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.

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