Saturday, June 28, 2008


A woman's place - neither seen nor heard

I came back today from a couple of days in Juba, the de facto capital of Southern Sudan, essentially a pile of shacks nestling on a giant stinking rubbish dump on the Nile.

I was there for a conference on Gender and Development, attended by seventy-four reps from NGOs (Oxfam, Save the Children etc) and CSOs – civil society organisations – what we'd recognise as small community groups and charities. Discussions centred around health, peacebuilding, political and economic participation.

This is a society where women and children are very much at the bottom of the heap. It's not unusual to see women cooking, cleaning, caring for children, tilling the soil squatting in the mud with tiny hand-held hoes, while the men sit around chatting and waiting to be served. A society where literacy rates for males are 37%, and for females just 12%, where women are not allowed to own cattle and are rated in terms of their marriagebility in exchange for cows, where men will happily walk around hand in hand with another man, but never with a woman.

So even to be discussing gender issues is a pretty revolutionary concept, and for local women to be taking part in such a discussion is groundbreaking indeed.

We're pretty much accustomed to hearing the arguments for equality rehearsed frequently, so it can come as a surprise to hear people trotting out old-fashioned sexist views, and while full equality is still some way off, at least just about everyone gets the idea, even if they don't act on it. But the things we'd take for granted aren't even a given here.

Like the fact that girls don't go to school if there's no latrine their for them, or if they have a period, as they don't have any sanitary protection. Or women not being permitted to have a baby in hospital in case someone else sees their body, resulting in serious illness or even death for women and babies, all of it quite preventable.

I was horrified to hear of “morality laws” introduced arbitrarily in many towns (including here in Rumbek) where women are forbidden from wearing trousers, riding on a motorbike, braiding their hair in certain ways. There were numerous tales from the floor of women being arrested, attacked, their clothes ripped for flouting these so-called laws.

And woe betide you if you get a sexually transmitted disease from your husband, because you'll be to blame, and if you're lucky enough to get treated, he sure won't, so you and all his other wives will be perpetually at risk.

Or how about the incident of a woman who was escaping domestic violence, just to be raped by the police who were supposed to be protecting her. So the horror stories went on.

It seems astonishing that a people who fought a national liberation struggle against forced Islamisation from Khartoum should impose equally draconian measures on half their population.

Which is why it was even more amazing to meet the intelligent and articulate women at the conference who are daring to raise their heads and speak out, putting themselves at risk of ridicule, ostracisation – and worse. There's some amazing work being done to change attitudes, but with such a low literacy rate, virtually no independent media and women's almost complete domestic and economic enslavement, it's going to be a long task.

The fundamental issue are the roles of “tradition”, culture and plain superstition in perpetuating this loathsome situation. While some traditions such as the taboo on having sex with a pregnant woman from conception and for two years after birth may have had a rationale in preventing women being made constantly pregnant, now it's just a good excuse for polygamy - just for men, mind.

So it all leaves you wondering just how long it's going to take for women to get on even the first rung of the equality ladder, all the time their value is measured, not in terms of intelligence, capability or economic activity, but in cows.


Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Corruption, palm trees, ginger tea and Lady Jelly - a week in Nairobi and Mombasa

My week in Kenya for a conference on democracy and governance began in a way that can best be described as ironic.

Sam and I were collected by lovely Boniface from Nairobi Kenyatta airport to be dropped off at the apartment we were spending the night at. Driving in Nairobi has to be experienced to be believed, so it was odd to find ourselves in a column of slow-moving traffic, until we reached the obstruction – a police road block. Or so it seemed.

Every other vehicle was being flagged down, and we were one of the unlucky 50%. I was in the front, Sam in the back and – uh-oh – he wasn't waring a seatbelt. Delighted, they gave him a bollocking, scrutinised the rest of us closely, then for no reason, decided there was a problem with the car, and they were arresting Boniface. This was not looking good. Here we were, in a strange city, didn't know where we were or where we were going, and about to have to make our own way as night was falling.

