Of good days and not, but still hanging in
3 March 2012, Kubur William Bridge
Themes for our celebration
I’m not really at the bridge; there isn’t even cell phone service there. I’m back in Rumbek. But it was such an awesome day that my heart and soul are still there.
About 1500 women, men and children marched to and met at this bridge for our “Join Me on the Bridge” event, an International Women’s Day celebration sponsored by Women for Women International all over the world. Most country offices will celebrate on Thursday, women’s day, but holding our event on a Saturday was easier on our participants and staff and allows us to take part in the general women’s day celebration in Rumbek on Thursday. This year WfWI organized JMOB events on every continent, even Antarctica.
At about 7:15 am Juliet, a couple of local staff, our “imported” photographer Brian and I boarded one of two UNMISS buses and headed for our training center in Abinajok to pick up women. UNMISS is UN Mission in South Sudan. Abinajok is more than a hour from Kubur William, so we needed to get these participants early. Except there was not one single woman waiting for us. Zero. Zip. Nada. Nic. Both Juliet and I put a happy face on and asked the drivers to take us back to Afex and to go to pick up the returnee women first. Then they could go back for our women who would surely show up later.
At Afex we herded the cats I call staff into a Land Cruiser and headed for Kubur William, kicking up billowing clouds of red clay dust the entire trip. The dry season is definitely in full fettle. We arrived at the community where our event would take place, about half a kilometer from the bridge. Our tents were erected ... the UNMISS ‘boozer’ (water tanker) had arrived ... and that was about it. We all put on happy faces as we got organized. We sent for more tents because we knew it would be hot and when they arrived, the panels and poles were dumped on the ground. Without being asked, the community’s tribal chief organized local men who set about erecting the new tents. About that time a bull was walked by into the area somewhere behind us. Didn’t give it a thought until later when the photographer showed a few shots of fresh meat being cut. They were leading the bull to the slaughter. Well, I’m told he made a fine meal for all of our guests.
Around 9:30 a guest of honor arrived, the chair of the RRC (a coordinating organization for nongovernment organizations and UN agencies). Philip was the only requested speaker who actually responded positively and in advance. All of the others remained silent invitees that we hoped would show or send someone. Later I learned that they thought the area was too insecure and were afraid to come there. Well, the continuing conflict between two communities on either side of the bridge was why we selected this spot for the event ... and the local chiefs promised us security, and boy, did they come through with police and others. Nary an incident.
I thanked Philip for coming, chatted a bit and then went back to work lining up chairs under the tents and steadying stacks of chairs topped by men attaching the tent roof. Here was Philip and there were no participants, just my staff and locals finalizing the set up. It was a little harder to keep on the happy face but a necessity. My mental mantra was ‘they will come, they will come.’
Then, at 10:30, magically trucks and buses and Land Cruisers full of women began to arrive from around the areas we serve. I could feel the collective sigh of relief from Juliet and the other staff, one that matched my own. Groups started gathering, some singing and dancing, others were unfurling banners and putting on khangas (pieces of cloth tied diagonally across a women’s body. I was wearing one, with assistance from a staff member who “dressed” me. The small paper ‘flags’ that Juliet made were quickly scooped up by participants.
Eventually we called for the police band to play and started organizing all of the groups behind the band to march for the bridge. Besides all of our participants, local women, men and children gathered behind the band and marched in the parade to the bridge. It was the most awesome sight. I had my camera and actually remembered to take photos. I slid undecorously down a dry pebbly hillock to get a longer shot, helped to my feet by two nearby men, and I got several pictures. When the groups met at the center of the bridge, speakers were recorded by the local radio station, including me. I could hardly talk because I was trying not to cry. I really was overwhelmed by the whole thing, and eventually did cry.
Women marching to the bridge
The only downer of the whole day was the sound system we had ordered for the main event. The idiots who brought the equipment didn’t check their batteries, and the microphone battery was dead. Of course, they told us this AFTER we returned from the parade, just as we were ready to start the ceremony; they wanted us to return to town and buy a battery, which would arrive in about three hours time. So, our speakers had to shout as best the could to be heard. Late in the program the mike seemed to work, at least sporadically. Philip, as the highest ranking official, spoke last as our most important speaker. He droned on about the good works of my predecessor, then about me and I smiled through it all. In closing he gave me a new Dinka name, “Piath,” which means “goodness.” So now I am Mary Vallance (Suzi) (Piath) Kanyr Hagen. Hey, I have enough names to qualify as a Dinka (they have at least three or four).
