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.

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