, along an absurdly rutted "highway," surrounded most of the time by an endless swath of green--scrubby forest and marshland dotted with a huge variety of bird life. Occasionally, the thatched roof of a tukul hovers above a field of nearly mature maize. The cattle have all returned from their dry season grazing land, and when we pass the Twic cattle camps, hundreds, if not thousands, of cows fill the picture, and we advance through several dozen of them, picking their way across the road unconcernedly. And we pass people--young men wearing military fatigues and AK-47s, slung over their shoulders, who grin broadly when I wave; naked boys wading through thigh-deep water, hunting fish with spears; overaged primary schoolers clad in the requisite blue and white uniforms, toting weathered notebooks and, sometimes, plastic chairs; and sinewy, imperial women heading home, bundles of firewood on their heads. Most of them stop when we pass and waggle their hands at us, asking for a lift.

We have our own mission for the day, and jolt our way forward through the dust.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Kittens, averted

Yesterday, our compound's cat was bulging with pregnancy. Today, she is back to normal size, and her kittens are nowhere to be found. I have heard that cats can mourn the death of their young, but Paka seems unfazed. She wove her way through my legs as I walked from the handwashing station to the lunchroom, purring as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Then she nipped me on the bare foot, playfully (she is a Sudanese compound cat, after all).

It is a relief, in a way. As a compound, we couldn't agree what to do with the litter. Even the few cat lovers among us recognized the impossibility of fixing a house cat in a country where most people can't afford to buy hand soap, and cat-related conversations of late revolved around potential ways of avoiding a feline population explosion in Alek--dropping Paka and crew off in the middle of the bush somewhere, developing cat-powered farm machinery, promoting cat meat as a new source of protein in the village market.

In true Sudanese fashion, Paka seems to have accepted the reality of her situation here, shaken herself off, and continued on as she can.

Our laundress, Adut, just returned to work after a prolonged stay in a health clinic for her third miscarriage. Apparently, her husband has left her, probably because of her inability to carry a child, as well as her deafness. We communicate with hand signals, mostly, me shooting her lots of thumbs-ups as I pass her, hunched over a plastic tub full of sudsy dress shirts, on my way to the latrine.

Our logistics manager, like many of the more senior-level Sudanese staff, spent most of his teenage years in a refugee camp in northern Uganda, forced to live off of scanty USAID food rations and compete with hundreds of fellow displaced people for water at pumps activated for only a few hours each day.

Every so often, security concerns prompt our organization to activate its "remote control" mode. Expatriate staff escape to Juba or Nairobi, and local staff are left to oversee simplified ground operations, coordinated via radio communications with distant line managers. Our staff operates knowing that the organization could pull out at any time. Ultimately, this is their country, their conflict, their immediate reality.

I operate on American time, as I told our extension workers half-jokingly yesterday, when asking them to please take no more than the allotted 60 minutes for lunch. And frustration comes easily, when your base car's busted air filter means that you won't make an important meeting with traditional leaders from three remote villages who have walked several hours to hear about your imminent vegetable seed distribution, and you have no means of informing them of this fact, or when, due to a murky miscommunication,40 women from a remote village show up at the base expecting vegetable seeds and training two weeks early, and you have to send them home, empty handed, in the pouring rain.

There is no word for "frustration" in Russian, I am told, and the concept is equally foreign here. It helps, when my impatience starts to emerge, to think of Adut, for example, among the piles of laundry, returning my thumbs up with a smile, or Paka the cat, a day after her own quiet tragedy, purring at my feet.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Trashy Mexican Soap: One; Emily: Zero

Inyaki is dead. He was about to marry Paloma, but her Aunt Carlotta poisoned him the night before their wedding. Carlotta appears to be getting away with it so far, but her former maid knows the truth, and Paloma's self-centered friend Ramina is starting to get suspicious. Will the truth emerge, and Carlotta be brought to justice? Will the grief-stricken Paloma follow through with her threats of suicide, or will she seek comfort in the arms of Emiliano, whose love for her has remained constant, despite everything (if he can escape from the clutches of Ramina, that is)?

Two whole nights until the saga continues. How ever will I survive in the meantime?

Monday, July 19, 2010

I said to my soul, be still...

My mission this week: to come to terms with what I can and what I cannot control.

