Saturday, November 10, 2007

Ma'salaama - Goodbye Sudan

I am now back in France after working for nearly a year in Sudan, both in Darfur and South Sudan. The information here is a bit out of date, but I hope it is interesting/helpful to other aid workers who have been (or are considering going) to Sudan. Go! But be prepared to be totally exhausted after a few months, it's a tough place to live and work.

Please get in touch if you have any questions, or ideas to share. I still feel very much connected with Sudan, and with all my colleagues (who became friends) who are there. We still chat on skype, and they continually ask me two questions;

1. When you are coming back to Sudan?
2. When you are married?

And of course, they send warm greetings to my friends and family. Or, as one friend always says (and it makes me smile everytime) 'Worm Greetings'!

On that note, Ma'salaama.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Chadian Rebels

This is a post I wrote in Darfur, and then later removed from the blog, with a justifiable nod to paranoia. Caution was advisable as I wrote about the open secret of the Sudanese government's support to Chadian rebels in Darfur. Not only did the rebels roam the town like they owned the place, but they were happily recharging their batteries in the Sudanese government's office - HAC...

November 2006

Chadian rebels are moving through the area. Last night a ‘large number’ of them reportedly moved through the centre of town, though I heard nothing. But yesterday afternoon I came face to face with 3 pick-ups of Chadian rebels, at a government office. They were in the usual unmarked vehicles with no number plates, wearing green khaki uniforms. They had white cloth turbans wrapped around their heads and over their mouths, so only their blank eyes stared out. They come in regularly to go shopping, and do other business. Having just flown in myself from another town, I was going to register with the government office, as is required. Perhaps they were doing the same? The ritual of taking in a photocopy of your travel permit which you’ve dutifully had signed by numerous different officials, even though you’re only travelling 50 kms. They had set up an armed guard on the door, and the rebel soldiers in the courtyard were relaxing, drinking water, washing their feet, chatting to their friends and laughing. As I came out of the office they shook my hand. I looked briefly into their eyes, unsure what sort of look to give them. They seemed so young, though it’s hard to tell. I made eye contact, then respectfully looked away, and the usual series of ‘salam alaykum, Kef? Hamdullah’ was quietly uttered.

The Chadian rebels don’t pose a direct threat to the NGO workers. They seem to have their own vehicles and supplies (which government is paying for all this?) so they don’t particularly need ours. The danger for NGOs is that we are simply caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, or that the situation between Sudan and Chad escalates and Chad invades West Darfur. But that is an unlikely scenario at the moment.

One worrying rumour at the moment is that the Chadian rebels have started selling their guns in the market, as collectively they have plenty of arms, but individually they have little money. The price of a pistol has fallen to 10 000 dinars and a Kalashnikov is just 12 000 dinars, which is just over 50 US dollars. That’s not much at all. There seems to be a ready supply of guns to replace any lost/sold ones. Of course one of the other ways of making money probably includes the whisky and Pastis trade, smuggled in from Chad - something for which the NGO community can't claim a total lack of involvement.

Saturday, May 26, 2007


This is the fourth times we are killing snakes here in the premises. If there is Any anti snake you send us.

I just received this email from the field office. Not sure I can help...

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Mini-Break Sudanese Style

I’m having a Mini-Break in a small town lost deep in a big forest in South Sudan. When we get stressed out by our main office, we get sent to oversee the projects here, in a place that suddenly feels (it’s all relative) like Sudan's answer to the 19th century Swiss spa town. The sky is starry, the tea is warm and milky and the meals are uniformly lentil-based. "You are highly welcome!"

This is a smallish town of 75,000 inhabitants. From May to December no trucks can access the town with their supplies. No fuel. No more powdered milk. No contact with the outside world except by donkey, bicycle, footing, or UN flights. The town is an island surrounded by big impassable rivers for more than 7 months of the year. Consequently it is a self-reliant community with a Wild West feel. The prison, for example, has just a simple fence. After all, where would an escaped prisoner, in his visible white uniform, run to?

Today I went to the market at 6.30pm or so, which I rarely do on my own, and wandered around feigning purpose. The men were playing cards and slamming down dominoes in little conspiratorial clusters. I pondered over the identical piles of sugar, salt, dates, and tea in every shop, and wondered what to spend my new Sudanese pounds on. People came up to shake my hand, look me in the eyes with a ‘Salam’, and then move on with just the same laugh. The snotty children shouted at me in unison “What happened?” (which has now become my favourite greeting) It’s a cliché - I know - but how can everyone be just so friendly? Even in the office, the staff greet each other every morning like long-lost friends, smiling seemingly incredulously to find one another yet again, in this same office, morning after morning.

