Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Not to be overdramatic...

I have just touched down in Boston after 48 hours of travel. I look and smell hideous. The drug dogs stopped me - probably because I smell like goat. The customs guy let me in despite bright red marks put on my papers at passport control - probably mostly out of pity.

And all I can think of are the words on the Statue of Liberty which take on new meaning when you actually are the wretched refuse from a teeming shore:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Friday, December 12, 2008

If I had a million dollars...

The Bare Naked Ladies song, 'If I had a million dollars' has been going through my head now for almost 24 hours. Sing it with me if you know the tune...

"If I had a 1,000,000 (If I had a 1,000,000)
i'd but you a green dress ( but not a real green dress that's cruel)
If I had a 1,000,000 (If I had a 1,000,000)
I'd but you some art ( A Picasso or a Garfunkel)
If I had a 1,000,000 (If I had a 1,000,000)
I'd buy you a monkey (haven't you always wanted a monkey?)
If I had a 1,000,000 If I had a 1,000,000 If I had a 1,000,000
If I had a 1,000,000 I'd be rich!"

The song has stuck because I am trying to get a million dollars out of a donor. Well, not a million dollars exactly...it's more like 1,716,589 euros...but you get the point. The donor seems to be enjoying the cat and mouse game they're playing with us. E-mails with pedantic questions. Calling us for a meeting and then sending us away without having met with us. More pedantic questions over e-mail. A patronising e-mail or two. A meeting in which we schedule another meeting to discuss the matter further. It makes me wonder at the things we're willing to do for money.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Attack of the monkeys...

Sometimes I think that my life can't get more bizarre...and then it does. Like this morning when the staff were all singing Christmas carols in the other room a very ugly monkey - standing about 3 foot high - strolls in through the door and takes a seat on the door right out side my office and begins watching me. I find this unacceptable so stand up and pick up a stapler to throw at it. The monkey jumped off the chair and bounded out the door. I followed still holding the stapler in a threatening manner which was meant to convey: 'Don't mess with me cause I will brain you with this cheap, Chinese office implement.'

I edged toward the door to close it when the monkey...obviously not finding either me or the stapler all that threatening...rushes the door that I barely managed to slam in time and he bounced off it. He took a few steps back and stood there staring me down. I tried to make noise to scare him off but he just too a few more steps back and then took a running leap grabbing on to the wire mesh of the window and shaking it while screeching. I screeched back. He jumped down and sulkily started to wander off while shooting looks over his shoulder to see if I was still watching him.

And I swear I am on no medication.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Disturbing things…

Motot is quiet at night. Dead quiet – with the exception of the drums that some drummer out there seems to enjoy playing all night, and the occasional dog barking, or herd of cattle moving around. It is beautiful in it’s complete and utter silence. You can hear people talking across the village. The moon has been full and bright throughout my entire visit so that the night never gets fully dark and you can walk without a torch (inadviseable but possible). Thus, when the silence is broken at 4.39 in the morning by one woman, then another, then another screaming the high-pitched cry of celebration/warning that sounds like a swarm of banshees it is one of the most eerie and disturbing thing I have ever heard. Dogs began barking. The guards began running. Everyone begins shouting. I go out and stand authoritatively in my pajamas, in the middle of the compound, hands on hips realising that I haven’t a freakin’ clue what is going on. The guards are peering out through out through our reedy fence.

‘What? What? Murle?’ I keep saying – totally exhausting the depth of my Nuer language. The Murle are a nomadic tribe that come through from time to time stealing cattle, women and children.
‘Ma Murle,’ they say still peering out through the fence.
Comforting…it’s not the Murle but we’re still no closer to knowing what is going on. A woman – one of the banshee swarm, I assume – is on the other side of the fence now talking to the guards. It is at that point that I look up and realise that the moon is gone and the sky is filled – I mean crammed filled with stars. More stars than I imagine anyone else has seen in their lives. In the history of the world no one has seen so many stars as I did right then. Our logistician comes over after speaking to the guards and informs that some local cattle rustlers had tried to steal some cattle but the local women had woken up and begun screaming – at which point they cattle rustlers tried beating them to keep them quiet (betraying not only an ineptitude at cattle rustling but a general lack of knowledge about women. I’ve never met one is going to scream less the more they are beaten). When they realised that they were waking up the neighbours (read: our guards) the rustlers took off and some of the local army was now giving chase. There was nothing to be done. Either a gun battle was about to ensue or nothing was going to happen. I figured that there was just as much chance of bullet coming down through my tent as in the middle of the compound so sat there for awhile just looking at the millions and millions of stars and then I went back to bed.

About four hours later I awoke to another, less disconcerting, bru-ha-ha. Another snake to be killed (yawn). The men did this with the finesse of those who are currently killing 10 snakes a week.
‘Wait, wait!’ our new area coordinator said from the inside of his tukul. ‘Let me get my camera!’
‘Dude, forget your camera,’ I said. ‘Get yourself a nice long stick.’
After the snake had been appropriately ground into the dirt one staff picks it up with a stick and starts marching off with it.
‘Uh, hey,’ I said. ‘Just chuck it over the fence.’
‘No,’ said our logistician. ‘We put them down the latrine.’
I stood in shock giving time for all the immediate scenes of horror to sort themselves out in my mind. ‘You…WHAT!?!?!’
‘We put them down the latrine.’
‘No, no, no!’ I said. ‘No! Why? No! Seriously, that’s not ok.’
‘Why?’ our logistician said leaning on his snake-killing stick. ‘They’re dead.’
‘But what if they’re NOT dead!’
‘Then they’ll die down there.’
‘But what if THEY’RE NOT DEAD!’
‘They can’t come crawling out,’ he said calmly.
‘BUT WHAT IF THEY’RE NOT DEAD!! Why take the chance?!?’ my voice rising to a tone that I’m pretty sure only bats could hear.
At this point the staff standing around are divided about whether the whole latrine/snake disposal system is a good idea and I’m pretty much looking like an irrational wus. But, I’m a wus who would prefer to not position my exposed derriere several times a day over a pit of poisonous vipers – dead or alive. And, I’m pretty sure that I’m not alone in this argument but am getting no back up. Our logistician turns continues his march toward the toilet. I close my eyes, take a deep breath and vow not to drink anything between now and when the flight arrives in the morning.

In the most beautiful life...

There is a Romanian photographer who has published a book called: In the Most Beautiful life and as the plane bumped down in the field site today just like it had hundreds of times before; as the children from the village run up to see who might be disembarking; as staff stood on the airstrip waving as if their lives depended on how effusively they wave; I find myself thinking of the title of this book. How many times a day, or a week, or a month or sometimes even in your whole life do you find yourself grinning thinking, ‘I can’t believe I get to live this life!’

Friday, November 28, 2008

A eclectic collection of thoughts that have crossed my mind today...

"Mmm...I haven't had goat for seven hours now. Wonder what's for dinner?"

"How many frogs in the shower is actually too many frogs to shower with?"

"Is there an actual conspiracy by staff to prevent me from getting any work done by coming into my office every 2.5 minutes?"

"If the plane doesn't come to get me tomorrow will I burst into tears on the runway?"

"Would it be considered bad practice to pay the tribal drummers around here not to drum?"

"If I were to take a broomstick and jam it roughly and randomly into the thatched roof of my tukul I wonder if I could scare away/kill the bat that is up there rustling around ALL NIGHT."

"I'm tired of chewing."

"I don't think my feet have ever been this dirty."

"Isn't it funny how staff cannot come to the office to file their reports but have no trouble making it through the floods to get paid?"

"Ahh...baby lizards. How cute."

