Monday, June 30, 2008

Easy rider

And I forgot, I got my Sudanese driver's license today! So tonight, for the first time, I got behind the wheel of a big silver Toyota HiLux pickup, i put my Trace Adkins CD in the CD player, rolled down my windows, and cruised the streets of Juba, skidding through dust and mud and ditches the size of fjords, with my arm hangin out the window blasting the song Honkeytonk Badonkadonk.

I am SOOO the coolest person in the known universe right now.

Bring on the chintz

I have become slightly obsessed with the idea of chairs. Chairs and benches.

When I lived in Liberia, in the beginning, I lived in a pretty crap house. And it had all the local-made furniture that other Liberians would have in their homes. A couple WILDLY uncomfortable straight back chairs, a big table, a couple stools and a big bamboo bench thing outside under the tree. It was one of the things that drove me insane about that house, actually, there was nowhere comfortable to sit ever. Which sounds like a stupid thing to say, but think about it. Nowhere comfy to sit EVER. You are ALWAYS in a state of mild discomfort.

So now, driving around the back roads of South Sudan and hangin out in people's homes when I go to do monitoring and stuff I notice, again, South Sudanese don't have chairs. Usually, there will be a couple communal little chairs for a whole block which get trotted out for guests, but they are usually the rigid back wooden ones which are worse than standing, or they may be plastic ones, but only if you're lucky.

Everyone else sits on a couple low stools, on the ground or perched on the edge of the low wall that goes around their tukuls.

And of course, lest we forget, it isn't like they've got big ol' comfy beds in there. Lots of them are sleeping on the dirt on a mat to top it off.

Honestly, I have no idea why I am so enthralled with this idea, but it goes through my head all the time. Is it possible that generations and generations of Africans (and Thai and Burmese and Swedes, for all I know) have gone through their whole lives without ever having a comfortable moment of repose?

God how I love being not from here some times.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The other side of cliche

So this is an article about Myanmar and how, even though the humanitarian aid never got in, all the predictions of mass starvation and disease and death and horror never happened:

Apparently, less catastrophic cyclones hit regularly and the people who live there have very strong coping strategies. So, even without all the food aid and water and sanitation programs and human rights trainings, nobody more really seems to be dying than would be expected with our help.

This is confirming the niggling fear I have that I am doing more harm than good.

If the junta had let all the humanitarian craziness in and we had all dropped out of the sky with our stuff and our registration and everything, these coping strategies wouldn't've been used. People would've become dependent on the NGOs and been organized in to little groups and lists and everything would've been disrupted for god knows how long.


Friday, June 27, 2008

God who needs a better rat-trap? Me!

You know what I get sick of? Everything being gross. Wet, dirty, dusty, sticky, moldy, sweaty, smelly, nasty gross.

Last night I was lying in bed, trying to learn the well known zen art of hearing a billion mosquitoes whining in my ear and not going mad. It was approximately the temperature of a bakery oven in my room, so I was sticking to my sheets and just not happy, when I hear a ratatatatata across my floor, followed by, in rapid succession, the sound of my metal door violently shaking, my mosquito net tearing and more skittering across the floor.

I grabbed my headlamp and turned it on to find:
Rat A - medium sized, brownish, sitting right above me on TOP of my bed net
Rat B - gigantic rodent of unusual size, blackish, grooming is whiskers in the middle of my floor
Rat C - smaller, perched above my door, having climbed up my towel to get there and now running back and forth in a rather distasteful way

For a moment, as the light hit them, they froze. Then they started scurrying around (or freaking out and being stuck in the case of the one above me in the net). Which then continued all night long.

At one point I had to use my feet and pillow to get the one above my bed off. That was the moment where I suddenly saw the appeal of having someone around where you can go "ewwwww, RAT" and they'll come take care of it for you. No spending your whole night sweating, swatting mosquitoes alone, in the dark, with only the dim light from your headlamp and a pillow to protect you from the marauding army of bloodthirsty plague carrying beasts.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Roxanne - the aid worker edition

Sorry, one more rant, then I'm done for the day:

Prostitution is gross. Prostitution with underage girls is really gross. Prostitution with underage girls who are victims of wars or genocide or extreme poverty is both gross and exploitative and just plain yicky. Nobody wants to see that. Seriously. And I KNOW everyone talks about how it is economically successful for the girls and they would rather do it than starve and blah blah blah and I agree. Most of these girls are super excited to get a foreigner as a client who can treat them better and pay them more, inshallah. And I'm not even sure I agree with the rule many of our organizations have that any person who goes to a prostitute will be fired automatically.

But you know what? Still gross.

Please can we all remember that?


Like being in the durn grotto

You know what should never happen? Meetings about HIV treatment and prevention while you are wearing a swim suit. THAT, my friends, is what should never happen.

