As planned, I went with my co-workers Andrea and Fred and some 15 Sudanese consultants to the Kenyan town of Lokichoggio, on the border with Sudan, for a two-day training session on field research for conflict and peace-building analysis that would prepare the consultants to go into the field in Southern Sudan to carry out an assessment of the conflict and peace conditions there. I was to receive some of the training, as well as to help with administrative things that inevitably crop up at the last minute in such cases, such as getting immigration papers for people who have known that they needed them for over a month but apparently thought it would be better to wait until the last minute, typing training materials on the laptop (with unreliable electricity), etc. After having taken Practical Research Methods with Grace at SAIS, the training was not new material to me, but watching and listening to the Sudanese was a good learning experience, and it is always good to learn from other trainers.
Loki, as the town is affectionately (or not) called by the aid/development workers and others who pass through it, is very hot and very flat, except for the two mountains that seem to have been left behind by the others that went south long ago, which stand on either side of the “town”. The airport is a long runway and some plywood offices and the customs-bonded warehouse that stores the food aid that gets dropped over the towns of Southern Sudan. All along one side of the tarmac sit neat piles of bushel bags of grain, separated by square pieces of plywood, on shipping palettes, lined up and ready to be loaded onto the white planes marked with “UN” in bright blue letters. The “town” is a maze of zinc and plywood shacks, concrete buildings, and the grass huts of the Turkana. There are some stores that cater to the locals, and other stores that cater to the aid people. After passing through the town, you get to the compounds. For the first training session, we were all staying at the compound of Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA), which is a sprawling, flat, sandy space dotted with wood cabins painted pink or brown. The cabins stand around a central area where the mess and the bar and the billiards rooms are. While the accommodations were very plain and the food was nothing special, it was comfortable. There were a mix of people staying there, from those hard-core MSF-France types to the upper-middle range of Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) leaders, to Sudanese and Kenyan and European aid workers.
Across the street there is the 748 compound, a much fancier establishment, with beautifully appointed “tukuls” (round mud or concrete huts with grass roofs) that each had their own bathroom and fans. The food there was catered by the Java House, an American-style restaurant that is based in Nairobi. The bar is much nicer, and the clientele include high-ranking SPLA and Southern government leaders, bush pilots, higher-ranking American development people, and some other characters. The most interesting place in Loki is the Operation Lifeline Sudan/UN compound. It is like a city in a city, with streets of tukuls for those staying there, a restaurant, a disco (!!), and more offices of OLS-member NGOs (which Pact is not). You need a passport of a UN country to get in. That is where the security briefings are held by security people known as Sierra 1-8. I think that there is something wrong with an operation that identifies its employees as numbers, but maybe I’m missing something.
The people in Loki are a mix of aid and development people on their way into or out of Sudan, bush pilots (who are really odd characters), SPLA/M officials, Sudanese refugees, Kenyan development workers, and the Turkana, a tribe that lives in the northwestern part of Kenya. Starting at around 6, people settle into bar stools at the various compounds, and proceed to get toasted. After having been to the Sudan, I think I can see the appeal, but with the heat and the exhaustion of the hurry-up-and-wait rigamarole that we went through each day, sleeping and drinking a couple of liters of water sounded more inviting than beer, which at NPA tends to be warm, even when it is supposedly cold.
As those of you who have worked in the developing world can imagine, getting together a team of about 20 consultants was not an easy task, and it of course did not turn out quite the way we expected. So, since a couple of people didn’t show up, Paul Murphy, the program director, decided that it would be a good idea for me to go. This had been discussed as a possibility when I first go to Nairobi, but I didn’t really see it happening, considering I knew nothing about Sudan and maybe even less about conflict transformation. But, it happened, and I was glad that I had packed for a couple of weeks just in case. That night, as we sat around a table at the bar at NPA, we heard the shelling of a town across the border. The next morning, I packed my things and hopped on a plane to my team’s first destination, Pochalla, in Pibor County, on the border of Southern Sudan and Ethiopia.
Before telling what Pochalla was like, I’ll say a bit about what I expected Sudan to be like. I expected desert, heat, dust, sand, distended bellies, flies, horrible odors, dead animals, constant shelling…probably what many people imagine when the think of Southern Sudan, if indeed they think about it at all. I expected the Sudanese to be hardened and sullen, angry. I expected to be mostly uncomfortable for the ten days of my stint. I expected awful food, little water, uncomfortable beds, snakes, and sleepless nights wondering what was about to sneak into my tukul. What I found was some of that, and something completely different.
