30 September 2007

Happy Birthday to MEEEEEE!


I heard something recently that made me suspect that people might think, from reading this blog, that Southern Sudan is driving me out of Africa, that this place is the reason I am moving back to the US for a while. The opposite is true. Southern Sudan entices me to stay in Africa. It tempts me every day.

It is true that if I were staying for a while, I would insist on some quality of life improvements, namely access to a kitchen and a seat on the pit latrine, but every day, I struggle with the decision to leave this continent for a time. I don’t want to leave. I love being here. (Notice all the caveats: for a while, for a time. I can’t stay away.)

(Jet fuel and traffic lines
Pulling up to the Delta signs
Distant shape of my hometown
Black stain where the wheels touch down

I pick up the morning news
Pass the man who’s never shined my shoes
Through security into the train
That will take me to the aeroplane)

I made the decision to move back to the US before I arrived in Southern Sudan – in fact, before I left the US this time around. The truth is that I’m tired of leaving. I have reached the point where I don’t actually even bother to picture the next place. In August, I sat in the Nairobi airport waiting for my Juba flight, just blank. Not expectant. Not excited. Blank.

I pack and get on a plane, assuming that it will be fine. That’s good, I suppose, to be independent and well-traveled, but I’m tired. I’m tired of saying goodbye. I’m tired of making some semblance of a home out of new places. I’m tired of not having a home. I feel like I’ve just been staying in different places – three or so a year since 2004 – without ever really feeling settled. I haven’t felt at home since I left Rwanda over three years ago.

(Count the miles on the highway
The sum of all my days
There’s a postcard, there’s a call
There’s a picture for your bedroom wall

But do you ever wonder through and through
Who’s that person standing next to you?
And after all the nights apart
Is there a home for a traveling heart?)

I think it is telling that, when my computer lost all the iTunes playlists, one of only two that I immediately made was titled “leaving.” It contains some songs that keep me alive in airport departure lounges. Songs like Caedmon’s Call’s “Faith My Eyes” and Nicole Nordeman’s “Brave.” Songs like Indigo Girls’ “Leaving,” which is the song interspersed in this post.

It would be easy for me to dive deep into the humanitarian worker world, living in a different place every few years – because every place sounds so fascinating to me – but I don’t like what all the leavings have done to me. I don’t like what they could do to me. I don’t want to go just for the sake of going.

(But if I weren’t leaving you
I don’t know what I would do
But the more I go, the less I know
Will the fire still burn on my return
Keep the path lit on the only road I know?
Honey, all I know to do is go)

Although I had decided before leaving the US that I would move to Reasonably Big City in the Western Half of the US in December, I heard back from a job possibility soon after I arrived in Southern Sudan. I had an interview for it (this was the very important satellite phone call that I was waiting for in the rain, for careful readers, should any exist). It was a newly graduated international lawyer’s dream job. Really, it was. It was in a country that shares a border with this one, a country I have long wanted to visit. It would have given me frequent rest and relaxation breaks, during which I could have traveled throughout East and Southern Africa.

I interviewed. When I got an email asking me to move on to the final selection stage, I panicked. If anyone had asked me three months ago what I wanted to do, what my perfect job would have been, I would have described this one. I thought about giving up the perfect job, about giving up the travel, about giving up the continent, and I wasn’t sure if I could do it.

Then I thought about walking through security in the airport in Michigan when I was leaving for Southern Sudan, and about how I went into the bathroom and when I came out, I looked back out at the waiting area, and my parents, who I had told not to stay, not to come up to the glass window and try to talk through it, because it’s all too hard, were just then turning around to walk out of the airport. They had been watching, in case I turned back, the whole time I was in the bathroom.

(Cup of coffee and my bags are packed
Same vow not to look back
Familiar emptiness inside
As the distance is growing wide

And though I vowed to memorize
The last look in your loving eyes
It’s here dusk and there dawn
Oh, it’s like a curtain getting slowly drawn)

I realized that I had to make a choice about who I wanted to be. For the first time in my life, I actually had two distinct paths before me: continents, careers, homes. I had to choose who I wanted to be: someone who goes, or someone who stays.

(But if I weren’t leaving you
I don’t know what I would do
But the more I go, the less I know
Will the fire still burn on my return
Keep the path lit on the only road I know?
Honey, all I know to do is go)

I chose to be someone who stays.

I will be back in Africa. No question. But I have decided against this post-conflict work, this work that in itself very nearly precludes stability, long-term friendships, family.

For now, I will go back to the US and learn to use this degree, preferably in court. This is something that I have always wanted to do and it is not something that can wait. I could not do this in a few years – no one wants to hire you to work as an in-court sort of lawyer when you are years out of law school and have never practiced.

I will work as a lawyer, and someday, I will live in Africa again. But I will be in development work, not humanitarian work. I will be back when I can stay in one place and make a home there.

“Leaving” (this Indigo Girls song) has been my life’s theme for several years. It is only recently that I realized that I don’t want it to be – and that I have a choice.

So every day I am tempted by Southern Sudan. I’m tempted to stay. But I need a home, and I can’t find it here, not now.

29 September 2007

...and a dollar short

I am trying to contain my excitement at the idea that there might be an available self-contained room tomorrow. It has been over a month since I’ve been able to go to the toilet without venturing into the outdoors. I never realized, before this trip, how immensely valuable that is. I currently deliberately dehydrate myself after 4 p.m. so that I won’t have to pee in the middle of the night. (Although, for the worriers, don’t worry. I drink a ton between morning and 4 p.m. I am not dehydrated in general, just from about 8 p.m. until morning. Heh.)

Must keep hopes from soaring too high. Low expectations. Low.

Today I went on a doctor quest, because I was hoping to deal with this stomach problem while in Africa, since it was Liberia that bestowed it upon me. I’m guessing that doctors here are far more knowledgeable about tropical medicine than doctors in the US, is all. I’ve been feeling sort of off, so I thought this might be a good time, because you never know when they are going to require, how shall I say this, physical proof of the problem for testing purposes.

So, questing. A coworker came along, to show me the way, I thought, but it turned out that he didn’t know, either. We asked a random bodaboda (motorbike taxi) driver, and then, after a long wait for boda driver number one to find a friend to drive boda number two, we set off. We slowed in front of a clinic, but then continued on. We stopped in front of a pharmacy, but I vetoed it. “I said, ‘doctor,’ not chemist. I want a real doctor.”

At clinic number two, the man behind the counter claimed that they had a doctor. He led me to a little rickety bench outside a door covered with a lacey cloth. I waited. The previous patient left the “doctor’s office” (this was written on the wall outside the door in chalk) and I entered. Greetings ensued. Long pause.

Me: So… I’m wondering what kind of doctor you are. Where did you go to school?
Person behind desk: What do you mean, where did I go to school?
Me: I mean, which medical school did you attend? In which country? (Thinking to myself that Khartoum would be fine. Or Ethiopia. Or South Africa. At this point, I would have taken Uganda, honestly.)
PBD: I’m sure you can see that I’m older than you.
Me: Um, yes, I can.
PBD: So how can you ask me about my education?
Me: Well, because I’m a customer, and I have a health problem, and I would like to know what kind of doctor I am visiting. Are you a doctor?
PBD: I went to school.
Me: Are you an M.D.? What kind of doctor are you? In which country did you attend medical school?
PBD: Here.
Me: Here? Here in [Elsewhere]? I have not seen a medical school here.
PBD: How long have you been here?
Me: Um. Two weeks.
PBD: So you do not know the town.
Me: Right, not very well. But where did you go to medical school, exactly?

