Thursday, December 14, 2006

Another one bites the dust...

We lost another vehicle today...

In a security meeting a friend leaned over and whispered, 'so, were they [the hijackers] armed?' I was indignant. 'Yes! Of course they were armed! We might be losing a car a day but it's not yet to the point that we're giving them away to people who don't have guns!'

However, there's now talk that maybe the no-vehicle club should start hijacking our own vehicles to get them back. We're trying to think out of the box here.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Membership has it's privileges...

Dear [Name]:

On behalf of the board of directors and members of the South Darfur Chapter of the No-Vehicles-Club we would like to extend a kind invitation to join! We are eager to get to know you and together forward the mission of delivering humanitarian relief without vehicles.

You might be asking yourself, what are the benefits and advantages of membership? Well, membership has it’s privileges. The first is our snazzy logo which can be made into shirts and worn by staff as they travel on donkey carts and hang off buses. It makes a statement and that statement is, ‘Vehicles, shmehicles! Vehicles are for wusses! We don’t need no stinkin’ vehicles to get to remote locations and dig boreholes; carry medicine and food!’ Second, at gunpoint, have you ever found yourself struggling to find the words for: ‘thanks for the kind offer to hijack our vehicles…but we already gave…’? Simply post our logo on a sign outside your compound and the roving militias will know that they’re wasting their time traumatizing your staff and promptly move on to another NGO. Third, you will save a lot of money not having to invest in those ‘no weapons’ stickers, drivers, spare tires, etc. Fourth, you’ll enjoy our mix and mingle activities with the West and North Darfur chapters where you can retell time and again how, exactly, your vehicles were lost.

We hope you are able to join us, as we feel that you would make a meaningful contribution to our membership. Again, welcome to the South Darfur Chapter.


Chapter President

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Missing vehicle club

A very elite club has been formed in Nyala. The agencies-who’ve-had-vehicles-stolen club. I can hardly think of a softer target than a bunch of westerners driving around in very expensive vehicles with very expensive communications equipment with no-guns stickers on the window. We might as well have a sign in Arabic that says, ‘steal me, please! We can’t protect ourselves anyway!’ Another two land cruisers were stolen at gunpoint last night making it 12 that have gone missing in the last month in South Darfur alone - not counting the West and North. Now, the problem is that if it’s going to be an elite club not just everyone can join – but so many vehicles are being stolen that everyone’s clamouring to get in. I think we’re going to have to up the ante and make it that, while you used to gain admittance by having two vehicles stolen, now you have to have three. It’s the only way to preserve the elite nature of the membership.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Sometimes you just have to laugh...

I’m not sure why I find this so funny. It could be the late hour. I could be loosing it. It was about 11:00pm and I was sitting at my computer this evening after having a lovely day off. We had a bunch of friends over for a brunch, I laid out in the sun, did a bit of painting, went for a run and then sat down to work my way through some e-mails. I got a text from a friend which read: ‘You left your radio in my vehicle. Buzz before you come to get it or I’ll drop it off on my way to jail.’ The funny thing is he’s not kidding. He might be going to jail tomorrow. It’s a long and complicated story/lawsuit in which the organization for which he works is being sued and, as the head of that organization here, the government has decided to arrest him. (I could wax eloquent about the rule of law but it would all be completely sarcastic and unhelpful.) Then, the security officer for another organization calls me to ask what I know about the evacuation of one of our field sites tomorrow. ‘Evacuation…’ I said trying not to sound both ignorant and unaware. ‘Hmmm…right…evacuation, well…hmmm…haven’t been in contact with that location today (BECAUSE IT’S MY ONLY DAY OFF!!!)…but can I make some calls and get back to you in ten minutes?’ I then wake up our deputy programme director and the head of OCHA – just for good measure – to find out how I’m so uninformed. They were both, of course, delighted to hear from me at that hour. Turns out it’s not an evacuation, it’s a ‘relocation’ – the difference between the two is mainly found in that if it were an evacuation we would all begin screaming hysterically and running around in circles into each other, whereas a relocation is much more low-key. We’ve got time for breakfast and coffee in the morning. I call back with my information and now it’s midnight and I’m wound up. My options are either stay up until I feel tired or take Tylenol PM - which I really can’t do because if everything does go wrong in the night and I need to begin screaming and running hysterically I just might not be up for it.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The 25 Most Important Questions in the History of the Universe

Things like: How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? Or, why won't pineapple and Jello be friends? Or, why are Grape-Nuts neither grape nor nuts?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

What No One Tells You

I wish there was a school for humanitarian aid workers. In this school they would tell you all the things you’re supposed to know, and don’t, when you arrive in any given disaster or war. They would tell you that your job will not be even remotely exotic, adventurous or exciting. They would tell you that you will spend a great quantity of your time finding out if, and how, people are stealing, how to catch them and how to fire them. They would tell you that you are not going to save anyone’s life – that you are not helping the war you’re going to and, in fact, that you might be prolonging it. They would tell you that you will spend a lot of time with other people, exactly like yourself at coordination and security meetings. They would teach you important things that help you get by – like how to enjoy drinking lukewarm water, how to change a tire, stop a leak, tie a knot, what all those gadgets on your pocket knife are for, how to remove splinter without tweezers and how to smuggle more luggage than allowed through airline check-ins. There would be a language course in how to explain Avian Bird Flu to people whose language you don’t speak. There would be special classes on keeping your sanity in 42+ degrees Celsius, how to pretend you don’t have diarrhoea, how to enjoy drinking ORS and how to read by kerosene lamp without losing your eyesight. The cafeteria at this school would serve inedible – albeit authentic – ethnic foods that are unappetizing but the only food you’re going to get. The dorms would be outfitted with mosquito nets and the rooms filled with an amazing array of flying insects of every variety and size – just so you could become accustomed. The temperature of the classrooms would be kept at an unbearable temperature, either too hot or too cold and from time to time either sirens or prayer calls would go off over the loudspeakers. I’m pretty sure that this school would weed out about half of us. The other half should be taken away and immediately institutionalized.

Saturday, December 02, 2006


There is no internet access. Well, given that you’re reading this, that isn’t entirely true. I should say that there is intermittent internet access. By intermittent I mean out for days at a time. And this got me thinking all day about a conversation that I had months ago with a friend in DC. We had just seen a movie about some Americans who were killed in South America and I said, “Well, what did they expect? Traipsing around in someone else’s war. They had no idea how they were perceived or whose side they were on.”

“Isn’t that what you’re going to do?” she asked.

And we both laughed. Touché.

The internet access made me think of this conversation because no one has any idea why the internet is out. It might be out because of electrical failure, it might be out because of military movements, or it might out because of incompetence. Who knows? We don’t. We just sit here at the whim of the powers that be and we don’t even fully know what those powers are.

I have a chart on my wall of the militia groups, and rebel groups that have split and made up and split again and I have to update it on a near daily basis. The SLA, the SLA Wahid, the SLA Minawi, the SLA Free Will, the SLA Modern, the NRF, the JEM, the PDF (seriously) – we even now have a grouping called the ‘UAG’ – unidentified armed groups and ‘OAG’ – other armed groups. Kofi Annan described it best, ‘anarchy and chaos’ he said.

I suspect that the internet is out because there are troop movements and things are about to get ugly somewhere around here. So Sudan does what Sudan always does when things are tense. They shut down mobile phone networks and thereby our communications and our access to the internet. And all of this reminds me that we really have very little idea of where we fit into this larger picture. One of the first rules in aid work is that we are supposed to be on no ones side in this – we don’t carry guns, we don’t discriminate in the people we help…but, is that just our perception of things? It doesn’t matter much what you believe if you are perceived to be doing something else. It doesn’t matter if you don’t discriminate in aid given if everyone thinks you do…well, I should say, it doesn’t matter much. People act on perceptions. We all do. And, we really have no idea how we are perceived. Not by the government, not by the rebels, not even by the people on our street. All of this makes for terribly interesting dinner conversation back home but when you are being watched by a silent group of men while passing a mosque, or a truckload of solders, it takes on a greater sense of urgency.

And then there is the work itself. Because the conflict has been described – erroneously – as Arab vs. African, the aid agencies have favored the African tribes for distributions and support. However, a great number of non-combatant Arab tribes were completely overlooked which only increased the tension in an already explosive environment. And, how, exactly are we supposed to differentiate between combatant and non-combatants anyway. It’s someone else’s war, remember?

Add to this the demands of donors and agencies to abide by standards that are – I’m sorry to say – often Western contrived, completely out of place and contradictory in the field. Take the gender issue, for example. The Red Cross Code of Conduct states that we will not attempt to change people’s beliefs. However, standards dictate that special emphasis and influence be invested in vulnerable groups (read: women, children, elderly, etc.). So, attempting to give women a voice or to assign them to positions of decision and authority – or even gain their opinions – changes a society’s beliefs. ‘Yes, but,’ the open-minded Westerner will argue. ‘Surely it’s better that we change some beliefs.’ Is it? Which ones? Who decides? I’m fairly sure that same Westerner would argue that no culture is inherently better than any other. That no belief system is imperically more ‘fair.’ So, when something has to be sacrificed what will it be?

