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...

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