11 November 2013

Dispatches from Juba, South Sudan

I wish I could say I was excited to be going to South Sudan but I wasn’t, even if it meant I could increment my country counter from 114 to 115. Traveling alone just holds no appeal to me any longer. People in my world, that of International Development, were all telling me I would really like it there. After all, it was like the “wild wild west” of development projects. This country has so little going for it that it is a dream come true for people, like myself, seeking to make a difference. Throw a stone anywhere and you will find a problem needing to be fixed. 

My orientation to Juba did not take long since it is closer to being a town than a city, let alone the capital of the newest country in the World. With just about 350,000 people living mostly in rough built corrugated or cinder block housing, Juba sits at the terminus of the navigable Nile which provides a huge source of drinkable water to the town and country.

Juba is always HOT sitting just 4 degrees north of the Equator. My arrival corresponds with the end of the rainy season and the beginning of the hottest part of the year. The heat is what I would call relentlessly hot. People live indoors where the air conditioners are continuously trying to fight back the ever encroaching heat. Step outside and it is an instant dry heat that hits you in the face. Today it was 95 degrees, next month it will average over 100 degrees and reach 110 quite often.

From what I saw at the airport, and what people told me, the International Development community was young, and global dispersed. The American and Europeans seem to be all under the age of 30 with the exception of the senior staff who run the USAID and EU funded activities meant to support the survival of this country carved out after years of war. This information, borrowed from Wikipedia, explains why my organization is here:

South Sudan is acknowledged to have some of the worst health indicators in the world. The under-five infant mortality rate is 135.3 per 1,000, whilst maternal mortality is the highest in the world at 2,053.9 per 100,000 live births. In 2004, there were only three surgeons serving southern Sudan, with three proper hospitals, and in some areas there was just one doctor for every 500,000 people.

The Chinese are here as well, playing their role in taking over Africa one country at a time. I could go on for paragraphs about the Chinese presence in Africa, but that is a different conversation.

After working for half a day, I went to a late lunch at one of the local haunts and it was buzzing with music, TV’s and ex-pats everywhere. The restaurant is said to be owned by someone from Sudan, therefore, no alcohol is served. My host explained that we could go somewhere else if I wanted a beer, but since I do not drink alcohol this place was fine. Sitting in this restaurant you could easily forget that you are in South Sudan and, instead, be in Nairobi or even Kampala. I could immediately see that watering-holes like this support the development community who are the only ones with enough money to afford to eat there. Everything is imported and therefore very expensive. It is the development community which is fueling the growth of Juba while at the same time providing the expertise to the South Sudanese to raise their country out of extreme poverty to plain old poverty and hopefully few unintended deaths at birth.

The remainder of the day was spent at my hotel, the Grand Hotel Juba. Just hearing that name might lead you to believe it to be some old regal legacy establishment but the reality is quite different. It is not my intent to disparage this hotel in anyway. It is clean. It has a pool, gym and occupies a large piece of land. For someone in International Development, this is on par to living in the Ritz. We have learned to live with the absence of creature comforts and when we find them, we tend to rejoice and think ourselves lucky. However, for me, I find myself at a point in life where my own bed, my own house with a view of the water is the measure of where I would prefer to be. I do THIS well. I can tolerate the absence of creature comforts, but being alone for weeks and months is something I just do not wish to tolerate any longer. However, there is NOTHING like being in the field to remind me why I have selected to give over my life to International Development.

Moving on.

My week in Kenya was marked by a lot of work, both Kenyan and East Coast time zones leading to a distinct lack of sleep. I do not often get to the point of complete exhaustion, but last night I fell asleep at 630p until I was awoken by what I thought was a freight train running through my room. The prefab housing units all have metallic roofs and I quickly realized that the loud sound was rain. I got out of bed and went outside to see a deluge of rain. It was a hurricane without the winds. It felt like it rained 6 inches in a span of 30 minutes. Evidence of the downfall was quite obvious as I walked around town this morning jumping over small rivers of water in the streets. I have never heard it rain harder.

So that is how my first 24 hours in South Sudan played out. By the way, I am receiving hazard pay for being here. It is considered an active war zone. Again taking liberally from Wikipedia I will close with this:

Campaigns of atrocities against civilians have been attributed to the SPLA (Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army). In the SPLA/M's attempt to disarm rebellions among the Shilluk and Murle, they burned scores of villages, raped hundreds of women and girls and killed an untold number of civilians. Civilians alleging torture claim fingernails being torn out, burning plastic bags dripped on children to make their parents hand over weapons and villagers burned alive in their huts if rebels were suspected of spending the night there. In May 2011, the SPLA allegedly set fire to over 7,000 homes in Unity States. The UN reports many of these violations and the frustrated director of one Juba-based international aid agency calls them "human rights abuses off the Richter scale". In 2010, the CIA issued a warning that "over the next five years,...a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur in southern Sudan." The Nuer White Army has stated it wished to "wipe out the entire Murle tribe on the face of the earth as the only solution to guarantee long-term security of Nuer’s cattle"[28] and activists, including Minority Rights Group International, warn of genocide in the current Jonglei conflict.

