Friday, December 11, 2009

Video images of Southern Sudan!

Hi everyone,

I know I haven't been keeping this blog going, mostly because I want to keep this space for the "Southern Sudan" time in my life, rather than as a catch all for everything that's going on. However, in case anyone is still out there reading once in awhile, I wanted to share these video clips from CNN's coverage of Southern Sudan found on this site: The reporters went to Juba to do a story on the voter registration (General elections in February 2010!), but ended up with stories about the North South divide, the Wildlife Conservation (elephants and antelope in Sudan!) and oil. The clips show a lot of the people and the towns where I lived and worked, which is fantastic to see, so I just had to make a post.

The story of Daniel Deng, a Sudanese-American who returned to Southern Sudan to help with voter registration in Juba, and the voter registration process in general, can be found here:

The next is a video about the efforts of wildlife conservation in Southern Sudan, is here:
I met a lot of the people who work for the Wildlife Conservation Society, including Paul Elkin who is interviewed on this clip, and the work they do is truly inspiring.

A look at controversial evidence of the oil industry polluting the drinking water and people's fears is here:

And finally, the effects of the North-South war on people's lives, some images of what a typical market looks like, and the threat of returning to war if independence is won:

It made me so happy to see these videos, it's not often that news agencies give a voice to Southern Sudanese beyond government officials, and show what towns really look like, so I just had to share!

I hope you enjoy :)

Friday, October 2, 2009

Into the Bush

Finally, after an exhaustingly long day traipsing all over the State of Jonglei monitoring distribution of mosquito nets, I was able to crawl under my mosquito net at the Freedom Hotel and collapse into bed. Sleep came quickly, deep, and long. Until first light when my subconscious started picking up something in the distance. I have been in Sudan long enough to know when I hear that noise that it is NOT fireworks, and apparently I was still not tricked in my half-asleep, half-awake state. Granted, I very, very rarely hear that noise. But no, these were definitely gunshots. Still not wanting to open my eyes I listened to the pattern. PA PA PA PA PA. Then after a few seconds’ pause, from a bit farther away, pa pa pa pa pa. Then even closer, PA PA PA PA PA.

At this point my mind shook off the rest of the sleep and I opened my eyes. Oh right! Today, May 16th, is SPLM day. “Into the Bush” day. Commemorating the day in 1983 when the South took up arms against the North by going into the bush (basically the wilderness) and fighting back. And how do we celebrate holidays in Sudan? By firing our weapons. Oh yes, on Christmas, New Years, and, apparently, SPLM Day, soldiers and civilians everywhere shoot their AK-47s off with glee with complete disregard to what happens to the bullets once they are fired up into the air. At 6:03am in Bor Town, the capital of Jonglei State and the home town of many of the SPLA leadership, it sounded like everyone was getting in on the action. The number of guns being fired increased, always in a call-and-response pattern.

My boss (the head of our office) as well as someone in the HR department from my organization's DC Headquarters was also on this trip, but staying at another hotel on the opposite side of town. Just to be sure, I sent them a text: “Please tell me this is because of SPLM day, right?” a few seconds later came the response, “Oh right. I hadn’t thought of that. Good I’m glad it sounds like it is really close over here.” I should mention that I was staying in a room in an actual building that the hotel had just opened the week before – usually hotels in the field are really just tents. My boss and the HR guy were staying in tents. Not somewhere you want to be when bullets are being shot up into the air!

Now this hotel had very good security – several guards on duty at all times. One of these guards happened to be stationed almost directly under my window (the building only had one story). I heard him audibly stretch, very loudly hock a loogey, spit, scrape his plastic chair across the concrete as he stood up, heard the metallic click of his AK-47 being cocked, and then he joined into the firing. Don’t worry it was away from the building of course! But damn, was that thing LOUD!!! There are basically no furnishings in the hotel building, just concrete, wrought iron window bars, and glass in the windows. The guard firing right next to the room made a very loud BOOM echoing around the room and it felt like everything rattled – nothing to absorb the noise.

At this point only about 5 minutes had gone by since the first gunshots. It dawned on me that what goes up must come down. I looked over at my window, realized my bed was directly under it on the other side of the room

(please refer to this incredibly high quality rendering of the floor plan to my room), decided that was not a very prudent place to stay should a stray bullet come through the window, and crawled out of bed over behind this weird outcropping that will one day house a bathroom (had not been installed yet – everyone still was sharing pit latrines) and made myself comfortable.

That’s when I realized I had to pee.

Seriously, that timing was SO BAD!

About 15 minutes passed, just sitting there, waiting. The gunfire began to taper off. It was then I realized that I had a video camera in my bag. We were doing a mini-documentary about the distribution, and the consultant we hired gave all the staff in the field digital camcorders to document some of what went on. So I crawled over around the outcropping, grabbed my bag, and turned on the camera. All you can see is the window, but you can definitely hear the gunfire. There is not much of it left, but still. Unfortunately I no longer have access to the footage, but I will definitely try to get a copy, at least for posterity.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Since I've been gone

Life goes on in Sudan, much as it did before I arrived. Roosters start crowing at 6am to accompany the scratchy sound of homemade reed brooms sweeping across the dust outside compounds. Builds discipline and an appreciation for cleanliness in all the girls whose chore it is. My boss starts her morning run at 6:30, after already being awake for 2 hours working away on her laptop and sending emails. The emails often start at 4am and don't end until 11pm. A squadron from the nearby SPLA barracks starts their morning jog which goes up the main road past the camp where we live. Residents can hear their singing and chanting in Dinka through the tent flaps where I more often than not wished away the dawn and hoped for just one more hour of sleep. The line for the shower starts to grow longer, people waiting their turn in towels and plastic flip flops, toothbrushes and shampoo in hand. The camp truly comes alive at 7, with residents tromping their way to breakfast. South Africans in sturdy boots and khaki speaking in a mix of Afrikaans and English. Kenyans joking in Swahili, sitting off on a table by themselves. Eggs, bacon, fried tomatoes, mushrooms, porridge, baked beans and toast. The NGO workers grabbing a Diet Coke and some toast before walking out in flip flops to the fleet of land cruisers which will carry them away to their desk jobs.