So we are stuck – inbetween. A terrible inbetween. After awhile, it makes you bitter and angry, or careless and cynical, but it always makes you tired.

Day 250

Two hundred forty-nine days ago was my first day in Sudan. I wrote about it on one of my first days here so I thought I would also write about day 250.

7:00am – The alarm goes off. I hit snooze

7:10am – Repeat the above.

7:30am – Repeat the above.

7:45am – Resign myself to the inevitable and crawl out from under two mosquito nets (one just wasn’t doing the job). Turn my VHF radio up to hear the goings on in the world that is Nyala, pull my hair back into a pony tail – the only hairstyle I now wear – look through my closet at the same six outfits I wear every week and pick something.

8:00am – Our administrator returns from taking someone to the airport, asks if I want some breakfast. I don’t and so we go to the office.

8:15am – There is no phone network meaning there is no way to do e-mails so try to get our RBGAN (satellite phone connection) working but to no avail.

8:25am – Give up in disgust and go make some coffee.

8:30am – Daily meeting with our Logistics Manager and Area Administrator to plan vehicle movements for the day.

9:00am – Make more coffee.

9:30am – Finish my ‘objectives’ for my ‘personal development plan’ that my boss is waiting for.

10:00am – Bring a cook into the office and tell her that she needs to stop making everyone’s life miserable and do her job or that I will fire her.

11:00am – Miss a watsan coordination meeting. Not really broken up about that. Work on updating the site security plan while listening to the cook rant and rave to anyone who will listen about the horrible woman she works for.

12:00pm – Update our site ‘threat matrix’ and write a visitor security update.

1:00pm – Go have lunch with all our staff. Our cook is noticeably absent being obviously still angry. Have a conversation with the staff about winter in the States and when our finance assistant is going to get married.

1:30pm – Back to my desk. Our administrator is cursing England’s performance in cricket. Try to get our printers working to no avail. Sift through a backlog of e-mails.

2:10pm – Talk to Khartoum by satellite phone about my recent meetings with donors.

2:15pm – Khartoum calls again and asks for the pricing of a copy machine. Says it’s an emergency so send logistics out to find out.

2:35pm – Find out that the price is $2,750 so call Khartoum to tell them.

3:00pm – Have an all-office staff meeting. Tell them not to use so much tape, turn off the fans and lights when they leave, submit their holiday plans for the Christmas holiday, and ask that the guards be instructed on how to turn on the generators.

4:00pm – Ask why there is a load of boxes sitting in the compound – they’re waiting to be shipped, I’m told. Go through a box of junk that’s been sitting in the warehouse for, literally, years. Instruct our guard to burn certain documents found in said box.

5:00pm – Go to security meeting and listen to all the horrible events of the past four days which include, but are not limited to: banditry, assaults, thefts of vehicles, burning of villages, shooting, murder, general intimidation, hijackings, and kidnappings.

6:00pm – Meet with OCHA to discuss Ed Daein and try to figure out who controls what areas.

6:35pm – Go back to the office, turn off all the lights and fans that have still been left on.

7:00pm – Go home, shower, make myself a tomato and basil salad and generally faff around for an hour and a half.

8:30pm – Go to a party at another INGO. Dance. Meet and greet. Mix and mingle. Refuse to learn anybody’s name. It’s lovely to have new people in town but refuse to learn anyone else’s name. I’ve got too many names and organizations stuck in my head already. I don’t have room for any more.

10:30pm – Curfew. We should be going home.

10:45pm – Start saying goodbye

11:00pm – Drive home trying to avoid checkpoints.

12:00am – Begin new British junk fiction about someone’s perfect life.

12:30am – Still not tired so take Tylenol PM. Make plans to redo our kitchen and make spaghetti sauce the next day.

1:00am – Check to see if the network is back on. It’s not. Go wander around the compound. There are times when I am struck by the beauty that is here. When we have no electricity and the generator doesn’t work and the compound is quiet and lit up by the moonlight. Maybe my sense of beauty has been dumbed down. Or maybe it is actually beautiful.

1:30am - Turn off the light and wait to fall asleep.

The interesting thing about Darfur is that no two days is ever alike. You can never get up in the morning and know what is going to happen that day. You never get to the end of a day and think, ‘right, that’s how all Monday’s are.’ It just never turns out like you expect it. Kind of like life, I suppose. I think someone captured it best in an article I read recently. They said, ‘The cup is never half full or half empty. It is always over brimming. Even if it is over brimming with tears.’

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Apple pie and evacuation management

Let me tell you the main difference between men and women. Women can multi-task.

Tonight we're hosting about 30 people for a Thanksgiving dinner. We also have intense fighting near one of our base locations. We are trying to follow which towns/villages have fallen and who controls which areas, how we would evacuate if it comes to that, and who has our vehicles. It's about as hard as trying to follow a soap opera that's updated by the minute. In one particularly amusing moment I'm up to my elbows in apple pie crust, phone tucked under my chin as I knead, and I explain to the head of OCHA how we had just been talking to one militia commander when he says to us, 'uh, can you wait a second?' Another guy takes the phone and identifies himself as being the head of another militia and declares, 'we're now in charge here and we have your vehicles.'

I relay the story and put down the phone and start making some stuffing. Another call comes in, rumours and innuendo are flying, different sides are being asked to surrender, our location is now crawling with military - it's a war. I guess this is what happens in a war. I've got a turkey to follow-up on.

I call USAID. They've got the turkey and it's dead. It's also 4pm. Dinner's at 7pm. I don't think they're going to make it but let them know that the extent of my ability to manage the world ends with simultaenous evacuation planning, vehicle negotiation, and apple pie and stuffing making. I simply cannot manage to get the turkey cooked as well. Multi-tasking, no matter your gender, only goes so far.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

A Thanksgiving Update

So, after my last posting my Thanksgiving day got decidedly worse. We lost contact with a convoy in an area where there has been increased fighting. Turns out that last night 10 gunmen broke into the house and took the vehicles and all the communications equipment. Our staff escaped by taking donkey carts to another town.

Spent most of the day running between OCHA, UNDSS, and the AU trying to get a secure way to get them out. Things are still unclear. Not shaping up to be a good weekend.

I need a normal job.


Today is like pretty much any other day in Darfur. It's sunny and hot. There's not going to be any turkey or mashed potatoes or pumpkin pie. Half of the people I talk to maintain that the real Thanksgiving was about a month ago. The other half have no idea it's a holiday. (There aren't too many Americans here). So, I got an e-mail this morning from a friend who works in Geneina. She wrote:

happy thanksgiving. i assume from your email that today is in fact thanksgiving for you. seeing as the day is called THANKSgiving I think that you should have to send me 10 things that you are thankful for....
i'm waiting.....

So, here they are:

1. Sunshine and plenty of it
2. Good coffee
3. That I am not hungry, don't live in poverty, am not chronically ill, don't live in an IDP camp
4. FG Wilson - our generator. With it we have light and have connectivity to the outside world. Without it we are in darkness and alone.
5. Word just in...USAID has found a turkey. I repeat, USAID has found a turkey!! (it's not quite dead yet...but locating a bird is half the battle!)
6. Clean water - enough to drink and to bathe in
7. Phone calls and e-mails at just the right time from just the right people who cheer me up, make me laugh and generally give me the will to go on.
8. All the things that could go very, very wrong on a daily basis and don't.
9. My mosquito net.
10. That every day is a new day. That the sun keeps coming up and that I'm guaranteed that it will not be boring, always be interesting, and will not be like the last.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

My pretties

For all those who know that I've taken up gardening and painting as a means of retaining my sanity I wanted to show you how things are coming along.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Kayaking the Nile

When I think of the Nile I generally think of it as a river in Egypt. Flat, placid, calm. A meandering river that slowly winds its way to the Mediterranean. I have never thought of it as a wild river and I am glad for that. My friend wanted to go white water kayaking and, not knowing any better, I thought I would go along. I should have been scared, but didn’t know it at the time, as our guides showed us how to strap into the tandem kayaks, how to paddle, how to stay centered, and how to roll. It all seemed a bit mundane. Another experience that one should have because one could.

The rapids on the Nile varying from one to six. One being little more than a bump and jostle, six being rapids that will kill you within a minute. We never did anything more than a five and nothing really prepares you for it. Nothing can prepare you for being underwater, upside down, with water beating the air and life out of you, clinging to the kayak hoping that your guide will flip you back upright because you cannot breathe, you cannot think, you have no idea where you are, which way is up, and you are sure that you are not going to make it. You have no more air, the water has filled your sinuses, and there is absolutely nothing you can do but hold on. I’m sure there’s a metaphor for life somewhere in there if you’re dumb enough to want more metaphors for life.

