Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Ramadan

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.

‘No.’

‘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.