Sunday, December 30, 2007

Not a morning person...

As anyone close to me can tell you that I am not a morning person. This is nothing interesting. There are a lot of people who aren't morning people. But, when I say that I am not a morning person I mean that I cannot function in the morning. I cannot speak coherently. I cannot pretend that I am in a good mood. I cannot pretend that I like my job, the world, or you. The people I love the most just leave me alone. They don't speak to me; they suppress their own chipperness; they might hand me a cup of coffee. I love those people.

Anyway, this morning was a good example of the extent to which I am not a morning person. It was about 5am. The mullahs were mullah-ing the morning prayers. I hear a crash. I can't tell if it's downstairs or upstairs. Eyes still closed I think foggy thoughts about what it could be. Something falling off a table, the guard slamming the garage door, etc. And then I get that feeling. If you're lucky you've never had that feeling. The feeling that something alive is either standing over you or under the bed, it turned out in this case...hanging from your mosquito net. I open my eyes slowly and there, six inches from my face, is a rat hanging spread-eagle from the outside (thankfully) of my mossy net. I'm staring through my one open eye at his fuzzy white stomach.

There are a number of reactions that any normal person would have at this point - screaming and throwing things comes to mind. However, none of these things pops into my morning brain. I can't even think of what to yell. So, barely lifting my head off the pillow, I manage to choke out, 'go away!'

Shockingly, this seems to do the trick. (I think he was on his way out anyway and just using my mossy net as a ladder to the window). The crash turned out to be the annoying creature knocking over my water bottle and spilling water. Now, I know that I should be disturbed that while I sleep rats are traipsing around my room....but, you know, I haven't had enough coffee yet.


The sun is sinking into another perfect sunset here on the edge of everywhere. And I am waiting, pacing up and down the office because all of the boys are not back from the field. I am pacing because I cannot lock up the office and go home myself until they have returned. I am pacing because I cannot shake that leftover feeling from Darfur that when people are late then something is wrong. It's crazy, I know. There's no war here. There's not going to be a problem. The cement delivery was just late. That's all.

But still...I am pacing.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

My favourite word...

I have a favourite word in every language in which I have lived for any significant period of time. I might not know the rest of the language but there is always one word that sticks with me.

In French, it is: malheureusement (meaning, unfortunately). Unfortunately, I used it so much in my French essays in secondary school my teacher said I could only use it once per essay. Too bad. It took up nearly an entire line, of the two-page requirement, when written in script.

In Russian, it is: ksazhelyenyu (also unfortunately). Don't worry, it's not a trend.

In Arabic, it is: malesh (meaning, 'I'm sorry' or 'too bad').

In Chinese, it is: xie xie (meaning, 'thank you'...primarily because I never got very far in those Mandarin lessons, but also because I like the szh...sound. It's fun. I'm easily entertained).

In English, it is: taradiddle (meaning, 'pretentious nonsense').

The problem is I never did find a good Indonesian word. Our Logistics Manager loves saying, '20,000'. It doesn't do anything for me. In the seven months I have spent in Indoesia no word has latched on to me. Until today when we were visiting a construction site.

We have these little rented pickups that were hauling sand around and there was some trouble about how many of them had been hired. My translator couldn't find the word for pickup so just called them by their Indonesian name, eltigga ratoos. How can you not love those words? I couldn't stop repeating it all day - much to the shagrin of the translator and driver who had to spend 4 hours in the car with me.

Eltigga ratoos. C'mon, say it with me. You know you want to.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Stalking the doughnut man....

The doughnut men are elusive creatures. At about 6am they hit the streets; honking (tooting...whatever!) old bicycle horns and generally making their presence known. They are usually small-ish, wiry men who carry two heavy glass cases filled with doughnuts on either side of a pole that sits on their shoulder. They speed walk up and down the streets hawking their wares. At about 6am, if I am in bed, I loathe the doughnut men. I hear go up our street, down the side street, and then make their rounds on the street opposite. I'm convinced they are in league with the mosques to disturb my sleep. (The first lone Mullah begins his prayer call at 4:30. He goes on for about half an hour until joined by all the other Mullahs who don't end until 5:30) Half hour of blissful peace and quiet and then the doughnut men are out.

But this morning, as I follow my mother's management advice (1. guilt; 2. bribery; 3. blackmail; 4. extortion; 5. begging), I reach point 2: bribery and so I need doughnuts for the staff meeting at 8am.

At 6am I jump out of bed as I hear them surrounding the house. I try to make myself Shari'a law presentable and run out of the house...but the gate is locked...and the guards is nowhere to be found. I have to hunt him down and get him to open the gate and when I peak out - guess what? They're gone. I don't mean down the street but I can still hear them. No, they have evaporated.

Defeated, but not deterred I grab my stuff, lock up the house and hit the streets. I'm trolling around Meulaboh in an NGO car stalking the doughnut man. I feel like someone should be filming for a National Geographic film special. Nothing.

After about three neighbourhoods I decide to roll down my windows and troll very slowly hoping to hear, instead of see, one of them. My diligence is rewarded. Just as I drive by one road I hear the quarry coming down a small dirt lane. (And when I say small I mean, very down which I'm not entirely sure I can navigate a vehicle...[see post on ditches]...and there's no one in Meulaboh to bail me out if I get stuck. Doughnuts vs. getting stuck in a ditch. The call of bribery is too strong so I navigate a four point turn and head down the lane. Alas, the doughnut man has completely disappeared.

Driving slowly enough I eventually see him come out of an even smaller dirt lane and I promptly make his day by buying about half of his doughnuts. While doing this I consider the implications of my actions. Staff being happy little workers [short term gain] vs. encouraging the early-morning doughnut industry [long term pain]. As I leave with my 40 doughnuts I'm still not sure I've made the right choice.

Thursday, December 20, 2007


Ok, so I find 'those' types of people annoying. You know: 'them'.

The ones who spend most of their blog time/space putting up photos of their children, or their neighbour's children. Or their brother's children. Well, let me reassure you that I am not becoming one of 'those' people. However, check out this picture of my nephew, Caden Jack. My brother disavows knowledge of how he got into this outfit and the picture got taken.

Then again, maybe it's a slippery slope. Maybe my nephew is going to find himself, inexplicably, in cute outfits for the rest of his life. Maybe this blog is going to become nothing but adorable pictures. Let's hope not. For all our sakes.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Something I wrote recently....

Well, sorta wrote..mostly. Until our media department edited it. But you get the idea. On relief web:

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The ditches I've known....

Meulaboh sits at sea level and gets, approximately, 10 feet of rain a year. As you can imagine drainage is an important and fairly tricky issue here. Even with drainage ditches the whole city frequently floods with knee-deep murky water in which lurk alligators, monitor lizards, and a miscellany of other moving creatures. (You might not believe me but just this morning our livelihood team was shown a 15 foot python that the community had caught in the recent flooding.) It's not the sort of place where you want to mistakenly drive into a ditch.

But we do. All the time. Many of the roads here are built so narrowly that it is impossible for two cars to pass without one of them ending up in one of the 3 foot deep ditches that line every road. In many places you cannot make a right or left turn without making, at least, a two point turn.

We got a call at about midnight on Friday that yet another staff person had been driving home and the left front wheel was now spinning freely in a ditch as the vehicle rested on it's axle. It was pouring rain and everyone sprung into action. I will say this about humanitarian aid workers: we might not be very good at normal, boring everyday life...but give us an emergency and there's no one else you'd want there. (I do find it unfortunate that the normal, boring, and everyday is what makes up so much of life, but that's another story.) How five people can lift a car out of a ditch I have no idea. But once we were there everyone just knew what to do. Kenneth, Greg, and Nicole pulled down on the back end. Darren lifted from the front. I drove. A minute later we were out, the tire and axle were inspected and deemed driveable and we were all home ten minutes later.

