Saturday, May 23, 2009

Message From An Old Friend

I've been trying for the past couple months, but I was finally able to get through to Marc, my friend and 'host father' while I was with the Peace Corps in Chad. He was my next door neighbor and close friend for the almost 21 months I lived in Gounou-Gaya, a small town in the southwestern portion of the country, not far from the Cameroonian border.

I've wanted to speak with him for awhile now, to tell him about my new job in Cameroon, and how I'm hoping to come back to Chad at some point to visit him, if I can. We haven't spoken since last summer, something I feel really guilty about- I keep meaning to, but something gets in the way, or I'm suddenly off in a place with no phone reception for a month at a time. In any case, the Zain Prepaid gods are cooperating in both Yei and Gounou-Gaya this morning, and my call miraculously goes through.

It's great to catch up with Marc, and we exchange the usual greetings, the endless ritual of "ça-va" ing ('How's it going?' in French), cut short for the phone. He says it's great to hear from me. I tell him about the new job in Yaoundé, and he sounds genuinely excited to hear about it. I hear him explaining it to his wife, Valaddi, in Musey, their native language. I've forgotten the little bit I knew, but I manage to hear 'ça-va-Oui, au Soudan," and "Yaoundé.'

"I wanted to call you earlier to tell you," Marc says in French, "but I didn't have your number."

"Yes, I've been moving a lot," I answer.

"J'ai perdu ma fille en Janvier," he says. 'I lost my daughter in January.'

I freeze. I remember each of Marc's daughters well. Tang-Ira, (aka Tanga), the oldest, who was about eight years old when I lived in Gounou-Gaya. I remember helping her get enrolled in the private Catholic primary school in the village, run by a group of nuns. Ka-Idi, two years younger, started school at the same time, with the cutest wide smile, and always wearing a brightly covered headscarf, to look more like her mother.
Hophyra, the mischievous four-year-old (at the time) who used to run up to me and clutch my leg- I remember her telling her father one night that she wanted to go to school for the bouille, the milky-peanut porridge that all the little kids got for lunch, and watching Marc laugh uproariously. And Dakassia, just around two-and-a-half when I left; I remember how she would poke her head inside the covered patio of my house, looking for me, saying 'Nyah-ne-nehl,' and waving. I had an American flag pattern hacky-sack I got from the US embassy in N'Djamena that she and I used to play catch with; I'd toss it, and she'd fling it back at me, as hard as a two-year-old could.

"Ç'était qui?" I ask, wishing I didn't have to find out. Who was it?

"Ma fille, Dakassia," he answers.

"Oh Marc, I'm so sorry," I say. "Do you know what happened?"

"We think it was malaria."

"My condolences, Marc. Thank you for telling me."

We talk a few minutes more, but I feel like I don't really have much else to say. The thought of his daughter dying hangs over me, and doesn't really make me want to continue chatting.

Less than a month ago, in this same space, I wrote about what it'll be like when I go back to Chad to visit, and how much I was looking forward to seeing Marc and all of his children again. Of all his children, I feel like I was the closest with Dakassia, and found myself smiling to imagine the cute little girl she'd be by now, possibly just starting CP1, the first year of school. Instead, she's dead, of a disease that can be prevented so easily. One more casualty that didn't need to happen.

In Chad, one in five children is expected to die by the age of five; it's the brutal reality of life in that corner of the developing world. The World Health Organization says that almost 2,400 people die of Malaria in Africa every day, the majority of them children under the age of five. I've known about these statistics for years, internalized them, and always thought about how tragic they are. Until today though, they'd just been numbers, and I never had a face to put with them. Now, picturing Marc sitting with all the other men at the place mortiere, the traditional gathering in southern Chad after a death, where everyone arrives and sits quietly with the mourners. Nothing needs to be said- the sense of grief is palpable, and shared.

Objectively, it makes sense- Marc had five children, so statistically, it was probably going to happen. That doesn't make it fair, or right though. I wish I'd known sooner, and I wish there was a way I could have done something to help. Crass at it may sound to say this, it's too late for his daughter, but there are still ways to get involved and work to stop the spread of Malaria. I've included a few links to major NGOs and campaigns working to do things like distribute treated bed-nets, and promote education campaigns, key steps in the fight against the disease.

I may be in Sudan, but today, my thoughts are in a small Chadian village. It was great to speak with Marc this morning, but I still wish I hadn't heard such terrible news. I hope I'll have the chance to see him before long, and the rest of his kids- when I do though, someone, a little girl, will be missing.

I'll remember though...

