Now that our projects in Kass town are poised to take off next month we are focused on assessing the needs of surrounding villages. Here are pictures from our recent trip:
This week is Eid-Al Adha (Festival of Sacrifice) and all of our staff are on holiday visiting with their families. I wouldn't want to be a sheep these days. Btw, if you are one of our Peace Corps friends, you'll understand how freakish these sheep with tails are compared to the equally freaky 'dumbala' butts on their Uzbek cousins!
With a lot of time to spare, I've been able to upload a few additional pictures:
Christmas came and went without a sign of Santa except for a small gathering of foreigners orphaned here in Kass. We did a round-robin gift exchange of things we could find here in the market, so you can imagine stuff like you get at the Dollar Store. The locals here are looking forward to their major holiday in mid-January called Eid when they will go home to be with their families for about a week. To prepare, my staff tells me that he has to buy two sheep to slaughter for a big meal and some new clothes for his kids.
To prove that we are alive and working and not just on a world tour sipping coconut juice on the beaches of Fiji, below are some pictures. We will ring in the new year by installing some mills, building some latrines, starting a veterinary clinic, and teaching adult literacy classes to women…as they say “Insha’allah” (God willing).
Our program staff arrived and they are eager to get started on surveying the IDP camps in Kass town so we can decide on which projects to begin where. There are a total of 16 different camps. Today, we walked through two camps and talking to Sheikhs (village leaders) and the CARE staff who were distributing relief food. These camps are particularly tight since they are in the middle of town; IDPs have taken over many school compounds. We observe camp conditions like the availability and location of water pumps, latrines, shower stations, and how clean the camp is kept. Many agencies have health/hygiene training, and water/sanitation programs, but children still shit outside of the toilets, water is not properly drained, and garbage collects everywhere. On the more positive side, the IDP homes themselves seemed tidy and well maintained. (Unkempt homes is a sign that the IDP family is not coping well for one reason or another.) I was most surprised to see that in some of the smallest IDPs’ squares, some were trying to grow tomatoes out of plastic bags, while one home even had papaya trees! I’m keeping a close eye on that family so I can buy papayas when they are ripe.
In the evening after the office closes around 6pm, G and I
like to drive around to explore the town. Tonight we checked out the western perimeter of town passed some
agricultural land towards the wadi (river). Our truck almost didn’t make it as we u-turned in the sandy bottom of
the dry river-bed. Not far from this
spot, we saw people the other day digging for water, standing in sand up to
their chests. Everything here is rare
and we struggle to conserve. We limit
the number of hours our electric generator runs because generator fuel and oil
are not available here and must be brought up from Nyala. Water comes to us from a boy on a donkey
pulling a steel drum of water. He and
one of our guards then have to heave gallons of water in jerry cans up to the
roof of our bathroom to fill the water tank. After seeing this exhausting effort day after day, we feel extremely
guilty using any water needlessly.
The people of Kass seem to be good tempered. We haven’t seen any signs of anger or hostility, a big surprise given what most of the people have gone through. Mostly, everyone is eager to smile and greet us after we say ‘Salom Allekum’ (Arabic greeting) or ‘Eiy-fi conga’ (native Fur greeting). Shaking hands is big here. When you shake one person’s hand, everyone else reaches out to shake your hand, too. Smiles are big here, too, especially among the children. Whenever we appear outside of the confines of our office, immediately, kids chime a rhythm of ‘Ok, ok, ok, ok!!!’ In the camps, imagine nearly 50 kids ages 3-10 singing ‘Ok, ok, ok, ok!!!’ They follow us everywhere peaking into everything we look at and surrounding everyone we talk to. I have never been more conscious of how much we say ‘ok’ ourselves until now. The kids also scream ‘Hawaja!’ (foreigner), but G and I catch them by surprise by asking, ‘Hawaja wen?’ (‘Where’s the foreigner?!’). They laugh and laugh. Africans really have so much joy. Its energizing and puts to shame any of our complaints.
We arrived safely in Kass after a bumpy two-hour drive, our two packed trucks flanked in front and back by two African Union (AU) vehicles literally spilling over with armed personnel. It seemed a little over the top just for two hawajas (‘foreigners’ in Arabic) to travel on the dicey road that the UN declared a ‘no go’ zone less than a month ago. Well it’s a ‘go’ now, and some agencies even opt out of the AU escort in order to maintain a policy of strict ‘neutrality’. The AU is supposed to be a neutral peace keeping force so don’t ask me why they’re not considered neutral to these agencies. I guess they just don’t want to be around any armed parties. I’m ok with it as long as those arms are not pointed at me.