We flew into Pochalla over some mountains and a couple of rivers. The airstrip was lined with tall green and brown grass, and was barely visible until we were actually touching down. I looked out the window and saw a knot of very tall, very dark people, men, women, and children, in worn second-hand western clothes, waiting for the plane. It must have been the most amusing and promising time of the day. Who was on the plane? Who was staying in Pochalla? What were they bringing? Is any of it for me? The pilots deposited the four of us into the hands of World Relief, our hosts for the next several days, and we piled into the car for the short ride to the World Relief compound.
Our team was made up of three Sudanese and me. Mama Ayen is from Bahr el Ghazal, the area that was most ravaged in the late 80’s by the Northern army and the two famines of the 70’s and early 80’s. She is Dinka, and is sweet but tough, and has a dream of opening a school for girls in her area. She is about my Mom’s age, and became like a mother to me while we were in the field, introducing me gently to Sudanese culture, and taking care of me when I was disoriented, sick, or sad. Elizabeth is also a Dinka, but from the East Bank of the Nile, from the town of Kongor north of Bor. She works for our partner organization, the New Sudan Council of Churches (NSCC). Elizabeth has four children, and is an intelligent and capable development worker with a degree from a university in Nigeria. Marshal is an SPLA commander on leave who just received his BA in business from Makelle University in Ethiopia. He is almost 40, but looks like an 18-year old. He is completely in love with his wife, and devoted to their children. Marshall has become a very good friend of mine, and is a committed, honest, and hard-working man.
At World Relief, we were installed in our tukuls, which had simple beds equipped with essential mosquito nets. The food was delicious. Pochalla is green and has beautiful flowers growing everywhere. Across the river, we could see Ethiopia. Everyone was very nice and made us feel at home.
That afternoon, we met with the commissioner. He assured us that the only major conflict the town faced was with the Murlei. Pochalla is inhabited by an ethnic group called the Anyuak. They are one of the smaller groups, and span the border between the Sudan and Ethiopia. The Murlei they were complaining about live under Government of Sudan control in Pibor. This group allegedly raids their cattle, kills them, and abducts their children. In fact, this kind of raiding is common among most of the ethnic groups of Southern Sudan, and has been for many generations, and is characterized by shifting alliances between groups depending on where the flood or drought of this year has hit, and which groups the GoS is encouraging in order to divide the South. Only with the introduction of light arms due to the broader North-South conflict did these conflicts become so drastically deadly. Over time, the Anyuak have limited their cultivation and supposedly the number of cattle they keep. The commissioner made arrangements for us to meet with the local women’s group, the chiefs, the farmers, and the Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in the area, who are mostly Dinka.
The women’s group began by telling us of the Murlei attacks in which they have lost their children. Some women lost all of their children and were widowed by the conflicts. After we exhausted the stories of the Murlei and the impact of widowhood and orphaning of children, another issue we weren’t quite expecting cropped up when one of the older women began to speak accusingly of the local women’s treatment of the IDP women. She began to tell of several incidents that happened between them, but when the situation became heated, we decided that it would be better to broach the subject separately with each group. We met with the IDPs the next day, and heard of numerous injustices carried out against them by the local population, including beating and imprisonment, the theft of money they earned, their exclusion from aid and development, and the shunning of women and children from wells and schools. Overall, both this situation and that with the Murlei carved out an indelible impression on me. People can endure so much. I was amazed at what so many of the Anyuak and Dinka had come to see as a permanent fact of life. They herded cattle; others raided the cattle and killed them. Some people took their children. Yes, it is awful, but that is just the way it is. The others told the same story, belying the commissioner’s rosy portrait of the relationship between the locals and the IDPs.
After Pochalla, we hopped back on the plane and were whisked to Panyagor, a completely different kind of place. Panyagor was much more what I had expected of Sudan. In the rainy season, it is a swamp, but we got there in the dry season, when it is a flat, hot, dry, frying pan, swarming with flies and killer bees. The people of Panyagor and the surrounding towns are Dinka, and they, too, recounted stories of Murlei raids, also blaming them on the GoS-controlled area of Pibor. Some of the Dinka in this area practice scarification, when the skin is cut in distinctive designs (in the case of the Dinka Bor, in a V-shape on the forehead), and caused to scar permanently in that design. Among more traditional people, it is a sign of beauty. Some Dinka Bor also remove some of the bottom teeth, and having top teeth that sit horizontally out of the mouth is considered beautiful. An orthodontist would become suicidal among them.