In the nights afterward, just when I am falling asleep I will wake up startled remembering not being able to breathe. Remembering what it was like to be pummelled underwater, to know that you were completely out of control. I suppose some people like it. I did not, particularly. I like the deception of control in which most of us live our lives. I like thinking that, in the day to day humdrum of life, I am not particularly in any danger. And kayaking the Nile is not like that. A few days afterwards the friend and I meander down to one of the rapids rated five – and one at which I was underwater for a particularly long time. The water is pounding down the gorge a breakneck speed. It is almost impossible to hear each other talk over the sound. ‘Wow,’ she says. ‘That is something else!’ I shrug and nod and we walk away.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Calendar Girl

In my book there are three types of achievements. The first is the type that you can be proud of because out of sheer determination, sweat, hard work you have achieved it on your own. A university degree, completing a marathon, founding an organization fall into these categories, in my mind. The second type is the type that is slightly harder to tout because it is given to you for absolutely hardly any/no reason at all. A honorary doctorate, a knighthood, getting to speak to the Security Council on Darfur (apparently) fall into this category. The third is, by far, the most glorious. These are the things that are thrust upon you, the bizarre accolades that you had no idea that you were up for, that you did nothing to deserve, and of which you’re not sure whether you’re supposed to be ashamed or proud. I’ve had one of these given to me a couple of weeks ago. Unbeknownst to me some friends put together a ‘Darfur Babe Calendar’ for 2007. (Let it never be said that we don’t have our fun in the midst of human misery). Andn not only did I make it into the calendar, I am on the cover of the calendar. Now, laugh if you must. I did. However, in the meantime I think that I might revel in the fact that this will be the only time in my life that I will grace the pages of a ‘babe’ calendar.

Now, I know what you’re thinking (‘where can I get a copy of this calendar?’) No, seriously, you’re wondering why they put that other guy in the shot. Good question and I intend to bring it up with the publishers and my agent. However, it might be because he’s a bloodsucking French lawyer who has far more fashion sense than I – so much so that he got his own page in the babe calendar.

The Road to Jinja

I was listening to Alabama 3 sing, ‘Ain’t Goin to Goa’ which I think is appropo because I am not - going to Goa, that is. I am going to Jinja and I have not slept for 36 hours. Sleep deprivation plays with my mind in strange ways. It is as if memory has taken all of my memories out of a file cabinet and strewn them all over the floor of my mind. I have been to Goa, several years ago, and I remember standing out on the edge of the Indian peninsula with my feet in the sea looking at all the millions of bright stars. Jinja also sits on the edge of somewhere, of Lake Victoria, and the source of the White Nile that runs right up into Sudan.

Everything on the road to Jinja reminds me of something else. Kampala reminds me of Pristina. The Ugandan countryside reminds me of Thailand. The smell of the forests along the road reminds me of Indonesia. The rolling hills reminds me of driving in Missouri with my brother listening to Snow Patrol’s ‘Chasing Cars’.

‘Let’s waste time…I don’t quite know how to say how I feel…
I don’t know where, confused about how as well,
just know that these things will never change for us at all.
If I lay here. If I just lay here would you lie with me and just forget the world?’

Memories keep flooding in that I have no mental energy to sort or control. Eucalyptus trees remind me of the Californian Santa Ana winds, the roadside stalls of Zambia, the traffic of Calcutta, the smell of a hospital all the many, many institutions in Ukraine, and the wet, hot air of nights in Hong Kong, and the worn blue vinyl upholstery of driving from Chicago to Kalamazoo listening to Emmy Lou Harris,

‘Our path is worn our feet are poorly shod
We lift up our prayer against the odds
And fear the silence is the voice of God
And we cry Allelujah Allelujah
We cry Allelujah’

The strange thing is that I did not think of Darfur – not once. It was as if, in leaving it behind, memory – that eccentric librarian - tossed all these other memories out so it could lock Darfur tidily away. And I am glad for that because I don’t want to think about it. I am tired of thinking about the place. I want to think about something else and so I do with my eyes closed in the backseat of the two hour taxi ride with the wind brushing over me. I hope that sometime, maybe years from now, after it is over, I will be able to take out that file and sort through the experiences, sounds, and pictures and feel something other than hopelessness and sorrow.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The good life...

The world is a cruel place. I have a friend whose citizenship I just discovered last night.Well, not citizenship so much as lack of one. He’s what we call an a-pat. Ex-pats are those of us who are expatriated from our countries – by choice we live somewhere else. In-pats are those who choose to live within their own country but away from their homes. A-pats are those without a country. By sheer virtue of being born somewhere that the rest of the world doesn’t recognize they have no country of origin. They don’t have passports. They are offered little protection. If things got ugly the U.S. government might go to bat for me. If I go to jail sooner, or later, someone might show up to find out why. When push comes to shove they might even evacuate me. A-pats have nothing. Isn’t it strange that by simply being born on one side of a line you can have so much handed to you on a platter and if you’re born on the other you get nothing but a shrug, maybe an apology, but you aren’t going to be on the last helicopter out.

But sometimes citizenship doesn’t count for much either. Today they’re evacuating the south of the Darfur because of a major military offensive and the rumour is that thousands of IDPs are headed our way – not thousands, tens of thousands - and, as if being bombed and attacked weren’t enough they’re coming – on foot – with only what they can carry while being attacked and robbed on the way by bandits and Janjaweed. When they arrive here they’ll need food and protection and space in the camps because they’ll have nothing. Literally, nothing. I can’t even contemplate a trip without my coffee press, pillow, malaria meds, vitamins, books, clothes, ipod and friendly blue passport. Imagine possessing nothing.

Ok, so I’m a whiner. I’ll readily admit that. I like to be warm – but not too warm – and safe and dry and well-fed. I like my pillow and coffee press. But I think I spend far too much time forgetting that these things are gifts; that they are graces. I spend too much time thinking that I somehow deserve things like clean water and a bed and I’m being put upon when they’re not available to me. Well, I might not come right out and say I deserve them but I act like it. But, think how easily it could have all been different. How easily any of us could not have passports, or jobs, or countries or a language that other people strive to understand.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Some days there is no good news...

Anna Politkovskaya has been found murdered.


I cannot recommend her book, A Dirty War: A Russian Reporter in Chechnya, highly enough.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

In case you wondered...

For the biographer writing the history of the epic battle between me and the ants I would like it noted that: I won.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


I have nothing against fasting, in general. I think it's a good discipline. Good for the body, soul, etc. However, Ramadan in Sudan is just a bridge too far. First, you have to fast from sun-up to sun-down. Now, that's all fine and good in, say, Finland where the sun sinks early, but here that means you're going without food for 30 days about 14 hours a day. Second, it's hot here. And by hot, I mean 90-ish and bone-dry so that you can almost feel the water being sucked out of you. However, you're forbidden from drinking water during daylight. Then, you're allowed to eat at about 7:20 which the Sudanese do - in abundance. Huge, greasy, meat, beans and oil-laiden meals. Then, they stay up late into the night partying very conservatively. The next day everyone's sleeping late and shops don't open until nearly noon and people show up to work looking lethargic and cranky. Now, call me crazy but this doesn't seem like fasting so much to me as a change in schedule. But, hey, I can't complain because it means that I get to come to work a half an hour later and every morning. I also personally believe it's harder to riot when you're hungry and dehydrated so that might work in our favor this month as well.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Getting old

Ok, I like a good lock-down as much as the next person but this is getting old. And, now, they're starting to mess with my Fridays. No one should mess with Friday. If you're going to have a protest PLEASE conduct it during the working week!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Calm with a chance of volatility

I just got told off for not blogging and leaving you all to wonder if anything has happened to us. So sorry! We’re fine. Or, as fine as you can be in a situation where you’re preparing for the worst.

I’m sitting at my desk this morning drinking coffee. I’ve just threatened to fire someone, yelled at WFP for not booking people on a flight, and am now sitting here looking at a ‘threat/action matrix’, ‘individual evacuation responsibilities’, ‘overall security plans’, and ‘sector contingency’ spreadsheets. And, all before my first cup of coffee. (For those of you who know me and how I function in the morning you’ll know what a feat this all is.)

It’s really a strange time here right now. The days seem to fluctuate between the normal and terribly tense. There might be two days where everything is fine and we’re driving around the streets, going about our business. People wave, we wave back. The next day we’re in lockdown behind reinforced gates and barbed wire. And I wonder if it’s those same happy people who were on the streets before now chucking bricks over the walls.