The US compound here opens up their pool and gym from 2-6 pm on Sundays to let us riff raff in, which is awesome and I love them truly madly and deeply for it. But you find yourself in the oddest position of standing there in your saggiest, most faded, most de-elasticized manky excuse for a swimsuit trying to look professional while the guy who represents your donor, who, I might add, is ill-advisedly wearing those kinda boxer-brief swim trunks Daniel Craig wore in the James Bond movie, asks you about progress towards your indicator of reaching chronically ill in the rural areas.

And by you, of course, I mean me.

Seriously, WHY can there be NO separation of church and state here? We do NOT talk about work when we are wearing spandex. That should just be the rule.

Or are swimsuits made of lycra? Anyway! You know what I mean. People in Juba need new conversation topics.

Saturday, June 21, 2008


Just had the most RANDOM memory. Last year, when I was Darfur, we were doing a team meeting when one of my community mobilizers, a wonderful teeny tiny little woman, just collapsed in to, I kid you not, a coma. We had been joking 10 minutes before, and then, all of a sudden, she's out.

Chaos ensued, needless to say, we hefted her in to the back of a Land Cruiser and rushed down to the hospital.

Checking her in was a process in and of itself, which we won't go in to. But, the rest of the day was spent reading policy documents sitting on a plastic covered mattress next to her and trying to convince nurses to take her blood pressure.

Whilst I was sitting there, there was a huge commotion outside. An unconcious woman was brought in, siezing, while a group of older woman followed behind screaming, shaking their arms at her. Immediately, the doctors shoved rubber tubing down her throat, which woke her up a bit, I'd say, and shot a charcoal solution down the tube causing her to, of course, throw up suddenly and everywhere (a theme this evening).

The story, apparently was that this young girl who was, I'd guess, no more than 15 or so, had been recently married and, one would assume, it wasn't working out too well for her. So she'd swallowed an entire bottle of cleaning fluid.

Her mother-in-law had brought her in, along with a selection of aunts and cousins and such, but they weren't exactly crying tears of remorse. More like throwing fits of rage.

By the end of the day, the poor girl was awake. Seriously, never have I seen such an unhappy person in my life. She lay there, on the hot, sticky plastic mattress, on her side, curled up in the fetal position, staring blankly in the middle distance while five different women screamed at her in different volume and tone levels.

God knows what it was like before and god really knows what it is like now.

Digestive pyrotechnics - with tusks

I'm back in Juba after a very VERY early flight and feeling very very tired. So, ya know, I'm lying in bed, watching the great love of my life, Hugh Laurie, on the DVD (by the way, I TOTALLY want to be the parents from Fortysomething) and start hearing the most terrifying coming from outside my room.

I, who am rarely at a loss for words, can not think of a single way to describe it. Imagine the sound a a walrus coughing up a lung, a liver and part of the small bowel all whilst trying to sing amateur opera. And, perhaps, someone is stabbing him at the same time.

Oddly, this cacophony didn't distract me at first. I mean, yeah, in the back of my mind I was vaguely aware that someone was murdering an operatic, ill walrus in the compound, but this didn't really register as someone that needed to be investigated.

Finally, I realised it was rather unlikely that arctic aquatic mammals were being slaughtered in my tropical courtyard, so I plopped on some flip flops and went outside. Our house is surrounded by a sort of low grass fence and just on the other side there was an extremely thin, deeply ill man throwing up everything he's eaten. Ever. Since the beginning of time. In a truly spectacular manner.

I'm not too sure what his affliction is and I feel abso-freakin-lutely awful for him. Not to mention he's going to be doing it all night. How restful.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

What things go

There was a session today where refugees who have started their own organizations in their camps gave talks about their lives and the challenges of being a non-traditional provider of care.

One of the men giving a talk was showing things about his life, and all of sudden, up there on a screen, in a power point slide, was a picture of a man standing in the middle of the forest with two small children, next to two mounds covered in wild flowers. "When I was a young man, all I wanted was to have a wonderful wife and beautiful children. Life doesn't turn out the way we think. This is a picture of when I buried my wonderful wife and my beautiful daughter. My wife was raped by soldiers and she didn't want to worry me so she didn't tell me and she didn't get care and she was given HIV. My daughter was born with it too and they both died when we were fleeing the war."

It was such a stark, horrible thing to just have said like that. Just out there. People do go through some absolutely wretched things.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

I'm a Carrie

One thing I forgot. On my night off on Friday I went to see Sex and the City at the movie theater in Kampala. A Real Movie Theater. In Kampala.

For two hours, sitting in that theater, eating my popcorn, laughing at the dirty jokes, I totally forgot where I was.

