Sunday, February 27, 2011

Acts of generosity…

I think that if I pretend that I haven’t ignored this blog for an exceptionally long time and just start writing again that no one will notice…

Today I was struck by several acts of generosity that were conveyed to me for no apparent reason by people who stood nothing to gain by giving them. Let me back up…

I am in Bentiu, Unity State – a state that was ravaged by war, dominated by oil, and is, still, as close to the wild west as you can get in the world today. Different political factions swagger around town with their bodyguards (read: private militias) in shiny suits and land cruises with guns pointing every which way out the window. It is hot, and dusty. At just about any moment you expect a show down to in the open street complete with tumbleweeds and that classic western music. It’s not a place where you expect extreme civility but one is always surprised.

I am helping the Ministry of Labour and Public Service to implement an HR system. That might seem like a mundane task and I suppose it is but it is fascinating to be on the inside of a government as it builds itself. You never really stop to wonder how bureacracies became the way they are but here…in 100 years time when people look back and take it for granted the answer is…me. Well, that might be a bit of an overstatement. It’s me and a bunch of unbelievably civil and dedicated bureaucrats who want systems in place so that people can be paid and services can be delivered. So, today for example when I was delivering letters of introduction I expected a bit of the wild west swagger – bureaucrat style – to be served up to me on a platter and instead there was nothing but extreme civility. Ministers and Directors General who welcomed me to Bentiu, wanted to know about my family, what my name meant, where I’d been in Southern Sudan before, where I was now staying and whether I found it comfortable. In the seventeen ministries I visited – with the sole exception of one – I found nothing but people who were delighted that I was there and who were incredibly excited and supportive of…wait for it…HR administration. I was dumbfounded.

So, I came back to the UNMIS team site, where I currently reside to our ants, and mice, and camp showers, rotted out floors and containers that smell like whatever we last cooked on the hot plate ready to have a quick run and make something else to smell for the next 24 hours. But, that plan got nixed because the Americans were back. Two State Department people who weren’t supposed to be back for several days had returned early. Returned with wine. For Valentine’s day. So, the elections monitors, my colleague and I sat around having wine and talking about nothing in particular. It was nice. The water all goes off at 10 so I excused myself early and went back to my container when there’s a knock at the door. It is Doo-doo (yes, that is actually his name) a wonderful, exuberant man from Namibia who is a devout Muslim and lives in Minnesota but was here to monitor the Referendum. He is holding a towel and then takes out a bottle of wine.

‘Doo-doo,’ I say. ‘Where did you get this?’ Wine, being somewhat easier to come by than, say, uranium in these parts.

‘I bought it,’ he says.

‘But why?’ I ask.

‘For you to drink,’ he says. ‘For Heida.’ (it’s my colleagues birthday in a week).

Again, I was struck by the gesture of civility and kindness extended for no apparent reason. He doesn’t drink, he gains nothing by buying wine for us and yet he bought it for us anyway. There’s something about that which I struggle to explain but it makes me happy anyway.

Sometimes, I wonder on days like these if everything is doomed to go wrong after all. Or if, maybe, there are – even in Bentiu - enough small acts of generosity and civility in the darkest places of the world to save us all.