Sunday, December 03, 2006

Careful where you point that gun

Careful where you point that gun… you may think it makes you look big and tough, but it looks to me like an accident waiting to happen

Who’s calling who a janjaweed?

I had a meeting today with local community leaders, and half the people turned up with whips. This must be one of the few places in the world where turning up to a meeting with a whip gets you fearful respect from your peers – if you have a whip it probably means you have a horse or a camel. And if you have a horse or a camel it means you are powerful enough to hold onto it. Those people who used to have them got them stolen by the ‘nomads’, or rather, by the sub-sector of nomads who are known to many as janjaweed.

The janjaweed identity is quite fluid – you need to ask yourself who’s name-calling and why. Linguistically I am told it simply means ‘men on horseback’. Negative connotations are not new, however, as there have long been groups of such men who roamed around this wild west rustling other people’s cattle. Now, JJ or janjaweed has become a label which is used by the ‘non-Arabs’ (or ‘Africans’) to describe all the Arabs, nomads, and cattle-herders. For example, when my driver points at someone on a horse and says JJ (or “Juliet Juliet Whisky”, as he likes to call them) I have to ask myself which tribe my driver belongs to. I don’t actually know the answer, though I have a few ideas –he must be ‘African’, certainly. To make things more complicated, though most of the ‘Arabs’ are also nomads, moving their herds of cattle from place to place, not all of them are; some of them actually farm the land. And although most of the Africans are farmers, some of them also own cattle, and they move with their cattle while leaving their families at home in the villages. So, the binary Arab/African distinction doesn’t match the nomad/farmer distinction.

I have read that ‘Arab’ was a hazier concept in the early nineties, and that individual tribal identities were given greater importance. Now, every tribe has decided which side of the Arab/African dividing line they stand on. This change was exacerbated by government policies that trained and armed nomads in the late nineties, trying to foster a pro-governmental force in Darfur who could suppress local rebellions and generally carry out dirty work for the government. Nomads were taught about Arab superiority, and that their allegiance lay with the Arabs in Khartoum. Nomads became Arabs. Some of them became full-time janjaweed. Prior to 1989 the nomads of Darfur apparently felt very little affinity with central Khartoum government. (For a good concise account of these fluctuating identities see the Minority Rights Group Report, Lessons from Darfur, at

NGOs generally talk about nomads and farmers; it sounds less political and is more precise than saying Arab or African. It seems the only time we can comfortably say Arab is when we’re talking about Arab Militias. Arab as a label seems like an insult here. Maybe it’s just because we spend so much time working with and talking to the mainly African IDPs.

So how do the nomads and farmers, who live side by side, interact in daily Darfur life? Here’s a painful example. At this time of year, the farmers are busy harvesting their crops. Many of those who have moved into the IDP camps go back to their fields in the daytime, on donkeys (they only have donkeys and goats now as their horses and camels have been rustled by janjaweed). At night they return to the safety of the camps. Last week I was out in the villages trying to organise training sessions with the few people who have stayed in the villages, but most people were too busy and worried about bringing in the harvest quickly before the cattle came to eat the crops. I saw fields being eaten up by herds of cows, the remaining wheat stalks still standing taller than the cattle as they munched their way through. Later I saw a group of men in dark green uniforms, (hell, let’s be rash and just call them janjaweed), relaxing in the long grass with their guns propped up next to them, as their camels had a good square meal in somebody else’s field.

Darfur is going through a particularly dry period, and the fight for natural resources has become more critical than ever. The scarcity of fertile land means that nomads with hungry cattle naturally find the grass is always greener when it’s been planted and nurtured by farmers. Ultimately everyone is just fighting to get enough to eat. However, sending animals into a wheat field which has been carefully fenced off with thorny bushes is undoubtedly stealing someone else’s hard-earned dinner.

But when my driver points at a straggly-haired child with a big smile, standing next to her cattle at the side of the road in brightly coloured clothes and waving for all she’s worth, and he says jokingly ‘Little Juliet Juliet Whisky’ I know for certain that we can’t just call all nomads janjaweed. Yet I also know what a powerful force that word has for at least half the population of Darfur, and just how difficult it will be to dismantle these increasingly established identities, and stop calling people names.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Donkey Boy

This is how water is transported from the wadi (river) to our office, when the 'city water' runs dry (which is most of the time). This water is for the shower, for cooking, and to be boiled and filtered for drinking.


When you want to rent a car in a village with only one car to rent...