But at home, smiles and polite greetings can turn to the universal familiar bickering, and guns are quietly hidden in obvious places. In the market, they are purposefully brandished in public places – from in front, you are greeted with a big smile, from behind, a big Kalashnikov slung across the back. This week, following CPA stipulations, the government started demobilising one of the local militias. House to house searches left big crosses on those that have been given the all clear, or disempowered of their weapons. To noisily remind us all of these not so hidden dangers, this afternoon (before the shopping trip) between mangoes and rain falling, other bangs and crashes made me run to my vantage point looking out over the wall. Everyone had stopped to watch. On the other side of the market smoke rose and explosions popped red as stored munitions disempowered themselves (and their owners) in one fell accidental swoop. Or so it was generally agreed. More news tomorrow.

Life’s Ceremonies

On Sundays, the muddle of life’s milestones pass by the office, singing and wailing and clapping. Yesterday I stood at my vantage point next to the wall to watch pots of stew and lentils, trays of rice and dowry boxes bobbing along to a marriage balanced on invisible heads. Then, three young boys sitting on shoulders, surrounded by singing and clapping as they innocently made their way to be circumcised. Later, the boys are carried back, more quietly now, just missing a funeral procession wailing its way in the other direction.

When the Sunday sun sets I imagine all these lives irrevocably changed by all these ceremonious beginnings, and endings. I lie under my mosquito net hoping the electricity holds out just a little longer, and the mangoes don’t clud onto me as I sleep. The red sky will wake me up at 6.30, after I’ve slept through allah akbar at allah only knows what time. Goodnight.

The Big Questions

There comes a time when we just stop asking ourselves The Big Questions. We just live with them and stop wondering and worrying. When I was little I used to think, on a daily basis, about the size of the universe. I probably learnt about it at school, but lying awake at night (as I usually did and still do) I would try to work out what happened at the mythical ‘end of the universe’. It really troubled me for a while, though of course the effort of worrying passed. You come to live alongside these questions, put up with them, block them out. You learn to look up at the sky at night and say “the stars are so beautiful and bright, look, I can see Orion’s Belt” without worrying about the concept of infinity. But sometimes I miss that lost wonderment (is that a word?) of being little.

After worrying about infinity, I suppose I moved onto God (let’s not go into that now) and then onto questions about ‘Development’, and the environment. The Osborne Book of Facts and Lists told me that the ozone layer had big holes in it, and that our planet could not sustain Western levels of consumption and use of resources for everyone. I asked myself, was I really happier in my centrally heated house watching TV than someone in a village in Africa with no electricity? So why was everyone around me so stressed? Hmm, The Big Questions, like ‘What to give the girl who has everything for Christmas?’ How about a job in humanitarian aid…

Of course, you also learn to live with these unanswered questions about development, and stop thinking about it too much. In any case, Big Questions seem a bit naïve. Just as your friends don’t ask you every morning over breakfast ‘but how can God exist when there is so much suffering in the world?’ my colleagues don’t ask me whether we actually think we’re doing anything beneficial here in Sudan, and whether I envisage (and believe in) a ‘developed’ South Sudan in which everyone has the right to internet access, for example. We’ve all had that conversation before and reached the dead end.

Like all good Big Questions there are no answers. Anyway, I’m too busy organising things and getting things done, and being grown up, and not wanting to appear naïve, to worry about big questions all the time. But sometimes I do miss the daily wonderment of being little.

(P.S. if that isn’t a word, it should be.)

Monday, April 30, 2007

Global Day for Darfur

From the BBC website, Sunday 29 April:

Protests have taken place around the world to demand intervention to end the fighting in Sudan's Darfur region.

Organisers of the Global Day for Darfur said events were taking place in 35 capitals to mark the fourth anniversary of the conflict.

Protests included a rally in Downing Street in London, as well as a march on Rome's Coliseum and a demonstration in the German capital Berlin.
Celebrities backing the campaign, such as George Clooney and Mick Jagger, have signed a statement accusing the international community of apathy.
Under the slogan "Time is up... protect Darfur", demonstrators will turn round some 10,000 hourglasses filled with fake blood to highlight the continuing violence in Darfur.
A letter addressed to the British Prime Minister Tony Blair called for him "to use your influence to push the international community to call for action".

Sunday, April 29, 2007


Another dust storm. This one meant my flight couldn't take off today. When you see it you know why. Electricity went off, the dust obscured the sun, the world went dark, the doors were shut and the dust still steamed in and condensed on everything.