Suffice it to say, he was not a doctor. He was some sort of medical assistant and had attended an on-the-job training, which I knew from the entire setting. If you had an actual medical degree here in Elsewhere, you would not be sitting in a dingy room in the back of a pharmacy offering the most basic of tests for a dollar a piece. You would be the weapon of last resort for the hospital (albeit still making $60 a month, probably).

The alleged doctor and I stared at each other for a while. Then I said, “Thank you, but I am looking for something different. I don’t think you can help me.”

I left. And then I sat on the bench outside trying not to cry while the doctor and the pharmacy guy yelled at my coworker because I was rude enough to ask if my non-doctor was actually a doctor. Okay, I sat on the bench crying, but behind my sunglasses, which are large, so it was not obvious to the entire town. I was hot and tired and sick and I had just been yelled at for daring to ask for qualifications from someone who probably knows less medicine than I do.

I gave up. (Actually, I gave up after I stopped crying and after stopping at the hospital, glancing at the wait, and realizing that wasn’t happening, either.)

I’m going to feel sick to my stomach for the rest of my life, apparently. But never fear. I have more self-treatment ideas up my sleeves. Next up: worms, and then bacteria. (Or vice versa.) Death to the intestinal intruders.

27 September 2007

A few things I’ve realized:

  1. Any time someone here starts a story with “So he took some money and went to Ethiopia…” that story will end badly. Generally he will either get robbed or abscond with the money, but the list of possible bad endings is apparently endless.
  2. If you live in North America, you expect to see your reflection in windows and doors when you pass windows. You may not realize that you do, but you do. It’s really disconcerting never to see a reflection in a window. There are no glass windows here.
  3. I have not seen a proper door handle since Juba in the middle of August. I’ve only seen latches with or without padlocks.
  4. The only way to avoid eating half a can or more of Pringles at a time is to take a handful as I leave my room. Otherwise, one Pringle leads to another.

26 September 2007

law di law law

I listened to a law-related presentation today (actually, multiple law-related presentations), and I remembered that I used to like this stuff. There’s a reason I went to law school. Okay, three years of law school very nearly beat the love out of me, but I do find it fundamentally interesting. And now, as law school fades into the almost blocked-out past, I can enjoy law again, maybe. I was excited to do something development-related for a while, but today made me realize that I really do like law. I would not be happy doing something that required only my first degree.

It’s a good realization because law is exactly what I’ve committed myself to doing in the next few months. Bar exam, here I come. (I’m glad I waited, though, because I was not emotionally equipped to handle a bar exam in June/July. Not at all. Toooooo tired. It’s a stupid plan to make people study for and take this huge test immediately after three years of non-stop stress. Cruel.)

Anyway, so there were these law-related presentations. Fascinating. (I am SUCH a nerd.)

Nothing else has changed. Well, nothing interesting. I did discover that the wrinkled yellow fruits that I rejected in the little market the other day are my beloved passion fruits in different form. The ones in Rwanda were small and green. These are large and yellow. But they taste the same. So there’s an additional fruit option.

My stomach is still not happy (witness: posts while in Michigan). Now I’m not sure whether to blame Liberia or Southern Sudan for what is not a parasite (treated myself for that in Nairobi) but may be bacterial or something completely different. (Try googling “chronic diarrhea.” It will convince you that I’m on the verge of death. That or that I’m making it all up.) Also, it’s sometimes hard to differentiate between “these greens taste like dirt” and “my stomach feels like crap.” They are remarkably similar at times. Especially when the salt disappears for days at a time. (I’ve never been a salt adder. But it is absolutely necessary here.)

25 September 2007


After dinner, I went into the central courtyard and lay down on my back on a stone bench. I meant to get out my computer and look for internet, but the sun had set, leaving a splash of deep orange in the western clouds and I couldn’t resist watching it. I strongly advise watching a sunset from a lying-down position. The clouds hung in a low ceiling right over my head and I could see why the colors inspires people to imagine that heaven lies beyond the clouds, or that heaven is composed of those colors.

It got darker. I listened to the four songs that I downloaded to my iPod right before I left the US. One of them is Nickelback’s “If Everyone Cared.” The second verse starts out like this:

And in the end
The fireflies
Our only light
In paradise

In one of those strange life coincidences, a firefly flickered twice over my head as those lines played in a place that felt as close as the world comes to paradise.

The eastern sky was bright with reflected sunlight, I thought. It seemed, though, to get brighter rather than darker as the light disappeared in the west. I thought about how, when I was younger, every time I saw a strange light in the sky, I thought, “Jesus is coming back.” It always scared me, because I was afraid I had some stored up un-confessed sins like, I don’t know, hating my annoying brother.

My Jesus has mellowed, however, and my confidence in grace has grown. I no longer fear divine vengeance for individual sin so much as for what we humans make of the earth for which we are supposed to be caring.

The light in the east got brighter.

Suddenly, I sat up, realizing, “Oh. The moon.”


I went to fetch my headlamp and my jacket.

i'm just wondering

I am fascinated by the satellite phones. I don’t quite understand them. They have this “sat alert” feature that rings when you are inside, and then you have to run outside so that they can switch to a normal ring. Then and only then can you answer the call, if it’s still ringing. Half the time, the call has disappeared by the time you get outside. I don’t understand how it is that they must have access to the sky in order to function, but, when under a roof, they know that a call is coming. How can they sense the call if they can’t access the satellite? Is it just that the satellite signal is too weak for a call, like how you can receive a message in places where you don’t have the network to make calls on a cell phone? And if so, why can’t my cell phone do that, so I can move to a better location?

We had a dance party in the middle of the compound last night. I don’t dance, except in Africa, and then badly. I love the impromptu dance atmosphere, though – the moonlight, the arguing over whose music to put into the cassette player, the music itself, in Lingala or Swahili or Luganda, and the fact that everyone else seems to be good at dancing. And every once in a while it all catches up with me and I realize that I’m dancing, badly, in a courtyard in Southern Sudan. “How great,” I think, “is my life?”

It is moments like that when I’m not sure – why was it, again? – why I said no to a long-term position one country over from here, in favor of moving back to the US and learning to be a real lawyer. In meetings the day after such moments, I have to make a list to remind myself of all the reasons why, at least for a while, I need to be in Reasonably Big City in the US. Because there are reasons, and good ones, but sometimes my love of being here overcomes reason.

Hmmmm. I have perfected the lemonade.

Also, I need to correct the “DON-key” story of a few days ago. I had to re-listen to it in my head. It was more like “do-NKEY!” The NK diphthong (are consonants diphthongs, or is it vowels?) made it even cuter.


A walk to the central market takes about 30 minutes. I walked it today at 11:15 a.m., with a non-Sudanese colleague. Prior to walking, we slathered up with sunscreen. I fry like an egg in this weather. My colleague was worried about getting too dark. I can’t say WHERE this colleague is from, because it would give everything away, but she’s not African, nor white. Still, she is a kawadja here in Sudan, so we got lots of comments, mostly along the lines of “My mother! My wife!” or “I love you!” We also got prices, at one store, literally twice the price of the (honest) store down the road.

We bought some things: oranges and Pringles for me, bananas and tea for her, and then we walked back. It was seriously hot. Okay, it itself it was probably only, I don’t know, high 80s? But try walking around in the pure just-north-of-the-Equator sunlight in that nonsense, and it’s hot. We desperately sought the few spots of shade along the way.

