Tuesday, September 28, 2010


This place could not be any more different from the Sudan. Instead of a tent, I sleep in a comfortably furnished room in a house. I sleep under a blanket at night, rather than a sheet, or nothing at all. There is fresh fruit on the table at breakfast--passion fruit, miniature bananas, pineapple, green oranges. My skills thus far seem superfluous, and I wonder very often if I am really needed here. My French is rusty, and this adds to my doubt. But thus far everyone has been extremely courteous, even when I have to ask for a translation of the word for "gravel,"or "wheelbarrow,"or "internal order form."

I am in Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu, this week, getting "briefed"on the considerably complex security situation here, on my organization's activities in eastern Congo, on human resources procedures--how to hire and fire employees, how many days of vacation I get (8 days evey 3 months), on where I am allowed to walk in the city unaccompanied (nowhere). My program assistant has joined me in the city to help bring me up to speed on the banana wilt eradication project and help me develop a work and procurement plan for the coming year.

This week, Bukavu; next week, Goma, and finally, the field.

I am a smidge overwhelmed. I feel safe, and welcomed, and excited. I am just a bit intimidated by the responsibilities that I must assume in the near future, the nature of which I do not yet understand entirely, in a context that I cannot claim to understand at all.

So if my blogging slows down for a spell, that's why. I'll do my best to check in regularly, even if the entries are brief.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Sorry to have disappeared for the past little while. The evaluation I came to Sudan to complete was due yesterday, and during the past two weeks, it morphed into a much bigger undertaking that I had anticipated, for various reasons. It is more or less complete now, subject to the final revisions of my supervisor in the US. I left the field this morning and am in Juba now, in limbo, left to marvel at the wonders of asphalt, porcelain toilets, full-length mirrors and vegetable stands and mourn the absence of herds of cattle blithely blocking the roadway, of tiny tarpaulin and grass-thatched villages, surrounded by walls of sorhgum, whose names I have come to know, of familiar faces I have come to love. Tomorrow I go to Mombasa, a vacation city on the Indian Ocean, to relax, process the last three months, and prepare mentally and physically for Congo. There are still plenty of logistical details to sort out, so I'll go now, but I'll leave you with the (draft) conclusion of the report I wrote, which should give you a sense of the purpose of my work in southern Sudan.

___'s cash grant-supported IGA project was a pilot project, an attempt to see whether a long-suffering region in the early phases of post-war recovery and redevelopment could support successful small businesses, with some technical and financial support from ____. Human capacity and physical and economic infrastructure are extremely limited in Warrap State. Most project participants lacked formal education or extensive business experience, and all were considered at risk of malnourishment.

This evaluation has shown that many participants in this project were able to not only maintain their businesses over the duration of the programme, but to dramatically improve their livelihoods as well. Gains in income and nutritional status measured during the final follow-up survey, which occurred 20 months after the first cash grant transfer, were substantial. ____'s intervention in the businesses has been extremely minimal since mid-2009, and thus the surviving businesses’ continuing profitability speaks more convincingly about the project’s long-term sustainability than this report can hope to.

As with every pilot project, there is plenty of room for improvement. While many of the original IGA groups persist, many more have disbanded, for a variety of reasons. This report has thoroughly assessed all aspects of the programme’s conception, implementation and follow-through and documented many of the lessons learned, which, if heeded, should ensure more widespread success among beneficiaries of similar projects in the future.

Some organisations or donors may express scepticism that business development projects are appropriate in contexts like Southern Sudan’s, where severe malnutrition is endemic and environmental and political instability is the rule rather than the exception. Certainly, true emergency situations warrant different interventions, focused on immediate needs, such as food distributions. However, in contexts where the potential for recovery and growth exists, IGA projects offer humanitarian organisations a means of fostering that growth.

Five years after the signing of the CPA, Southern Sudan is slowly rebuilding. Its markets, institutions and other infrastructure are developing bit by bit. While the participants in this project are clearly better off in terms of food security and livelihoods now than they were at the time it was launched, some of that change may be linked to the broader changes occurring throughout the region. It is impossible to know how the same people would have fared if they had never received cash grants from ____.

