Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Nobody said it was gonna be easy....

I’m sitting under a huge gnarled tree at the roadside to write this, green hills with black rocky outcrops behind me and the town football field below, the blue Ethiopian mountains shrouded in low cloud in the distance, and the company of curious passers-by stopping to see what I’m doing.

And I’m just wondering now if anything else can go wrong here in beautiful Kurmuk. Short of anyone dying or getting injured (well only a little bit, more of that later), just about anything that could have gone wrong since I’ve been here has.

Below is the story of my abortive trip to Damazin, getting intimately acquainted with a very particular type of icky black mud around these parts, and spending a less than comfortable night amongst the thorn trees. It was a bit of an ordeal, so when I returned I was in extreme need of a little relaxation and recreation.

Every Saturday night one of the international medical charities hosts the only party in town (well, that I’m aware of anyhow) with the best mix of African music, great company, plenty of Ethiopian Bedele beer, dancing til you drop, and a mangy disobedient dog which had adopted the compound as its home. Unfortunately the night also involves a roasted goat, which pongs appallingly as it sizzles on the barbecue, occasional ribs, legs and other body parts periodically being thrust under your nose on a huge platter.

That Saturday was particularly lively as one of the staff had completed her year in Sudan and was being given an enthusiastic sendoff by all her colleagues and friends before returning to Ireland, so in the prevailing spirit of harmony I went against my better judgment of being nice to children and dogs, and decided to pat the mangy hound, only to be rewarded with a tenacious bite on the hand, dragging the wretched thing several feet before it decided to let go. I suppose if you’re going to be bitten by a semi-wild dog, being surrounded by doctors and medics is the best place for it. Much concern, enough blood to make it look good, but no real damage done.

Next day, with hand swollen to Mr Blobby-like proportions, two canine tooth puncture marks throbbing, I popped down to the radio studio, only to find a broken window, and a mixing-desk shaped gap in the studio kit. I’d been hearing about a spate of thefts in the area during the previous week (including forty bags of cement – that takes some doing!) so it seems we were the latest victims.

It was all taken very seriously by the police, who sent round Kurmuk’s finest to look, tut and examine cable ends for clues. A final tally of the losses is actually pretty painful, considering the kit’s got to be shipped in from South Africa – mixer, laptop, recorder, pair of cans, mic and lots of software discs – a $10k haul, in fact. Ouch. Fortunately our technician Matt was coming in on Tuesday’s weekly flight, ostensibly to finish off the studio setup, now to replace and repair whatever he could in the time available, and to carry out an assessment of what was stolen.

Unfortunately, Monday night saw torrential rains so no landing for the single prop plane on the rudimentary airstrip on Tuesday. The rest of the day stayed wet but thankfully held off just long enough on Wednesday for the pilot to take a bold chance on landing, urged on by the passengers who had no intention of turning back a second time. The logistics of organising anything here are convoluted, specially during the rainy season, when a beautiful bright day can degenerate to thunder, lightning and slates of rain by mid-morning.

So the rest of the time was spent recruiting, interviewing and training new staff for the radio station. Our scheduled on-air date is September 15th, so taking four or five completely green staff and training them from scratch in just four weeks is quite a challenge. And to give them their due, after one week they’ve been making vox pops, interviewing each other and people in town, recording and editing, learning the philosophy of community radio, news values, journalistic ethics and so on. Let’s just see if any of it actually sticks.

But the main downside of this lovely place is the sheer dullness and predictability of the food. Unfortunately we can’t cook for ourselves at base camp as it’s a complex process of juggling several cooking pots on a small charcoal stove, so each day, twice a day, you get rice, ugali (the most appalling vegetable dish ever invented, a thick white stodge somewhere between week-old porridge and polenta, and utterly tasteless), if you’re lucky there’s potatoes and sometimes even chips – except they cook those two hours before everything else so they’re stone cold by food time – with either lentils or beans, and unidentifiable dead things in slop.

Eating in the market is equally predictable – ful bean stew with flat bread or Ethopian injera – a fermented pancake-like bread which looks more like an old towel - in fact when I first encountered it in Nairobi, I genuinely thought it was a hand towel and was just about to wipe my hands on it before I was told otherwise.

They say khawajas don’t eat in the market here, and after four days of Bashir’s revenge following lunch at a place where the serving kids smoked and scratched their armpits, I can see why. Mind you, I’ve also eaten at a place where the serving guy smoked and picked his nose, so it doesn’t always follow, and having done my student stint in catering, I also know how foul some of our esteemed eating establishments can be at home behind the scenes, it’s just that here they do it upfront. The mangoes in the market are life-savers though.

So it’s five weeks now and counting, rains permitting, til I get back to Blighty, that psychological point where your mind’s neither fully in one place nor the other. But I’ve met some great people and formed a curious affinity with the ubiquitous goats for their quizzical looks, nosiness and nonchalant attitude to life, and I have to admire anybody who can work out here for any period of time without going slightly deranged at the chaos and the inability to get a straight answer to a direct question.

Oh – and if you were wondering about the mangy dog, it ended up on the barbecue the next week..... I wish.


Saturday, August 09, 2008


Stranded in the bush of thorns

It's a funny old business, recruiting for the new radio station in Kurmuk. Normal rules do not apply. We had seventeen application CVs from the town, which is encouraging, but it's only when you sit down and read through them that you realise the majority consist of a hand-written page simply pleading “give me a job”, and bizarrely including so-called references written in their own hand. Only two actually said anything useful about themselves and mentioned why they might want to work in community radio, so it was quite a challenge to shortlist eight candidates, looking for a reason why one person who scored 13 out of a possible 50 marks in the shortlisting criteria should be bumped up a point and be interviewed, versus another with the same score.

