Monday, March 30, 2009

To feel the sand between one's teeth...

To feel the sand between ones teeth..

Our near weekly dust storms here in the field are something of a curse and a blessing. A blessing because they blot out the sun for a precious day of not dripping in sweat. A curse because you literally feel the gritty, salty taste of dirt between your teeth the whole day through. Must everything be a double-edged sword?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The forgotten art of walking...

After sitting in my little tukul almost all day on Saturday I had enough. I needed to get out and so I went for a walk. And once I started walking I was overcome by the strangest urge to just keep on walking. I mean, just keep going. Now, I’m the person who coined the phrase, ‘if God had intended us to walk he wouldn’t have given us cars’ so I’m not normally a fan of ‘footing’, as they call it here. I think of walking as a means to an end, just like driving - only the latter is more expedient. You walk, or run, or hike, or trek, or drive in order to 1) get where you’re going, or 2) exercise, or, 3) see some beautiful mountain/hike as the case may be. That’s it. I have never gotten some high or endorphine rush from either walking or running. That’s why I found it so unusual that on Saturday I just felt like walking. It might have something to do with being in the middle of nowhere and I was on a dirt track that goes somewhere. It wasn’t to get anywhere, it wasn’t particularly beautiful, and (given my deficit of caloric intake recently) it was certainly not about exercise. But I had this compulsion to follow it as far as it went. I’m sure some psychologist could explain it as a desire to escape from the work on my desk that I had no desire to complete. And I would be lying if I said that I didn’t have about fourteen different security scenarios passing immediately through my head – most of which ended with me passed out from dehydration while my bones were being picked clean by vultures. Hence, after about half an hour I did decided to turn around but I have to admit there was something wonderful about putting your feet on a straight dirt path and walking.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The monkey vs. me...

For those of you who have read this blog for quite some time you will know both about my love of epic battles and about the presence of some rather agressive monkeys (which I maintain are not figures of my imagination) on our Juba compound.

This morning our new HR staff comes in. Mind you, she's been in Juba for one day, having flown in from New Zealand yesterday and says: "Well, I have to say that a monkey playing with a puppy is not something I have ever seen before."

This, of course, raises the curiosity so I went with her and a guard to investigate. There was, actually a monkey in the yard rolling around a poor little puppy (estimated age 4 weeks...pictured above). We got the guard to throw rocks at the monkey long enough to take the puppy away. Needless to say, it was in a state of shock, covered in ticks and fleas so that it's coat is patchy. We got a box (having learned the bucket lesson from the cats) and put it in where it promptly went to sleep.

A few hours later I got on of our staff to take me to a local vet because we clearly need some parasite dip and deworming meds. While we were out the monkey came looking for either me or the puppy. It tipped the milk out all over my desk that I had mixed, it smudged up the proposal I had just printed before it was discovered by other staff and chased out. I suspect that it will be back.

Oh, but I'll be ready. I've decided the aggressive, puppy-abusing monkey needs to be taught a lesson. That lesson will include: 1) why coming into the Tearfund office is a no-no; 2) why messing with Tearfund staff is a no-no; 3) why the puppy is lost and gone forever to it. My teaching method is going to be mace that was thoughtfully supplied to me by the Ava County Sheriff's Dept when they switched over to tazing those that needed to apprehend.

I think the things that I have going for me are: 1) I'm bigger than the monkey; 2) I'm smarter than the monkey (NO COMMENTS!!!); 3) I am not giving the puppy back. The monkey, on the other hand, has going for it: 1) I'm slightly frightened by agrressive mammals with sharp teeth and claws; 2) it's probably sneakier than me and doesn't have to be tied to a desk writing proposals and reports. Will let you know how it goes.

P.S. I've already been told by friends that in this epic battle they're betting on the monkey.

P.P.S. None of the staff are being allowed to name the puppy. I say that you don't get to name animals until you're pretty sure that they're not going to die or you are going to keep them. Otherwise it's just a bad scene when they wake up dead tomorrow or you have to give them away.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


You know your week (series of weeks?) is not going well when the highlight of your day becomes flavoured water. That has been the highlight of my day for the past two weeks. It’s getting hot in Sudan now. Really hot. Up in the 110-20’s hot. And so by about 1.30 you can hardly stand to be outside, much less string together a cohesive sentence or finish an email. Mostly, you feel like putting your head down on the desk and going to sleep in a pool of your own sweat and waiting until the sun sets before you regain consciousness. Of course, you can’t do this because, well, you are a responsible professional that has work to doing and people are outside carrying water over two hours for their families so you’re pretty much just a big whiner. Needless to say the need to stay hydrated in this environment is challenging but important. I have addressed this by making drinking water my hobby. Everyone needs a hobby. It goes a little something like this. We’re supposed to drink between 5-7 litres a day. If I down two before lunch then I reward myself in the afternoon by putting a little kool aid in third and fourth litres after lunch. I like to have those downed by 5pm and then it’s just one more around dinner and one during the night because you’re constantly waking up in pools of your own sweat desperately thirsty. It’s funny how when there’s so little to look forward to that kool aid can cause so much excitement but I suppose it’s good in a way to have my environment force me to appreciate some of the smaller things in life.