Do I miss this all? Definitely. Am I glad to be here, and not there? Absolutely. It's a strange dichotomy that I haven't quite figured out yet. Simba and I were talking the other day about how we don't know if we'll ever "get over" Sudan. Yes it was tough and yes we were ready to leave, but where else would we be able to watch men, women, children, goats, motorbikes and land cruisers, all stripped naked, all being washed in the river? To drive out past the town barrier to discover a broken bridge and therefore a perfect picnic spot to watch the sunset? Decide to drive a tractor to a party because the car wouldn't start? See the joy in women's faces when we go to their village to tell them about how to prevent malaria? Be able to lie together on a blanket under the stars, so so many stars you can't see anywhere in a city? Work 70 or 80 hours during the week but completely let go during the weekends - drinking slushies in the pool or dancing under a thatched roof?

We met up for dinner with 6 other former Juba-ites who were in town on holiday. So strange to see everyone again in a completely different context. I'm not quite sure how, but we managed to talk about everything except Sudan for the most part of the meal. Because things are not in such a good place right now. Corruption and mismanagement of the government budget are so bad that it will take until 2012 for the government to honor the contracts they have signed for this year. Jonglei state is still awash in violence, with the armed groups now claiming militia status. The latest info is that there are 1,200 armed and organized men carrying out the attacks. That is two batallions worth.

And a little closer to home, at a barbeque at one of the UN agency compounds, a friend of ours, U, was leaving Juba and her husband flew in to help her pack, to move out, and to see where she had been living and working for the past year. The gathering ended but a drunk man (from a country that will remain nameless but rhymes with "Prussia") insisted on staying the night at the compound. He was told he had to leave by our friend A, but obviously he did not like that answer because he punched A right in the face. U's husband got up to try to deal with the drunk guy, but was punched in the chest. He fell down and never got back up. He died, right there. From the punch in the chest. Does this really happen? Ever? U went back to her country (in Eastern Europe), and the assailant got deported back to his country. No one in Sudan can officially charge or touch him because he worked for the UN, and no legal action will be taken against him because honestly no one cares back in his country. U is now taking things day by day. It's been about a month since this happened, and she is obviously still devastated. Learning to live on her own. She has never paid a bill in her life - she met her husband in college, he took care of everything until she finished grad school, and then she started working in international development where the agencies pay for everything. My god I don't know what I would do.

There is no rhyme or reason to any of this, and it seems like things are going to pieces. People ask me "how is it over there in Sudan" and half the time I don't even know what to answer. I think the only hope the country has right now is the referendum coming up in 2011 where at least the government has a chance to be legitimized and can "insha'allah" take responsibility and pull together. But once the element of a common "enemy" is removed, will the hundreds of tribes be able to rally together under one flag, or will they turn back against each other as has happened since the dawn of time?


Apologies for the far from upbeat post, but that's where I am at the moment. Every year around September 11th I get more introspective, reliving that day, and remembering that in many places around the world that is the norm of life, rather than the exception. It was so good to see people from a different time and place that is still so familiar, but yet so far away now. The idea that I will never see or do any of the things in the first part of the post again still has not yet sunk in. But I am sure that no matter where I am I can create a sense of adventure, a sense of romance and fun because you can't have hope without first glimpsing dispair and you can't appreciate the good without the bad.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Hello and Goodbye

Hello out there to everyone who reads these posts! First I have to apologize for the long and abrupt absence from Petunia in Paradise with no warning, and thank you to those of you who have contacted me to make sure I am still ok. I was truly touched that you cared enough to check up on me!

I am still alive and kicking but with a rather major change: I am no longer in Paradise. I left at the end of July and after spending 2 weeks in Kenya with Simba's family and our friends, we both flew to the US. Although I suppose it is possible that I will return to Southern Sudan at some point in my life, I will not be going back anytime in the near future.

When I left Sudan I didn't know what to write. I could not sit down and rationally write what was going through my mind or what went on because it was too much and changed daily. With most of the Petunia in Paradise posts I wrote them over a period of several days or weeks rather than all at once, but once gone I was moving too fast to make the posts I was writing relevant. I started the goodbye post a dozen times and have not yet made it to the end. So this will have to do for now.

I have not yet decided what I am going to do with this blog, or blogging. Once I arrived back in the US I realized a big reason why I spent a chunk of my free time online reading and writing blogs was not only to keep the people I know and love in the loop of what is going on with my life, but as a form of escape. It let me de-stress at the end of the day, and diving into other people's blogging worlds was a form of avoiding my own problems. Don't get me wrong, I have been fortunate to read some great writing out there and met a lot of people who I am very privileged to know. And I will keep reading and writing in the future! But it just feels strange now spending as much time online because I feel that I don't need it anymore. I don't need blogs as a crutch to pass the time to get through my day. I can freely be happy with my own thoughts and live life to the fullest instead of just existing or counting down time until my next R&R. So that's where I've been for the past couple months, detaching the chain connecting me to my laptop.

At the end of September I will be moving to London to start a Master's Degree program in Control of Infectious Diseases. Simba is here with me in the US, and is also applying for a visa and to University programs. Hopefully his visa will be processed as quickly as mine and we can both be in the same place. We received a very generous offer from an acquaintance to house-sit her house in London rent free for the year we will be there, and another generous offer from Beatrice to stay with her and her Husband until we can move into that house in October. The stars were more than aligned with those arrangements!

Do you want me to keep this going, even though I will not be in a place as off-the-beaten-path as Sudan? Should I change the blog name? After all, if Southern Sudan was Paradise, would London then be...Purgatory? Petunia in Purgatory?

I am so thrilled that I now have this account of my experience in Southern Sudan; I do have a few more things written from my time in Sudan, and will post those shortly, but if my posts were infrequent before they will probably be even more so now.

Thanks again to all the readers out there, and hope to hear from you all soon.

