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 I have felt strangely withdrawn these past few days.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.
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