03 June 2013

Snippets from Malaysia and Indonesia - Part 1

These two pieces were written on Facebook, thus my alluding to the POST button. I have not contributed to this blog mainly because I haven't had time during the past 3 years and so many things in my life have changed except for the joy I have writing when I am overseas about what I see. So here is a two piece observation put together as one plays off the other.

Item 1

I was explaining to someone today that I am always writing, but in my head, and sometimes it escapes ending up here, or in a blog. The older I get the more fascinating life becomes and I see stories everywhere. I was thinking about describing what it is like to walk out of an air conditioned building in which you have been working all day and the exact moment you sense the heat, moisture and smells of the air in Jakarta. I noticed that the coolness from the building followed me for a few more steps than I imagined it would then all of the sudden, like an alarm going off, whoosh, the temperature increases, your nose comes alive and sweat almost instantly appears on your brow. So that is my story, my observation of sorts. As I walked through Jakarta yesterday, I would see certain people walking towards me, and I could tell that something was askew and that interested me. One man walked past me and I realized that his pants were threadbare and his underwear was missing. I knew something was off about a half a block before he passed me, never looking directly at me, as I was at him. I try to imagine writing for people who will never come to Indonesia, never see the type of clothing people wear here everyday, never see the Muslim women wearing their abaya, never see the group of little girls I saw standing on a corner picking lice out of each other's hair. Every day, not just in Indonesia, but back in America, I generate observations and want to write them down, but I get too bogged down with other things, and in believing that my observations are no more important than anyone else's observations. It isn't about importance though, it is about doing something I like. I could write and never share it, but that seems wasteful. Then I get to this exact point where I am seconds away from finishing and seconds away from erasing the entire entry. This time I'll click on post.

Item 2

Her hand was outstretched as I near her. I could see her walking backwards keeping pace with my stride. Her face was dirty, her clothing a bit tattered. As the distance between us grew less and less, I made a move to the right and like a good dancing partner, she did the same. I moved to the left, and again she did the same, only the look on her face grew more serious, and she asked in Bahasa for money. I don't often give money to people with outstretched hands, but I tend to make exceptions for women with sickly babies. In this case I initially shook my head no, and made another move which was quickly thwarted. Were it an adult making the moves, I would likely consider them quite hostile, but it was a child, perhaps 5 years old. Her face was cute for a girl of five albeit unwashed, and her black hair sat on her shoulders flailing in the air as she moved her head to meet my turns. As my focus changed, I could see that she was part of a group of girls, all about the same age, some of who were standing in the intersections going car to car seeking money. I was worried about their safety, concerned about the light changing to green and the drivers of the cars and motorcycles believing it to be the start of the Indianapolis 500. How would these little girls traverse their way through the speeding cars. I paused to see and oddly enough, cars and motorcycles gave them free passage back to the side of the street proving that there is some humanity left in this darwinian world. I checked both pockets for change and gave this little girl the equivalent of $1 and she took it back to what seemed to be the oldest girl in the group and my dance partner returned to her position to scout out the next person on a very crowded sidewalk.

I decided to linger a bit, not directly on the corner, lest I be asked for more money, but I wanted to see how these girls interacted. There was a small group within the larger group standing in a line and each girl was searching for and picking lice out of the other girl's hair. I cannot imagine the socialization which has to have taken place to get these girls to a point where they not only would spend time helping each other pick lice out of their hair, but also understand the nuances associated with going from car to car asking for money and then getting themselves back to the sidewalk before being run over by an errant motorcycle which are merciless here in Jakarta. The parent in me wondered where the parents of these children might be. Is someone watching from afar. Do the parents wake their children up each morning and say "it's time to go to the corner and beg for money." How does a 5 year old girl learn so much so soon? I know the answer – poverty – but this is Jakarta where wealth is spreading like a wild fire, just not in time for these girls. It's not hard to imagine what the rest of their collective lives will be. At 14 or 15 their parents will either sell them off to be married, or some family will broker a deal. Not long after the street savvy child will have her own child and the cycle may continue on, or, if there is some miracle, that baby may be better educated and have more options and not be found walking backwards seeking money from strangers on a street corner in Jakarta.