Peace, Petunia

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

I must be psychic

How ironic that I wrote the post about Public Holidays in Southern Sudan just last Friday, because guess what? Today was another public holiday called at the last minute (last night at 8pm)!!!! The universe does align sometimes. One of Salva Kiir's presidential advisors, passed away yesterday so today is a "National Day of Mourning." That and I am sure the fact that the Permanent Court of Arbitration made their announcement from The Hague today about the borders of the Abyei region (huge amount of oil, both the North and the South claim it as theirs) also had something to do with it. I spent my morning working, made lentils for lunch, and spent the afternoon packing. More on that in a later post.

Essentially, the court has redrawn the borders of Sudan's Abyei region to give the Khartoum government control of the Heglig oilfields and the Nile oil pipeline. Both the Sudanese and Southern Sudanese Governments pledged ahead of time to abide by the ruling of the court, regardless of the decision. According to the CPA, Abyei will decide whether they want to become part of the North or the South on the National Referendum in 2011. Because of the large presence of oil, the region was hotly contested. However, with this decision, the main oilfield falls within the North anyway, so people may not care as much about the region. We'll just have to see what happens.

Something interesting that piqued my interest is that the panel made their decision largely on a tribal basis - which tribes were on what land at what point in time - since borders were so fluid until well into the 20th century. Not something we normally think about!

The official PCA decision can be found here
A bit of analysis on the region and arguments from both sides can be found here

Games Day!

A few weeks ago one of my friends organized a Games Day for one of the primary schools in Juba. 200 children in 3rd and 4th grade came out in force, and not even a passing rainshower dampened the spirits! It was a TON of fun and such a tangible way to give back to the community. Even though every day we spend our time focusing on development of Southern Sudan, often it is about the large picture and it is difficult to connect in a real, personal way. About 20 expats showed up to help, and between organizing musical chairs, potato sack races, egg and spoon races, all that good stuff, I'm not sure who had the most fun - us or the students! Below are some pictures from the event - a disproportionate number were from the egg and spoon races, because that's the one I was organizing. The highlights were the musical chairs (definitely a crowd pleaser!) and the tug of war at the end which took 25 minutes to organize and 3 1/2 seconds to do because the rope immediately snapped once the kids started pulling. I took a short video showing the students singing to thank us for the trophy we presented their School's Principal at the end of the day, but the size was 35 MB which given the speed of the internet connection in Sudan means that it would take 11 hours and 31 minutes to upload. So you'll just have to imagine the singing yourself when you look at the last picture.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Public Holidays

I have been inspired by this post of my dear friend Beatrice over at A gringa's thoughts about Ex-pat living in Santiago, Chile and decided to write my own post about the public holiday phenomenon here in Southern Sudan.

There are a total of 15 public holidays a year, not including the spontaneously announced ones for things like Obama being elected President of the US. CPA Day, SPLM Day, Martyrs Day, etc. Our office also counts July 4th and Thanksgiving day as holidays (random...). Half of the government holidays are canceled the day before or the day of the scheduled holiday and moved to later in the week or the month. The announcements which are given on the radio and always come too late to tell our staff that they are still required to come into work, so they end up having both days off instead of one! For example, SPLM day, which was scheduled for May 16th, and then the announcement came at 8am on that very day that it would be moved to May 25th. All the celebratory firing of weapons on the 16th was for nothing. Sigh.

Then there are the holidays that are set based on the phases of the moon, like Eid ul-Adha ("greater Eid", Feast of the Sacrifice of Ishmael by Ibrahim), and Eid El-Fitr ("smaller Eid", marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan), where the same mixup occurs because the muslim community will call the holiday on one day, but the government will call it another day, therefore giving everyone both days off. Last year for Eid ul-Fitr this went on for 4 days before the 3 day holiday!

Makes planning work a bit confusing, and the ex-pats are still expected to work on these public holidays so it's not like we all get the day off, but the rest of the staff and the government employees are certainly happy about it!

Eid ul-Fitr is my favorite holiday of the bunch. Ramadan is a month where Muslims rise before dawn to eat the first meal, fast from sunrise to sunset, not even drinking water, and then break their fast once the sun has set. Once the appropriate phase of the moon is spotted, celebrations break out across town. Poeple wear their best clothes and walk to the mosques. Enormous quantities of food are prepared, and walking and driving around you find huge groups of people gathered all over the place sharing the feast. It is a time to give to those less fortunate, and the air is festive. Poeple wear their best clothes and walk to the mosques. I would be too if I had not been eating during the day for a whole month.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Independence Day

Happy (belated) 4th of July! After reading the New York Times on July 1st (Canada Day) I don't think I will ever think about this day the same. The NYT featured an Op-Ed where Canadians living in the US talk about what they miss the most about Canada. Among the contributors was Malcolm Gladwell, a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of several books including “Outliers: The Story of Success.” There is a chapter in that book called the Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes about the cultural norms involved in communication in work environments between colleagues vs. superiors that is just fantastic - came in very handy as a managemnt tool with my multi-cultural team in Sudan! Very worth the read. Anyway, Mr. Gladwell's observation for the Op Ed was as follows:
In history class, in seventh grade (or as we like to say in Canada, grade seven) we learned the story of the American Revolution — from the British perspective. Turns out you were all a bunch of ungrateful tax cheats. And you weren’t very nice to the Loyalists. What I miss most about Canada is getting the truth about the United States.
That made me chuckle. So from this point forward, July 4th shall hereby be known as the day when the petulant teenage US of A declared itself officially too pissed off at England to keep paying taxes and stormed out of the British Empire's house. Rock on.


I am in the US right now, taking some of my many, many unused vacation days. I think I was up to 28 as of my last paycheck. There's no way I can use all of these before I leave Sudan, but thankfully my organization will pay them out to me when I leave. I have to say, it's very good to be home. Tomorrow I begin my 3 day journey back to Juba to pick up where I left off in Paradise!

