Saturday, May 31, 2008
Since discussing this is both self-pitying and boring, I'll direct you all to an article in the New York Times on expats in Liberia. I'm a bit conflicted with this thing. Basically, it is some reporter who no doubt has a lovely little loft in Brooklyn coming out to Monrovia and seeing all the sushi joints, all the swimming pools, all the casinos and then saying that aid workers are wasting the resources meant for poverty stricken Liberians on frivolous resources.
Now, when I was living in Liberia, I was the first to say that the Sushi joints and the pools and the parties were a bit excessive, bacchanalian even, at times. However, you know what, they were certainly no more excessive than what is going on every weekend in every city in Europe and the States and considerably less decadent than life in, say, New York or London. Considerably, considerably less.
Now, this reporter was all worked up, I imagine, because he wants to believe that every aid worker is a saint who never does anything but ponder the inequalities of the developing world and hand out scoops of bulgar wheat. Instead, he shows up and discovers a life just as messy and frivolous and meaningless as anything in the real world. Only set against a backdrop that people in the real world can pretend doesn't exist and we are forced to acknowledge every time we want to go out and buy some cigarettes.
I mean, he makes it out like the money which we were using to go to the casinos would otherwise be used to feed a small child, only we heartlessly diverted it in to bottles of wine and surfboards.
We are doing what every other young, silly, single person who can afford to does. We are spending way too much money on booze and way too much time on attracting the opposite sex. We just wear more khaki than the rest of them and trousers with more pockets.
So could everyone PLEASE stop being bloody well shocked that humanitarians are just as beset by human frailty as everyone else.
And could someone send me some very very strong drugs before I cut my own head off?
Friday, May 30, 2008
At this point, it is around 4 am and I decided it might be good to get a change of scenery, I went out and put the television on, ended up watching The Last King of Scotland until 6.30 in the morning. My eye was still killing me, but I was so exhausted I fell in to a fitful sleep from 6.30 until 8.00.
However, when I woke up at 8.00 in the morning I had somehow, in those two hours, turned in to some sort of a character in a horror story. My eye was swollen to the size of a ping pong ball and, obviously, swollen shut, leaking some sort of pus-like substance out of the side and it felt like someone was stabbing me with a pencil in the tear duct every few seconds.
I walked out in to the office where everyone went "YICK" and started inching away from me. Obviously, then this was a case for the clinic. I walked down to a place near us run by some Lebanese, I think, and the nurse, comfortingly, said "Ewwwww, that's gross" instead of hello.
Apparently I have some sort of an infection and am now on an interesting cocktail of drugs and drops. The swelling has gone down to the point that I can now open the eye but believe me, I am even less likely to win a beauty contest now than usual. I got through all the customs searches at the airport like a breeze, though, I don't think any of the inspectors wanted to touch me.
Thursday, May 29, 2008
Then this young guy wobbles past me on a bike, so drunk I could actually see the alcohol waves emanating from his body. As I went past him he literally jumped off his bike while it was still moving, in retrospect a pretty smooth move for a man at his level of intoxication, and he started jogging behind me, mumbling to himself. The sun was behind us so I could see his shadow, every move I made he mimicked. If I ran left, he ran left, if I jumped up a bit to get over a puddle he jumped up a bit to get over the puddle, even if it actually landed him in the puddle since he was about five feet behind me.
I wasn't that nervous, I was in a crowded area and I knew if he tried to grab at me someone would help, so I just started doing lots weird zigs and zags to see if he'd follow, which he did. Everyone we ran past thought this was hysterical; girl in bright pink track bottoms and sunglasses and deee-runk Sudanese kid having a sort of Forest Gump moment on the back streets of Juba. Soon, every child I ran past began to join in. By the time I hit the main road I had a train of about eight or nine people following me, mimicking my every move and I'm doing, like, Riverdance kicks every third step just to get them to copy me.
By the time we hit the road we'd run about a mile and I think my alcohol loving friend was feeling the pace, god knows I could smell the booze coming off in his sweat to the point I was getting loopy from the fumes and he stopped, forcing all the kids behind him to stop as well.
I ran off down the main dirt road, waving to my fan club and getting screams of encouragement and "Good morning" from all of them as they turned to go home. I swear, you can't make this stuff up.
