Friday, December 2, 2011

Life's adventures continue ...

3 November 2011, Rumbek, South Sudan
Did I mention that I have mastered a new skill?  The art of locking my office door.  The door is metal and is nearly impossible to lock.  It has bolts on the inside that slide into the concrete jamb to hold it closed, a tiny door that opens so you can reach in and slide those bolts to secure the door, and a padlock to lock the small door on the outside.  Got that?  I strained for days to hold the door closed with my hip while my left arm tried to push the inside bolt into lock position.  It was a daily struggle ... then I figured out that two actions -- a quick hip check on the door and a fast throw of the bolt -- if done simultaneously, shot the bolt quickly and efficiently.  The first time I did it successfully was as exciting as reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to my parents for the first time in first grade.  A marvelous accomplishment.  Now I do it pretty routinely.  Wonder where this skill will go on my CV?

My office door
12 November
Still in Rumbek although I took a small side trip last Saturday to Juba, South Sudan’s capital.  Alfred, one of my Senior Management Team and a Sudanese national who’s not from Rumbek, and I went there to visit with various government and non-government agencies and to see our Juba office, which has been a bit of a mystery.  WfWI was told by the former director that an office in Juba was required, and she leased a small house for a large rent.  
My first flight with World Food Program (WFP).  For some years now, the UN Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) has provided air transport to the WFP and was expanded to include aid workers who also needed to access inaccessible places in countries getting humanitarian aid.  WFP provides food to places of famine.  In South Sudan, food literally dropped from the sky.  Now it’s more likely to arrive by truck.  Aid workers are often around to help people to transition from manna from heaven to manna from tilling the soil.  Others work in health, education etc.  UNHAS helps us get to/from those locations with a fleet of propeller driven aircraft.
The Dash 80 that we flew in seated about 40 people and even had a flight attendant who served coffee, soft drinks and bagged snacks on the one-stop trip south; no service on our non-stop return.  On that flight, the crew was Canadian so the flight attendant did all of her announcements in French and English.
Juba is a typical African city ... dirty, overcrowded, over-car'd, insufficient asphalt streets and lots of rutted red clay ones.  No public transportation other than matatus (jitneys).  Hot, humid and when it rains, it deluges, something I experienced the first night there.  Driving down most streets simulated skiing moguls in the Rockies only no hills.  My favorite shops that we passed, Boozy Baby Perfume and Abdallah for Japan Spare Parts next door to Bad Boy Shop. Hmmm.  
The hotel where I stayed in Juba, and others I visited there, were all like this one ... essentially double bungalows (bedroom and en suite bathroom).  It’s a cost efficient way to develop; you aren’t committed to a huge structure, you build the number you think you can rent, then easily build more as business increases.  Smart thinking.
On Friday, before Alfred and I left Rumbek, a public holiday was declared for the Monday we’d be in Juba, Eid al Adha, an important Muslim holy day.   Couple that with the fact that our full-time Juba representative didn’t make any appointments for us despite being asked and given specifics by both of us, we managed to have a good week.  We visited our Juba office which has no sign on it although a beautiful new sign marks the turn off from the main road.  We checked out other hotels that we might use in Juba and would be less expensive than where I’d stayed.  We interviewed a lawyer who might potentially represent us.  And we got to the agency where we need to re-register and got all the information we need to handle that this week.  
And I ate well. We ate lunch every day in local cafes.  Lunch is at 1 to 2 pm and more dinner than a US-style lunch, lots of meat or fish, a few veggies for garnish, white-flour bread sticks or a local bread similar to injeera that I had in Ethiopia, only this is white and not as thick and spongy.  I stuck with chicken since I had no idea what some of the other menu items were.  This is an eat-with-your-hands culture -- you use whatever the bread is in lieu of a fork, fingers work well as ‘knives’ and forks too. That's one of the things I love about Africa, that and the fact that you can chew on the bones and no one cares.  At a place called Mama Zahara's, I had the best grilled chicken I've ever eaten.  I even got the white meat sections.  Like so many places I’ve lived, people here prefer legs and thighs.  The kitchen was probably glad to unload a double breast and wing on me.  I pulled it apart and made "sandwiches" using the soft bread sticks and veggie garnish.  I think the meal cost $5.  
