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.


  1. Emily, I chatted with your mom this morning at my bookshop, and she said you were wanting more feedback from readers of your blog. (By the way, Isabel is in fine form.) As for me I am so blown away by each of your postings; I get anxious when you write about transportation and snakes, and I relax when you write about stars and tall maize. On top of all else your writing draws me immediately into the situation you describe, even though your world is almost unimaginable to someone with my privileged life. Perhaps it is being made speechless by what you report that has taken the keyboard away from your readers. Or maybe it is that news from home is made so trivial by contrast.

  2. Interesting that you have management issues similar to those I see discussed in business books here: how to create a sense of ownership of the enterprise in the employee; how poor communication can be the origin of problems; how to build upon a success. In addition, you have to deal with the culture gap. What is the Dinka culture of individual interest v. group interest? Is there reward or rejection for individual achievement? Are there differences in the values of Kenyan v. Sudanese?


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