When the ceremony ended and I had thanked Philip, I sat long enough to polish off my 50th bottle of water, then found one of our vehicles in the shade and hopped in. Not having eaten all day, I had a splitting headache. I’d brought a peanut butter sandwich from breakfast to eat but could not bring myself to eat in front of the scores of small children watching us all day. Also it had to be at least 100F in the shade. I left the event at 3 pm with a small group needing to return to town.
Now I’m happily exhausted. Juliet has returned, telling me all went well to the end. The boiled bull was tasty, and guests appreciated the way it was served (with bread and on a paper plate and napkin for less spillage). Everyone had gone on their way home in waves, as they had arrived. A couple of male staff were still at the site waiting for the chair company to pick up the chairs. But nicest of all was Juliet’s recounting of a conversation she had at the end of the day. Early on, Juliet and I had decided this event should be organized and implemented by local staff. We selected Margaret as the chair. Juliet mentored them and watched the budget. I wrote and signed letters to the dozens of individuals and organizations they approached for assistance.
From day one, Margaret took the lead seriously. She met with government officials, other NGOs, UN agencies, the police. And in each case, she had no compunction against telling them they should support our event. For example, she came to my office one afternoon and said, “I think the Red Cross should give us two first aid workers,” an excellent idea that I hadn’t thought to ask about. Since she wanted me to write a letter of request, I asked her to get me a name. Ten minutes later, I had it!
Margaret gathered other staff as her steering committee, and even more helped in implementation. And the gist of Juliet’s conversation with the core group was how much they valued what they’d done and that they’d been allowed to do it. One woman frankly told Juliet that if they hadn’t been allowed to take part in planning and organizing, they would not have shown up at the event. But they had and they were proud of their accomplishment and were happy with the real sense of teamwork we have as a staff. That made my day.
Staff members who organized Join Me on the Bridge
I just learned that one of my son’s friends died yesterday; the obit said of a heart attack at age 39. Peter met him when we lived in St. Louis Park, and they were part of a wonderful cadre of teenaged boys who snowboarded all winter and mountain biked when the half pipe melted away. They all hung out at my townhouse for Sunday dinners often, and I loved having them.
Nick was a tall, skinny kid with a kind heart, lots of energy and a great sense of humor. Last time I saw him was at Peter’s wake and I didn’t recognize him. He’d “filled out” and it had been a lot of years since Peter, Nick and Peter’s first girlfriend shared an apartment. I remember telling them at the time that their generation and mine were world’s apart on cohabitation. We did not invite roommates to join us when we finally decided to shack up. They all just wanted cheaper rent.
Times like this are when I miss being at home most. I would go to Nick’s funeral today, perhaps see some of the ‘boys’ from Peter’s high school days. The kind of every day things one does.
Thunder claps, loud thunder claps. That’s what I just heard. And even in my office, long after the concrete floor has dried from its morning wash, I can smell rain. And it’s no wonder. I just turned around and can see rain falling, steadily and heavily. Hmm, how am I going to get back to my tent?
Rained again early this morning. I know because some bozos alarm went off and woke me up. Not sure if it was a car alarm, home alarm, just know it was long and loud.
It was my night for rude awakenings. Someone named “Jesse/Jessie from Juba” called three times between 11:30 and midnight. Have no idea who it was, got no more info than a name and city, hung up all three times. Finally I fell asleep. Then at 3 am the phone rang. I could hear indeterminate background noise, got no response to my “hello,” and hung up. Went to the bathroom, then back to sleep.
I know. You want to know why I don’t just turn the phone off when I go to bed. Well, it’s my only form of communication, other than shouting loudly, if something happens in the night ... like I see a snake.
Been an interesting day all around. Signed a contract for a back hoe that will dig a big trench at the farm to mitigate floods during the coming rains. Had my hair color done at the salon Juliet introduced me to. It’s a compact place unlike any other -- filled with suitcases stacked and brimming with teeshirts and other apparel, shelves stocked with drug store sundries like shampoo and toothpaste, awkward piles of shoes (one only from a pair) ... and yes, the occasional package of hair color or other beauty salon products. Monika does a nice job with my hair color though today she didn’t rinse it all out so I’ll have to do a wash in the morning. Her colleague trimmed my split ends. So I am presentable again.
Back at the office I enlisted staff who weren’t too busy to help cut and fold khangas. A khanga is a large square or rectangle of fabric that is tied diagonally across a woman or man, draping over other clothes or tied at the waist like a wrap skirt. We had them printed with “Join Me on the Bridge” messages but they didn’t arrive in time to be distributed then. Long story about small airplanes with limited cargo capacity and Customs duties. Each piece can actually be cut into two khangas, making our supply go farther. Which is a necessity since all of our participants want one. So for more than an hour this afternoon, I had four of the young men on the staff helping me cut and fold. Wish I’d had my camera and could take a photo.