"Please, no snakes. Please, no snakes. Lord, please, please, please let there be no snakes." [prayer as I crossed the compound in the pitch dark having left my head torch in my tukul]

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


I was glad to receive an e-mail yesterday from our head office saying that anti-venom is on it's way out to the field on our charter this coming Friday. Phew! That's a relief! So if I had been bitten I would only have been dead for six days before the anti-venom arrived. :)

Monday, November 24, 2008

How to kill the Black Mamba

Should you ever find yourself in the unfortunate position of needing to use the latrine in South Sudan at about 9.30 on a pitch-black evening and, upon crossing the compound, you shine your head torch to the right and find – approximately 12 inches from your bare, flip-flopped foot – the highly poisonous Black Mamba I will now give instructions on what to do.

1. Freeze and stare
2. Back away as quickly as possible out of striking distance while yelling: ‘Uhhh, snake! Quick!

3. Somebody! There’s a snake!’

4. Keep your head torch on the Black Mamba cause if that thing stays on the loose you’ll never sleep soundly again.
5. Sudanese staff should come running. Note, that is it only the women because the men don’t hear the screams for help due to a football game on tele.
6. One, particularly noble Sudanese nurse dressed only in a towel and bathing cap, named Selina (always make sure you have her around!!) will grab a large stick and will start hitting the snake on any part of it’s body that she can reach.
7. This will piss the snake off like nobody’s business so it will try to take off but feeling that it can’t get away will turn – intermittently, raise itself up to ½ it’s 4 ft height, puff out it’s hood and try to bite anything within striking distance.
8. Try to keep your head torch focused on it so Selina can keep bashing it and not get herself bit while you try to remain out of striking distance cause that thing is SCARY.
9. After enough bashing it will begin to give up and curl in on itself.
Selina will then finish it off by grinding it’s head into the dirt. You might not know this but that is the only complete way to kill a snake…crushing it’s head.
10. Then you and all the staff will stand around discussing how if you had been bitten you would be dead since its venom kills humans in 15 minutes. And, how we don’t have the Black Mambo anti-venom and how there’s no way a plane is going to reach you in time to medi-evac you.
11. Another brave nurse will pick up the now lifeless body and hurl it over the fence.
12. Last, but not least, after the general hulla-ba-loo the men will wander out from the dining hall looking confused saying things like: ‘huh? What’s going on?’

You do learn something every day, I tell you. Here's more from Wikipedia on our dead friend. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_mamba.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Well...that went badly...

Some days you get to the end of and think...how, exactly, did everything go so wrong? It started out just like every other one. Got up. Checked the floor for cobras. Flicked a dead insect or two off the mossy net. Made some coffee. Read a psalm. Had some bread. Came to the office and then...POW! Everything goes wrong.

By four o'clock I had officially declared it: "Storm out of the office day". Additional points for door slamming. Seriously, I feel like I have about 300 badly behaved children who are having a strop for no particular reason except they feel like it. And yet...yet...bad behaviour isn't going to change my mind.

Someone once said that the problems that you're dealing with right now are going to be the easiest ones in your life. No matter what it is the challenges only get harder, the problems only get bigger, the situations more complex. If that is the case, I fear tomorrow.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

How to start paying attention...

I followed my own good advice last night...something I rarely do and it paid off. Let me paint you a picture:

It's about 9:30 and I've been reading in my tukul for awhile. I think about getting up to use the latrine but have a debate in my head about whether to wait until morning (there's not much to do here in the field so I find I talk to myself a lot more than normal). I finally decide to just get up. I put on my head torch and tromp across the compound dodging the bats, hedgehogs and assundry of abnormally large 'other' living things flying about...and then I tromp back.

As I have bent double (our little huts have very low doors) and just started to push wooden door open I notice an odd black wire running into my little hut. 'Hmm...how odd,' I think. 'I don't remember that being there before.' And that's when my good advice comes to mind. If it looks like a snake it probably is a snake. So, as I let the door fall shut and back away the head of a cobra whips out of my room and looks at me...who by this time is thankfully out of striking distance.

Now, for you long-time blog readers you know I've always wondered what I would do if confronted with such a snake and so now that I know I will tell you: I didn't run nor did I scream. I did yell rather loudly and lamely: "Uhhhh, hello! Anyone! Help! There's a snake! It's in my room! There's a snake in my room! Is anyone there!" At which point people came running and with sticks. I held the flashlight on it and they bludgeoned the thing to death grinding it's head into the dirt floor.

And that, was that. They lifted it and threw it over the fence. I said that they should leave it as a warning to others that might be slithering by but was told that if they did that others would come to 'mourn'. I didn't ask what a cobra wake looked like cause I'm pretty sure I could already imagine.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Me and CSB...

I sometimes feel like I’m living one of those fourth grade math word problems. You know the kind: if a train leaves Detroit going 40mph and another train leaves New York going 60mph which will get to Paris first?

Except my math problems go something like this: If two health staff take two weeks off, and one nutrition nurse takes three weeks off, and you have to keep four people in the main compound and two people in the sub-base for security, do you have enough people to keep the programme running until Christmas?

Or: WFP delivers 1050 bags of CSB (Corn-Soya Blend – used in nutrition programmes) unexpectantly because their logistics and planning are worse than UNICEF’s and you can’t store them in the WFP warehouse because their guards are a bunch of thieves and MSF says you can store 700 in one of their empty warehouses and 300 in another but the second warehouse has to be empty by Tuesday where are you going to put the CSB? Lucky for you the tribes nearby have stopped fighting so you can move 533 to another location to pre-position for when more fighting will, hopefully, stop and you can deliver it out to the mobile centres and you find two tents that you can set up in your own compound to house about 450 bags. So, how many bags will be left at the MSF warehouse and how many 2 hour trips will it take you to get the 533 bags to the other location remembering that you only have 11 barrels of petrol to last you until January and can only take 35 bags per trip?

Some of the problems are easier: If you have 5 drums of kerosene and need to keep two refrigerators running in order to keep the vaccines in the EPI cold chain good and you use one drum per refrigerator every two weeks how long will the kerosene last?

Or: If you hire two day labourers to help you move the 450 bags of CSB and you can fit 28 bags per vehicle trip between the warehouses but after two trips you realise that you might have hired two of the slowest, laziest guys in town so you start hauling CSB yourself to shame them into the recognition that 25kg bags are not actually all that heavy and that you are, after all, a girl who is working faster than they are. How many days will it take you to move all the CSB and how many ibuprofen will you need to take for the next week because after a day of hauling 25kg bags of CSB every muscle in your body is extremely pissed off?

Have I mentioned that I hate math(s) [for the British audience]? The last math(s) class I took was when I was fifteen and I have managed, rather proudly, to survive the rest of my life without another one. I hate everything about the subject. Numbers don’t make sense to me and word problems are just plain offensive. Throwing some numbers into a bunch of words just ruins a good story and never tells you what you actually want to know…why was the New York train so much faster than the Detroit train? When was that tunnel to Paris actually completed? So, you can imagine how much I look forward to rising every morning to sort these things out. It does make me wish, however, that I had paid more attention in the fourth grade.

Stupid BBC World Service...

My watch stopped at 11.12. Standing in the airport our watsan advisor asked me why I was wearing a stopped watch. “I like it,” I said. I didn’t mention that I thought it was appropo of going out to the middle of nowhere the day of the U.S. Election. No electricity, no televisions, no phones, no contact with the rest of the world for a week. It would be like time was standing still. No McCain, Palin, Obama (poor Biden…never got much of a mention). It would be blissful in it’s own cocoon sort of way.