Hygiene training with a group of women, talking about how to look after children with diarrhoea, one of the primary causes of mortality for under 5s.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

It's all strangely normal

My daily life is plodding along in a strangely normal sort of way here in Darfur, though of course I know there have been a number of attacks on IDPs recently, not so far from here. The coordination meetings have focused on what we can do, and how we can access those areas which are often out of bounds security-wise for all the NGOs. So there’s a lot of work. Life is busy. The weeks fly by and already it’s Thursday afternoon again – the weekend.
But it’s hard to know what to write as my environment doesn’t quite evoke the same feelings in me as it did at the beginning. I drive around town, rush from one thing to the next, and everything I see is starting to look pretty familiar. As we drive past various armed vehicles, I practice identifying them, and say to the driver ‘Chadians?’, or ‘JJs?’, or ‘Government?’ or ‘Police?’. Or even, the lesser known, ‘JJ police?’ I’m starting to get the hang of it. There are still mysteries of course, like why do soldiers wear those red berets? And often you see groups of armed men walking along the street together, all with Kalashnikovs slung over their backs, all wearing different uniforms, or just normal clothes.

The mornings are chilly and the cold shower is an ordeal that now has to be planned into my day, rather than appreciated, as it was before. The best time is just after work when the water is still warm-ish from the day’s heat. I am discovering small luxuries, like a local chocolate biscuit called Kiko, which I am currently devouring between every meal. I am also trying to create a little garden in the courtyard next to my room – I have been digging away in the sandy soil, trying to sift out the biggest stones. I’ve planted watermelon seeds and sunflower seeds (just what was available here). Now I am watering hopefully and frequently, but so far nothing has appeared.

I’m still learning odd bits of Arabic and chatting away in simple disjointed phrases. After lunch I make coffee and practice writing in charcoal on the concrete next to the kitchen, and the cooks laugh and correct me.

The Sufis have been noisy recently, I hear them singing and chanting at night. They sound like the wander round the streets, but I don’t know exactly where they congregate, and from the safety of my compound, after curfew time, I can’t go out to find them and see what’s happening. They start chanting repetitively at about 10pm, and go on till late. One night they were singing non-stop until 7am, which initially was interesting and atmospheric, but soon became a bit tedious really. I’m going to ask around, and see if I can visit them.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Eid Mubarak

Ramadan, helas – Ramadan is finished and now it’s time for Eid, 3 days of feasting, eating biscuits and dates, drinking guava juice and visiting everyone you know. There seemed to be some confusion about when Eid actually started, some people had seen the crescent of the new moon and some people hadn’t yet, so the end of fasting varied slightly, either yesterday or today. In the morning the prayers started as usual at 5.30ish but with a little more fervour than on other days. Then at about 7am (on both days), to celebrate the end of Ramadan, it was all guns blazing, for about an hour. I heard a variety of gun shots, the single sporadic shots from handguns, and then the machinegun rounds chuddering into the air. 7am strikes me as a funny time to want to shoot in the air for joy; you know, you’ve only been up a couple of hours, maybe you’ve been praying, maybe you’re drinking some tea… and suddenly you feel the urge to grab the gun and fire rounds into the air. The kind of release, and violence, I associate with gunfire seems totally inappropriate at 7am. Obviously not. The atmosphere is so festive that gunfire is starting to sound like exploding fireworks. Of course the only really scary thing is that you realise just how many of your neighbours actually have guns.

The bustle in the market just before Eid felt like Christmas Eve in Europe. I went shopping to prepare for everything being shut for a couple of days. By the time I got there, on the morning of Eid-eve, there were no eggs left, for example (bit of a shame seeing as eggs are about all I eat, still, I’m making up for it in biscuits). I feel sorry for the only guard who is working here today, sitting in the courtyard, all on his own. He came into the office this morning with a big smile and a glitzy tray of sugary biscuits and insisted on spraying us all with strong perfume every time we took a biscuit. Things are quiet now, in fact I’m the only one in the office so it might be time to call it a day and try and Eid it with someone else!

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Camping it

Staying in one of the largest camps in Darfur. There is no running water, it is brought by donkeys, and put in these big blue barrels in the middle of the courtyard, to wash and cook with. No electricity either, (except with the generator) and no phone network. I loved being here. At night it's hot and people sleep on mats outside.

Holy Ramadan

I am now half-way into my first experience of the holy month of Ramadan. Though I am not actually fasting myself, when I work in the field I am obliged to be very discrete about eating or drinking. Usually I don’t eat at all, and in order to drink I have to find a corner to hide in (the car) and secretly slurp water. Not eating is not too difficult in this heat, but not drinking makes you feel thoroughly terrible. My staff told me that for the first few days they have bad headaches, but then their bodies adapt. I haven’t yet done a full Ramadan-day-fast. I guess I should try it. It may help me understand what everyone is going through.