Last night my family and I, along with thousands (millions maybe?) of other Americans, packed up the back of our SUV with fried chicken, potato salad, brownies and beer and drove out to a field to watch fireworks. I know at least one other family that was doing the same thing! It has been a long time since I have seen fireworks, so I was very excited about this expedition. Anything less than complete enthusiasm on my part would not have been enough to pry my father away from the house to drive somewhere an hour away to interact with people we don't know only to be stuck in a traffic jam for hours afterwards. But along with the fireworks, we did play some pretty intense games of Crazy 8's and got to cringe when my mom started snapping her fingers and dancing to Outkast's "Hey Ya" when it came onto my ipod playlist. Fun times.

As the fireworks started and everyone let out a collective "ooooh, aaaahhhh" all I could think about was how ironically, twistedly similar the US is to Southern Sudan in how they celebrate their independence. Well, semi-independence in the case of Southern Sudan. In the US we set of fireworks. Loud, colorful displays representing the "bombs bursting in air" of our national anthem. The fireworks simultaneously scare and delight children like rollercoasters do (maybe thrill is the right word?), and make adults smile, both at the reaction of children and at the fact that the US is free, and does have independence.

In Southern Sudan, the "bombs bursting in air" is a tad bit more literal. When people are celebrating in Southern Sudan, they fire their weapons into the air. Mostly AK47s, no heavy artillery. But the big BOOMs of fireworks sound a bit too much like RPGs and the smaller version of firecrackers most definitely mimics the crackling of automatic gunshots. That's why a lot of expats from Western countries think that they are hearing fireworks the first, second and even third times they hear gunfire.

I sat on that lawn, full of food and Sam Adams Summer Ale, streching my neck upward to take in the beautiful waxing moon behind the firework display, and my mind kept drifting back to sitting on a concrete floor on SPLM Day, waiting for the celebratory gunfire to die down, and the way both those gunshots and the fireworks reverberated in my body, echoing the same way. I am working on another post about that experience, so stay tuned.

Has anyone else had this experience? Veterans, or otherwise? How long does it take for the assumption that every loud noise is a gunshot to go away?

I only hope that one day, Southern Sudan will have the chance to celebrate this way, that the bombs bursting in air need only be a colorful, gentler, happier representation of their past.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Prefailed state?

It's not good when The Economist calls your country a "Prefailed State" before it is even a legitimate state!

Also interesting that in 2009 more people are dying on a day to day basis from conflict in Southern Sudan than in Darfur.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Read this article!!!!!

This is the best article I have seen about Southern Sudan in a long, long time. Please read it.

Interestingly enough, my organization facilitated the visit of the two reporters to Juba 2 weeks ago. They were supposed to be writing about Malaria in Southern Sudan. This is what they wrote instead.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Storytelling: God of Rain

***I am going to start posting a series of stories. Some stories are mine, and some stories belong to others. I leave it up to all of you to decide which ones are which. And no, judging whether the story is written in 1st or 3rd person will not help you!***


22 kilometers off the main road from the town of Kapoeta in the South East of Southern Sudan a charity organization based in this small village was very excited at the prospect of setting up their new generator. It had been 1 year of operations without electricity in that location, with the mainly Kenyan staff driving the 1 hour each way it takes down the bumpy road to Kapoeta several times a week to check and send emails.


As a side note, and completely unrelated to this story (or maybe not???), this is a region where use of clothing is alternative at best and optional to say the least. Unmarried women are bare-chested and married women tie a piece of cloth over one shoulder, exposing only their right breast. It is completely common for men to wear no clothing at all, and if they do wear anything, it is only a shirt. This village Chief, for example, favors wearing nothing but a suit jacket. In meetings with him you have to sit and manage to have a serious conversation about the future of your program all the while looking him in the eye and keeping a straight face and trying not to visibly react when his 1 year old grandson crawls under his legs, looks up, and STARTS PLAYING WITH THE CHIEF'S ROD AND TACKLE with no reaction whatsoever from the Chief himself. Not even a glance in the direction of the grandson. If that is not a trial in self control I don't know what is.


Finally the anticipated day arrived and the generator was installed, hooked up, and turned on. BRRRRRRRRRUP BRRRRRUP BRRRRUP BRRUP BRRUP BRRUP BRRUP BRRUP went the generator, and after the cheers of job from the staff all hell broke loose. Villagers came running in from every direction totally freaking out, shouting "Shut it off! Shut it off!" very visibly distressed. Two things were the matter. One, no one in that village had ever heard the sound of a generator before and did not know what it was. Second, all the shouting villagers were gathering around one tree in the compound. It turns out that the piece of land given to the organization by the village Chief to build the compound happened to be the location of the one sacred tree where the village's God of Rain lived. Coincidentally the generator house was located right next to the God of Rain's Tree and when turned on, all the people were convinced the noise would anger the God of Rain and bring death and destruction to the village. Why was this organization never told they were the protectors of the God of Rain? No way to tell.

Three months later the solar panels arrived, and weeds had begun growing around the generator.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Attack on UN Barge in Jonglei

For some reason it doesn't bother me that the world has no idea what is going on in Southern Sudan. I suppose I have grown sufficiently cynical that I believe that there is only so much information that people can take in over the course of the day, and understanding a war in a place someone has never heard of that seemingly has no outward connection to the "Western World" could just be too much to ask for. Why would this make the top world news headlines in a time of economic crisis, nuclear bomb tests in North Korea, and EU elections?

A part of me strongly believes that if more countries got involved, it would make things even worse. Sometimes people just need to work things out themselves. But in this case, people have been left to work things out themselves for over 50 years and things have not gotten any better. I do not believe the CPA to be a peace agreement, it is acting as merely a five year ceasefire until the referendum in 2011. There is much being done to undermine the CPA, both overtly and covertly. Backing of the LRA as well as other armed tribal groups to carry out attacks within Southern Sudan to name one.