Tuesday night I went to sleep with the mice, lizards and bats scratching out a living in the top of my tukul smug in the knowledge that my blissful ignorance might carry on for a full week. There have been few things that I have cared less about than this election and it’s nice sometimes not caring – about everything just because we’re told that we should.

But then, on Wednesday morning, I was awoken by the squawk of a badly tuned radio catching a frequency on and off. And there was a voice. In English. Telling me...and probably most of the rest of the village...that Obama had won. When I emerged bleary-eyed from my tukul our Kenyan staff started shaking my hand and slapping me on the back while congratulating me as if I had personally seen the man through to victory.

"What your people have done is truly amazing," our CHE Project Officer waxed eloquent. "With this election you have eliminated racism, poverty and broken families. Thank you! Thank you!"

"Uhhh, you're welcome," was all I could say.

Then came the announcement that Kenya had declared a national holiday. The Kenyan staff all looked at me plaintively.

"Uh-uh...no way," I said. "He's my president and if I, and the rest of the American people, have to work then you have to work."

So let this be a lesson to you. There is never, nowhere left on earth where you can truly 'get away from it all.'

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

If you ever have to choose...

between facilitating Middle East Peace and killing rats you might immediately think: 'killing rats' cause 'hey! it's easier!'

I'm here to tell you that you might want to re-think that decision. Think very, very carefully.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Saving the World...

As was tactfully pointed out by a dear friend from Chicago I haven’t posted for a month. This is not, you’ll be glad (?) to know, because I have nothing to say but rather because I have too much to say and not enough time to put pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard – to say it.

As I write this I am sitting in Loki – one of our support sites in Kenya – where I have just been in a technical workshop with a lot of our field staff as well as some lower level govt. of Southern Sudan officials with whom we work and I have spent several of those days depressed. Not for any very valid reason except that, at every turn, everything seemed to not be working out. Have you had those days? Where it seems that the obstacles and challenges and problems seem to far outweigh the solutions? Sometimes those days like to chain themselves together in to weeks out of sheer vindictiveness. This has been my week.

Last night, one of the government officials seemed to be lingering around where I was having dinner, waiting for an opportunity when I wasn’t otherwise engaged to say something. He was a tall, thin, smiley man who has sat through our days and days of workshops going over internal issues with a patience that rivalled Job’s. When my colleague left he sidled up to the table and asked for a word. He leaned forward, tilted his head covered in tribal scars and began to tell me with heart-breaking earnestness that he needs health clinics in his county. We have three and he needs eight. Health facilities in Southern Sudan reach only 25% of the population and he wants us to go just a bit further, to do a bit more, to put up another one or two and give health workers (forget doctors or nurses…there are hardly any facilities in Southern Sudan that have those) – just some people trained in little more than first aid so that several hundred thousand people have somewhere to go instead of dying.

And what was I supposed to say? No? ‘Sorry, my friend. We don’t have the funding. We don’t have the access and ability to stretch our programme further in your area. You have to understand…it’s insecure where you are from and there are no roads. Your people will die and we could prevent it but we can’ because it’s complicated and messy and I’ve got other things on the task list.’

What was I supposed to say? Yes? ‘Ok, we don’t have the funding and we don’t have the access but I’m sure that we can do something. I’m sure that someone, somewhere will give us the funding and we’ll expand and hire people and give you a clinic or two.’

The choice was between despair and disingenuousness so I took the coward’s road and chose neither. I explained how difficult it was and how we would ‘like to help’ and how we ‘understood’ how his people were suffering but that the donors made choices and we were often bound by those choices and all we could do was advocate for him. But to him I wondered if my blustering and indecisive response wasn’t the highest form of insincerity. Me, who has - and has always had – everything. Him, in his tattered and oft-mended shirt, leaning elbows on the table and hands clasped…begging.

‘Please.’ he said quietly. ‘You know people. Could you talk to these people. To the European Commission (they’re giving $350 million to build roads in his state). You could talk to them. You could tell them about us.’

‘I’ll talk to them,’ was all I could say. ‘I’m sorry.’ I added but whether I was apologising for the donors, or my organisation, or myself I had no idea.

What would I actually do? Put it in a proposal, I suppose. We have a whole collection of them that we roll out for different donors as if at auction. ‘Ladies and gentlemen…look what we have here! A tidy little proposal primary health care for 232,000 people…oh, health care not up your alley? Well, then moving right along, could I interest you in a little watsan? No? Malaria? No? You look like an immunization crowd, am I right? Ok! Well then, how about a proposal to immunise about half the children in a country from the six deadliest, preventable diseases? Right! Ok, we have a winner! Shall we start the bidding at a cool million?’

Tonight, one of our staff came to me having exhausted her budget doing community trainings in a spectacularly successful effort to get the Catholics and Protestant churches in her contentious area to work together to provide health education and health care.

‘I have been waiting to talk to you all week,’ she said. ‘It is a small issue but I need to do my last church training and I need 500 pounds.’

‘British pounds?’ I asked.

‘No,’ she said. ‘Sudanese pounds.’

$250 USD is what she was asking for. I laughed. I couldn’t help it. ‘You need $250 to finish an amazing project?’ I asked.


‘I would pay it out of my pocket.’ I told her. ‘We will find the money somewhere I guarantee it.’

So that is what I have been up to…saving the world through petty accountancy. Coming up with figures and spreadsheets and requests and reports. Coming up with ideas of who can be convinced to spend a million, or $250 dollars, to save 100,000 people’s lives. Most of the time it isn’t very much fun. Most of the time it’s heart wrenching and I think, ‘if this is saving the world we’re not very good at it.’ It is less like Florence Nightengale providing comfort and succour to the war wounded and more like trying to put someone drowning in a headlock and pull them ashore. The world, for its part, has just refused to go quietly – throwing up another war, another disaster, another epidemic or outbreak. It simply won’t be saved without first insisting that you feel some of the pain too; without first demanding that it break your heart.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Top 10 things I've learned in Jordan...

I'm not going to name any names in this blog. Protect the innocent and all that. Just let it be known that I'm even more indebted than usual to my wise teachers...

10. If you must drive an SUV for safety and security purposes do make sure it has enough cupholders.
9. While your hosts might talk a good game they are actually never going to take you for a picnic by the side of the highway.
8. If you must change the carpets, upholstery and draperies make sure you do it in that order.
7. Sometimes people change their political stripes and become ultra-right-wing conservatives for no explicable reason and this is very confusing for others who are accustomed to arguing one side convincingly.
6. The Dead Sea is rather painfully salty.
5. Mohammed Ben Khalifa did not win any gold medals for Jordan at the Beijing Olympics but he can probably trim a mean rose bush.
4. Cheaters never prosper...unless you happen to be sitting next to the British Embassy table and then you prosper to the tune of four round-trip airline tickets to London.
3. The British Museum looks suspiciously like the British Maritime Museum in a smokey hotel room at 2am in the morning.
2. If one only has time to learn one Arabic phrase to survive in Jordan make it: 'Wahid skinny cafe latte mafi whipped cream'.
1. If you have a greeting card from the king it's not pretentious to leave it lying conspicuously around the house...(or is it...?)

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Global Handwashing Day...

Mark it on your calendars now. Start the countdown. How can you not get on board with something that has such an adorable logo?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

No, Ken! Please say it isn't so...

Livingstone to be Chavez advisor

Despite Boris' completely nerdy appearance at the Olympics closing ceremony it appears that I'll now be leaving Ken for good.

Sudan's 'un-noticed' crisis...

BBC reporting on our Tieraliet site here.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Light omnibus ride, anyone?

