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!