Then I walked out and had to engage in full contact negotiations with the wretched little boda boda drivers which reminded me exactly where I was. Not too often in DC or London I have to cling to the back of an insanely driven dirt bike to get home.

Me and Quennie, we're like this

Wow, the life of luxury is really really busy. Who knew? I'm working way more than I thought I would have to, so very little time to reflect on fun in Uganda.

I am staying in SUCH a stupidly nice place. It is a hotel that was built for the meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Sates. Which means the Queen stayed here. Oh yeah, I'm that cool, I frequent the same places as her royal highness.

It's on Lake Victoria, outside Kampala. When we arrived, myself and two friends also from the field, we were embarrassing. Seriously. We're all, like "Ohmigod look at the panneling on the floor, ohmigod look at the sinks in the bathroom, ohmiGOD they're giving us complimentary passion fruit juice. Wheeeeeee."

This please has become a major center for meetings in East Africa, so you find yourself cruising past a table of men in really nice suits discussing, say, oil rights for Niger and then bumping in to a peace negotiator for some civil disturbance as you try to avoid seeing the woman you had a fight with in Sierra Leone who is apparently here on a conference for gender based violence in the next conference room. It's that kinda place.

I think I'm glad that I don't live the consultant, fancy, hopping from four star hotel to four star hotel kind of a life though. Because, seriously, when we drove in and saw the infinity pool and the horse back riding stables and the fully equipped gym and the BATH TUB it was heaven. A moment of pure, perfect bliss. I'd hate to lose that, to have this all be a mere stop along the way instead of a really freakin fabulous hotel.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Movin on up

Today I head out for two weeks in Uganda for various and sundry meetings and such. In a really REALLY nice resort. I mean, I have to share a room with a colleague but still... treadmills... swimming pools.... verandas! Vaguely colonial British Raj lifestyle and hot showers! Buffets people!

I've been dreading it but now, I'm a little jazzed.

Anyway, I started this posting with the intention of saying 'Oh, well, ya know, I'll be in developed Africa for a bit, so don't expect any posts, blah blah blah' however, upon reflection, y'all only ever get one side of aid world from me, the field-based, mud covered, sickly side. There is another side, the consultant, UN, six figure salary, having a conference on world poverty in a $400 a night hotel side. This isn't quite that, but it is similar.

So expect dispatches from the dark side coming your way soon.

Did I mention the satellite tv and air con? Oh baby!

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Shoulda been a mercenary... and a boy

I've been meeting some different types of people this weekend, due to a constellation of coincidences I spent most of the weekend not hanging out with other UN and NGO types but, instead, with the private sector and military/mercenary crowd.

Which means a couple of things:

1) I have been mildly assaulted more times in the past 48 hours than in the past 5 years combined. Seriously, these security guys can NOT handle their liquor and get confused and start thinking that the word "Hello" is girl code for "Please lurch at me with your huge, over muscled 6"4' frame and try to kiss me, all while pouring your rum and coke on my feet.

2) I have heard more stories that involve phrases like "When I was in Mogadishu in '95..." or "Hey, Al, do you remember that firefight out of Kandahar? No, not that one, the one with the thing that... yeah, that one."

3) Kabila's old helicopter pilot bought me a few rounds of drinks because he liked my jewelry (the beaded forever 21 necklace from New Years two years ago and the cuff from Truworths, in case anyone was wondering).

Kabila, by the way, for those who don't know, was the leader/man with the guns of The Democratic Republic of Congo (I'm talking about Kabila the elder, who was killed, not Kabila the younger). This guy, a white kenyan, somehow became his personal heli pilot and, after around beer 15 or 16, has some very interesting stories to tell about the kind of fear that can greet a huge white Kenyan dude landing in the middle of the jungle with a commander in the back.

I have to say, other than the constant pawing, it is nice to hang out with the non-NGO people occasionally. There are a lot more off color jokes, a lot more mildly uncomfortable stories and a lot more smoking, but, at the same time, there isn't all the work talk and they just seem to have a much better perspective on why they are here.

Which is to make money.

Yes most honorable and exalted commander sir

I was sitting out the other night at a friend's tented camp, having a drink and relaxing at the end of the week under the glow of the kerosene lamps (this friend's tented camp has no power) which made it hard to see the others who were scattered around the platform.

Suddenly, this large Sudanese man in a suit turns to me and stares me down with a, it must be said, pretty aggressive glare. "I am Commander Deng" he tells me, "But you can call me the Honorable Deng."

Of course.

Honorable Commander Deng, I come to find out, was one of the senior rebel commanders during the war. Honorable Commander Deng is now an extremely powerful man in the South Sudanese assembly, being the head of the law and security committee, the chair of the SPLM caucus and generally just a man not be trifled with. Honorable Commander Deng feels that of ALL the horrors of the war, the killings, the looting, the displacement, the subjugation, the most awful thing, the thing that is really going to kill South Sudan, you know what it is? Women and girls no longer ask permission before they go out. Men are no longer able to control the movements of their women-folk quite as much as they did.

