Monday, March 23, 2009

How's the Malaria?

It's a wonderfully cool (relatively) day here in Yei- rained most of yesterday, and the remaining clouds have blocked out most of the heat, making it surprisingly pleasant. I even wore my long-sleeved Peace Corps Chad shirt most of the day, the first time that's happened since I arrived.

I've been fighting a cold since Friday, which feels like a huge injustice in a place where it's so. damn. hot. (except for today) I understand that it has very little to do with the weather, but it still feels frustrating. It's like something has turned down the volume in my head by about 30 percent on everything, although it's still way too easy to hear the roosters, who begin their roosterly duty at what can't be any later than four in the morning. Whatever, I'll live.

I'm having breakfast this morning, which feels like an extra-special treat now that we have both peanut butter and honey in the pantry, and in walks Joy, our head cook/housekeeper.

"How is your malaria?" she asks.

I pause for a second, setting the spoon down I've been using to drizzle the honey onto the bread.


"You don't have malaria?" She asks, looking a bit confused.

"No, just a cold... But I'm feeling much better now," I respond.

"That's good," she says. "Thank you."

I go back to my roll, and smile a bit to myself. I remember this in Chad, how almost everyone in Gounou-Gaya assumed that whenever someone got sick, it had to, had to, be malaria. There simply wasn't any other disease. Perhaps a broken arm, but that was about the extent of it. Seems as though this is the case here in Sudan too.

It makes sense, I guess. In a place like this, where health education certainly wasn't a priority through almost 25 years of war, it's not a surprise that people's knowledge is limited. And it's true that malaria usually manifests itself as something like a bad cold, at least for most people here: chills, headaches, fatigue, etc.

Most of the people here who survive childhood (and there are plenty who don't) have been exposed to malaria multiple times, and while they certainly haven't developed an immunity, they tend to build up enough of a resistance that it's manageable. A day or two in bed, and they're back on their feet. Not so with me though- coming from North America, if I get it (haven't yet, knock on wood), it'll be bad, and make a cold seem like nothing. I continue to take anti-malarials every morning though, so hopefully things will continue to go well on that front.

On a totally different, but also slightly disturbing note, I'm at the office this morning and hear a sudden, deep rumble. Although it's cloudy, this definitely isn't thunder.

"Did you hear that?" I ask my supervisor.

"Yeah. Sounded like a land-mine," he says, casually. "It was probably a cow."

Holy crap. A land mine? In spite of myself, and feeling bad for doing it, I can't help but smile when I think of an exploding cow. I know how bad that sounds, sorry.

Again, another one of these things that sounds crazy, until you think about the context. The north/south civil war only ended in 2005, and there are still mines all over the place. Nobody seems to know exactly where they are, and there are plenty of no-go zones. As our security manual says:

Stay on the paths.

Anti-tank. There are always anti-personnel mines around an anti-tank mine.

Red-painted sticks or signs: Danger.
White-painted sticks or signs: The area has been cleared.

Other indicators in unmarked areas:
Dead animals.
Uncultivated ground in cultivated areas.
Deserted building in populated areas.
Area marked locally, with piles of rocks, crossed sticks, rocks across a path, empty mine
packaging, injured people.

Marking is the exception, not the rule. In Sudan, there are no maps of where mines were planted. "

Wow. Definitely not in Kansas any more. Unless it's post-apocalyptic Kansas. Several NGOs work around Yei, trying to get rid of the mines, but it's definitely an imperfect science. Given this, I understand why we're encouraged to stay on the paths at all times.

Ah Sudan... the happiest place on Earth.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009


On a completely different, unrelated-to-Sudan note, I want to take a quick moment to remember my great-grandmother, Anne Krum, who died late Tuesday afternoon, aged 105.

Born in 1904, Nonna (as everyone seemed to know her) lived a life that can only be described as remarkable. Immigrating from Poland in the early 1920s, she passed through Ellis Island and eventually settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Graduating high school in just two years, she raised three daughters singlehandedly following the death of her husband. One of them, my grandmother, subsequently cared for her throughout the past several years.