Well today was a momentous day. I got my 'New Sudan' driver's license which means that after 2 1/2 months here I am legally allowed to hit the road. What I found rather amusing is that it enables me to drive motorcycles, motor cars, medium good vehicles, heavy tractors, heavy goods vehicles, and light omnibuses that do not exceed 20 passengers.

So, when I tire of this humanitarian gig you might find me out pursuing my 3rd grade dream of being a bus driver.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Careful not to draw your maps in pen and ink...

I am listening to a song right now by Cobalt Season that's called, 'Careful not to draw your maps in pen and ink'. The lyrics go:

You are gonna change your mind someday
So just let go of all your thoughts on tomorrow
You may find your bearings in disarray
Though you may lead and trip and fall and follow

And all that you thought black will be proved red
Full of life and complication and sorrow
And all that you thought white was in your head
For life is lived in the shadows that we borrow

And I’ll look far, but may see nothing
And I will thirst, but may not drink
And I will yell to those behind me
“Careful not to draw your maps in pen and ink”

The same road disappears up ahead
Will you ever understand this equation?
The compass in your hand is all but dead
Time to feel your way around this evasion

Read the words again, for you might see
Life where you saw death, a way to your salvation
Best to lay down what you thought was certainty
Freedom’s found in the in that calmed frustration

And I will strain to find a pattern
And hold my breath ’till I’m on the brink
And I will yell to those behind me
“Careful not to draw your maps in pen and ink”

You are gonna change your mind someday
Just let go of all your thoughts

Tonight I got a call from USAID, with whom I was expecting to start a job in Darfur in about a month, saying that it's unlikely that they will now hire me given that security has deteriorated to such an extent that I would be sitting in Khartoum most of the time.

It's funny but I would think that I have learned by now that life never turns out as you expect it. But it always comes as a surprise to me.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

A bout with the bugs...

Apparently, I have a stomach bug. This is not surprising. My stomach and intestinal track have played host to countless number of little bugs, worms and parasites over the past ten years or so. I like to think that we have a cozy sort of arrangement. They're welcome to pass through as long as they don't stick around, or cause me any major discomfort for over - say, a two day period. I mean, it's a rough world. They've got to live somewhere. So, I've come to think of my digestive system as a B & B, of sorts. It's a nice place to stop by but you shouldn't try to stay.

When the bugs do try to stay we have a problem and so begins the boxing match. I like a fair fight so I don't use anything that would give me the upper hand. I drink a lot of water. I will my system to kick them out. Usually this works.

Sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes the little buggers (pictured above) refuse to pack up and leave. Despite the blows it becomes necessary to bring out the heavy artillery. Drugs. Nasty things. I almost feel bad for my opponents who now don't have a fighting chance. I also feel for my digestive system that is going to be stripped of everything living -whether good or bad. I also feel for me who is going to have a metallic taste in my mouth for the next four days and am not able to drink anything. It's basically a defeat all around.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

August 7th Anniversary...

Today I was at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi for the 10 year anniversary of the bombing in which 46 staff were killed. The event started with the marines playing Taps which got me thinking about how music so easily strikes an emotion. I mean, is Taps an inherently sad song or have I just seen and heard it at enough sad events that it's inextricably linked to sadness. Same with Amazing Grace played on bagpipes. Does certain music actually evoke a similar emotion in everyone or could some hear Taps and think it's a pretty good party tune?

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Solzhenitsyn has died....

It is a sad day. If you have not yet read the Gulag Archipelago or A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch you should stop what you are doing right now and go buy them.

"For a country to have a great writer is like having a second government. That is why no regime has ever loved great writers, only minor ones."

One obituary is here.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Dinner was...

When I finally got around to eating last night I found several of my colleagues sitting - plates in lap - watching the food channel. Correction: torturing themselves with the food channel. Nigella was on with her lilting accent making some sort of salad which involved blueberries. It was almost physically painful to watch. But what amazed me was that - even as I sat picking at my cold, fried fish head and cutting my coagulated pasta - I didn't even have to watch. Nigella could still torture me by just describing the food she was making. When did we start using words like: dulcet, luscious, rich, savoury, and succulent. There are phrases like: Dinner tonight was adventurous and intriguing. Are we describing the hike to base camp or food? But it did get me thinking. How would I describe our meals? Looking down the fish head stared plaintively back and all I could come up with was:

"Dinner tonight was challenging but uninspiring."

Monday, July 21, 2008

Lizard poo...

There is lizard poo all over my bed. For you long time readers you'll note a trend. A wildcat pooed on my bed in Indonesia. A hedgehog in Darfur. And now, I seem to have a lizard pooing on my bed here. Or several lizards because it's impossible that one benign, reptile can be creating the amount of poo there is on the bed. In fact, I suspect that an entire lizard clan is up there aiming their droppings at my pillow. You wouldn't think that lizards can poo so much but let me assure you, they can.

Now, lizard poo dropping from above I can handle. I draw the line, however, at actual lizards raining down on me. This afternoon I left to office to come back to my room in order to concentrate on a report. Little did I know that I was trading the din of of office staff for the din of lizard wrestling. No kidding. Several of them were balancing on the roof beam that runs across my room having a fight. The WWF of the lizard world going on above my head. I choose to ignore them and go on typing. Only a few moments later something dropped past my left shoulder and hit the floor with a smack. I look over and there is a lizard - looking dazed or dead having just hurtled the 10 feet to the floor. The rest of the lizards carried on screeching at each other.

I threw a shoe and they took off - but now I have Fred here (his name is Fred, incidentally, it just came to me while I stood staring at him.) at my feet slowly coming around. He blinks a few times. I continue to stare and make rustling noises hoping he'll scamper. No such luck. He looks at me. I look at him. I like to think that we had a moment - Fred and I - before I nudged him gently with my shoe toward the door. He got the message eventually, as you would imagine if you were being shoved by a shoe five times the size of yourself, and wriggled his long body out into the daylight.

'Please don't poo on my bed,' I said as he gave a parting look. I'm not sure he'll comply.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Denial: not just a river in Egypt...

It’s also a river in Sudan. While the source of ‘de nile’ is still up for debate what is clear is that it flows out of Uganda and into South Sudan where it spreads its fingers out in thousands of tributaries and inlets that make much of the surrounding area a vast, lazy swamp. Somehow, it manages to pull its act together again somewhere prior to hitting Khartoum where it meets the Blue Nile and manages to carry on acting like a proper river all the way to Egypt.

But it’s really most interesting in South Sudan where it doesn’t behave itself, doesn’t stay within it’s banks and that is where we are today - on the Nile, headed for the Kingdom of Shilluk.

Shilluk is in the state of Upper Nile and if you asked me to point to a place where north and south Sudan meet I would probably point to Upper Nile. We arrived into Malakal early in the morning because we have to take boats to Shilluk. Driving through the streets of Malakal we hear the Friday prayer call from the old mosque built in the days when Egypt still ruled the place, dodge Arab shopkeepers in the white Jellabiahs of the north on their way to prayers, and hear Arabic on the streets – not the Juba Arabic of the south but something closer to the real thing from the north. But then we also dodged a pig or two and there are shops selling beer.

When we get to the river the sun is scorching hot on the brown, flat waters that carry islands of tall floating grass and plants past. The channel of water narrows and widens but it is almost impossible to know where the true banks of the river are since these floating plants extend it. When the passing wake of a boat causes the water to stir the ‘riverbank’ bobs and moves like a waterbed waving off into the distance.