In Panyagor, we stayed in the CARE compound, which was not as comfortable as World Relief, but was nice. The CARE guys mostly sat around all day writing reports about work that I didn’t see them do and composing emails that they would send over the Bushmail system (email over the VHF radio – wonders never cease) before going to bed at night. It was sooooo hot. The commissioner of Panyagor is a good man, and a friend of Marshall’s. He set up some meetings for us, and gave us a goat to welcome us. Yum. Goat meat. Interesting. No, I didn’t try it. I know, I know, I should be more sensitive, but I really didn’t feel like arguing with my stomach.
Again, we heard stories of cattle raiding, child abduction, and village destruction. The enemies of the Dinka in this area are Nuer and Murlei, and most of the crises are blamed on the GoS, lack of water, and competition for grazing areas. We were also told about the split between John Garang, the leader of the mainstream SPLA, and Riek Machar, the Nuer commander who married Emma McCune, the crazy British aid worker. This split caused indescribable massacres in the area around Panyagor. The leaders of each village around Panyagor had compiled lists of the dead and abducted when they heard we were coming, and handed their lists of horror to us when we arrived. There is no way to explain how you can literally see in people’s eyes the trauma caused by living in constant fear of violence and preparation for defense or revenge, the brand of hellish violence that marks them forever. But nonetheless, the people are so humble and welcoming. Everywhere we went, they offered us tea, the best seats, and the best part of the shade.
One day, we drove from Panyagor to one of the villages, Poktap, which is essentially an army garrison and the associated families, right on the front lines of the North-South conflict, on the site of the company town when the government of the North was supposedly trying to build the Jonglei canal, which would relieve the pressure from flooding and irrigate part of the north. Of course, the canal was never finished, and the people of the village mostly live in the containers that were used to bring in equipment. All around are abandoned CATs, cranes, and other machinery. Also, one can see anti-aircraft guns, anti-tank guns, and other types of arms, which litter the landscape. Barefoot soldiers walk around in whatever kind of camouflage or makeshift uniform they can paste together, with automatic rifles slung carelessly over their shoulders. The drive out to Poktap was an experience, too. The “road’ was nothing of the sort. For most of the drive, two dusty tracks could barely be seen in the grass that was taller than I and stretched for as far as the eye can see in both directions, only occasionally broken by a random tree or tukul roof. For hours, we bobbled along, getting stuck in the mud a few times. I was sure that I was going to have severe head injuries when the thing was over, and Marshall did sustain an injury to his kidney when he nearly fell out of the back of the truck at one point. No one would ever let me sit in the back, and now I know why. Our driver was older than God. The quiet, unreadable Deng Dit managed the road like the old pro that he is, having been a driver for various organizations and governments since the 1950’s. He used the radio in the car for the first time in his life to call in and tell the organization he worked for that no one else should drive on the road that day because they would get suck, but yes, we would get back for dinner. I wasn’t convinced until we did, but then I was pretty much convinced that Deng Dit could drive successfully on any road at any time in any car.
The day we were to leave Panyagor was a nightmare. The plane’s ETA was supposedly 9. Hours, hot hours, hot hungry hours passed, and the plane did not come. My team (of which I was oddly the administrator) kept asking when the plane was going to come, did I radio Loki, what was the ETA, would we have to stay another day…they asked over and over and over again the same questions, and it was hot and I was hungry and the plane did not come any faster, even though the girl on the other end of the radio in Loki kept telling me it was just about to land. At 5, we finally heard the engine of the plane like a chorus of angels, but when the plane landed, we realized that it may just have been the Sisters of Charity that were taking up the seats we thought were for us. So, Jim, the pilot, stuffed our luggage into the boot and stuffed us into the cabin, where the two nuns, three other aid workers, and the now five of us (Uncle Phillip Aguer of the Sudan Relief and Reconstruction Agency had joined us) into the seven seats. “You sit on the cold box”, Jim told Marshall. And we took off.