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
I mean, really, WHERE does something like this come from? What cracked out, male religious leader took his vast knowledge of biology and decided this was worth enshrining in law?
I used to hear strange arguments like this a lot in Liberia and Darfur. I remember once screaming at a police commissioner, in the middle of a large public meeting, because he had told me in no uncertain terms that it was impossible to rape a young girl because all young girls inherently wanted sex all the time and therefore it was always voluntary. I think I actually may have said, in a ladylike and diplomatic way, that he should learn to be a real man and (I shudder at this now) "keep it in his pants."
I know I said I wasn't going to post until I could say something nice and blah blah blah, but I was just watching a BBC report about this and it got me all het up.
Monday, May 26, 2008
1. I am in Juba where the stories tend much more towards the "...and then I sat at my computer and planned a meeting" type. Super exciting.
2. I am in an extremely foul mood which has lasted for about a week now and apparently is rather evident from what I've been writing.
I was having a debrief session with a colleague I supervise the other day, another expatriate, and she was pretty stressed and pretty unhappy and one of the things that was bothering her was that she was "afraid she might turn in to" me.
It wasn't said with malice or anything like that, she is just an extremely idealistic (in a good way) person and was afraid of sinking in to the morass of cynicism I seem to swim around in. The conversation basically was about whether she should get out of conflict-style countries and go back to your more long-term development settings, where people tend to be less bitter, have more normal lives and not scare others in to new career paths.
Now, obviously, when you have become someone else's example of what not to become, something has gone wrong. And, until I can write without sliding in snarky, bitter little bon mots (or, not so bon mots, as it were), I'm keeping schtum.
How's this for a little Oprah moment on The Thirsty Palmetto!
Thursday, May 22, 2008
Yesterday, I was at this conference center (quick aside, erase from your mind right now all images of buildings and power point screens and laser pointers, replace that with a group of thatch, low walled gazebo looking things next to the Nile, add flies) where, apparently, a lot of the guys were hanging out.
We're there, in small groups, having a discussion about expansion of primary health care in a situation where there aren't enough trained clinical staff when I see this really really tall dude in a suit made for a man about 100 lbs heavier and about 5 inches shorter walking up from the river. At first, I just noticed him because of the suit, it was funny looking, I like funny looking people, I stared.
Then I noticed his walking was a wee erratic. THEN I noticed it wasn't just a wee erratic, he was weaving back and forth to the point that it was difficult to tell what direction he was going and because he was so tall and his legs so long, his body was weaving independently - his legs would be weaving due east while his torso would be weaving south-southwest and his head was just lolling in every direction.
He managed, by some miracle, to make it to the bar (of COURSE there was a bar, this is South Sudan, I think the churches may have bars). He was, maybe, five feet away when he yelled quite aggressively and started to put his hand up to signal the bar guy he wanted a (or, more appropriately, another) beer. This sudden movement totally threw off his drunkards equilibrium and he pitched forward, slamming in to the bar top and crumpling in a bad-suit-wearing-drooling heap on the floor. Everyone didn't even blink, they just went about their business, stepping over the nice drunken giant on the floor.
This, by the way, was 11.30 in the morning.
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Monday, May 19, 2008
God I love nature.
Anyway, tonight, I was coming home from a meeting down by the Nile at around 9pm. Now, as I think I've mentioned about 1,000 times, vehicles are not our strong suit and so I was on a boda boda, the local motorbike taxis. My driver was, at a conservative estimate, 8 years old and not 100% clear on how to drive a bike. He also kept taking "short cuts" through little back streets which were so rutted that I felt like one of Charlie's Angels in that dirt bike scene from the second movie.
However, once I got over the shock of being driven around by an infant, it was lovely. The moon is full right now and the streets of Juba are really quiet because the SPLA (the Sudanese People's Liberation Army) is in town for a conference or something. We were cruising down these little back alleys, me and my baby driver, between the wee huts, no light except the moon and the torch mounted on the front of his bike, lots of quiet conversations behind thatch fences and smoky fires.
Ow, a flying brown magot just banged in to my eye. I'm going to bed!
