Saturday, November 29, 2008

The blank stare always wins

Illegal checkpoints have become a bit of a problem here in Juba lately. They are run by a combination of army, police and random guys with sticks and are usually shakedown operations where they'll charge you indeterminate amounts of money for violating a non-existent curfew.

Last night I was chauffeuring, as per usual, and was heading back to my house at about midnight, a perfectly acceptable time to be on the road WELL before the UN-recommended bed time of 1.00 am. I'm cruisin' along the airport road, listening to my music, when I round the corner and see a wall of lights and men with guns and sticks.


Not being my first checkpoint, I immediately slowed down, dimmed my lights, turned on the inside dome light, turned off the music and put my hands on the steering wheel with my ID in one hand facing out at them. The come up, smacking the car with their canes and generally trying to be scary.

"Get out, get out." I get out. Proceed with waving the canes in my face. "Why are you out? It's past curfew." "There is no curfew" "Where do you live." "Hai Tomping" "Why are you out so late?" "I am going home." "Why are you violating the curfew, you must pay." "There is no curfew." etc etc etc.

This went on for a good bit, with me just holding my ID out in front of me and saying there is no curfew and him hollering and waving his stick around and getting more agitated that i wasn't going for my wallet.

See, what I knew was that, unlike the poor Sudanese guys standing over on the curb looking miserable, I am a well dressed, respectable, non-drunk white girl with all documentation in order and a blank stare. I might as well have been wearing kevlar for all they could do to me.

I finally was shoved in my car in disgust and they all started banging on my car with their canes as I drove away.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Americana and Stan

I can not even tell you how ill, yet happy, I feel right now.

As I believe you all know, Stan, my friendly stomach something or another, was with me for the past few months, cutting me down to about half a meal a day, stripping me of around 30-35 pounds, and, apparently shrinking my stomach to the size of Posh Spice's.

Knowing all this, once my American friend and I decided we were going to go to one of the many Thanksgiving dinners being provided by different camps around town, I was determined to do it proud. I would gorge myself, no matter what.

Oh. My. God. I sat by the Nile, staring at my plate with the kind of determination usually reserved for hostage rescue missions and ate two pieces of turkey, a mound of stuffing the size of my head, green bean casserole and... wait for it... pumpkin pie.

I immediately, of course, thought I was going to die and spent most of the night writhing around in my bed groaning, but still, TOTALLY ROCKED.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Chronology of Sudan time

I attend a lot of meetings. It doesn’t sound quite a glamorous as I save small children with my bare hands in war-torn villages, but, well, it’s the reality of the job. To put even more of a spin on this, I attend a lot of meetings in Africa. Which means there are certain quirks.

Such as the one I am in right now. It was supposed to start at 8.30 am. I asked the organizers if that was a real 8.30 or a Sudan 8.30 (which is more like 10.30 or 11.00). “Oh no,” she says, “We have SO much to do, it is a very packed agenda, we will start at 8.30 sharp.”

Its 10.00 right now, the organizers haven’t even appeared yet, I’m being ostracized as the only non-Sudanese in the room and making very good progress on getting through the e-mails in my inbox.

10.45 - still not here. Sudan time strikes again. I’m thinking I may take up meditation to try to control my temper. Still being ostracized by the rest of the room.

11.15 – the team comes in. They don’t apologize. I’m told now we won’t be getting out until 6.30 and they’re just lounging around instead of actually starting the meeting.

11.30 – the room is excruciatingly hot, we’re all wilting. Because this was, in theory, an important meeting, I’m wearing my professional clothes (pencil skirt, nice shirt and wedge heels) and actually made an effort with my hair (which is now in a bun on my head) and makeup, which has now slid off my face. I have no idea what the UN person at the front of the room is rambling on about, I just want a Coke Light and a nap.

Did I mention it is Thanksgiving today? I should be eating turkey and stuffing right now.

11.40 – We’ve opened the windows to try and get some air, but it has let in the flies, those Sudanese flies you used to see on famine relief programs in the 80s and 90s. The ones that sit on your nose and eyes. I’m covered.

12.00 – Rights are good. Women have a tough time in Sudan. Repeat over and over and over again. In heavy Sudanese accents.

Still no tea or caffeine today. I’m being punished for something.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Lager lout

I'm back in Juba, wildly busy and insanely bitter and depressed about being here, so I'm going to tell an anecdote from London until I get off my little stroppy horse.

I'm sitting in a pub garden with one of my best friends, her boyfriend and all of his mates, who have all just spent the day at the rugby and are hence very... what's the word I want... ebullient. We were sitting out back, telling inappropriate jokes, mocking each other mercilessly and, quite regularly, when someone said a word that made them think of a song lyric, they would all burst into loud, off key and absolutely hysterical singing. There is something about being in a cold but cozy pub garden at 10.30 at night surrounded by four lads in Rugby jerseys laughing and singing Sweet Caroline at the top of their lungs which is just priceless.