Our next destination was Boma, the first town to be liberated by the SPLA in the most recent outbreak of war against the North. We flew into a beautiful, green, hilly area that looked like the Garden of Eden to the five dusty travelers who got off the plane there. It was cool, and had recently rained. Everything was green. But all that was deceptive. It had only just started to rain, and the people had lost their second crop of the season. Famine was on the horizon, and food aid drops marked the hours. The UN planes roar in, circle to clear the target area, then swing back low, aim, and as they open the doors through which the bombs once passed, shoot straight up, perpendicular to the ground, letting the bags of food I saw on the side of the tarmac in Loki slide out, fall off their palettes, and thump on the ground.
In Boma, we stayed at the Sudan Medical Care compound. From the beginning, the camp manager was a jerk. I had already been a bit sick with a stomach thing for a couple of days, and was staying away from meat until I felt better. At SMC, they only served us goat and the Sudanese flat bread kisra. I wanted to be a good sport about it, but I had just had a terrible day, I felt like crap, everyone was talking in Arabic around me (I don’t speak Arabic yet), I was lonely and tired and dirty, and then they served us goat and kisra with tea. This was when I lost it and started to cry. The more I cried, the more frustrated I got with myself because I thought that I was being a whimp crying because things weren’t going my way when I had just spent the last seven days interviewing people who had lived their whole lives with famine and war. So, the more frustrated I got, the more I cried. Finally, Mama Ayen heard me, and came up and hugged me. “Don’t worry”, she said. “You’ve been doing very well, and I know that it isn’t easy.” It made me feel a lot better, and after that, everyone tried to speak a little English to keep me in the conversation, and the cook brought out bananas. Nothing is ever as bad as it seems when you have been born with as much privilege as we all have.
The next day, we went to the last day of a peace meeting among the four tribes of the SPLA-controlled section of Pibor County. They were taking care of some cattle raiding issues that had been cropping up among them, and enforcing some of the resolutions from the last time. It truly did seem like a good-faith effort to keep the peace momentum going at the level of local leadership. There were about ten women there, as well, representing the women’s groups of the various villages. Elizabeth, Marshal, and I interviewed them. It was a fascinating interview, both because it brought up a lot of new facets of the conflicts we had already heard much about, and because the women had some interesting legends built around some of the conflicts.
Boma area is settled by Murlei (who aren’t all the murderous villains that the Dinka and Anyuak would have you believe), Jiye (one of three closely related tribes, along with the Toposa and the Turkana), Dinka Bor, and Kachipo (those are the ones who stretch their women’s lips with the graduated plates. Check national geographic for them). These tribes, like the others in the region, raid one another’s cattle and abduct children. They are also under siege occasionally from outside by the Toposa who live to the south and are encouraged by a man named George Kinga. Kinga claims to have found a “precious stone” in the Boma mountains in Kachipo land, and wants the Toposa to push the Kachipo out so he can mine it. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but I’ve been told everything from a new, as-yet-unnamed stone to uranium to sapphires. It might be coltan, the microprocessor stuff, or tanzanite. Who knows. Anyway, he wants it, and is causing a lot of problems to get it. He also tries to hijack the local peace initiatives to manipulate the resolutions in his favor.
The various cultures of Southern Sudan are fascinating. At once they share many common traits and yet are completely different from one another. When I first arrived, I couldn’t tell a Dinka from an Anyuak, but now the difference seems obvious to me. All of the groups are settled, semi-nomadic, and rarely nomadic pastoralists who keep cows as a store of wealth, source of food, and sign of status. Girl children actually have an equal or sometimes higher status than boys, because when they marry, their husbands must pay their families a bride price in cattle. Someone offered Uncle Phillip Aguer 50 cattle for me, which actually isn’t much. I don’t get a whole lot because I’m short and educated. The best women are tall and dumb. Cattle are so important to most of these groups that they will sell their children into indentured servitude or sell them completely to childless families for cattle. Cattle are more likely to get vaccines and health care than children. Due to the desire to have increasing numbers of cattle, the groups are constantly raiding one another’s herds, and there is enormous pressure on water and pastureland. The GoS frequently exploits this culture to weaken the southern rebellion by inciting infighting.