I came back and downed all the water I could find. Three glasses of cool water, one little bottle of strawberry drink, and half a bigger bottle of mango drink later, I was feeling slightly better. Then I added another glass of self-help lemonade, and things were actually looking okay. My colleague, however, is fasting. (Ramadan, remember?) She didn’t drink anything, all day. When I saw her a few minutes ago, she was going to bed. At eight p.m. In exhaustion. I can’t imagine how she stayed awake this long without water.

So Ramadan depends on the moon. Right now, the moon is heading toward full, and it has been bright in the Elsewhere sky every night. I have hardly needed the headlamp. The paths in the compound where we are staying are cement, and they glow in the moonlight. I love walking around in the dark under the moon. Without worrying about snakes, mostly.

22 September 2007

daily bits

Conversation over the outdoor sinks:

Me [after watching a colleague brush his teeth for well over five minutes]: You are brushing your teeth for a really long time.
Colleague: Yes, of course. This toothpaste is long-lasting. Look, it says, “Long-lasting freshness.” [Shows me the tube.]

It rained all night and when I went out past the clothesline in the morning, I realized that I had forgotten to take in the shirt I washed yesterday. It was splattered pathetically on the cement under the line, beaten down by the rain. For the first time, Elsewhere seemed in danger of flooding. The troughs along the paths were full when I got up, although they emptied quickly.

It rained again just after lunch. This time, I managed to rescue yesterday’s shirt from the clothesline, now almost dry, as well as the one that I washed this morning, and a pair of socks. They are now safely hanging up in my room. All of us who are staying in the compound had gathered after eating in the small courtyard around which our rooms are built. When the deluge arrived, we were good and stuck. Most people sighed and laid down for a nap. I have a raincoat, so I put it on and made an attempt at going back to the training, only to feel rain soaking through my coat by the time I reached the main hall, still far from the training area. I succumbed to the weather and sat down with my book.

Two men soon joined me under the overhang, and in the middle of their discussion in Arabic, I heard the words, “from the American people.” They were looking at a car parked nearby, with an organization name and the USAID logo. I laughed, and they asked me what the slogan means. “Really,” I said, “I have no idea. Maybe it means that whatever food or money USAID gives is supposed to be a gift from the United States. But it’s a silly slogan.” Actually, it’s not so much a silly slogan per se as it is, first of all, a waste of my tax dollars (because you know someone made thousands of dollars creating that slogan), and second, a silly thing to have on every single USAID logo, including the ones on every donated car. These logos don’t need words. It only clutters them.

I forgot to mention one walk story from a few days ago. It was so surreal that it made me laugh in bewilderment. In a field by the road, three children were chasing two donkeys. One of the children, a boy maybe four years old, was shouting, “DON-key, DON-key, DON-key!” In English. Running donkeys, running children, and the word “DON-key” in English, over and over. So very strange.

I have upped my Arabic words to six. Six, that is, that are not identical to Swahili words. There are plenty of those, too. (Fortunately, some of the numbers are the same, or at least discernable, which is very helpful in the market.) My Arabic words consist of malesh – sorry, quais – okay, mafi – none, moya – water, qalas – finished, and shokran – thank you. What more could one need?

Okay, it’s pathetic. I’ve been here a month, and I know six words. I need to work on that.

I have now sunk to a fruit-deprivation level in which I think lemonade counts as a daily fruit allowance. It’s citrus, after all. Three lemons, a bunch of sugar, and some water? That’s right there in the food pyramid. I know it is.

Qalas, quais.

P.S. Someone asked about the photo in the header. Sadly, I’ve never been to Haiti, although I must get there someday. The photo is of the Friday market (which is the big weekly market) in Kibuye, Rwanda. It is held on the shore of Lake Kivu, and wooden boats come over from Congo carrying pineapples and return to Congo carrying goats.

21 September 2007

in which i almost step on an unidentifiable dead rodent

I’m not going to write anymore about the Blogger’s Bane: Work, for a while at least. (I have been rereading the Lord of the Rings books. Can you tell? Although I use the word bane a lot regardless of what I’m reading. I just like it.)

So then all that’s left, BASICALLY, is my evening walks. Almost. There’s also the fact that I broke the door off the girls-only bathroom. I’m not quite sure how it happened, except that you sort of have to lift the door in order to move it open or closed, and as I pulled to open it, it broke. And it really broke, not just a little bit of broke. The hinges and the one side of the frame that is attached to the hinges stayed in place, but the entire rest of the door broke off in my hand. I sort of propped it up, and then I left it. Now it’s propped outside, which is bad because it means I’m using a bathroom with no door.

Oh, and also, in other breaking news, I broke my colleague’s Ramadan fast. Because I break things. That’s what I do. I offered her some chocolate sitting out in the sun after I had eaten lunch and before either of us knew it, she’d eaten it. Fortunately, mistaken eating doesn’t actually ruin the fasting effort, otherwise I’d feel terribly bad.

Then there’s the daily walk. It’s all snippets of loveliness and chaos, like Africa generally. Today was something like this: walk, greet people, walk, greet people, notice at the last minute that I was about to step on a dead rodent, manage to avoid rodent carcass, walk, ask people if there were oranges for sale anywhere, get a no, walk, turn back before the river, meet a young teenage girl who walked with me for a mile or so, walk.

The girl, after we talked for a while in the clearest, most precise English each of us could manage, said to me, “I love having this good body, but I don’t like this,” as she pulled at the skin of her arm. “Your skin?” I asked. “You don’t like your skin?”

“I don’t like it,” she said. “Yours is very smart.”

That led, of course, to the requisite, “God makes us all colors, and all of them are good” conversation. (And I told her about sunburn. Because, frankly, the lack of natural sun protection sucks in this climate.)

At the duka of the day, I bought mango drink and apple juice boxes. Apparently Uganda allows a company to label its juice “Pure Fruit Juice” when the ingredients are apple juice, sucrose, citric acid, malic acid, and vitamin C. I’m okay with four of them, but sucrose? Let’s discuss.

The duka guy didn’t have enough change, so in lieu of the final anticipated 10 piastres (the cents of the Sudanese pound) / 100 Uganda shillings, he gave me three gumballs out of a plastic bin. They disintegrated upon chewing and I was picking bits of blue gum out of my teeth for an hour.

If I had to live in a mud house, I think I would pick one in Elsewhere. They are not just mud houses, they are works of art. They are painted. They have windows (no one bothers with windows back where I come from; I mean, where I’ve been living), and neat little doors of metal or wood or cloth. The yards are wide and swept clean, with patches of bright green grass. The fences are made of a living plant that I’ve seen before in Rwanda. I’m not sure how to describe it – it grows up entwining its branches with its neighbor into a perfect fence. It doesn’t have leaves, or it is all leaves, depending on your perspective. I would compare it to a cactus, without prickles. Clearly I just need to take a photo, because this is impossible to describe. Anyway, I like the houses and the yards. They look homey to me.

20 September 2007

ramblings both physical and verbal

Warning: this post contains implied swearwords. I’m warning you because I realize that not everyone thinks, as I do, that Jesus probably enjoyed an occasional vulgarity, too.

I just missed a mosquito that was in the act of biting me. One more pest lives to bite someone else. Or more likely, to bite me again in a few minutes.