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Lesson in Aweil

The past few days have been mercifully cool (for Sudan); the sun has been blocked by dust, and although it means a fine layer of greyish-brown particles on everything, it still beats the consistent awfulness that is 42º (about 107ºF) without air-conditioning. I'm still in Malualkon, but will be heading back to Juba tomorrow (assuming the plane will land with the dust) for a few days, and then off to Yei.

On Saturday, I take a day trip to the town of Aweil, about a 45-minute drive down the surprisingly good road from Malualkon. Aweil is the state capital of Northern Bahr-el-Ghazal, and has things like cell-phone reception, a couple two-and-three story buildings, and a stand in the market that sells oranges, grapefruits, hot peppers, cabbage, and more. I go with Ellie, a British woman working for an NGO affiliated with the organization, and six Dinka and Nuer men. Their NGO does journalism-related work, and the guys are all going to town to cover a rally for the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), the dominant political party around here.

When we get to the rally the guys jump out of the Land Cruiser to go and gather stories, leaving Ellie and I to wander around town a bit. We try to see, but the crowd is huge, and short Dinka men are generally at least six feet tall, so it's a pretty hopeless effort. At the podium, the speaker is shouting in either Dinka or Arabic, making the speech completely incomprehensible. Ellie and I try to make our way through, around the rear of the podium stand, so we can get out to the main road. A fleet of Land Cruisers with mirrored windows is parked behind the podium, the getaway cars for all the 'big men' once the rally is over. As we walk along, people stare at us incomprehensibly- the idea of a khawaja walking through this place, two even, including one with bright red hair (not me), is more than a little bizarre.

We escape the rally, and walk through the main street towards the center of town. The road is lined with enormous trees, one of the few remaining vestiges of the colonial era, when Aweil was a British settler town- supposedly a spur of rail line still exists, although it hasn't worked in decades. Within 200 meters though, after passing both SPLM headquarters, and the office for the National Congress Party (President Bashir's) we realize that virtually everything is closed- the rally has shut down almost the entire town. Deciding the best option is simply to wait it out, we make our way to a quiet café where we can relax under the trees. After about 90 minutes we hear the wail of a police siren, an odd noise for this part of the world- the rally is over, and the important people are off to their next destination. Within about 15 minutes, Aweil comes back to life. The shops reopen en masse, and the reporters arrive at the café, where we share a lunch of roasted meat with tomatoes and onions, beans, and chapatis, all surprisingly good.

Now that the markets have reopened, we decide to take a walk through town, with the guys. People stare just as much as before, but having an involuntary escort of six enormous Dinka and Nuer men seems to keep some of the harassment we might otherwise get at bay. We walk past stands filled with Chinese-made purses and backpacks, enormously long colorful dresses for enormously long Dinka women, and the ubiquitous plastic zipper-top storage bags with printed designs of LONDON (featuring a picture of Big Ben), NEW YORK (with the Statue of Liberty), PARIS (the Eiffel Tower), and SEE THE WORLD (with a bald eagle mid-flight).

Continuing through the market, we move into the electronics section, where dozens of cassette player/boomboxes sit, most with styrofoam bracing on each side, wrapped in very dusty plastic. Following that, we come to a long row of spice merchants, selling dried chilies, crystal salt, and other spices and powders I couldn't possibly identify. As the spice sellers come to an end, the dried fish section begins, and the putrid stench almost makes me gag. Strands of semi-cured Nile Perch stand on the table, some braided together into something almost resembling the conical shwarma kebabs you can buy throughout Europe and the Middle East. We walk through as quickly as possible, fortunately before my nausea gets the best of me.

Jacob, Luka, and Nyol, three of the guys, want to go and smoke sheesha, flavored tobacco in hookahs, so we follow them to a coffee shop. Crowds of men sit gathered under the tin pavilion as boys run back and forth carrying fresh pipes, hoses, and more charcoal. Along the side wall a woman is making Nescafé, hibiscus, black, and mint tea in small glasses. Not wanting to smoke, Ellie and I sit at the edge of the café by the door, and order two glasses of mint tea, which arrive a moment later. Fresh mint floats inside the glass, and the first sip brings an intense minty-sugary wave.

As we sit and watch people go by, we both notice perhaps a four-year-old a boy walking across the path from the shop. He's barefoot, and the pants he wears may as well be non-existent; huge gashes have split both the front and back. He stops for a moment, looks at the two of us, and begins to climb a rack of pipes sitting along the path. As he climbs, the non-existent pants begin to slip down, and he quickly jumps off, shoots an embarrassed look at us, and scoots away. We watch for a bit longer as the guys smoke. A kid walks by, carrying an enormous burlap sack on his head.