13 November 2011
What a lovely Sunday I’ve had.  At lunch I told my HQ colleague Joseph that I wanted to invite the other three expats over toward the end of the afternoon.  No work talk, just a chance to relax together.  He agreed to use our pick up as transport for them.  Around four o’clock, they arrived and we all sat in the garden until twilight.  Everyone told stories.  We learned that Alfred had served in the military, and that our former director had too.  She was a captain, “three stars,” Alfred said.  That led to discussion of the efforts to disarm South Sudan and how it really isn’t working in part because of all the instability in neighboring countries.  Guns smuggled across the borders are traded for something more valuable, like cows.  Ten guns per cow.  And cows are valuable for their own sake, not as economic exchange; they aren’t even slaughtered for food very often.
The garden where we sat
Joseph told about how arms came in during the war.  A cargo plane from Ukraine would fly to a place like Tanzania with armaments for the TZ army and an outbound manifest for fish or some TZ export.  The plane would land in TZ but not off load.  Then it would take off and purposely crash in southern Sudan. A planeload of arms with nowhere to go but the place where the plane crashed.  
From things military, we moved to marriage customs.  Alfred told about a tribe in South Sudan where young men must stand in a row naked so that a potential bride can select the one she wants.  Juliet, Lucy and I hooted at that.  Then he said the aunties got to watch the couple on their wedding night to ensure the bride was a virgin.  If she wasn’t, the bride price was reduced.  At least she wasn’t stoned to death.  
And on to families, especially the custom among many Africans of just dropping in without announcement and expecting to be fed, entertained and have your transport home paid by the “host.”  And after abusing your hospitality, Joseph said, they will return to the village and only say negative things about you, never anything nice.  Joseph, Juliet and Lucy are Kenyans, all from different areas.  
Lucy said her brother, who lives in their home village, has had this problem solved for him.  His wife, who’s from another tribe, greets such guests with a few questions, like ‘why are you here,’ ‘how long are you staying,’ etc.  She’s become known as being unfriendly, and her husband has the convenient excuse that it’s his wife, not him.  And they both get to enjoy their life without freeloaders. Alfred said South Sudan has a similar custom, and when his wife finds herself with unwelcome visitors, she tells them she has children to take care of.  And I related how my siblings and I had to give up our bedrooms when my uncle and his girlfriend would come to visit back in the 1950s when, of course, my mother could not put them in the same bedroom.  We three got the sofa bed in the living room.  He visited for every holiday, the same time that I was home from college, and my aunt/his sister wondered why I was never happy to see him!
And then there were the disturbing stories about the warped mentality you often find here.  Like the UN worker, a foreigner, who was driving along and came upon a bicyclist.  The driver gave a wide berth as he passed the bicycle, but apparently the cyclist had not known a car was behind him. And when the car passed him, he got startled and fell off his bike.  He went to the police to complain and the UN worker was fined a cow.  Why?  Because if this foreigner had not been in South Sudan, the cyclist would not have fallen from his bicycle.  Similar thinking after a similar incident sent a foreign doctor to jail for a week before someone bailed him out with the correct number of cows.  
The Africa Marriage Act passed somewhere in the late ‘50s allowed for polygamy in Commonwealth countries in Africa.  Hence, the city wife and the village wife or wives.  Joseph told of a neighbor in Nairobi who had an urban wife who didn’t know about the village wife.  And when she found out, she told the husband to choose.  He chose the village and for awhile abandoned his city wife and children.  When he came to town one day, his neighbors confronted him about his lack of support for his family, shaming him into at least providing some financial support.  So now he drops off money every week without getting out of his car.  Lucy said so many of these men drive Toyota Prado SUVs that the car is referred to as the “How are the kids?”  Dad rolls down the window just far enough to hand Mom an envelope with money and ask “How are the kids?”
One last story from Joseph.  Dinka is the tribe that predominates here in Lakes State, and they are known for being even more aggressive and self absorbed than Dinkas elsewhere.  Anyway this young Dinka man was a contestant on a regional TV program like American Idol. And he got onto the stage, ready to sing when his cell phone rang.  He took it from his pocket, answered, talked a minute or so, before hanging up.  The judges sat watching, aghast at his behavior.  He could not understand why he was disqualified right then.  
Now I’m back in my room cursing at the Internet connection which has been going off and on at about two minutes intervals since yesterday.  I usually try to Skype my sister brother, a friend or two on Sundays.  But I cannot get a connection long enough to even dial the number.  I will be so happy when I move to a new place.
15 November
A tragedy was averted today.  One of our drivers and another staff member were driving back to the office when a motorcyclist ran into the truck.  The motorcyclist hurt his leg but nothing too bad, and my guys were fine.  The motorcyclist didn’t want to go to the hospital or involve the police, so the guys took him home.  They called the office to say what had happened and eventually returned.