As I’m sure you’ve heard our fate is somewhat unclear at the moment. Aid workers continue being attacked, troops keep moving in, the AU will most likely leave, and the UN can’t get in – until January at the earliest, if they come at all. The security vacuum that everyone feared is nearly upon us. There are battles already waging to the North; there was a massive breach of the peace agreement in an attack in the South; bandits on the roads here; reports of attacks there. The best way to describe the feeling is like watching a weather report. We go to security meetings and the guy giving the briefing stands in front of a huge map like a weatherman and points out the trouble spots – and there are many. He finishes with the obvious that here it is relatively calm with the prospect of volatility. Sunshine with a chance of showers. But it cannot last forever. Weather moves; so does war.

One of my favourite lines from my favourite book, The Brothers Karamazov, is in a scene where a mother who is worried about her son who is off in the war comes to a priest with her concerns. He looks at her and says, ‘Don’t fear anything, ever.’

I like that. Even if it is easier said than done. There is simply no point in worrying about what might happen - because if it does we are prepared for it and if it does not then we have been needlessly fearful. To be honest, I am not really afraid for myself. I knew what I was getting into and in this type of work you accept the risks at the outset. Where the fear gets to me is in the responsibility. To accept that we are making decisions - or will need to make decisions - that will potentially mean life and death to others is a harder pill to swallow.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

I’m ok

I thought I should preface this entry by letting everyone know that I’m ok. Everything is quiet now.

We expected protests today against the deployment of UN troops in Darfur so we were under lockdown again. I have to admit that I’m becoming quite fond of the lockdown because it means that we can sleep in. I woke at about 8:30 to the sounds of trucks and people in the street chanting, ‘down, down USA.’ Ashley came in rather sleepily and said, ‘they’re calling for you. They’ve just announced that 2000 troops are moving into Nyala today.’ I rolled over and pulled the sheet over my head, ‘I assume that they’ll still be moving troops in at 10:00,’ I said. ‘I’m going back to sleep until then.’

But, of course, I couldn’t go back to sleep. It’s rather hard to sleep with the roar of mobs in the distance and the radio squawking with security information. So, I got up and then things began to go wrong.

Another NGO hit their emergency button which means that you can hear everything happening in their location. People running, yelling in Arabic – it was a good friend of ours and their compound was being attacked. Police were deployed. Our national staff called us to say that something was wrong at our office and to stay inside.

So we just sat outside in the sun and waited. Waiting is a horrible thing to do when things are going wrong. You want information. You want to know if people are ok. You want to know if trouble is headed your way or if you’re safe. People deal with insecurity in different ways. Some people become agitated, some shut-down; Ashley and I decided to have some coffee and paint our toe-nails. ‘If I’m going to be evacuated I’m at least going to have beautiful toes,’ I said. ‘That’s a nice shade of red,’ Ashley said. ‘It suits you.’ ‘Thanks,’ I said as the radio continued to beep it’s emergency signal. A black cat ran across the compound. ‘Bad luck,’ I said. ‘In my country black cats mean good luck,’ she said. ‘Let’s go with that,’ I decided.

Some of our national staff came to the house. The office had been broken into, the windshield of a vehicle smashed, the guard beaten up, our generator pulled-apart. Three of our national staff who were there escaped. Vehicles of other NGOs had been smashed and other compounds in that area overrun. ‘It is ok now,’ they said and smiled. ‘Tamam [good], we said. ‘Humdillalah [praise be to God]’, we said.

So, now we are waiting again. The protestors have gathered to listen and make speeches in the main square. The police are reporting that they expect more violence when they disperse. The UN is trying to get the AU to come into town to help but it’s unclear whether the can/will. I’m trying to think of something to do. I’ve brought the finance files home and should be sorting them but lack the will. I could paint or read but feel lack of enthusiasm for that as well. Maybe I’ll bake a cake. Cake makes everything better.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Best offer so far…

I cannot count how many times here I’ve been asked when I’m going to get married. The Sudanese seem to think it’s a personal affront that I haven’t gotten hitched yet and are determined to be offended for me. ‘Why aren’t you married,’ they ask in an unnervingly direct way. ‘Well, no one’s ever asked,’ I say, which seems to get me off the hook.

That all changed yesterday because someone did ask. Paul, who asked the typical question and to whom I gave the practiced response said, ‘ok, then, marry me.’ Paul is southern Sudanese, amiable, kind, probably a decade younger than me, our mechanic, and perhaps one of the finest human beings I’ve ever met. It seemed a reasonable offer…but first we had to get a few things straight.

‘You’re not already married, are you?’ I asked because being a second (or third, or fourth wife), while perfectly acceptable here, is something I feel that I’d probably dislike.


‘How many cows would you give my family?’

‘200.’ (Not a number to be scoffed at!)

‘And?’ I asked trying to close out the deal.

‘A white Land Rover,’ he said. ‘And, I’d give your parents a house in Southern Sudan.’ (Something that I’m sure my parents would be delighted to learn.)

‘Not bad!’ I said.

‘Of course,’ he replied. ‘We’ll need to wait 10 years.’

I think I could’ve done worse. Might have to wait ten years but all in one go I could get married, have an SUV, property, and take up cattle-ranching. I have to say that I can think of plenty of married people who have ended up with worse deals than that!

And, with such a deal on the table, I’m going to need to think up another response to the concerned, ‘why aren’t you married?’ question. At least, I can get a good ten years out of the, ‘well, I’m engaged to a mechanic in Sudan,’ response.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Lock Down

Today there will be ‘demonstrations’ in Nyala, Khartoum, probably all over Darfur. Demonstrations are a nice way of saying, ‘riots’. Flag-burning, car-burning, rock-throwing, general anarchy in the streets. At least we knew about it in advance. It’s the spontaneous ‘demonstrations’ that are worrying. So, we’re under lock down. No one allowed out of their compounds from 7am until further notice. Flights are cancelled. Travel forbidden. Offices closed.

The thing that no one tells you is how much preparation and coordination a good lock down will take. What if we’re not stuck inside for four hours but for four days? How much food and water do we need for that sort of thing? And, even if it is for four hours what, exactly, are we going to eat for lunch? Not matters of life and death, per se, but important nonetheless.

Well, in case you ever find yourself in the same situation, let me tell you what I recommend purchasing: 10 snickers bars, 5 cans of Pringles, 10 cans of tuna fish, 10 instant noodle packs, 1 jar of mayonnaise, 1 jar of mustard, 2 jars of peanut butter, 1 jar of strawberry jam, 3 packs of happy-cow cheese, 5 packs of crackers, 2 packs of cookies, and 36 2-litre bottles of water.

Also, it’s good to have a play list. It’s always good to have a play list. Like, in case you’re evacuated you would, of course, want to listen to Pearl Jam’s ‘Evacuation’, or David Gray’s ‘Say hello, wave goodbye’, or Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born to run’. So in honour of our ‘demonstrations’ I’ve compiled a lock-down play list. Enjoy:

1. I predict a riot – Kaiser Chiefs
2. Where is the love – Black Eyed Peas
3. Don’t panic – ColdPlay
4. I want to be sedated – Social Distortion
5. It’s the end of the world as we know it – REM
6. Let your troubles roll by – Carbon Leaf
7. Bad day – Daniel Powter
8. Who will guard the door – Over the Rhine
9. Hold On – Sister Hazel
10. Be and be not afraid – Tracy Chapman

Monday, August 28, 2006

Hedgehog Poo

Meet Francois. In this picture, he’s being a little bit camera shy; hiding in the corner between the door and the wall. He moved in while I was gone and took up residence in the corner of my room between the mattress and the wall. He must have thought it was a rather nice place – quiet and dark with no one bothering him and asking all sorts of questions like, ‘who are you?’ and ‘what are you doing here?’. And then I come home and burst in. Seeing that my mosquito net is covered with dead bugs and my mattress soaked by the many recent rainstorms I go about making lots of noise, taking the net down, moving the mattress and, suddenly, there he is. Trying to hide; completely taken aback by all the light and noise. Although he gave me a start we became quick friends. He didn’t try to hide or run off - just kind of sleepily and warily eyed me as I stood there and eyed him. I’d like to say that we had a moment, Francois and I.

But then, I came back to my senses and took to eyeing all the hedgehog poo he’d messily left around the bed and said, as apologetically as possible, ‘one of us has to go.’ He didn’t budge. I tried to scoot him out the door with my shoe but it seemed so cruel to send him packing off in the broad daylight like that. So, he cuddled up between the door and the wall and I left him there.

I find that I’m becoming more sympathetic to living things after being in Darfur for five months now. I can’t stand to just wash bugs down the shower or crush ants on the pavement. I can’t stand for things to suffer and die – especially smaller, helpless things, even if they are a nuisance and poo around the bed. Maybe it’s misplaced sympathy.

