Monday, August 25, 2008

It is the condition of most people in this world to go where they don't belong
Sorry, I couldn't help it. Btw, LOVE the random rant by the old guy in the middle.

Just got back to Juba today after a week of Cornish Headlands and Devon Cream Tea. With more than a few Bulmer's Ciders thrown in for good measure. England was fantastic, and just what I needed for a break. With Beatrice and her Beau we wandered around London and South West England where among other things we visited Tintagel, the claimed birthplace of King Arthur (people, read Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley NOW!!!) and got my art fix (as well as positively OD'd on Cream Tea. MMMMMMM). Every time I go to an art museum I immediately head for the impressionists and post-impressionists. Van Gogh, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet, Seurat, Pissaro, Renoir, Cezanne, Monet. I realized while imagining I could see the wind blow through Van Gogh's Cyprus trees in room 41 (or was it 43?) of the National Gallery that the company of these paintings makes me feel at home. There's no other way to describe it - the reason why I feel anxious if I take too much time in between visits, the reason why I immediately feel relaxed and exhale a sigh of relief when among their thick strokes of paint. No matter if these works of art hang in New York, St. Louis, London, Tokyo, or Paris, I feel the same way.

There is a quote from Thoreau that impressed a former colleague of mine that says "It is the condition of most people in this world to go where they don't belong." I feel as if I belong in places where I can experience art, history, beauty, and enjoy the sea, green hills, and a drink with friends in a pub otherwise filled with strangers. However, I don't "belong" in the 1860's, 70's and 80's when these movements flourished (along with the music and literature - I adore playing works by Debussy on the piano and two of my favorite authors are Baudelaire and Virginia Woolf) any more than I "belong" in Sudan at the moment.

The halfway mark of my time in Sudan is looming just ahead, 2 weeks away, and I feel it acutely. Sometimes I can be objective about my whole experience, but in the weeks leading up to my most recent R&R I kept thinking "I can't believe I have been here a year, and I don't know how I am going to get through the next one!" It also didn't help that Simba was sick and until today I have only seen him for 2 days in the last 5 weeks. I miss him when we're not together, he soothes my anxious mind and at the same time makes me feel like I have what it takes to take on the world. Plus it's hard to stay stressed when I am with someone about whom I can't help grinning just at the thought of.

What to do next it on my mind more and more, as is the feeling that I "should" start making plans and concrete goals for the next step in my career so I can start working towards them. But still, everything feels unsettled back here in Juba and I am not quite ready to leave - my department's program are trucking along, but there are still many elements to be fixed, the incredible opportunity from a donor to re-examine our entire approach to our work and build a cohesive and (hopefully) sustainable program for HIV prevention, and research to be done to evaluate the effectiveness of our programs. I am still in my tent, but slated to move into a more permanent place - same site, but a stone cottage with A/C, a kitchenette, hot water shower, and even a tv. It sounds unreal at this point compared to my current diggs, but insha'allah will happen sometime in September. It's a bit difficult to start planning this far in advance and still "be here, now" so I will inevitably put it off until later.

Until that as-yet-undetermined time, as a result of my break I have a new lease on life in Sudan, which should last me until my next R&R in late October: I bought loads of fancy-schmancy bath products (like conditioners and body washes) and a hair dryer, have a resolve to wear more makeup (to change things up a bit - have only worn makeup literally 3 times total in the past year, including New Years in DC!), and dyed my hair with blonde highlights. No, it's not the heinous abomination that you're thinking, just a few chunks UNDERNEATH the top layer that peek through the middle. It looks good, I promise, Beatrice can vouch. I'm not having a mid-post crisis, just trying to take better care of myself to make the second year in Sudan easier than the first. This has been the biggest roller coaster year of my life, and I want to slow the pace of year 2 down a bit to maybe that of a fun house - things won't be as they seem, and I will get tussled around a bit, but it won't throw me completely upside down leaving me disoriented and exhausted. Well, at least I can dream :)


Saturday, August 16, 2008


My heart goes out to the friends, family and colleagues of the four International Rescue Committee (IRC) employees who were killed during an ambush attack on their convoy earlier this week in Afghanistan.

In he last paragraph of the article above, the Canadian Prime Minister (nationality of several of the victims) called the attack "cowardly." That's exactly what it was. What kind of a coward do you have to be to spray a vehicle carrying 3 unarmed people with bullets? The Associated Press has a video interviewing the one driver that survived (I can't find it again, if anyone can let me know and I'll post the link), and all he kept exclaiming was "They were unarmed! They were unarmed! They were just here to help us, they weren't from here, they were unarmed!" I guess from his (an Afghan) perspective, it's one thing to kill someone, but quite another to figuratively (or maybe literally) shoot someone in the back.

There are several current and former IRC employees here in Sudan (one of whom is a good friend of mine), and because most people in our line of work move around quite frequently from year to year (my organization is the only one I've found to require 2 and 3 year contracts!), and it's hard to keep track of everyone, this news sparked a flurry of facebook, email, and chat messages saying "Where are you? Who is in Afghanistan now?" I'm sure that when the news was announced, before they reported the identity of the people, everyone's mouth went dry and got a sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach. Not to mention the poor families of the IRC employees in the Afghanistan office! Word on the street is that IRC had difficulty contacting the families, so all of them must have been watching the news and freaking out because who knows when the phone rings if it is your child/sibling/parent on the other line or someone from IRC HQ telling you that your worst fears are realized?

The video clip in the BCC article shows the coffins being brought from the authorities back to the IRC office. Can you imagine offloading your colleague's coffin into your fenced, guarded compound? Or, God forbid, one of your staff? I think that is my worst nightmare, having one of my staff killed while traveling for work. Expats are one thing, we choose to do the work we do in sometimes unstable places, and (hopefully) for the most part realize the risks involved. There are many reasons people from countries like the US, Europe and Australia do this kind of work, but let's not pretend it is purely altruistic. It isn't "just" to help people. We like living in random corners of the globe and the often difficult work we do, and while people definitely have some sort of a calling to make the world a better place, it's not purely about "service." But national staff is a different story.

I'd like to think that everyone who works for me is truly committed in helping to build their country and improve the health status of people, and I can say for the most part that is true (I have some FANTASTIC and committed people working for me) but what I've noticed here in Sudan is that in most areas NGO jobs are the only jobs that exist. There is little to no private sector other than trading, and in Juba we live in a false economy of international NGO, UN, and private sector people who are catered to by services owned and run by Kenyans and Ugandans who import their staff from Kenya and Uganda as well. This drives up prices and makes the cost of living insane - you cannot find a hotel room for less than $120 per night (and that is a prefab container. tents in town go for $150 a night), and you can't have dinner for less than $20. But I digress.

In most cases NGOs are just another employer, a way to support your family. Yes, health care and education and economic development are important to people, but those things in the end come second to finding a job and feeding your family. I have the choice of going into any profession I choose and in the US be able to find all sorts of jobs that don't involve living in a tent in an area where landmines are still being uncovered and the UN imposes a curfew. People here don't have that choice - NGOs are the only available option.

So the driver that worked with IRC in Afghanistan was probably just trying to feed his family and wouldn't say no to driving along a stretch of arguably unstable road. And for that, he lost his life.