Every day, I get massively depressed while sitting trapped in the training room. It’s hot (stupid metal roof with no ceiling) and boring (stupid not actually learning anything), and I get very agitated by the end of the day. But then, ‘round about five p.m., we are released into the world, and by the time I go to bed, I’m enamored with everything again. If I could capture the best of today in one scene, it would be this:

Walking up the road toward the shops, I saw a motorbike coming toward me. For one brief moment, as it passed, I saw one of my colleagues, the one with the widest, biggest smile, peering out from behind the driver, beaming at me and trying to wave despite all the packages in his hands.

After that, all the world seemed well. I walked to town with another (Southern Sudanese) colleague I met on the way, talking about whether he has noticed the fact of the white people occupying all the top positions in his organization (he has, of course; everyone I’ve asked so far – about ten people – has noticed). This conversation led me to two conclusions: one about a concept paper I can write that might help with at least the “boring training” aspect, and one about the book that I need to write someday, which is now tentatively titled, “How Not to be an A%$hole when You Go to Africa.” (Subtitle: If You Must Be an A*&hole, Stay in Your Own Country.) It will begin with a brief self-test, your responses to which will determine into which of the following categories you fit:

  1. Stay the *$&# away from this continent. Do not move from your current location; someone is on the way to revoke your passport.
  2. Serious concerns exist about inflicting you on any other country. Please stick to England; they are used to boorish Americans and anyway there are Starbucks in London.
  3. Your travel is contingent upon certain conditions. Please read this book, read some more books, meet some actual Africans, and then vow to keep your mouth shut for the duration of your time on the continent. Please note: final approval of your travel depends on the results of the post-test at the end of this book.
  4. Enjoy your stay in Africa.

Ideally, my colleague and I concluded, there would be an extensive interview before white people are allowed in Africa. People from the country you wanted to visit would ask you questions designed to determine the level of cultural superiority you feel, as well as your willingness to see the good in things. Only upon that panel’s approval would you be allowed a visa.

Then I realized that I’d better start back if I didn’t want to walk in the pitch dark, so we parted ways. I walked back, in mostly companionable silence, with a short, stout man named Joseph, who somehow fell into step with me as I was turning around for the return walk, and introduced himself. (He wants to go to America and marry an American, but I just nodded and smiled.) He shook my hand and said goodbye when I stopped to buy some toilet paper, and then some of what I thought were lemons but turned out to be other strange yellow wrinkled fruits that I didn’t want so I didn’t buy them, and then a bottle of mango drink. I knew from previous experience that the mango drink was one Sudanese pound, and there were women crowded around the stall, so I had one of those classic duka interchanges with the guy leaning against the wall behind. Reaching in from the side, I put my hand on the bottle and lifted my eyebrows at him. Without moving, he held up one finger. I pulled out a pound and handed it over to him, then took the bottle. (Then his friend said, “Where is mine? You can’t buy one for me today?” and I had to laugh and say, “Next time, next time.")

Not long before I got back to the compound, there was a little boy standing in a doorway. He called to me. “Kawadja!” I turned, smiled, and waved. “Kawadja!” he said, “Kawadja!” I smiled, but it wasn’t enough. “Kawadja! Kawadja!” I turned again, and waved again. “Kawadja!” I finally turned and waved a third time, but even as I passed out of sight, I could hear him calling hopefully behind me, just in case I might turn again. “Kawadja!”

19 September 2007

whiteness, cont.

It’s a good thing I’ve been thinking about white privilege lately, because it came up again. It’s amazing how often it does when you are working in Africa. I had to have words with a quasi-colleague regarding the fact of the white people having all the power in a partner organization of ours, and then sitting back behind the circle at a training, whispering amongst themselves and pittering away on their laptops as if they were too vastly important to be trained. It really is shocking how often the white people have all the power, and how we don’t see anything wrong with it. A common quote among expats here is “There are just no qualified people in Southern Sudan.”

Who is going to speak up about this? My Sudanese colleagues, who need this job? Not feasible. The white people with the power? Not likely. I, on the other hand, don’t have a job to lose. This quasi-colleague said they had work that couldn’t wait, more important than anything that anyone else in the room could have been doing. Then she accused me of being too sensitive and said the Sudanese among us would never notice.

I said yes, I’m very sensitive about issues of race.

I said no, I know that at least two of my Sudanese colleagues noticed, because we talked about it.

And as I thought later, it’s an even bigger problem if some of our Sudanese colleagues didn’t notice, because that means they have gotten used to the white people having all the power in international organizations.

I wish I’d said that.

Today, for the first time in, well, as long as I can remember, I willingly woke up before the sunrise. In fact, the sky was glowing red when I left my room, and it wasn’t until after my shower that I clambered out past the bathroom to watch it rise through a stand of trees. The reasons I got up so early were two-fold: first, I found a much cleaner (girls only) shower off in another part of the place we are staying and I wanted to use it before there were too many people about, and second, I wanted to go for a walk before I had to be at a meeting.

There is almost nothing that makes me happier than a walk in rural Africa. The sun was bright and the air still cool at eight a.m. I followed a wide path along a river and through some neighborhoods. A little boy screamed in terror and fled into his mother’s arms, fortunately nearby. An old man stopped me and said, “Where are you walking? Will you greet people?”

“Of course I will greet people,” I said, and we exchanged names.

There is apparently no word in the language of this neighborhood for exercise. One man sitting by a kiosk asked me, on the way back, why I was walking. “I’m taking exercise,” I told him, and he called back to his friends a long sentence that ended in, in English, “exercise.” Laughter erupted among the houses.

It’s good to be reminded sometimes how comical we can be. Otherwise I get tempted to take myself all seriously, and I forget that purposeful exercise is a luxury of the ridiculously wealthy, we who don’t actually have to work for our food.

17 Sept 2007

I am madly in love with Elsewhere. I want to ask it to marry me so we can spend our lives together, and then cling to it and beg it never to send me back to Tiny Little Town. I didn’t realize until I got here just how terrified I am the whole time I am in TLT. During the day, there, I’m fine, I think. I can pretend, at least. I can scoff at the snake concept. But at night, I don’t even feel safe in my room. It isn’t completely enclosed, you see. In the corner, the screen around the top of the wall doesn’t quite reach the edge, leaving a hole about three inches deep. Plenty of room for snakes to get in. I have to check the bed, all around the edges under the mosquito net and inside each pillow and sheet, just in case. And during the night, I try not to touch the mosquito net, in case something on the outside might, I don’t know, BITE me.

And just when I thought I was getting over the critter fears? This South African guy started telling me about his park ranger class and how the spiders are worse than the snakes and how it is of them that I should really be afraid. Some kill you, he said, and some merely kill off large portions of your flesh. Which was just what I needed to hear.

Also, the bed is really rickety, and every time I move so much as my hand, it shakes so that at first I genuinely thought it was an earthquake. I’m afraid, every time I turn over, that this time will be the time the whole bed collapses beneath me.

The first afternoon here in Elsewhere, I stepped out of my room and suddenly realized that I felt incredibly free of worry and fear. What with all those fears in TLT, I suppose it’s not surprising that I love this place.

There’s the lack of fear and then there’s the fact that they serve Krest Bitter Lemon here, imported from Uganda. That made my week, pretty much. That and the Pringles, which I bought in a store whose hugeness almost made me hyperventilate. I was overwhelmed. It was maybe ten feet by ten feet, two walls of shelves, with two little stand-alone shelves in the middle of the floor. I haven’t seen such a thing since Nairobi. TLT only has dukas/kiosks.