So on Sunday I walked around town, sticky tape and A4 announcements in hand, flyposting up the list of interviewees. No such thing as confidentiality when you're going for a job here – no throwing a sly sickie or taking a day's annual leave for 'gardening' – oh no, your employer's going to hear about it alright, and so's the rest of the town.

In the hope of drawing some more promising candidates we decided to broaden the recruitment to Damazin, a university town further north, anything between 120 to 200km away, depending on who you asked, but with a consensus that it's four hours' drive away – in the dry season.

I was keen to go as soon as possible, as fitting all the recruitment in with the training and station launch in September is ludicrously tight, and it's also the only place we could buy a table for the studio, but it was always “Maybe tomorrow,” until Tuesday came, when it was finally “Today”. Great, what time? “Now!” - cue mad rush to pick up bags (already packed in preparation), unplug and grab laptop, don't forget malaria tablets etc – then “now” turned into two hours of faffing, picking up and dropping off people, buying bread and water for the journey etc. until we were finally away at 11am.

So the six of us jammed into a Land Rover embarked on another Clarkson-esque ride across river beds, up sandbanks, down mudslides, through fords, brain-bumping on rocky tracks, slithering, slooshing and swerving through treacherous mud. It had rained on Monday evening, not heavily but consistently, and the terrain largely consisted of sandy black earth, which is yielding and powdery when dry, and viscous and clinging when wet. And boy, was this wet.

Three times we had to extricate the van from deep mud, digging, pushing, heaving and hunting foliage to give the wheels a vague chance of a grip, until we were all splattered head to foot in mud. We must have looked quite a sight as we pulled into a village en route at 4pm to sit down wearily for a bowl of ful – bean stew topped with chopped red onion eaten communally by dipping in flat bread (this I can cope with but I have yet to indulge in the communal public cup, or worse – ditch water).

Our driver Jamel had abandoned the cautious approach to driving, taking instead a full-on headlong run at the muddiest patches, but now the punishment of the engine was taking its toll, and it started overheating every five minutes, to be cooled down with bottles of ditch water. At one point he decided against a particularly muddy stretch and instead steamed through a wood of thorn trees, and when I say through, that's exactly what he did, knocking over any tree in our way as if we were in a tank.

And then, just before 7pm as dusk was falling – disaster. The engine overheated, coughed, spluttered – and died, right in the middle of some thorn bushes. Someone managed to get a signal on the satellite phone and called back to base, who were going to send a pickup truck to rescue us. However, it was soon apparent that this wasn't to be til the morning, so there we were, six of us, caked in mud, camped down inside a dead Land Rover. It was a toss-up between keeping the windows ajar and letting the mossies in, or shut and suffocating to death with our combined pig-heat and malodour from the day's journey, so mossies it was.

If you've ever shared a confined sleeping space with five other people, it's not that pleasant, specially when they all take turns to snore loudly, and not helped by the fact that my teatime beans kept making a break for the border, thankfully just noisily rather then whiffily, though there was some urgent window-opening every time I dropped off and another one accidentally popped out.

Come first light we all surfaced, stretched, joints clicked back into place and another failed attempt made to start the engine. We took revenge on our tiny tormenters by rendering them bloody smears on the van windows, and come 8.15am four of the team decided to walk to the next village to get help, leaving co-driver Abbas and myself as the van guards. Thankfully I had some escapist reading matter – Michael Palin's Monty Python diaries, transporting me back to a chaotic mid-70s Britain of three-day weeks, power cuts, dead parrots and the Ministry of Silly Walks – a perfect antidote to being stranded in a conked-out van in the middle of a thorn bush.

12.30 came and we finally heard our valiant rescuer Adam approaching, only to take more than thirty minutes to find a way to reach us without getting bogged down. We transferred the entire contents of the van, left the keys in it and abandoned it in the thorn bush. An hour later we reached the next village to find our other comrades there, footsore but fed and watered, and having commandeered a tractor to rescue the van.

And so we reached Damazin by 6.45pm, nearly 32 hours after we left, muddy, scratched, bitten, stinking and knackered. And how many job applications were waiting for me there? Two.

So next day, time to work out how I was going to get back for interviews on Monday. There may have been a plane on Saturday, Sunday, or was it Thursday? And if it rained, it wouldn't land anyway. Decision time – Adam was heading back to Kurmuk, so quick packing and an hour and a half in town to find a studio table (700 Sudanese pounds/ £175 for something you'd sniff at paying a tenner for at MFI) and off through the mud for home.

Come 3.30 and we were still eight hours from base. We stopped off in a village where we could get a tukul for the night and met up with Jamel who'd driven us as far as the bush of thorns. The prospect of sharing a mud hut with two less than fragrant guys was hardly appealing but needs must, and I wasn't exactly Persil-fresh myself.

Ready to hit the road by 7.30 next morning, and off we set in convoy with a pickup truck with six people bouncing around in the back. We reached the thorn bushes where the ground had now turned to swamp. So it was drive a hundred yards, stop, survey the terrain, go on, get towed out the mud, crash and bounce over some trees, all out and push, tow the other van out the mud, wash off the splatters in a puddle, stop-start for nigh on three hours. Adam's pedal-to-the-floor approach to driving sailed us over some of the worst patches, careering, swerving and punishing the suspension, and burning out the reverse gear.

Although my Arabic is severely limited to asking for a coffee, please and thank you, and Adam's English not much better, the whoops, cheers and relieved laughter we shared communicated our amazement at finally getting back in one piece, filthy and smelly again, thirty hours after we left Damazin.

So were four days of mud, sweat and toil worth it for the two job applications that were waiting for me? Sadly, no. But hey, the overpriced studio table's just fine – battered and scratched, but mission accomplished.


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