In times when it would be generously described as rare, and less generously as bizarre or a bad decision, she worked full-time, a single mother taking care of children. Years later, she went into real-estate, becoming highly successful, and dividing her time between homes in Miami Beach and Pittsburgh.

As she entered her 90s, it became clear that she needed to be closer to family for health reasons, and she relocated to Florida permanently, first Miami, and later Sarasota, where my father and grandmother live.

It was only after she retired that she became a serious painter. She'd been interested in the early 1950s, but responsibilities and life had gotten in the way. Over the past several years, she produced hundreds of paintings, ranging from large canvasses to hand-painted cards with wildflowers, with phrases written on the inside like "Happy Birthday, Nathaniel. Happy Every Day." Last year she produced a one-person show displayed in Sarasota's main library, and although any sort of travel outside the house was difficult at that point, she received a critical reception from friends and family.

The past few times I've been in Florida have been for big family events like birthdays, bar/bat mitzvahs or holidays. Each time, Nonna would basically hold court in the living room of my grandmother's house, sitting in a comfortable chair while all of us- almost 15 great-grandchildren, a dozen grandchildren (the same people I know as late-40s and mid-50s parents, uncles and aunts) would come sit with her, talk, and get advice. Incredibly intelligent, she had a great way of cutting through the crap, dispensing blunt advice (politely though, at the same time), and always making it clear that despite her physical frailty, an incredibly sharp mind was still there. Seeing my young teenage sisters and cousins sitting and talking with her was always amazing to see, as they seemed to get taller even as she became noticeably smaller.

As a risk-taker, and someone prepared to embrace things that some people might think odd for someone of a certain age or gender, I can't say I was all that surprised when I opened me email one morning a few months ago, to find a message. The subject line: "Anne Krum Added You As a Friend On Facebook."

Nonna, at age 104, joined Facebook. How great is that? Shortly afterwards, a group was formed in her honor, "Fans of Anne Krum, Oldest Person on Facebook." When I checked this morning, there were almost 300 members, from across the world.

As I write this, it's sad, but at the same time, I can't say it comes as a surprise. After going strong for so, so long, she began to decline quickly over the past few months. Yesterday evening, she moved on- we can only hope it was somewhere better.

Goodbye Nonna.

We'll miss you.

With her great-grandchildren, January 2008

Back to Yei

Just arrived back in Yei yesterday, after a week in Juba. It's nice to be back in the 'field,' and certainly in Yei, which is cooler, windier, and much greener than the scorching, dusty, expensive craziness that is the southern Sudanese 'capital.'

It may be nicer, but it's still Sudan, with all the craziness that implies. I logged on to Skype a little while ago, and saw one of my co-workers updates.

"Some Demonstration and Light Shootings in Yei Town."

Apparently war veterans and soldiers are protesting in town, after not receiving pensions and salaries for months on end. It shouldn't be a surprise- this was a regular occurrence during my time in Chad, when teachers would go unpaid for four, five, six months at a time.

A couple thoughts. As I've seen in each of the places I've worked and traveled around Africa so far, there's money around, but it's usually invested in the Mercedes, Land Cruisers, and villas of the elite. Same thing here. As a result, salaries don't get paid, people protest, and soldiers come out to beat and kill them.

Also, it seems bizarre just how casual everyone seemed. Of the local staff at the office, nobody seemed the slightest bit perturbed. Again, I guess I can understand- growing up in a country that's been at war for the better part of its history, I suppose it might make you somewhat more tolerant of situations those of us who grew up in peaceful countries can't understand.

Hopefully things will stabilize by tomorrow, although apparently there's a curfew tonight, with nobody allowed out after 6:00. Not that we're leaving- the head of office doesn't want anyone out of the compound, for obvious reasons. We'll see how things go- I'll post an update if anything changes...

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Few Photos

Here are a few photos from the first couple weeks. Unfortunately they're mostly places and scenery at this point, but I'll try to add more soon...

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Shalom From Juba?

Shalom, Hello and Salaam from the Shalom Hotel in southern Sudan's hot, dry, dusty, and very expensive capital. Seriously, $150 a night, per person in a room that looks as though it was made from a pre-fabricated trailer, and is missing a shower curtain? Fortunately the organization is picking up the tab...

