Friday, March 31, 2006


Somehow Britain seems an appropriate place to get stuck. The entire place smacks of people on their way to someplace else. It’s foreign, but not foreign enough to be ‘abroad’. Everyone speaks English but not necessarily in such a way as to be understandable. It’s not home but not abroad either. It’s grey and cold and the sky is close and it is stuck off the continent like Ellis Island in New York. London feels to me like a train station or a layover airport. Not a bad place to be but not a final destination either.

And so here I am – for the time being – until I get a visa. I’m running out of things to do, of people to see, places to go. And I can’t get off the island, my passport is at the embassy, remember? My training and briefings are finished, I have all my shots, have finished two books, have read as much about Darfur as humanely possible. The only thing I have left is the organization’s logistic manual. A hundred-odd page document written in font Arial 4. It’s shaping up to be a fun weekend.

Monday, March 13, 2006

An introduction to violence

Life is full of ironies if you're stupid enough to go looking for them. Take last night for example. I leave for Sudan in three days. It isn't understatement to say that Sudan is awash in guns. And yet last night, after having lived (on and off) rather peaceably in Washington, DC for the past eight years, some friends and I got held up at gunpoint.

The first thing that came to mind when the guy pulled out the gun and demanded money was how terribly inconvenient the timing was. I mean, c'mon, I don't have time to cancel and get new credit cards! My first thought was, "are you kidding me? I'm going to a place with 'real' guns and 'real' violence and here I am getting mugged on a quiet DC street? I have to get back to Baltimore to pack! I don't have time for this!"

The next thing that sprung to mind was, "gosh, that's a really cool gun!" A glock, silver, the kind with the sliding top to load it. I know because while my friends and I are doing all this thinking, he's cocking it to motivate us.

Luckily, at that point sheer rationality kicks in and you remember all the things that you're supposed to calm and compliant, but not too compliant, give the guy what he's asking for, try not to get shot, etc. My very level-headed friends handled it beautifully and we ended up only parting with $6. A small price to pay when you think about it.

Which you do, later. The thoughts creep in and replay about how it all could have ended quite differently. How lucky we were to only be missing $6, and not a car, or a kneecap, or a friend.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

off to Sudan

Despite enjoying being gainfully unemployed for the past month I was offered a job yesterday and decided to take it. I will be working with Tearfund, a British NGO and their Disaster Management Team in Darfur, Sudan. I'll leave in just under two weeks and will be there for a year. For those who wish to know more, read on.

The descriptions of Sudan in the popular guidebooks – if they are even there at all – are brief and usually begin with phrases like, "at present traveling in Sudan is extremely difficult." The only travel book I've found devoted entirely to Sudan, after scouring the library and bookstores obsessively for the past few weeks, describes it like this, "Living among the inhabitants of a country that is dominated by viciously searing heat, stark deserts and monotonously grinding hardship, those of us who come from other cultures might conclude that everyone is by necessity more than just a little mad here." Sounds like my kind of place!

A bit of context…Sudan is an enormous country. It is larger than a ¼ of the United states, or all of the EC countries together, and the largest in Africa. It touches eight other African nations and seems hard pressed to keep on speaking terms with most of them while it has been engulfed in a civil war for twenty plus years. This has a bit to do with both history and location.

The country itself was only created in 1884 at the Conference of Berlin by a bunch of Europeans who were in the habit of carving up continents for themselves. It gained independence from the British in 1956 and went through seven coalition governments in the next three years, Shari'a' law was imposed and eventually Lt. General Oman Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir became president. (Al-Bashir is still president…if that tells you anything.) He rules Sudan's 40 million people of 56 different ethnic groups, 572 tribes (as well as 100 languages and dialects) with a heavy hand.

