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 I have felt strangely withdrawn these past few days.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.


  1. Hi Emily,

    I am an English teacher in Maine (Gould Academy, Bethel, ME) and came across your blog through some serious surfing the Institute website and thinking about starting off my teaching year with the required summer reading of The Translator. Have you heard of the book?

    I would like to show my students your blog. Would you mind?

    It is late here in Maine, and I need to get ready for day one. I will look for a comment back or email you soon if you show some interest in sharing your work with my students.

  2. Dear Sara,

    Thanks so much for your comment. I have actually not heard of The Translator, though I just looked it up and will try to track down a copy. Of course, the situation in Darfur is quite different from the one in the area officially recognized as Southern Sudan right now, which has settled into an uneasy peace for the time being.

    I'd be happy if you want to show your students my blog, and they can feel free to ask any questions. I'm not an expert at all, have only a couple months of in-country experience and conversations with colleagues to inform me, but I will answer as honestly as I can.

    Hope you're enjoying the oncoming fall in Bethel. I know that area well (worked for the AMC once upon a time), and nothing compares to this time of year in the Whites.



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