But this incident? This is not good. The barges carrying food from WFP were headed to Akobo, in Jonglei, which is the same state from my previous post (although still 2 days drive away from where I was). What I didn't mention in that post was that this region has been plagued by clashes between Dinka and Murle, Jikani Nuer and Murle, etc. Cattle raids, abducting children, etc. Hundreds of people killed at this point over the course of a few months. But now that they've attacked a UN agency? That is when this issue gets picked up by the international media. Not only did they attack a UN convoy, but the convoy had an escort from the SPLA, the army of Southern Sudan. These are Southerners fighting Southerners.

What will happen if the South votes for independence in 2011 and people realize they do not have a common enemy anymore?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Jonglei - and more pictures!

On my recent trip up to Jonglei State we stopped at one of the cattle camps by the Nile to take pictures and attempt talk to people. There are thousands of cows at these camps sprinkled throughout Southern Sudan.
The people there were great and all the men, one by one, lined up to have their photos taken with their chosen cow. Not their wives, mind you, but their cows. I really should have invested in a polaroid camera so I could leave the people with something! Imagine seeing a picture of yourself for the very first time on a digital camera, and then having it taken away.
In addition, people take ash from burning cattle dung and rub it all over themselves and the cows to keep away insects.

It turns a greyish color on the skin.

The smell is intense to say the very least. However, it was very strange when I stepped with my Crocs (yes, I wear Crocs here. Screw you if you think they're dorky.) directly into a lovely concoction of cow shit and mud. I let it go for a bit, but then before climbing back into the vehicle spent a few minutes scraping the muck off my feet and leg. Of course there were quite a few people standing around the vehicle at that point, curious at the Khawajas, and when I looked up at one point I just thought, "Huh. These people are watching me carefully scrape this stuff off of me while they go out of their way to purposefully rub it onto themselves."

It's so interesting to see the differences across the different regions of this country. How the houses (tukuls) look,

the scenery, the people, the churches,

and yes, even the cows. The large structure on the left of the photo is the house for the cows and the one on the right is for the goats. The people sleep either outside or in a small hut out back. Shows you where people's values lie!

Driving back after the cattle camp we came across millions of cows being driven up the main road. I'm telling you, there were millions! The governor of Central Equitoria state told everyone tending cattle in his state to move to Jonglei, where there is tons more room, and it is where their part of the Dinka tribe is from. So there was a mass migration north, making our 5 hour drive actually take 6.
There was a separate migration once we got closer to Juba - the Mundari tribe was moving their cattle north from Juba to Terekeka County (still in Central Equitoria State). When we passed the herds of Dinka cattle they were very orderly and well behaved. The Mundari cattle, on the other hand, were all over the place! Wandering off the road, stopping in front of the vehicle and refusing to move, and just being ornery. Maybe they missed their breakfast that morning.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


26 years ago today:

-Prince (actual Prince, not the Artist Formerly Known as Prince or that weird symbol thingy) was on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine

-The moon was one night past a full moon

-Ronald Reagan was president

-Two Frenchmen who served as mercenaries in the old Rhodesian army, Gervaise Boutanquoi and Simon Chemouth, turned to crime after the war that created Zimbabwe. They shot dead a café owner, were sentenced to death, and were hanged on Thursday, April 28th, 1983, at Harare Central Prison.

-The top songs were "Billie Jean," "Come On Eileen," and "Beat It"

-The UN General Assembly met to discuss "Strengthening the Role of the Organization," "Science and Technology," and "Implementation of Human Rights."

-The 7 World Trade Center in NYC was being built (check out this sweet video!!!)

-Alice Walker won the National Book Award for The Color Purple

-Petunia's mother gave birth to her after less than 2 hours of labor. I think I am the only child on the planet whose mother actually thanks them for their childbirth.

More tales on the birthday week to come!!!

p.s. it's Moosh in Indy's birthday too - go wish her a happy birthday as well!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Connecting with the Land

What is it about Juba that makes me numb everything beautiful? It sounds harsh, but is true.

Last weekend I was sitting outside at a table under a tree and realized that if I was anywhere else (my parent's backyard, or my former backyard in DC came to mind), I would think this simple act was relaxing and beautiful. But instead I noticed the breeze, looked up at the way the Acacia tree's thorns and leaves and small yellow flowers contrasted with the blue sky, heard the bird chirping and hopping around next to its nest, and felt...empty. These small things usually make an impact on me, make my heart swell, put me at peace. But here? I just cannot get there.

The next day Simba and I took a drive out past town and parked on a side road that ends at a broken bridge so the traffic would not disturb us. We sat on the spare tire on the roof of the landcruiser, watched the sun set over the hills, became part of the day turning into dusk and preparing for evening. Anywhere else this would be moving and calming. While it was wonderful, I still felt...almost nothing.

Why is it that as hard as I try, I cannot build a connection with this land? So many parts of our world speak to me - forests, mountains, beaches, deserts - but here? Not so much. I feel that I've failed in some way with that aspect of my life here.

My mom sent me a poem a while back about the need to say goodbye not only to the people but to the land. This is what I am trying to get to, but for some reason have fallen short. And I am not sure I will understand the reasons why until later, much later.


Be infinitesimal under that sky, a creature
even the sailing hawk misses, a wraith
among the rocks where the mist parts slowly.
Recall the way mere mortals are overwhelmed
by circumstance, how great reputations
dissolve with infirmity and how you,
in particular, live a hairsbreadth from losing
everyone you hold dear.

Then, look back down the path as if seeing
your past and then south over the hazy blue
coast as if present to a wide future.
Remember the way you are all possibilities
you can see and how you live best
as an appreciator of horizons,
whether you reach them or not.
Admit that once you have got up
from your chair and opened the door,
once you have walked out into the clean air
toward that edge and taken the path up high
beyond the ordinary, you have become
the privileged and the pilgrim,
the one who will tell the story
and the one, coming back
from the mountain,
who helped to make it.