I knew we needed to compensate the motorcyclist in some way.  So after consulting with some staff, we decided that 600 SSPs in cash and a large sack of flour and another of sugar were appropriate.  The motorcyclist expressed his gratitude to the staff members who delivered everything (they recommended that I not go).
16 November
I totally forgot to tell you that I started the day yesterday by dancing with a group of our women who were in town for a meeting.  About 30 or so came to discuss what they want to do at a farm we operate ... they initiated the meeting and Lucy and Joseph spent half a day with them.  But before they walked over to the meeting place (we have no meeting rooms), they sang for several minutes outside our gate.  Then I went out to greet them, shake hands and clap along.  But at one point they started jumping up and down to the music and moving their arms rhythmically, a dance.  So I joined in.  Not sure if anyone got a photo, but if so, I’ll post.
Welcome to our offices in Rumbek
20 November
How ironic that I moved from the hotel earlier than I’d planned because their Internet was so inconsistent ... and now, in the new compound, I can get into the Internet but it won’t open my email or browser accounts.  I have a feeling it only likes Microsoft products because that’s how I finally got it to work on my office laptop.  Weird that Mac works fine at the office and worked at Hillview but not here.  Must ask my new friend, Kalvin, the IT fellow.  At least here they have one.  And I do love an IT specialist who has a sense of humor and a smile ... that’s Kalvin.
When I first went to him on Friday afternoon, I couldn’t make a connection using either computer.  At one point, he gave me his user name and password to try, and that worked.  We made it work eventually on both of my laptops, and I downloaded messages. Now I cannot even get the login page to open.
Yesterday I was sick all day (lots of bathroom time and sleep), so I didn’t really use the computer much.  But I did get on last night briefly.  I had gone to dinner in search of soup, which I found, and Kalvin saw me and asked how the Internet was working.  He also introduced me to Gloria.  Her name is his password, so when we used that on Friday, I’d asked if she was his girlfriend and said I’d like to meet her.
The problem today is that once I got on, and then the clock started ticking for the six hours of time I bought, but I didn’t get any use from it.  I ran disk utility, like defragging, and uninstalled my firewall (which all of the Apple people said was unnecessary anyway), and nothing has changed.  And today is Sunday, so no Kalvin.  I’m sure those of you who know me really well and how well I tolerate computer problems can feel my frustration from 10,000 miles away.
But enough.  We now have a full complement of management.  Norman, our regional finance manager, has take over the Finance office with Samuel, the cashier.  Job, the regional HR manager, is working with our new HR officer, Abraham, who seems to be working out well so far (one week).  Joseph, the coop specialist, has departed for Afghanistan, but we’ve gotten approval to fill the vacant cooperative support officer position.  We all hope the #2 choice will accept; #1 did, then didn’t show up for work!
Now we’re starting planning and budgeting, and I have to figure out when we can have a off-site planning conference amidst a hectic schedule of visitors and travel.  I may get things started here, then have Norman run an off-site session while I’m in Poland.  Tomorrow’s decision.
As I noted above, I moved.  And so has all of the management team for the moment.  We’re living in the Afex compound.  Africa Expeditions Ltd. has similar compounds all over -- housing with full board as well as office space.  We are likely moving our offices here come early December.  Most of us are living in safari-style tents, but they also have “hard rooms” similar to my place at Hillview.  
The street where I live in Alpha 1 (in background)
I like my tent.  It’s cozy, has air conditioning and a fan, and the bathroom reminds of vacation homes on Househunters International on HGTV -- concrete floors, natural brick walls, real hot water and no smelly shower curtain.  Somehow it feels like a more authentic experience. Complete with daily maid service and laundry, of course.
Update -- after lunch I learned that some part on the satellite connection blew up.  The Internet will be down until at least Wednesday.  That’s as soon as it can be brought up from Nairobi.  The flights from Nairobi are at 8 am MWF, so if they can buy it on Monday or Tuesday, it can be shipped on Wednesday.  Ah, the joys of life in the wilds.
22 November
The reactions I got when i emailed this photo of my new home to family friends in the US -- well, lots of disbelief, a bit of humor too.  Oh, ye of little faith.  My tent home has air conditioning and a fan, a bathroom right out of HGTV’s Househunters International vacation homes (large brick-walled shower, hot water, flush toilet), daily maid service, laundry service as needed.  The compound is huge and includes a cafeteria for my three squares and a bar should I acquire a taste for beer (no wine, no diet anything, lots of beer and water and a few whiskeys).  My entire senior staff is here, so I even have friends in the neighborhood. So ... all’s well.