Then again, however much I love this town, and however much I love being back in the Africa that feels familiar to me, I do not love with the fact that someone in the room next to mine just turned on a scratchy radio station playing loud music. At bedtime. The music happens to be in Arabic, although the language doesn’t really matter except insofar as it means that I can’t understand it. The rooms are sort of connected – the wall doesn’t quite go all the way to the ceiling because of the top metal beam – so I’m hearing his music just as clearly as he is. I don’t love that. Not at all.

17 September 2007


I’m not in Tiny Little Town at the moment. I’m Elsewhere. Elsewhere is bigger than TLT. There are trees! And slopes! TLT is so very flat and bare. I had forgotten how much more interesting the world is when the ground goes up and down instead of just flat forever. Although all that flat does make for some amazing sunsets. The sky is most of the world.

Elsewhere is also not as hot as TLT and it’s not a swamp, so there is less mud and there are fewer bugs. I can wear a skirt. I feel almost, I don’t know, normal again, instead of constantly sweaty and dirty. I went for a walk last night with a colleague from another of my organization’s office, to look for some shower slippers (this means flipflops – I’ve been wearing my tevas in the shower and they never ever dry. yuck). Elsewhere feels like the Africa I know. The earth is red instead of gray clay. There are flowers. There are motorcycle taxis. There are shops, and they sell actual items, like juice and combs. Kids march along carrying water cans, all businesslike. “How are you?!” one called in English as I passed.

At night, although the bathrooms are still separate and you can’t sit down, I realized what a difference light makes. I can get up here, and go to the bathroom, because there is a light in the bathroom and there are people around. You don’t even want to know how this goes in TLT.

Getting to Elsewhere was a feat. It rained the night before, all night, and in the morning we had to make periodic updates on the status of the airstrip. Finally another plane came, for another set of people, and swooped low over the runway once, and again, and then climbed high into the sky and disappeared, leaving its potential passengers cursing on the ground. We immediately called our plane, piled into the car, and set off for the next closest airstrip, which is much better kept up and mostly impervious to the weather because it’s on high(er) ground.

Halfway to the other airstrip, we hit a patch of slippery mud and careened off the road. I was sitting mashed in the middle of the front seat, without a seatbelt because the seatbelts don’t work, and I had time to grab the handle on the dashboard and hope that we stopped before we landed in the deep watery part of the swamp that lines the road. I was worried about my luggage, NOT the people in the car, as would have been the logical worry. Would my books survive a swamp-dunking? We did stop before the water, and without rolling over, and we all clambered out of the car and up onto the road to survey the damage. The visiting white people hugged each other as if they thought they had barely escaped death, which made me laugh because we had actually been going less than 50 kilometers an hour. The car sat at a 45 degree angle, wheels a foot deep in the mud. We dared not try to push it out, lest it should roll on us, and there was no way that even low four-wheel drive was going to get that car out on its own.

Fortunately, right when we were about to call the plane people and tell them that we weren’t going to make it, Oxfam happened by and rescued us. Their Land Cruiser slipped and slid around the road, but succeeded in pulling ours out of the ditch. We continued on, a bit muddier and a bit later. We saw another car in the same situation, but with an additional dead battery, and then two huge trucks. One slid off the road as we watched, as it attempted to pull the other out. It was like a Michigan highway in a blizzard, except with better visibility. That last truck blocked the road almost completely, and we all piled out of our car again and watched as it inched its way past the truck, now nearly in the water, now nearly hitting the truck as it slid around. We would not have dared try it at all if another truck had not happened by just then, on the side where we needed to go, and offered to pull us out if we got stuck. We continued on again, still muddier and still later.

We were a half hour late to the airstrip, and the other passengers were sitting on the ground under the wing, waiting for us. For the last twenty kilometers, we had to sit in perfect silence in the front seat, because it turns out that the guy who was driving? He’s very outgoing, and he cannot talk to or listen to someone speak without looking at them. And therefore not at the road. Which is nerve-wracking in slippery circumstances. Following several attempts by one of us to speak, each completed by a “Watch the ROAD!,” I finally said, after mistakenly making yet another comment, “STOP LOOKING AT ME!” (That made me laugh particularly hard because I used to work with emotionally impaired kids, and some of them screamed that from the corner every time your eyes so much as passed over them.)

Things that do not inspire confidence when sitting in the copilot’s seat of a single-prop plane (I know! We were too many, so the pilot let me sit there!):

  1. No run-through of the safety checklist.
  2. Not one word to air-traffic control.
  3. The half-empty water bottles rolling around under his seat.
  4. The same pilot, without a break or a meal, does five trips in a row, adding up to about fourteen hours of flying. In one day. Without a copilot.
  5. Loud alarms go off periodically. The pilot ignores them.
  6. The pilot gets out a hand-held GPS, then digs around under his seat for a while, finally pulling out a tattered plastic folder and then an old piece of paper. He looks up the town you are going to and enters it into the GPS by hand, sighs, and changes some settings on the navigation system.
  7. The prop’s RPMs are firmly in the red zone for much of the flight.
  8. Not only does the pilot not tell you to turn off mobile phones, he writes and sends text messages on a sat phone while flying the plane. I watched the altitude drop rapidly as he tapped away on the phone. When he was finished, he pulled back on the, er, whatever you call that horse-shoe shaped thing, and we ascended again. Also, he almost ran us off the taxiway after we landed because, again, he was writing text messages.

13 September 2007

on white privilege

I've been reading a lot online lately about white privilege. It all came back to me today when we spent an hour digging and pushing the car out of the mud. The white people around stayed in their muddy clothes and didn't wash their hands. They wanted to go into town and have a drink, covered in mud. This is something you can only do if you are white, I think, without getting looks. In any part of the world.

Our African colleagues, on the other hand, weren't digging through the mud in the first place, and they certainly washed their hands.

I think of this often when I walk barefoot along the concrete walkway between the two office rooms. In Africa, people only walk barefoot if they can't afford shoes, or if they want to keep them from getting dirty. Me? I do it because I'm too lazy to put my gumboots back on, and because I love being barefoot.

And because I have privilege based on my passport and the color of my skin.

I'm trying to be more aware of it, and more respectful. I wear shoes most of the time. I wash my hands when they look dirty. I dress in professional clothes, not safari jackets and zip-off hiking trousers.

I don't have time to do this topic justice right now, because a visitor needs my computer. But it made me think.

12 September 2007

random old post that i never posted

28 August 2007

When I left for Southern Sudan, I thought I would never wear trousers while I was here. I intended to wear culturally appropriate skirts every day and be all demure (ha – that part’s funny, no?). I dropped that idea quickly, because I am covered in bug bites from head to toe. I have a bite on my eye that has made my eyelid swell up. I have a whole crowd of bites on my ankles.

The cancer-causing DEET spray does nothing. The mosquitoes and the flies LOVE the stuff. It’s like a snack for them, apparently. Yum, DEET and blood. The only good news is that apparently at least some of the bites (the ones that HURT) are the cow mosquitoes, not the malaria-carrying ones. I knew there was a bright side to the pain and itching. Somewhere.

The only way to avoid the bites is to stay as covered up as possible. Unfortunately, it’s at least 95 degrees F here most days (unless it’s cloudy or raining), and it’s not one of those “at least it’s a dry heat” situations. Yet I’m wearing socks. And gumboots. I have to wear gumboots for the bugs and also because it rained again, so we are ankle-deep in mud and haven’t dared move the car in days. The driver comes and putters about under the hood, cleaning things. He starts the car and inspects the workings of the engine. Then he turns it off again. After an hour or two, when it’s clear that we are going nowhere through the mud today, he sits and waits.