Later that night some friends came over and we sat in the candlelight talking about our jobs and politics and books and other places in the world we’d like to be when out strolls Francois. He didn’t make a scene; didn’t pack a bag; didn’t tell me where he was going or when he’d be back. He just kind of trundled off and hasn’t been back since. I miss him already.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Movie recommendation

If you haven't seen, Lord of War, yet you need to. It has crept into my top five favorite (yes, Lizzy, favorite may be spelled without the 'u'!!) movies of all time. Not only because, poignantly - for me anyway, the last scene is them rolling into Sudan. It is also well written, beautifully shot, engaging, compelling and, in my opinion, true. Read more about it:

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

And why did he want to be rescued, exactly?

Monday, August 21, 2006

On proper verb conjugation...

As part of my civic duty, I would like to use this public space to make all Americans aware that the British have a tendency toward preciousness about the English language. (Of course, anyone who has spent any time at all with the British and have experienced their charming, if not patronizing, pedantic fondness for the English language, already know this.) I digress.

The point here is that I have, at some point on this blog, used the word 'drug' as the past tense of 'drag' which is, apparently, a serious offense to all British sensibilites of the language over which they - quaintly - feel ownership. Therefore, I would like to clarify the following...

The past tense of the verb 'to drag' is, in fact, 'dragged'. Unless, according to some very knowledgeable people on the internet, you are, "trying to render dialectical speech to convey a sense of down-home rusticity", or, according to Random House use the "nonstandard" past tense, or, according to Merriam-Webster, appear, "illiterate".

So, for the record, I would like to say that in my blogging I like to be rustic and nonstandard. It was, in no way, that I misused the past tense. At times, I just like to appear illiterate. And that is my perogative, as an American.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Top ten reasons that I love London...

1. Home office lackeys at immigration who have perfected being horrendously rude and humourous at the same time.
2. Ample amounts of the four food groups: wine, cheese, bacon, chocolate.
3. After banging on for several hours about the evils of Darfur my friends who offer a cup of tea as the genuine remedy.
4. Transport that might not run on time but still gets you where you need to go.
5. Marks and Spencers.
6. The fact that it's August and it's grey and rainy.
7. Internet that works all the time...seriously...all the time. Can you imagine?
8. Tony Blair.
9. The telephone - which I hear the British think they invented - that also works...well, all the time!
10. The 16 hour, BBC version of Pride and Prejudice that I intend to spend 16 hours watching before going out to the pub for a beer and some greasy fish and chips, doused in vinegar and dipped in ketchup. Mmmm...

Monday, August 07, 2006

Field Trip

It is early on a Wednesday morning and we are going to El Fadous. After the events of the previous week, someone with enough foresight (that I’ll never admit to the wisdom of) decided that it might be good for me to get out of the office. And so, in the early morning haze, I am packing water, and toilet paper, and a couple of snacks into a quick run bag while the drivers stand around chattering about the latest market gossip and checking tire pressure and fuel levels.

At 9am we are out of the compound and by 9:30 we are out of the town – driving through vigourously guarded SLA territory on a road that is little more than a sand track through ankle-deep shrub that stretches off the end of the earth in every direction as far as you can see. South Darfur is green, at the moment, golf-course green from all the pounding rain of the wet season. We drive through Dinka villages populated by those who fled one civil war right into the next one. We drive past farmers out planting their fields without any tools, past herds of goats being shephered by children, passed small groups of thatched tukels. The track becomes muddy and impassable in some places and the first in our convoy gets stuck in the deep tracks that has been carved by the few heavy lorries that passed this way earlier. Our driver stops a teenage boy who’s hoeing a field with a bamboo pole to ask for directions. The boy looks us over with large, brown eyes and beautiful, long eyelashes and points us across his field to another track that will hopefully take us where we want to go. The drivers squabble in Arabic over the radios and then head off in the direction the boy pointed.

Driving into El Fadous the first thing you notice is what is missing and that mainly is noise - the whir and buzzing to which we’ve become accustomed. There is no electricity, no phones ringing, no sound of aircraft overhead, no cars – except our own. Only the sounds of people in the market. It is remarkably peaceful.

When we arrive at the clinic there area already seven staff there weighing and measuring children who cry and wail as they are placed on the scales. This is the only time they make noise. There are about 50 children in the tent between the ages of six and 59 months being held quietly by their mothers - malnourished children are eerily subdued and inactive. Most are being fed plumpy nut to fend off starvation. The malnutrition rates here are not good. In fact, they are 10% past the threshold of what constitutes an ‘emergency.’ Some children are here because their families simply don’t have enough food; some are here because cholera and malaria have accentuated the problems – whatever the case they are all part of a suplemental feeding programme for all children under five in the region to hopefully keep the problem from worsening.

After the clinic finishes we have lunch in the center of town under a broken down looking stable where we watch police and GoS emerge periodically from the bush with AK47’s slung lazily over one shoulder. We eat beans and meat with our hands as water occassionally drips from the roof onto our chairs and table. The food is delicious but I know I will pay for it later in one form or another.

I spend most of my time with Joseph, one of our health promotion workers. A gregarious man from Southern Sudan with an irrepresible wide grin that lights up his face and more energy in his small finger than I think I’ve had in my entire life. His exuberance for the work is genuine – and exhausting.

We spend the afternoon visiting health clubs for women and children in IDP camps. In club after club I play the part of the ambassador’s wife introducing myself and telling them how wonderful it is that they are there and how delighted I am to get to meet them. Despite feeling completely useless, it is wonderful to be there and I am truly delighted to meet them. It is a glimpse of how the work we are doing is somehow contributing some goodness to a place desperately lacking in goodness.

After visiting dozens of these clubs we have to head home in order to make it back before dark and the curfew. We stop by the clinic to pick up one mother and child who is so malnourished that we have to take them to the closest hospital – over two hours away. Joseph happily chats away with the woman who is bewildered, has never been in a car, and is putting her child’s life in the hands of some foreigners who turn up every now again with food and medicine. I hold the baby, who is lethargic and literally skin and bone, in the front seat while he reassures the mother that now that a ‘khwaje’ is holding the baby surely everything will turn out right. I smile and wish I believed it. After a mile or two Joseph decides that my name is too hard too hard for the Sudanese to pronounce and need a new one. We bounce over the muddy road while he carries on a monologoue of Sudanese names before arriving on one. ‘I think Amani suits you,’ he finally decides and asks the mother if she agrees. ‘It means hope. From now on we will call you Amani.’ And from then on, he does.

Why it’s so complicated

When you watch the news about Darfur the conflict generally gets boiled down to being between a bunch of Arab nomads who, backed by the government, have mounted a genocide against a bunch of African farmers. But this oversimplification is unhelpful . Let me tell you a story – pure fiction – but one that might better help explain.

There was a tribe that lived in this rural area – let’s call them the Red Sox. They are poor, Muslim, and farmers. Right next to them live a tribe – let’s call them the Yankees - that is also poor, Muslim, and farmers. They hate each other. From time immemorial they launch raids on each others small plots, villages and flocks. The children of both groups die from preventable diseases, don’t have enough food, inadequate health care, and little clean water. Simple enough so far?

Every winter a bunch of different nomadic tribes (say…the whole American League) show up on the scene, passing through with their herds, both trampling and eating crops but also bringing meat and milk.

Then, one day, another tribe – let’s call them the Padres – show up fleeing the war where they live. They’re Christians and they settle down on the edge of town and scratch out a living. Their kids die of preventable diseases, and there’s general malnourishment and not enough water but they’re there. The Red Sox and the Yankees go on hating each other but put up with the Padres as an unavoidable nuisance.

Someone very rich somewhere gets wind of the fact that the Padres are there and that they’re starving. So they send food, a lot of it, and keep sending it for 15 years. They send medicine too, and health information. It doesn’t make the Padres lot in life any better, necessarily, but at least they’re not dying in droves so the very rich person somewhere gets to sleep better at night.

So, one year, it gets bad. There’s a drought, the Red Sox and the Yankees are starting to vie for land to farm. They decide to arm themselves and so now whenever they duke it out it tends to be bloodier. Added to that, they’re pretty cranky about this entire American League just trampling on everything so turn on them as well. The American League, however, has big guns of its own and begin using them at will to take what they want.

Then, another tribe – the Dodgers – turn up. They’re fleeing another war in another part of the country and don’t like the Red Sox or the Yankees, but they REALLY don’t like the Padres. They just generally make like a bit less liveable for everyone around.

The Red Sox, already cranky, start to think to themselves, ‘hey, wait a minute! These Padres over here just sit around and get food and free health care and we’re no better off than they are!’ So, they send letters to the rich guy saying that if they don’t get some of the beneies then they’ll stop the Padres getting them too. The rich guy thinks, ‘hey, I’m rich! Why not?’

