Wednesday, July 30, 2008


Radio 4, lizard poo and the Ethiopian mountains

Well I was somewhat trepidatious at the prospect of spending a whacking two months on a tour of duty at Kurmuk, but my initial impressions are pretty favourable.

Kurmuk is slap bang on the border with Ethiopia, in Blue Nile state buffering north and south, hence a critical flashpoint in the war. Refugees would cross here and troops would be trained, rested and regrouped over the border, so it was heavily hit and you can still see a huge number of derelict and partially destroyed buildings everywhere.

I'm based at compound with the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) and its razor-wire fortified compound on one side and the Mine Action Group on the other, nestling at the base of a low hill with views out to the cloudy grey mountains of Ethiopia, chickens scratching in the dirt and almost luminous flowers bravely struggling through the clay just outside my tent.

I arrived yesterday afternoon alone as the advance party, was introduced to all the staff and immediately forgot just about everyone's name, taken to the radio station to survey the chaos within, and had good intentions of getting to grips today with sorting it out and doing a bit of networking with local groups and international NGOs.

Unfortunately today turned out to be a national holiday, marking the anniversary of the death of Vice President John Garang in a helicopter crash in 2005. Garang was leader of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army/ Movement (SPLA/M), and depending on your view, was a) a nationalist hero and freedom fighter for the south; b) a politically manouevring sustainer of civil war at the cost of hundreds of thousands of civilian lives; or c) if you're a woolly liberal, a bit of both, but probably ok on balance. Sort of.

Anyway, using that excuse and the intermittent showers, I spent the morning in my tent, and joy of joys! I can pick up the internet there, so although it flips in and out depending on power surges, I can listen to Radio 4, a little corner of Sudan that is forever Middle England. Except with lizard poo in the corner. Actually, listening to Radio 4 does weird things to my body clock as I'm two hours ahead, so Today finishes at 11, Woman's Hour starts at noon and it goes to “listen again” as soon as You and Yours starts. I enjoyed both episodes of Rob Bryden's programmes on the last few days of Kenneth Williams, so strangely out of kilter with my environment.

Finally got into town, about a fifteen minute walk, depending on how much you get waylaid by kids who all want to chat. The station was in a right state, so – out of character, I know – I took a broom to it and grit my teeth to clean out the spidery corners.

After much sneezing I walked into the market and camped down at a stall for a spicy coffee – bunn (see following blog from Kauda). Soon I found myself joined by a bunch of UN flight guys in mufti on their day off, Hassan with impeccible English and a few of his mates, as well as a couple of Dinka teachers from the local primary school. Hassan fended off a crazy guy who wanted to sing to me to tell me how much he loved me, much to the mirth of the gathered crowd, and my relief, and paid for my bunn into the bargain.

On the way back whilst photographing a group of excitable children building sand mountains, a UN police van stopped to offer me a lift. I was happy walking and was planning to stop at the Peace Hotel on the way back, which sounds like a knocking shop, but has a bar there, and by coincidence the two policemen, Nepalese Basu and Daniel from Zambia, were staying there, so I caught up with them a few minutes later for some bottles of Ethiopian beer. They were great company, educated to a level that would put most British police to shame, and so eloquent about their work and aspirations.

I've been promised a Saturday night party at another compound by a couple of Irish birds I met at the airstrip when I arrived, so maybe two months here isn't going to be quite so painful as I anticipated. I might even find a use for the kazoo.

Oh – and if you're wondering what lizard poo looks like, it's a hard black sausage about 1cm long with a bright white blob at the end. Very curious.


Sunday, July 20, 2008


A warm welcome in the Nuba Mountains

The first thing you see when you fly into Kauda is the sudden dramatic change in landscape. From flat plains with meandering rivers, a green rolling mountain range appears from nowhere.

Kauda is in South Kordofan, ‘officially’ in the North of Sudan, but actually one of the buffer states between North and South. During the war it was a stronghold of the Southern SPLA (Sudanese People’s Liberation Army), but under the 2005 peace agreement, the people of the Nuba Mountains will have no say in separating from the north, as their southern counterparts will in the 2011 referendum.

This is the first place I’ve visited in Sudan which can lay claim to being beautiful. Whilst not providing the most spectacular mountain scenery, the area around Kauda in the rainy season is lush, green and temperate, in contrast to the dry season where it’s apparently parched, dusty and sweltering, so just as well I came now.