Some external factors don't faze me at all. I don't mind the cockroaches, for example, that scratch their way underneath the canvas of my tent floor in the middle of the night; I just smash them with my water bottle and go back to sleep. I can deal with rice and beans for pretty much every meal, and content myself with the culinary "treats" available here, like mango juice and mashed potatoes. I have accepted the fact that to villagers here, everything I do is both newsworthy and hilarious, whether that be simply hauling buckets of soil around in the garden or jogging down the main road, clad in modest knee-length shorts, for some pre-sunset exercise. I can see the humor in the decades-old plane wrecks scattered around the regional airfields, and the practicality in the bloody slaughter of the occasional goat.

What I do find challenging are apparent obstacles to my ambitions; that is, things that get in the way of how I imagined myself getting where I'd like to be. That could mean colleagues who do not seem to share my drive for efficient achievement; lovers who do not share my understanding of what love entails; the sluggish pace of maddening but necessary bureaucratic processes; and the seeming acceptance of norms that are simply not acceptable, in my mind.

I have been asked to manage Food Security activities at this base for two weeks, while the normal second-in-command takes his leave in Eastern Equatoria, and my "mentor" supervises affairs an hour to the north. Projects move slowly in southern Sudan, partly out of necessity (the roads are shite, the electrical grid nonexistent), partly for cultural reasons, and no doubt to a large extent because of history (the past has not taught most people to set expectations high). And while these reasons are valid, too much complacency seems to mean no forward progress. The school garden that I mentioned last time, for example, failed because the vegetable seeds were distributed too late. Time and resources are easily wasted by lackadaisical planning and execution of activities. There is room to instigate, but the question is how, where and when to do so.

Our coming distribution of vegetable seeds must be preceded by a lengthy process of "beneficiary" identification, during which we inform and seek input from a slew of government and traditional authorities in 20+ rural communities throughout Warrap State. We planned to stop in at the county seat this morning to get the official nod of approval from the commissioner there. We first paused at one of our nutrition centers, along with the nutrition team, to take care of some quick follow-up on a demonstration garden. When we Food Security folks were ready to move on and returned to the pick-up point, the car was not there. It had departed for another village, apparently, for some "community sensitization" work. But not to fear, we were told. It was due back by 1 pm.

Loathe to squander precious hours, I asked our two program staff present to review the vegetable gardening manual that I had thrown together over the past week for an upcoming training. Their feedback was both eye-opening (neither of them had ever seen a real-life cucumber before) and helpful (neem leaf water mixed with laundry detergent makes for effective, low-budget insecticide). The day was shaping up well after all.

But then 1 o'clock rolled around, then 2. Then 3:30. Perhaps the car had gotten stuck, yet again, and we were waiting for a ride that would never come? We had no way of knowing; the group's only satellite phone had stayed with the car. On foot it was six hours to the base, three hours to the nearest large town, from which we could call for help. Someone walked into the village center in search of peanuts. He returned empty-handed 20 minutes later. "No peanuts," he explained, helpfully. I began to plot; if two of us left now, we could make it to the town in time for a spare vehicle to pick us up before curfew. My colleagues, who had taken no food or drink since breakfast, demurred. "Let's wait a bit longer," they insisted. I concurred, with reservations. It seemed that action now might prevent complications later.

Then, our snack-seeker, who had secretly wandered off again, reappeared, this time with plastic bags full of lukewarm sodas and a mass of tiny peanuts. We attacked them ravenously, and in the middle of our feast, the car pulled up, surprisingly mud free. The village it has visited to "sensitize" had simply required some prodding itself, and they had spent several hours rallying people by megaphone before the actual "sensitization" began.

My co-workers had been right not to fret about the tardy car. Such setbacks come with the territory, it would seem. And yet there is still room for change.

I have been working in the garden, largely alone, for the four weeks since I arrived in southern Sudan. Tonight, a co-worker joined me as I was attempting to widen our raised beds. A clean cut Facebook junkie from Equatoria, he helped me shovel and carry buckets of soil, then started chatting with the spectators, transfixed as always. Then our Nutrition Program Manager, a warm, middle-aged Kenyan who spends most nights glued to the TV, strolled in, muttered something about the weeds, grabbed a maloda, and set to work. She stayed with me until dark, murmuring alternately about the absurdity of the tool ("I just want to hoe!"), how inactive she has let herself become and the garden ("It has come so fast since you got here.").