I'm back in Juba for a few days, while we attempt to sort things out, and figure out what happens next. As you may have already read, the organization was among the 13 NGOs kicked out by the Sudanese government from the country. What this effectively has meant is that they're banned from the north and Darfur, as the south is basically independent from the Khartoum government. The southern government, based here in Juba, has made it clear that they want the organization (along with the others that were kicked out of the north but have programs in the south) to stay, and keep working.

It seems as though the dust is beginning to settle, in a sense. It looks as though I'll be staying here as planned, but not necessarily going where I originally thought I'd be. Originally, I was scheduled to be going a little farther north, into what are called (depending on whom you ask) the 'transitional areas,' '3 areas,' or 'provisional areas,' where the north and south collide. Now, it looks like that won't be happening, at least not right away.

I left Yei yesterday morning, taking my first flight on the World Food Program's Humanitarian Air Service. When we arrived at the dirt airstrip on the edge of Yei, I couldn't help but notice a big banner on the side of the 'terminal' (a two room building with a large hanging scale, a few official-looking pieces of paper on the door, and a guy sweeping the floor with a grass broom) for the Delta Connection Frequent Flyer program. Seriously. Not the commuter airline based in Atlanta you might be thinking of though, but Delta as in 'Nile Delta,' and 'Connection' as in a Kenyan airline flying between Nairobi, Entebbe, Juba, and a handful of other places, including Yei. The thought of earning frequent-flyer miles seemed a bit ridiculous, but hey, why not?

Shortly after we arrived, a large group of large Americans arrived, complete with heavy bags, strong Tennessee accents, and some serious Jesus-y fervor. I saw a church nametag, and although they seemed friendly, I was glad they were getting on another flight (yes, more than one airline flies to Yei). While they waited for Eagle Air to take them back to Entebbe, the tiny WFP-HAS plane arrived. Stopping in the dirt maybe 50 meters in front of us, we hauled our bags over and stuffed them into the small luggage bins underneath the single-engine compartment, but only after verifying that our names were on the passenger manifest. Climbing on board, the pilots asked us to move as far to the front as possible, meaning that I was sitting directly behind the pilot, close enough to read the altimeter on his instrument panel. After buckling in and bouncing over a few smallish puddles, the pilot revved the engine, and we raced down the dirt strip, taking off over the trees and grass.

I've been on countless planes over the years, but this was a very different experience- there was a small window almost directly at my feet, a little disconcerting. Flying in planes even smaller than your average regional jet or turboprop in the States feels odd, as you get a much clearer sense of motion, including the side-to-side and rolling sensations that a bigger jet might mask. Fortunately the flight was very smooth, and as a bonus, offered a pilot's-eye (or perhaps pilot's shoulder) view as we touched down in Juba.

Juba is hot. Much hotter than Yei. It's also dirtier, with plastic bottles and cans everywhere, barbed-wire compounds, and the occasional enormous villa, or modern-looking gas station. Supposedly it's one of the world's most expensive cities, which seems crazy until you consider the fact that it's landlocked, full of 'rich' foreigners, and has been until recently the center for any number of battles. Can't say I blame people for wanting to an extra Sudanese pound or two (or a few hundred), but wow.

To get to the Shalom Hotel, just a few minutes from our office, you clatter along a rutted, dusty road, lined with a constant stream of bottles and cans, the odd piece of livestock, and hand-painted signs screaming things like "TRADITIONAL DOCTOR HE CURES OVER 70 DISEASE! HIV/AIDS, MALARIA, DEMENTIA, WOMEN WHO CANNOT PRODUCE, MAN WHO CANNOT PLEASE HIS WIFE" and more. The hotel is basic, as I mentioned, run by a family of Ethiopians, one of whom has perhaps the most perfect gheri-curl I've seen- I think his head might explode from all the product in it if someone lit a cigarette within a few meters. On the plus side, the rooms have blessedly cool air-conditioning, WiFi access (very slow, but functional), and surprisingly good food in the restaurant, including very authentic Ethiopian dishes with freshly-baked injera bread. Given the name of the place, I can't help but wonder if the family has some sort of connection to Ethiopian Jewry, although this seems unlikely, as Sudan isn't the most hospitable to Jews. I guess the south is different, but still. As always, I have to wonder about why anyone would want to leave a more developed, nicer place like Ethiopia to come here and open a restaurant and hotel, but one needs only look at the room rates and the prices on the menu to understand; I'm sure they're making money hand-over-fist around here.