It’s an African Arab area, prodiminantly Muslim (though that doesn’t stop them selling you a hush-hush can of out-of-date Tusker if you ask in the right places), and this is reflected in the food and drink, where you can sit inside a rush tukul in the market and enjoy flat bread and ful – aduki bean stew doused in oil and topped with chopped red onion, a glass of spicy chai or karkady – sweet hibiscus tea – or my favourite, bunn, cardomon spiced coffee boiled on a charcoal burner to within an inch of its life in a jug made from a recycled tin can, then decanted into a small round tin pot and served with a toe-curling amount of sugar in a tiny cup.

The radio station there, The Voice of Kauda, is run by an enthusiastic team of four reporters, Ahmed, Walid, Nasreldin and Mosquito, and their female manager, Taysear, a formidable character indeed. In fact they were so enthusiastic, they’d ended up with a programme schedule of numerous 15- 20 minute programmes, starting at obscure times like 9.12am, which they were so confused about that they didn’t really have a clue what they were doing. After a clean sweep of the schedule and some clear programme plans, my colleague Sam and I got to working with the guys and they were great.

We took a trip to the Wednesday market on the edge of town, a buzzy vibrant place with fresh vegetables, chillis, home-made perfumes which looked like they’d strip the skin off you, and some dubious looking hooch, araki, a pinky-grey runny porridgy liquid, sloshing around in filthy buckets and decanted into gourds, which all looked so minging even I wasn’t tempted.

But I did splash out 5 Sudanese pounds ($2.50/ ₤1.25 – khawaja price, I know I was diddled) on a pair of sandals made from recycled car tyres. I’d heard about these a few years ago and always fancied a pair, and several guys were making them here. Not an exact science, so it was a case of trying on a few pairs until one fitted, which I found, and I can safely say they are the most uncomfortable shoes I’ve ever worn. But – hey, it’s recycling and it’s a local craft, so I’m not complaining and I’ll just gaffa tape up the worst blister-inducing edges, and at least I’m lucky enough to be able to afford to buy a decent pair of shoes, which many people here aren’t.

We were staying at the Nuba Relief, Rehabilitation and Development Organisation (NRRDO)’s compound, in concrete buildings with tin roofs and shutters, sharing the compound with several lively chickens and very competitive cockerels. On the first night I was being driven crazy by a constant scratching, nibbling and rummaging under my bed, which stopped every time I moved, only to resume a couple of minutes later. I'd sit up quietly, wait, then snap on the torch, but see nothing. Now, I've shared sleeping quarters with a rat on more than one occasion and I know what they sound like, so at first light I opened the door and shutters, jumped out of bed, pulled it back from the wall and shouted "Right! I'm gonna get you!" only to find a huge plump red chicken nestling in a basket under the bed looking quizzically at me, as only chickens can.

The radio station’s based at the NRRDO compound, and you reach the town via a low hill, across a sandy riverbed which fills when the rains really kick in, and a short path by a football pitch, some tukuls and grazing land. Walking back to the station with Ahmed, we were stopped by two boys herding goats, who pointed urgently to a crater in the ground. Poking out the side of the hole we spotted a white plastic protruberance, which had been cordoned round with logs and thorn branches – the top of a landmine. The Nuba Mountains were the scene of considerable fighting during the war, and both the North and South were responsible for extensive landmining, frequently unrecorded. While most have now been cleared, the rains continue to wash them up, and one was found just the week before, and children and animals continue to be at greatest risk. Four days later at lunchtime the mountains echoed to a resounding boom – fortunately a controlled explosion, not a wandering goat.

Sunday afternoon was spent on what I’d anticipated to be hill walking, but actually turned out to be mountaineering. Nine of us – a Cameroonian, Filipino, two Germans, a Russian, Liberian, Lebanese, Kenyan and Brit – set off in a spirit of international co-operation from a hospital built high in the hills during the war, when the people fled the towns and took shelter in the mountains. We got there in two Landcruisers on a journey that Jeremy Clarkson would have killed to be on – across river beds, up seemingly impassable sandbanks, down vertiginous rubble-strewn tracks, through craters, and deep puddles of squelching mud. It made me wonder if death would be a preferable option to being driven there if you were seriously ill.

The climb was exhilarating, past small tukul settlements, a former SPLA commander’s house which is now a museum, up rubbly slopes then finally clambering over boulders, searching for tentative handholds. After an hour’s climb to the top we deserved the now warm out-of-date Tuskers we’d brought to reward our efforts and take the edge off the wasp stings some of us had acquired.

