Thursday, June 16, 2011

Road Warrior

Musa is a young Maasai warrior-in-training from a village about 450 kms outside Nairobi. Today though, he has put aside his spear to make a few bucks as my driver, translator and shopping wingman while I’m in Nairobi on a 10-hour layover. I am embarking on the first of three scheduled “post rotation” trips home. In the middle of preparations to leave, I receive an unexpected bonus – my boss tells me to take an extra few weeks in the States due to mounting security problems in Sudan. It seems a relief worker recently was shot at during a drunken attempt to carjack her vehicle; also the northern army last week opened a new front on the border, invading and bombing Southern Kordofan in an attempt to push southern-aligned people out in advance of partition on July 9th. My company has cautiously decided to thin out the staff a bit during the buildup to independence, just in case.

A Kenyan colleague who works in our Nairobi office suggests I hire Musa to take me around. I meet him in the afternoon on Friday, after my flight gets in from Juba. Musa is about my height with a round face, short hair and a day’s worth of stubble. He is dressed for city work in jeans and a white polo and drives a silver four-door compact. My plan for the afternoon is to shop a couple hours, then have dinner at what is supposed to be a good Indian place, and get to the airport around 7 pm, about 3.5 hours ahead of my flight. Musa is affable and easy to talk to, and says it’s no problem. He knows I want to look for locally-made items and takes me to a store where crafts are hand-made by disabled Kenyans, who benefit from the shop’s sales. I had wanted to pick up presents in Sudan before leaving but could not find a gift-oriented market or any place selling arts/crafts of any kind, anywhere in Southern Sudan, except for one tiny shop in Juba called The Roots Project. The only toys I ever saw kids playing with were used rubber bike tires (rolled by stick-wielding boys up and down dirt roads), and once I saw two kids pulling small cars made from milk boxes with bottle cap wheels.

In Nairobi, though, at the store for disabled people, I find good stuff, including a bracelet made out of safety pins and green electrical wire and little animal pendants made out of scraps of Orange Fanta soda cans, for the kids. Musa next says he’ll take me to “Maasai Markets,” a big open-air crafts market that sets up in different parts of town on different days of the week. On the way there he apologizes for not wearing his traditional Maasai garb, which he sometimes does when driving Westerners around. He mutters a reason but I don’t catch it and tell him not to worry about it. We reach our next destination, which has the look and feel of an upscale mall in New Jersey. Big food court with stone fountains, tile flooring, recessed lighting, potted plants and flowers, plate glass store windows filled with expensive jewelry, watches, ceramics. Well-heeled Western, African and Asian clientele walking around sipping lattes and smoothies.

“This is the Maasai Market?” I ask, thinking maybe Musa decided I looked too much like a mall guy to take to a real market.

“It’s in the back,” he says.

There, behind the mall, an area about the size of a football field is packed with 500 vendors lined up in rows under a giant canvass roof, selling hand-made goods ranging from blankets and quilts, wood carvings and paintings, pottery and painted gourds, to jewelry, toys, bags, clothes, drums and wooden instruments – you name it. I go about two steps before a vendor reaches out to physically stop me, inviting me to look at his stuff. I politely demur but am pawed at gently and hopefully, again and again, by many merchants, and even followed around for a while by a guy who really wants to sell me a string of old magenta glass beads. He is tailing me and scribbling down figures on a tiny pad, scratching them out and then scribbling lower figures, tugging my forearm to get me to look at his pad but I keep walking. Musa is taking his cues from me. If someone gives me a price, I go through a process of asking them for “best price?” and they pretend to reflect seriously for a few seconds before citing a lesser amount; then Musa pretends to be staggered and asks in Swahili for the real best price and gets a couple hundred shillings knocked off, and then it’s my turn again. In the middle of our excursion the rain comes pouring down, and the tent leaks in many places, causing the vendors to whip out plastic sheets to cover their wares. Musa tells me the rain is not good for traffic.

I can only stand so much shopping even under the best of circumstances, so I’m done in less than an hour, after picking up two large pieces of brightly patterned fabric; a green antique glass bead necklace with a silver metal pendant; a toy helicopter made out of metal wire and yellow Tusker beer bottle caps and a toy snake made out of multi-colored soda bottle caps and painted wood. We boogie for the exit and the guy with the magenta beads is on me again with his pad for one last try. “Next time!” I tell him without making eye contact.