I would also like to give a shout-out to my Kool-Aid pusher who got me hooked on the stuff in the first place. Her name is Carmen and she now works for an NGO in DC but (re) introduced me to the stuff while in Darfur. She swears by the stuff and from time to time, I get a little package through our Nairobi office filled with the tiny little packets of joy and I would be lying if I didn’t say that it fills me with as much joy as Christmas morning.

On only a vaguely related note, when I start my NGO that’s going to be the name. Kool Aid.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

It's the little things...

Sometimes the only thing that can make one of your favourite watering holes better is a fountain in the form of a gorilla that spits water surrounded by a dog (or is that a goat?), and alligator. Makes me happy every time I see it.

It's the little things...

Sometimes the only thing that can make one of your favourite watering holes better is a fountain in the form of a gorilla that spits water surrounded by a dog (or is that a goat?), and alligator. Makes me happy every time I see it.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Kittens...not just delicious...

Kittens...not just delicious...also giant pains in the ass...You see, it all started about two weeks ago...

“Do you think I should take this bucket?” I shouted to Sarah who happened to be in the toilet at the time.

“Why?” she shouted back.

“Cause we have to put the kittens in something,” I carried on the conversation from the other side of the bathroom door.

“Get a box,” she sagely advised.

We were going to collect some kitties. Not your average evening activity in Juba so let me explain. There is a google group called Jubalicious on which people post adverts, announcements, etc. And, those loyal readers, will recall that several of our field sites have mentioned that they would like to have some cats to keep the rodent and snake population at bay. So, when a Jubalicious post announcing that six cute kittens were up for grabs I immediately replied that we would take two. Motot wanted them…if you’re still trying to figure out why go to previous posts on snakes in Motot.

The first few days spent with our little kitties was enjoyable. Cause they're cute. Or, as my mother says, "God made them cute at this stage or they would drive us over the edge." (I suspect they're like children in that regard). But then the cuteness wears off as they tear around smelling like cats and generally destroying things. I have to confess that I wasn't sad to see them stuffed into a cardboard box, taped up with duct tape and shipped to the field.

But, wouldn't you know it. They weren't even there a full 24 hours and then we had to evacuate the place. So, now they're back. And they're living in my room in Juba. I am, fortunately, not there. However, I suspect that my room is never going to smell the same...

Why people starve...

In the past week I have gotten a short course on food security for a number of reasons and I found it so interesting I thought I would share.

First of all, what is food security? Well, it’s basically having enough food in order to live a productive life. Most of the developed world is what we would call ‘food secure’ however, there are pockets in every society that are still ‘food insecure’ because food security is not only about the availability of food (of which there is plenty in the developed world) but about access to that food. So, if your average inner city kid in Washington, DC could be surrounded by food but still be food insecure because she can’t access it. Her family lacks the money, or the money is spent on other things. The difference between the inner city kid and the developing world is that in the developed world there is (hopefully) a complex web of civil society / governmental safety nets to keep her from starving. Her parents might get food stamps, or a local church might run a soup kitchen, or her school might give free lunches. In the developing world that safety net usually doesn’t exist to the same degree and so when times get tough people starve.

Awhile back (think Ethiopian famine) aid workers were busy running nutrition programmes and feeding programmes. The reasoning being that if people are starving it’s because they don’t have enough food. Give them food and, voila, you have taken care of the problem. This is partly true – people who are about to die of starvation do need food – but it also created a number of half-truths that we now believe about
Africa such as: 1) Famines / food crisis’ are primarily about a lack of food; 2) Africa doesn’t have enough food; 3) Giving food aid / and or agricultural inputs is the best way to solve famines / food crisis.

These statements have enough truth in them to be plausible but are not entirely true. Africa can easily produce enough food to feed itself. Sudan, in and of itself, could probably produce enough food to feed all of East Africa. It’s resources are that rich. The area that I am in currently is not wanting for food. But people are still starving…why is that?

Here we have something called the ‘hunger gap’. People farm small plots of land to feed their families and this is how they survive from year to year and have since time immemorial. If they have enough food to get from one harvest to the next then they are ‘food secure’. If they don’t and spend several months of the year scrounging, borrowing, or hungry this period is called ‘the hunger gap’ and these people are ‘food insecure’. So, how can help people eliminate this hunger gap?