It was the first unabashedly happy moment I've had in, probably, eight or nine months.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

My tiara is at the cleaners

I just spent the afternoon with a princess. Seriously. Belgium has a monarchy still (who knew?) and in this monarchy there is a King, two Queens (dowager and current) and a passel of princes and princesses. One of them, Princess Astrid, apparently has some connection to "women's issues" and she came to observe our session today.

We were doing a mock press conference, learning how to present the issue of rape and sexual violence to the press in a way that was ethical and that they would report on. So, anyway, the princess, who is very pretty, comes in with her retainers and one of those retainers took a shine to me, goes over and drags the princess over to talk to me.

She walks up and I do the most natural, and TOTALLY WRONG thing in the world - - I stuck my hand out and shook her hand. This is not something we do. We do not encroach our icky, Sudan-infected, freezing cold hand into royalty's personal space. She shook it, but the look on all be-ribboned faces of the people around me was classic, pure "oh my god cloddish American."

We actually had a good chat and she was very engaged and charming. Life just gets weirder and weirder.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Gonna buy me a lovebird

I just think this is funny. Ghent has all these little squares scattered throughout the town, as European towns will tend to do, and these squares fill up with booths on the weekend, as squares in European towns will tend to do. But each square will be just one thing. So today I'm going around, you've got your flower square, oh pretty, you've got your cheese square, yum, you've got your bread square, yum again but then you've also got your, hand to god this is true, exotic bird square and big tanks of tropical fish square.

It is just unbelievably surreal to be standing in a misty, cold, dark cobbled courtyard under the harsh gaze of a statue of some Flemish hero or another surrounded by squawking cockatoos and clearly miserable parrots staring at your from their cages.

The other side of the story

Click here for an amazing article on the displaced in Eastern Congo. It describes really well the insanity of life for people who are multiply displaced and the pathetic job most of us do, as humanitarians, to meet needs in acute emergencies.

When I was a camp manager in Darfur I learned to live with a certain amount of hatred from everyone in my camp and a certain amount of mind numbing guilt over my knowledge that I wasn't meeting their needs. The result of this hatred and guilt was a sort of blase resentment, where the camp residents became the enemy, charlatans seeking only to lie, cheat and steal from the aid complex.

This article is an elegantly written refutement of that mindset.

Plus, there is a great phrase "predatory militias" that just so captures what the armed forces are like in fragmented conflict and I'm a sucker for beautiful wordsmithing.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Save the bank account

Turns out, I don't love consumerism as much as I thought. Shopping gets really boring really quickly.

I did get a bit crazy with the hair, though.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Barbie girl

On a less censorious note, I've re-discovered shopping. Slowly slowly the joy of walking into a store, buying a whole new persona, handing over a piece of plastic that represents money you never see, and walking out convinced that now ye shall be happy because you have pretty brown boots with blue trim is seeping back into me.

Ghent doesn't even have great stores, yet STILL I've managed to spend 70 Euros on underwear and approximately 200 Euros on jeans and shirts. I'm now contemplating cutting my hair short, getting a fringe and dying it blonde. Just because I can. I should not be allowed out of Sudan ever, clearly, I can't handle the freedom.

I'm supposed to be paying LOTS of attention to important things about, you know, saving people, all day long. Instead, I find myself having internal conversations about whether I can pull off leg warmers.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

I'm practicaly a country music song

As I've mentioned about 1,000 times, I haven't lived in the States for a long time and I've got big reservations about the possibility of moving back. BUT, all that said, I'm extremely proud of being American, always have been.

I find it odd, I've heard so many people in the past two days saying they're proud to be an American again or they no longer feel ashamed of their country and on and on and on. This is a view that seems particularly prevalent to those of us who have chosen to live outside the US.

I have to say, I find this odd and a bit insulting. My pride in my country has nothing to do with who is in the White House or Senate or whatever. Those people are all, lets be honest, egomaniacal politicians who's actions and decisions will always be colored by opinion polls and what was said in the Times editorial or what some creepy lobbyist whispers in their ear over canapes.

I'm proud I'm an American because of a whole host of reasons too silly to list here, ranging from opportunities for refugees in Abilene Texas to the genius of a nation that invents Go-Gurt. And none of that has anything to do with McCain, Obama, Bush or Palin.

Who knew I was so patriotic.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

DANGIT. Brrrrrrrrr.

I'm in Belgium. Belgium is cold. And wet. I realise this isn't a rocket science thing to say but MAN I am not used to this. I'm really hungry, so I'm trying to work up the guts to walk outside. Wearing my sandals and socks. Because I am that cool.

When did I become such a loser?