The trade in children is centuries old. According to the people we spoke to, it likely started when the Dinka Bor began to trade the children of their communities who were born with birth defects or other taboo characteristics to the Murlei, who have traditionally been less fertile, for cattle. This was a profitable opportunity, and children eventually became the target of abduction and were a highly desired booty of war. Many people also blame the epidemic infertility that sprung up in the Murlei and Jiye beginning in the 1950’s and 60’s. This infertility is due largely to syphilis. Supposedly, the syphilis was brought in by the British who were stationed near Murlei areas during the war. It is true that this infertility exists, but it is not the main cause of the kidnapping.
Everywhere we went, the Sudanese asked me what Americans think about the war in Sudan. I had to admit that I didn’t think that many of them thought about it at all, and that most wouldn’t be able to find it on a map. That was a very disappointing thing for them to hear. Most southern Sudanese believe that the war they are having with the North is over religion. They blame Islam for all of the evil in the world, and the Northern government for anything bad that happens to them. They love Israel, and hate all of the Arab states. They didn’t believe me when I told them that I had Muslim friends and that there are many Muslims in the United States who weren’t trying to create an Islamic state there, and weren’t at war with the Christians. The love Bush because they believe that he is fighting Islam. Most Southern Sudanese aren’t aware of the global implications of the fact that there is oil and uranium, among other “precious stones” under their soil, and steadfastly refuse to believe that this is anything other than a religious war. This is only one example of a naiveté that is very dangerous in the hands of armed people. Both the North and the SPLA are exploiting that naiveté, as well as the cultural and economic dependence on cattle. There is also an ingrained sense of entitlement and dependence on aid that was constructed bag by bag, dollar by dollar by the huge humanitarian machine that carelessly lorded Western values over cultures and a conflict that defies understanding by outsiders.
After collecting a ton of information, some useful and some useless but interesting, we headed back to Loki for debriefing. I ended up staying in Loki for another week, meeting the other teams as they came back from the field with our French logistics guy, Fred, and then helping Andrea and Paul get everyone debriefed and on a plane home, and then to set up the training for the next round of assessment. Those teams, including Andrea, are in the field now, in Upper Nile, the most screwed up region in a screwed up country.
If you want to read a good book that puts a lot of Southern Sudan in perspective in an eminently readable way, check out Emma’s War by Deborah Scroggins. The next time someone asks me why I have to work abroad when there are so many poor in the US, I’m likely to give them a black eye, and then tell them to read that book. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, like the poverty of Sudan and countries like it. Being there was like watching some sick experiment that was testing the limits of human strength, dignity, and willingness to live.
Right now, I’m sitting on a comfy bed in air conditioning in an unbelievably luxurious house on the beach in Watamu. Bill, my boss, and his wife, and two co-workers of ours and their adorable kids rented the place for Thanksgiving. It is truly the diametric opposite of what I just came out of, but I have to admit that I needed it. I may talk more about these co-workers and their obsession with servants in my next note. I seriously think that they employ half of Nairobi.
We just ate Thanksgiving dinner, overlooking the Indian Ocean, after a day of scuba diving. It was glorious, but I feel like an ass, honestly. A colonial ass. Kenyan servants made a traditional Thanksgiving meal, and served it, and cleaned it up, as the two kids napped so they wouldn’t get in the way. It was not very real, and I missed being with my family a lot.
This morning, we were thankful especially that we weren’t Israelis and weren’t in the hotel they tend to stay at. Not too far from where we were staying, someone drove a vehicle into a hotel owned by an Israeli and blew it up, killing a bunch of people, of whom the majority were Kenyan. At the same time, an Israeli charter leaving the coastal city of Mombassa (get out your damn map and look it up) was shot at with surface to air missiles. All this in Kenya, and Bush is still staring down Saddam Hussein. I feel cursed to be a witness to history – Hurricane Mitch, the Maoists and the Royal Family massacre in Nepal, and now this.
This was a truly amazing experience. I constantly wished that I could share it with each of you, because it is too big for me to carry on my own. I’m glad that Andrea gets to go, so we will be able to talk about it with each other. It is hard to talk about Sudan with people who have worked there, because most of them have been involved for a long time and are jaded and nonchalant about it, or they are Sudanese and know no other reality. Please ask me any questions about it, because I’m still having trouble digesting it all, and it may help me to think through stuff.
If this makes you jealous or makes you wonder what it is like, get the hell out of your cube and do it. Can’t means won’t. The world is not a scary place – it is just full of people trying to get by, and the thousands of ways they find to do so.