~David Whyte

Sunday, April 5, 2009

No Day Like Today

I whine about lots of things about Southern Sudan on this blog. Injustice, poverty, goat meat, loneliness, war, etc. But then days like today come along. Today I was able to wake up depressed and then turn it all around. After getting news of a disappointing development (that is a huge understatement, but I don't know how else to explain it) about work yesterday, I could not stop thinking about it and breaking down into tears. So I wrote down how I felt. I immediately felt better. The day started to improve. I ate fantastically amazing cheese and salami brought back from NYC by a friend while lounging by the pool just outside my front door and listening to Ozomatli. Then we all played scrabble in the sun, with frequent swimming breaks. I did not win, and I got a sunburn on my face, but it was lovely.

Then I drove into town for Choir practice. I have not written about that particular activity here before, but I was part of a choir here in Juba that gave a concert for Christmas for the community- we sang mostly British, Catholic songs, and they were gorgeous. We have revived the group in time for Holy Week, and our second concert is on Tuesday. So we sang for about 2 1/2 hours which always lifts my mood.

Then I went to Afex Riverside to meet up with Simba and his work crew. My god what a gorgeous afternoon. People here love Kenny Rogers, and we sat at a table listening to country music, watching the Nile flow by, a storm in the distance, and ducking under the table's umbrella every time a stiff breeze picked up so the ripe mangoes would not drop on our heads. The 'thud' every time one hit the umbrella and the 'crash' every time one hit the corrugated iron roof next to us kept us on our toes. Local women and kids waded up the Nile to collect some of the falling mangoes, and because the bank was steep, we collected mangoes at the top to throw down to them. They were very excited because the guards at this particular camp do not allow them to climb up the bank. Someone spotted a rainbow, which from a different vantage point turned out to be the biggest rainbow I have ever seen on the Nile, and a double rainbow at that! The rainbow cradled all of the Nile and the people below washing their clothes and bodies. I took a picture on my phone's camera and if I ever figure out how to transfer those photos to my computer I will post it here.

Simba stood beside me, put his arm around me, said "I have never seen a double rainbow before, so you have to make a wish." I wished to always be able to stop and appreciate the feel of the cool breeze on my face, the serenity of resting my head on his shoulder, the small perfect moments of life.

Yeah, it was a good day.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Jungle Lamb

Does anyone else who has seen the movie Mama Mia have the affliction of immediately replaying a scene of the movie in your head when the associated ABBA song comes on the radio? It's seriously driving me nuts.

In other news, thanks to Katina for forwarding me this lovely article in which the author extols the virtue of goat meat. Yes, the smelly, tough, stringy staple of the Southern Sudanese diet has made its way into the great culinary houses of New York.


I don't like goat meat. Unless it is grilled and I can pretend it is beef. But the goat cubes that are most often boiled in a stew and served with rice I can live without. The fact that the author is basically explaining how he drools whenever he sees goat meat on the menu and proactively searches out the best dish prepared with goat meat he can find is more than I can handle.

My favorite part was this:

I’d partaken of the bearded ruminant before, most memorably in a Jamaican curry in Brooklyn. I’d liked the flavor of the meat, equidistant as it was from lamb and beef. But when my teeth wrangled a particularly tough piece of meat that was shield-shaped and curved and slightly rubbery, I had the distinct impression that I had bitten into the cup of a tiny bra.
Hahahaha shield-shaped and curved and slightly rubbery!!!! That is so true!!! However, then next paragraph in which the author tries to say that goats get a bad rap is horse sh*t:

Indeed, goats have long held a lowly reputation. Scavengers, they are falsely accused of eating tin cans. Their unappetizing visage is simultaneously dopey and satanic, like a Disney character with a terrible secret. Their chin hair is sometimes prodigious enough to carpet Montana. Chaucer said they “stinken.”
Falsely accused of eating tin cans? I think not. Those things definitely eat tin cans, plastic bags, used cell phone scratch cards, and whatever is on the garbage pile on the side of the street. I've seen them. And wondered the next time that I ate goat whether I was going to find remnants of that used cell phone scratch card somewhere in the meat.

Thanks Beatrice. Real nice of you.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Wounded War Heroes

Things have been very busy in Paradise, so busy in fact due to a week of R&R in Zanzibar!!! In my next life I want to come back as a beach bum. Or maybe I'll put my (fingers crossed) future Master's degree to work and move to the coast after I'm done with school.

Along with the newly-formed (2005) Government of Southern Sudan comes some growing pains. One of these is the budgets. Each year for the past 2 years all the Ministries submit the budgets for their sphere of influence, and then my friend F. who works for a UN agency seconded to the Ministry of Finance throws her petite Brittish 5'2"frame around scaring the bejesus out of all the Sudanese Ministers by putting them all in line to balance their budget. In 2008 there were no salaries budgeted for health care workers - that's right, all the nurses, doctors, etc who worked in health care facilities did not get paid for a LONG time. This year it's the teachers, and students actually started strikes on their behalf. Would you have gone to a riot in protest on behalf of your teachers?

Also this year were the Veterans. Groups calling themselves the "Wounded War Heroes" did not get their salaries on time, so in Yei, Nimule and Kapoeta they started causing havoc. They blocked entrances and exits into the towns, took over Customs at the border with Uganda collecting the fees at the gate and therefore making people pay twice, and "commandeered" vehicles. They imposed a house arrest on everyone in Kapoeta, and the Government had to fly in to try and work things out. Eventually the President found money to pay them, who knows from where, and they took down their roadblocks.

With Refugee International's recent publication calling for "an emergency financial rescue package in order to avoid a breakdown of law and order," it seems too much of a coincidence. The drop in oil prices and effects of the global financial crisis on Southern Sudan will obviously deal the budgets a blow, but in a Country with an official policy of "disarmmament, demobilization and reintegration" where 90% of the annual budget still goes to pay salaries of the SPLA/M, and most of the remaining 10% going to purchase arms, what will happen to the other small piece for running the country?

Who's next for the strikes, riots and roadblocks?