My flight out isn’t until 1030 and it’s too early to eat dinner, so I ask Musa just to take me to the airport, figuring I can grab a bite there with plenty of time to spare. Musa approves. “People panic when it rains, the roads are no good, it’s good to start early.”

It is 430 p.m. and only 15 kilometers to the airport, I remind myself repeatedly – NO WAY I CAN’T MAKE IT to the airport in the next five hours, right? But we are entering a traffic jam of biblical proportions. At one point, out of sheer desperation after inching forward about a quarter of a mile in three hours, I roll down my window to ask a driver on the left: “Would you mind backing up a few kilometers so we can get over to the left lane?” To which the driver responds: “Kilometers?” Eliciting an apology from me and the correct unit of distance, accompanied by my explanation: “I have to get to the airport,” to which the other driver would politely reply: “What time is your flight?” and amazingly back up a few meters, allowing us to complete a 20-point turn in bumper-to-bumper so we can eke sideways in front of him and around the tail of a giant bus belching diesel fumes straight into our non-air-conditioned car. At one point, we would briefly join a motorcade of diplomats in black Mercedes Benzes with bodyguards who jump out to threaten other drivers to move out of the way. The motorcade helps us move about 100 feet up a hill, but then the Mercedeses start going the wrong way up the highway on the opposite side from us, and we decide not to follow any more. Maybe we should have.

Steering one-handed through traffic that follows no actual pattern or regulation of any kind, and which seems to be actually worsened by the few police officials willing to stand in the rain to do anything, Musa explains that the source of the problem is the rain, which has caused apparently all of Nairobi’s six million inhabitants to leave work early, at once – combined with the horribly designed road system which involves a series of unregulated roundabouts, or traffic circles, which suck vehicles into a vortex from which there is no return. There is no way to get to the airport without going through the roundabouts, and there are six of them between us and the airport, Musa says.

As we inch forward over the next five hours, Musa receives upwards of 200 calls on his cell and successfully closes a rental deal involving a Somali friend and a landlord he knows in town. He uses his phone to wire some money to his dad, who lives in a house made of cow dung, soothes an angry client named Linda who requested a driver hours ago that Musa could not provide, and calls a cousin on the police force to find out a traffic captain is two roundabouts ahead, which means things should be flowing better up there, don’t worry. As I watch hours one, two, and three tick away on the dashboard clock, I go through various psychological stages. “Hey we’re moving again,” I observe joyfully after we move 10 feet during a good hour. I find some newspapers in the back of Musa’s car and Musa looks over my shoulder for a while, reading along with me as we sit in traffic. We converse about Bin Laden’s demise and Musa shares a story about a terrible cow-eating lion back home named Osama.

Musa entertains me by finding radio stations that conduct “gotcha” phone call setups with men cheating or willing to cheat on their wives and then by outlining what it takes to become a Maasai warrior (he makes it sound easy, noting he’ll have to spend time surviving alone in the mountains, demonstrate to elders that he’s never turned his back to run from someone wielding a weapon, and a few other things) and regales me with stories of wildlife encounters involving water buffaloes, hippos and lions (once, when stuck in a stand-off with a lioness with cubs at night, Musa built a statue out of stones and left his torch burning beside it so the lion would think he was still there and not follow him home.) I don’t have stories to match his -- he also teased hippos with sticks to get them to chase him on the riverbanks -- but I share my Smoky Mountains bear story anyway.

Somehow, by cutting through badly clogged streets in downtown Nairobi, Musa is able to get me past the six impossibly plugged roundabouts and to the airport by 930, after a nearly five-hour battle with the traffic. Musa and I congratulate each other. “You are calm,” he says appreciatively, as we near the airport. “You will make your flight.” I have pre-printed my boarding passes so it doesn’t take me long to check in. I am exhausted but ecstatic to be on my way home. It has been nine weeks and the anticipation of seeing my girls and Tahra has me standing in line to board the plane with a fat smile that won’t go away.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Confident Children

It's a sunny Saturday morning and I head out to interview Cathy Groenendijk, a woman who helps street kids in Juba. I met her at a Hash race when she was raising money to pay school fees for some of the children.

The driver is busy and I’m running late. It takes five or six phone calls with Cathy to coordinate the meeting time and place. Finally I am dropped in front of a travel agency. Soon I receive another phone call.

“Tim where are you?”

“I’m in front of Muthaiga Travel agency.”

“I’m down by Quality Hotel near the boda-boda (motorcycle) guys. Can you walk toward the hotel?”

