Monday, August 29, 2011

Field Journal: Guns, Goats and Gospel in Kuajok

I am back in Kuajok for a couple of days, still in the field on my seven-day tour. On a beautiful cool evening as the sun sets and a big moon begins to rise, I listen to the sounds of village life drifting into the compound from the mud-and-stick tukuls on the other side of the tall fence that surrounds us. I smell dung and smoke from charcoal fires. People talking in relaxed tones in Dinka and Arabic, kids laughing, goats bleating and cows lowing, pans clattering as the women get dinner together out in the open air. By comparison, the compound is a dull place to be. Twin generators hum in the background and pump out diesel fumes round the clock; fluorescent pipes strapped to trees throw unnatural light into the shadows. As the sun sets, the program people usually retire to undecorated, air-conditioned prefabs and fire up their laptops to Skype or surf or watch downloaded movies, and the guards at the gate are the only ones left outside.

Earlier I had jokingly suggested to the team leader that we should have a barbeque, and though she seemed receptive, and I had given the compound manager money to buy some beer, it was about dinner time and I didn’t see any signs of a party in the making. So I decided to go for a walk and grabbed a South Sudanese colleague who lives full-time on the compound to go with me. Within minutes I was rewarded by an only-in-Africa scene, as I came up on two boys sitting in grass weaving palm fronds together to make toy machine guns. I snapped a few pictures as they giggled and made gun-fighter poses for me. Down the road a bit, I saw a grizzled woman using a long wooden pole to stir something steamy in a large rusty barrel. My colleague told me she was making an alcoholic sorghum-based homebrew, and I went over to investigate. As I approached, a dozen men drinking the brew and watching a football game under a thatched roof nearby walked over to see what I was up to. They invited me in for a drink but the mop-water color of the liquid, and the bits of matter floating on top, combined with the fact that the brew master was using a dirty branch to stir the stuff in a rusted barrel, prompted me to politely beg off. My colleague, whose hometown is in the far south, close to Uganda, said he has never tried the home brew, either – he wrinkles his nose and says it doesn’t look like something that would be good to drink.

Back in the compound after our walk, I was surprised to find the barbeque getting started, under a full moon. The compound manager had set up tables and chairs, and buckets filled with iced Heinekens, and was grilling a large he-goat, which he had purchased for a few hundred pounds while I was out walking, and then slaughtered, right on the compound grounds. “I saw them bringing the meat in while you were out,’’ said my roommate, a lanky consultant from South Africa who dines exclusively on his own dried meat, called biltong, made of oryx, kudu and springbok that he shoots in Namibia during annual family hunting trips. He brings his wife, daughters, deep-freezers and generators with him in trucks up to Namibia, shoots the game, skins and butchers it in hunting camps, and then returns to South Africa with a few hundred pounds of frozen meat, much of which he then sun-cures on special racks using fans and netting. He saves it for eating while on his consultancy trips to South Sudan, supplemented by a little granola and dried fruit.

I felt a little guilty for suggesting, on a whim, a barbeque that apparently resulted in the immediate death-by-throat-slitting of what had probably been a happy-go-lucky, grass-chewing father goat earlier in the day, but truth be told, the meat was without question the freshest, tastiest I’d ever had in my life. I ate more than my share, and later asked the grill master what he did with the parts he didn't cook. He said he gave the goat skin to the compound cooks, who will use it to make belts, shoes and bags. He gave them the head, also, which they will boil and eat. "The head is the best part," he said. "But I didn't think you would want any."

On Sunday morning I was up early. I’d been asked urgently to draft a lengthy letter on behalf of someone I’ve never met on a matter of some importance. It was my first ever ghost writing commission, aside from several retail-related emails and other correspondence I’ve written on behalf of Tahra (who doesn’t type), and I was nervous about it. As I sat alone in an office pre-fab in front of my laptop at 9 a.m., swatting at a pair of giant, orange-black wasps dive-bombing me and waiting for inspiration, it arrived through my open window in the form of the most amazing live singing I’ve heard since going to JazzFest more than a decade ago. It turns out there is a church behind the compound, and, it being Sunday morning, a choir of what sounded like professional African acapella gospel recording artists was just getting going. I didn’t recognize the songs or the language in which they were singing, but it was magical and I went outside to peer over the top of the fence at them and listen. I could see them, all women, all dressed to the nines in green and orange and lavender and gold, swaying and singing in perfect harmony in front of a huge outdoor congregation, their voices bouncing off the broken brick walls around them.