I believe in the power of example, momentum, passion, persistence, as well as the wisdom of openness, understanding and patience (although the latter is not always my strongest suit). If I hope to to achieve anything over these next 17 months, it is to help build positive momentum, not in spite of apparent obstacles, but by learning to work within them.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

This day in the life

7 am. The steady scratching of a grass broom against the sandy ground of the compound, sweeping up the night’s refuse. Empty soda bottles, palm fronds, scat dropped by wandering creatures in the dark. I am awake, having slept fitfully, and am relieved that at last I can emerge from my tent. To the “office,” a metal frame covered with tarps, where I type up notes from a meeting with school teachers yesterday afternoon. Before I forget. They were lovely people, had so much goodwill. “Madam,” one of them said to me, a visiting teacher from northern Uganda, “if you want a thing to succeed, you have to plan. Of all things, you must first make a plan.” We were speaking of gardens, specifically the school vegetable garden that our organization helped to kick start there nine months ago. The seeds were distributed late, only two months before the close of their academic year, and when the students left for the holidays, the plants were still in their infancy. The caretaker appointed to maintain the garden, lacking guidance and support, gave up, and all the plants died.

8:50 am, and breakfast is still not ready. We normally buy bread from the kitchen of the other NGO in town, but the baker has been away, and we have had nothing but digestive biscuits and Nescafe for breakfast for the past four days. My stomach would prefer to escape another such meal, and I am hoping that the rumor that the bread lady has returned is true. It is. The bread arrives, and I scarf down a roll and head out to the front gate, so as not to hold up the car that is to take us out to today’s field site. Either the drivers are getting better, or I’m simply getting used to the roads. I’m rarely nervous in the cars these days.

10:15. I needn’t have worried about promptness. The car is only now ready to leave. A flat tire, it seems, first needed repairing (our second in two days), and then a stop by the malnutrition center across the way to load up boxes of Plumpy Nut, a UN-sanctioned feeding supplement for young children. And now we’re off, bouncing along the rutted orange road, green fields dotted with grass-crowned tukuls to both sides. Paul, my neighbor in the front seat, is wearing a plain pair of eyeglasses. He explains that they’re to protect his eyes from the dust. I jokingly tell him that I’m sure he’s just trying to look cool, and that it’s our job, as front seat passengers, to look fashionable, since we’re the ones the villagers, crouched in front of their storefronts, or leading lone cows by a length of rope, stick over their shoulders, gaze at curiously when we bump by. I explain that in the US, only a few people have cows, or farms, for that matter, and that most of the farms are very large. “Here, everyone has cows,” he says, “and there are many farms, but all of them are very small.”

Noon. Approaching the demonstration garden, we startle three sheep, which have found their way inside and are nibbling on the sorghum shoots. The garden is fenced, but there is only space where the gate should be. The local extension worker, Santino, who oversees this plot, shows us the garden’s various sections, designed to introduce villagers to “improved” agricultural techniques, like row planting and intercropping, in this case groundnut with maize. Germination has been slow; we haven’t had a substantial rain in almost two weeks. I am starting to worry about the fate of the field crops in Warrap, which can weather a ten-day drought but start to falter soon after. Santino is new to the job. His household broadcast-seeded its crops this year, but next year, he insists, he will plant in rows. We will soon ask him to run trainings on vegetable growing, and I want to know if he has experience growing any. Pumpkins and okra, he says. He would like to know about vegetable nurseries, and how to start such fragile plants from seed. I tell him not to worry, that vegetables are simply like babies; they just need lots of pampering and attention. I’m not sure how useful that analogy is here.

1:30 pm. We are back early, in time for lunch. The base’s gardener speaks to me in Dinka, gesturing at his stomach and saying, “Money, money.” I usually plead incomprehension at times like these, since I do not want to get in the habit of giving out money, but my English-speaking colleague is only to happy to translate. The gardener is hungry, he explains, and is asking for 5 Sudanese Pounds for lunch. His wife and child have been sick for some time, I know, and he has welcomed my directorship of the garden, and I oblige with the money (What else can I do?), adding that this is not something I plan to do often.