"These kids work so hard," Ellie says. "Can you imagine? Never a day off."

"No, I couldn't begin to," I answer. "If you ever need any reminder of how good you have it, just look around."

I find myself thinking of a story Ellie tells me earlier in the day about Luka, who is missing three fingers of his right hand, leaving only the index finger and thumb. His left hand is complete, but there are massive stretches of scar tissue along each side of his wrist.

"It's an amazing story, really," Ellie says. "He was hiding with a group of children when the government attacked. Someone threw a hand grenade into the hut, and Luka grabbed it, to protect the kids. He was able to get it out and start to throw it away, but just as he threw, it went off."

"All of these guys," she says, gesturing at the three smoking sheesha, "they were all probably child soldiers."

On some level, I understood that time-wise, that'd make sense, but as I think about it, I realize that I can't begin to imagine. I've been so fortunate to live my life in a developed country, in a place that hasn't seen a military attack in my grandparent's lifetimes. To deal with a war where both sides (the Sudanese government and the SPLM) routinely recruited or conscripted small kids, to have witnessed brutality beyond anything I can comprehend, and to lose everything, in a place where most people have almost nothing to begin with.

I don't know how people do it- I know I couldn't. The fact that they continue to move forward is an incredible testament to the will to live among the people of southern Sudan, and they have my profound respect.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Schools & Clinics, Aweil

A few more from school and clinic construction projects supported by the organization- story to follow later. Also a couple other landscapes and random photos from Aweil.

Malualkon, Landscapes, and Aweil

A few more from the latest field site.

Tea Shops, Restaurants, Wunrok, and Schools

A few photos from upcoming stories, as well as from the field office in Wunrok.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Just the Way It Is

I have an interesting conversation with John, one of the Kenyans working here. He's been in Sudan for five years, and is getting ready to head home within a month or two. I give him all the credit- I couldn't handle being here for anywhere near that long. We start discussing this, as the generator isn't working properly, and we have time to sit in the large tukul (a traditional hut) that constitutes the kitchen here in Malualkon.

"It's been hard," he says. "The conditions are very poor. I don't understand how people who are from here put up with this all their lives."

"I think that for us foreigners it's both a blessing and a curse," I suggest. "We know there's another world out there, which in a way makes it more difficult when we see how things are here. If you go to a small village, this is the only life people know."

Just to pause for a moment, I'm well-aware of how condescending that might sound, but that's certainly not my intention. If you go to a remote village, knowledge of the outside world is all-but nonexistent. You can beat around the bush about that fact as much as you'd like, but it's the simple, brutal truth. As far as many people here are concerned, a 'city' is simply a place with more cows and mud huts, perhaps a handful of electric lights and a couple freezers running on diesel generators.

"The thing here," John says, "is that people are resistant to change. They say 'this is my life,' and they won't take steps to improve their situation. For people here, life has only a few stages- birth, grow up, get some cows, get married, have children, and the cycle repeats itself. People say, 'we're fine with this, we don't need anything else.' But it isn't good."

After living and working in Chad, northern Uganda, Niger, and southern Sudan, it feels like a breath of fresh air to hear someone from this part of the world actually come out and say what feels like the obvious truth. The sense of fatalism here is so overwhelming, so crushing, that there's never an incentive to get ahead, to do something to improve your situation in life. Once again, I know I'm imposing my 'Western' values on a completely alien environment, but honestly, how much more could have developed here if people were willing to take the steps needed for real change?

I guess it shows the difference even within the region. John, as a well-educated Kenyan, is one of those people who make me feel like there is real hope for development throughout Africa. His family clearly worked to make sure he had the chance to go to school, and do what he needed to do to become a professional. They weren't happy with things just staying the way they were, which, as many rationalizations as you want to make about people being 'in a poorer but happier time,' were bad.

And it's not that it couldn't happen, even here. Yes Sudan (and the south in particular) has suffered through decades of war, the climate is harsh, and disease is rampant. Climate aside though, how much of that is really different from the situations any of our ancestors in the (now developed) world confronted hundreds of years ago? Places in other parts of the developing world were just as rough before- Mexico City is built on a giant swamp, just as one example. The difference is that they made the leap, weren't afraid to be daring or be laughed at, and through it, we moved ahead.