A recent article readily summed up much of the activity of his administration called, Sudan's Foreign Policy: In Search of Arm, Aid and Allies. Unfortunately, the first two are easy to come by. The third has proved a bit more elusive and part of the reason is that Sudan welcomes those the U.S. has listed as terrorists and there's that nasty civil war between the north (government/Islamic/dry, barren wasteland) and south (animist/Christian/natural resourced and oil-rich) for over 20 years. While it was a particularly tragic war, and claimed at least 1.5 million lives, a peace was negotiated that kept the country intact and gives the government six years to convince the southern Sudanese that they're better off sticking around than going for independence.

Meanwhile, over in the west things are getting ugly. Darfur is three states in the western region along the border with Chad. They were the last area to be incorporated into Sudan and, for all practical purposes mostly ignored when it came to any public services. They have little representation in government and fewer schools and hospitals than even the southern states…and that's saying something. The ethnic groups (the 'Fur' being one of them and Darfur meaning, 'Land of the Fur') took a couple of lessons learned from southern Sudan and decided to get attention by starting a skirmish. They attacked a police station. The government retaliated, much as they had in the south, out of all proportion to the offense by arming the 'Janjaweed' and setting them loose to wreak havoc. Essentially, the government created a bunch of heavily armed, petty warlords who engaged in murder, rape, pillaging and scorched earth tactics that led to the displacement of 2.2 million people and what the UN describes as the 'world's worst humanitarian crisis.' And when it can't get any worse…it does. The problem with petty warlords is that they usually get too big for their britches and this is what the Janjaweed have done. The government can no longer control them and they've started stirring things up in Chad.

Chad, already teeming with refugees who booked it out of Darfur after the madness began in 2003, finds that some of it's own military and other discontents have thrown their lot in with the Janjaweed and are now no longer content pillaging and destroying Darfur but want to do the same in villages in Eastern Chad with the hopes of destabilizing – heck, maybe even overthrowing – that government. As you can imagine, this makes Chad unhappy so it begins amassing military along the border and threatening to take matters into its own hands if the Sudanese government doesn't reign in the Janjaweed. The likelihood of this happening is almost nil and so begins another conflict.

But back to me… Now that you're up to speed on the reason I'm going let me tell you a bit more about where I'll be and what I'll be doing.

I will live in a city called Nyala, in the southernmost state in Darfur. Hanny Lightoot-Klein describes it like this:

Nyala, which lies scarcely more than 100 miles from the Chad border, is a colorful, vibrantly lively market town, surging with explosive energy in the brilliant sun, like an agitated beehive. Fruit is plentiful and luscious. Stall after stall shimmers seductively with multi-colored fabrics. Hobbled and tethered camels bray resoundingly in the teeming camel mart. Appraising, prospective buyers weave sharp-eyed among them, pausing occasionally to bargain ferociously with desert-toughened camel drivers.

The weather is, well, hot. Temperatures range between 77 and 110 degrees farenheit and it rains only 22mm a year. This combined with massive dust storms and chronic famine make it a rather stark environment. Nyala has become something of a logistics hub for many NGOs working in other areas of Darfur and Tearfund is involved in water and sanitation issues (the polite way of saying they dig wells and build latrines), nutrition, and health promotion. I'll be doing administrative work with about 10 other people who coordinate the work of the different outposts where the work is done.

It will be, without doubt, the hardest place I have ever lived but I don't think that will be without its beauty. Again, Klein writes,

"Every day I am asked more than once if it is not a fact that Sudan is truly wonderful, and because it makes them so instantly happy, I invariably agree that Sudan is indeed wonderful. Sudan is stark, gueling, and unspeakably harsh to those who are barely able to cling to the very knife edge of subsistence in its brutally inhospitable desert settlements and towns. But because of the unique qualities of these same people, it is indeed also the most wonderful place on earth that I have ever visited. It makes me wonder if perhaps it is I and the culture from which I come, where nothing ever seems to be enough, where hardly anyone ever seems satisfied with what life offers, that is not totally mad."

Without doubt, I am looking forward to it.