But it did make me think more about the ditches. I'm convinced that there are two types of people in life. Those who end up in ditches and those who don't. I like to think that I'm part of the latter category but have had so many near scrapes this past week I'm afraid I might have to rethink that. I spent a harrowing ten minutes on Saturday negotiating a truck full of Community Health Staff out of a narrow alley, backwards, between two very dodgy ditches. I just returned from dropping some friends off and had to do a ten point turn to get out of their road. Maybe I'm losing my skill or maybe my luck's wearing thin. Is it simply a matter of time until I end up in a ditch as well?

White Elephant Gift Haven...

As the Christmas season descends on us so comes one of the best traditions of all time – the White Elephant Gift Exchange. I love these exchanges because, in a way, it mocks everything that consumerism has, well, consumed of the goodness of Christmas. White Elephant gifts are everything that Christmas presents aren’t ‘supposed’ to be: impractical, ugly, and cheap. But in the gift exchange the important thing is the game, the giving, the interaction that friends have while cajoling, arguing, and negotiating their way into possession of a magenta, crystal candilabre that they would normally cross the street to avoid. It’s great fun.

It is because of this that I took great delight in finding the White Elephant Gift Haven. That might not be that ‘actual’ name of the store but it should be. I don’t know the name of the store but if you ever find yourself in Meulaboh, Indonesia go down Natsional until the road splits in a round-a-bout. Go left and it’s about the third store on your right next to Hollywood Photo. You won’t regret it.

Let me first tell you the gifts that we didn’t buy for the gift exchange. We did not buy a stuffed animal head toilet paper holder. We did not buy the exact miniature replica of a real grocery cart. We did not buy a big, stuffed Christmas tree pillow, glass fruit, a large orangie-yellow teddy bear holding a red lace heart, nor a plastic light-up frame that flashed pictures of Mecca. We did not buy an enormous bouquet of neon flowers, a plastic clock that shows Indonesians praying, nor the most hideously iridescent pink and blue vases too small to hold flowers.

I had a hard time passing up the ‘phone bed’ which was a pastel taffeta and lace box that your landline phone could sit in with the matching receiver decoration but we eventually did settle on:
1) A wind-up, cuddly mouse
2) An aqua blue, metal, unicorn wind chime
3) A Watermelon-head-Hello-Kitty Door Dangly

I would like to say that these were the highlight of the gift exchange but, alas, they were not. They were beaten, hands down, by a gift that I initially unwrapped and then promptly lost. Once out of the wrapping the box read: Cattle World. And, inside, was a small toy water buffalo that, when turned, on walked and moo-ed, and shot sparkly red lights out of it’s eyes. It was like the demon water buffalo from Hades. It promptly had a show down with the wind-up mouse. The mouse lost. I loved it. I lost it and ended up with fireworks…sparklers. The kind we had when we were kids before someone with enough sense decided that maybe these should be illegal considering how flammable California is generally and how many children end up with burns in hospitals specifically.

After we had sorted the gifts we all danced to the Stones singing 'You Can't Always Get What You Want' at the top of our lungs. And, water buffalo or no, watermelon-head-Hello-Kitty door dangly or no, everyone went home happy and that is the point.

'You can't always get what you want
You can't always get what you want
You can't always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you just might find
You get what you need.'

Monday, December 10, 2007

The brief and frightening reign...continued...

My long-time readers will remember my 'brief and frightening reign' in Nyala. [see deluxe wall calendar at left]. Well, good news! The Brief and Frightening Reign Part Duex is on the way.

Now, new readers might be wondering what this 'brief and frightening reign' business is all about. Let me explain. No, no, it is too much. Let me sum up. Whenever I get left alone in charge of all other departments with no other authority or support it qualifies as the above-stated reign.

Since I'm going to be here by myself over Christmas and New Year the second era of the reign will begin. While I was dubbed Queen of Nyala for the first reign I will be called Czarina of Meulaboh for the second. In honour of this our livelihood advisor just sent me the following Get Fuzzy cartoon.

Or, you can see it here a bit better.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Very bad news indeed...

I just got some grave news in which I know that you will share my interest and concern.

I have just been told that our cleaners AND our cooks will be in training all week. Meaning that we have to clean up after ourselves AND cook our own food. I seriously don't know if I can make it. You think I'm kidding but I'm not. I don't know how to work the washing machine. I haven't made my bed in months...nay, years. And don't even get me started about the cooking.

What to do? What to do?

Saturday, December 01, 2007

I'm not a good singer....

But, neither am I a good person which is why I'll carry on writing this blog. Now, just like anyone who doesn't have kids can tell you how to parent. I can tell you how to sing. No, I take that back. I can't tell you how to sing but I can tell you when someone can't sing. It's more like recognizing one of your own. And there are some people out there who can simply not key, hasten to add. They seem to do just fine in getting a hold of the microphone and belting it out but they miss the key part.

I'm a little bitter because I just got home from a Sunday School Christmas concert here. There were kids. They were cute. They were singing - and sometimes even in key. But, it also went on for a very, very long time. When we arrived half an hour late, to a room roughly the temperature of an industrial oven, they still hadn't begun and that should have been an indication that this was going to last for awhile.

Looking through the program it appeared that there were four sections each of which contained 1) speeches 2) songs 3) dancing 4) poems. It started looking like a long evening. So we (and by 'we' I mean 'me') started a little pool to guess how long each section was going to last - the loser had to buy us a beer with dinner.

Getting the paper a colleague turned around aghast, "Let me get this straight. You're gambling...for church!?"

I hadn't thought about it that way so had to consider it for a moment. I couldn't think of any direct commandments that forbade any of the above. "Yeah, pretty much," I shrugged.

The programme started, the off-key singing that was mildly amusing at first became annoying after hour two. When the choir director grabbed the microphone and announced, "and now our children would like to sing, 'Forever.'' All I could hear was the line from 'Sandlot' echoing in my head. 'F-O-R-E-V-E-R.'

I sorta faded in and out after that. There was an impromptu sermon that had something to do with planes crashing. There was something about song where 'angels in the choir' had been translated 'angels in the carrots'...but I wasn't really paying attention. The only thing that could snap me to was off-key singing. And there was plenty of that left.

As we headed into hour three we snuck out so we could never actually say who won the bet which was fine with me given that I hadn't said it would go on for much over 2 1/2 hours.

Now, you probably think I've had my daily fill of off-key singing...but no, I'm always up for more. So, imagine my delight when I discovered that my friend Erin has posted what could possibly be the worst version of 'O Holy Night' ever (evaaaaaaaaaaaaaaar!). I simply had to share it with you. Read, follow her rules, and listen. You'll thank me.

Hear those sleigh bells jingling...

What do latrines and Christmas have in common?

Oh, nothing. Except that for Christmas this year I'm going to be building them. Yep, that's right. Me and a bunch of construction guys will be staying in Indonesia over Christmas and New Year to build latrines and houses. I've tried to make all the other programme people feel guilty for leaving by saying helpful things like, 'how can you celebrate Christmas with your families knowing that children have been without latrines for three years!?' But, it's pretty much to no avail. (I needn't mention how hard their hearts must be!)

So, over Christmas you can think of me, rattling around in a big, empty, echoey house singing 'Here Comes Santa Claus' at the top of my lungs. I also have a full box of candy canes to enjoy. Who could ask for anything more?

(I hesitate to mention that I will be accumulating holiday like it's going out of style and that I will then have a total of 20 days of vacation to spend in the new year. Good times. Bali? Jordan? Thailand? I might take some time out of my lone caroling to plan my escape.)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

What? No! You don't say!!

Sudan blocking UN Mission to Darfur. How shocking! Especially given how cooperative they've been in the past...

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Field work...

The thing that I like most about field work is that it is a lot like life. You never know how it is going to turn out. It might end in tears. You might start your day over a good cup of coffee and end it in a swamp. You never can tell.