I find myself really attracted to the rhythm of praying. It is not particularly the relationship with God that attracts me; it is more the discipline of the daily rituals that I find appealing. Everything stops for prayer time – we have to organise workshops so that they finish in time for 3 o’clock prayer, and during Ramadan that means the working day is pretty much over. The rest of the day is devoted to praying, resting, and then feasting.

The day begins at about 5, in order to eat before the sun comes up. I became aware of this routine early on in Ramadan, when I awoke at 5ish to the sound of a mob of children on the street, banging pots and pans and shouting loudly. I had no idea what was going on. I listened, in the darkness, and I started to panic. There were lots of very over-excited children just outside my window, with threatening sounding kitchen utensils, and from what I could make out they were shouting “Huwaji, go home, huwaji, go home”. (huwaji meaning foreigner). Oh my god, I thought, this is going to be the most embarrassing security incident yet - I’m going to be attacked by twenty hyper eight year olds. I leapt out of bed, quickly put my shoes on (I had been advised to always sleep with something decent on, just in case) and ran outside into the courtyard to ask the guard what was going on. The children were just on the other side of the wall. The guard laughed and told me that all was ‘tamam’, that all was OK. He reassured me. Soon the children moved on, to go and scare another sleeping foreigner no doubt, and I eventually went back to bed.

The incident played on my mind a bit, and I didn’t understand what had happened until two days later when the guard came into the office and asked for someone to translate for him. Through the translator he explained that the children had been chanting “huwaji gaum” meaning, “foreigner wake up”, which is by all accounts a very friendly thing to do, during Ramadan. The children go through the streets to wake everyone up, so that people get a chance to eat before fasting begins. I suppose they think I’m fasting too, and they just wanted to help. They haven’t been back since then, but there’s generally so much movement on the street, and blaring of mosques at that hour, that I wake up anyway.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

I read you loud and clear

There is now a new addition to my bag – not only do I have to carry my mobile phone (though the network is often off for days at a time), my satellite phone, and thick wodges of grubby cash, but there is also the cumbersome chattering radio.

The radio is like a high-tec walkie talkie. Only one person talks at a time, you have to use code language and say vaguely comical things like ‘that is a good copy’, ‘affirmative’ or (my favourite) ‘Roger Roger’. And of course everyone can hear what everyone else is saying, 24 hours a day. You overhear confused conversations as people try to avoid mentioning specific names or places.
‘November Juliet Kilo One, this is Yankee Foxtrot Three Two, how do you read me?’
‘Five by five, I am now at the location, over’
‘Is that the first location? Over’
‘Negative, it is the other location, ready to be picked up, over’
‘Did you remember to bring the thing I asked you to bring? Over’
‘Was that the thing you asked me for yesterday or the other thing you wanted me to bring for the meeting tomorrow? Over’
‘It was the thing that Two Two wanted you to bring to the next location’ etc etc.
And if you slip up and mention a name the faceless Big Brother who is always listening may well interrupt with a ‘PLEASE BE MORE SERIOUS, PLEASE BE MORE SERIOUS’ and you are swiftly and publicly humiliated.

Every evening there is the radio check, and Big Brother goes through the list of NGO workers to check everyone is alive and well. You have to listen for your call sign, and then respond with a ‘loud and clear, goodnight’. At Thursday night parties there is a momentary interruption at 19.30 as people fumble for their radios and dutifully respond to BB as best they can, trying to avoid too much background noise. Though the party has usually only just begun, the radio check means it is nearly over... Soon after it’s curfew, and you find yourself driving back home again, bumping along the quiet dark streets, ready for another early night.

Over and out.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Vengeance through Yoga

There is a lot of work to do here, and a strong protestant-work-ethic culture. If you’re not working, then what the hell are you doing here? Go back home and spend all week making money if you want to justify putting your feet up and taking time off. So, six days a week it is, 8.30 till at least 7 everyday. Fortunately, I’ve been really enjoying my work so far. I’ve spent my first full week training the local staff on hygiene promotion. Basically, it’s been a week talking about poo, varieties in latrine design, and the importance of washing your hands.

However, you do need some entertainment other than work. Current activities include going running in the mornings with a group of big strong fast guys, who seem to be able to sprint across the sand even in heavy leather walking boots. Needless to say I bring up the rear and am pretty sweaty and red by the end of our wake-up jog. Afterwards, back at the guesthouse we do sit-ups and press-ups, and the guys ‘push weights’. We’ll see how long I last, but at the moment I’m determined to get a bit fit.