Something was fishy. These cops didn't have any numbers visible, though they were plainly cops. Boniface remonstrated with them outside the car for ten minutes, they came back to ask if he was a colleague, why wasn't Sam wearing a seat belt, and they'd have to take Boniface in, when Sam asked “Is this problem solveable?” “If you want it to be,” came the cryptic reply.

OK.... we're getting the hang of this now. Boniface returned to the car to ask if we had any money. We'd only just arrived so didn't have any Kenyan shillings, so no. He fished around in his pockets, found a note, thrust it in the cop's hand and found himself mysteriously de-arrested. We were waved on and breathed a collective sigh of relief. And how much had Boniface's release cost him? 100 Kenyan shillings – a dollar and a half – yup, 75p!

Apparently this experience is all too common, specially when they see a white person in a car, as they think they'll get a wad of dollars. There was talk on the TV of Nairobi marketing itself as an international tourist destination – apart from installing street lighting, mending the pavements which are more like rocky mountain paths and educating virtually the entire male population that it's not a great idea to hassle women on the street, cleaning up the institutional corruption is a task for someone with a lot of time to spare.

Next day we hit Mombasa without incident, and installed ourselves at the White Sands hotel for the conference. This place will be many people's idea of a holiday paradise – palm trees, sandy beach, swimming pools, karaoke, cocktail bars, 80's “sax moods” CD on constant rotation.... you get the picture. OK, I'm an ungrateful wretch, but is was like being under house arrest in a shopping mall.

A conference on Democracy and Governance sounds dry on paper but it proved to be extremely interesting and informative. I was only a couple of weeks into my job, so I had a reasonable grasp on what many of the other groups working in Southern Sudan were doing, but this filled in many of the gaps and it was good to meet people face-to-face. Sessions included corruption (ha!), electoral violence (Sudan has all the factors for it to happen, but none of the answers for stopping it), and many other issues which affect the fragile peace between the north and south.

I hooked up with the gals conducting the census for the South, a highly impressive task as it's the first time a proper geographic mapping of the area has been done, and a very controversial subject as all hell could break loose if the results aren't liked either by the North or South. Understandably, quite a few Southerners are reluctant to take part in a census if information about them goes to Khartoum, which was orchestrating genocide against them for forty years and continues to threaten them even after the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (Abyei in the buffer area between North and South was virtually razed in May – see

So I have great admiration for the census gals, and coincidentally I'd already emailed Canadian Erica through Flickr as she's got pics of Rumbek on her site, so we'd previously bumped into each other in Rumbek. Erica was finding the hotel as sterile and mind-numbing as I, so we made good our escape on Friday afternoon after conference closed.

The hotel is a few miles out, further compounding our sense of imprisonment, so we flagged down a metatu, a crazy fleet of colourful camper vans which teem the streets, jostling for space and packed shoulder-to-shoulder with passengers, who hop on and hop off for pennies.

We emerged unscathed at the post office on the edge of the Old Town and popped over to Fort Jesus, a sixteenth-century fortress built by the Portuguese (at the time under Spanish rule), conquered by the Arabs, re-taken by the Portuguese, re-conquered by the Arabs, then eventually in the nineteenth century became a British fortress. It's carved from solid coral overlooking the sea with gun emplacements, turrets, the remnants of a chapel demolished by the Arabs and poo-holes where you sit in little windows on the side and do your business on the unfortunates below.

Our guide was charming if a little pushy, and when Erica said she was Canadian, he was off on one. “I have never seen such beautiful ladies! Beautiful Canadian ladies, under 16!” Oh how we laughed, and agreed through gritted teeth that we'd refuse his kind offer to take us round the Old Town too.

Having paid him off with considerably more that the cop got, we made our way to the Old Town. It was the perfect antidote to our hotel experience – dirty, smelly, noisy, crowded, hassly, and just what we needed. We camped down on the pavement to enjoy a glass of sweet ginger tea from a street vendor, dodged the shopkeepers enthusiastically trying to lure us toward their wares, and marvelled at the beautiful decaying colonial style architecture.

The only disappointment was that we were there for such a short space of time, as I'd love to spend a week there photographing, creeping round the stinky back passages, and rummaging through the endless tat at the market. Oh - and I might even be able to find out one day what Lady Jelly is!

