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.