I got up Saturday morning not really anxious to go out to the field. It was Saturday, after all. I’m trying to confine work to Monday through Friday – because I can. But, our livelihoods coordinator said that the fish farming training would only run on Saturday so if I wanted to go I would have to go on Saturday. I persuaded her to go in the afternoon.

The drive out to Cot Mejid is a good one. The road running parallel to the coast is new and has recently been paved. If you ignore the tuk-tuks, water buffalo, and suicidal motorcyclists it’s what I would call an enjoyable drive. To your left is nothing but flat swamp still brackish with ocean water – the path of the tsunami. To your right, more swamp and jungle. Everything is green. The jungle is green, the water is green, the mountains in the distance have a greenish tinge. It’s like a landscape artist ran out of other colours.

The fish farming training is finishing when we get there and so I run a short focus group and ask them how they feel about their new livelihood. (They used to be rice farmers but their land is now to salianated to farm). They think that this is a strange question. I realize how strange this question is but have to ask it anyway. We’re concerned about their feelings about their new livelihood. They’re happy to have a job – any job. It’s not a matter of ‘liking’ rice farming or fish farming to them. It’s a matter of having a job. Still, we want to know that they’re happy so I ask. They are. I write that down. I ask some more questions and then we go out to see the fish farms.

We get there by driving to their village and then being ferried – one at a time – in tiny canoes to where the fish farms are anchored. By ‘anchored’, I mean that the farms are essentially floating docks with giant square holes cut in the center that hold nets in which the fish live and a small hut in which the fishermen sleep and guard the nets. The ride up the river is quiet because the fisherman rowing doesn’t speak English, he doesn’t even speak Indonesian – only the local dialect. Monkeys watch us as we make our way up the river swiftly moving in the other direction. The jungle on either side is alive with the noises of different insects.
It is a beautiful feeling to sit in the middle of a muddy river flowing out to the ocean on the other side of the world and drag your fingers in the water – even if your canoe is taking on water at an alarming rate. The prayer call starts as the fisherman rows and the sounds is exaggerated by the silence.

When we reach the fish farms the fisherman lets me off and rows away to ferry others and I am left alone with the prayer call, and the jungle, and the rushing water. I sit down, and put my feet in the water to wait and think how I am truly one of the most lucky people in the world to be here right then, in that moment.

The fishermen appear in other canoes and bring with them a feast of seafood for dinner. Crabs the size of a small dinner plate, the best grilled swordfish I have ever tasted. I choke on a fishbone and wonder which is worse – choking to death on a fishbone or drinking the water straight out of the river. I was spared though as one of the fishermen had some water still warm and smoky from being boiled over a fire.

The fishermen all light up clove cigarettes and the smoke is blown downstream as we huddle around the light of the single, solar-powered lantern. When it’s to leave and our canoe-er stares out into the darkness at the river. No good, he says. The river is flowing too fast. We cannot go the way we came. Instead, he will paddle us half-way down river and then turn inland and drop us up the road from the village. Why not? I’m game.

I’m game getting into the canoe in the pitch black and drifting off into the night with the other staff yelling useful tips about ghosts and large lizards. I’m game as we turn off the river into a shallow marshy estuary and duck under trees. I’m game as the bamboo scratches my arms and as we get beached in the shallow mud. I start to lose my game when the fisherman motions for me to get out and I sink up to my calves in thick, oozy mud. Right. So, we walk then? Right. I roll my jeans up further and follow the fisherman the best I can. He moves quickly and deftly through the swamp. I have about as much finesse as a water buffalo. I’m having trouble keeping track of my shoes while I try not to contemplate what I am probably stepping in/on/through. It’s pitch black as we weave around. What we’re weaving around I have no idea but these are the sorts of questions you don’t ask when you’re following someone in a swamp. In fact, I’m mostly thinking about a book I read a few years ago called, ‘Not So Funny When It Happened.’ Eventually, the mud gets shallower and firmer and we come to ground in someone’s backyard. They seem to take it in stride this white girl popping out of a swamp; like it’s an everyday occurrence. Maybe it is, what do I know? The kids wave. I wave back. The fisherman takes me to the road, shakes my hand and turns and heads back to the fish farms for the next trip.

The whole thing makes me laugh. Out loud. Alone. In the middle of nowhere, sitting on the edge of the road, carrying my crocs, with muddy legs and jeans, I laugh because what else can you do? You never know how life is going to end up.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Tsunami advice, cartoon form...

(In case you need help understanding, "RUN!")

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The early warning system...

You might, or might not, have heard about the tsunami early warning system that foreign governments have spent millions on in order to prepare countries surrounding the Indian Ocean of potential tsunamis. It's supposed to work like this: very high tech equipment located in the ocean monitors seismic activity which is then relayed to satellites which are monitored and that information is sent very quickly to governments so that they can warn their people.

Let me tell you how it works in practice: very high tech equipment located in the ocean monitors seismic activity which is then relayed to satellites which are monitored and that information is beamed directly to CNN and BBC. Some watchful person in the the U.S. or UK sends us a message - today it happened to be my sister - saying that there's a tsunami warning. I look up from my computer and say, 'hey, did you know that there was an earthquake today and that there's a tsunami warning?' Everyone in the office stares at each other blankly. (Mind you, a deadly all of water could be hurtling toward the office at that very minute). I then search google for the latest news to find out if a tsunami warning has actually been issued.

Now, what's wrong with this picture? The people who are most vulnerable to a tsunami striking are not going to be getting calls from either the U.S. or UK to tell them about it. The people who are the most vulnerable are not going to be able to 'google' it. They are completely oblivious. So - call me crazy but I think the early warning system is the Oxford English definition of an 'abysmal failure'. The Indonesian government did issue a tsunami warning - according to the press - but to whom? I think this is a key question they should be asking it really crucial that CNN and BBC know about it? Or maybe they should try thinking of a system that could alert those living in low-lying coastal areas? Of course, I'm not a scientist so I could be wrong.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Ladies and gentlemen...

You knew it was coming sooner or later and so here, now, without further ado I present to you: Darfur, the music video...

Not sure how I fell about them using an IDP camp as a backdrop for a music video, but some of the footage is beautiful...

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Could it be that the cure is worse than the disease?

After years of taking doxycycline, slathering on the Deet, and spending time in rooms sprayed continuously with insecticide I'm wondering how bad can malaria and dengue fever be? Which is worse - the mossys or this self-poison?

Saturday, October 20, 2007

I'm only going to say this once...

I'm tired of the news coming out of Sudan these days. It's all shock and amazement at the current goings-on. ("What? The North and the South don't get along?!" or "What? There's fighting in Darfur?!" or "Weren't there peace deals? Wasn't everything peachy?!")

No! Things haven't been peachy since the ink was drying on either of the so-called peace agreements with the South (CPA) or in Darfur (DPA). And, so I am going to give you a short treatise on what the future of Sudan will hold in coming years. Ready?

There is no peace agreement in Darfur. The peace agreement with the south is all but dead. It never really was all that alive and it was always more of a cease-fire than a 'comprehensive peace agreement' anyway. Both the North and the South have used the period of the CPA to fortify their positions rather than actually work toward a future peace. The north has done this by bringing in Chinese weapons and soldiers by the boatload and the south has done this by bringing in and solidifying their position in the region, in Darfur and with international 'donors'. Everyone in Sudan is armed to the teeth and itching for a fight.

However, in this coming fight the North will lose. Here's why: North Sudan cannot afford to wage a war on three fronts which, if it returns to war with the South it will have to do. They will be forced to continue fighting in Darfur, on the Chadian border, and they will be fighting the South. The only way it could hope to win would be to bring China in to do their fighting for them. But, to assume that China will side with the North is to overestimate the relationship between the government in Khartoum and China. China is interested in the oil which, at the moment is provided by the North but the oil fields are almost entirely located in the South. If the Southern government does a deal with the Chinese to guarantee the security of Chinese oil interests I doubt that China will care who is buttering which side of their toast.

