Sunday, June 28, 2009

Back in the world

I couldn't sleep this morning.

The streetlights woke me up. It was cold too. Neither of these things have been a problem in almost five months.

I'm in Nairobi (Kenya), having just left Sudan yesterday afternoon. I'm on my way back to the States, via London, tomorrow (Tuesday) morning. I'm at the organization's guest house, which is actually in an apartment complex, the first place I've been in months that feels like something you'd see in 'real world.' When I say 'real world,' I don't mean to imply that southern Sudan is somehow false- hardly- it's very, very real, and the fact that so few people are aware of the reality there is part of the problem. The simple fact is, however, that things are so underdeveloped, the infrastructure is so bad, and the challenges are so great, that it feels like being in another reality.

Until yesterday, the largest city I've seen in almost five months is Juba, which has warped my perspective. Juba is a place where a nice hotel is a converted cargo container with air-conditioning and a generator, the roads in the center of town (which happens to be the unofficial national capital) are so rutted and cratered that it takes a Land Cruiser to move around, and everywhere you turn you see piles of trash, sewage spilling out into greenish-black puddles, and wandering sheep and goats.

The sense of relief I felt when the plane took off from Juba yesterday for the short (1.5 hour) flight to Nairobi was something I've rarely experienced, a palpable sense of, ' you did it, it's finally over.' Southern Sudan is poor, hot, and undeveloped, but I expected all of that coming in, and feel like I was as prepared as possible. I'm not sure what it was exactly that made my time there start to feel so frustrating, and like such a slog, although I'd guess that at least part of it was the fact that I was offered another job elsewhere within five weeks of arriving, meaning the majority of the time with the organization, I felt like I was just waiting for something new and better to happen.

Given this, when I arrived in Nairobi yesterday afternoon, I spent the majority of the time walking around in something of an amazed stupor. Even as we taxied to the gate at Jomo Kenyatta Airport (the main international airport), it was the first time in months I'd seen proper taxiways, jet-bridges, and even an airport terminal. I walked into the airport and found that I couldn't stop laughing as I looked around and saw candy, souvenirs, cafes, electronic displays of flight information, and so much more.

This sense of shock only continued later in the afternoon as I walked around Nakumatt Junction, an enormous shopping mall just a five-minute walk away from the guesthouse. I walked into a bookstore that was every bit the equal of anything you'd see in the US or Europe, had smoked salmon and cream cheese on a whole-wheat bagel for lunch at a coffee shop with pleasant music and souvenir t-shirts for sale, and finished it off with vanilla and berry gelato. I walked into the enormous supermarket (Nakumatt is a huge store here, similar perhaps to Wal-Mart or Carrefour), and saw... everything. From flat-screen plasma TVs to hundreds of varieties of toothpaste, it was all there.

I remember hearing as a Peace Corps volunteer about how intense the initial shock can be coming back to the developed world, but yesterday was the first time I really felt it. I wandered through the candy aisle, not so much because I wanted candy, but simply because I couldn't stop staring at all the packages, the colors, the varieties.

I certainly understand that the place where I was is a wealthy part of Nairobi, and there were foreigners (mostly white ones) everywhere, but there were also plenty of Kenyans, not simply the people serving drinks or cleaning, but shopping, dining, chatting on phones with Bluetooth headsets, and more.

I don't want to get overly philosophical here, or be an apologist for the colonial past of this place. The British ruled Kenya with an authority based on exploitation, violence, the pitting of tribal identities against each other, and arrogance. For all of this, however, the systems that they left behind, particularly the education and infrastructure, are what seem to me to have made all the difference. So many educated Kenyan professionals have built their country, and the amount of capacity among people here is such that there seems to be little need for expats- people can run their own affairs, and seem to be doing a good job of it, for the most part. One of the reasons why this is possible is because there's an infrastructure here that works- people can drive to work on a decent road, go the ATM to withdraw their Shillings, shop at the supermarket, eat at a restaurant, and catch a flight somewhere if they need to. None of this exists (or at least exists easily) in southern Sudan, and the difference is enormous. It isn't only an issue of violence- Kenya has had its share of war too, most recently last year, when the election went haywire. And despite the obvious advantages over a place like southern Sudan, Kenya is still very much a 'developing country.' Still, the degree to which things work here, and work properly, feels stunning after being in Sudan.