I find Cathy soon and she greets me warmly. She is short with braided hair and glasses and has a friendly, warm smile. She is from Uganda originally and came to South Sudan five years ago with a Dutch NGO called War Child. On a five-minute walk down a shady dirt road toward a house she is building for homeless street girls, she tells me how she became frustrated by the slow pace and indirectness of the intervention on behalf of damaged children by the bigger NGOs. She thought a smaller organization unencumbered by layers of bureaucracy could move faster and help more children. She spoke to some friends and contacts and launched her own NGO, Confident Children Out of Conflict ( An official in one of the new ministries of the Government of South Sudan liked her approach and awarded her a small grant to get started. She picked up donations and cultivated a cadre of volunteers.

Then she went into the markets to find the children she was previously unable to help. The little children are there, begging, picking through trash and digging through drains and ditches looking for food scraps thrown out by vendors and restaurants. At night they sleep in the dirt on the side of the road; children as young as four, five, six.

Homeless, here, doesn't mean that kids live in a shelter. It means THEY HAVE NO PLACE TO SLEEP AND NO ONE TO CARE FOR THEM. When she finds them they are filthy, sick and starving. They do not go to school because there is no one to pay the fees. Confident Children runs a day “drop in” center on Hai Malakal, across from the Mine Advisory Group’s main offices, where homeless children can eat, bathe, wash their clothes and rest in the shade during the day. Cathy and volunteers serve three meals a day there, seven days a week to the poorest and most vulnerable children. Without this food the children would probably starve; spoiled scraps from the market’s trash cans and drains are not enough to live on.

As we talk we walk by a large house on a hill. Cathy says it is the home of an Episcopalian Bishop by the name of Enok Tombe. The Bishop donated about an acre of gently sloping, grassy hillside surrounded by an iron fence topped with razor wire. Cathy is building a house here that will eventually house 25-30 street girls. “We were lucky to get this land," she says.

Here I meet some of the homeless girls. They are playing with balloons in the shade under a jacaranda tree, about ten of them; the oldest looks to be maybe 15 and the youngest, possibly five. They are happy to see Cathy. The younger kids are playful but the teens seem weary and sad. More so than the younger girls, they know that tomorrow is not likely to be much better than today.

The girls are so young and thin. I ask again – ok so where are they going tonight, where will they go? I cannot wrap my head around the fact that girls younger than my own daughters are literally taking care of themselves in one of the poorest and most dangerous countries in the world. I am looking at a girl of about five, covered in dust with a bandage around an ankle playing with a blue balloon.

“They sleep in different places, outside, usually near the market. If it is raining they might go on someone’s veranda until the morning.”

A young British man and a Western woman with a pained expression on her face are just leaving – volunteers perhaps. The British man tells me he works in the rural states, and is just visiting Juba. He seems dazed and subdued. “You see hungry children out there too but the level of squalor here….it just seems inhuman.” Apparently Cathy had taken them to see where the kids sleep and where they scavenge for food.

I take some pictures and draw a crowd of kids with my camera as Cathy gives me a tour of the cinderblock house, which has an attractive red and silver metal roof. It feels solid, with good light, and has cinderblock bathrooms, detached. It was started with money from the government grant, and a group of Canadian contractors are donating their labor at no cost, working on it as they have time, around their regular day jobs. Cathy has finagled most of the building materials as in-kind contributions and estimates about $80,000 more is needed to finish it. The money will go to put in a solar electric system with a backup generator and to dig a borehole (well) for water. She also needs to put in toilets, plumbing, a gas tank and an oven for cooking. An NGO has promised beds already. Cathy tells me the girls often beg her to move into the house right now, and as we are speaking, three of them sweep away some dirt and lie down on the cool tile floor in the unfinished bedroom. Cathy can’t say how long it will take to finish; it depends on funding.

The plan eventually is to plant a large vegetable garden to include maize, corn, cucumbers, lettuce and spinach, along with a huge field of coriander to sell to markets and vendors. She also wants to teach the girls to bake cakes for sale. The children will go to school and learn how to make a living and/or grow food to eat. Right now, they have no way to earn money other than to sell themselves. Some of the girls are already involved in the sex trade.

As we walk out of the property, one of the younger girls, Margaret Dokia, who looks about five, tells Cathy she needs to get a car so she can drive everyone around.

“I will be your car,” Cathy says, slinging the little girl onto her back and walking up the dusty road.