Nothing lost, nothing gained

Today I very stupidly lost my bag. I was coming out of the airport and forgot to pick it up off the conveyor belt at baggage reclaim (which is always a bit of a battle anyway). I was just being absent-minded. I grabbed the big bag and forgot to wait for the small one. It wasn’t until I got back to the office that I realised, and then had to rush back to the airport to search frantically for it, ask everyone… It was nowhere to be found. Inside was my camera (with most of my holiday photos), my spare pair of prescription glasses, expensive designer sunglasses, lots of exciting new and ridiculously over-priced development books from Nairobi, assorted toiletries, body moisturiser, face moisturiser, hand cream, special foot cream, Chanel moisturiser… you know essential things. But things I really treasured, not having so many belongings with me here. I surprised myself by feeling an almost uncontrollable desire to cry. I was so tired and I just really wanted my bag back. We got into the car to leave the airport and I was feeling a bit over-emotional about the whole thing (but hopefully smiling convincingly and hiding it well!). I was with the Logistician and the Driver, and I suddenly realised that they looked nearly as sad as I felt inside. What was in the bag? they asked. “Sorry, sorry” the Logistician repeated, shaking his head gravely and glancing downwards as if someone died every time I remembered another type of lost moisturiser. The camera of course rewarded particular dramatic effect and pathos. But as I listed the things they seemed suddenly dispensable and unimportant – of course. I don’t want to be trite and say I feel guilty about my relative wealth and good fortune, and the fact that I even own a digital camera and D&G sunglasses, but it did occur to me that feeling sad was a little melodramatic and not really necessary. At some point I can buy all those things again, but Mohammed the Driver will probably never own a digital camera, even once. Their sympathy and kindness made me realise what a spoilt girl I can be. I looked out of the window, and really looked at everyone making their way through the midday heat (44 degrees today) and the dust. I examined the lines and expressions on people’s faces and tried to imagine what they might have lost today. From my air conditioned bubble I felt the lightness of my fortunate life, and remembered that I’ll be just fine without Chanel.

Rest and Relaxation, Recuperation, Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Reintegration…

For the first two days of my holiday, aka R&R, I had a constant headache. I felt detached from the world. I could walk in a straight line, and I’m sure I could have passed the standing on one foot with my eyes closed test, but inside I was pretty wobbly. After 2 days the headache faded, relaxation began. I started to absorb my new environment. Kenya is a world away from South Sudan, and it was all pretty exciting. “God, the roads are so smooth and flat, are they all surfaced? Wow, you’ve got a nice shower, do you have hot water? Where does the water come from? Do you have a generator? Will the electricity be on all night? Oooh there’s real milk in the fridge. Yum, cheese, can I have some?” I’m sure I was a bit tiresome to my friends. I tried very hard not to begin every sentence with “In Sudan…” or make too many satisfied noises when eating. I was a text-book example of a stressed aid worker slowly unwinding, and it was interesting to observe these stereotypical symptoms in myself.

So began the holiday process:

Relaxation: sleeping, eating, swimming, eating, drinking.
Reconstruction: eating more, having a haircut, general MOT!, walking on the beach, playing tennis, getting my strength back.

Reintegration: sitting down to proper dinners in nice restaurants, talking about topics of conversation other than humanitarian aid, hearing about films recently released (realising I’d seen none of them), discussing the French elections, getting shocked and excited for my friends who are expecting a baby, going clubbing and remembering how to dance, slow reintegration back into society, expansion of world-view beyond South Sudan.

Physical reconstruction and social reintegration process now complete, I have returned with supplies of Kenyan coffee, good parmesan and chocolate, ready for the next stint.

if we took a holiday

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Daily Bread

I remember someone telling me once that if you have a bank account you are in the top 10% (or was it 1%?) of wealthiest people on this earth. It enables you to save or borrow money. You can manage your money and make plans for the future. Such ways of being are completely ingrained into me, since opening my first piggy bank account at the age of 5 and having to decide which sweets to buy with my pocket money, or saving up for a Michael Jackson tape.

I realised recently just how difficult it is for my colleagues to manage their money. For example: we had been discussing for a few weeks how to solve the problem of food in the office, and it was decided after much debate that all those who wanted to eat lunch could contribute 200 dinars (ie 1 dollar) a day, towards food, which the cook would cook for everyone. Everyone agreed that this was cheaper than buying food in the market. For the whole month this meant the staff would spend about 5% of their salary on lunch.