However, feeling slightly fed up of being the sweatiest and slowest member of the jogging team I decided to seek vengeance through yoga. Yesterday evening as the sun was setting (and the mosquitoes feeding) I led a yoga class in the courtyard, and reduced the big strong guys to shaky downward dogs and wobbly warriors… Not as easy as it looks, eh?! But I hope they come back again next week.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

In the Kitchen

I’m sitting at this table outside where we eat all our meals. For breakfast today I had real cornflakes (a luxury procured from the African Union troops, I think) with powdered milk, and tea. Failing cornflakes we usually have a flat, round salt-less bread and tea. Lunch and supper are pretty good, the cook has come up with some vegetarian things to eat with the obligatory rice; aubergine ratatouille type mixture, cooked chard/spinach, and lentil dhal (but the lentils are also a procured luxury, and the supply is limited). My favourite so far has been yummy fresh eggs and greasy chips. The only problem, as we were discussing over dinner the other night, is that everything seems to have a certain amount of grit in it. The spinach especially has a sandy crunchy texture which is most unpleasant, and means the best thing to do is simply avoid chewing and swallow quickly. So, there is stuff to eat, and at this rate I’m not going to lose 5-15 kilos, as lots of other international staff seem to have done.

Sitting here earlier today, the cook was helping me with my Arabic, and I was helping her clean up and teaching her bits of English in exchange. She makes me laugh so much. It’s been a very happy weekend.

Jusqu’ici, tout va bien

I’ve only been here in Darfur a few days, but my first impressions of the town are very positive. It is quiet, rural and spacious, with mud huts next to traditional square brick houses painted yellow and turquoise. There are lots of noisy donkeys, goats, a few camels, and too many rats and beetly things for my liking. Big crickets hop everywhere, and even come into my room at night to chirrup loudly from the safety of my shoes. I’m quickly getting used to having a multitude of insects landing on me, trying to attack me in the shower, or simply attempting to walk over me if I happen to be in their way. But, I have to say the surprise animal resident here has to be the common hedgehog! God knows how they got to Darfur.

Although I know that just 20 or 30 kilometres from here things are very different, inside the town life is deceptively peaceful. Like a green oasis of calm. And being the rainy season, it really is green. The ‘wadis’ (rivers that only fill up when the rains come) are full, and the vegetation is thick and plentiful. When you see the grass waist high, the huge cool mango trees, it is hard to believe that there is not enough food for people to eat here. It makes you realise to what extent hunger can be a political problem; people are displaced and so can no longer cultivate their land.

I can’t yet recognise who belongs to which ethnic group or faction – I can’t distinguish a Janjaweed from a Fur, Masaalit, Zaghawa or Chadian. The only hint I have been given is that the Janjaweed won’t smile at me in the market. But I haven’t seen anyone like that yet. In fact, I’ve been surprised how generally well-received the international community seems to be; people smile and wave at me, especially the women, and children continuously shout ‘hawajia’, meaning foreigner.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Poisonous plant

A strange poisonous plant which seems to grow all along the Nile. And behind, the new Dubai-esque 5-star hotel under construction .

Friday, September 08, 2006

Another weekend in Khartoum... not much to do really. We wanted to go to the souq but apparently it's not open on Friday, so we'll go tomorrow. But I've had a good day, doing yoga in my room, listening to Anthony and the Jonsons, pottering around. Eating rice, aubergines and yoghurt for lunch, and talking to my housemates. I like the fact that my room is so empty, there are only the essential things; a couple of books, some clothes, music, toiletries. Nothing else. It's all very organised, just as I like it, with few distractions. There's just enough space to do yoga on the dusty floor, but I ended up with orange hands and feet. Must try and clean up a bit, though the dust just creeps back in again.

Going out for a little touristic tour now, then out to dinner with friends this evening.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Life is expensive

Life is surprisingly expensive in Khartoum. OK, I have bought some unnecessary luxuries, but just to give you an idea, coffee (imported), cost 2500 dinars (ie $12). A little pot of nutella (the one in the glass) is also $12. I wanted to get a taxi the other night into the centre of town, but when I found out it would cost more than $10, I decided to wait for the driver to take me.

The driver is Eritrean, and has refugee status here in Sudan. I started chatting to him in the car. “So, how long have you been here?” I asked. 2 years, he said. “And do you like it?” (I was trying to start pleasant chit chat) He paused and then said “I have to admit, I do not”. And he smiled sadly. I smiled back, trying to look understanding. There are a few Eritreans in the office and they were all telling their stories the other day; describing who had walked for the longest to get here, and laughing about who was the toughest.