Kass really feels like the middle of no where. Viewed from a distance, the town just looked like part of the dry savannah landscape we had traveled over, a few straw-roofed huts and brick walls in view. Once in town, we drove pass brick-walled compounds of Kass residents and clusters of IDP domed mud huts topped with UNICEF relief plastic rain tarps before reaching our office/guest house – a walled-in concrete house with four rooms, sand courtyard, outdoor kitchen and bathrooms. In the mid-day sun, the parched white walls glared and heat rose from the concrete floors. The room for our office had some equipment scattered about covered in plastic as if thrown hastily into a warehouse. Dust choked our nostrils and throats as we unloaded the trucks, assembled our desks, arranged our office equipment, got the generator to work, and finally turned on the ceiling fans, which immediately disturbed the family of pigeons living in the false ceiling.
A day later and the office is completely functional, with
faxes, landline, email, satellite phones, and VHF radios working. Our ‘home’ is livable, too, with beds,
mosquito nets, a dining table, and food in the kitchen. We even managed to watch a DVD with pop-corn
and coke for entertainment.
Our tasks for the following days will be to meet and talk to the other agencies doing work in and around Kass. Two of our staff will soon arrive from Nyala so we’ll have more translation support to get some things done for the house and office. I’ve been struggling to train the housekeeper while G has been interviewing for another security guard. We have 24 hour guard coverage although I don’t know what they’re supposed to do (they are un-armed) except open the gate for our trucks, drink tea, and sleep. Our driver drinks tea with them, too since G and I prefer to drive ourselves around town. Needless to say, a lot of people would like to work for us.
Life seems peaceful here so far and we enjoy sitting outside
at night looking at the amazing number of stars and listening to sounds of
Africa – a lot of singing and yelping went on last night until late, and I
don’t know what was more disturbing, the dogs, roosters or donkeys – all of
which are very quiet during the day. I
can already hear the donkeys going at it tonight and I’m sure the dogs and
roosters will join in the chorus very soon. So this is life in the middle of no where
We are all set to go to Kass tomorrow so we can relax and send other tid-bits...
Life in the Nyala office has been very pleasant. There are five foreign staff and over 10 Sudanese staff. Over the past week, we also had a couple of scientists from the Berkeley Lab here conducting tests on fuel efficient stoves with people in the camps. Firewood availability is a big problem so they hope that organizations like OURS will agree to distribute their stoves to people here. Overall, the group is lively and interesting to talk to – especially the scientist who calls rectangles quadrilaterals when the sides are not exactly the same length, know the total number of species of hibiscus plants, and facts about the size of stars galaxies away.
Sudan is predominantly Muslim and the country is governed by Shar’ia law so is extremely conservative. All women cover their heads, and there are lots of mosques with loud-speaker calls-to-prayer. Our office/guesthouse compound is right next to a mosque, but for some reason when they blast the call-to-prayer at 5:00 in the morning over our rooms, I do not hear them. Unfortunately, G is not so immune. And there is absolutely no alcohol here whatsoever, none for sale anywhere. You can be arrested if they find it in your luggage in customs – not really worth the risk. The only people who have access to alcohol are the large aid organizations who fly it in on their own cargo planes with the relief food and materials. Apparently, they throw good parties. So we have not had a lick of booze since our last beer on the plane to Khartoum. For a special treat, we go to the Indian restaurant to drink a nice frothy lassi (an Indian yoghurt drink, that is for now the closest thing to ice cream), or we go to an Italian restaurant and get a “cocktail” (a delicious mix of fruit juices including guava, yum). We tried going to the movies in an outdoor stadium, but all that was playing were very violent Indian films. So we went for a “cocktail” instead. That is all the excitement around here.
They call foreigners “hawajas” here and I have taken to calling G that, too. The locals think its very funny and so do I, but sometimes G is not so amused. Actually, as the Field Coordinator, he has the distinction of being the “boss” of the Kass office so the staff refers to him as the “modir” of Kass. He is tall enough for the distinction…speaking of tall…even though this is near the land of the Dinka, the standard bed-length and doorway heights remain the same.
We are slowly learning Arabic, and lucky for me, many words are the same as in Uzbek (???), maybe because of the Muslim culture. And some are the same as Turkish from what little Turkish we learned earlier this year. G’s Russian doesn’t go very far except for us to speak in code so no one else can understand.
G is a master at driving the 4x4 pick-ups, able to dodge donkey carts, took-tooks, pedestrians, and other white agency vehicles all at the same time. We have been going around town on our own rather than depend on the OUR drivers. Hopefully, there will be fewer donkeys around in Kass when I will start to drive, too, although we will have two drivers for our work.
Ok. I'll leave it here until after we get to Kass.
The past 10 days in
After Khartoum we flew west to the capital of South Darfur called Nyala – a small city that is the hub for all humanitarian operations in South Darfur (and maybe for West Darfur as well). Apparently, there are over 2,000 foreign aid workers here although we keep seeing the same handful of faces over and over again at the inter-agency meetings we’ve attended. With such a large foreign population and the extent of their operations here, there is an economy to support and take advantage of it all. The only thing we have been wanting that we cannot find here is ice cream.
We visited our programs in
Kalma Camp which at one time had the reputation of being the largest IDP
(Internally Displaced Persons) camp in the world. It now has about 87,000 IDPs.