For one week the system worked beautifully, and we all sat together at lunchtime, waving away the flies and tucking in to a variety of dishes. The khawajas tended to go more for the rice and lentils and the Sudanese seemed to prefer the asida and dried fish in sauce (which my colleague has appropriately named ‘fish and snot’!). We sat around Sudanese style sharing the food from the same big plate, eating with our right hand and keeping our left hand below the table. We would laugh about who ate the most, and eat until everything was finished. Finally everyone had something to eat at lunch. For pudding there were mangoes a plenty, and more swatting of flies.

However, come the end of the second week, no-one turned up for lunch anymore. They went off somewhere during lunchtime, walking around the neighbours’ mud-huts or sitting outside chatting to the guards. I couldn’t work out the problem, did they not like the food? Were they getting ill? So I sat down with a couple of staff who finally divulged that they had no money left. It was about the 8th of the month, and everyone was broke. They’d given money to their wives and families, and so they just weren’t eating during the day. I asked if they could bring some food from home, but they said all the food was always finished the night before, there was never any food left-over.

Financial planning is an alien concept. But then again, in Sudan, if you are hungry, someone will usually feed you, even a stranger. Especially if you are a man; in Darfur the men eat out on the street and if you pass by at fatoor time they will invite you to eat with them. (As a woman it’s not so easy as you have to eat inside the compound, but someone will always help you out).

In the end my colleague and I paid for everyone's food for the rest of that month, and this month we started afresh and people have paid in advance (if they wanted to) for the whole month. So we can still all eat together. Though when it’s the horrible smelly ‘fish and snot’ dish I try to sit at the other end of the table.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Peace Dancers

Credit goes to a friend of mine here, who has talent, and a camera with a big lens.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Preventing Sexual Exploitation and Abuse

I have just spent 2 days on a UN training course about preventing sexual exploitation of beneficiaries, and in the workplace. This is an attempt to fight the dirty under-belly of peace-keeping missions, the collateral damage caused by humanitarian aid. It is a positive sign that the UN recognises this problem openly (how could it not?) and is trying to do something about it.

Sexual exploitation can occur where there is a power imbalance, a gap between those who have power (and/or wealth), and those who don’t. The emergency context is evidently one such example, and the "you can have your food ration if you come to my compound after office hours" form of exploitation unfortunately does happen. There are also the unusually light-skinned 'peace-keeping' babies growing up with no fathers. Disaster breeds disaster, and there are many disturbing stories.

As the only foreigner participating in the workshop I got a bit of an insight into how relationships between Sudanese men and women work. There were of course the odd question like, “is it possible for a girl to be 'raped' if she is not a virgin?” I was pleased that the other participants were able to put the questioner straight on that one. But, in discussions many of the causes of sexual assault were generally blamed on the girl, with people commenting that “she was asking for it in those tight western-style trousers”, or “poor men, they can't control themselves, it's only natural” (Cue: lots of embarrassed giggling from the group). I bit my tongue for a while but finally felt I had the right to say what I believe, so I spoke up and said that men should assume responsibility for their actions. Let’s give men some credit; they can control themselves. Let’s not blame the victim/survivor, when surely the one who has power in a relationship of inequality is the one who is responsible for exploiting that power?

I pointed out that men must understand that no means no. To which, I found a surprising answer. The whole group agreed that the problem was not saying no, but saying yes. Women will never say yes, they told me. Only prostitutes say yes. A ‘real’ woman resists, and always says no. Of course, I understand every culture has its language of codes and signs, and that ‘no’ has many shades. Yet, I can see that establishing consent is problematic when no can really mean yes. So while men must learn to respect no, women must find the courage to say yes.

Honey Seller

A Honey seller in the market. This honey is thick and sweet and strong, and filthy! It is collected directly from the trees, and you find bits of dirt, honeycomb, and bees' legs all mixed it. But delicious. Funny how back home I used to inspect my lettuce for bugs, and now I just close my eyes and eat honey with bees' legs in it. Yuk! Standards are clearly dropping.

A Marriage Proposal

"Sorry, no cold coke here. But, would you like to be my wife?"