I listened for a while, went back inside, banged out a kickass two-page letter, and went to lunch.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Field Journal: A Night at the Bahr el Ghazal Hotel, Aweil

On my first night in Aweil, way up north from Juba in the hinterlands in Northern Bahr el Ghazal State, there wasn’t enough room for me in the company compound, so I lodged at a six-month-old hotel called the Bahr el Ghazal. The team leader dropped me there shortly before sundown, and I was on my own – no colleagues or short-term consultants for comraderie, no plans for dinner. Just me and my laptop and Kindle. I had moderately high hopes of having a comfortable stay there, because from the outside the Bahr el Ghazal is a very impressive edifice. At four stories tall, there is no building like it in the entire state. (Incidentally, “Bahr’’ means “river’’ and “el Ghazal’’ can be loosely translated to mean “of poetry.”)

Most of the architecture in Aweil comprises mud-and-stick built tukuls with grass roofs, and bamboo shacks with corrugated tin tops, with a sprinkling of simple brick or concrete buildings here and there. By comparison, the Bahr el Ghazal is a palace. Tinted glass windows on every floor, slate-colored fa├žade, three huge chrome-faced pillars holding up a semi-circular portico in the front. It is located in a gigantic walled and guarded compound, and behind the big hotel are two other new buildings – a large restaurant and conference center made of concrete with marble, glass and tile finishings. I was even told there would be hot water for my morning shower, which put a little perk in my step, though in the morning I would find out it wasn’t true. At the time I arrived, there was no electricity.

I was taken to Room 307 by a porter who carried my backpack, and while walking up three flights of stairs in the semi-dark with him, I noticed a few blemishes. Windows without glass. Cracked, chipped and punctured wall tiles. Small piles of debris in corners. Random smears of spackle, grout and paint on walls, doors and floors. Room numbers were drawn with magic markers in an uneven hand, in different spots on doors. On the floor in front of Room 307 was a dirty tea cup, which made me wonder if it was still occupied, though I hadn’t seen any other customers in the building. The only sound was the slap of our shoes on the floor. It felt like the setting for a scary Scooby-Doo cartoon.

“Like, let’s get out of here, Scoob!”

The porter put my bag down, unlocked the door and showed me around. In the bathroom, which had a rat-sized hole in the wall, the porter vigorously pumped the toilet handle four or five times in rapid succession, to dispose of someone else’s leavings. He demonstrated how to turn on the shower, around which there was no curtain or door to keep spray from raining over the nearby toilet. There was a used loofa mitten (hairs sticking out of it) on a hook -- very convenient for mixing someone else’s dead skin cells with my own. The toilet was missing its seat, and there was a clinical-looking hose with a large metal spray nozzle next to it that gave me shivers. Despite a little roughness around the edges, the room was generally clean and would do for one night.

I settled in and, because it was rapidly becoming dark in the room and there was still no electricity, I took my laptop for company and decided to head down to the restaurant to see about dinner. Inside the cavernous restaurant out back, I could not locate any staff. Though it was definitely dinner time (about 7 pm) I did not see any other customers, nor could I smell food cooking. I seated myself at a table under a large tree to wait for activity. As the sun set, I spotted the manager of the hotel, jumped out of my seat and asked if the restaurant would be open this evening. It was now about 8 pm and I was pretty hungry.

What do you want? he said.

What do you have?

Chicken or beef. With chips? (fried potatoes)

Chicken and chips.

It will be grilled. Unfortunately we still don’t have electricity.

The manager then sat down at my table and we had a brief chat. He acknowledged having difficulty keeping things in order around the hotel, and asked me if I would like to dine upstairs on the restaurant’s balcony. So I walked up with him. A pair of South Sudanese men in business suits were having a drink at another table, but no one else was around. I could see and hear hundreds of small white egrets settling into nearby trees for the night, and hear women singing somewhere. Soon I could hear and smell cooking, too. I looked over a back wall and saw a pair of ladies grilling my chicken over an open fire and frying my potatoes in a pot of oil. Soon, it was completely dark. When a man brought my food up, I asked if he had a candle or lantern for the table, but he just said “No” and walked away.