Saturday, May 17, 2008
There were more. These were just the ones which came up and told me what they were doing. And believe me, they all will come up and tell you what they're doing if you make any sort of eye contact at all. Even passing glances.
I never really had contact with the missionary types or the summer "goin' to africa to save me some babies" crowd before. They weren't in my part of India, they hadn't made it to Liberia and they sure as hell weren't in Darfur, so my only previous contact with them was in the Kampala and Nairobi airports, where I would quietly judge them.
I can't help it. I know I shouldn't and I'm just being a horrible horrible snob and, given how ineffectual I feel much of the work we big, well funded, experienced NGOs do, I'm not even sure where I get off, but I just object SO strongly to these types of people. The ones that come out to Africa once a year to shower money on some village and will talk your ear off about how grateful everyone is and how it changed their lives seeing that little girl hold her first ever toy or whatever.
See, I'm just nasty about it. I even kinda shocked a guy on the flight from Yei to Juba today. He started talking to me and it turned out he ran orphanages, which is one of my pet peeves, I hate them. Anyway, he was telling me about how they had this one little girl who was so smart and lovely and all and her mom (MOM people) came for her and he said no because he couldn't guarantee she'd get the same level of schooling in her home village. I told him I thought that was a bit paternalistic and I wasn't sure he had the right, morally or legally, to keep a girl from her family nor did I think the whole idea of a orphanage where the kids had living parents was particularly sensible.
He looked like I hit him. I'm sure he's never gotten anything but hugs, teary eyes and canonization from anyone for his work before.
I'm going to hell. Immediately. And I deserve it.
Monday, May 12, 2008
So I am just giving bullet points, more to jog my own memory later than anything else:
- Stayed in an honest to god castle like something out of a Blandings story as guests of the count and duchess (lord and lady? I've always been hopeless at those things).
- Danced Scottish reels with men in kilts that were so complex I felt I would have needed a manual the size of the Bombay phone book and about four years of intense instruction to do them well. Everyone else, of course, knew exactly what they were doing and had no problems at all. Because they are all annoying and Scottish and gifted, clearly.
- Got to spend the night flirting with someone normal who had no intention of discussing Burma's stance on aid, the coup in Khartoum, the state of the roads in Yei or which donor just screwed them over. Also unlikely that he was married with children, a serial misogynist or riddled with diseases that make people cringe and reach for the penicillin. I think we talked about families. And collegiate hijinks. And, most likely, the state of Brittney Spears. Extremely pleasant.
- Produced a series of pictures with friends that look like a cross between promotional materials for a high-end champagne company and a cautionary tale of Bright Young Things Being Silly in Scottish Stately Home.
Summary? I can now say that I have literally jetted in to somewhere just for a, wonderful, party, worn the Bond-girl-esque cocktail dress and had the kind of glittery, tinkle-y evenings we all wish we had when we were younger. Even though I know I'll be back at work and in the middle of the mud and the bugs and the heat and everything else soon, I also know I am quite possibly the luckiest person on the planet and completely insane for ever questioning that fact.
Wednesday, May 7, 2008
Before I go, though, I have to say, either I have finally gotten so used to living in Africa that I no longer notice that it isn't like the west (which is possible, my dad seemed pretty shocked when he visited me in Cape Town and I have always thought CT is as close to heaven on earth as humans have reached) OR things are genuinely modernizing at a VERY rapid rate.
Bear with me.
First, there are all the obvious signs. Big, beautiful buildings are appearing everywhere these days. The Crane Bank building in Kampala? Gorgeous. The British Council Building, also in Kampala? You'd think you were in, well, maybe not London but easily a suburb of Prague. It used to be all new buildings were these scary cement things with wires sticking out and flickering lights. Now, they're just nice.
Two, cash points are now in the strangest places. I was in Moyo the other day, which is a tiny TINY little dirt road town on the border, and they have an ATM. I mean, yeah, it is an ATM with goats in the vestibule and a generator as a power supply, but still, I feel like access to money and safe banking has got to be a sign of improving civilization, right?