But if I think that life is expensive here, it must be really hard for a low-income Sudanese, or Eritrean family. In fact, the rising cost of living has been the focus of recent demonstrations – fuel and sugar prices have gone up. I haven’t actually seen any of the demonstrations, but I heard about them from the drivers (good conversational skills are thankfully a pre-requisite for the job). Fuel prices have gone up by 50% apparently, and if anything is going to cause general dissatisfaction then that is. I was at the UN security briefing in the morning, and we had to finish early in order to let people get back to their offices before the demonstrations got under way. The week before there had also been demonstrations, but against the possible UN force to be deployed in Darfur. I didn’t hear much about that though, as last week's security briefing was cancelled. The reason? Er, because of security. Great. I’ll just stay at home then.

So while the government is busy organising anti-UN demos, the opposition is rallying around the rising fuel prices. Only time will tell which issue proves to be of greater interest to the average man on the street.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Haboob on the horizon, and later, a dusty walk along the White Nile at sunset.

A weekend in Khartoum

It’s Friday afternoon, i.e. what would be a Saturday afternoon back home, and unfortunately I’m cooped up in my room here in Khartoum. I’d love to be out in the city, or walking down to the Nile which is apparently not far away, but it’s just too bloody hot. Generally we wait for sunset before going anywhere, if possible. When I had my shower at lunchtime, the ‘cold’ water was boiling hot after sitting in the tank in the sun.

So, I’m in my air-conditioned room, with the fan going. The curtains are open but the room just looks out onto a wall 6 feet away, so not much light gets in. Privacy is important here and windows don’t tend to look out onto the street. All the rooms in our office/guesthouse face onto the courtyard, which is surrounded by a high wall. Outside the high wall is a dusty scrubby patch, with a couple of half-finished buildings opposite. A family seems to be squatting in the unfinished bit. When the haboob (dust storm) comes in the late afternoon the buildings opposite nearly disappear and everything is shrouded in pinky orangy dust. It appears on the horizon like a mountain range, and then menacingly approaches bringing darkness with it. I was so amazed by my first haboob experience that I stood out on the balcony with it all whirling around me till the dust was gritty in my mouth and stung my eyes. I somewhat regretted that when I realised how dirty I was, and made deep footprints in the dust as I went back inside to wash my hair.

Donkey drawn carts and white UN vans pass by. People traipse past to go to the Mosque just next door. Kids play football in the dust. But generally not much happens. Even when we drive into the centre of Khartoum at night to go to the shops, or go to a restaurant, everything is pretty quiet. The traffic isn’t particularly unruly. There’s no music, no dancing, and of course no alcohol. The ice-cream place we wanted to go to last night was shut, with a sign up saying from now on it would be shut every Thursday night from 6pm. Apparently it was getting too crowded (on the equivalent of a Saturday night) so now it’s been forced to close for that one night a week, indefinitely. So no, it’s not a fun city, but hence it’s the safest city in Africa. That is, providing you don’t say something the government doesn’t want to hear.

I’m just starting to get an inkling of the prevailing paranoia here. I’m not even sure what I can write in my blog – I don’t want to write any details of who I am, where I live, who I work for, or anything which might make it possible to locate me. Perhaps I’m being over-cautious. But speaking to Dad on the phone the other night (and he knows a bit about this kind of stuff) he was speaking in code, using euphemisms for the police force here, talking about what was happening out in the ‘west’, in case someone was listening in. I’ve heard stories of NGO workers being called up for questioning and presented with a file full of internal emails which have been intercepted by the authorities. Out to dinner with a friend last night she was speaking in hushed tones, and using French as opposed to English whenever possible. She’s leaving in a few weeks and so doesn’t want to give the authorities any reason to suddenly delay her departure unnecessarily. Which they could do. The Sudanese authorities can delay things for as long as it suits them. Everything is political. My whole visa scenario now makes perfect sense, and was just a taste of things to come.

I’m glad to be in Khartoum for another week or so, before going out ‘West’. This seems to be a crucial time, and I’d like to wait at least for the UN resolution and the Sudanese government’s response to it. People are hopeful that it may well be accepted by Sudan. Yet meanwhile the arms and government troops are flooding into Darfur everyday. Or so we hear, though who really knows? There are very few journalistic reports from Darfur. Hence the NGOs send information out, and so are considered as spies here.

Well, how to spend the rest of my weekend? Maybe finish 1984, which is turning out to be a very apt choice of reading material. Then to complete my Khartoum weekend experience there’s an NGO party tonight, don’t know whose party it is but I’ve kindly been put on the list. We’ll see what that’s all about then. Think I’ll stick to the ‘mocktails’ though, that’s for sure.