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.

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