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.

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