27 November
It was an especially busy week.  Juliet, the Life Skills manager, had organized a train-the-trainer course with all of our trainers.  But, as of Saturday, we had not heard from Nina, the trainer, who was supposed to fly in from India on Monday morning and start training in the afternoon.  Our Plan B (back up) plan was Juliet running a training. On Sunday, something in the VSAT that is our Internet connection from this compound blew up ... best case scenario, Internet up again here on Monday night.  But we had a VSAT at the office.  Off we went, taking the manager of ALS, the privately owned airline that flies from Nairobi on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, to our office. He used my laptop to check the flight manifest, and Nina’s ticket had not been issued. So we had him issue the ticket since it was transferrable if she didn’t use it.  And we waited. 
On Monday, Nina arrived as scheduled, and we all breathed the proverbial collective sigh of relief.  Oh, we of little faith. Ironically Nina’s brother works for Target Corp. and lives in Plymouth, a western suburb of Minneapolis.  So we had a small connection.  She and the trainers had a great week.  The trainers all were excited about what they were learning, and by Friday, were rarin’ to go and put it to use.  In the meantime, Lucy (Income Generation manager) and I had a donor visitor coming, a representative from a private foundation that has supported our work on a demonstration farm.  It was the donor’s first site visit, but Ka-Hay, the rep, had lived in Zambia for several years so was prepared for the likes of South Sudan.  She was coming on a WFP flight from Juba midday on Wednesday.
Since we want to stay connected with the appropriate ministries, other NGOs and UN agencies, we’ve assigned various meetings to other senior management members.  So I scheduled myself to attend the Wednesday morning meeting of the  “livelihoods” group at the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, which I discovered is farther from the office than I knew.  I thought I was late, but alas, others including the chair were later.  The meeting was scheduled for two hours.  My phone, set on “meeting mode” vibrated and seeing that it was Ka-Hay calling, I leaned over and answered, then quickly excused myself for an emergency, climbing past others because of course, I was sitting in the middle.  (I later learned that the meeting droned on until 1 pm.)
Ka-Hay was at the airport in Juba and being refused a boarding pass because she didn’t have a letter of introduction from us (in lieu of a WfWI-SS ID card, as we all have).  Our logistics person had sent this to WFP but who knows what happened.  I talked to the gate agent, agreed with him that I would send the letter before the plane took off.
Awaking my dozing driver, I told him we had to hurry to the office, then called Job, our regional HR person who’s helping out, and asked him to start typing a letter for me to sign, stamp, PDF and email.  I called Ka-Hay to update her and learned they had allowed her to check in.  Whew!  Big hurdle jumped.  The letter was ready by the time I returned, so I finished the process and texted Ka-Hay ‘mission accomplished.’  She was boarding the plane, which of course, took the long way around to Rumbek so she arrived at 5 pm, not 3 pm.  Lucy and a driver met her at the airport to drive her to this compound where she would stay.  She was flabbergasted that the car only drove about 100 feet.  The Afex compound is literally across the road from the airport entrance.  So when she departed on Saturday morning, we all walked across to the airport with her.
Her visit was hectic but exhilarating.  My first trips to the field -- the farm all day on Thursday and several women’s groups who are doing well on Friday.  Because there had been rumors earlier that our previous director might try to disrupt this visit, we had two unarmed, non-unformed security guards provided by the government.  The trips were long and hot and incredible.  Both Ka-Hay and I were surprised at how huge the farm is (90 hectares) and how little of the land is actually under cultivation. The women are remarkable -- singing and dancing their way along the paths, showing us what they had done and telling us their stories and their challenges (free range cattle and goats that eat their seedlings and crops, flood waters from a nearby river during the rainy season, the need to hand carry water because the irrigation systems don’t quite work as they should).
Ka-Hay and women ready to see the farm
Everywhere we went, the women sang and danced with joy
On Friday we visited a group of graduates who are planting and harvesting ground nuts (peanuts), diving their largesse among current consumption, future sales and seeds for the next season.  We were impressed by their organization and their vision.  They have already cleared a place to build an office and storage of their own.  Another group is like a mini-conglomerate.  When they started, each invested part of the WfWI savings into buying sorghum at the market and selling it in their village, making a profit even with transport costs.  But price fluctuations meant a profit wasn’t assured.  So they started to lend money to returnees who get regular monthly government stipends and charge 50 percent interest (!) for a month (!!).  They also have a small shelter from which they sell hot tea, local bread and inexpensive meals.  And they have done this on their own.  