Thursday, March 19, 2009


A day short of the end of my week of being in charge of the office (the head and her deputy were both out of town), I thought I had made it through home free. No major catastrophes. The office was still standing and free of fires, break-ins and generator break-downs. Only one minor traffic accident from a duty driver (happens more often than you think). Only one day left until I no longer have to deal with locking and unlocking the doors and asking people why they are just sitting on the porch at 3pm on a Tuesday. When on my way out the door I noticed a small group gathering around a staff member, "S", and the open driver's side door of his car. As I walked over, people were shaking their heads and pointing to something inside the car.

"Look at what someone has done," S sighed.

On the passenger seat sat a frog. A dead frog. A dead, dried-up frog with its legs cut off. Uh oh, this is not good.

"Someone is trying to send you a bad omen! They are trying to harm you!" "You should not enter your car and drive home, the car is now cursed!" These and more comments were flying around.

Who does that? Puts a dead frog in someone's car? S explained, "I leave my car doors open because it is inside our compound and we have security guards. This was not there this morning when I arrived at work. Could someone from the outside have entered the compound and done this? What if it was one of our colleagues?"

For some background, S is a large man - at least 6'4"- and yet drives a mini Suzuki with the phrase "Never Give Up" in a decal on top of the windscreen. He has a bonecrushing handshake. My boss can't shake his hand - she introduced the fist pump to the office just for him. Despite people's initial impressions, he is the kindest most gentle man I have ever met. He is passionate about talking to people about their situations, and explaining in ways that make sense to them everything about HIV and reproductive health. He has a very calming manor - could have been a fantastic therapist - and is a Program Manager for one of the HIV Department programs. I can't imagine a reason why anyone would do that to him.

Eventually all was said that could be said at the moment, and we convinced S that it was safe for him to drive home. Since I also happen to be S's direct supervisor, he pulled me aside to talk to me. S was almost in tears. He wanted some action to be taken, and I suggested we have a staff meeting so he could talk about what happened.

The next morning everyone piled into the board room. Basically, what it came down to was that even though Southern Sudan is a predominantly Christian society, people are still strongly superstitious, and believe in signs and omens of this kind. The frog was clearly someone sending S a signal to 'watch out' or to place some sort of bad ju-ju over him. The rest of the staff were as shocked as S was, and time was spent for people to voice their opinions, feelings and suggestions, and in the end everyone's conclusion was that since S believes in God, nothing can happen to him. It is only the person who placed the frog who will bring evil on themselves.

Such an interesting conclusion. I have been in Southern Sudan for 18 months now, and I still do not know enough about the culture to have anticipated how people would react. But I am encouraged by what happened in that room. Such support.

We said we will re-brief the security guards about their duties and visitors policies, and some of the more extreme suggestions of physically searching everyone that comes in and out of the compound were rejected.

And S, true to his nature, wanted the action point from the meeting to be a monthly "community chat" for all the staff just to be in the same room with each other, to talk about issues like this, and to strengthen respect and the community bond.

Even so, this event has shaken S to the core. He has asked to be transferred to Yei, another town where my organization has a smaller office. He is willing to give up his current job in the field of his expertise, to take a less specialized job in administration, just so he can keep working with the organization, but he doesn't feel comfortable in Juba anymore, all from finding a dead frog in his car.

Now think about what would prompt you to request a relocation/transfer from your employer. Definitely stretches my mind, at least.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Bye Bye NGOs, Hello Criminal President

As I have mentioned before on this blog, one of the programs I work on is with the SPLA (Southern Sudan Army). I spoke with one of my counterparts there the day after the ICC indictment was announced, and he has taken to calling Bashir "our Criminal President" because "we can no longer just call him President." I want to talk to him more about how the announcement is being perceived in the SPLA, and what is happening internally, as I don't really have a sense of the effects on the Southern government.

It looks like Plum Face's comment to my previous post held water (hi Beatrice!!!). Bashir has started to react to his indictment by taking it out on the rest of the international community. And how to do that? Kick out all the International NGOs providing relief in Sudan. A couple weeks ago Bashir expelled 13 NGOs from Darfur accusing them of spying for the ICC, leaving millions of people without food, water, shelter, or healthcare, and yesterday he held a press conference where he said he has given orders for all NGOs to leave Sudan within one year. However, not to worry, the Sudanese Government will handle everything. The exact quote was:

"If they [the international organizations] want to continue providing aid, they can just leave it at the airports or seaports and Sudanese NGOs can distribute the relief."

Well that's all settled then, nothing to worry about. Sure, the head of state accused of war crimes is going to ensure the people he was accused of betraying are going to be taken care of. Absolutely. Because the reason why they were there in the first place of course had nothing to do with the host government not having the capacity to do it themselves.

Not to worry, I'm not out of a job quite yet, this will only apply to Darfur and the North. At least that's what we're being told so far.

It will be impossible to measure the ramifications of the ICC indictment, both positive and negative. How can you tell how many lives were saved, or what would have happened? Too many what if's. What we are now stuck with is the knowledge that millions of people will suffer, to avenge the millions more that suffered before them. Justice?

I need me some inspiration

If anyone could send me a little inspiration, I'd be grateful. I'm at a point where I know that I'm leaving as does my employer and my staff, handing off my current position and starting another short term one (same organization) for the last 4 months so I know I won't get bored or antsy. But how to avoid the inevitable rush to the end? When you only focus on the event and date in the future and forget to pay attention to what is happening in the meantime, forget to smell the roses, so to speak?

Well there aren't any roses in Sudan, so I need something else to stop and "smell." Any ideas?

There is of course the new position, I could learn to ride a motorbike (was supposed to on Sunday but slept through my lesson...whoops), take up yoga, start running...but all these things take effort and energy is not something I have in plenty at the moment. I need a change of mindset, or an attitude adjustment (which was actually the name of my Granddad's boat, funnily enough!).

Also, today is Simba's interview for his tourist visa to the US. Since Kenya isn't exactly a card carrying member of the visa waiver program. It's insane the hoops he had to jump through. I'm nervous. Cross your fingers for us!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Desmond Tutu and the ICC

All I can say is WOW after reading this Op-Ed piece by Desmond Tutu in the NYT.