The gumboots are another reason to wear socks and trousers. I got new gumboots (best $17.50 I’ve ever spent). They are very pretty, with a lovely green stripe around the bottom. At least they were. I can’t seem to keep them even marginally clean. Everyone else walks around with a little mud on their gumboots. The mud on mine is so thick that I can hardly lift my feet sometimes. I try to scrape it off on the edge of the step or in the gravel, but it sticks. Being all new and stiff, the boots rub on my ankle and around the top so that after an hour or two in a skirt or without socks, they hurt unbearably. They are still the best $17.50 I’ve spent. They don’t pinch my toes. They can handle the mud. They keep off the bugs.

Right now, I really wish I hadn’t taken that pair of olive green trousers out of the suitcase at the last minute. I only have three pairs, including jeans. (In the heat. Can you imagine?) And since the yard is all clay mud, they get quite dirty quite fast. All those cute skirts = complete waste of suitcase space.

a few little things

There is a spider that lives on the room side of my door. She is a relatively large spider, maybe the size of a silver dollar or a little bigger, and very flat. Not quite the size of my nemesis in Liberia last summer. When I accidentally slam the door behind me, I see her tense, rising up on all her legs as if she’s getting ready to leap away in terror. When I reach my hand toward the door to open it, she lies as flat and still as she can, trying to hide. I am almost as afraid of her as she is of me, but I’m getting over it. I don’t think she’s a biting spider. She eats bugs, so I live with her presence, as with the other spiders on the wall behind my bed, as with the geckos, as with the stripey lizards, as with the frogs that hop about in all the corners. (Actually, though, since I like the geckos and the stripey lizards, that’s not so much a matter of “living with” as the others, except when one of them scares me and there is that split second in which I think it’s a snake.)

Yesterday morning, as I was getting ready to go off and, I don’t know, work, or something, I set my water bottle on the hood of the Land Cruiser so that I would remember to fill it up all the way up after I visited the evil latrine. When I came out and washed my hands and went back to fill up the water bottle, I found the driver dumping the water from it into the radiator. “Hey!” I said, “That’s my water bottle!” He very studiously did not look in my direction. I stopped and stood next to him and said, “That’s my water bottle!” and he still wouldn’t look at me. Okay, he doesn’t speak any English, but even when someone standing right next to me speaks to me, even in a language I don’t understand, I at least look at them. I was pretty annoyed, because right now we are cut off by road from the rest of the world (flooding) and no new water bottles are coming into town. I thought about fighting for my water bottle, but he had his hands in the engine and wrapped around the opening of the bottle. I decided that one was toast. I went and washed out my mango Vita bottle from the day before and filled it with water. It smells very strongly of mango, but the water tastes normal, which is a disappointment after smelling the mango as I lift the bottle toward my mouth.

It is, by the way, raining yet again. I know that weather is approximately the most boring thing anyone can write about but it’s sort of all consuming when every drop of water contributes to the masses of gray clay that stick to my boots whenever I take a step. Also, when it’s raining, we can’t go anywhere, so there’s nothing to talk about except hey! It’s raining! Again!

You want to know what was really, truly the most exciting moment of the day for me today? (This will tell you how little I get out right now.) I was digging through my suitcase looking for a shirt, and I found a fresh, clean pair of socks. Clean as in last washed in good-smelling detergent in the US and fully rinsed (so they aren’t crunchy) and line-dried in the sun (so they don’t smell musty). I was thrilled, and I dried my feet and put the clean socks on immediately. I actually thought about saving them for a time when I really needed something clean and fresh-smelling, but then I decided I needed them now. It’s the little things.

Oh! There was another exciting thing! I lost my toenail. The one I smashed under an armchair in March and had to pierce with a red-hot needle so all the blood trapped under the nail could drain out for weeks and stain all my socks? That one. The nail finally fell off today. Okay, I wiggled and twisted it until it fell off. I never said I was one of those patient people. Now I have a strange proto-nail on my big toe. I’m very enamored with it. The one that fell off, I mean. I took photos.

It is five fifteen p.m. and a confused rooster is crowing as if he is the only herald of an oncoming morning.

11 September 2007

it's raining, it's pouring, i wish i was snoring...

why does rain make one so sleepy? i'm sleeping nine hours a night. i'm sleeping so much that i wake up, before my alarm clock, wide awake, every day, for the first time in my entire life. still, with the sound of the rain going on and on, i want to take a nap. it's crazy.

also, notice that it's raining yet again. rainy season is supposed to be about oh-ver. or not. many of us were trapped at le workshop in rain so hard that, under a tin roof, we couldn't speak to one another.

there was a plane taking off as the storm of the day descended upon TLT, and it took off directly toward the worst part of the storm. i questioned the pilot's sanity. this was after buzzing the runway approximately seven times in an attempt to scare away cows or kids or something.

i'm all leading workshops and stuff these days. i rock.

in other news, i'm going to be traveling soon, whereupon i will get to see more of southern sudan. i'm going to be an old hand by the time i leave. sort of. you know, for the amount of time i've been here. those people who spend two years in juba have got nothing on me. after all, i have a pit latrine, people. beat that.

man, i'm hungry. is it supper time yet?

10 September 2007


I'm so over the snakes. According to this (there's a photo! of my snake!) the snake killed here was a Spotted Bush Snake. Aggressive but not venomous. Whew.

note to self:

googling "african snakes" while sitting approximately 20 feet from the location of the dead snake killed earlier as well as the last known location of its still living partner: big mistake.

i'm now going to flee.


Despite my snake paranoia, I’m not really that girly of a girl, so when I saw a green snake with black splotches under the step up to the office, I didn’t scream or shriek or run. I stood about eight feet away watching it try to pull itself in and disappear and I said, very calmly, “There is a snake there.” All the people who were milling about during tea break started coming out of the building, streaming around the snake area, and a few men threw stones at it where it was wedged deep under the step where the rain has washed the dirt away from the concrete.

When I had passed around it and inside, and taken off my gumboots, I admit that I climbed on a chair when it started moving. People laughed at me.

It darted off across the driveway and people followed it with large pieces of brick. They smashed them down on the snake – one woman wearing only flipflops a foot from its gaping mouth – and one man in gumboots stepped on its head and then its body and ground it down until it stopped writhing.

“Um.” I said, “is that one of the dangerous ones?”

“Veh-ry dangerous.” My colleague told me. “It has very strong poison.”

“Right.” I said. “How often does it bite above the ankle?”

Because the gumboots cover the ankles, you see. I shall never leave the room – or even the bed – without them again.

I just passed a very long weekend without internet. We were foiled by the weather, which just wanted to prove, if we had forgotten, that this is rainy season, and a rainy season that has flooded the entire Sahel. A thunderstorm that seemed to come from all directions at once parked itself over TLT for hour upon hour on Saturday and the rain continued even harder for still more hours after the thunder and lightning subsided. Our mess hall flooded, and we had two people from another organization sleep in our compound because their house had flooded. When one of my colleagues showed up on Sunday, he said, “I’m really tired today. We slept outside because our neighbors had been flooded out of their house and we shared our house.”