Out in the villages, people's lives are almost exactly the same as they were 50, 500, or even 1500 years ago. It makes me wonder, with so many organizations working in these incredibly remote areas building things like schools, clinics, and markets, what it might be like 100 years from now. Will anything have changed? The forces holding people back are so powerful though, that it's hard to feel optimistic.

Lunch and Equality

I'm out on a field visit the other day, with James and Peter, two of the Sudanese staff, checking out some of the organization's projects in a few rural villages for a story I'm doing. They've been providing financial support to build schools and clinics here, using a method called 'cash-for-work,' where they lay out the money for the materials, and to hire people from the village as short-term laborers to do the construction. It's a double benefit, as it not only stimulates the economy, but also helps communities develop needed infrastructure- once the story is finalized, I'll post it here.

After seeing the sites, we stop for lunch at a restaurant that was deceptively nice, considering the size of the town. This is 'nice' by southern Sudanese standards, of course- it's clean enough for this corner of the developing world, but I can only imagine the horror on the face of my brother the chef, or a health inspector back home if he or she saw the place. The restaurant, a big tin building, is big enough to have several tables, an open kitchen, fans redistributing the hot air, a stereo blasting Arabic pop, and (weirdest of all) two glass display cases for sodas and water, the kind you would see in any convenience store in the West, filled with 7-Up, Coke and Pepsi, all labeled in Arabic script.

The kitchen consists of a large area near the front of the building, where three guys scoop beans into bowls, fry eggs on a charcoal-fired grill, and mix a massive pot full of a combination of bread, beef, onions, and egg, a sort of goulash that gets dumped into a communal bowl for people to pick from, using their right hand only, of course.

Southern Sudanese food will never win any awards for culinary excellence; beans, meat, stew, bread, fried eggs. I ask for a plate of fuul Arabiya (Arab beans, as they're called here), mashed fava beans served with a small squirt of lime juice and a couple of surprisingly good disc-shaped pieces of bread. Beans have been my usual fare when eating in the field, as they're usually a pretty safe bet- they're hard to screw up, and less likely to make you sick. The fava beans are pretty bitter, but the lime (along with salt) helps.

One of the young boys waiting the tables brings our food- James and Peter, along with our driver, tear into the big bowl, while I dip the bread into the beans. People eat quickly here, and there's little discussion, usually. After we finish though, and are polishing off the sodas, James has a question for me.

"So, Nathaniel, are you married?"

"No," I answer. "Not married, no children." They find this incredibly funny for some reason.

James, Peter, and the driver chat amongst themselves for a moment, speaking Dinka. They turn back to me.

"In your country," Peter asks, "how much do you have to pay for a dowry when you marry?"


I pause for a second, trying to figure out how best to answer this.

"Well, in the US we don't pay a dowry when we get married," I answer, trying not to appear too taken aback.

If the answer about not being married was funny, this is absolutely hilarious.

"This is a very good system!" James says, guffawing- Peter and the driver do the same nodding their heads in agreement.

In Sudan, as in a number of places throughout the world, when a couple wants to marry, the groom is responsible for paying a 'dowry,' a price to the bride's family, as a way of owning the woman. In Dinka territory, where people have been raising livestock for thousands of years (with very little changing, aside from the occasional radio and English Premier League football jersey), the currency of choice is cattle. Around Malualkon a groom's family will likely pay anywhere from 30-80 cows, an expense that can translate to thousands of dollars. I understand that it's tradition, but the idea of 'purchasing' someone seems inherently wrong to me. I try to think of how best to explain it, without stepping on anyone's metaphorical cultural toes.

"Around here, some people ('like you,' I think to myself), think that men and women aren't equal, that men are higher than women, right? They nod their heads at this seemingly obvious truth.

"In the West, men and women are seen as equal," I continue. "If they decide that they love each other and want to get married, they just decide to do it, there's no payment involved. Sometimes the man will ask the woman's family for permission, but it isn't required. Also, both families will usually help pay for the ceremony, the food, the music, and that sort of thing, but there's no price for any person."

"That is a good system," Peter says. "But here, it is very different."

No kidding. There are any number of arguments that can be made about 'culture,' and how something perfectly acceptable in one place may be criminal somewhere else. In grad school we talked a lot about the concept of 'universalism,' the idea that there are a certain set of basic human rights to which everyone should be entitled, regardless of culture. I know that I'm imposing my 'Western' values on a country that it feels like time forgot, but still, the idea of buying or selling anyone just seems wrong. If there's one thing I've come to realize in my time working in the developing world though, it's that I'm not going to change much, no matter how much I might wish it were different. Social change is a slow, indigenous process, and has to come from within.