Basic Schools

I have just done an assessment of 20 Basic Schools. Basic meaning Primary, though basic is a more fitting description. Some schools are so basic you can barely even find them – they have temporary rakuba (grass matting) structures which fall apart every year. Where there are permanent structures they are usually roofs, doors and windows missing. The schools lack books, blackboards, chalk, and facilities such as latrines and water. I remember a teacher in Darfur once complained to me that people came into the classrooms at night and defecated under the desks. I naively told him that he should lock the doors, to which he replied "but look, we have no doors and no windows, people just climb in". Where do you start? The teachers’ salaries are not always paid, and some are shockingly low (about $50 a month, which really doesn’t go far here). And with up to 90 children in a single class, getting an education here is not easy.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

where I lay my hat

ahh a place to call home...Just to give you an idea of some of the building work I've been dealing with here, setting up the new office. The 'kitchen' is now going to be a store. We're trying to block up all those holes in a battle against the relentless encroaching dust. The big pole is to attach a satellite dish onto (now finished - very inconspicuous really). At least I now have internet access. But I never thought I would learn how to make concrete here in Sudan. You can see the water tank is still lying idle... so I continue to lug buckets of water around. Internet access but no water, and no electricity (except a rickety generator). Yep, still a bit of a mess, but coming together, little by little.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Sweaty Sleepiness in South Sudan

Many people had warned me about malaria in South Sudan. One UN guy has had it 5 times in as many months. Apparently it is a rite of passage that every khawaja, and undoubtedly every Sudanese, must go through. But, I never thought my body’s reaction would be so immediate. In fact, no sooner had I entered Southern Sudanese airspace, in the noisy little UN plane flying from Khartoum, than I felt the chills start to relentlessly shake through me. Luckily I had bagsied the enviable 5 seats at the back of plane, so the armrests went up, I spread out, and I lay there shivering hot and cold waves and feeling very sorry for myself. It was in fact not a bad bed, apart from the aggressive armrest which crashed down on my head (I still have a lump) but that was just a minor added annoyance.

So, on my first evening in South Sudan, I asked the driver to take me to the UN clinic. Unlike Darfur, there are UN peacekeeping soldiers stationed here. I was taken to one of the battalions, where I eventually found a doctor (who didn’t speak English) and who was absolutely no help at all. I asked him if he thought I had malaria, to which he looked blank. I then proceeded, in my dizzy state, to act out being a hungry buzzing mosquito, which bites me, me scratching myself, then feeling delirious and pale (which didn’t take much acting). Still met with blank stares from the doctor. He didn’t think he could treat me as I was NGO not UN. I had to come back in the morning and go to a different clinic. I stumbled back into the car and home again. The next morning another military doctor at another battalion confirmed that I had malaria, which bizarrely I must have contracted in dry old Darfur (most unusually unfortunate).

My Sudanese staff told me that the khawajas are ‘too scared of malaria’ and really it’s not that bad. It is true that I’ve had bouts of flu which have been worse than this. All I need to do is take the medicine and eat ‘too much fruit’. So indeed, I have been eating too much fruit all week, sleeping too much, and sweating too much. I don’t yet feel too much better, but I’m getting there. Let’s hope next week is a bit less superlative than this one, because this week, for many reasons, has all been a bit too much.

Evacuation or Relocation ?

In December 2006 a total of 430 humanitarian aid workers were relocated from 13 locations across Darfur, due to the deteriorating security situation. In some areas it was an emergency relocation, in other areas staff were relocated as a precautionary measure. In some locations, people were simply said to be going on holiday. Most of these people are back again now, and working as before, assessing the situation daily. Due to the increased levels of carjacking during December (29 vehicles in one month) many NGOs have now chosen to drive around incognito in little local taxis rather than taking their big conspicuous NGO cars and risk getting carjacked.

There is much confusion over the terms evacuation and relocation. Security experts will tell you the difference is as follows- relocation occurs within the same country, evacuation is to another country. In reality this makes very little difference. From Darfur relocating to Khartoum is pretty much the same as evacuating to Chad. The reasons behind the evacuation/relocation are probably identical, it just depends on which areas you want to avoid on your way out, and therefore whether you prefer to go east or west (and of course whether you are in a plane or in a convoy of cars).

The difference between a refugee and an internally displaced person is similar. The factors that force a person to leave his home are the same. But whether from Darfur he goes west and crosses the border into Chad (and therefore becomes a refugee according to international law), or travels to another location within Sudan (and becomes an IDP) his legal status and hence his legal rights, are very different.

Evacuation still sounds more serious than relocation, and the word refugee holds more clout (and legal recognition) than IDP. Essentially it’s one and the same, which is why many journalists choose to use the word refugee to describe internally displaced persons. However, the lack of gravity around the word IDP belies the reality of the situation; without the same level of legal protection refugees can theoretically claim, the problems facing an IDP are often worse than those facing a refugee. Perhaps we should think of a new term for IDPs, one that is commensurate with the lack of recognition internally displaced persons receive, both legally, and in the media.