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."