4:30 pm. Finally the rain has come. I visit my Dinka colleague in the main office. I had suggested that he print out a market survey form, since one must be filled out by Friday. He is staring at the computer screen blankly. He looks at me sheepishly, and it is evident that he has absolutely no idea how to use Excel. Hardly a computer whiz myself, I guide him through some simple operations, teaching him how to copy and paste and use the shift key. Among the more educated of this village’s locals, Paul has completed two years of secondary school, which clearly did not include computer training. We would like to be able to hand over management positions to as many Sudanese as possible, but some major roadblocks remain.

5 pm. I retreat to the lounge with my computer, planning to continue revising a vegetable garden training manual. “Knocked Up” is playing on the TV; the internet is down because of the storm, and so the expats are enjoying a break. There are Kenyans here; I wonder if the slacker/pothead culture the film depicts makes any sense to them whatsoever.

6:30 pm. The rain has stopped, and I venture out, as I almost always do in the evenings, to the vegetable garden, just to check on things. The eggplants have sprouted, along with some of the carrots and pumpkins. “What is your name?” a girl of about 14, walking over from the water pump, says in confident English. I am impressed. She is maybe the third local girl I have met so far who can speak any English at all. She is in her sixth year of primary school, I discover. I hope that her studies will not be derailed by early marriage or pregnancy, or a lack of funds with which to pay school fees. We chat a bit, and she returns to the pump, while I check on the pumpkins. “Goodbye, sister,” my new acquaintance calls out, hoisting a plastic yellow jerry can onto her head and strolling off into the dusk.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Maloda Blues

We are bringing the Alek garden back to life. There is a gardener here, who comes three days a week, but he has been working without instruction for the past few months, if not more. When I arrived, the few edible plants growing included a small patch of okra, a bushy crop of expired green beans, some starts of sukuma wiki (collard greens) and a lone maize plant. Not exactly a bounty.

This coming month, we plan to distribute vegetable seeds to some 1200 “beneficiaries,” in the humanitarian lingo, and offer basic training on how to sow and care for these plants. Most people here focus their resources on the staple crops. Maize. Sorghum. Sesame. Peanuts. They might produce some okra and hibiscus. These are considered the foods that sustain. They plant when the rainy season begins, sometime between April and July. Whatever they manage to harvest, usually around September, serves as both their food supply and their seed stock for the following growing season. Often, the rains are late and irregular. Sometimes, like last year, there is too much rain, and the fields are flooded before the crops can be harvested.

In our humanitarian minds, we see problems in both the quantity and the diversity of the foods the Dinka grow. The vegetable seeds initiative seeks to mitigate both of these issues, expanding both the variety of vitamins and minerals in and the total volume of the foods the average household produces. As a bonus, surplus vegetables can be sold in the market, providing families with much-needed cash.

But we always must remember that the humanitarian perspective is just that, a perspective. Affecting behavioral change in groups of people is never straightforward. Culture, tradition and sheer laziness often trump logic, knowledge and common sense. Look at global warming in America. How many people have actually retrofitted their homes to be more energy efficient, even when they know it will save them money, and cut down significantly on their carbon footprints, within a couple of years?

The Dinka are pastoralists primarily, cattle herders who display their wealth by the size of their herds. Cattle are their currency, and are implicated in the most significant events in tribal society—births, inter-clan disputes, marriages.

For them, farming is a necessity, but an uncelebrated one. Their tool of choice for cultivating is the maloda, basically a hoe without the bend, a small flat digging piece on the end of a five foot-long stick. To use one “correctly,” you must kneel, and slowly, laboriously, edge your way along the earth, turning the soil handful by handful. Hoes are considered modern, and ox ploughs almost heretical (although they are slowly creeping into the fringes of society).

I see the Alek garden as an opportunity to begin to bridge the gap between the western and the Dinka perspectives on cultivating. I hope that it will encourage more people to try producing vegetables at home, of course, but I also recognize it as an opportunity for me to learn to appreciate both the labor and the mindset that lie behind local agriculture. In my various farming stints in the US, I have tended fields with tractors, oxen, horses and hoes, but until now, never a maloda. Here, it is all I have.

I hold my maloda like a hoe, wanting to pull the soil towards me. I soon realize that I must hold it sideways, and begin to turn the soil with gusto, as if back on a trail crew in the Appalachians somewhere. The crowd of locals gathered at the fence looks on in curiosity and hilarity, until one of them waves me over. He gestures that I should kneel, and turn the soil like our compound’s paid gardener beside me, who no doubt thinks the same but is too polite to criticize my technique himself. When I finally do kneel, to placate the crowd, but also to satisfy my own curiosity, the crowd cheers. The dry chunks of earth hurt my untrained knees, and I don’t last long, so I stand up, smile, shrug, and continue on.

