Saturday, February 21, 2009

Why we have toilets…

I know that you probably feel that I am fascinated by either 1) food or 2) latrines. And you would be right. I spend a vast quantity of any given day on one of these two issues and not just personally – but also professionally. When half of your job is finding out why people are starving or ill these two things are bound to come up.

So, it should come as no surprise today as I was headed off to our pit latrine and about to walk into a cholera outbreak meeting that I was thinking about toilets. I was thinking mostly about why we have them. I don’t know if you think about this on anything resembling a regular basis but I know that I usually don’t. At home, I don’t know how to turn off the water in my house, much less where it comes from. I don’t know which wires carry electricity to my house in which volts and where it comes from. You get the idea. And neither do I care much as long as it works. In the field, you know about all these things – intimately – and probably a little too much. You know because not knowing means that you could have faecal matter in your drinking water and that, my friends, is how you get cholera.

Anyway, it struck me that the fundamental reason we have toilets is not so that our houses don’t stink, or because it’s a polite way to do ones business - we, fundamentally, have toilets so that we don’t die of cholera. If we didn’t have ways of taking our waste and moving it as far from us and others as possible the odds are that we would still be dealing with cholera and the bubonic plague and then the only thing that would separate us from the middle ages would be reality television. And is that really the accomplishment we want to boast of after several thousand years of human development? Nope…I would go with toilets any day.

Field Diets...

In Darfur we had something called ‘Darfur Diet’ and we joked about how it would be great to bill Darfur as a kind of ‘fat camp’ where people could come and lose tons of weight by…well, mostly by going hungry. The same is true in Southern Sudan but only more so. The humanitarian nutritional indicators are abysmal. I would tell you what they are but the half of you who would know what they mean don’t care and the half of you that care wouldn’t have a clue what they mean. They’re bad, take my word for it. People still starve to death. And not people, like that giant mass, out there, somewhere people, like our neighbours. Our health team saw twins today that are living about a stone’s throw from where I’m sitting. It’s likely they’ll starve to death within the week. They won’t starve to death because of a lack of food (just like having money doesn’t solve poverty) rather they'll starve for a whole host of horrid other complex reasons that have to do with culture, and health, and acceptance, and poverty. Like most things in life the outcomes are not the result of a singular act but whole string of knots that can’t be unraveled in a week’s time by a bunch of foreigners to in time to keep death at bay.

So, in this context, it’s pretty difficult to complain about food without feeling like a whiny spoiled brat. (But will I let that stop me? No!) We have enough food in all of our compounds every day to stay alive. Not enough diversity to remain healthy but enough to keep living which is just one of the things that separates us from those on the other side of our fence.

I thought I would map for you what I’ve been eating over the past few days:


Breakfast: Two pieces of white toast / coffee

Lunch: Coke / lentils

Dinner: Mashed potatoes


Breakfast: ½ a white bread roll / coffee

Lunch: Bowl of fruit’n’fibre cereal

Dinner: 2 eggs and a white bread roll


Breakfast: ½ a white bread roll / coffee

Lunch: Bowl of fruit’n’fibre cereal

Dinner: Goat pieces and ½ a white bread roll


Breakfast: Bowl of fruit’n’fibre cereal / coffee

Lunch: Rice & beans; bowl of fruit’n’fibre cereal; skittles

Dinner: Goat

I was trying to think about my feelings about the food but mostly...I just feel hungry.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

A Dustland Fairytale...

Apologies for the long absence. I was on a whirlwind trip around the United States. It wasn't until I was sitting back in a hut in the middle of Sudan that I stopped and realised that I was - exactly 5 weeks later - back in the same hut I had been 5 weeks earlier. But the previous week I had been in DC, and the week before that Missouri, and the week before that San Diego, and before that Boston and before that Vermont.

So, needless to say, I was glad to be back on old terra firma even if it was the middle of nowhere with our Area Coordinator sitting on the airstrip watching the sun set and being watched by the local Nuer children. A dust storm was sweeping across the savannah to the west and ash from the fires around drifted down on us like snow. It was nice to be back and dealing with concrete problems in life and not whether Obama's rhetoric would translate into some substantive policy or whether LL Bean is going to be bankrupted by bad Christmas sales. In those five weeks I found I just couldn't muster the energy to pretend that I cared. Give me a looming famine any day. There's something I can do about that.

Back to the Dustland Fairytale...

"I saw the devil wrapping up his hands
He's getting ready for the show down
I saw the ending when they turned the page
I threw my money and I ran away
Straight to the valley of the great divide

Out where the dreams all hide
Out were the wind don't blow
Out here the good girls die
And the sky won't snow
Out here the bird don't sing
Out here the field don't grow
Out here the bell don't ring
Out here the bell don't ring
Out here the good girls die

Now Cinderella don't you go to sleep
It's such a bitter form of refuge
Ahh don't you know the kingdoms under siege
And everybody needs you"