I sat under my little porch during the storm watching the lightning, thinking of a Discovery Channel show I watched a few days before. There is a lab in North Carolina that records the radio waves from every strike of lightning that occurs on earth. There is more lightning during the day than at night, and more in the summer than the winter. Africa has a lot of it – the middle of the continent glows red on a lightning map of the earth. And did you know? The radio waves from lightning bounce out of the atmosphere and clear a radiation-free path around the earth. It is in this safe zone that satellites can orbit. If there was no lightning cleaning out the safe zone, satellites would be quickly destroyed by the radiation.

I counted seconds between lightning and thunder. Not because I was nervous about being zapped (I was under a roof, wearing gumboots and sitting on a plastic chair) but because I was wondering if that lab in North Carolina was recording us right then, right here in TLT, Southern Sudan.

There is nothing to do when it rains. The V-Sat internet doesn’t work (no solar power), the DSTV doesn’t work (no access to the satellite) and if, like me, you happened to be in your tukul when it started, you aren’t going anywhere. It rained hard and sideways, and I had to retreat into my room from the porch, and then further from the windows. I read, and I played some Sudoku. Then I read some more, and played some more Sudoku.

It wasn’t until the yard was a lake and the rain eased a bit that I could venture over to the mess hall to find an inch of water on the floor.

Clouds on Sunday meant no internet then, either.

I learned the rules of rugby. The rugby World Cup qualifiers are on. My favorite part is how when a team scores, it’s called a “try.” This results in the following being a frequent comment: “That was a really good try by Tonga.” It sounds hilarious when you know that they didn’t TRY, they actually accomplished, resulting in a try. And at the risk of sounding like a traitor to my country’s favorite sports, I much prefer rugby to American football. It doesn’t stop and start so irritatingly often. Also, the Samoan players, especially? Um. I might have to move there.

We watched some Africa Magic. Africa Magic is a channel that plays Nigerian movies nonstop. Many a European and North American can’t stand this channel. At least, every such person I’ve met so far on this trip has hated Africa Magic. Meanwhile, our African colleagues love it. I like it enough. The jingles are annoying and I don’t like the fake caveman-type outfits that they make the characters wear when they are supposed to be from the village, but the stories are interesting. I like the modern-city stories better than the old-time-village stories, and yesterday there was an elaborate story about a sting on the people involved in a fake building contract. Including a courtroom scene.

I am clearly watching too much TV. Weekends are so long. I could also tell you all about arguido status for the McCanns in Portugal. I anticipate Seconds from Disaster every night. (Volcano eruptions! Ferry capsizings! Space shuttle explosions! And why they happened. Each of us, as we discovered Seconds from Disaster, said, “Wait. I thought they would show us how a disaster was prevented.” But no, they show in detail why the disasters happened.) I watched a documentary on slavery in the US circa 1700. And Days that Changed History. And Pretty Woman. And Grey’s Anatomy. And a lot of news.

SNAKE NUMBER TWO JUST TRIED TO COME INTO ROOM WHERE WE ARE HOLDING A WORKSHOP. THIS IS NOT OKAY. “They have a nest around here.” Someone merrily told me. And they all laughed AGAIN when I knelt on a chair to get my feet off the ground. What else am I supposed to do when the snake is circling my gumboots over by the door and I’m sitting here not wearing shoes? When there is no workshop, I am often alone in this room, often until it is dark, on the internet. THIS IS NOT OKAY.

They didn’t kill this one. The problem with that is WHERE IS IT NOW?

06 September 2007

gritty (not in a good way)

I’m covered in grit. My hair is full of grit, the way it’s full of sand after a day at the beach. My face is layered in grit, except where my sunglasses covered my eyes. My arms and neck and back are crunchy with grit.

I was all eager and excited to photograph the plane on which EC was leaving, because I! Love! Planes! And you never know what the weather will be like or if you will have the camera or if you will just be bored with all of life in TLT, including planes, if you wait. So I stood out in front of the car as the single prop started turning, roaring louder and louder.

I was ready.

Then the pilots made a slow 180 degree turn, tail toward me, and blew me away in the dust of their wake.

05 September 2007

daily living

I love having clean hair. Let me just get that out of the way at the beginning. When you live in a place where all non-scummy water has to be carted in by jerrycan, you don’t want to waste water on silly things like hair washing, but after holding out nearly a week (a personal best), it feels really nice to have clean hair.

I am not one of those always prepared people. I don’t have a backpack filled with protein bars and first aid supplies at all times. I did bring a plenty-lot of granola bars to this middle of nowhere, but that was out of pure necessity. While I’m here, I’m likely to leave the compound in the morning, anticipating a full day of being out and about, carrying only a notebook and pen. I’m lucky if I remember to bring a water bottle. Even luckier if it has water in it.

My lack of Boy Scoutishness has downsides, obviously, especially on those occasions when I end up hiking for hours to see monkeys or chimpanzees or something on an empty stomach. On those occasions, I’m always grateful that I have friends who pass out bits of backpack-mashed protein bar instead of doing what I do, which is to hope that the little giftshop at the start of the trail sells some sort of crackers. (Clearly I’m thinking of Africa – actually, Nyungwe Forest in Rwanda – in this particular example; in the US the giftshop probably sells its own protein bars unless you are in a seriously remote national park.)

Most of the time, though, it turns out fine. As my friend I from the Tanzania days says, “Tell people they sell stuff in Africa.” People actually LIVE here, you see. They do, in fact, sell stuff in Africa. Lots of different stuff, including soft drinks. I have made more lunches than I want to count out of a semi-cool Fanta in a little restaurant somewhere in the mountains of Rwanda. Occasionally with a side of peanuts. Today it was in the middle of TLT and the Fanta was strawberry-flavored and I couldn’t finish it, so I gave the second half to my coworker’s little daughter who came out to greet us on the way back. (I did get a real lunch, though, later. That was actually just to tide me over for the walk back.)

Earlier, in a meeting, our hostess came around with a tray of little glasses filled with sweet black tea. I had watched her scoop spoon after spoon of sugar into the little glasses before she poured the tea. “Strong Sudanese tea,” my coworker told me. It was strong, and syrupy sweet, and very good. “Why are we drinking Lipton in bags back at the compound,” I asked, “when this tea is so much better?” Seriously.

We drank the tea under the thick branches of a tree. It was drizzling. We stayed mostly dry, but every now and again big drops of water would collect and fall onto us.

04 September 2007

if you make the gesture bigger, is it clearer?

I just had a conversation with the ladies who cook for us in which they either:

1. Asked if I was a boy or a girl, or
2. Asked if I had any kids.

At first I thought it was 1. and I was a little insulted (I know that I wear trousers, but still). But then they started making rocking motions with their arms, so I'm pretty sure it was 2. Also I'm pretty sure they wouldn't have used the Swahili word "watoto" (kids) if they meant me. I'm not sure if the "no" quite came through. Why can I not remember hakuna (there is no...) when I need it?

They also taught me how to say cow, which is is harder than it sounds. It's something like "yawn," but not.

And then we had a conversation mostly in motions about family. "Father?" one asked, making a sad face and a negative sort of motion. "No," I said, "Father!" with a big smiling face. "Father, mother!" Smile, smile.

"Brother?" she asked.

I held my hand over my head and tapped it, then tapped the air a little lower down next to me. "Brother." and lower again, further over, "Sister."

My brother is actually taller than me, but I have absolutely no way of explaining that one.


(P.S. I’ve been thinking since Sunday about retracting my “it’s almost impossible to write well about issues” statement. I could clarify for hours and probably just dig a deeper hole for myself, so let me say that I think it can be done. It’s just that I happen to be not that interested in reading blogs that focus solely on various issues. Or even one, really. I like stories better. Which is not to say that I don’t like blogs that focus almost exclusively on one or more topics. There’s a difference between issues and topics.)

walkings about

Some sort of switch flipped on Sunday, and I started to enjoy being here in this Tiny Little Town.

