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.