It's time for me to head to the office, so I'm going to wrap this up- before I go though, I'll have my granola, check my email again, and take a hot shower. It'll be London tomorrow, Miami and Tampa on Wednesday- crazy to think about. In any case, it's nice to be out, and in a place that feels at least a little closer to home...

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...

Monday, June 8, 2009

Near Khartoum?

Sorry for the delay on blogging- no excuses, I've just been lame...

I'm in the village of Bunj, about halfway between the towns of Renk and Malakal, an today, I go out with the health promotion team to observe a 'mass education' event.

It turns out to be big success. More than 100 people gather as Asunta, a tall grandmotherly woman addresses the crowd, along with El Faki, another health promotion agent. They take turns with a megaphone, speaking to the crowd in Arabic, pausing every few sentences for one of the men in the crowd to translate into Mabaan, the local language.

"Mosquitoes live in standing water, so you should try to drain anything near your house," Asunta says, as she holds a drawing of a smiling mosquito looking hungrily at a lake. The crowd nod their heads.

And so it proceeds- El Faki exhorts them to use mosquito nets for pregnant women and for children. He walks through the audience, holding a picture of a family sitting under a net- again, they nod.

The training also is focusing on preventing diarrhea, and Asunta tries to teach the children a song.

"I wash my hands like this/ like this/ with soap and water/ with clean sand," she sings in Arabic. The kids repeat after her, clapping along and miming hand washing, following her lead. By the end, the kids are clapping constantly, and with a huge shukran! (thank you), Asunta ends the song.

It was very interesting to watch all of this, and really get a sense of development in action, I suppose. More interesting though, is an interaction that I have after the education campaign, as we wait for the Land Cruiser to arrive.

I'm sitting with Asunta and El Faki, another man, and a girl who looks to be perhaps 15-years-old. She wears a purple shirt with white embroidered flowers and an orange sash/headscarf wrap. As you would expect, she doesn't speak a word of English, and my Arabic ends somewhere around "thank you," and "give me one Coca-Cola." Fortunately Asunta is there, and she translates.

She's incredulous at the fact that I can't speak Arabic, and I smile sheepishly.

"Where are you from?" she asks.

"America," I answer, "very far away."

"Far away," she says. "Is America near Khartoum?"

Wow. How do I answer that one? This is a girl who likely hasn't traveled more than 50 kilometers from her village in her life; Khartoum is maybe 500km away, an enormous distance for her. How do I explain that my home is about 25 times farther away, more than 10,000 km?

I laugh. "No, it's much farther away than Khartoum," I say. I wouldn't want to sound patronizing here, but the honest truth is that I don't think this girl would begin to understand if I told her that I lived across an ocean, and flew 1,000 kilometers per hour 10 kilometers in the air to come here. I suppose the simple explanation is probably the easiest in this case, even if it's only the partial truth.

Our conversation only lasts a few moments, but it serves as yet another reality check into just how vast the difference is between the developed and the developing world. Because of who I am and where I was born, I've been the beneficiary a good education, a decent health care system, roads that work, and so much more. The girl I'm speaking with has seen none of those things, and likely never will. I don't mean to sound overly fatalistic here, but it's simply the reality of life in this corner of southern Sudan- life goes on more or less as it always has, with the addition of a hand pump here, or a plastic sheet there.

I wonder sometimes if this whole 'development' enterprise is really as patronizing as it can feel. NGOs are digging boreholes for pumps, building clinics, and helping people set up small businesses, all of which are good things. The part that hits a bit of a sour note for me is the fact that the things that are built are still incredibly basic- a person from the developed world would never drink out of a pump like the ones organizations install, and would wait for a medevac helicopter to take them to to Kenya before visiting a clinic like the ones most NGOs build. I know there's an argument to be made for 'appropriate technology,' for building at a level that makes sense for the community in question. Still, it seems a bit hollow to me. I'm not sure if there's any good answer to this, but I have to wonder..

In any case, end of musing/rant. Heading back to Renk tomorrow, a town which feels more like the north than anything else I've seen in southern Sudan. Everything is in Arabic, and they have things like raisins and shwarma. Not a bad spot, actually, to spend the remaining couple weeks in Sudan. I'm looking forward to getting out of here soon though, and for the next chapter to begin...