Friday, July 21, 2006

My work day varies. This week alot of meetings wit...

My work day varies. This week alot of meetings with INGOs (International Non-Governmental Aid Organizations). I represent my employer, ARC, at these meetings and present our programs/activities in south Sudan. These meetings are necessary, but not the part of my work I find the most fulfilling. I enjoy the field work. For example last Sunday, we did an HIV/AIDS awareness workshop at one of the construction camps in a rural area, Akot. There was a team of three which was myself, a VCT counselor from the community and an International Rescue Committee HIV/AIDS Field Officer, who is Kenyan. We arrived in the afternoon, did about a 3 hour workshop, discussing HIV, prevention, transmission, disease progression, AIDS, STIs etc. In the camps there are are a good number of Kenyans as well as Sudanese. Due to language barriers our counselor also doubled as a translator. Kenyans in general know English well, so the translation was for the Dinka local dialect. We will be back in Akot in a few days to offer the VCT (voluntary counseling and testing for HIV). As I mentioned right now HIV here is not at epidemic proportions here like Zambia where the life exptency has dropped to 33. However, the goal is to avert infection. Generally during war times in African countries HIV infection rates are low, but then dramatically increase when conflict ceases. Right now the country is at a critical point that will determine if the country is going to be another case like Zambia. For me it is rewarding to be a part of this effort.
Some of the cultural practices like facial scarring and wife inheritance pose the greatest risk. Maybe I should explain a little. Upon entering into manhood boys have multiple lines cut across their forehead, of course they are not to cry because this is a test of their manhood. In a ritual like this the blade used may not be clean and used on multiple people whose status of course is not known. Wife inheritance is the practice of a man taking the wife of his deceased brother as his wife. If the brother has children with the deacesed brother's wife, they are considered the children of the deceased brother. It is critical for everyone to have children, not to have children is like not existing as a human being. Wife inheritance is practiced in other places in Africa where it has contributed to HIV infection. I know that I cannot know, but I often find myself wondering what the situation will be here ten years from now.

Doing the work that I do and being Black is an anomoly in probably most of the African continent. Everywhere I go people place me into an ethnic group; in West Africa I am Fulani, South Africa I look like a Venda, here I've gotten Ethiopian, Zande (an ethnic group of south Sudan) and Kenyan. I find it amusing. When I tell people here that it is most likely that my ancestors came from West Africa they are a little disappointed. People need to place people into a category to make sense for them. So for the people around here it would be easier to understand me if I was Zande.
Unfortuantely because of world wide stereoptypes about Black people, I find that people doubt that I can do this work. Simply put they think that I am not qualified. I have noticed this especially when I meet white American women (who are a majority in the international aid/development field). Almost always the first questions they ask me is about my educational background or experience in this field, which are acceptable questions on a job interview, but not informally just meeting someone outside of a work context. They want to know what on earth I am doing here since it cannot be that I have something to offer. It is frustrating and I have to continually remind myself that it is not my problem to address but their's, I still have those moments where I want to go into the "angry black woman" stereotype, but I realize now that it comes with the territory. But if you do hear about somebody in the Sudan getting a ghetto style checking you'll know it was me.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Primarily what I do is HIV/AIDS awareness with the...