The Southern Sudanese Army have been long engaged in talks, and a recruiting drive, in Darfur. They are pulling in, literally, tens of thousands of Darfurians into their army with the common theme, 'we hate the regime in Khartoum.' In a fight where the South and Darfur are fighting the North, without the support of the Chinese, the North is doomed. Chad will take advantage of a weakened regime in Sudan that is unable to support the Chadian Opposition, as it currently does, and attempt to annihilate them. The South/Darfur collusion will be a marriage of convenience and once the government in the north has been vanquished - probably through a coup deposing the current regime and plunging the North into political chaos - it will end. And, given that there's not much commonality (or love lost) between Darfur and the South, they will turn on each other. Chaos and turmoil will ensue in the form of uncontrollable warfare.

Granted, this is not a pretty picture. It is a tragedy of enormous proportions. The human losses and humanitarian situation will be unthinkable. But if the north doesn't recognize the volatility of the situation they are facing and the South and Darfur don't count the human costs in their quest for power then this is what Sudan will devolve into for the next ten years, at least.

Thursday, October 18, 2007


This is me getting shot...yes, I know that you're not supposed to wave the weapon about wildly like this but I was running away and in pain:

Gun-toting hooligans:

Darren examines nasty flesh wound I inflicted at close range...entirely, on accident, of course:

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Where we spend our weekends...

And by "weekend" I mean TWO days!!

Shooting back...

I would like to preface this post by saying that I abhor violence. I hate the video games in which you kill people. I hate the television shows that involve killing people. I prefer not to watch movies in which people die. Violence is not the answer. Ok, now that we’ve gotten that out of our systems I’ll continue.

Violence might not be the answer but sometimes it is good fun. Today is the second day of Idul Fitri, the five day holiday celebrating the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, and children are given gifts and allowed to run rampant. Now, you might have thought you had seen children “running rampant” before – like when they’re crying and throwing things in restaurants and shops. Let me tell you - you haven’t seen anything. I saw today – no lie – a child of no more than four years smoking. Also, in Meulaboh, it seems that every child, under 12, has been given a bb gun and these children have taken to the streets in packs where they carry out full-on gang warfare against other groups of children who are roving the streets in the backs of pickup trucks and tuktuks.

After observing this descent into juvenile chaos did we have the presence of mind to ‘tut-tut’ about the culture of violence and remember how much we abhor violence? No. (Well, truth be told, some of us did). The rest of us, stopped our trucks plastered with NO GUNS stickers and bought our own pump-loading bb guns and began duking it out in, and around, one of our compounds. Children piled in tuktuks drove by and we opened fired. They returned fire as they sped away. Our own fight moved indoors for several minutes when suddenly there was a, ‘hallooo!’ from the front door with a suspiciously Indonesian accent. We all stepped out from our hiding places to be greeted by a hail of bbs that bounced off the tile floors and cement walls as, in our absence, an entire gang of children had taken control of the front yard. We pushed them back out of the house and the battle raged for several minutes as we tried to hold the front door. Luckily for us, they began to run out of bbs and so they crowded around to show us their flesh wounds from other battles.

I guess you could say that I’ve hit a new low in humanitarian work when I’ve taken to shooting children but it was awfully good fun being able to shoot back and it did worlds of good for our popularity amongst neighbourhood children. So, I’m going to file this one under ‘community relations’ and move on.

However, if you take away something from this message it’s that I hate violence. Don’t like guns much either. Ahem.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Logistics, in case you didn’t know, is a crucial part of all relief operations. They’re basically the people who buy stuff, store it, and get it from point A to point B. They also manage properties, deal with comms, travel, etc., etc., ad infinitum. It’s not the stuff of action movies but important, nonetheless. Without it project managers would have nothing to build with, wells wouldn’t get dug, nor would latrines, we wouldn’t ever get out to the field, and basically the enterprise would come to one massive, grinding, screeching halt. So, when logs is in trouble I’m there for them. Or, at least, I am in theory.

That sentimental theory met reality today when my love and devotion to logistics was put to the test by a serious gap in logs staffing. I volunteered to take a sabbatical from communications for a couple of weeks to help logs It was valiant and gallant of me - if I do say so myself…and I do. Afterall, I’ve got a fairly good handle on logistics. It’s not rocket science. You shop. You boss people around. You give withering looks that make others feel inferior when they’ve completed the wrong paperwork. Sheesh! I do those things for fun. But, there is one thing that I haven’t done and that is warehousing. I’ve heard about warehousing. I’ve wandered around tidy warehouses and looked at things. I’ve even inventoried warehouses. It’s just that I’ve never actually ‘managed’ a warehouse. So, when the Logs Manager sat down at my desk and looked at me earnestly my heart started beating a little faster. Here’s a snippet of conversation:

Logs Manager: I think we should talk about what where you’re most needed.
Me: Sure! (inside my head) Please don’t say warehousing, please don’t say warehousing!
Logs Manager: We’ve got a couple people who will be covering procurement and purchasing.
Me: Great! (inside my head) Please don’t say warehousing, please don’t say warehousing!
Logs Manager: So….ummm…I was wondering how you felt about…
Me: (inside my head) Not warehousing! Anything but warehousing!
Logs Manager: …about managing the warehouses?

What could I do? I was sitting there with a silly confident grin plastered across my face? I gulped, nodded and kept smiling. “Sure! Great! Sounds like fun!” I said. Of course, I did what any reasonable person would do in those circumstances - I promptly got on Google and typed in ‘Warehouse Management for Dummies’. Google failed me and so I turned instead to our own manual on warehouse management that has been – handily – put on all our computers.

The Logs Manager walked back in. Could I do the interviews for the warehouse assistants? “Sure!” I gulped again. Not only have I never done warehousing but now I’m supposed to ask someone else how they do it and judge their answers. I returned to hurriedly reading the manual. Stock checks. Ok! Bin cards. Check! Rats, fires, flood, fraud. I put the speed reading skills to the test.

“Oh,” the Logs Manager turned back to me on his way out the door. “Here are the outstanding MDRs”

MDRs…riiiight. Love those MDRs! What the heck is an MDR? More manual flipping. Material Dispatch Requests. Of course, silly me, how obvious!

So, two interviews, 35 MDRs, two warehouse tours, a lot of faff with some project managers over bricks, and 10 hours later I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was still alive. And breathing. And no one hated me. At least that they’ll say to my face but I’m keeping the withering looks on standby just in case.

Monday, October 08, 2007

The Spiral Staircase of Death...

Arriving in Meulaboh was a slightly surreal experience. Like arriving back in a place you know you’ve been but nothing is familiar so it’s like being somewhere you’ve never been before. The thirty minute drive from the airport took 3 ½ hours because of flooding but once we hit tarmacked roads the scenery was totally foreign. The areas near the coast that used to be riddled with the flattened foundations of houses is overgrown with jungle hiding the destruction. The open air markets and restaurants have been replaced with storefronts and buildings. The roads have been tarmacked and driving now doesn’t involved dodging parts of the road that are washed out. The neat, newly painted houses built by NGOs as part of the response line the roads surrounded by gardens and sheds. If you had just been dropped here and knew nothing of the level of destruction this place had sustained you would never be able to guess at it.

Personally, I am glad to be here. It is nice to have my belief that aid work does work, is necessary and good rekindled. My most pressing fear – well, my only fear - is how to navigate the spiral staircase of death from my second floor room during an earthquake. I have had enough trouble getting down a straightforward staircase when the earth turns to jelly much less one that twists precariously to an obscene angle in the middle.

Down the rabbit hole...

"And down went Alice after it never once considering how in the world she was to get out again…She fell very slowly for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her and wonder what was going to happen next. First, she looked down and tried to make out what she was coming to but it was too dark to see anything…"

I came across this portion in Alice in Wonderland and thought that this is exactly what it is like going out on a new aid post. You just ship off one day to work with people you’ve never met in a place you’ve never been. You could be on a team that will be your new bestest-friends-for-life or you could not get along with a single one of them. You might love the place or find you're allergic to the very air. All luck of the draw, I suppose.