So I flipped open my laptop and ate by its light, listening to the pulsing chorus of birds, crickets and frogs in the night.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Field Journal: Friday Aug. 12 – The Secretary General

My field trip has been productive so far. In Warrap on Wednesday afternoon, I interviewed a county water/hygiene/sanitation coordinator and got some scoop on a new water source GPS mapping project we're doing with local governments, and how it’s helping improve/expand safe water supplies for people in that state. On Thursday I took a truck drive four hours north to another state, Northern Bahr el Ghazal (NBG), to catch up with a couple of consultants my company has hired to help the state’s Council of Ministers streamline operations, and to assist the Labor Ministry in its overhaul of statewide human resources systems.

On Friday morning, my company’s team leader in NBG grabs me as he’s heading out the gates. “I am going to the Governor’s office,’’ he says. “Come with me. You need to meet the Secretary General.”

Garang Kuot Kuot is the highest ranking civil servant in NBG. He’s also a very important man in state government, with an office right across the hall from the Governor’s. I am told he is a young rising star -- smart, visionary, and respected by the Governor, and that many people have entrusted him with their hope for a corruption-free state that can gradually become capable of delivering public services to the people – clinics, schools, physical infrastructure, agriculture development. Kuot is also a former Lost Boy, one of the thousands of South Sudanese child refugees who fled the killing fields in South Sudan in the late 90s and walked hundreds of miles without food or adults to guide them, to camps in Ethiopia, then Kenya. The Lost Boys airlift landed him in British Columbia, where he graduated high school and then college.

The guards at the Governor’s compound recognize our vehicle and wave us through. We park under a big tree and walk inside a sprawling new, one-story building framed in front with modest flower gardens and carefully trimmed grass yards. Outside there are water tanks, a radio tower, a big satellite dish. We enter the building and turn left toward the SG’s office. In an anteroom, there is a woman sitting at a large desk, a couple of armed soldiers posted near an interior office door, and a group of five to six men in suits standing and apparently waiting to see Kuot. My colleague and I approach the door and ask to see the Secretary General.

“He is very busy today,’’ someone clucks at us, shaking his head.

“We just need to give him some papers.’’

More head shaking. “He is very busy. You will have to come back.”

The door opens and, by luck, the SG himself is there, escorting a pair of men in business suits out of his office. He is built like a linebacker, over six feet tall, perfect teeth, handsome and well dressed in a black tailored suit. He greets my colleague and I warmly and quickly ushers us into his large office. He sits down behind a massive desk cluttered with stacks of paper, two laptops, three cell phones, pads and pens.

I realize I will only have a few minutes with him and have come with some prepared questions, but get only half-way through my first when his door opens to admit people who are much more important than we are. In the course of 20 minutes, we are interrupted approximately four times by people who absolutely have to see the Secretary General immediately, including the Minister of Finance. Kuot’s three cell phones chime in various ring tones throughout the stop-start conversation, and in between answering my questions, he gives serious-sounding instructions in different languages to a range of needy information seekers.

My final question for him is a softball: Are we helping in NBG?

He cleared his throat and clasped his hands in a thoughtful steeple under his chin.

“Teach me to use a net, I catch my own fish. Give me the fish, I come to you for another,” he said, modifying the Chinese parable to illustrate that our company’s collaborative, learn-by-doing approach is helping build his government’s capacity instead of feeding into the dependency cycle.

Boom. It was a grand slam of a sound bite. Time to get out. Look for this guy on CNN soon. As my ex reporter’s goose bumps subsided, I slapped my notebook shut and Kuot walked us to the door while charismatically greeting four new suits walking in.

Apparently he gets a lot of work done on weekends.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Field Journal: Thursday Aug. 11 - Kuajok to Aweil

1030 a.m.

I have just had my first of what will be seven cold morning showers. There are no functional hot water heaters in the prefabs in the field. So I gingerly soap selected parts and contort my body into awkward poses while conducting surgical-strike rinses, punctuated by sharp intakes of breath and exhaled expletives. I’m out of the shower in 90 seconds and feel marginally cleaner. I spent the night in a one-room prefab with a buddy from Madagascar who is also in the field for a while, working on contracts stuff. We had our own beds, and the generators were working so we had the AC on. Interestingly, I realized in the morning that the fuzzy blanket I snuggled under all night under has a giant green marijuana leaf design on it. I am guessing the procurement people did not realize this.

My roommate and I are both heading to the same place today – up to Aweil, in Northern Bahr el Ghazal, which is about a four hour drive north on bad dirt roads. We load up some materials needed by people in the compound up there, which include chains and a couple of boxes of “pangas’’ – curved knives made by local blacksmiths out of scrap metal, which are used for cutting down crops like sorghum and maize. My company does a lot of work with crop and vegetable farmers.