Primarily what I do is HIV/AIDS awareness with the construction crews that are rebuilding the roads in the south, and of course with the community at large. I am busier with work now, just Thursday I helped facilitate a training for military leaders and today I am on my way to do one with a construction crew in Akot, about 75 kilometers away from here. I love my work, it of course can be very serious but there are always funny moments. How does the post-war atmosphere affect the work? Firstly people do not believe that HIV/AIDS is real, and they often do not trust the information coming from outsiders. There have been two workshops that I have attended since I have been here where people have said that HIV+ people should be given their own area of the community and not interact with HIV- people and oh yeah and one community leader said that they should be locked away. People often resort to violence here for resolving issues, so I am afraid that HIV+ people will be killed for infecting others. The men in a family seriously guard their sisters because like I said previously a daughter marrying is a source of wealth for the family. If a young lady becomes involved with someone and has extra-marital sex the man must pay so many cattle (maybe 8 or so) to the family for dishonoring her, however, I have heard of too many stories where the man has been killed. I fear that the stigma on HIV+ people will be too great and they may end up being seriously harmed or killed especially for infecting a woman. Right now the HIV rates are very low, but as refugees return from Kenya, Uganda, DRC and the like, the rates will rise. Refugees that have been in these countries have taken on some of the cultural practices of their temporary homes and this includes sexual norms. In the traditional local culture sex outside of marriage is extremely taboo, but that may not be the case for other cultures where people may have been living for more than 2 decades. It is hard to know how this will re-create the social dynamic here. I need to go prepare for work so I will write again tomorrow.

Saturday, July 8, 2006

It is very evident that this is a society recoveri...

It is very evident that this is a society recovering from conflict. The signs are everywhere, notably random people walking around with guns. To see this you only need to take a drive around Rumbek. There are people, most of whom are civilian, walking around in tattered clothing with a rifle swinging from an arm. I’ve been told that people don’t feel safe without them. It is a very normal thing and does not raise an eyebrow –except to someone like me. But then again “normal” is something that varies from context to context. An interesting note to that is that people in the remote areas believe that the war is still going on. I think maybe it would be a polite and worthwhile thing to inform them that the war is over. In addition to this; disputes are often settled with violence; meaning people get shot. That’s the way it has been done for the past 21 years, it was effective so it is still done. There is an aggressive, confrontational mentality of people –especially those who stayed inside the Sudan during wartime. Just the other day a man came storming into the administrative office demanding his pay check. He was completely belligerent and even pushed the administrator (a Kenyan). From what I gather, it seems that there was some kind of clerical error so he didn’t get paid when he was supposed to, and most people in the professional world know that sometimes these things happen, but this man had it in his mind that he was being cheated, so he resorted to cave man behaviour thinking it would be sure to get him his money. Now, in the states this man would have been fired, and he would have been defending himself in court for assault. I am not sure how he was dealt with but somehow I don’t think he was fired. People are most familiar with this aggressive lifestyle so they have yet to release it. Arbitration, which is actually a traditional part of at least Dinka culture, has not been fully reinstated. Despite all this I feel and am very safe okay!!!!!!!!!!!
The SPLM and the SPLA (Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army) are the political and military forces that fought against the north Sudanese government forces. Of course at the center of the SPLM was charismatic leader, John Garang., who lead rebel forces for more than 21 years. He was instrumental in working for southern Sudanese liberation and negotiating the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in 2005. Garang also died in 2005 in a helicopter crash. People around here believe he was murdered. Personally, I don’t know because I wasn’t there, but people in the south they are intensely suspicious of the northern government and think them capable of anything; including murdering someone and making it look like an accident. People in the south adore Garang and he is a legendary character already firmly placed in their history.
For a long time to live in south Sudan meant to be involved in the liberation movement. The military is very highly regarded. Even now with a peace agreement firmly in place, people are still enlisting in large numbers in the SPLA. I see military training groups scattered about Rumbek marching and exercising. I wonder is this normal peace time activity or are they preparing for something to come. I know one thing; I won’t be around when the time for the referendum comes (I think 2011) it will be a defining moment for the whole of the country. Besides, if war breaks out my mother would kill me for getting killed in the Sudan!!

Saturday, July 1, 2006

I made it to the Mosque yesterday –my first time i...

