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.