Thursday, June 25, 2009

Poorest of the poor?

I'm back in Juba, sitting in the dining room at the Shalom Hotel this morning with Taban, one of the accountants for the organization. We're having the standard breakfast of omelettes, fruit salad, and fresh bread. The hotel is owned by Eritreans, so everything can come with a dusting of beri-beri spice (the distinctive flavor you always taste in Ethiopian and Eritrean places), if you ask for it. I do.

We're chatting, and I distractedly keep an eye on CNN– the sound is off, so I can only follow so much– plus, it'd be rude to watch too intently. I swallow a few multivitamins and my daily dose of Doxycycline (an anti-malarial pill), and we continue to talk.

I mention to him that I'm heading home- going to Nairobi this Sunday, London Tuesday, and Florida on Wednesday. I'm excited to be leaving, and I suppose it probably shows. It's not that this has been a bad experience in every way, but it definitely has not been what I'd hoped for. I feel like I've spent the better part of the past five months on a permanent camp-out, and frankly, I feel like I did that for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. In any case, I'm not writing this to rant- that'll be the stuff of individual conversations with some of you.

"I have a brother in the US," Taban says, seemingly out of nowhere. "One in Australia too."

"Really?" I ask, surprised.

"Yes, they were resettled during the war."

"So they came as refugees, right?"

"Yes. The one in America is in Fargo, North Dakota."

I can't help but laugh a bit as I picture an enormously tall, rail-thin Sudanese man who'd never known days cooler than 25ยบ C cruising around in Fargo, a place where I'd imagine 'cold' doesn't begin to do justice to the bone-chilling frozen-ness of the place. Odd how the US government tends to settle refugees in some of the least-expected places. I wonder how they decided on Fargo?

Like many of the Sudanese men and women working for the organization, Taban tells me about how he spent most of the past few decades out of Sudan. He left his village in 1985, as the north-south civil war was at its worst. As we finish our omelettes, he tells me about how people in the village, called Kajo-Keiji, managed to get ahold of an anti-aircraft gun, and shot down one of the north's Russian-built Antonov bombers. Supposedly, the wreckage is somewhere in the nearby mountains. With the war escalating he fled to Nairobi, where he attended university, and became an accountant.

As we talk, I realize something, my own misperception.

One of the things I've noticed, I tell him, is that I think working in this amorphous 'development' thing, it's easy to lose sight of the reality on the ground, and in some cases, that includes the positive. Working to do things like install hand-pumps, distribute seeds, or train people on the proper use of ox-plows, we spend most of our time working with the 'less than one dollar a day' segment of the population.

When all you see are the people who have nothing, it's easy to forget that while this is a large segment of the population in a place like southern Sudan, it's not the only one. There are entrepreneurs, scholars, and professionals, people like Taban. Honestly, it's encouraging. Working with people in villages, providing things that feel incredibly basic, and teaching things that seem so simple, it's easy to lose perspective, and feel like there's no hope for this place. As challenging as things may be here though, there are reasons to feel positive, and the reminder of this sometimes comes in the strangest places- in a hotel dining room, in this case. Taban came home- he tells me about how his brothers have talked about coming back as well, to do what they can to rebuild their country.

I hope they do. Southern Sudan clearly has a very, very long way to go as it moves forward. For the time being, at least, the government and the people here will probably continue to need the support of NGOs, most of which are led by expats. If things work how they're supposed to though, and the goal is to 'build capacity,' (a phrase you see constantly in reports), eventually a new group of Sudanese professionals will be ready to take the helm.

If that happens, I know a good accountant...

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