Suggestions here please:


Saturday, June 14, 2008


Out in the bush

Well I've just come back on Friday from nine days in the field, with just a pitstop at base in Rumbek to get clean clothes and wash the mud off. These days have been a bit of a baptism of fire, with just three and a half days to find my feet in Rumbek, then straight off to the bush to rough it.

First stop was Leer (pron 'lair'), a village in the Bahr el Jebel flood plain, Western Upper Nile. It was badly hit during the civil war, and now in the rainy season, is home to nomadic Nuer tribes, come to bring their cattle to pasture and camp down in their tukuls for a spot of makeshift farming. It's also in an oil-rich region, which makes it vulnerable territory when it comes to north-south ownership.

Driving in the 70km from Tharj Jath airport in a Save the Children landrover on long straight dusty tracks through a swampy plain, we passed small settlements, flocks of cranes at the watersides and herds of cows and goats roaming the roads. Leer is a settlement of tukuls with a handful of NGO camps and a dirt airstrip running through the middle, home to roaming cattle, goats and people, and which becomes a quagmire after just a few minutes of rain.

It was no surprise that the only camp we could fine some room was also the shittiest. My colleague Sam and I were directed to a brick building with a room which a crackhead would have turned their nose up at – ripped mattresses, fly-blown curtains flapping at broken windows, beer cans and general ugh. We'll have a tent, thank you very much. Apparently it's unheard of for a male and a female to share a tent without indulging in “jiggy-jiggy” so Sam was somewhat taken aback at my suggestion, but we went with it anyway.

The camp was run by people who looked like extras from a Romero zombie film, and its squalour was unspeakable. Ah yes, the flies. Leer is famed for its flies, which have you flapping your arms manically like Ian Curtis until you get used to them tickling all over your arms, legs, hair and face. After that you concentrate on just keeping them off your food and drink, a battle you don't always win.

I was busting for a pee, but was horrified not only to smell, but to hear the latrine from ten feet away, a million flies licking their lips in glee at the prospect of a fresh-laid meal. Needless to say that was my one and only visit and I wasn't sure if I'd live to tell the tale. Sam demanded a chicken, and I was looking forward to the prospect of living on the five apples, lime pickle, tabasco and handful of sesame snaps I'd brought to tide me over the next few days.

Oh well, if you're going to get a taste of developing Africa, you might as well go to one of its worst places first.

So off to the radio station, Naath FM ('citizen' in Nuer), which is run by a team of four guys plus a mentor who is tasked with supporting the manager. I use the words 'run', 'team' and 'four' advisedly, as the manager is awol, two of the staff turn up when they feel like it, and just one reporter/ presenter actually does any work, so the poor mentor has taken over the management role and is struggling with only one reliable person.

First night in the zombie death camp was hellish. Apart from its flies, Leer has packs of dogs roaming it, though many of them have been killed by local youth, but our camp seemed to be a refugee centre for the remaining ones. Of course they indulged in a howling competition much of the night, then came heavy rain and thunder which drove them away, and then cleared to be replaced by a cockerel crowing loudly from 6am right outside our tent. I couldn't figure out whey we'd been honoured with its exclusive presence until I went outside to find it tied by the foot to our tent pole. If you ask for a chicken, that's just what you get.

No breakfast at camp, though I'm not sure I'd want their speciality flyup anyway, but Sam demanded the chicken be cooked for him, and back we went to look at the unfolding disaster of the radio station.

Unfortunately the heavy rains had turned he airstrip, which lay between us and Naath FM, into a sludgfest of Glastonburyesque proportions, and subsequent heavy rains that day made matters worse. Fortunately I had my wellies and rain gear, so it was just the physical struggle to get across the airstrip that was the challenge, avoiding the worst puddles where the kids were spearing filthy fish, landrovers slipping and sliding across it.

A heavy sigh of relief when we heard a tent had become available at another camp, still rough and ready, but with food and a friendly smile from Simon, the Kenyan manager. Most of the people staying there were barking, but at least they were friendly. Got a landrover back to the zombie camp to pick our gear up, to be greeted in our tent by a pot of cold congealed chicken. Well, Sam had asked them to cook it, so that's what they'd done. He left it behind, so I just hope somebody ate it.

