Monday, August 25, 2008

San Fran it ain't

I am facilitating a workshop on HIV right now in Juba which is completely exhausting and boring and I'll be thrilled (THRILLED) when it is done. In the course of this workshop, I have to talk a lot about men having sex with men, since this is a major risk group for HIV worldwide. It is not, however, as you can imagine, a popular topic with Sudanese who tend to be a a skooooosh on the homophobic side.

There I am, talking about how, in an emergency, you have to work with health staff so they don't discriminate against gay men. This extremely dignified Dinka man, in a lovely suit with tribal markings etched across his forehead, raises his hand and says "But why?" "But why, what?" I ask, clearly confused.

He says, in the most reasonable, matter of fact, trying to be clear to someone who is clearly slightly mentally challenged voice, "Men who have sex with other men are sick and diseased and they must die. I would not waste the precious resources on this person who is cursed anyway."

I look up from my notes so that I can catch looks of horror on everyone's face (most of whom are expatriates, like me, though they are all expats from other African countries) and instead, there is a sea of thoughtful, nodding faces in front of me, all clearly relieved that the obvious and right thing has FINALLY been said.

Not much coming back from that, really.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Kenya cowgirl

I just got back from a mini-break in Nairobi. Literally, on Saturday afternoon I decided I had to get out, called my friend, bought my ticket, was on a flight less than 12 hours later Sunday morning, back Wednesday morning in time for work.

Now, I have always had a soft spot for Nairobi. It was the first place I ever went to in Africa, it was the site of my triumphant return years later, and I just like it. Others loathe it, I know, and with good reason. It is crowded, crime ridden, cold and pricey.

But MAN did I have a good time. I got my hair done, a mani-pedi, shopping, a massage, lying around in bed under the duvet watching DVDs while it was grey and chilly outside, hot showers, wine filled dinners with friends next to a big clay pot fire. Fabulous.

Also, I'm not sure enough people who aren't actually in Kenya are aware, but much of Nairobi is actually quite beautiful. It is extremely lush, with trees everywhere shading all the roads, flowers and flowerbeds as far as the eye can see, lovely old stone British raj cottages tucked away down winding paths. And, as mentioned, COLD. Like, need a puffer jacket cold to my poor, ruined internal thermostat.

I was also there to take care of a friend who was sick, which was less fun. Poor thing has approximately a million diseases, including some nasty malaria. I, of course, being the former queen of malaria, now parasite free for almost 20 months thank you very much, can sympathize HUGELY with this state of being and was happy to do the whole mopping the brow, re-making the bed every two minutes as his fevers broke thing. The things we do to our bodies, I swear.

So, anyway, I'm now back in Juba and a bit conflicted. I like Juba and I like my job and all that, but MAN getting out from under that duvet and in to the car this morning was the hardest thing ever.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Biker babe

Last night at about 8.00 pm, I'm on the back of a motorcycle, sitting side saddle, getting damp in the light rain that was falling in the aftermath of a furious thunderstorm. We're in the big market, which is pitch black except for the light of trash fires burning on the side of the road, kerosine lanterns and bare bulbs lit from small tiger generators. The fires throw up that unique smell of woodsmoke and plastic, so familiar to people used to living in Africa. We bobbed and weaved through the huge mudholes and hordes of people out chatting, visiting, working, cooking and generally just congesting the streets, leading me to be convinced that my boda boda driver was going to kill someone. When we got to the big intersection in the market, where the mosque is, a van drove past full of young girls, all singing hymns, oddly, all the ambient noise in the market had died down in that moment so all I heard was the sound of their voices and the patter of rain on my hoodie.

All this to say I sometimes forget how great the little experiences of my day are. They really are pretty freakin fabulous.

Friday, August 15, 2008

What we leave behind

One of the girls killed in Afghanistan had a blog, much like this one, which was passed on to me by a mutual friend. I've been trying desperately not to read it and obsessively going back to it all day.