Nonetheless, this report finds that carefully conceived and executed IGA projects have much to offer the vulnerable residents of Warrap State and other regions recovering from extended conflict. Cash grants provide the financial and motivational boost that can kick start small-scale development in places where resources and opportunities are historically scarce. In addition to promoting crucial improvements in beneficiaries’ food security and livelihoods, small business development projects foster the morale, dignity and self-respect necessary for self-determination and self-reliance, the “golden eggs” of the humanitarian world.

Sunday, September 5, 2010


This morning, my friend Jackie the cook tied a string of beads around my waist and tucked them underneath my shirt. They are the colors of the Pan Bol clan, she explained (or so I interpreted; she and I share a common vocabulary of about 100 words), and since you are Pan Bol too, you should have them.

I "joined the clan" about a month ago, when I started introducing myself with a Dinka name: Abuk Chol Deng. It makes greeting people much more enjoyable, and a familiar name is much easier for others to remember than my foreign western one. Names here are imbued with meaning, indicating your place in the family lineage as well as something more personal, such as the color of the ceremonial bull present at your birth.

Of course, my father's name isn't Chol, nor my grandfather's Deng, but I'm happy for the beads just the same. In the past 10 weeks I've begun to feel very close to some of the staff here, and it's touching to know that the affection is reciprocal.

At the same time, there are frequent reminders, some constant, some more jarring, of how little I really understand about this place. Like when we witnessed, while pausing in the market on our way back from the field, a 12 year-old thief being dragged off to the local police station by four grown men, screaming in terror. He will likely be beaten. 50 lashes should teach him a lesson, and dissuade others from stealing, according to my colleagues.

There's certainly a problem with miscreant youth in the Wunrok market. Dressed in tattered rags, they affix themselves to anyone who looks like he might have money with an impressive persistence. Apparently, most are not "street kids" in the usual sense, since their parents are usually nearby. So the hiding is as much a punishment for the parents as it is for the child in question.

Stealing should not go unpunished, I agree, but I can't stomach the beating of children. Yes, the "prison" here is an outdoor bench to which prisoners are chained, exposed to the whims of passersby and the beating sun. No, there are no social programs here offering alternatives to begging and other mischief for uneducated kids. Maybe physical punishment is the most effective way to manage crime in the circumstances. But it's still a shock, and one that leaves me feeling quite bewildered by the place where I now find myself.

There are more such stories. I hear them in bits and pieces, never quite understanding the whole picture. Each is a glimpse into a dark, hard and wild land that my ordered American mind cannot really imagine. Remember our deaf cook, who when we last visited her was recovering from a miscarriage? Her sister was murdered and dumped into a river a few weeks ago, by a group of girls who invited her out into the bush to collect firewood.

I just discovered that one of our guards, whose name I have finally learned and who when I last saw him was cheerfully preserving a cowhide, is a known pedophile who was imprisoned last year for impregnating a young girl, something he had apparently done six times before. Although our organization will not be renewing his contract, thankfully, he will remain at large in the local community. He has made amends with the families of the girls by paying them off with a few cows.

I was in Africa once before, in a small village in southeastern Burkina Faso. I was chatting with two French women with much more experience in the country than I had. I was four months into my stay, and I remember remarking that I felt like I was starting to figure things out. Their reaction was severe. No, they said, you do not understand anything about this place.

I would like to think that I understand some things, that the connections I feel are real, that reaching out consistently has not left me empty handed. Yet as much as I would like to join the Pan Bol, my father is not Chol, and I don't yet have a grandfather named Deng.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Taking Care of Business(es)

My camera is still down, but one of my co-workers snapped a few shots yesterday while we were conducting surveys with current and past small business owners. The survey asks about household income and expenditures and nutritional status, which means we get to measure the mid-upper arm circumference (MUAC) of all children under 5 we can find. Yesterday's children were relatively calm; some of them shriek like crazy, as if we were coming at them with machetes rather than string and measuring tape.

We're asking for a lot of data in these surveys, and we have to complete a lot of them. So that our interviewers and interviewees both don't get totally bored, we've tried to keep things as engaging and interesting as possible, using pictures (especially useful for the illiterate majority of our respondents) and interactive evaluation tools.

For more photos, click here.
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