Great flocks of river birds take to the air as we pass and tall, white herons hitch rides on small islands of floating plants that wind their way with the current. Our IT girl is on the lookout for crocodiles which a passing trader told us they’d seen not far from here. Hippopatumuses also lay with their bodies submerged and just their backs and heads floating on the surface twitching their ears at flies.

It is a peaceful place, the Nile. The only sound is of insects, frogs and the engine of our boat as we plow against the slow moving current. All I can think is that if you had told me when I was a child that my job would be to live in such remote places, eat unappealing, mushy vegetables, and being eaten by mosquitoes I would not have believed you. But, if you also told me that I would get paid to spend my days floating down the Nile to visit places that hardly any other soul on earth will ever see I wouldn't have believed you either. I still can hardly believe my luck.

The Nile in the morning reminds me of an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem:

Long have I known a glory in it all,
But never knew I this:
Here such a passion is as stretcheth me apart
Lord, I do fear thou’st made the world too beautiful this year"

The mist clings to the trees and the banks as we pass. Our Sudanese maternal/child health coordinator waves her hand around and ask, ‘What is this? What do you call this?’

‘We call it fog," I say. But somehow the word doesn’t seem to do it justice. This other-worldly, smothering grey reflected in the glassy smooth river that parts as we pass and then closes again around us.

There is something timeless and comforting about the Nile. It has been there since time immemorial - since Miriam float Moses amongst the rushes, since it's waters ran with blood - and it will keep flowing to the Mediterranean Sea long after we are all gone.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Speaking of denial...

While I was in Shilluk three disconcerting things happened. The first was the attack on the peacekeepers in Darfur which has led to the subsequent pull-out of all non-essential staff (why ‘essential’ staff stay to get shot at is something that has never made much sense to me). Everyone is denying that they had anything to do with it.

The second is that Sudan conducted a census in order to figure out how much of the South’s oil profits it actually has to share with the South. The figures have come back and, surprisingly, the North has declared that there are 38 million people living in Sudan. 3.8 million of them live in the South. Now, I’m no statistician but I’ve been in the North long enough to figure out that they haven’t got 35-odd million people up there. Unless they’re keeping them underground. Which they might be. This means that Khartoum must be larger than New York City. Another clear case of denial - mostly of reality. I doubt the southerners are going to stand for this and I don't blame them.

The third is that our pal Bashir was indicted as a war criminal. I doubt that the northerners are going to stand for it. And Bashir is doing his best to just carry on denying that he has had anything to do with the war in Darfur.

It's a fun place to live here - in a continual state of denial.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

You say it's your birthday...

I managed to escape Juba where birthday tradition dictates that you get doused with water at some unsuspecting point during your day and thought I would keep things mum in Kodok to avoid any other unusual birthday traditions. This plan went well until I spoke to my boss by sat phone in the morning.

‘Happy Birthday!’ she announced. ‘How’s it going?’

‘Great!’ I replied. ‘Got a couple of e-mails and have a series of meetings. You know, work and stuff. It’s good.’

She turned serious. ‘Have you told the team?’ Geez, she made it sound like I was dying.

‘Ummm, no.’ There was a pause and I knew what was coming – either I told the team or she would. ‘I’ll tell them tonight,’ I said.

So, as we gathered around in the evening I told everyone that it is my birthday. They all congratulated me and then proceeded to shuffle around mysteriously.

Right before dinner, our health coordinator starting fussing around the table. She put down a lace cloth, started stacking biscuits on a tray and found a big candle to put in the middle, she poured orange soda into enough glasses for us all. They sang 'happy birthday' and then gave me one of the traditional cloths the women wear over their clothes, some gum, and a bar a chocolate.
And the funny thing about the celebration was that I realised how much doesn’t really matter. All the stuff – the nice restaurant, good wine, having your best friends around – sure all those things are nice but sometimes you can be out in the middle of nowhere with perfect strangers, a plate of biscuits, a candle, some orange soda and it’s still special. The important thing is that we are alive, that we have something to celebrate, and we have people to celebrate it with.

Friday, July 04, 2008


The land rover is about to pull out of the compound with our health team in the back, lined up on seats like school children on a bus headed for school. They are going to our health clinic in Panthau.

“Please tell Agam that we said hello,” I told Dr. James, a cheerful man and brilliant doctor from Uganda.

“I will,” he promised. “I will send her consolidarity.”

Agam came to our clinic in medical unit in Wathmuan yesterday when we were conducting a nutrition feeding. She sat on the ground outside the building with her legs helpless and swollen to one side. Her eyes were bright and she smiled up at us as the community health worker, her mother, and countless members of the community gathered around to see who at whom all these ‘khwajes’ (foreigners) were looking. She had walked as far as she could and could not walk anymore – even with the help of her mother and we were determining how to get her to our clinic in Panthau which was 16 km away.

“We will drive her,” a nutrition nurse announced finally.

“How long has she had this problem?” our health advisor asked the mother.

“Since she was three,” her mother answered.

“How old is she now?”


The medical assistant suspected that it was a fungal infection that had grown unhindered for years until Agam could barely walk and every step was painful. A fungus. Like athlete’s foot. What we would normally treat with a quick spray from a bottle picked up at CVS or Boots had incapacitated this girl for seven years. There are some things in this world to which you can never reconcile yourself.

“Consolidarity,” Dr. James had said. I thought this was truly the most appropriate and African word I had ever heard. A combination of consolation and solidarity. Without any explanation I knew exactly what it meant. It meant that we were doing more than simply sending our consolation and sympathy; it meant that we standing together with the one whom we are consoling. Because we are here and because we should.

A day...

5:30am: The sun is not yet up and it is already hot. The generator is not on so the still air inside my tukel has grown even hotter. I hear the scuff, scuff of the water man dragging his feet pushing his heavy wheelbarrow outside my wire mesh window. He unloads four or five 25 gallon plastic jugs of water, dropping them on the ground with a thump. I open my eyes and ensure that my mosquito net is still tucked in to protect from the bugs, bats, snakes with whom we share our space. Satisfied that I am alone I roll over and go back to sleep.

8:30am: Scuffling inside the plastic ceiling of my grass-thatched tukel wakes me up. It is probably a lizard crawling around making a racket. Others are up already and moving about. The builders from Kenya have begun banging nails into the roof of the cement block kitchen they are building. There are no builders in this part of South Sudan and so we have to have them come to build anything other than the mud tukuls in which we normally live and work. I pull up my mosquito net but dare not drop my feet down without first reaching down to shake out my shoes for scorpions which might have taken up residence in the night. My tukel is small and round (about 8’ x 8’) with a battered linoleum floor and mud walls. The low door lets in some light as do the wire mesh windows. It is Cecelia’s but she is not here as she was medi-evaced yesterday with severe malaria. After fits of hallucinations and seizures they were afraid it was cerebral.

9:00am: I have breakfast in the ‘mess’ – another mud tukel. A chunk of oily white bread and powdered milk with tea has become my routine. Food is something about which it is impossible to get excited in South Sudan. You eat to keep alive. That is all. There is nothing gourmet or appealing about greasy stews, sloppy lentils, or snot-like okra. As one friend of mine put it, “I don’t eat in Sudan. I feed.” Others are already eating and getting ready to go to church. There are two churches in Tieraliet. An Episcopal and a Catholic. Half the staff go to the Episcopal and half to the Catholic. The Catholic church meets under an enormous Banyan tree. (We walked by mud tukel they used to use as a church but the roof has caved in.)