The view across the mountains was spectacular after the flat lands of the south, the setting sun casting long shadows across the valley below. We were wondering about the viability of actually getting down again, when we spotted a local guy sauntering down a path fifteen feet below, waving up at us. Errr… so we’d been scrabbling on our hands and knees when there was an easy way up after all huh? Never mind, it was all part of the fun, and made us appreciate the warm Tusker all the more.

At the end of the week Taysear invited Sam, me, the reporters and other friends to a delicious moonlit dinner at her tukul. It’s decked out in colourful drapes, really cosy, and she’d gone to the trouble of making a fantastic aubergine and peanut dish and spicy potatoes specially for me, which was without doubt the very best food I’ve eaten here. I was really touched as Taysear gave Sam and me a pair of sandals each as a gift, and one of the reporters, Nasreldin, gave me a bunn set of tin heating pan, little round coffee pot, cup, spoons, coffee, spices and sugar, as he knew I’d become such a bunn-head in Kauda.

For people who live simple lives with bare amenities, you can’t fail to be struck by the generosity and friendliness shown by the people in Kauda to strangers in their community. They’re keen to put the war behind them and rebuild their community and you can only hope they’ll continue to get their wish, which is never certain in this country.


Sunday, July 06, 2008


Tukul Fever in Malualkon

I'm at the tail end of seven days in Malualkon, and things are just that little too chilled out for my liking. Malualkon's not much more than a village, centred round a market which varies from day to day in its stalls, though not its crazies, and there's only so much you can take of going to the same places to drink warm lager (anything less than lukewarm is enthusiastically described as “cold” here) and have the same people come to shake your hand then sit and stare unblinking in silence at you until you move on.

The other side of the coin is of course the kids. I thought for ages they were shouting “Wanger!” at me, in a local variation of “Wanker!” or maybe even a demand for money, but it seems it's their version of “Kawaga” - “white person”, to which my response is generally “Minger!” so we're quits on stating the bleedin obvious.

Malualkon was badly affected by the civil war, raided for livestock by the north, then for any remaining foodstuffs by the southern forces, leaving people who were unable to leave to starve to death. You see very few older people, and many of the the ones that are here are obviously mentally ill to some degree. Seeing bonkers old guys wandering around with guns doesn't exactly reassure (mind you younger guys with guns ain't exactly comforting either). As part of the disarmament process, officials were doing the rounds this week tukul-to-tukul to collect bullets, though you can be sure that an awful lot of people still have weaponry stashed away, just in case.... after all, the destruction of Abyei was less than two months ago, so the legacy of the civil war is still well and truly alive.

Thankfully for my sanity on Saturday we made a trip out to Aweil, a lively market town with a much more Arab influenced culture. I was in search of light bulbs for the radio station (can't get em at all in Malualkon) but drew a blank after five vain tries to get a bayonet variety. My hand signals for “screwing type bad, push and twist good” with accompanying illustrative screwing-in-lightbulb type noises only drew blank looks.

But- joy of joys! There was actually some food to be had there! I bought a newspaper wrap of lovely felafels, of which I ate about a third before they mysteriously fell out the van without my noticing, and some lovely small round flat breads – my first bread in five weeks!

I'm really missing spicy, garlicky, textured food. The few veg that are available here are cooked to buggery, so resemble baby food a lot of the time. Apart from the week in Mombasa, I've not had a single lunch or dinner without white rice – and sometime that's been all the non-meat there is to eat. Here you get okra, which is about five times the size of what we usually see, but obviously it's slimy and mushy, and then there's lentils and spinachey greens, which are delicious, but more goo.

So I feel like I've had a decadent day today as I brought my bean sprouter with me and the remains of a packet of chick peas, mung beans and aduki beans, which have been sprouting outside my tukul the last couple of days, much to the bemusement of my fellow compounders, who think I'm crazy anyway for not eating meat or having four sugars in my tea.

But I like the ingenuity of the people here. So far I've seen bicycles and motorbikes carrying the most unfeasible loads – a goat, chairs and tables, and my favourite – a double mattress.

Oh - and I've gone native too. I bought two huuuge garish African print shirts from the market for a few quid, only to find they're – ironically – made in China. Ho well. At least I now look even more like a curiosity than I did before.


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