Meanwhile, the Padres’ war at home ends but it’s not so easy to just uproot 5,000 people who have lived somewhere for 15 years. It takes some time. (Not to mention that they’ve gone and imported their own little militia from the war back home and staying somewhere where you are fed and cared for looks mighty fine compared to going back to who-knows-what where they came from)

And that’s Darfur in a nutshell. The Red Sox, the Yankees, the Dodgers, the Padres, and the entire rest of the American League all armed and jealous of one another….and one rich guy who doesn’t quite know left from right just trying to keep everyone fed and happy and not quite understanding why everyone isn’t just a touch more grateful.

Monday, July 31, 2006

I’ve started several times to try to describe the past few days but the words don’t come – or rather, too many words come – and so I give up and try to sleep instead. It’s been something of a blur – well, not really, more like a flood of incredibly lucid events interspersed with a thousand forgettable things that have to be done. But it is these events, or instances, that keep me awake at night wrapping and rewrapping a rosary around my hand. Trying to forget.

But it is impossible to forget. Like a helicopter ride on Saturday. It was me, a paramedic, the South African pilots, a man that had nearly been beaten to death the day before, and his mother. She was blind in one eye and stared out the window with tears dripping off her chin. I had my IPOD on under the headset. Berber’s Addagio for Strings was playing – over and over – and there is a point in the music where all that is heard is a single violin stretching a note out so perfect and beautiful that it alone could break your heart. And I looked out the window at the beautiful mountains and tried for the hundredth time that day not to cry.

Like tonight when I sat outside with all the men from the family of the driver that was beaten to death – their white robes reflecting the light of the silver crescent moon. The rain showered us with large, gloomy drops as we listened to our director convey condolences for another senseless, inhumane murder that, taken together with the thousands of others, make up this senseless, inhumane catastrophe we’re working in.

Like hearing the stories over the past few days of the rapes, the banditry, the assault, the honor killings, the shootings.

And I wonder sometimes if good is slipping out of the world. Like a glass tipped over on a table with goodness dribbling out onto the floor.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Bad Day

I’ve decided to redefine my definition of a bad day. Two vehicles, four staff went to an IDP camp to do public health clubs. They go nearly everyday. However, there’s a rumor that NGOs are trying to poison children. So, the IDPs torched the vehicles, killed one driver, beat the other so badly that he’s hospitalized, and injured the other two. And if that wasn’t enough to qualify as a bad day, about 15 angry men – the family of the dead man and not very happy - later showed up at my door. UNDSS sent a patrol, GoS sent a patrol. It was just a tense, sad, and generally exhausting day.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

A photo essay on the occasion of my birthday

Yesterday was my birthday. It also happened to be the birthday of one of the only other expats with whom I work. In light of this, the President decided to visit Nyala and declared it a holiday. We were flattered, of course, no one has ever declared a holiday for us but then was a bit put out when he didn’t even have the courtesy to drop by. When he declared it a national holiday he added the caveat that if NGO’s determined to continue working then they would be considered in direct defiance to his orders. (That seemed a little odd to me considering that humanitarian organizations are feeding people, providing medical care, education, protection, etc. but now is not the time to quibble). So,finding myself with a day off I decided to chronicle all of the lovely events that made up the day and you’ll find those below:

A card from Fernandez...

I received a lovely Sudanese purse from Ashley...

Also a box made out of WFP food tins so my books don't get dusty...

My new laptop arrived from Khartoum...

Along with some cards from Khartoum and Ed Daein...


The President even sent some gunships...

Then to out to dinner...

Back to the house for specially imported carrot cake...mmmm....

All in all, a great day!!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

World Cup

So, Italy won the World Cup. This made me very happy. It made me very happy because I was supporting them (at the time) and because they beat France. It takes very little to make me happy these days. Unfortunately, they won on penalties which means that the game drug on and on far past our organization’s curfew, the UN curfew, and even the town curfew. This was bad. However, the situation was compounded by the fact that we didn’t have a car and that it rained – and I’m talking bucket-drenching downpour, not your normal rain – for about two hours during the game. It didn’t bother me that the room we were sitting in was slowly flooding or that there was a constant drip on the television. What was slightly alarming, however, was hiking home that night, after curfew, through calf-deep sewage water that clogged the streets. Seriously, there are some things you can live your whole life without doing and walking through sewage at midnight in the middle of Africa hoping not to get shot is one of them.

Monday, July 10, 2006

A call for advice...

So…if you leave a book on the floor and then the room floods and then it dries out but the book starts to get a funny black mold growing inside the front cover, and then you leave it on the floor again and the room floods and then it dries out but the mold keeps spreading and then you leave it on the floor again and the room floods and the mold seems to be trying to take over the front cover what do you do about it? The mold, I mean, not the obvious fact that I have a drainage issue and am a slow learner.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

This song reminded me of Darfur at the moment

3000 miles
Tracy Chapman

“Good girls walk fast in groups of three
Fast girls walk slow on side streets
Sometimes the girls who walk alone
Aren’t found for days or weeks

On the busy boulevards
Bad boys call you names and cruise you hard
Bullies laugh and grin and beat
Your soft skin against the cold concrete

Knock you down, make you bleed
Make you cry and make you think
I’ll die here soon if I don’t leave
If I don’t leave, if I don’t leave

This patch of sky and native ground
Take turns to push and pull you down
Forget trying to live and be happy
I’ll take safe and terror free

Hit the floor shut off the lights
As the bullets fly
Terror rules the dark of night
bouncing from the trees
This training ground for punks and thieves

Our pools are full of razor blades
Fools and innocents believe
Love and faith and truth and beauty
Can make a garden of this human factory

Bad girls run fast leave home alone
No trace or clue of where they’ve gone
Sometimes these girls are never found
Never found, never found

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

How to fix dinner in Garsilla – a step by step guide

[If you ever ask yourself why you read this blog – just remember that this is the sort of value-added material that you can get nowhere else!]

1. Start early. Go to the market around noon where you will find hardly any food – there’s no refrigeration so dairy products are out and the nomads have taken the animals away for the rainy season so no meat either.

2. At the market you will find (in alphabetical order): limes, onions, oranges, peanuts, potatoes, and, literally, nothing else.

3. Buy onions.

4. Return home and raid the ‘emergency evacuation’ food in the storeroom. Take out cans of: pineapple, tomatoes, baked beans, mushrooms. Also take a jar of curry paste, some rice and a tin of ‘chicken luncheon meat.’

5. Read the directions on the curry paste that calls for yoghurt and chicken.

6. Vow revenge on the dolt who ordered the ‘emergency’ supplies.

7. Decide powdered milk will work in lieu of yoghurt.

8. Find a can opener. When you realize there isn’t one see step 6 and beg a logistician to open 9 cans with a swiss army knife.

9. Saute onions, adding pineapple, mushrooms and tomatoes, and curry paste.

10. Add ½ liter of powdered milk.

11. Watch milk curdle in sauce.

12. Cover, turn up heat and hope for the best.

13. Make rice.

14. Fry chicken-type-byproduct.

15. Decide ‘chicken luncheon meat’ is so vile that it should be disposed of quickly.

16. Serve sauce with baked beans and rice. Call it ‘curry.’

17. Watch appreciative colleagues wolf it down as if it’s edible.

18. Sit down, swat flies off your own place, and enjoy!

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Not knowing

It was cool tonight in Garsilla. The rains have come – settling the dust, bringing temperatures down below 30 C, and inviting the multiplication of a thousand and one flying insects. Four of us sat outside after dinner in the dark listening to the drone of another NGO’s generator and discussing the war. Being out in our field bases it becomes easy to glean a lot of information from locals who know exactly what is going on. This information will only turn up later in security briefings and in the media after the fact. In this case, we were discussing a massive rebel offensive that has the possibility of wreaking havoc in the region. We knew when it was planned to happen, the rebels knew, the government knew, the people knew and yet there was a terrible inevitability about it.

In the end, all we could do was shrug our shoulders and look up in the sky and talk about how you prepare communities for heavy artillery fire or air bombardment. And this is how you prepare them – you don’t. You can’t. People will die – and probably a lot of them.

I think that it is human nature to spend a considerable amount of our lives wishing we knew what was going to happen, making plans for a future that never turns out like we expect it, wishing we knew what tomorrow would hand us. But, I’ve decided, that I’d rather not know. There is some knowledge that no one is the better for knowing.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Good times…

My office smells like something has crawled into the walls and died.

Sunday, June 18, 2006


Every now and again I’m stopped by a phrase that I can honestly say I never expected to hear in my lifetime. (Tops among them are, “I’m really crazing a non-alcholic beer” and “Don’t forget about the wildebeest migration.” This last one really cracked me up. ‘Don’t forget’ would imply that I knew anything about the migration in the first place and that I knew whether it was something to be seen? Avoided?) The most recent was at a UN coordination meeting where it was announced, “the acute watery diarrhoea meeting will be held directly after the camp coordination meeting.”

