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.)