Now: random musings...first let’s compare and contrast with last posting just for the heck of it, shall we?

Differences between working in Indonesia and Darfur:
1) We live in palatial buildings.
2) There are hot showers
3) There are toilets
4) The food is great – including ice cream
5) Air conditioning in all our vehicles
6) There are weekends
7) There’s constant electricity and – usually wireless internet

Similarities between working in Indonesia and Darfur:
1) It’s hot.
2) There are mosquitoes

Yeah, pretty much struggling to find any other similarities. Oh yeah, there was once a war here too. I love this place. I’m not kidding! Can’t we stay forever? I guess that would be slightly defeating the purpose of, well, everything humanitarian workers are about but I think we should think about it nonetheless.

Most interesting part of the day was the security brief on what to do in case of another tsunami. The answer: “run”. Well, technically that’s not entirely true. With enough advance warning, we’re supposed to get in trucks and calmly drive inland to higher ground. Failing that, however, we’re supposed to run for the highest ground around. I love it. You just can’t beat sound, sensible, simple advice like that… “run!”

Friday, September 28, 2007

A very serious conundrum...

The British have a nice tradition of having tea around 4pm every day and this is something that I've decided to adopt since being here. It sort of perks up the afternoon - especially afternoons when it's grey and chucking it down with rain like this one. However, I usually go about making tea without thinking too much whether there is milk in the house. So, when it turns out that there isn't what is one supposed to do? The tea is ready and hot and if I go out in the rain to get milk it will be cold when I return. Am I supposed to just drink the tea without milk? It's slightly bitter and not so nice then. These are the sorts of dilemmas that only one source I know can deal with...the internet. I turn to Google for the answers. Google, not letting me down, tells me that milk in the tea can block the health gains of drinking tea in the first place. Google finds that George Orwell thought that tea should be bitter. And lastly, Google finds that my bloodflow is improved by foregoing the milk. Ahh, I shouldn't have worried and brought my conundrum to Google in the first place.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

So sad!

“It’s over,” I announced glumly to a friend arriving home late last night.

“Kels,” she said sympathetically. “He’s a communist. Don’t let him break your heart.”

“He’s a communist. I’m a Republican,” I added, sullen.

She shook her head. “It was never meant to be.”

And it wasn’t. My love affair with Ken Livingstone is over. But, I have to admit it was beautiful while it lasted.

Sure, some would have said that it was doomed from the beginning. He’s the 62-year-old Mayor of London. I am a thirty-something, middle-class American. He made a name for himself by defying Margaret Thatcher at every turn. I happen to think that Ronald Reagan was a fairly decent guy. But, you see…Ken Livingstone made the buses run on time and that’s enough to make any girl weak in the knees.

London’s a pretty decent city. In fact, I think it might be the best city on earth. I mean, I heart New York with the best of them and DC, Chicago, and LA are all pretty darn great in their own regards. I have a soft spot for both Moscow and Paris. I wouldn’t shirk the opportunity to pass through Bangkok, Toronto, Nairobi or Singapore again. But, London is…well…London. And Ken Livingstone made London work. No, I should rephrase that. He made the buses run on time which disguised the fact that the city doesn’t, in fact, work long enough for me to fall in love with it.

For those of you who don’t know London well let me tell you that one of the greatest aspects of the place is that public transport is functional. By that, I mean, it transports the public. (I don’t have very high expectations of public transport, obviously). It gets masses of people from here to there and from there to here and that’s all it’s meant to do. I do not expect it to be comfortable, to be convenient, to be timely or affordable. If it is any of those things that’s a plus but not be expected in your ordinary day. Anything designed to provide a service for several million people is doomed to be slow and inefficient – at best. Just look at the U.S. government.

But Ken, not being dissuaded, introduced a plan that gives free public transport to the elderly, handicapped and children. He reduced transport charges for those on low incomes. He introduced a charge for people who drive into London during the day which cleared the streets of congestion so that buses weren’t getting stuck. He insisted that Londoners use a sort of debit travel card called Oyster so that people could get on buses quickly and keep them moving. It was a beautiful thing. It was, in a comparison that I’m sure he would dislike, Rudy-Guliani-esque.

Some friends thought my love would wane when striking Tube workers shut the underground down for three days. Nothing doing. I stood at a bus stop in central London trying to complete a journey that normally took 40 minutes but that day took 2 ½ hours. “What do you think of Ken now?” a friend asked. I shook my fist and said, “Let ‘em strike! We don’t need them! Ken’ll take care of everything and in the meantime we’ll take the bus!” And by “we” I meant me and the rest of London who were probably less enamored with the situation than I was. But I stood by my man.

I stood by him until tonight when, the situation became intolerable – coming home from work the trains were all delayed. I was annoyed but chose to overlook this. Love requires some give and take, after all. But then, I had to wait 40 minutes for a bus. 40 minutes! My commute took me nearly two hours and there was no strike to blame it on. Someone needed to bear responsibility and that person was Ken.

In the grander scheme of things, people have broken off relationships for reasons less trivial than a 40 minute wait for the bus so I feel somewhat justified. Ken, obviously sensing the cooling of my ardor, sent me the paper, ‘The Londoner’ today which announced that the London bus fare has now been reduced by about 20 cents per journey. I softened a bit but my resolve remains. He’s simply going to have to try harder to win me back.

“You hear that Ken? I want Bus #1 running on time!!”

Monday, September 17, 2007

How to survive...

I bet the 'How to Survive' books have overlooked these crucial skills!

How to survive a robot uprising. Seriously. I actually learned something.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Doing the math...

Being a person who likes to be busy...perpetually I was slightly shocked to discover that my new job description is a bit - how-shall-we-say - lacking in this regard.

It begins with detailing the main purposes of my job wherein I was surprised to find that I am, apparently: an experienced and highly skilled writer, and then goes on to list my key duties and responsibilities (media, documentation, institutional learning, etc.) with a percentage of time that each will take up listed beside it. However, despite having redone the math a number of times, I couldn't manage to make the percentages add up to 100%. While that was unnerving I began to be excited about all the ways I could fill the rest of my time. Realizing that it was late, I put the thing aside until this morning when I had a crack at it again. Suddenly, I saw where I had gone wrong - having missed an entire section that was 40% of my JD.

Malesh for me. I guess my 'laying around on the beaches' and 'reading trash fiction' is going back down to 0%. And this is why the general public should be glad that I work with words and not with numbers.

Monday, September 10, 2007

One post a month...not bad!

Well, for those of you who have grown as bored with my comings-and-goings as I have you're in luck! I've gotten a job. Yes, no more waiting a month or more for a new entry the blog will be back up and running as soon as I ship out. Which, looks like it will be in early October. So, what exactly is the scoop? Read on...

I'll be going to Meulaboh, Indonesia which is located along the western coast of the Aceh province that was the worst affected by the 2004 tsunami. Map. I'll be the Communication's Officer which means I'll be helping to write up internal documents as well as dealing with the media/local government as the programme closes. It's a six month gig and a welcome change from Darfur. Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world and Aceh is under Shari'a law but the government there pervasive than in Sudan. Also a welcome change.

The tsunami response programme I will be working on will be closing after over two years of helping the Indonesian people rebuild their communities and lives. It is also the same programme that I went out to help with immediately after the tsunami in 2005 so I will get to work with some of the same people I got to know then.

Do let me know if you intend to be in Southeast Asia at any point over the next few months as I'd love to have visitors!

Monday, August 13, 2007

Not a real post but, nonetheless...

No matter what you think about celebrities new-found interests in charity, you need to watch this:

Sarah McLachlan's World on Fire

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

In the meantime...

I have been chastised, a bit, for not posting during my holiday. To me, however, this rings a bit hollow given that I'm a very boring person on holiday and...well, let's be frank, no one wants boring. So, to justify why I haven't kept you updated let me fill you in on the past 69 days.