With a straight-face my base manager looked at me and said, “I don’t want to go to the watery diarrhoea meeting.”

“I’m not going,” I say. “You go.”

This exchange took place in unsmiling solemnity.

There is a cholera outbreak in Darfur. Only, we’re not allowed to call it ‘cholera’. We have to call it ‘acute watery diarrhoea’ for a whole number of political reasons that I won’t go into because they infuriate me. Cholera’s a water-borne disease that begins with watery diarrhoea, leads to severe dehydration and ends with death. It’s normally spread through groundwater – the one common element that links every human being in Darfur. Cholera is a poverty disease. People only die of cholera because they are too malnourished, too physically weak, or too poor to get medical attention. If I suffered from cholera someone would make sure I got antibiotics.

I’m often struck by how lucky I am but none more so than with cholera going around. We might have spent a large part of the past few weeks without electricity, without running water, without internet access or phone network, but we also don’t have cholera.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Top 10 reasons why I love America...

10. Logan International Airport...seriously, people, the floors are so clean you could eat off them.

9. Starbucks Coffee. You say evil, global capitalists I say, yummy mocha frappachino!

8. Food. Ok, granted there's better food in a lot of other places but there's quite a lot of decent food here.

7. Being able to accomplish more than one thing a day. Today I checked off about four things I had to do - and one of them even involved a govt. bureaucracy. It was beautiful.

6. Television. Say what you want about Hollywood but I'm finding 398 channels deeply entertaining at the moment.

5. Nice people. I'm not sure whether I find the general level of optimism, happiness and kindness comforting or disconcerting but in my less cynical moments I quite enjoy people being nice to me.

4. The USD. It's pretty.

3. Walmart. I won't go into my theory on how the American desire for cheap goods is complicit in the continuation of the war in Darfur but I will say that sometimes you need inexpensive shoes to wear once to a wedding and sometimes that place is Walmart.

2. Promotion of the 'general welfare.' In the course of a day it's possible to go to work, go on a walk, to the movies, shopping and it's unlikely that during that time we will have to consider harrassment, being murdered, starving, having our houses burned or consider ways to emigrate so our children will have a better future.

and the number one reason why I love America...drum roll, paaalease!...


Oh yeah. The ants of Darfur have met their match.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Evil Spirits

I had a conversation today that might seem odd to be having at work. A guy I work with and I were discussing some of the accidents our vehicles have been in. This wasn’t unusual, in and of itself, vehicles crash. We even refer to the crashes in the third person, like ‘the car crashed into a tree’ as if it crashed of its own accord. Into trees, into ditches, these cars flip and roll. By far the majority of humanitarian aid workers who are killed die in these types of accidents rather than in the violence all around. We were discussing one vehicle accident in particular – vehicle 13 – that was severely damaged in an accident. It rolled three times. Luckily, no one was hurt. My friend had gone back to investigate the scene hoping for some clue as to the cause of the accident. There was none. It was a flat road – no sand, no ditches, no curves or hills. It was inexplicable. The next day another organization’s vehicle flipped at the same spot. People went back to talk to the villages around and the villagers walked out to the spot and shrugged, ‘there are lots of evil spirits around now,’ they said.

It wasn’t the first time I had heard this. In Indonesia, after the tsumani, some of our staff lived in IDP camp and they told us stories - ‘incidents’, we called them - of people going crazy. We often chalked it up to living for nearly a year in inadequate housing, with inadequate food, trauma, stress, etc. But perhaps there is more to it than we can see.

I once read a book about a journalist travelling in Africa. It wasn’t a religious book and the author, by the rest of his writing, didn’t seem to be a particularly religious man. However, after visiting Rwanda, immediately following the genocide, he said that it didn’t matter whether you believed in the devil or not there was no question in his mind now that the devil existed and in 1994 he had been in Rwanda.

It’s interesting to me that in Africa people are more willing to talk about the presence of the supernatural – of God and angels and demons – as if they are commonplace. And perhaps they are. Perhaps we, in the rational, explained, detached, scientific West, are afraid to look too close, or to talk too much, about things that we cannot see or explain. Most of us live with an unspoken fear that the world is not entirely of our own making or under our control.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Bringing home the bacon

There are some things that you will just never understand. Not even if I could find the right words to describe them. Like today, the feeling of realizing that our freezer had defrosted. It was gutting. We haven’t had electricity for over a day now. Not that you miss it much. It’s pitch black at night but then that’s what kerosene lamps are for and not having a fan on does make for a miserable night’s sleep, but apart from that we have a generator at the office so we can get through a day’s work without too much discomfort. So, it’s not surprising that I didn’t think about the freezer until this afternoon and then it hit me like a ton of bricks. Not so much the freezer itself (that would hurt) but the realization of what was in the freezer. Bacon. Four packs of bacon to be precise. The saying is true that you don’t know what you have until it’s gone and there are luxuries we simply don’t have here – mostly because they’re illegal. Bacon and alcohol being the two that spring to mind most readily. So when someone ice packs and carries in four packs of bacon for you those are precious commodities. Commodities that you freeze and save for an especially bad day. Commodities that you don’t eat all at once and ones that you sometimes like to open the freezer and just look at. And now they’re gone.

I’m alone at the moment. The rest of my team is in other locations, or on R&R, so there’s no way I could eat four packs of bacon on my own. I called up a friend at another organization and asked him if his team would like some. Of course they readily agreed to take them off my hands. And so, with appropriate solemnity and grief, I delivered the precious, albeit luke-warm packages to IRC. It was one of the darker moments I’ve had here when my friend greeted me at the door, grinned, and thanked me for ‘bringing home the bacon.’

Monday, May 29, 2006


I’ve never been good at killing insects. Especially large ones with things called ‘exoskeletons’ that crunch when you smash them (how have I forgotten every word of high school French but remember things like that from Biology?) When I was younger and came across a large bug I would immediately get my father and have him dispose of it.

I bring all this up because this evening I was sitting, typing away at my computer and this strange wind blew through. Seriously, it was like being in one of those creepy horror movies where the wind blows and shutters bang and you just know that everything is about to go terribly wrong. It wasn’t a dust storm. It was just a long, slow, strong gust. I got up to close the door that had blown open and went back to my typing. When I looked up again the ants on the floor were behaving strangely. And by strangely I mean there were thousands of them. Not the normal few hundred that wander around disoriented. Thousands – small ones, large ones, black ones, red ones. ‘Hmmm, strange!’ I thought and went back to my typing. A few minutes later something pops behind me. ‘Stupid popping bugs,’ I thought as we have these small black bugs that like to shoot themselves about a foot straight in the air and then land again with a ‘pop’ on the ground. Then I hear it again, behind me, and again. I turn slowly. Nothing there. I turn back around. The next thing you know I am being attacked by something. It’s in my face, gets in my hair – I swat, I bat and the dazed locust lies there on the table. ‘Right,’ I think. ‘That’s it!’

I normally have a live and let live agreement with the insects around here. If they don’t actually crawl on me I’m happy to let them live. Once they touch me I have a right to kill them. For instance, after my recent back trouble I’ve taken to sleeping on the floor. While one of the pluses of this new plan is not having back pain, having bugs crawl on your face in the middle of the night is definitely one of the cons.

I think I can safely say that the agreement has been breached by the locusts once and for all. I slapped the thing off the table and smacked it with my shoe – not even cringing at the awful crunch. Another one came through the window and met the same fate. A third flew by and while it came nowhere close to me I tracked it down and smashed it. No mercy. No more turning the other cheek. The insects must die. And when someone, 100 years from now, writes a history of this epic battle I would just like to point out that the locusts started it.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Eat your heart out, MacGyver!

13 pieces of bamboo, 300 dinar.
1 mosquito net, $30.
A whole lot of duct tape, $8.
No longer being eaten alive by mosquitos, priceless.

Ahh, a thing of beauty is a joy forever.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

ADD Ants

I’ve spent a lot of time watching the ants here because they’re so interesting. Ok, well, not really. I spend a lot of time watching the ants because I don’t have anything better to be doing. And I’ve begun to develop a sort of affinity toward them. They are like no other ants I’ve ever seen - they aren’t malicious, they aren’t goal-oriented, and they aren’t even particularly well regimented. I’m pretty sure that most of them have ADD. Take these red ones I’m watching now by way of example. They are charging all over the floor in different directions as if they’re searching furiously for something that they never find. Two seconds in one direction, four in the next, two back the way they came. One would think that they’re looking for food, or for water, or even for paper products – for which they seem to have a strange fondness – but when they find one of these things they investigate it for awhile and then take off again. The only thing that really holds their interest for any amount of time are other dead ants. If you squash one another will quickly run into it, try to pick it up and carry it away. Or, at least for a little while. I’ve just watched one pick up a body, carry it back and forth across the floor, try to carry it up a wall and then dump the thing and carry on as aimlessly as before. These ants might be among the more bizarre things I’ve come across in this world. Surely, there’s a PhD waiting to be written about them.