I finally made it out of the compound on foot again last night. A few of us walked around town at dusk, wading through lakes that used to be roads and along muddy paths. The rain had nearly stopped, but it still drizzled and we put up the hoods of our raincoats against water and mosquitoes. I was worried, a few times, that the water I waded through would be higher than the tops of my gumboots, and then I splashed water into them somehow and, feeling wet socks, I started worrying that maybe they were leaking. But all worries were for naught – the boots held up more than adequately.

We walked through the deepening dark, following in the exact footsteps of the guy who has been around for a few years, lest by deviating we should end up slip-sliding in the mud. EC did slip at one point, landing with her hands deep in the mud, so we stopped at a public pump, where a young boy pumped water over her hands. The water shone bright against the near dark. In front of an old building, four kids sang and hopped, scarcely stopping to call out a greeting to us. The air smelled of cooking fires. Walking single file on a path, barely able to see the feet of the person in front of me, I thought, “Now. Now I’m home.”

This morning, when the car got stuck outside the compound (yet again) and I heard that we were walking to a meeting, I went back to my room and slathered sunscreen on my arms and neck. We walked down the same paths as last night, noticeably less watery now, and then along the red dirt road. Children ran out from their yards to watch us, sometimes unsure if they should greet us until we were past. Then they would call a tentative “MalĂ©” and we had to turn around if we wanted to answer. We cut off the road, across a mud puddle, and down a little path through a corn field. We sat in an open-air building, hearing of the plans to make it permanent with concrete walls and a tin roof, and I watched the sky clear and the corn stalks wave in the cool breeze. A truck chugged slowly past on the road beyond the hedge.

There are days when by noon it’s too hot to walk more than a few dozen meters, but the sun was gentle today, despite the cloudless sky. We walked back without too much sweating, along the narrow path between hedges, and again on the open road. Children and old women greeted us. Men called from the shade. A girl walked ahead of us in a flowing dress with a jerry can of water on her head.

I love the fact that I’m not overly tall here. In some parts of the world (*ahem*, New York), I feel very much too tall. After we passed the airstrip, we met some girls in pristine white school shirts. Two of them towered over me by a good four or five inches. I took a picture backwards of one of them with me, which caused great amusement and general merriment. In the photo, she is surprised and I look like a shrimp. Also far too pale. (Not that I’m about to slack on the sunscreen. Oh, no. I fear skin cancer far more than looking pale and shrimplike, and even with the SPF 30 today, I got a little bit pink.)

A colleague came by my desk to bring me a bottle of almost-cold water. Then he held the bag out again. “Take another,” he said. “You are tired.” I took another, grateful.

Life is good.

(Although I’m going to have to visit the latrine soon. With the heat of the day on the tin walls and roof. With the flies swarming around. Don’t ask me about life immediately upon my emergence from the latrine.

Otherwise, life is good.)

02 September 2007


I feel sort of boring lately. There really isn't much to describe in TLT once you cover the tukuls and the airfield and the swamp. Also, what with the rain and the mud, I haven't actually gotten to leave the territory since Thursday. My days (even Saturday and Sunday) look pretty much like this: get up, shower, try to find something to eat for breakfast with varying success, head to office, work on computer for a while, eat lunch, work on computer for a while with maybe some breaks to have meetings, eat dinner, watch some tv (so far some bad movies - have you seen Date Movie? worst move ever. worst. - some sports, some news) and go to bed, usually by 10 p.m. And then get up to do it all over again.

I could switch to writing about things like issues, but I find that most people who write about issues are, well, boring. Apologies to anyone who does write about issues. I'm sure you are the exception. But generally, it is very hard to write well about issues. Also, I have a problem with being told what to think and therefore with telling people what to think, even though I have strong opinions myself. When I read those books that tell a story and then extrapolate to tell you what the story means, I get helplessly irate. Give me the STORY and let me make up my own mind about what it means. I want to snatch the story out of the writer's hand and say, "Let me see it MYSELF." Christian books and authors seem to be particularly bad about this, which is why I have stopped reading them almost completely.

One of the blogs that I used to read, which has since turned into a daily photoblog, said that the blogs she most enjoyed reading were those that captured moments of the joy in life. I liked that, and I've tried to do some of that this summer, in Michigan and then here. I haven't always managed, especially since I've been here in TLT. I find myself enumerating (okay, whining about) the physical difficulties and dangers of living in a swamp in the middle of nowhere, but the truth is that they are really not that bad - not anything I haven't lived with before. And they should be, as they so often have been in the past, superseded by the joy of sitting in an open air mess hall in the evenings hearing stories about everyone's respective countries (which other than mine and a European country, are Uganda, Kenya, and Sudan). I can't capture that feeling this time, though. Always before, every single time I've been in Africa, I've felt sheer joy at being on the continent. Homecoming.

This time, I feel uneasy. I feel like I'm in the wrong place. I feel like I shouldn't have left Michigan. I was feeling this way even before I left the US. I like to blame the Larium for the fact that mere hours after I took it (also hours after saying goodbye to my grandmothers) I switched from great excitement over this trip to South Sudan to dread, not about arriving in the place I was going to but about leaving the place I was in. It was harder than ever to get on a plane and the joy of being in Africa has only come in snatches.

I've been in too many places in the last three years. I've had three or more addresses a year. I've met and lost too many people. Doing it again - moving somewhere for three months - feels too hard. It is the moving again, not the pit latrine, that makes it hard for me to be here in TLT.

I could, and I would love to, live in Africa again, but I'm starting to feel a need to have some stability, and some friends who last more than a few months, and I'm in the wrong field if I want that in Africa. The law field for a US American in Africa seems to require either living and working in the most remote, conflict-filled areas (refugee camps, etc.) or some experience to offer in a more central location. I don't yet have the latter and I am no longer willing to do the former. I am not willing to move every few months or years. I am not willing to lose many of my friends even more often than I move, when they move. I am not willing to live in team housing with no space but a bedroom that is really mine.

This is essentially a rant to explain why I spent my afternoon today looking at apartments in a relatively big city on the West Coast of the US. I know people who thrive on the movement, the new faces, the changes, the new places. I don't. I need a home, a base. I don't even like backpacking vacations because I hate being in a new place every night.

I had a home in Rwanda. I had my books on a shelf and my food in the cupboard and my candles in strategic places for when the power went out. I knew my way through the house in the dark so that I didn't even need the candles. I had friends who I could call when I was bored. I had favorite walks in the hills. I felt safe. I haven't had that since, and I need it.

So I'm moving to Relatively Big City in December, and I'm taking the bar exam in February. And I'm going to try to find a job. I'm going to find a little apartment and own my own furniture and dishes. I'm going to learn to be a real lawyer.

I know that I will miss Africa. It is half my life, nearly. I also know, though, that I will be back. I can't stay away long. But when I come back, I know now that I need to make sure that I'm really coming back, to live, not just flitting around short-termly (other than vacations, obviously, which I will totally do - I have people to visit, after all).

Outside, six or seven men are trying to push-start the car in the perfectly flat yard. It's really not going that well. They've been trying for fifteen minutes. There isn't even a slope. Oh! They got it. The battery dies every day, and they charge it with a solar panel sometimes, but I think the solar panel was someone else's and we gave it back. Or something.