10:30am: Mass gets going with people clapping and singing. Everyone knows all the words to the songs because there are no songbooks, there are no Bibles, there is no priest. Just a plastic table where the cathechist leads the service and the rest of us sitting on the roots or ground under the tree. About half way through the service a woman begins screaming and crying. Some men come and carry her to a nearby hut where other women spend the rest of the service fanning her. “Is she demon possessed?” our HR manager asks me. I shrug. “Could be.” “It’s either that or typhoid or malaria,” our doctor adds.

12:00pm: It is hot walking home and the sun so bright that it feels like it is melting you slowly and that by the time you get to the compound you will be nothing more than a pool of yourself. I try not to work on Sundays and so with lunch being unappealing in the extreme I make another cup of powdered milk tea and go back to bed to read and sleep.

3:00pm The rains begin with thunder in the distance thuds and grumbles its way closer until a cool breeze sweeps past our compound announcing that the rain has arrived. It always falls with giant drops – no light sprinkles, no gentle spitting. It hits the ground hard and plops in my tea that I have gotten up to get. Great giant sploshes of African sky in my tea. The rain is a curse and a blessing. For the community it means that their crops will grow and that they will have water for our cattle. For us it means that vast swaths of South Sudan will become inaccessible as the muddy tracks we normally follow to remote towns and villages become nothing more than deep, oozing, mud traps that suck down vehicles like vacuum cleaners sucking dirt.

4:00pm: Have a four hour meeting with the Area Coordinator on everything from security, to snake bite guidelines, to the likelihood of being struck by lightning, to maternal mortality. South Sudan has both one of the highest fertility rates in the world along with the highest maternal mortality rates. Our community empowerment specialist put it like this: “Here, when a woman has a baby, there are only two things that will happen. She will deliver normally or she will die.”

Lots of things come into stark contrast like this. You need to eat or you will die. You need to drink or you will die. You need to avoid snakes and scorpions and illness of any sort or you will die. It’s amazing, and a little refreshing, to have the idea of want that dominates my culture drop out of life almost entirely. There is no wanting. There is only need.

8:00pm: Carefully find my way back to my tukel without the use of a torch. Something not generally advisable given the number of poisonous snakes around and the fact that our anti-venom covers only four of them.

10:00pm: After reading for several hours the generator is turned off and the lights and fan in my room whine, flicker and die out with it. I lay there in the dark, sweating, put my book down and try to sleep.

Thursday, July 03, 2008


Have you ever wondered how difficult it would be to simply disappear? Not very, let me tell you. Ok, so maybe in the states or Europe it wouldn’t be incredibly easy but if you are willing to live in Sudan you can be gone….easily…poof…just like that. I have this thought because I am in Rumbek which you have probably never heard of and neither had I until WFP unceremoniously dumped me, and the six or seven other passengers from my plane, here.

“You have missed the plane to Juba,” they announced.

“Could have been because you were 3 hours late in picking us up,” I said. I think I’m getting more acrimonious with the UN every day.

“We could not hold the plane for another hour for you,” they said.

“You could, though, tell us where your plane disappeared to for three hours while we were sitting on the landing strip in the scorching sun for that time,” I said. I do not say that an unexplainable, unaccountable three hour jaunt might be one of the reasons that they haven’t enough fuel to run their operation here but I refrain. I only allow myself to be mean for so many minutes a day.

“Your check-in time is 11.30 tomorrow morning,” the WFP man said. And that was that. No telephone call, no pointing to the taxi line, just a ‘don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-wait-out’ wave.

Never mind that I don’t speak the language, have any comms equipment, Sudanese money or even know where the heck Rumbek is. I now need to find a way into “town” and a place to stay. I have two things going for me….no, make that three.

I am white.

I have dollars.

I also have Julius, our mechanic from Kenya with me. He stops the first motorcycle that comes along and hops on the back. “Stay here. I used to know someone from CRS who worked here and maybe they will let us stay.” I like Julius. He tells me later how he manages: “Whenever I go someplace new I just pretend like I have been there before,” he said. Very sage advice if you ask me.

So, I stand there, in what is to me, the middle of nowhere. And I can’t help but think that I could just hop on the back of a motorcycle too and disappear. I could go off into the bush or hitchhike my way to another African country. Just like that. No prior notice. (For the record, in case I ever do disappear, and the police use this as some sort of evidence that I had obviously thought about disappearing before…please assure them that I would definitely like to be looked for and had no intention of disappearing on that occasion. These are musings….not plans!)

Julius turns back up in a white land rover with a driver. God bless mechanics. All of them, everywhere. CRS had left and turned their compound over to the diocese of Rumbek which now runs the place as a guest house. Julius had found this out by flagging down a car that had the Catholic Church’s logo on the side. And, for a mere $60 a night, each of us have a room with no electricity or running water but in a quiet and carefully manicured compound with thatched roof huts. Not too shabby!

Fly in the cats! (Disregard the cost!)

We left Lokichoggio before dawn. Or, Loki as it is called. This outpost Kenyan town that looks like most outpost African towns with men idling in front of dilapidated shops and children running barefoot rolling tires. The only difference being that I am here. And thousands others like me. Flying in and out of this border post as we make our way into Sudan.

Today, we were flying a MAF charter into Jongelei state to a place called Motot. Never heard of it? Neither had I. Don’t bother trying to find it on a map. It won’t be there. It’s not even on most UN maps and they have a vested interest in knowing where it is. Our pilot finds it by doing what all good pilots do when they have no idea where the landing strip is: make wide, sweeping turns over where it should be until he sees it. One of our area coordinators describes to me the pros and cons of snake-killing. A skill he is convinced that I should possess.

“The key is,” he says making a chopping motion with his arm. “You have to hit them quickly. No matter where. Or they will get away.”

“I want them to get away,” I say.

He ignores this and carries on. “One quick hit anywhere on their body and then you can kill them.”

“I don’t want to kill them,” I say. “I am probably just going to start screaming. That is going to be my tactic.”

“You will be screaming when you see a Black Mambo,” he answers.

The problem is that he is not kidding.

“We should just get cats,” another Area Coordinator interjects. “We should have taken some of those cats from Loki.” He’s referring to all the mangy strays that were lolling about the compound we had just left. “Snakes will stay away if there are cats.”

We carry on talking about how to ‘import’ these cats as we circle over the short green plains dotted with trees and the occasional swampy watering hole. “Motot,” a friend in the UK described it to me. “Is not the middle of nowhere. But if you climbed a tree there you could see the middle of nowhere.” Large tukels surrounded by large dirt yards filled with cattle dot the landscape. A few of them have white fabric tied to trees denoting peace because, you see, they are still at war.

With whom? That is a good question. With pretty much everyone. Everyone who wants their cattle, and on whom they then wreak revenge stealing their enemies cattle (and perhaps a child or two and the odd wife), and vice versa, and so on and so on, ad nauseum, etc. and amen. They will also fight the government if they show up. Which they do from time to time to try to disarm everyone.

In 2006, following a particularly ill-advised attempt at disarmament we evacuated the compound that we’re currently living in as the town was overrun and everything burned and looted – including our compound.

To make matters even more fun the place is mined to the gills. We are not allowed to drive or walk off main tracks. Just last week, children found a 3 foot long rocket and placed it, helpfully, in the middle of the runaway. The community thought this was a bad idea so they came and tossed it down a latrine. Not a very good idea but better than the runaway, I suppose. They should have just tossed it down at the end of the runaway which is, apparently, a former mine dump and ready to blow when the next ill-advised pilot overshoots the place.

While I have been typing this I have been lying in bed, under my mosquito net, listening to a certain rustling between the thatched roof tukel and the plastic sheeting that is pinned up on the inside. I have tried to dismiss it as a rat, or a lizard, but I am pretty sure now that it is a snake. Crawling around up there over my head. (A chunk of dirt just dropped to the floor as it shifted) Our nutrition advisor found one in her tukel only hours ago. I am becoming more convinced that we need those cats here and we need them now. I’m tempted to go back and get them myself.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh!