Driving through the camp, we were surprised how ‘organized’ it seemed, but then
again, we’ve never been to an IDP or refugee camp before. When we talk to
someone who has been to one of the oldest camp - Zam Zam camp in
Our programs in the camps include community centers where women weave mats, make stoves, and attend literacy classes; children attend a sort of daycare while the women are working; tailors (only men are tailors in Sudanese culture) come to make clothes; and there are proper toilets and UN water bladders for washing (water sanitation and hygiene are huge problems in the camps).
In addition to community centers, we also have the only veterinary clinic in the camp providing immunizations and care for sick and injured animals. Animals are very important for the livelihood of the people here that this is a critical service to IDPs who managed to bring their animals with them when they left their villages. This could not have been an easy task given that Janjuweed usually loot all animals.
We also have several food security projects: a mills program where mills are set up throughout the camps for IDPs to come and have their grains milled into flour, a livestock distribution program of chickens and goats, and a tools/seeds/nursery program.
There is also a shelter program to improve the shelter conditions of the IDPs, and a health/hygiene education, soap distribution, and other non-food items distribution to IDPs.
Kass is 75 km. away from Nyala and G and I will be all of WE – Kass as of Thursday. We are flying there by helicopter and are vehicles will meet us there. We have been loading up the trucks with everything you can guess to start up a rural field office: electric generators, water pump, office furniture/supplies, mosquito nets, jerry cans for extra fuel, and we are contemplating a washer and hot water heater but have decided to put them on hold for now – conflicting with our Peace Corps culture a little too much. This past week we interviewed people for staff positions to run the same programs above but for us in Kass. Already there are guards, drivers, and a housekeeper ready to get us started.
Once in Kass, we will assess the IDP situation in the town and camps. Kass is unusual in the sense that some IDPs are living among the villagers and not in a camp, making program implementation more complex. We also have a mandate to extend our programs into rural villages with the hope of mitigating the influx of IDPs into Kass as well as attracting IDPs back into the villages from the camps. Of course, all of this really depends on how secure the IDPs feel about the situation in the villages. So our first tasks are to ‘meet-n-greet’ other organizations and government agencies in Kass, and assess the security and viability of our programs.
Generally, we have been exhausted most of the time. I was sick for a day with fever but recovered quickly. We both often have doubts about being here, but we are also fascinated and excited by the challenge. I know more about egg production by a chicken then I have ever dreamed of, and while G attended a goat distribution in a camp yesterday, I visited a village about 25 km away where IDPs have started to return to help a colleague conduct and assessment. I saw men on horseback from the main road and didn’t think anything of it until I saw some camels, too. Even then, I was just excited to see some animals before realizing that I was actually looking at the Janjuweed.
Its very hot here even though they say its ‘winter’, but there’s a nice breeze most evenings when we go sit on the roof and enjoy the fresh air and changing light. Mosquitoes and creepy crawlies are not too bad. Sudanese food is actually good – pita-like bread, lots of rice, tomato-cucumber salads, beans, roast chicken, eggplant dishes, yoghurt; and we hear there is lots of dairy and produce around the more fertile Kass region.
The next update will be after we get to Kass. We’re looking forward to our first helicopter ride.
Just returned from DC where we received our orientation for our assignments in Darfur. Undeniably, the part that stood out the most was security. Going over briefings on landmines and hostage precautions were unmatched by any orientation I've ever had before, especially when mirrored against recent news of increasing threats to aid workers in the country. And while I try to follow the peace talks and gleen some hope, I'm not sure how they will affect renegade rebels, banditry, scarce resources, or tribal feuds.
No doubt there will be continued news reports of a seemingly hopeless situation. Once on the ground though, I hope to report on some of the positive things that can be done and are being done - even on the smallest level - so that things don't seem so futile to the outside world, so that more positive outcomes can be realized through more action by more people.
I just finished "Acts of Faith" by Philip Caputo, about aid work in Sudan, and find that the following passage from the book anwers and reaffirms by resolve to work in Darfur despite the dangers and despite my fears:
"Relief work...the marshalling of resources to organize compassion into effective action, for without action, compassion degenerates into a useless pity."
G and I have just been offered positions in South Darfur, Sudan, to coordinate community projects for an international organization - and they want us to head to Khartoum in less than two weeks! So the pressure is on to pack up and go. It will be difficult to post often via satellite connections, but I will give it a good try.
Nathan has collected updates to the "missing" Uzbek opposition leader, Sanjar Umarov, now "accused" of crimes reminiscent of how the Andijon businessmen were accused (although for different charges) and detained leading up to the Andijon violence earlier this year.
Its hard to predict what will happen now, in the midst of the trials, increasing focus on the Uzbek Government's unrestrained violations of human rights, restriction of free press*, and repression of civil liberties of the people. Its anyone's guess, but who's ball-game do they think they're playing?
"Over the past four months since the unrest in Andijan, BBC staff in Uzbekistan have been subjected to a campaign of harassment and intimidation which has made it very difficult for them to report on events in the country,"