Not yet a cooperative, but already a conglomerate!
Riding with our two young security guards was a venture into the local culture.  We passed a cattle camp where families had gathered not only to water their cows but also to arrange a marriage.  This gave the bride’s family a chance to examine and evaluate the cows on offer to pay the bride price and ensure they got value for their bride.  If I recall correctly, 80 cows is an average bride price in this tribe’s culture but if the family is wealthy, the price can go up to 300 or more.  That led to what might make a bride more valuable besides her family heritage -- tall, strong legs, very dark, nice looking face; an education and/or a job would be pluses but unusual.  But bottom line, marriages are arranged by the patriarchs.  And marriageable age begins at around 13, when a girl has her first period.  And most are married and have a child by 18.
Cattle camp where a young woman’s life is being decided
While girls increase a family’s wealth by adding cows through their marriages, boys are still the more valued children.  They tend the cows but they don’t even own the cows acquired in marriage.  Those are all added to the family herd.  A young man might walk a cow for grazing to show off a little but it won’t be his cow; it will be his family’s.
Young men in the family have to marry in birth order, the oldest first etc.  So our tall English-speaking guard, who looked to be in his mid twenties and was #7 of 9, still had a couple of single brothers to see married before it was his turn.  Rumbek is not his home, so we asked what would happen if he wanted to marry a girl from there.  Not without his father’s approval, otherwise, even if they married, the wife would not be considered his wife within the family.  
Ka-Hay, whose parents are from China, and Lucy, who’s Kenyan, shared some of the marriage customs of their cultures.  They Bona, the guard, asked about America.  Everyone laughed when I said it was pretty much do what you want except among newer immigrants who still maintained strong cultural ties with their homelands.  I did relate walking down the aisle with a gold sovereign in my shoe and being married at five minutes to noon, both for good luck and requirements of my Scottish grandmother, the one I’m named for.
30 November
Let’s close the month with a few grafs about critters.  All kinds of critters.  First, those that at least appear to be the most benign -- the herd of cats, domestic breeds, not ocelots and lions but likely feral, that chase around our compound day and night making the most gawdawful noises.  You’d swear it was perpetual mating season!
We have calicoes and tabbies, black-and-white tuxedos and even the occasional single color.  They are likely fed by the kitchen staff but have been known to beg in the dining hall. The other night Norman, our interim finance manager, and I had a cute little calico yowling under our table, even standing up between our chairs hoping for a hand out.  But much as I wanted to feed it, I didn’t.  
Tuesday night Juliet and Lucy, two of the senior managers, and I were talking over dinner.  I mentioned that Norman had had a scorpion fall from the ceiling of his tent to the floor.  Despite its quickness, Norman was able to kill it.  That started Juliet on tales of intruders ... the guy who found a snake stretched out on the wooden bed frame under the overhanging blankets ... or the other who found a scorpion under his blankets at the foot of his bed.  All tales from elsewhere, Juliet reassured us.  But like me, Lucy was susceptible and checked her bed before climbing in.  Me too.
So last night, I’m lying on the bed reading when my eyes are ready to fall out.  I sit up, roll my feet to the floor ... and there is a small toad.  The outdoors here is hopping with toads, which everyone keeps calling frogs.  And Aboubacar, my HQ finance helper who was here last month, said where there are frogs, there are snakes.  Our general feeling is that there are enough frogs/toads to feed the snakes and keep them from our tents.  But I digress ...
I stood up quickly and tried to figure out how I would get rid of the little guy.  He would not be able to hop into my bed (or at least I didn’t think so; he was only about 1.5 inches tall).  But what if I arose for my 3 am bathroom break and stepped on him?  Argh.  Then I spied my Pittsburgh Steelers baseball cap on a nearby desk.  Grabbing it, I got down on the floor and made an unsuccessful attempt to capture Toady.  He hopped under the bed.  I leaned in and got him.  I picked up the cap, holding one of Toady’s legs with it and walked to the tent exit.  A quick unzip, an even quicker toss of Toady outside, and the hat was back on desk, never to be worn again until it’s washed.
And of course, lest the insects of the world be left out in the cold, I have already caught and flushed away two giant roach things.  They’re bright reddish brown with long feelers and hard shells but thankfully very slow.  One was in the shower this morning, the other in the sink yesterday.  And then there were none.  I am not looking forward to the rainy season!

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