Seriously. Take a moment to read this. It only took the man 500 words to silence critics by reminding everyone of the real point of the ICC - to bring justice for the people that are the "victims of the crimes." Who, in this case, happen to be African.


Desmond Tutu shook my hand a few years back at a benefit gala thrown by my organization. I turned around, and looking up at me beaming with a great big smile and reaching to shake my hand with both of his was none other than the Nobel Peace Prize winner. By the way, he was looking up at me because the man is 5'3" and with my 4 inch heels (they were fantastic, y'all!) I was about 5'9".

I was in the midst of assisting seating guests of this sparkling black tie event - people like Dave Matthews, Richard Branson (he winked at me, I swear!) and various members of the US Congress. Who cares about all of them, I almost started hyperventilating when I met Desmond Tutu! I felt silly in my black sparkly dress and wanted to be far away from that place, somewhere where I could meet him on my own terms. Oh well, that was still the best handshake I have ever received :)


Still, the article takes an idealistic view, and if I were a smidge less cynical I'd wholeheartedly agree. Don't get me wrong, I want to believe that people do the right thing. But leaders have skewed visions of "reason" and "justice" - that's why the reaction to the ICC's announcement on whether Bashir will be indicted is so uncertian.

Monday, March 2, 2009

dreadlocked child soldiers

In case the news hasn't reached the US, the LRA is still movin' and shakin' their dreadlocked child soldiers all over Southern Sudan and Eastern Congo. There are thousands of refugees in Central and Western Equitoria states and more people keep pouring in from taking refuge in the bush.

Simba's Dad, who also works in Southern Sudan in a town called Maridi, had to grab his quick run bag, run to his car, and drive 7 hours to Juba in order to avoid gunfire next to his compound. There were only 7 LRA members against a whole SPLA barracks, and a whole battalion of UNMIS peacekeepers, and the latter two groups just scattered. People were running away from 7 men. This article does a fantastic job of presenting how some communities are handling the insecurity by defending themselves when they realize no help is coming.

This war in Eastern Congo and with the LRA has been going on for so long (20 years!) and the only hope I have is that the media is able to influence enough coverage for people to stand up and take note. Although with the troubles of President Bashir in Darfur and Gaza there is only so much that people can focus on at any one time.

Although it did not get picked up by any international news agency, there was heavy fighting in Malakal (capital of a Southern Sudanese state very very far away from Juba) last week by a renegade rebel General with dubious ties to both the North and to the Vice President of the South who had conveniently timed his attack for the day Bashir came to Juba, shutting down the Juba airport (took me over an hour to drive the 20 mins to work) and preventing the UN from evacuating NGO staff in a timely manner (they finally did so a couple days later). A friend mentioned UNICEF staff had to hide under their prefabs and had to yell their updates into the phone to be heard over the explosions. Together with the announcement by the ICC that will take place this Wednesday on whether President Bashir will be inicted makes things in Southern Sudan a little...depressing right now.

Before you completely freak out, the security situation has been assessed by multiple parties and there is no indication that there will be any trouble in Juba. And we are prepared.


Some announcements are in order:

I have been accepted into a Master's program in Control of Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. So July will be my last month in Juba and as of mid-September I will be moving to London! To say I am excited would be a gross, gross understatement.

Starting in about a month until I leave, I will no longer be managing HIV programs, but assessing designing a monitoring and evaluation system for my organization which stretches across multiple health areas with multiple donors.

Pretty sweet! I love monitoring and evaluation, and getting to work in different health areas is a perfect way to end my time here. And it will let me see more of Southern Sudan than I have been able to in the current scope of our activities, so that is a great perk as well.

We are trying to find a way for Simba to come with me to London. This is no easy task considering that he has a Kenyan passport and the developed country immigration gods do not look kindly upon that nationality. But we're working on it.

It's strange to be thinking about leaving. I spent so much time getting used to life here, and now I'm in a groove, but soon will be transitioning out. I am ready to go, that's for sure, but am a little more excited about leaving than I would like to be. If that makes any sense. There's so many things I haven't done yet that I wanted to. Like speak Juba Arabic better, learn to ride a motorcycle, etc etc. But I still have about 5 months in which to do them!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Condoms. Such a controversial issue wherever you go. But here? It's explosive (no pun initially intended, but at this point go wherever your dirty mind takes you). There are so many misconceptions, myths, closely held cultural beliefs and strong opinions about sex in general, HIV, and condoms. Many people, especially in the rural areas, have never even heard of or seen a condom before. Seriously! Convincing people that using condoms is a good idea and can even save their lives when their initial reaction is "you want me to put that where when I am doing what?" is challenging to say the least. During one HIV/AIDS sensitization with SPLA Commanders this Colonel, who could have been anywhere between 40 and 65 years old, picked up a condom, unwrapped it, examined it with squinted eyes like it was a new species of insect, unrolled it, held it up before him and proclaimed: "this is the first time I am seeing this in my whole life."

In my job I talk about sex and condoms and STDs and pregnancy every day. I have become completely impervious to the fact that most people find these topics to be not easily discussed in mixed company and have to constantly remind myself that herpes is not an appropriate happy hour topic. I carry condoms with me everywhere, because it is actually not a rare thing where my team and I are in a meeting with communities and they ask us for condoms.

At first our outreach workers would be chased out of markets for bringing up condoms. Now we can barely get enough stock to meet the demand. Even so, there are serious misconceptions and myths about sex, HIV and condoms in Southern Sudan. And now I present you with a list of the most common ones, in the order of most common, as compiled by our outreach workers and peer educators:

1. Condoms have holes so they do not really protect you
2. Condoms are only for unfaithful people
3. Mosquitoes transmit HIV
4. Condoms come off and get stuck inside a woman and can kill her and the man will be arrested
5. Condoms contain HIV which was put there by the whites to kill Africans
6. Condoms were introduced by Westerners to stop Africans from having more children so they can have more control
7. In order for a condom to work, you must use a male condom together with a female condom

Did you pick up that people here have a touch of conspiracy theorists in them?