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).

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