1) London. Debrief. Psychologist tries to figure out how anger makes me feel...ummm...more angry?
2) Florence. Pool. Wine. Nice!
3) London again.
4) DC. Humid.
5) Cape Cod. Lovely.
6) Missouri. Buy house across the street from my brother.
7) San Diego. Lovely.
8) Couer d'Alene, Idyho. Well, it's Idaho.
9) DC. For a day.
10) Missouri again. US Airways loses my luggage. Discover how completely inept and incompetent an airline can be. Close on house. Rent house.
11) DC. Humid. Seriously, bitterly hot and humid.
12) London.

Hope you now feel filled in. More when I do something actually of interest to anyone other than my immediate family.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Janjaweed Cats...

I sat at the airport in Nyala with a friend under a tree where it was the only place we could find shade to escape the heat of the afternoon sun. There were no other planes but mine leaving so the place was virtually empty. She pushed the dirt with her shoe and I stared off into the bright blue hotless sky that radiated heat.

'Catso died,' she said.

I have perfected saying goodbye mostly from doing it so often. I think that goodbyes should be like amputations. Quick, efficient, slicing off the life you're leaving behind with one swift cut. No drawn out waving and crying at the bus, train, boat or airport. I had managed to get out of Nyala with only a few tears from staff and none of my own.

'How?' I asked.

Catso was one of my first and most unusual friends in Nyala. An inquisitive, thin tabby cat that had adopted two friends of mine and become a fixture in their compound. Before I knew anyone in Nyala I used to go over to their house after work and sit under their tree, eating Pringles and drinking Coke, waiting for them to come home. Catso would invariable turn up, hop up in a chair next to me and we would chat - literally.

'Want a Pringle?' I would say.

He would meow an answer and we would go on like this - me talking to a cat. Him, answering and eating Pringles on the chairs outside until my friends came home.

'Stupid Janjaweed cats,' she said and started to cry as she described how a band of other strays had turned up in the neighbourhood and began chasing and terrorizing him until the last night when they had beat him so badly that she found him in the garden dying of his wounds. I started to cry as well.

'We can't save anything here, I said. 'We can't even save a stupid cat.'

'You have to go,' she said finally. WFP airport officers had come out to find the stray passengers.

'I know,' I said and hugged her.

'You need to get out of here as well,' I said.

'I will,' she promised.

We both wiped our eyes and noses.

'Hey,' she said. 'You heard about Kalma?' Kalma is the largest IDP camp in Darfur and sits just outside Nyala.

'They burnt the MSF clinic to the ground,' she said.

'Stupid Janjaweed cats,' I said and we hugged again as I left for my plane.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Saying goodbye...

My radio call sign is November Zulu Yankee 1. It has been for nearly a year. It is how we know and find each other on the VHF radios. Losing it is something akin to losing part of myself. No one in the ‘real world’ knows me as NZY1. This is just one more reminder that I need to find myself again in the ‘real world’. Remember how to walk and talk – remember what ‘normal’ people talk and laugh about. Remember what it is like to not have to listen always for your call sign on the radio.

I have exactly four days left in Darfur. It is harder to leave than I thought it would be. Not because I am not looking forward to leaving, but just because I feel like the work is not finished – like I’m leaving the game at half-time. Hardly anyone ever asks you when you’re leaving if you’ll miss Darfur because no one I know has ever missed this place very much. Just like, if you’re supporting the losing team, no one would ask you if you were saddened by missing the last half of the game. It’s just not the sort of thing people miss.

However, there are things that I will miss. Things that were formative and changed my perspective on living and my outlook. Auden said: “Somewhere there are places where we have really been, dear spaces, of our deeds and faces. Scenes we remember as unchanging – because there we changed.” I think particularly of moments, even if they were few and far between, that struck me because of their blinding beauty and grace. Moments that stand out simply in contrast to the stark ugliness around them. They are not necessarily happy moments – as we have become accustomed to counting happiness - but they are beautiful:

The old blind man, led around town by a small boy with a begging bowl;

the time at dinner when a street child approached our table and the people around us tried to shoo him away and a friend turned and said, in Arabic, ‘No, it’s fine. He’s a friend of mine. We’re talking.’;

Jasmine the stray dog who lives outside a friend's compound who has adopted and guards all the expats who stop by;

the silly conversations that people carry on with when there is no pop culture to relate to - like what our super-human power would be if we had one.

Of course, there is a much longer list of what I will not miss. But I hope that, in retrospect, I will find that just one of these moments is enough to cover over a multitude of ugliness..

This is November Zulu Yankee 1 out.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

In case you wondered…

Thunder sounds exactly like a low-flying MiG. I’d forgotten that. I’d forgotten about the apocalyptic downpours of the rainy season in Darfur until a rain storm came early last night. I say early because I am insistent that the rainy season is not yet upon us. I am insistent that the rainy season is not yet upon us because I need meningitis vaccinations and a lot of them.

Meningitis, because I know you’re interested, comes in different strains. And, unless someone is willing to shell out the big bucks for the vaccine that covers all strains – which we are for aid workers but aren’t for IDPs – then there’s no way to stop an outbreak of the disease without getting it typed. In order to get it typed you need to send it to the Ministry of Health in Khartoum. Now, the MoH maintains that the slower they work the better job they’re doing (not unlike some UN agencies that shall remain nameless) – no matter that we’re talking about life and death issues like outbreaks in IDP camps.

In order to not spread the meningitis we have had to stop all our health promotion clubs. Thousands of people gathering together when you have the outbreak of a highly contagious disease is simply a bad idea. Exposing your staff to a highly contagious disease is also a bad idea.

It came to my attention that the World Health Organization was in possession of a large number of the expensive sort of vaccination. I thought this was good news. We want to vaccinate all of our health promotion staff since the vaccine takes two weeks to go into effect, they would need to be involved in the vaccination of IDPs, and they also need to be getting ready for the expected outbreaks of Acute Watery Diorrhea (better known as Cholera) that the rains bring with them.

I went to a Watsan meeting wherein WHO asked us why we weren’t using our clubs to spread AWD messages.

‘Ummm,’ I said. ‘Because we’re waiting for meningitis typing and vaccines so that we can reconvene them.’

‘Well,’ WHO said. ‘We’re sending the vaccines back to Khartoum because the rains are going to come soon and the meningitis outbreak will end.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘But when the rains come cholera outbreaks start. You need the clubs to spread health messages about cholera but we can’t conduct the clubs prior to the AWD season because of the meningitis outbreak. Can we not get the vaccines now and vaccinate as many people as we can?’

‘The vaccines are being sent to Khartoum and the rains are coming.’

‘I understand that. Perhaps I should come by your office and we can sit down and discuss this some more,’ I said. What I didn’t say is that if I carry on with this circular conversation my head would have exploded!

Is it just me or has the world gone crazy? Are you and I the only sane ones left?

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Why we let mass murder happen...

from: Paul Slovic's, "If I look at the mass, I will never act": Psychic Numbing and Genocide:

"Most people are caring and will exert great effort to rescue individual victims whose needy plight comes to their attention. These same good people, however, often become numbly indifferent to the plight of individuals who are “one of the many” in a much greater problem. Why does this occur?...Why, over the past century, have good people repeatedly ignored mass murder and genocide? Every episode of mass murder is unique and raises unique obstacles to intervention. But the repetitiveness of such atrocities, ignored by powerful people and nations, and by the general public, calls for explanations that may reflect some fundamental deficiency in our humanity – a deficiency that, once identified, might possibly be overcome. One fundamental mechanism that may play a role in many, if not all, episodes of mass-murder neglect involves the capacity to experience affect, the positive and negative feelings that combine with reasoned analysis to guide our judgements, decisions and actions…The reported numbers of deaths represent dry statistics, “human beings with the tears dried off,” that fail to spark emotion or feeling and thus fail to motivate action.”