To understand the Dinka, we must first embrace the maloda, it seems.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Does Rosetta Stone come in Dinka?

Me: (in English) Can you help me practice my numbers?
Rafael: (in English) Numbers?
Me: (in English) Yes. (in Dinka) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5…
Rafael: (in Dinka) Oh! 6, 7, …
Me: (in Dinka) 8, 9, 10, 11, 12…(in English) I don’t know any more.
Rafael: (in Dinka) 13, 14, 15, 16…
Me: (in English) Can you say them more slowly?
Rafael: (in Dinka) Hmm? 17, 18, 19, …
Me: (in English) No, more slowly. Slooooowwwwer. What was 13 again?
Rafael: (in Dinka) 13.
Me: (in Dinka) 13?
Rafael: (in Dinka) 13.
Me: (in English) Okay, good. Now, how do you say “How old are you?”
Rafael: Hmm? (confused expression)
Me: (in English) How old are you? What is your age? How many years do you have?
Rafael: (in English) I’m 32.
Me: (in English) No! I mean, I want to say, in Dinka, “How old are you?”
Rafael: (in Dinka) I’m 32.
Me: (in English) I mean, I want to ask the question, in Dinka.
Rafael: (in English) In Dinka, I would say…(in Dinka) I am 32 years old.
Me: (in English) No! The question!!! How old are you?
Rafael: (in Dinka) How old are you?
Me: (in Dinka) How old are you? (directed towards Rafael) How old are you?
Rafael: (in Dinka) How old are you?
Me: (in English) No, I’m asking you. (in Dinka) How old are you?
Rafael: (in English) I am 32.

Does Rosetta Stone come in Dinka? Anyone? Please?!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

A Very Starry Night

We're having electrical issues. Apparently, our resident handyman is not the most skilled electrician. He didn't realize, for instance, that it's generally well advised to shut the power off before you begin fiddling with wires. And the day I arrived here in Wunrok he succeeded in frying a bunch of fuses and our main electrical switch. Conveniently, a high-up guy from the logistics department in Nairobi was visiting, and he managed a quick patch job, but he warned us that it would only be temporary, and today the system conked.

I'm truly sorry for the loss of power, only because I had a long-awaited Skype chat this evening. But at the same time being without electricity has really changed the social dynamics here. Untethered to the internet, my colleagues and I have enjoyed quite a few leisurely conversations--about working in Sudan and Palestine, long-distance relationships and European countries' varied approaches to foreign language learning.

And in the absence of technological distraction, I made some progress bonding with our female cleaning and cooking crew. Someone explained to them on my behalf that I was trying to learn Dinka, and so they helpfully started providing me with some useful vocab, everything from "sandals" to "tomato paste" to "watermelon." Abstract concepts are harder territory to navigate, but it's a good start nonetheless.

Then I made my first solo trip anywhere in Sudan, to the Wunrok market to buy some "warr," or flip flops, that actually fit me (the ones that were provided for me are designed for Sudanese feet, that is, long and narrow). A bit of gawking, lots of laughter, cries of "Kawaja!" all around, but nothing threatening whatsoever. Having the freedom to move, to explore, feels fantastic, even if it's a pretty limited freedom.

Finally, this evening, after a couple of hours trying unsuccessfully to rig up a back-up generator, I sat down with the night watchman and company. Word of my interest in "Muan jang" (Dinka language) must have gotten around, because they immediately started rattling off vocab. Their pedagogy could use some work (one of them began listing the numbers from 1-100 at breakneck speed), but I much appreciated their intentions. No soccer game on the TV to distract us, just a night full of bright stars and the sounds of our own voices and the croaking of a million frogs.

To cap it all, the driver who had acted so sullen on the way home two days ago greeted me by name and revealed that he used to teach Dinka language in Khartoum. He seems like an intelligent, precise kind of guy with a somewhat analytical approach to language, which is what I need. Much as I'd like to, I don't learn well simply by listening--I need to understand concepts, patterns, logic. And I may well need many more trips to the market, chapati-making sessions in the kitchen and leisurely, starry nights.
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