Three, and this is the biggee, I couldn't figure out what was different about the streets of Kampala from the ones I remembered from before. They just seemed... modern-er, somehow. Then, this morning, it all fell in to place - they're cleaner! It used to be that every African street was awash in cheap plastic bags and bottles and other ephemera you see in a culture that has no rubbish collection and no sense of civic cleanliness. But this morning, I saw a lady in a green penny on the road sweeping. The ROAD! This is a leap forward.
And fourth, and perhaps most disturbingly, there is a huge golf course in the middle of Kampala, seriously, smack in the middle. Its been there for awhile, but I remember it before being scruffy and icky and a bit like you'd expect a golf course in the middle of Kampala to be. But now? Jesus. It is perfectly maintained, with civilized little bars set up along the green in case you want an al fresco G&T as you're taking your gay foray about the links.
Yes, of course, the majority of the city is still dirt poor and wretched and the damn Maribou Storks are still everywhere like the creepy oversized harbingers of doom that they are. I'm not saying things are suddenly great.
What I AM saying is that, before, like, 5 years before, even the nice bits of Africa weren't that nice, not compared to living in Houston or whatever. That's why the best and brightest all left and now have McMansions in Atlanta. But now, maybe, just maybe, there is a quality of life that can induce a Ugandan to actually stay in Uganda, to stanch the brain drain flow a bit.
Or, maybe, just maybe, I've been living in the boonies for too long and am impressed by things which are, in fact, no better than they were before, only I haven't been out in so long I'm forgetting what real comfort and modernity looks like. I'm almost positive it is the former, though.
Monday, May 5, 2008
My staff knew how much I hated events like that and my pathological fear of dancing so they didn't organize, as initially threatened, a dinner and dancing thing at Marsland, the local restaurant. Instead they did a much more bog standard "gifts and speeches" function in the parking lot of the compound under a red cotton marquee.
It was a combo because two of us were leaving, the other being the head of the women's program, and people were doing speeches about us both. I was quite close with some of the staff and one of them was making a speech and clearly trying to think of the thing he could say that would be the nicest to me. He got stuck, saying "She is like.... she is like.... she is like...." then, you could see in his eyes, inspiration hit: "She is like.... a MAN."
Immediately, the majority of staff, most of whom were men, started cheering and saying "Yes, yes, yes, she is like a man." Every speech about me thereafter included some reference to the fact that I had managed to rise above my lowly sex and relate to them as equals as opposed to as a girl.
Now, obviously, there are issues with this. It is not a good thing that the nicest thing he could think of to say to me was to essentially deny my gender and to denigrate all the, amazing, Darfuri women who were sitting under that marquee. And a better person than I would probably have smiled a gentle smile, laid a hand on his arm, and softlyly pointed out that, in fact, I was not like a man, I was demonstrably and totally a girl and yet, still, he liked me.
In fact, a better person than I, the other honoree, did try to do that, well, she wouldn't have been as gentle, for sure, but she would've gotten her point across. But I stopped her.
Because here is the thing. I was sitting there, in the middle of the desert, under a funeral tent, buried up to my eyeballs in gifts they had used their own money to purchase for me. These were people who had talked me out of violent confrontations with camp leaders, who had defended me against a government that tried to throw me out at every turn, who had invited me in to their homes for weddings and Eid and births and had really been concerned for my safety and sanity when I was trapped out there for 8.5 months and done everything they could to try and make me feel better.
I know it is wrong that they were so gender insensitive when they were trying to compliment me. But, honestly, I wasn't like any woman they knew. I am loud and opinionated and bossy and always take charge even when I shouldn't. Not very Darfuri woman-esque. I wear trousers and shirts that are essentially the equivalent of being naked and have never purposefully covered my head. I sat on the top of trucks throwing down jerry cans, smoked cigarettes with drivers while we waited for a roadblock to clear and generally behaved with so little propriety, in the sense of what a good Fur or Zaghawa or Arab girl would do, that they probably really didn't see me as much of a female.
So I stopped my angry colleague from saying anything and accepted the compliment in the spirit in which, I think, it was intended.
I hope that was the right thing to do.
Let's break that down a bit.