Tuesday, May 08, 2007


I like to think of myself as a calm and rational human being. I like to think that, while I am easily angered and annoyed by ineptitude and incompetence, I generally have the capacity to smile and pretend things are ok. I have completely lost that capacity.

At 9am today, my day began with a sit-in at UNICEF where I situated myself in their guard/waiting room and refused to move until someone met with me and straightened out all the issues that they seem to have a special tendency to perpetuate.

Then, when they agreed to let me in I launched into, what can only be described as, a tirade. I began with a calm explanation detailing their uselessness, ineffectiveness, ineptitude; added to that the reasons why I think that it is futile to partner with them; building to a crescendo with my step-by-step plan to persuade every one of their donors in Darfur to withdraw their support; and concluding with my plan for a hunger strike in solidarity with the children that are starving in our field site due to their internal bureaucracy.

One of the best kept secrets about men is this. There are only a few - maybe five - on this entire planet who know how to deal with hysterical women. Thankfully, none of those men were in the room and the ones who were went immediately into the classic, "pacify at all costs!" response. "Good God!" the looks on their faces said. "Make it stop! Someone please give her what she wants!"

So, I have finally won with UNICEF. It may seem like a minor victory. It may seem petty and unprofessional...but I don't care. It was a beautiful moment that still makes me smile just sitting here reflecting on it. That, and I don't have to start a hunger strike.

Friday, May 04, 2007


I woke up at about 4am this morning in a cold sweat. Headache, fever, nauseous, diarrhea, stomach cramps. I last until about 8am, by which time I feel like dying, and then text a friend who's a nurse and ask her what I should do. She tells me to drink water, mixed with ORS and juice and hope for the best. If I'm not better by the afternoon I should go to the clinic. I hate going to the UNMIS clinic. They diagnosis everything as typhoid. I go back to sleep, or try - it's about 118 degrees (47 C) today. I don't get out of bed until about 5pm and decide to do some self diagnosis on the internet. The problem with the internet is this. If you ever want to freak yourself out try diagnosing a medical problem with it. With my symptoms you could pretty much have everything - typhoid, malaria, food poisoning, ebola. It's not much help. So, I am going back to bed with my disgusting ORS to - at worst - slowly die of ebola or - at best - to lay there and sweat and count the days until I get to leave and wonder if I should have just gone to the UNMIS clinic for my Typhoid diagnosis.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

I don't care...

There is considerable disadvantage to being in management. Often it means that you aren't doing the hard (and rewarding) technical work of the sectors and interacting with beneficiaries. You just deal with the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy in Darfur is astounding. Take the normal inefficient bureacracy of a developing country. Throw in the antipathy of the GoS. Add several doses of insecurity. And finally, top with the entire bureaucracy of all of the entire UN and their subsidiary agencies. It's a nightmare. I have spent the last two weeks battling someone. Battling UNICEF to get our agreements with them signed. Battling UNICEF to get them to give us soap. Battling the Ministry of Health to get them to build the addition to the hospital they promised. Battling UNICEF to get them to give us food for starving kids. Battling WFP to get them to give some food to the communities so we have less starving kids. Battling our friendly GoS to get them to not shut our programme down because we don't have 4 pieces of paper signed, stamped, in triplicate because....why!?!?...they keep losing them.

And all along the way it is necessary to smile and cajole and laugh and joke ("Hah! That's so funny! You've lost our paperwork for the third time! Imagine that! You guys are such a hoot!") when mostly all you want to do is kick someone in the teeth. That little voice of rage in the back of my mind is getting louder. (Driving down the street yesterday I was passing a group of about 15 teenage boys who saw me coming and all started picking up rocks. My initial reaction was not for security it was, 'C'mon suckers! Throw them! You stone my car and I'm going to run you over! Try me!')

However, I think I've now passed through rage and straight into apathy. I was overwhelmed this morning by how little I actually care. I'm finding it hard to remember why I care.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

I love my friends...

I haven't had a good laugh in days so when a friend of mine who is stuck out in the back of beyond managing a medical programme sent this to me today it cracked me up. (You might not find it funny but I laughed out loud) I appreciate that he's thinking sensibly about my future plans:

"so are you serious about coming back here with the UN? just in time for you to be a legitimate target for the waves of sui*ide bo$mbers that will flock to this place once the blue helmets arrive? don't you have enough entertaining anecdotes for the cocktail party circuit back in DC already? why don't you do the sensible thing and take a 90k a year development job in DC, marry some latin american diplomat, and make your living telling witty anecdotes with your hand wrapped around a martini glass???

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. that was one of our six cats walking across my keyboard on his way to destroy something valuable of mine -- it wasn't me suddenly falling asleep. but it probably is a signal for me to get back to work ...."

Sunday, April 22, 2007

I'm famous (yes, again)

However, someday I'm going to be more than 'an aid worker'.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Some things you never get used to...

Over the year that I've been here I've become accustomed to hearing about all sorts of security incidences - hijackings, armed robberies, shooting, lootings - even rape - becomes something commonplace. It takes a lot to get a roomful of humanitarian aid workers to react to something. However, I just returned from our UN security meeting and, at one point there were audible gasps. Here are my notes from one point in the brief:

Group of armed men attacked 5 boys (age 10-15) who were looking for grass for donkeys. 1 boy escaped and reported to police at 18.00. When returned 3 boys been killed - cut into pieces, and left at site. 4th boy had only legs cut off and was evacuated to Mukjar but later died.

I was walking out with a friend and she said, 'and to think that you might miss it here.'

'I sometimes wonder if I will,' was all I could say.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

My sister is a genius...

Ok, so if you haven't worked in Sudan this will probably mean nothing to you and you shouldn't even bother with the link. However, if you have, this site will crack you up. My sister has put together some merchandise you'll want to run right out and buy.

My personal favourites are the 'my other car has already been hijacked' bumper sticker and the I 'heart' HAC thongs. You'll want to check it in upcoming days as there are a couple of other logos going onto the merchandise!

Happy shopping!

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Impending nuptials...

The subject of my upcoming marriage is of endless fascination to my staff. Never mind that there is no date, there is no location, the proposal is non-existent, as is - possibly the clincher (!!) - the groom. No matter, this doesn’t discourage them. I cannot convince our staff that I am not getting married anytime in the near future. Without fail, at lunch everyday the subject comes up. They will not be dissuaded. They are simply convinced that one of these days I’ll show up at the office married. They talk about whether I will marry a Sudanese, a Brit, an American and the pros and cons of each of those choices. They talk about the ceremony, the food, the venue, the cost. The entire thing has been hashed through down to the smallest detail - how much livestock will be traded, what I will wear, what gifts I should buy for my non-existent in-laws, if I should be a first wife, a second, third, etc. (you're allowed 4 in Sudan). And then, the next day, it is brought up again and so on.

Every male of the species that darkens our doorstep has been scrutinized – Tearfund staff, other aid workers, shipping suppliers, the guy who drives the donkey cart and delivers our water. When I deflect all the names of potential suitors they throw at me, Mohammed, our logistics assistant, throws his hands up in the air and says, dramatically with a sigh, “Why you will not marry? We are praying to Allah for this everyday. You must marry!”

“Mohammed,” I say. “Why marry and make just one man miserable when I can stay single and have so much time to make all of your lives miserable?”

Tuesday, March 27, 2007


So, I did an interview for an British, political, internet TV show and learned a few things. The first being that seeing yourself on camera is never a fun experience. I sat there watching in disbelief trying to come to grips with the fact that 1) I actually look like that and 2) I actually sound like that. Yes, I should have been concentrating on the substance of the interview and whether the questions were diplomatically answered but find myself, vainly, wondering how I did the whole interview without noticing that my necklace was twisted and why I use so many adverbs.

Apparently, though, my friends and family are like-minded. Here are a few comments I've received:

from a friend: 'nice hair.'

from my sister: 'Very nice. Very non-implicative. You could be on Meet the Press.You should have answered money for the last question. That would have been so awesome.'

from another friend: 'Synonyms for 'essentially': approximately, in effect, practically, relatively, roughly, substantially, virtually.'