Now, obviously, Honorable Commander Deng could have me arrested, beaten, deported or killed pretty much with a twitch of his little finger so, uncharacteristically, I kept my mouth shut.

But I always find coming across these old rebel guys interesting. They are almost never good and noble men, as you would hope. They are usually arrogant, misogynistic, violent assholes (please excuse my language) who spent too long living in the jungle with a gun.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Breathless Wonder

I was suffused with SUCH goodwill for South Sudan this morning. I was driving out to the airstrip from the office in Yei and from the minute I left the compound, everything was just so damned picturesque.

Right outside the gate, there was a long tallllllllll man with his little one year old son perched on the back of the bike, hanging on to the frame like a monkey and staring at everything going past with huge, serious eyes.

Women were walking in to market with their wraps, tied like colored frat party togas over one shoulder and baskets full of greens on their heads.

Three men walked past me, pushing cycles loaded down with logs which looked like they weighed around 1,000 pounds each as they sank further and further in to the mud.

A truck ahead of me was loaded down with bags of sorghum and, perched on top, five children sat clapping and singing songs at passersby. One of them was wearing a huge, yellow fur cossacks hat with ear flaps that covered his whole head and was clearly his prize possession.

Soldiers, their guns dangling off their toes by their straps, sat on the top a truck's cab, staring at me with, for once, friendliness instead of some sort of lecherous suspicion.

AND it was bright blue sky sunny.

AND there was a light cool breeze coming through the window.

AND Dolly Parton was on the radio.

There are just moments where it works, you know? And all of a sudden I forget how much I hate all the nonsense and the fighting and the bugs and the swollen eyes and how much I love being in a different country on a pretty day.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Total tart for a guy with a strong position on peacekeeping

I have the biggest crush on Alex de Waal. Have done for years. The few times I've met him, I've been reduced to a quivering mess of jelly who can't coherently get out a sentence.

Most of you are wondering who Alex de Waal is, I know. He's a humanitarian theorist and pundit who has written on any number of things, food aid, HIV and Darfur being what he's best known for. But he's just so passionate and smart and....

Yeah, I get a bit overwhelmed.

Anyway, he has an excellent op-ed on the BBC right now that basically says what I always was screaming about when I was in Darfur. This isn't a genocide, it is a horrible, messy awful war where there are no good guys anymore and everyone is culpable. Further, there is no WAY a military solution will ever lead to lasting peace, it will just lead to more fragmentation of the rebels groups and more isolation of Khartoum as they fear a forced regime change by Western countries.

Only he says it much better.

Sigh.... SUCH a big crush.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Mixed messages

I got home from beers last night and was just settling in to bed when I heard a single gun shot behind our house. Now, those who remember the Darfur blog remember when I (arrogantly) laid out what gun fire to be worried about and what gunfire was "o.k". Single shots are definitely worrying.

It turns out that a man was beating his wife and her family intervened and someone was killed. It isn't clear who it was, if it was the husband or a family member, but the family's intervention in to this man's beating led to someone dying.

Earlier, oddly, I had been talking with my staff about this very subject. I was wondering if people will intervene when they hear a woman being beaten. The general consensus was that, while a certain amount of wife abuse is considered right and proper for a man, if he is really wailing on her, the community will intervene, even going so far as to beat the door down to rescue the woman.

Now, that is pretty remarkable, don't you think? I can't imagine a situation in the States where someone would break down the door of someone else's house to rescue a woman who was being smacked around. Maybe, maybe they'd call the police to report a domestic disturbance, but, more likely, they would turn up the volume on American Idol, shake their heads about the trash living next door and give a sympathetic/pitying/censuring look to the woman when they saw her walking out with a black eye the next day.

God knows there are so so many things wrong with gender relations here. Women are subservient and women are expected to act as their husbands chattel, for sure. But there is something about the communal idea of protection, that a woman's family would come and defend her to the point of death that I find... heartening.

Monday, June 2, 2008

The end of the era of icky face - inshallah

I woke up this morning to find my face had gone down to almost no swelling (and, better yet, almost no pain!) and eye is half open. Yay for steroids!

Now just working on the eyelid, which has cracked from the swelling, and trying to get the rest of the swelling in my face down.

Drama for the day completed!

Here's the new and improved me:

Sunday, June 1, 2008

One of those East Coast papers anyway

I was wrong, not the article isn't in the New York Times, it is in the Washington Post. The link is:

Face has gotten much worse, the thinking seems to be now that it is some sort of strange edema and so I am going on high dose steroids. Which apparently will make me fat and hairy. Which is SUPER exciting.