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.