It looks like I'll be in Juba through Tuesday, and then.... back to Yei. Apparently a large group of refugees has just crossed the border from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and the UN is setting up a camp very close to Yei. The plan is to go there and speak with some of them, writing stories (which I'll hope to publish on this page). Things could change again, of course, but for now, that's the plan. I'll try to get some photos posted soon, and as always, welcome your thoughts in the comment section below...

Friday, March 6, 2009

Waiting... But for what?

Very little has changed since yesterday. We're all continuing to hope for the best, but for the moment everyone is basically on hold, while we wait to see what will happen next.

Those of us in the south are basically safe- the authorities here have said they continue to support the presence of the organization (and the others thrown out of Darfur yesterday).

Honestly, this reminds me a lot of how things felt when Peace Corps evacuated from Chad, a constant sense of concern, followed by waiting. It's hard to say what this will mean for the work I've come here to do though. In the best case scenario, it's likely to be delayed significantly; worst-case would probably mean me coming home sooner than planned. If things do end here prematurely, I wonder if it'll be possible to catch on with another organization, perhaps even in a 'real job.' We'll see what happens.

At a meeting this morning, the head of the office told us how more than 200 local staff have now lost their jobs as a result of this. If it wasn't bad enough to be laid off in the current global economy, imagine not only being laid off, but being laid off in Darfur. This is the impact of decisions like the one made by the government yesterday.

A colleague of mine made an interesting point yesterday, for a government is as unconcerned about the ICC's decision as they claim to be, they certainly act as though they're guilty of something...

Ultimately, the thing to remember is that as much as this sucks for the organization, the real victims of this decision are the refugees and internally displaced people in Darfur- they're the ones who depend on NGOs for so much of the little they have. As I said yesterday, they're the ones who will continue to die, and in greater numbers. We can only hope that this decision will be reversed, but frankly, that seems unlikely.

As I know more, I'll post another update. Hope the news is better wherever you are, and I'd welcome any thoughts you might have in the comments section below.

Thursday, March 5, 2009


Just a quick update here, and one where I can't be too specific.

As a general rule, I've been asked to avoid mentioning the name of the organization I'm currently with in Sudan. This is as much to protect the image of said organization (which is based in Portland, and whose slogan encourages you to 'be the change.'), as for security, as the government here is unpredictable.

Not that it really seems to matter much at the moment. Today, the organization, along with nine others, was kicked out of Sudan.

This is presumably in response to the decision by the International Criminal Court yesterday to issue a warrant of arrest for Omar Al-Bashir, the president of Sudan. He's been accused of war crimes in Darfur, including murder, rape, and torture, among others.

In Darfur and in the northern portion of the country, all operations have been suspended. Staff have been consolidated, and the government has seized many of the assets of the organization, including vehicles, computers, and more. Fortunately everyone is OK physically, from what I hear.

In the south, where I am things are mostly unaffected, actually. The government, based in Khartoum, has very little influence over the (unofficially) semi-autonomous south, which has welcomed the continued presence of NGOs, including the one I'm currently with. We're stuck here at the moment, but other than that, it appears that things are likely to go on basically OK once the worst blows over.

For the north and Darfur though, it's another story entirely. In Darfur, millions of people are dependent on NGOs for their basic needs, and this expulsion is likely to mean more misery, and more death, as resources dry up. From everything we've heard, the government is unlikely to reverse its decision anytime soon, so for now, nobody really knows what will happen in terms of the program. One thing is for sure though- more people will die.

I'll try to post another update soon, but for now, check the news. Fortunately, there is little danger to us physically, particularly here. We're hoping for the best, but hard to say what will happen next...