Cutting khangas -- even the guys helped, a South Sudan event
You know, a goat hide really makes a great infant carrier. The legs can be sewn together to make perfect carrying handles, the inner skin is soft and cozy for the little one, and the beautifully patterned fur outside is a pretty accompaniment to any outfit.
Today I was in Atiaba, one of our training centers, and several of the women with infants had these environmentally friendly baby carriers. Two of them hung their carriers, with child, from tree branches while they went to get their direct aid or to sing and dance.
I had come to Atiaba to apologize to the women for not being able to transport them to our “Join Me on the Bridge” event on 3 March or to International Women’s Day on 8 March ... and to bring them khangas as reparations. They were just too far (almost three hours one way) to take to the Bridge site and at the last minute, the government changed the day for celebrating IWD from Friday the 9th to Thursday, leaving us no time to reorganize anything. They were very understanding, and brought me gifts related to traditional women’s work -- gathering and cooking food. It was embarrassing to have each gift delivered by a woman on her knees in the dust, the local custom, but I thanked each one. When they all got up to dance, I joined in until my knees said ‘stop.’ Dancing here employs a lot of jumping up like a kangaroo.
Later two of the women’s cooperatives joined forces to sell their wares together. The ceremony was the most unique I’ve seen. The women lined up across from each other, and their leaders moved to the center and each addressed the other about the joint venture. Then the two women went into a wrestler’s crouch, grabbed each other around the shoulders, circled a little, then stood up, hugged, grabbed each other by the side of the head and kissed each other vigorously. They repeated this a couple of times, then all of the women joined in, mimicking the same ceremony.
In the evening Wayne, the manager of our complex, had a St. Patrick’s Day party. He’s South African so maybe it’s celebrated on the 16th there; I didn’t have the heart to ask. He made some kind of slightly-sour lime-flavored and -colored alcoholic cocktail that everyone tried. I had one since it broke all of my mother’s booze rules. Then I had my Friday evening hotdog, straight from the grill, loaded with mustard, onions, slaw and tomatoes and as delicious as ever.
Awoke yesterday morning with a headache and learned later that the alcohol Wayne had put in his St. Pat’s Day concoction was tequila. I don’t like tequila, don’t even drink margaritas. Bad experience in college. The limeade sure covered any tequila taste.
Remember when I said I wanted one day without problems? Still haven’t found it. We rented a back hoe last week to start digging flood control trenches at the farm. An hour and 15 minutes into the first day work day a hydraulic hose broke and work stopped until it could be replaced. Yesterday the consultant came in to see me because the plow needs three new housings ... something we need to buy in Juba. Now thankfully our logistics guy and two drivers are there, picking up three new motorbikes we just bought. They were to return today but will stay to do this additional purchase and bring the housings back with them on Tuesday. In the meantime, we have to get money to them to pay for the housings, and our cash is running low. We have used all of the check blanks that M&E Manager Alfred pre-signed (and as you’ll recall, Juliet and Lucy are in Turkey). But we need the housings, so we’ll send some money to Juba. And because we will only have on vehicle tomorrow (the other is in Juba), transport to the field will be a nightmare, increased because tomorrow is the first day of our nurse clinic at the farm. The nurse and her supplies need to be taken there. Tom promised to help find some extra vehicles and drivers to help out.
Just another day in paradise.
The end is in sight! The candidate for country director has accepted and will start working on 1 May. I’ll accompany her to DC for orientation at HQ for her and debriefing for me, then go on to Poland and Scotland for four to six weeks.
And good news always seems to be accompanied by bad news. Got emails that two high school classmates had died. Not close friends and we haven’t kept up since the 25th reunion, but still a sense of loss. They are too young to die. My Uncle Frank, on the other hand, may have been ‘old enough.’ His heart finally gave up in the small hours of yesterday at age 91. He was fond of saying that if he’d known he was going to live so long (he expected to die at 65), he’d’ve taken better care of himself. That comment has helped me remember to take care of myself as I get older.
My mom would be astounded to hear me say that I’ll miss Uncle Frank. As I’m sure she would’ve been if she’d known that post Poland, I voluntarily visited him and Aunt Betty at least annually. He is the last of that generation of our family -- our parents, their siblings, their cousins are all gone now. Aunt Betty hangs on at 92 but remains in poor health after a stroke last year. When I was growing up, especially in college, Uncle Frank was the bane of my existence. He’d come home for every holiday that I came home for ... and despite several siblings in the area, he stayed at our house. And since it was the ‘50s and early ‘60s, when he’d bring his latest girlfriend, we three kids shared the sofabed in the living room of our three bedroom house. Uncle Frank often talked about how much less expensive groceries were in Michigan, and once Granny (mom’s mother) finally chided him, “If they’re so cheap, why didn’t you bloody well bring an order with you?” He was dumbfounded and silent. My ex used to do a wonderfully accurate imitation of Uncle Frank’s habit of jingling the coins in his pockets, then laughing his weird “heh-heh-heh-heh-heh” staccato laugh. I’ll miss that laugh.