Steri Pen. Handheld UV light water purified. Will someone please buy this for me and the other 1.7 billion people without access to clean drinking water?

Seriously. We've got a cholera outbreak in Juba and a Hep E outbreak in Kitgum. I could do some wicked good with about 1000 of these and a team of trainers.

Two types of people...

Well, of course there are more than that. But stick with me on this one... There are the type that like round-trip tickets and the type that prefer one-way tickets.

I like to think of myself in the former category. You're still going somewhere but you always have the safety of coming back, getting out, an end of the road, so to speak. I never saw the charm in the one-way, open ended sort of nonsense and considered it for the truly intrepid traveller - the kind that borders on idiocy.

But I'm changing my mind. I went to Cambridge this weekend and bought one-way tickets the entire way and back. It was freeing. There's no schedule to meet. There's no reason to be any place at any given time. Completely opens up your mind. If you want to stay longer you stay. If you want to leave you leave. Genius.

I think I'm going to think of South Sudan like that. If I have no reason to leave I'll just stay. Why not?

(I also thought about Greta and what she is going to say when she learns that I was, not only, in London but passing right by her on my way out of town. Mea culpa, my friend. You still speaking to me??)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Humanitarian Urban Legends...

I was in a briefing today with the head of logistics. An energetic and talkative British man who, at the time, was describing to me the various varmits (rats, spiders, scorpions) that one would need to kill at any given time in South Sudan. The talk turned to snakes and he clasps his hands together earnestly and says, "There are snakes, you know. Huge snakes. Pythons."

"Really?" I say. "Like how big are we talking here?"

"I've got the pictures," he say. "One killed a guard and, after consuming him, was caught crawling under the fence of the UN compound in Juba. It was electrocuted as it tried to get free."

"Riiiiight," I say. He lost me at guard. "So what you're telling me is that there are python in Juba that are large enough to swallow humans and that some guard (and I know how lazy and comatose some guards can be) was so sound asleep that he allowed him self to be strangled and then eaten by a python and there was no commotion made?"

"Well, he was probably bitten first," the logistician maintains.

"But pythons there aren't poisonous," I bluff. I have no idea whether pythons are poisonous. The whole thing just wreaks of urban legend so I feel justified.

"No," he concedes. "But you don't die from poison with python bites. You die from the infection. And these ones have huge fangs (makes a motion to indicate said fangs were approximately a foot long) and imagine they were sunk into your neck. You'd pass out and then it'd strangle you."

"Riiiight," I say. "You die from infection in about 15 seconds?" I'm on a roll now.

"No, but there'd be an awful gash."

"And a struggle, maybe?"

"Maybe," he says.

"Produce the pictures," I say.

"Ok," he says. And I spend the rest of the day, that is not spent trying to get $3 million dollars to ensure that Aweil East has primary medical facilities, taunting him and his staff who also vouch for the story.

So, upon arriving back home I decide to do some internet research. It turns out that it is an urban legend. Actually, two urban legends. But, and herein the problem lies, part of it is true. The picture was not of a python in Juba that had swallowed a guard and attempted to escape and thereby being electrocuted. The picture was of a python in South Africa that has swallowed an impala and attempted to escape and thereby being electrocuted. According to the website, where you can read more, no one is sure if a python could actually swallow a full-grown adult so that element is dubious.

I feel somewhat vindicated and rest easy knowing that South Africa is nearly 3,000 miles away. Unfortunately, he was right about the scorpions. I'm just going to try not to think about them.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Still in London but thanks for asking...

Hello there, to all of you who have inquired, I am in London and not in Khartoum so don't worry. :)

Monday, June 09, 2008

To sleep or not to sleep...

Ah, the eternal dilemma. I didn't sleep on the plane coming over and don't have meetings until this afternoon. Do I take a snooze for a few hours this morning and risk not being able to sleep tonight or do I plow through in a haze?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

I hate to say, 'I told you so' but...

Posting of October 20th, last year / this article: Is Sudan collapsing into war at Abeyei?

Well, you get the idea.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

South Sudan...

Well, it looks like I will be going to South Sudan for the next several months. Will be based in Juba...so this is Juba's heads-up to break out the welcome wagon! (And by welcome wagon I do not mean the 'armed robbery' kind. Let's try to avoid that for the time being, shall we?)

Monday, May 12, 2008

Ah-ha-ha-ha-ha...ahem...not my opinion, of course...

From the new Rough Guide travel guide for England:

"The writers confess to bafflement over the quirky English, concluding that of the 200 countries the guide reviews there is none 'so fascinating, beautiful and culturally diverse yet as insular, self-important and irritating as England'."

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Sometimes the times we live in overflow with light...

I was reminded of Antjie Krog's excellent book, Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa, this evening and so reread some. Here's a great part:

“And I wonder: God. Does he hear us? Does he know what our hearts are yearning for? That we all just want to be human beings ... some with more colour, some with less, but all with air and sun. And I wade into song ... in a language that is not mine, in a tongue I do not know. It is fragrant inside the song, and among the keynotes of sorrow and suffering there are soft silences where we who belong to this landscape,…all of us,…can come to rest. Sometimes the times we live in overflow with light.”

Saturday, May 03, 2008

I tried to tell him...

Poor Ken! I tried to tell him this would happen if Bus#1 continued to run late. But did he listen? And now this...

Johnson signs on for mayor's job

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

My new favourite song of the week...

Go here where you can see this and another video. A shout-out of thanks to Mike who knows very cool people and tends to share!

Coming of Age

The days are gone for the walkin’ away
The sun sets fast at the end of the day
Everyone I know is still runnin’ around
Try to outrun the runnin’ ‘fore it takes ‘em down

They all came from some place that I never knew
A house with a window and a room with a view
But where I came from is where I had to leave
Who I was and what I had to believe

I remember those times when the evening’d fade
We’d take off our shoes and the plans we’d made
Think about someone I might find
Some kind of cure for this kind of blind

Some kind of woman who could help me see
Some kind of child to help me start to believe
’cause I thought I’d be fine in the driving rain
But these thoughts are just bickering around my brain

I said I found myself somewhere on the way
But I couldn’t even point you to that day
Seems I never quite know just where I’ll land
Keep pleading for the people to understand

’cause if you can understand, maybe I could change
And I could loose myself from feelin’ strange
But right now I’m wonder if that’d be true
Waiting for deliverance to come from you

The roads we travel have gotten rough
With the bumps and turns and all that broken stuff
Sewage was seeping up from underground
And I can’t help but feel just a little bound

To this life I choose, to this life I know
Each darkened corner, little lights aglow
And I reckon it’s time for you to call my bluff
Try to pinch this skin that’s gotten tough


And in the evenings I wonder if I made a mess
Something bigger than a man could ever accept
Can’t be the person that I wanted to be
But I never was just okay with me

SeemsI never really felt all that at ease
With who I am or what I chose to believe
But I made this life which lives in me
Still I don’t seem to be the one to set me free

Now the days are gone for the lookin’ around
Now I just keep eyes to the ground
With a little bit of hope that things could change
Though I’m still not sure what to rearrange

Cause it hides in my pocket, refuses to be seen
This glimmer of all I hope and dream
So I’ll pray to God that I’m livin’ right
And know that nothin’ good ever comes without a fight

No other news...