First we try to figure out what’s lacking and come up with a combination of things. Farming has been done here for thousands of years the same way – with a stick (as a hoe) in a small plot of land. How to change that? Well, people have cows so if we can get some ox ploughs in people can farm a larger area of land thereby producing enough to see their family through to the next harvest. Where can we get ox ploughs? Uganda or Kenya. How to get there here? Truck them in. Oops! Problem number 1 – there are no roads. The place where I am right now is only accessible by plane. You can literally not drive and during the rainy season you cannot drive anywhere. Ok, so we back up. Build roads. Now that we have those we send a truck full of ox ploughs
in and we hold a training on how to use them. Except no one comes to the training. Why? Because the training takes a month – to retrain a bull that’s not used to pulling a plough and to train the farmers in why it’s better cultivate more acreage when they have done it differently for thousands of years. Additionally, they aren’t in the field during that month their family isn’t going to have food. So, we need to get some food in to provide for the families of those in the ox plough training. Ok. Done. We get roads, ox ploughs, and food for those in the training. They plant and harvest more than they have ever done before. Enough to see their families through the hunger gap. The next year comes. Those same farmers are back to using a stick. Why? The blades of the ox ploughs gets dull, the screws fall out, and general wear and tear makes the thing fall apart. Ooops! We didn’t think of how the farmers would be able to maintain the ox plough.


Let’s get another group together and train them how to be blacksmiths. Repeat above by getting in blacksmith tools, and food for their families during training, and then maybe we’ve got a sustainable system going. Except, of course, when the blacksmith’s tools break but let’s hope that they’re making enough that they will create a demand for tools in the places you can now reach by road. Except, of course, you’ve created a culture in which when people need something an aid agency provides it for free so your blacksmiths don’t want to spend their money saved from fixing ox ploughs to fix their tools. Why should they spend their money when everyone else is getting something for nothing?

Now we can say we’ve got a ‘food security’ programme going, right? Great! All things being equal we should not have people – except the very poor – starving. Right? Nope. Your great food security programme doesn’t seem to have impacted the number of malnourished children you’re seeing in your nutrition programme one iota. Why? Oh, right because the farmers you targeted to ensure that they make it through the hunger gap aren’t the same families that have children in the nutrition programme. Ok, go back to the beginning of your food security programme and retarget to include these families. Great!

No problem now. Right? Not so fast! This year you have any one of the multitude of pestilences-of-Biblical-proportions that befall Sudan. The environment is so harsh that there’s not enough rain, so the crops wither in the fields, or there’s too much rain and there’s flooding, or there’s infestations of weevils, and beetles, or locusts. There’s no irrigation systems or pesticides or fertilizers. And even if there were you’ve got to battle through the ‘we’ve-done-this-for-thousands-of-years’ culture to get them used.(Incidentally, you can hate chemical pesticides and fertilizers all you want, but guess what? They’re the reason why you have grown up having a balanced diet with plenty of fruit and veg around year round.)

So, you’re back at square one. Except you have a lot of people who are weakened by not having enough to eat so they don’t have the energy to go out there and plough their field with either a stick or an ox plough. Which means that next year they won’t have enough to eat either.

As I said before, it’s complicated. But now, if you’ve got a year or two of flooding or drought and you’re looking at a food crisis. And get a food crisis of big enough proportions / duration and you’ve got a famine.

‘Wait a second!’ I can hear some bright spark out there saying. ‘If we know this surely can’t we invest enough in food security programmes – however complicated they may be – so that fewer people are living on the brink?’ You’re a smart one. And, yes, we could…except for the little problem that I like to call: ‘Everyone loves a crisis’.

Think about this…if you had $5 and you had to give it away to one of the following would you be more likely to give it to an aid worker who is standing in the midst of a lot of starving people saying that your $5 can keep people from dying, or to an aid worker who is standing in a green field with some well fed people who is saying that you should give your $5 to them because these people might starve in the future.

You, and most of the international community, would give it to the first. Nobody wants to be responsible for people dying right now as opposed to taking the responsibility for people who might, or might not, die in a few years time. There’s enough crisis’ right now to deal spend our $5 on! We’ll deal with those well fed people starving when it happens.

So, is humanitarian aid an imperfect system? Yes. Is the entire way that we deal with poverty and food security a bit broken? Absolutely. The problem is this. At the moment there is no alternative. We cannot, in good conscience, abandon the system because people would starve, and suffer, and die and we don’t like to see those images on our TV screens when we’re eating dinner. ‘Someone should do something about
that,’ we would say. So the something we do, while imperfect, falls under the label of ‘food aid’ and ‘food security’ and we try to learn from our mistakes and tweak the way we work as we go along. But until there is a paradigm shift this is the best we’ve got.

P.S. Anyone quotes Jeffrey Sachs in the comments gets a slap in the face.