Much quieter night in the new camp and although the latrine was pretty minging and you had to negotiate a lake to get to it, if you sloshed it down with water you could damp down the worst of the pong.

The radio station shut down on Saturday due to lack of fuel for the generator, so faced with a prospect of sitting at the camp, I did a rare thing for a non-local and walked to the market. Everybody says “Maly” (“Hi”) and has to shake your hand, so I spent twice as long getting there and reckon by that time I must have met half the population, as well as having a filthy right hand.

All the kids want their pictures taken, and if you find one or two to photograph, within seconds they will become ten or more, all grabbing to see the picture. At one point a charcoal lorry stopped and the two guys got out to demand their picture taken too. Local people travel by foot, motor bike or bicycle, and the bikes are decorated with colourful plastic and cloth flowers, even those ridden by stern-looking military types, and it's not unusual to see men walking together holding hands.

It's proving to be pretty easy to be vegan if you can tolerate the same thing for each meal, as food is either straight veg, or meat, with rice and ugaali (a sorghum polenta-type bland starchy lump), and chapattis for breakfast. This is where the lime pickle and tabasco came in handy, so at least I was able to have a plate of rice with a bit of flavouring on it. Even the meat eaters turned their noses up at some of the food they were served.

Bad news on our last day when we were preparing to fly back in the morning – there'd been a cockup with our flight booking and we might have to stay two more days. However, the office at base was trying to get us 'green lighted' to get emergency authorisation to fly, even in you're not on the passenger list. Phew! next morning it came through so we were back with a team from STC in the landrover to the airport.

The system of catching a plane is intriguing – you check the “manifest”, a list of who's flying where and when, which usually appears about 3pm at the airport the day before your flight, you pitch up and they tick you off the list, carting your hold luggage off to the the plane in truck. However, they don't load it on until you physically identify your luggage on the tarmac by picking it up and handing it to the guy to load on the plane.

Our flights were with World Food Programme twin-prop thirty-seaters, and our hearts sank to hear they knew nothing about us travelling with them, so much conflabbing ensued between Chris the cabin crew and the pilot Simon, finally allowing us to travel. Couldn't have faced another two nights in Leer I'm afraid.

Arriving back in Rumbek after five days was like returning to civilisation, with – gasp! - salads, greens and other veg.

And then out the next day to Malualkon, 180 miles or so north-west of Rumbek. A cheery hello from Simon and Chris, then a stop off at Wau airport to pick up a single-prop light aircraft to Malualkon. One of the things I'm enjoying most is the unpredictable nature of the travel and sitting right behind the pilots is a bit of a buzz.

Malualkon is in direct contrast to Leer. It's much more chilled, no mud, and we stayed in lovely tukuls in the Mercy Corps compound, with – wow! - lentils and cassava leap slop to go with the ubiquitous rice and ugaali.

The radio station Nhomlaau FM (“Freedom” in Dinka) is only as minute away, and it's just as dysfunctional but in a different way. It's beautifully decorated inside with wall drapes, electric fans, it's clean, no flies, and great to see some friendly faces. They just happen to have the idea that they don't actually need to go and get any new programming, preferring to re-play the same eight programmes they've been running since about January.

I'm getting the hang of how people work here: everything's very literal, with clear job demarcations (you'll never get a bloke to sweep the floor, that's women's work), no room for ambiguity and little lateral or creative thinking. There's no place for pleasantries, no please and thank you, just “Give me that”, “Go there”, and it's not just a language thing either. There's a mindset that problems are solved by giving people threats, a beating or worse (seven people were shot dead yesterday here in Rumbek while we were away) and the response to challenges is often “I am a soldier and nobody tells me what to do”. This is not just my experience and it makes you wonder how long a country so damaged by forty years of civil war, a militaristic mentality and tribal rivalries will take to get sorted out to some semblance of a peaceful and democratic regime. Well that's what we're attempting to do, so we can but try. And don't get me started on how women are treated.....