After having been out of the States for awhile, I have returned to be taken aback by our new obsession with round-the-clock news that has been mixed with a reality-TV-voyeurism and a Facebook narcissism that results in what can only be described as journarcivoyerism [pronounced: jour-nar-si-voy-yer-ism].

And by that I mean this....the news is no longer something we watch to become informed. We watch it to delve into other people's lives. We watch it out of morbid curiousity. We watch it because we need someone to give us our opinions so that we sound smarter than we actually are.

The most recent example of this was, obviously, the Pope. The Pope. 24/7. Really. Is that news? Now, don't get me wrong. I like the Pope. I'm glad that his comings and goings made the news and that we were interested in what he had to say, and when, and where, and to whom. But, do I need to know his thoughts, the cardinals' thoughts, the commentators' thoughts, the thoughts of those in the audience on whether he had a happy childhood? No! Seriously, people. We have a problem!

Now, lest I be accused of being anti-Papal (please remember who was recently on Vatican radio) I have to say that I would rather watch the Pope than Brittany Spears, Paris Hilton, Martha Stewart, or OJ Simpson but that is not the point. The point is this: there are other FAR more newsworthy things going on in the world you never heard about because the Pope gave a mass in Yankee Stadium, or Brittany drove drunk down Hollywood Blvd, or whatever. Like what, you ask?

Like Zimbabwe on the cusp of civil war; like the thousands killed in one week alone in the forgotten conflicts of Congo, Uganda, Somalia, Cote d'Ivoire, Columbia, Sri Lanka, and Chechnya; like China's brutal 're-education' proposition for school children in Tibet; like cholera in Soweto.

For instance.

I'm not saying let's not watch the Pope. I am saying please, SOMEONE, put news back in it's rightful place as 'information' and then let me get on with the rest of my day! Now that's something I'd pay for. A news channel that reported stories, different stories, relevant stories 24 hours a day without repeating a single one. And, never mentioning anyone who lives in Los Angeles. Nor the San Fernando valley. Nor, parts of New York. Is that too much to ask?

P.S. The first person who writes in to say that 'that's what BBC does' will never hear from me EVER again.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

He might be dead...

For those of you following the mouse saga: I haven't seen, nor heard, him today. Dare I hope?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

He's still alive...

Incidentally. One day later I am watching him climb in and out, in and out of the box of poison having a little munch here and there. Actually, it has been more like brunch, a mid-morning snack, 11-sies, afternoon tea, a small appetizer, an after-dinner nibble, and a midnight snack. Remind me never to buy stock in rat poison companies.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008


I am typing this very, very slowly and quietly. Mostly because I am watching a mouse die. It doesn't know it's dying yet. It's been running around on the kitchen countertop and stove for the past half an hour with flagrant disregard for the deal that was struck in time immemorial between humans and 'pests'. That is, they walk all over our plates, cutlery, and food at night and don't leave evidence of their existence and we don't kill them. Once they start leaving droppings or coming out in daylight it's a no-hold-barred-free-for-all on their extermination. Sorry, little friends. Them's the rules. I don't make them up. I simply enforce them.

So, while I was sitting here in the kitchen (at 10pm but with the lights on) a mouse decided to run across the counter. A cute little brown mouse. I could forgive that. I mean, maybe he was late getting home to his little mouse family across the house. Maybe he doesn't live here and is just on a layover. I can sympathise with that. But then he ran across again. And then again. And then he went out on the stovetop and climbed up on the teapot. He sniffed around a little and then sat up on his haunches and looked at me like he was daring Cuba to make a move.

Wrong move little friend. I promptly found a small container of rat poison under the sink, opened it up and put it on the counter. He wandered around. He continued dancing on the teapot. I was torn for a few moments about whether I should be willing him toward the container or away from it. But, the behaviour is, frankly, flagrant. What if other mice follow his example? We would have chaos. We would have - well, the movie Ratatouille and who wants that?

After about 5 minutes he found it and was so delighted that he has jumped into the box and is munching away on the deadly pellets. I suppose I should feel bad but frankly I'm just relieved that the death warrant has been sealed and I have nothing more to do....except scrub down that teapot with bleach.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

T5 and me...

I hadn't intended to have anything with the opening of Terminal 5 but I have always had a secret dream (you're going to be deeply disappointed by my mundane dream life). The dream goes a little something like this: I am the sort of person that possesses skills that are so inherently valuable, marketable and desirable that NGOs call me up and say, 'Get on the next plane to [insert foreign capitol here]. We're arranging everything but you must go now! It's extremely urgent.' Of course it's a fantasy as most organizations plan their staffing well in advance and avoid the cost of next-day plane flights. And, of course, I do not possess a skill set such that organizations fly me out the next day. However, sometimes...sometimes (!!) an emergency does arise and it is in the small hope that they will turn to me that I have continued to foster the dream.

Well, much to my delight an organization did need me urgently last week and needed to me to come and interview for a job. 'Fly to Geneva,' they said. 'Now.' They said. 'I have meetings in London,' I said. 'Just come for a day,' they said. 'We'll arrange everything,' they said. Two hours later my flights, train and taxis were ready to go, all pleasantly arranged by a woman with a lilting French-Swiss accent I could listen to all day. I was to fly the following day. Al Gore would be ashamed of my carbon footprint that by now is knee-deep but sometimes you just have to live the dream - even if it means future generations of school children having to ask...'what was the 'Arctic' again?'.

The next morning I turned up at Terminal 5 just as it was opening. This might not excite you because, well, you are a normal human being with a normal life and interests but it did excite me. You see, T5 (as we 'insiders' call it) is the new terminal at Heathrow - an airport I would despise landing in if it meant that you were arriving in any place besides London. But, T5 was supposed to be the answer to all Heathrow's problems - the over-crowding, the ugliness, the long waits - but it then failed to deliver on any of these in a beautifully understated, passive-aggressive way that was nothing less than quintessentially British.

At 8:00 in the morning the cameras at passport control weren't working well, the scanning system at security is so high-tech, badly designed, and persnickety that it refuses to operate in, well, standard operating conditions. It is as if no one expected that there would be, 1) planes, 2) passengers, or 3) luggage to ever use the terminal. My initial flight was delayed 1 hour 40 minutes because they couldn't get the luggage to the plane.

But, Starbucks was giving out free mugs so it's not like it was a total loss.

After several hours of meetings in Switzerland I returned to the airport. There were lines of people at the British Airways counter. They were yelling at the staff. The staff were yelling back. The friend with me said that she'd never seen anything like it...except in movies, and then it was Americans. It was unbelievable. We learned that there were 10,000 people stuck in Heathrow because the new terminal had gone into meltdown. 12,000 bags had piled up before anyone grasped the extent of what was going wrong. Bags couldn't reach the planes so planes couldn't leave meaning they couldn't get to their destinations in order to return. I would have to stay in Geneva overnight. Worse things have happened and, luckily, I had no meetings early the next morning but there were stories of people missing weddings, and elderly people with nowhere to go sleeping on the floor. The place did look like a homeless shelter when I returned.

And returning was not entirely uncomplicated either. We managed to arrive on time but sat for 40 minutes on the runway because they couldn't find a gate. We spent another 40 minutes waiting for them to figure out how to get the jetway attached to the airplane so we could disembark. So, my advice is avoid Terminal 5 at all costs. Heck, avoid British Airways. They're not all that great either. The following day I had to fly from Terminal 4 to the States and that had become chaos because they have switched flights back from T5 and rebooked people.


I would like to say that all of this hasn't left me so inwardly bemused and happy but it has. I did get to live a secret dream and schadenfruede runs deep. America might have Iraq but Britain has T5. And it looks like it might take both of us just as long to extract ourselves from each situation as it does the other.