I'm listening to a Rachel Maddow podcast, chatting on Facebook, and had a dinner of chapatis, avocado salad, chicken and lentils about an hour ago. Just watched President Obama's news conference on BBC. That all seems very 2009 American, right?
...Except for the fact that my house is a canvas safari tent, dinner was cooked by Sudanese women with babies on their backs, and the podcast took about 45 minutes to download on the satellite connection.
I'm in Yei, southern Sudan (don't capitalize the 's' in southern, by the way, as it could imply support for secession in the 2011 referendum). It's about 160km southwest of Juba, very close to the borders of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
I've been here a few days now, mostly doing orientation stuff, but getting ready to start work soon. I'll be working in the Information Management Unit for the organization looking at the impacts of economic recovery programs. Mostly it's been an opportunity to meet other members of the staff who happen to be passing through at the moment, find out details of things like the IT policy, and in general, getting adjusted to life here. I'm only sticking around Yei until Tuesday though, then it's back to Juba for one night, and onward to a town called Wunrok, still in the southwest of Sudan, but much farther north than here. I'll be traveling by small plane, thanks to World Food Program's Humanitarian Air Service, which has a fleet going around to tiny airstrips across the region. This is a huge help, as our initial trip from Juba to Yei was rough, to put it mildly. Although it was only perhaps 50 kilometers for the first leg, from Juba to a town called Lainya, the dirt road was full of holes and troughs so big as to feel like each could swallow our Land Cruiser. From Lainya the road became significantly better, still dirt, but smooth enough that I could hold my head in place without feeling as though my neck would snap if I turned the wrong direction.
Our compound in Yei is very basic, but functional. There are a series of concrete buildings with offices for Logistics, Finance, HR/Administration, and my department, Information Management. Behind the offices are a long row of green canvas 'safari tents,' heavy duty shelters built on concrete footings, with mosquito netting on the windows, and locks on the zippers. Off to the side in an enclosed concrete building are three shower stalls (with varying degrees of pressure), a pit latrine, and two Western-style toilets. The entire compound is ringed by a fence of sharp sticks and wire, giving a view of the huts just beyond. It's definitely nothing special, but it's at least functional. There are a few extra creature comforts that make it feel different from my Peace Corps experience- our common dining room has DSTV, a South African satellite network, a badminton net, and we have internet access via another satellite parked in the middle of the lawn. It's slow, but being able to update a blog like this, or browse Facebook is a big step from anything I had when I was teaching English in Gounou-Gaya.
As I imagined it would, life feels a lot like it did in Chad here. It's hot and humid, and at the risk of falling into clichés, people seem very friendly. Except for Lydia, the one-year-old who rides around on the back of one of the housekeepers- I think she hates me. She wails every time I come close... Naturally, I know what the issue is- she hates imperialist American foreign policy.
Seriously, I can only imagine how alien a white person must look to a baby who has only ever seen faces so black that anything this side of ebony would be bizarre. From what I've seen so far, many southern Sudanese people's skin is black to the point where it almost takes on a bluish hue. It'll be interesting to see how that changes as I move a bit farther north, into Dinka territory.
I'm planning on heading into town this afternoon, and I'll try to get a few pictures uploaded soon. Looks like it might be awhile before I have a phone, so go ahead and email, or just find me on Skype (my username is nathanieltishman). Hope things are well wherever you are, and look for another update before long.