If you are interested in hearing me say practically, effectively, relatively, virtually nothing of substance you can watch the entire interview here:

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

I can't decide...

Last night we had some people around for dinner and were listening to some music when my administrator pipes up and says, 'hey, this song reminds me of you.'

'Really?' I say 'Who sings it? Why does it remind you of me?'

'Well,' she says. 'I could just imagine you saying the chorus. Wait for the chorus - it's the type of thing you'd say.'

The song continues. It's 'I can't decide' by the Scissor Sisters.

We come to the chorus...

I can't decide
Whether you should live or die
Oh, you'll probably go to heaven
Please don't hang your head and cry
No wonder why...

Oh I could throw you in the lake
Or feed you poisoned birthday cake
I wont deny I'm gonna miss you when you're gone
Oh I could bury you alive
But you might crawl out with a knife
And kill me when I'm sleeping
That's why

I can't decide
Whether you should live or die
Oh, you'll probably go to heaven
Please don't hang your head and cry
No wonder why
My heart feels dead inside
It's cold and hard and petrified
Lock the doors and close the blinds
We're going for a ride
I can't decide whether to take it as a compliment to my management style or not.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Pep talk...

My boss is not known for his motivational talks. However, he outdid himself yesterday with this little chat:

Him: Did you talk to UNICEF about the tents for the extension of the stabilization centre in the hospital like we discussed?

Me: No.

Him: Well, as long as you know that starving children are suffering due to your incompetence and you're ok with that, and you can sleep at night, then there's no problem.

Me: Thanks for that. You should write motivational cards for Hallmark.

Him: Thanks.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Every Day...

War is no longer declared,
but rather continued. The outrageous
has become the everyday. The hero
is absent from the battle. the weak
are moved into the firing zone.
The uniform of the day is patience,
the order of merit is the wretched star
of hope over the heart.

It is awarded
when nothing more happens,
when the bombardment is silenced,
when the enemy has become invisible
and the shadow of eternal weapons
covers the sky.

It is awarded
for deserting the flag,
for bravery before a friend,
for the betrayal of shameful secrets
and the disregard
of every command

Ingeborg Bachmann

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Well put...

Dr. Jill John Kall is one of my best friends here, and a generally amazing woman. She is the medical coordinator for IMC and recently wrote an article about Darfur. Here is a tidbit:

"Hope is defined as a feeling that events will turn out for the best. I sometimes wonder if hope will ever return to Darfur. I caught a glimpse of it last year from about February to May 2006. Of course, once the Darfur Peace Agreement was signed, it ironically seemed to signal the end of hope. Since then, the security situation in Darfur has worsened steadily and shows no signs of improving…

Since my return to Darfur in early January, the one question on the minds of every NGO and UN agency is “What is our threshold?” At what point do we say enough is enough and pull out?...Today, I visited Al Salaam camp… It was then that I realized why we aid workers stay on: we continue because the conflict continues, we continue because we cannot turn a blind eye to the escalating violence, we continue to give a voice to those who have none, we continue because even on the worst of days, we need to believe that it can get better, and we continue because of the slightest glimmer of hope in our patients eyes. We continue because there is no one else."

Thursday, March 01, 2007

My plans...

So, decided yesterday that I need a plan for my life. Well, who are we kidding? I need a plan for the next six months. Mostly, because my boss is going to fly in tomorrow and ask me some hard questions about jobs I want and I would just like to have public accountability that I will not extend again. So, here's the plan (mom, listen up):

Finish contract by end of May. Do not extend any more! Do not extend, do not extend...that's my mantra.
Go to London and faff around until mid-June.
Go to Italy for a week or more with friends.
Go back to London and perhaps do more faffing.
Go to the U.S. and visit all the people who think I've fallen off the face of the earth. Including, but not limited to: Cape Cod, Missouri, San Diego, Alaska?, Idaho?, DC.
Hope that the UN has offered me some brilliant job back in Darfur.
Return here in August.

I know what they say about the 'best laid plans' but I'm going to attempt to see this one through.

Monday, February 19, 2007


Oh yeah! I was just detained for several hours in the airport in Geneina for absolutely no good reason whatsoever. GoS harrassment? What GoS harrassment?

"You will never get out of here!" the GoS guy yelled. "Never! You will live here!" 2 hours later as I walked out I was tempted to go smile and wave goodbye. But, I'm a humanitarian.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Some resources (especially for Kate):

My dear friend Kate recently had an excellent question. How does the pit latrine work, exactly? Let me answer that by going through the 3 most frequent questions that I've been asked.

1) How does it work exactly?

Wikipedia's pit latrine entry:

Tearfund's own publications:

And more...with drawings of how to use:

2) Doesn't it...ummm...splatter?

Well, yes, and no. After about a week you develop a certain amount more control over bodily functions that you wouldn't normally think twice about. Aim is an especially key skill to hone. You also develop an ability to squat for an extended period of time. So much so, that, after awhile, you begin to think that squating is actually a very comfortable way to spend your time.

3) How do disabled people use it?

To be perfectly frank, there are far fewer disabled people in Sudan than you would think. I have seen disabled adults but never disabled children. I think that it's almost impossible for them to survive. The amount of resilience I've seen among disabled adults is inspiring. They just make do and I suppose they do this in regard to the latrine as well and, if there's enough money in the family, they can build a seat over the latrine for the person.

Well, I'm glad we had this little chat. Hope that you've learned something new and enlightening here. Feel free to write in with other enquiries anytime and you most likely will not get a response because I won't have access to the internet.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Not Waving But Drowning

Stevie Smith

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he's dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

Not waving...but drowning here people!!

(If you haven't noticed I'm enjoying having good internet access for a couple of days. Don't expect such rampant posting to continue...)

Reuters - U.S. envoy fears "blood bath" in Darfur

“The U.S. special envoy to Sudan said on Wednesday he feared aid groups could be forced out of Darfur and pro-government Janjaweed militia would try to close camps sheltering millions, resulting in a "blood bath."…"The government has lost control. There is anarchy in large parts of Darfur. The risk is that if the NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) leave, the U.N. humanitarian agencies leave ... there will be no one to care for these people in the camps who can be trusted.”…It has become increasingly difficult for relief workers in Darfur and the U.N. said last week that attacks on aid workers there almost doubled in 2006. In addition to insecurity, government-imposed bureaucracy and travel restrictions have hindered aid operations…Natsios said there was also a risk the Janjaweed militia, with the backing of the Sudanese government, would violently try to close down camps where more than 2.5 million people are sheltering. The Janjaweed have been blamed for the worst atrocities in Darfur….The United States is losing patience with Sudan's government over its handling of Darfur and is considering a more robust response to put pressure on Khartoum, a strategy Natsios has referred to as "Plan B." He declined to provide any details of Plan B, saying it was classified.”

Editor's Note: Go Plan B! Go Plan B!

Disaster threat hangs over Chad

UK aid agency Oxfam has warned a new humanitarian catastrophe, like that in Darfur, could happen in Chad if ethnic conflict is not brought under control.

Chad rebels attack border town, gov't blames Sudan

US Officials Condemn Mistreatment of Aid Workers By Sudanese Authorities in Darfur

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Too late...

In the words of T.S. Eliot: "Now is too late for action, too soon for contrition."

Heh! Heh! Eat your heart out!

My mother just sent me a link to the weather to remind me of what I'm missing:

NEW: Up to 20 inches of snow forecast for Ohio
NEW: Ohio girl killed by falling tree limb
NEW: Federal workers in D.C. sent home earlhy
NEW: More than 900 flights canceled at Chicago airport

Aaaaah! I just went outside to take a picture so I can show you all what it's like in Darfur today. (Please note, I would be wearing a tank top as it's 82 degrees but I don't enjoy being stoned.) There are very few times that I would rather be here than there...but this is definitely one of them.