We strike out on the road in a mud-splattered white Land Cruiser. I notice how much greener everything is compared to when I was up in May, when the landscape was brown and brittle looking. I understand now why many people say South Sudan has the capacity to become the breadbasket of Africa. There is tall green grass as far as the eye can see, in every direction, and stretches of wetlands from daily rains where, in April, there was just brown dust and dirt, and thirsty-looking, thorny acacia trees. Mostly absent previously, birds are ubiquitous now, too - ibis, storks, tiny scarlet, blue, orange and black birds that look like finches, water fowl. The crows in Sudan have white shawls splashed across their backs and wings, and the starlings here have orange beaks.

Everywhere, small clusters of crops have been planted in close around the tukols, whose thatched roofs poke up out of the fields like wizard hats. It’s mostly tall maize and sorghum, both staple grains that are used to make a kind of porridge that is taken with almost every meal. But there also are ground nuts, okra and sesame growing out here. And there are tall palm trees with leaves that look like saw palmetto and small coconut-like fruits that have bright orange meat inside; I saw some kids munching on the palm fruit while walking to school along the road. I see melon and squash plants, too.

It’s a bumpy and long but mostly uneventful drive. We pass thousands of small herds of cows and goats, many tended by small children. The one exciting moment comes when, in the middle of nowhere, we see a crowd of spear and stick-waving people running fast, en masse, up the center of the dirt road, in the same direction as us. We can hear the women ululating “ay-yay-yay-yay-yay-yay-AAAY!’’ and some singing, and laughing and dancing.

I get out to snap a few pics and the mob stops to oblige me, shaking their spears and sticks and smiling.

I ask our driver what that was all about.

“They are campaigning for a leader,” he said.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Field Journal: Wednesday Aug. 10 - Juba Airport

8:00 a.m.

I am sent to the field for seven days to observe some of our programs and to collect string for the upcoming annual report, which I have been tasked with drafting. I have one backpack and a laptop bag for luggage. You are allowed to take very little on World Food Programme flights. It’ll take about an hour to fly north to a town called Wau, in Western Bahr el Ghazal, where I’ll be picked up in a truck and then driven north two hours on horrid dirt roads to our compound, in a town called Kuajok, in Warrap State.

My flight is delayed by 1.5 hours - who knows why. Delays and cancellations of flights on the humanitarian airline are common. The time goes fast, though. I've found a comfortable, cushiony seat to settle in with a copy of one of the local Juba dailies, called The Citizen, just like my hometown paper in the Keys. The Juba Citizen is a bit different though. It’s a tabloid, not a broadsheet, for starters. And the dots for the i’s in “Citizen’’ are little red, inverted rhinos. The front page top-of-the-fold story is about the swearing in of South Sudan’s first Members of Parliament (MPs); I am astonished to learn there are 332 MPs in all – it seems an awful lot for a country of nine million people, and this edition of the paper includes a long editorial criticizing the seemingly excessive number of new legislators. I read the paper cover to cover, hand it to the South Sudanese man sitting next to me, and start the latest “Dexter’’ novel on my Kindle. The serial killing story set in South Florida, which features cannibals, makes me wistful and long for home.

Between chapters I glance up at the Arabic news broadcast on the corner TV and check out my fellow travelers. The waiting room is cramped, warm and damp from humidity and human breathing. There is a smell of jet fuel, diesel, body odor and cologne. Mostly African men in business suits, some tall and beautiful women draped in dazzlingly colorful dresses and scarves, but some scruffy Western relief/development types, too -- young women in baggy clothes with nose rings and frizzy hair, guys with beards, cargo pants and ball caps. And me.

My plane is called and I get in line for the shuttle out to the little white-and-blue WFP jet. I haven’t been out to the field since before Independence, since we pulled most of our staff out due to fears of militia incursions and related insecurity challenges, including skyrocketing fuel and food prices resulting from the north's invasion of Abyei and the border closure. It’s supposed to be safe now. I’ll know soon enough.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

My First Boda Ride

I was running late for football practice with my team, F.C. Babel. (F.C. = “Football Club” and “Babel” because so many languages are spoken – we have Brits, a Canadian, a Welsh guy, Lebanese, Italian, Americans, South Sudanese, Kenyans, Ivory Coast etc..). Practice starts at 630 pm at the UN peacekeepers’ base, less than a mile away. Sometimes I’d run there, but it’s awkward jogging with a backpack, and on this evening, I didn't have enough time. So I worked up my courage and decided to take my first boda-boda motorcycle taxi ride.