1. Function = four hours of sitting around on plastic lawn chairs which have been arranged in rigid rows, usually on a stage, listening to endless speeches about everything under the sun which ramble on for hours then, just when you are so dazed with the sheer agony of it you couldn't put a coherent limerick together, they call on you to stand up and make comments or give a vote of thanks or something else you are totally unprepared for but expected to do, what with being white and all. After this agony, you will be handed a plate full of oily food you have to eat because everyone is watching then made to do some embarrassing, rear out shuffle dance with a high ranking government official to scratchy, blaring West African music.
2. Kindly request your most esteemed presence = you better be there or next time you come to try and get permission for something we will act like we've never heard of your NGO before and refuse to allow you to build anything. Oh, and we expect you to give us money towards it as well since you'll be there and all.
3. 7pm = sometime around 9 pm, unless you actually do show up at 9 pm, in which case it will definitely have been 7 sharp. Either way, you are either so early you sit there for hours having to make embarrassed conversation with the under-secretary's assistant for weevil reduction who was sent to entertain you or everyone tsk tsks and shakes their heads while you are led by a serious faced person to the stage to take your seat, thereby interrupting the speech of, inevitably, the most powerful person in the room.
Can you tell I just had to go to a function? I hate them so.
Friday, May 2, 2008
On our way to Lire (prettiest spot for a clinic ever) we passed some guys slaughtering a cow on the side of the road. Now, those of you who read the old Thirsty Palmetto (Darfur edition) will remember that I had some unfortunate cow-slaughtering-related incidents in Kassab Camp and so tend to flee at the sight of it. So I kind of encouraged the car that we move on.
Three hours later, after viewing some women making Lulu oil and having LOTS of guys make inappropriate remarks about the khawja girl delivering condoms, we go back through Marajok, the town where the cow met his end. In that space of time, a long set of bamboo stalls had been set up and each one had a different part of the cow for sale. Here, we had two young boys with their baseball caps on backwards and no shirts selling the ribs, here we had two old men with dagger-style knives selling the lining of the intestine and, I think, the reproductive organs, etc etc.
Outside each of the little stalls there was a dude with a piece of paper and a pen and they were basically auctioning off the bits of the cow. I watched my staff strategically place themselves so they could get a bid in on both the ever popular liver chunks and the bits of the neck. After a 15 minute free-for-all where babies tied to the back were whipped around like weapons and a guy with an ax made a very persuasive argument about why he should get some of the tail (I think), there was not a bit of that carcass left and my staff bundled happily back in the car with huge plastic bags full of various and sundry cow pieces.
It was surreal, man.
But it has gotten me thinking about why I do this job. This year, I’ve got the Scotland/Geneva trip, a road trip to Congo and Rwanda, a weekend in Nairobi to see the parents of an old friend, a ton of time in Kampala at a pretty nice hotel (conferences), a workshop in Thailand, I’m thinking about going to Bali or the Maldives after Thailand, I want to try and get to Italy (which I’ve been talking about for approximately 100 years) and on and on and on. And these things are all possible. In fact, they are encouraged by an R&R policy that forces you out on vacation every 3 months and the fact that everywhere is expensive from here, so might as well go places you wouldn’t go otherwise.
Now, recently, I found out about a job I’d have a pretty good shot at in a place that I’ve wanted to live in desperately for awhile now. It is a good job, appropriate responsibility levels and all that and it would let me have a normal life. I could have bookshelves and my own tea pot and English Muffins for breakfast every morning. I could take baths every night with a glass of wine and the radio news on. I could take the time to find a hobby and a personal life and see friends for more than four day stints. I could get fit and start a beauty regime that might stop people thinking I’m in my mid-30s when I’m in fact in my 20s. I could stop giving my mom heart-attacks.
And yet... I’m pretty sure I’m not going to apply. Because if I do it, while I’ll be making fair money, I won’t be making the kind of money that will allow for big international trips regularly. I won’t be spending half my life on single prop planes and helicopters. I won’t be jogging through tukuls and hearing drums at night. It is a proper contract position for three years, so I’ll be tied to one place for longer than I ever have in my life.
The issue isn’t so much this particular job as it is the conflict that it inspired in me. When I left South Africa I thought all I wanted was a normal life. And it isn’t like I’m so brilliantly happy in the field. Still, I find myself hesitating. I mean, what is better? Tea Pots and Bookshelves or Helis and Tukuls?