Pics here:
Videos on YouTube as and when:


Monday, June 02, 2008


So here I am.... Night flight to Nairobi on Friday, arriving 5.30 on Saturday morning (3.30 UK body clock time). Needless to say I couldn't sleep on the flight in case one of the pilots died and I was needed to steer the plane safely over Egypt to land gently in the Red Sea to the applause of the terrified passengers.

Unfortunately this never happened, so I arrived at Nairobi to be greeted by the charming Boniface, my personal driver. I'd always wanted to be greeted at an airport by someone with my name spelled wrongly on a scrap of A4 so now I got my wish. Boniface dropped me off at the hotel Pan Afric after a hair-raising ride and I was ensconced by 7am, so I snoozed to BBC All Africa Radio, which plays the same head games on you in a semi-comatose state that the World Service does at 5am (try it, you might like it - or not).

After a quick shower I decided to walk in to town, much to the consternation of the hotel staff who earnestly advised against it and gave me a tepid farewell of "I hope we see you again".

It was pretty hassly, but nothing I can't cope with, and the hasslers were friendly enough. I saw very few women walking, specially solo, and the Kenyan roads are a bit of a free-for-all, though there's a bit of space given to the scampering pedestrians.

Popped into the museum on the way for a bit of local instruction and sniffed out a pavement bar for a couple of bottles of Tusker, and something promising vegeterian noodles in barbecue sauce, which turned out to be bits of pasta in a bland runny tomato and coriander juice topping, but it was reasonably filling and I was hungry.

I didn't want to get lost by wandering further, so decided to go back to the hotel, and hey, after 2 bottles of Tusker, I was crossing the road like a Kenyan.

Going for a dip in the hotel pool was a grave mistake as it was icy cold and I could feel my faculties shutting down after a length, but at least it was bracing. Becky my predecessor arrived at the hotel where we had a beer and chatted about work stuff, last minute questions etc, then she took me to a delightful Lebanese restaurant where we had the HUGEST veggie mezze, which she was kind enough to let me take the large remains of in several doggie bags for my trip.

Ghastly 5.30am start on Sunday, met by Boniface at 6.15 to take me to Wilson airport. I was disturbed by the rusted and crumbling signs for the various airlines departing from there, wondering if their planes were in as bad a condition and hoping I wasn't going to be on one of them. I needn't have worried - it was a sleek 20-seater twin prop which was blooming noisy and a bit wobbly, but that was all part of the fun. Thrillingly bouncy ride in and out of Lokichoggio airport for refuelling, then my first view coming into Rumbek was mud huts (tukuls) and people herding cattle, before landing at Rumbek airport, a red earth strip with some alarming potholes.

I was met at the airport by Terry and Tony, ensconced in my tent and ready to rock. The tents are pretty posh - like a cross between M*A*S*H and Glastonbury, but with MUCH nicer loos. There's a sleeping area at the front with chest of drawers-cum-desk and chair, and an ensuite loo and sink and shower area. There's a cheeky lizard who lives behind the sink who pops up from time to time to do a poo by the sink, then scoots off again.

Terry took Tony and me off round Rumbek town and the other local camps in the 4x4 after lunch, through deep puddles and across bumpy roads, which involved drinking a few beers at every stop. Tony and I are the only Brits so far, but I met people from about 10 other nationalities, as Rumbek is quite a hub for aid workers. I even met a couple of Sudanese people.

Started work 8.30ish today, and spent the day reading briefing docs and having meetings. I feel like I've settled in quickly and am going out to Leer (that's a place, NOT what I'm going to do!) and Malualkon this week and next to meet people at two of the radio stations, before we go to a conference near Mombassa in a couple of weeks. It's quite early to go out into the field but it's useful for me to see the stations first-hand before the conference, so it all makes sense.

It rained most of this afternoon so the mossies are out like bastards tonight, so I'm popping back to the bar for another quick beer. I thought it was raining again, but Terry's just come in the office and pointed out that the noise is giant moths fluttering against the windows, which apparently have invaded the camp - they're HUGE! Oh no - Tony's just come in and let one in, which he's stamped on on the floor....

More pics being added here:


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