I’d wanted to try a boda for a while but wasn’t sure how it worked – i.e., I didn’t know if the fee is negotiated first, or would they tell me how much after arriving at the destination? Are the drivers ethical, or would they see me as a wealthy expat and charge exorbitantly? Also, over the past couple of months, I hadn’t seen any expats taking the bodas, just locals – what’s up with that? Would they even accept me as a fare? And how do I choose which boda to go with – typically they line themselves up, 5-10 of them together, and seem to wait to be chosen, possibly based on the shininess and/or bling of their rides. (When parked, the boda guys are almost always washing/polishing and detailing their colorful, tricked-out motorbikes.) And then, for me, there was also this: Did I really wish to perch myself on the rear of a small, cheaply-made, fast-moving machine and sit in intimate proximity to a strange young man clamped between my legs? And what to do with my hands - grip the driver’s shoulders? Wrap my arms around his chest or waist? NOT BLOODY LIKELY.

But I had to get to practice in 10 minutes, so it was time to man up. If I acted like I knew what I was doing, I thought, maybe it would work out. So here’s what I did.

I strode rapidly from my residential compound, jumping over mud puddles, out to the main tarmac road. Head down to avoid saying a ludicrous number of hellos. (Though I’ve never felt threatened or intimidated here, I draw a lot of stares when I’m out on foot, and I find myself over-greeting.) At the tarmac road, I spotted some bodas 25 yards up the hill, my side of the road. I stopped and looked at them and raised one arm in an impatient wave. I also put on a slightly annoyed-looking face, as if to say – “Why am I waiting so long for you boda guys – can’t you see I’m in a rush?”

It worked. One of them quickly fired up his ride and zipped down to me. When he stopped I said “I need to go to UNMIS. Five pounds, yeah?” (About $1.75) The guy nodded. He was shorter than I, and skinny, and wore a black knit ski cap. Somewhere, he had rigged up a radio – I could hear music coming from his little orange and green, Chinese-made motorbike. I put one hand in a manly grip on his right shoulder to steady myself while I saddled up behind him with an awkward hop and step onto a foothold. Then I put my hands behind me, tightly gripping the chrome handle on the back of the padded seat. We wobbled a little as we took off, waiting for some Land Cruisers and trucks to careen past us down the hill, and I squeezed the seat with my thighs and leaned forward a little to keep my balance.

Why are the motorbikes called bodas? Apparently, bicycle taxis in East African border regions between Kenya and Uganda were the original bodas. The bikes were used to ferry people across the no-man’s land between border posts without the paperwork required when using motor vehicles to cross the international border. It seems to have started in the town of Busia, on the Kenya/Uganda border, where there is about a half-mile between gates - bicycle taxis would shout out “boda-boda!” (“border to border!”) to potential customers. Gradually, cheap Chinese and Indian-made motorbikes became more commonly used as inexpensive taxies in big cities like Kampala, Uganda and Nairobi, in Kenya, and spread to southern Sudan. Now there are boda motorbikes all over the place in Juba.

Ahhhh. We were in the flow of traffic, going downhill, the pleasant buzz of the motor mostly drowning out the African music on the driver’s hidden transistor radio. Everything was going great, my driver was cautious, not going too fast and staying in the right lane, slowing down at the slightest hint of trouble. I was feeling pleased with myself riding to football practice on the back of a boda, when I spotted a large herd of bulls coming towards us.

Yes. A herd of cattle -- some of them with very large horns -- was just a little ways ahead, in the road, on our side of the road, walking toward us and filling up both of the lanes. Cows used to be able to cross the road easily, but around independence, a few weeks ago, the city installed barbed wire in the median separating the uphill and downhill lanes – and now the cows can’t cross, so they were walking up the road looking for a way to get across. My driver slowed, wove in between some other cars backed up by the herd, and then, continued driving – weaving his way around the large animals, most of which moved out of our way, though at one point I had to lean precariously far to my left to avoid being impaled by the saber-like horns of a big white bull. After a couple of tense minutes, we were free of the herd, sans flesh wounds, and buzzed down the bumpy dirt road to the entrance of UNMIS. I hopped off, pulled a five-pound note out of my sock, said thanks, and arrived at training precisely on time.