Thursday, May 25, 2006


Something inside me just gave up today. I don’t know why. I can guess, but I’m not sure. After being completely healthy for nearly seven weeks my body decided to break down. I understand, from others, that this is completely normal. Our digestive systems struggle and fight to keep a stiff upper lip for about six weeks and then they just stop trying. In essence they say, ‘right, I can see how it’s going to be. I’ve done my best to keep you from being sick but I’m tired and now you’re going to get what’s coming to you.’ And what’s coming is usually either vomiting or diarrhoea – both if you’re very lucky. However, I think my body had another reason.

Yesterday, my friend Mike and I were sitting outside having dinner and he told me about his day. He had been working on a nutrition programme to which a Sudanese woman had been bringing in her baby. The baby had been doing well but that day the woman also brought in her seven year old – a girl so malnourished that the nutritionist immediately referred her to the clinic. The clinic was miles away so Mike drove them there, dropped them off and went back to the nutrition programme. Later that night Mike and the nutritionist went back to the clinic to check on things. The girl was dead - wrapped in a sheet - and the mother needed a ride back to the IDP camp with her healthy baby and her dead daughter. Mike drove them.

The story was appalling but it didn’t surprise me. In the short time I’ve been here two of our staff had children die and one had a brother killed in the fighting. People die – they die because of the war, or because of food – or the lack of it, or because the environment is harsh. Life here is full of the appalling but not surprising. And the knowledge of these things should make us lay down our forks and sit down in the dust and put ashes on our heads. But it doesn’t. We hear these things and in the midst of, and in spite of, this knowledge we go right on eating and drinking and living. Maybe because we don’t know what else to do. Or maybe because of the lack of alternatives.

However, I think that at times like this our bodies sometimes reject what our minds readily accept. I think mine couldn’t both digest three meals a day and the knowledge that a few miles away there are seven year olds dying of hunger. So it stopped. I can’t say that I blame it.


I wish I had a picture of all the things that I have seen that have made me stop and go, ‘What? Why?’ Usually, these things pop up when I am driving around Nyala. Take today, for instance. I was driving to the airport and I had to slow practically to a stop because there was a child of maybe four years old in the road, wandering like a drunkard, with a box on his head. Why? Further on, I again had to slow because there was a donkey pulling a full cart of water completely alone across the road. Why? Nearing the airport, I glanced to my left out over the sweeping, flat, empty African expanse and noticed that there is a street light – sitting about forty feet from the street, facing the wrong direction, disconnected from any sort of electricity. Why? These things – the lamppost especially – remind me of living in Narnia. They remind me that we haven’t a clue as to why things go on as they do here and that we are the outsiders, the interlopers, the aliens plopped down in some fantastic work of fiction where we’ll never fit in and we’ll never understand.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Petty bureaucrats

One of my favourite people in the world is a professor of holocaust studies. He is also, inexplicably, one of the most tirelessly happy and optimistic people you could hope to meet and he shares my birthday. (I say all this because I’m about to grossly misquote him.) I remember reading one of his books on the holocaust and in it he says that he was struck by how much of the culpability for the holocaust came down to mundane people doing mundane things far removed from the actual atrocities themselves.

I think of this because the inevitable tedium of office life has overshadowed my day. If a hot wind weren’t blowing through the window, covering my computer with a fine dust, and I couldn’t hear the children shouting in Arabic in the streets, I could be in an office anywhere - New York, London, Hong Kong. There is payroll to be counted and month end reconciliations to be done. A trip to the bank is inevitable. A UNICEF cheque needs to be cashed. All of the routine and trivial things that make any operation run. All things that are being done in offices all over town. Some by humanitarian organizations and some by the government. I don’t doubt that there is a rebel group’s accountant sitting somewhere doing the very same things we are.

And this is both a depressing and encouraging thought. Because without us – the bean counters – things wouldn’t happen. In my case, programmes wouldn’t run smoothly, and in the case of the government…well, I’ll leave you to conclude what might not happen. While I sit here counting grimy dinar several gunships have just roared by overhead. Off to bomb Girayda or Shearia, or some other unhappy spot. Someone signed off their orders. Someone authorized and filed the paperwork. My point is that there should be culpability and responsibility for all of us whether we pull the trigger or not. I’m not sure I’m a fan of collective guilt and there has been a lot of talk – given all the wars and genocides of the past decade - about collective guilt. I don’t think that is what I’m talking about here. Rather, I think we should be careful to develop a sense of personal responsibility for the final outcomes our jobs and actions produce - whether we are petty bureaucrats or not.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


I like to think that I have a fairly high tolerance for foreign foods. I rarely get sick and follow the sound advice that if you can't tell what it is don't ask, just eat it. However, I have just returned from lunch where all the sound advice did me no good at all. On the table was a pot - of slime. There is no other way to describe the stuff. I'm pretty sure it was made with spinach of some sort - so it was green slime. It dripped off the spoon like snot. And, as we all stood around watching it the cook came out proudly beaming, announced what it was and (oh it gets better) it was supposed to be eaten with soggy pancakes. Great! Snot AND soggy bread!! Does it get any better? Some of my better colleagues choked it down. I put some on my plate with good intentions but had to sneak out to the garbage and get rid of it. Luckily, I have a power bar in my bag.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

On random drug use

I’m a proponent of using as many drugs as necessary to allow you to function normally. If God had intended us to feel pain he would have given us painkillers. I can hear the comments now, ‘oh no! Pain is your body’s way of telling you it’s not healthy.’ No kidding! I’m happy to let my body tell me something’s wrong but then I want to be able to tell it to shut-up. That’s where drug use comes in. To me there is no reason to justify experiencing pain if you don’t have to. I write all this because I’ve just had a whopping dose of muscle relaxant shot into my bum (which might also explain why this incoherent rambling is posted on the blog).

I had a raging head and neck ache all day and by 1pm couldn’t take it any longer so went to the UNMIS clinic where the doctor told me that it’s either stress or driving on the roads and that a shot of muscle relaxant would do the trick. Unless, of course, it’s malaria, he says by way of parting and that I should come back if it doesn’t go away. Unconvinced, but happy to be feeling less pain, I go see some doctor friends at another NGO. ‘Hmmm,’ she says. ‘Could be spinal menegitis but we can’t tell because the symptoms will be disguised by the muscle relaxant. Come back if you’re not feeling better.

This is all bad news. Why can’t doctors say things like, ‘oh, you’ve got a headache, no worries. You’ll be fine. Here’s some drugs.’ Instead, they give you the worst case scenario in a chipper tone and send you on your way. And in Sudan you’ve got plenty of worst-cases to choose from. Whatever happened to bedside manner anyway?

P.S. Security meetings are a whole heck of a lot interesting when on muscle relaxants.

Friday, May 05, 2006


I’ve become a bit obsessed with donkeys of late. I don’t know what it is about them but I think they’re adorable and rather put-upon. A friend I work with from Kenya described the Sudanese donkeys as depressed and swears that they’re perkier in Kenya. I have to agree with him. While I can’t comment on Kenyan donkeys, the ones here do seem somewhat gloomy and, for lack of a better term, Eeyorish. They do have good reason to be so. They do all the grunt work while being whipped or beaten by drivers of the carts they’re pulling.

A guy I know is a IDP camp manager and he makes a practice of buying a donkey whenever he moves to a new location. He finds someone – usually an IDP - who will feed and care for the donkey during the week using it for small-business and then has him bring it around on the weekends so he can take it out for rides. (Mind you, this guy is Scottish and also brought his kilt with him so I’m not vouching for his sanity.) But I have a respect hare-brained donkey-owning scheme because I find them so interesting.

Now, what no one tells you about donkeys is this. Their bray sounds like something being wounded. Or, a giant whoopee cushion being landed on by a refrigerator. Or a broken truck horn. Proof that God ultimately has a sense of humor because this poor little creature simply does not sound right! Their braying makes me laugh every time I hear it...unless, of course it's the middle of the night and one is right outside the gate. Then, it's not quite as funny.

Of all the pets that you could acquire here the donkey is a good choice because they are non-political. I made the mistake of mentioning to my donkey-owning friend that I wouldn’t mind having a horse and taking that out for rides on the weekends. ‘Oh no,’ he was quick to answer. ‘Too political. Janjaweed means, evil horseman. You can’t do that.’ Camels and cows are apparently right out as well.

“Do you really think that I could be mistaken for the Janjaweed riding around Nyala on a horse?” I asked a colleague while driving home from work the other night and wistfully watching horse cart trotting along the road.

“Could do,” she said. “It’s the hair.”

“You mean they might think I was of the red-headed Janjaweed gang?”

"Could do."