I didn't know her, we just knew people in common, but I get a sense of her from the blog. She seemed very funny, very aware of the challenges and ridiculousness of the situation of trying to work in Afghanistan and just... nice.

At the same time, I find it all to be very macabre, this getting to know someone after their death via random little bon mots on a google blog page. I hate to think that the Thirsty Palmetto would be my legacy to the world.

I know, I know, I'm not being very fun or funny right now, and I'm sorry for that. For some reason, it is like a mini-obsession, these women and what happened to them. Particularly for those of us who used to work for the organization. I don't know if it is the "it could've been me" or if it is just that we can imagine so clearly the pain and confusion and just wretchedness of their colleagues right now.

Cheerful cheerful cheerful.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Coming storm

OK, the panic is now mixing with rage. Apparently, the Taliban contacted a local radio station and claimed responsibility for the killings right away. Which means it was definitely planned and targeted, this was deliberate.

These women were coming from the Gardiz Field site, they were living out in the middle of nowhere in, I'm sure, not great conditions and WHAT THE HELL gives these THUGS the right to just up and take their lives and for what? Sure, don't agree with what we're doing, sometimes I don't agree with what we're doing. But to go up to a car, a car of WOMEN no less, and blithely shoot them dead for some agenda they probably don't even understand....

I feel so much rage over this. I don't expect gratitude for doing this work, I don't expect adulation from the population, I don't even expect protection. I do expect that my colleagues and I won't be targeted and shot.


Nothing funny or snarky for once

An organization which I used to work for lost three international and one national staff in Afghanistan today. From early reports, it sounds like they were targeted, gunmen came up next to their car, emptied rounds in and killed them all.

The names of the victims haven't been released yet, their families haven't been notified. What this has meant is panicked skypes, e-mails and facebook messages being sent around from friend to friend, all checking in, making sure, trying to find out "am I mourning in specific right now, or in general?" I've covered most of my bases, but there are still a few people we're trying to track down. It is a pretty sickening feeling.

I often say that I am not a fan of the over-securitized nature of aid work today. I think smart, sensible precautions should be taken based on the situation in the site but, as well, we all are taking a certain amount of risk when we take these jobs. And I still believe it. An attack like this hasn't happened in ages, there was no reason for the staff to think they were in any more danger than usual. We have to balance the persistent undercurrent of threat with the reality of delivering services.

That said, my god, the poor country director. The agonies he must be going through right now, not that any of it at ALL is his fault.

It just breaks my heart. I'm so sorry for everyone.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Man of the people

Oh, and I forgot, in other news, I had to drag my very sunburnt, very tired, very not intellectually at the top of my game self out to Konyo Konyo Market, the biggest slum of a nasty, sewage infested disease pit you can imagine, to go meet Congressman Donald Payne of New Jersey. He was out here to see some HIV projects and I needed to brief him and be there to answer questions and be, ya know, American.

It was a fine visit, we took him out to where the commerical sex workers and drivers live, next to a football field in rattan shacks. It was quite the visual, seeing him walking across the rivers of raw sewage in his nice leather loafers and beautifully cut suit. To his credit, he never flinched.

At the very end I was shaking his hand and I said "It was a real pleasure to meet you sir" and I suppose my accent came out, he suddenly stopped, did a double take and said "Where are you from?" I told him my deeply southern state and he said "I didn't hear it before, don't lose that accent."

What an odd thing to be noticed for.

Worms and crocs can't stop me now

Alright, I know I said no personal life, but this is just WAY TOO COOL to not share.

A friend of mine was turning 30 here in Juba which is, as you can imagine, a disappointment on many levels, and it was felt that something extremely cool had to be done to improve this situation. What was the natural conclusion? Tubing on the Nile, of course!

For those who don't know, tubing is when you either a) attach inner tubes to the back of a boat and try to hang on or b) get in inner tubes and float down a river whilst drinking beer and, usually in my case, singing lots of off key country music ballads.