I made it to the Mosque yesterday –my first time in the Sudan. Generally, before going to any Mosque outside of the United States, I do some inquiry; that is I ask do women attend the local Mosques. Although, Islamically there is nothing that prohibits Muslim women from having access to the Mosque, in fact in the time of Prophet Mohammed (SAW) the women even went all times of the day and night, however, in many Muslim communities women do not go to the Mosque. So this is a cultural practice among some Muslims that has developed over time. I know a South Asian sister who has never seen the inside of a Mosque. Imagine never spending a moment of your life in your place of worship! Well, I was overjoyed even though I could only understand some of the Arabic Islamic terms in the Khutbah (sermon). I am looking forward to going every Friday.

About language; I met a Muslim man from Nuba Mountains in the northeast. He is fluent in Italian, English and Arabic. He was amazed that I am non-Arabic speaking. In fact his response when he learned this was, “So, that means that you are only half a Muslim.” Well you know I had something to say about that. Of course I would love to improve my little Arabic, but the main purpose for that is to read/recite the Qur’an and learn more about the religion not to just say I speak Arabic. The Muslims in North Sudan are Arabic speaking yet they engaged in an unjust war against the southern Sudanese and currently are even fighting other Muslims in Darfur, so are these people full Muslims? I have noticed among too many of my acquaintances that were born and raised in Muslim countries/societies that the spirit of Islam is not there. Kindness to neighbors, giving in charity, seeking justice for oppressed people and the countless other good acts that Muslims are supposed to do are treated like things that are not to be actualized. Actually, I pity Muslims who think the title Muslim is about superficial things; they don’t know the gift that they have. Did I mention while the brother is telling me I am half Muslim he is nursing a beer and smoking the popular local brand of cigarettes? In spite of all this, the brother still has a good heart and he started teaching me more Arabic right then and there. Everything happens for a reason.

Cattle have a distinct place in Dinka culture, as with many other African communities. I cannot be among the Dinka and not talk about their relationship with their cattle. Here is one aspect of that relationship. In Dinka tradition, when marrying the Dinka give cattle to the family of the bride for a dowry. The bride’s beauty, family lineage and character and height are all factors that determine bride-price. I am told average starting bride-price would be 50 cattle, anything less would be an insult to a woman. I was informed that I could easily get 200 cattle. I’m not saying that I am fine or of good lineage, but I don’t want to offend the man so who am I to argue with his cultural sensibilities if he insists I am a 200 cow gal (smiles). Of course in my religious tradition I would get those cows, not my parents. I thought about it for a moment; I could probably live nicely in the Sudan with 200 cattle as financial leverage, but nah I’ll pass. After the dowry has been received by the bride’s family they give some of the cows to the newlyweds so that they can have a good economic base to start their marriage. The cow is a source of food, wealth and subsequently status. The driving in these parts is frightening; yet I have seen people driving come within inches of hitting a person, but they brake and proceed with extreme caution yards before coming upon a herd of cattle. I don’t take that to mean that the Dinka value cattle more than humans, they take for granted that people are clever enough to get out of the way of a moving vehicle, but it does indicate their importance in the society.

My work is coming along fine. I have two Sudanese counterparts who are Dinka men; Marial, a Behavior Change Communicator and Monyang an HIV counselor. They seem committed to their work and ready to move forward, so of course I like working with them. The attitude about HIV and AIDS here is that is does not exist because no one has openly known anyone with it. Some believe that it is western propaganda. For my friends who have done development work in sub-Saharan Africa this is something you’ve heard before. These rumors will probably always exist. Earlier this week I went outside of Rumbek to Wulu and Pacong, two rural areas that we will be working with in the future. In Wulu there is a Catholic priest, in our first conversation he admonished me not to discuss condoms with the community. I told him that I have personal convictions that do not allow me to promote extra-marital sex or promiscuity. I then related to him a true story of a married Ugandan couple, whom I believe are Catholic, the wife is HIV negative but the husband is HIV positive. They use condoms of course to protect the wife from HIV infection from the husband. So my question is should they not use condoms because of their Catholic faith? I received a blank stare. I suppose being rational does not factor into the equation on condom use in special circumstances. Oh life !!!!!!!!!! But all is well, until next week friends.