As many of you know, I’m not a big fan of all the social networking sites. I prefer my social networking face to face, over a glass of wine or cup of coffee. But so many of my friends these days use them that I am on Facebook and LinkedIn. And I have found them useful in finding folks I’ve lost track of over the years. Today is no exception.
My sister and I have been looking for our cousin Marsha for a long time. And when Uncle Frank died, we thought we should try harder. Barbara recalled an old Facebook entry that I apparently had found a while back ... and after a few stabs, I found that site and our cousin. Now we are re-connected via email. Marsha supplied hers in a FB response to my initial query, and I emailed her, cc’ing my brother and sister. When I’m back in the US, I’ll figure a way to visit her in Vermont. Or maybe we can all go to Reno, where Dan lives, to celebrate his and her 65th birthdays on the 4th of July.
BTW, it’s going to be 104F (43C) here today and was at least that yesterday. Glad I’m going swimming this afternoon. After five months, I finally found the expat community here. Two guys from the Obakki Foundation told me about the “pool party” every Sunday at another complex, Safari Style. So Helen, our HQ visitor Alawy, our logistics guy Tom and I are going.
Expat water volleyball game
I know I promised that this blog would not be political ... and it isn’t. But I cannot resist a snide comment after reading over the weekend that former vice president Dick Cheney had a heart transplant. I didn’t know he had one to replace (which I’m sure by now, Letterman, Leno, Kimmel et al. have already said). End of political commentary.
Swimming yesterday was great. A water volleyball game was in progress when we arrived, so I dangled my legs into the water to cool off, then when they took a break, swam a few laps. Wow, did that feel good. Glad I’ve found this in time to introduce my replacement. Apparently expats gather in various compounds most of the week. Most of them are 20-somethings, so that makes sense. I see a lot of expats come here for pizza on Fridays but hadn’t realized it was an semi-organized thing.
I’m all set for travel on several fronts. Going to Kampala in early April to update my yellow fever shot and renew my South Sudan visa. Regina, the new CD, starts on 1 May and we’ll travel together to DC on 11 May. I’m seriously thinking of a quick trip to Minneapolis since I only need to be in DC two work days. But then off to Poland for the board meeting and Scotland to meet my niece and cousins. I’ll go back to the US for a few weeks, then back here on 9 July for two weeks. Whew! Even I am tired reading that.
Went to the farm today to check out the flood mitigation project. A quick trip since Helen and I are the only managers. Alfred went to Juba to get a national ID and passport so he can attend the WfWI Global M&E Conference in April. Juliet and Lucy are still at their global conference in Istanbul.
Me dancing with the women at the farm
Hurray!!! Juliet and Lucy are back. Of course, I had to whinge at them about all of the work, problems, etc. that we had to endure while they were gone for almost three weeks at the combined WfWI Global Life Skills & Sponsorship and Income Generation Conference in Istanbul. They are both great and understand that I need to vent a little and am not really upset with them. They have both been a big part of all the progress we’ve made here and of keeping me sane. I did tell them that I had found that we can have a bit of a social life here. I invited them to go to the pool with Helen, Alex and me on Sunday. Alex is a Save the Children consultant that I met because he was working on a MacAir and I just had to comment. He’s from Kampala but lives in Nairobi, very nice fellow who appreciated our company.
Yesterday and today are near the top of my list of “most stressful days.” Yesterday we said ‘good bye’ and ‘thank you’ to 14 employees whose contracts were non-renewed due to economics. We gave all of them a terminal benefit even though many weren’t entitled to that under the law. And we had a luncheon to honor them and give them their certificates of service. This morning I had to meet with the rest of the staff and introduce a new contract. We are adding a new benefit -- social insurance -- which mandates contributions from us and the employee. Their deduction is new and lowers their take-home pay, so it was a sell. We contribute 17%, they 8% -- all of which they are given when their employment with us concludes. Not a bad deal at all. I told them that in the US they’d have to wait to age 62 and wouldn’t be guaranteed anything regarding what they get vs what they paid. They had good questions, and all in all it was a good meeting.
Margaret (center) and graduates model khangas