We realized that neither of these options met our needs completely because in option a and b, you are at the mercy of the river, which flows EXTREMELY quickly here and also because there are crocs in the river, in theory, and we didn't want to be too far from the boat. So it was decided that we would just tie the tubes off the boat and let the boat and the tubes float down stream.

This brings us to the next problem. Inner tubes. This is Juba, I can't run down to WalMart. So began my epic journey in to the heart of the Malakiya market, going from shack to shack talking with a zillion men about 12X24 versus Cruiser and trying, subtly, to figure out how big the inner tube of a tire really is versus the breadth of my backside. In the end, I got in a bargaining war with Saoud, a nice gentleman from Kordofan, who sat and battled with me for about 35 minutes. We alternated a lot between laughing, yelling, big gesticulations and pretending to walk away (on both our parts, which was odd, since it was his shop, not really sure where he thought he was going). In the end, the price I got was so low my Dinka logisitician said he wouldn't've been able to get that.

On the day, then, around 15 of us got in a a lovely little oversized canoe of a boat with an outboard motor and a canvas roof and set off down the river. Within 20 minutes, I was in the water, getting, probably, a whole host of new parasites, drinking my beer which was firmly ensconced in a Piggly Wiggly coozie. Because I am the sort of girl who has a beer coozie in Southern Sudan.

Seriously, it was such a lovely day. We laughed, we sang songs, we swam, we ate Ethiopian cake, we drank Ugandan Waragi and beer and just generally forgot where we were.

At least I did. And now, I can always say I went tubing down the Nile. Sweet.

Friday, August 8, 2008

When the bombs fall

A friend of mine posted some pictures yesterday of him and his colleagues all in flack jackets and helmets hunkering down during a mortar attack in Baidoa, Somalia, where he works.

My first reaction, TOTAL jealousy. Like, sick to my stomach jealousy.

I'm really of two minds about this these days.

On the one hand, here in post-conflict land (or even in, god forbid, development land like Nairobi or something), I have bars, restaurants, parties every weekend, I can more or less move freely, I do things like boat rides on the Nile and sitting by the pool eating nachos. I have friends and a boyfriend and a life outside work and my compound (kind of).

On the other hand, I'm not getting shot at, there isn't any real danger, the work is all going to meetings with government and writing five year plans, the urgency is totally absent and the camaraderie, while probably more real, is so much less intense.

I would like to say that now that I have turned 28, I realize that being in a war zone isn't fun and all the things you give up aren't worth the small amount of excitement and I now see that all these other things in my life, these things I've put off for so long, add a richness and a depth that was lacking before.

Really, though, I just keep flipping back to my friend's pictures and going "DAMN I wish I was there."

Monday, August 4, 2008

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

As many of you know, I have an obsession with celebrity gossip. I'd love to say I'm not proud of it, ya know what, I am. I am PROUD that I know the name of all celebrity spawn and who dated who when and what starlet was caught in a compromising situation in the back of a 7-11 in Tahoe. I am.

So today, I'm reading all my Hollywood blogs and I see the, awful, story about Morgan Freeman being in a car accident in Mississippi. It is all very sad, and I'm serious when i say that, but there was one bit that mystified me, this statement: "The star was driving his 1997 Nissan Maxima when he went off the road."

1997 Nissan Maxima? Seriously? The man was in The Shawshank Redemption! He's in the new Batman! He won as OSCAR for god's sake! He couldn't spring for, like, a 2004 Jetta minimum?

I know, I know, horrible things are going on in Africa, the groups are re-arming in Congo, Bashir is on the warpath in Sudan, oil workers are kidnapped in Nigeria and John McCain is calling Obama the messiah.

But still, admit it, you are ALL a little befuddled right now about why Morgan Freeman's wheels of choice are something a high schooler who sweeps the backrooms at a Pick n' Pay would drive.