Tuesday, September 18, 2007

UNMIS running, T-shirt mobs, and Kwacha

So I’ve officially been in Sudan a week now and it already feels as if I’ve been here a month. It’s amazing how quickly you adapt to a new environment when you’re carrying nothing but a few bags with you. It’s not like I have to think about arranging my living space, because I live in a container that holds a rather uncomfortable bed, plastic table and chair, and a dresser/bureau. The air conditioning unit, however, is quite new and runs silently – nary a purr – and because the room is so small (3 paces wide by 4 paces long) it cools off in no time.

Right now I’m sitting outside at the camp which is right on the Nile watching laundry dry on the fence and a little lizard is sunning herself along the wall watching the clothes dry with me. Here's a picture of the view:


The camp is right next to Juba’s port, which has no port-like qualities other than the fact that boats decide to dock there to unload their goods. The Japanese are building a tarmac road that will eventually go down to the port, but apparently they’ve been working on the same stretch of 200 meters for the past 3 months – everything must be perfect! When it is finished it will be Juba’s first tarmac road. There are a lot of met in hardhats walking around and flagging vehicles around the site, but not much work is going on. I don’t quite understand how the construction process goes, but there is a layer of tar, then they dump rocks on top of it, smooth it out, and then more tar? Maybe someone can enlighten me? Sunshine?

When I first got to Juba I wrote out an email with some thoughts about my first couple days – the text of which I am pasting below here:

“I arrived safe and sound in Juba yesterday - and all of my bags even arrived with me! It's a miracle! The trip was fairly stress free - except getting bumped from my flight from Nairobi to Juba and having to wait 4 hours in the airport. But I found a guy from Bolivia to chat with and even talked the airline out of charging me for my extra baggage, so all in all it was fine. I'm staying in a hotel-like compound for the first few weeks until my room in the guest house opens up. So it'll be living out of a suitcase for the first couple weeks. It is a nice place - there's wireless internet (because it's run by Indians), a/c, and it's right on the Nile river (which looks much like a tributary of the Amazon - fast current carrying plants along with it). All in all it's a lot like camp with WiFi - cold showers, bugs, brushing your teeth with water out of a water bottle, and eating in a canteen. Did I mention that it's awesome? I get to wear cargo pants and chacos to work. Needless to say, I'm sure the novelty of all this will fade away, and I'll soon be craving a hot shower and a place to wear cute shoes.

Juba is expensive. Going out to eat costs more than in the US - at least more than the places I eat at...not sure if that says more about me or about Juba... It rained last night and this morning, so everything is muddy. But not quite muddy enough to wear my blue-striped wellies. The potholes are less pot and more bathtub, which makes driving around in landrovers when you have to pee a very bad idea - it's hard to concentrate on holding more than one thing at a time, so you have to choose between steadying yourself with the handle above the window and, well, you know. I haven't seen the famed paved road yet, but I am assured it does indeed exist.

My favorite Juba quirk so far: a sign reading "Dry Cleaner" next to strings of laundry drying in the sun. Oh, and the Ethiopian food here rocks.”

Now a tugboat is bringing out one of the barges from the port. These things are so damn long they look like the spaceship at the beginning of Spaceballs – when it goes by it just keeps going and going and going carrying God knows what up and down the river. It looks like a pile of junk at one end – rusty cars, trucks and motorbikes, piles of bags and unidentified plastic, etc, and then on the other side there are containers.

I feel comfortable here. There’s no stress about looking presentable like there is in DC (cargo pants, a t-shirt and sandals do very nicely), and the little quirks about life here I take all in stride. Like having intermittent power (lanterns do have a certain charm), getting stuck in the mud, and having to deal with absolutely nothing going the way you planned it. I am the queen of last minute preparations and adapting under stress, so I think I’ll find a niche here and be happy.

I had to plan an event for several thousand people that took place this past Saturday. Up until Friday the preparations were going smoothly (except for the person bringing the t-shirts getting stuck in a town 4 hours away for 3 days) until it rained all morning on Saturday. When it rains here, everyone assumes that you don’t work. Everything just shuts down. This is mainly because there is only public transport on one road and it doesn’t run when it rains because the roads are so bad. But even if people live 2 blocks away they assume there is no work. So I had to call most of the staff to say that yes, the event was still on (it was supposed to stop raining in the afternoon) and yes, they need to be at the office as planned to help prepare. So we got started 3 hours late. The truck bringing the tables to the event got stuck in the mud on the way over, the audio system and generator couldn’t be picked up until it stopped raining, the office manager was nowhere to be found, the field where we were set up was all sorts of soggy, and less people showed up than would have otherwise. But everything worked out in the end, and my 7 hour event turned into a 4 hour event which was a blessing. Here's a picture:



and here's one of some cuties with one of our informational brochures on HIV prevention:



I was chatting with a few of the staff yesterday and their theory is that because of the war (which lasted over 20 years) everyone has gotten absolutely everything for free for so long whether from refugee camps, foreign aid, the army, or the government, that now the people who stayed in Sudan during the war don’t want to work. Because why should they? It’s not part of the culture anymore, and because they stayed in Sudan they didn’t learn English and can’t work in the NGO/UN world like the people who fled to Uganda or Kenya and then came back. The people who you see working in Juba are either Kenyans imported by businesses or returning Sudanese who have been living in Kenya or Uganda for a long time and have some education. So now we come to the t-shirt distribution at the event. Everyone expects free handouts and doesn’t understand why they shouldn’t just be able to have them. We had to keep them in a back office with police guards to keep away the mobs of people who would try to grab the t-shirts from whoever brought some out. Kids, adults, everyone. Craziness.

After the event we went to a party at another NGO compound and drank Carlsberg beer out of cans, waited for people to finish watching the Ireland vs. Georgia rugby match, and just hung out and did a bit of dancing. It is IMPOSSIBLE to have a conversation with anyone without one of you asking a) “who do you work for?” and b) “how long are you here for?” within the first two minutes. I had a bit of a freakout session when I realized that would be my social life for the next two years. Scary. I need to find other outlets…

I did, however, get some very good advice there from one of the guys that I played rugby with. He was asking how things were going so far and I was saying that my first week was super busy and that by the end of the event on Saturday I was just glad things ended without rioting or anything catching on fire. He replied that it may seem difficult, but that you should never lower your standards for work here because the lower your standards are the lower quality things will become. This may seem obvious to those of you who live in developed countries, but in a place where nothing works correctly it is important to keep in mind. People are smart, they are just not used to someone expecting a lot out of them.

Another tidbit from the party: the same guy as above who gave me advice asked me if I had worked in Africa before. I replied that I had, but in Southern Africa, not East Africa. He then asked, “Oh, so how are the Kwacha there?” Kwacha is the local word for foreigner or expat. At this point in time I didn’t know that yet. The only thing I knew as a Kwacha is the Zambian currency. So I then launch into a schpeal about how the Kwacha gained a lot of ground about a year ago due to the increase in the price of copper on the world markets which is mined in Zambia, which is all true. Then someone pulled me away. I didn’t find out what Kwacha meant here until the next day, at which point I felt like a total loser. Someone asks me how the expat community is in Southern Africa and I respond by giving a lecture on Zambian currency fluctuations. Serves me right. At least I wasn’t sober at that point plus was meeting everyone for the first time so I don’t remember who it was that asked me the question in the first place.

I went running on Sunday with a couple colleagues around the UNMIS complex, a loop that ends up being somewhere between 3 and 4 miles. It was absolutely lovely. I listened to Madonna’s confessions on a dance floor album while running (which was a bit of a mind bender –listening to the Café Ontario soundtrack that we used to have kitchen dance parties to (here’s a shout-out to Tiff, Ryan, Lisa, Amanda, Mukti and Alexis, I miss you guys so much!!!) while running through a swamp in Sudan. First we ran down a muddy stretch, then turned onto the old runway for the UN planes where there are a ton of HUGE helicopters still parked just chilling there along the whole stretch. The new runway is parallel to that “road” so small planes were landing nearby. After that we turned onto more dirt roads, where there were little yellow birds that looked like goldfinches, high grass, and relative calmness. Then we came to people guiding cattle across what looked like a river that had flooded the road. There was no way around, and the water was about 6 inches deep, so we had to take off our shoes and wade through. Twice. Where cattle had walked. Gross. I don’t even want to think about where that water had been. Eeeeeeeeeeewwwwwwwww. After that we squeezed through the bars of the back gate to the UN complex, and finished up the run waving at Bangladeshi guards and running past containers. And saw a rainbow J. There was also something called “Oxidation Pond” on the way. I don’t know why it is called that, do they dump a bunch of copper there to be oxidized? I have no idea.

That’s all for now, more to follow.

Peace.

2 comments:

lisa said...

Hey BF!

Matthew wants to be pen-pals with a kindergartener there - is there a way to set it up?

hugs, peace and blessings,
lisa

Cedric said...

you own cute shoes? Nice week, welcome to bliss. France 25 Ireland 3. Cedric