Monday, August 28, 2006

I seem to be upsetting alot of people with my blog...

I seem to be upsetting alot of people with my blog. Some of the comments that I have received are unbelievable, but I know that is what happens when people expose themselves in this format. Each person who has posted these terrible comments has no clue who I am, my background or my world view (and has not read the entire blog). They just happened upon my blog and didn't like what I had written and decided to write some mean-spirited comment to me. Well I would encourage these people to keep writing these comments it strengthens me and makes me want to stay here longer. People don't like the fact that I write about my good AND bad expeineces here. The strange thing is I don't even write about the worst things for fear that it will upset my family and friends too much. I deal with reality and I write about what happens in my life; good, bad or indifferent. I will continue to do that. I believe anyone who reads this blog is intelligent enough to understand that I live and work in one small section of a the largest country in land mass in Africa, with numerous and diverse ethnic groups, sub-groups, religions and cultures. Someone else in this very same town is probably having a completely different experience than me.
I fully understand that this region is recovering from 50 years of war. In fact that is the main reason that I feel strongly about staying here. People are recovering socially, mentally, physically, spiritually from conflict. Because this is a post-conflict setting I recognize that there are certain things that are likely to happen. If the things that have happened to me here had occured in a non-post conflict setting I would have left, because there would be no underlying cause for such behaviour. Conflict has devistated the society on all levels, so even daily human interactions have been adversely affected. People are still trying to reconstruct their lives and regain a sense of normalcy. This is a dynamic time to be in South Sudan, I love my work and feel it is an essential element in the development process. I am like Ann Frank and believe that people, despite the evil that they may committ, are good at the core, so it bothers me when people do things that show a lack of regard for their fellow human beings because the inclination for good is there. I will continue to pray that all of us remember our capacity to empathize and be just to others and perform acts of kindness.

Monday, August 21, 2006

I was ready to write about my life or work here, o...

I was ready to write about my life or work here, or my incident in the market until I got an email about a friend of mine who died in a car accident in Accra, Ghana. Learning that a friend has died in an email is a surreal thing so I am not sure if even now I believe that she is not somewhere in Ghana just missing off on some adventure. Kim and I were Peace Corps volunteers in South Africa together. Kim is one of those smart individuals who is quick to smile, lives life fully, and pursues what she wants. My most vivid memory of Kim was when she, myself and four other volunteers absconded from our pre-service training and went to Pretoria to enjoy some city life. Ever since we were known as the "Pretoria 6." We actually got into some trouble leaving like that, but we needed to get away and we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. Looking back, it was well worth because now I have that memory and it makes me smile. I have not actually spoken to Kim since I left SA in 2000, but we have had infrequent email exchanges and knew what the other was doing. I have been looking at my photos with Kim in them and thinking of her and have asked myself what stops something like this from happening to me? She and I are alike in many ways; we love traveling, involved in the same field of work etc.. I know that no one can ever know the hour of their death or the details involved in it, and I am not attempting to delve into that area of human existence, it is just that she is so young and full of life, so I am having a hard time wrapping my head around this. Ever since she passed emails have been in circulation about how she lived a full lifetime in 30 years, and frankly she has. She has experienced things that most people say that would like to do, but it is idle talk; nothing would ever come of it. I admire people who pursue their dreams, despite whatever obstacles may exist. I look at Kim as someone who made her time on this earth have meaning. Yes every life has meaning and is important, but there are those people out there who make a conscious effort to take this time that we have on earth and do something of value for someone outside of themselves. I hope that I can be one of those people one day.

So naturally now, I am thinking about my own mortality and asking myself what can I do now to live a more meaningfull life. Because all we have is this moment right now. I have been so involved in my Rumbek bubble that I am not even current on world affairs, but when I visited the news websites I became disguisted and moved on. A couple of blog entrys ago I was complaning about some of my frustrations and I have been thinking to myself, "hey silly girl at least you are alive to have those experiences, each day is another opportunity to do something good -something that could bring joy to someone else." I know this is all a bit like a therapy session, but indulge me for a moment. News of my friend's death even made my little market incident seem unimportant, but people have been asking me about it so here is the story.

A few weeks ago I was with a friend of mine trying to find something in the local market. We went to the shop of someone he knows. While I am making my purchase a young man walks up to my friend and demands money from him. My friend and the young man have a verbal exchange, the only thing I heard my friend say was something like what have you done for me that I should give you my money. So I finish making my purchase and we proceed to walk out of the market. My friend was walking a little ahead of me and as I walked by the young man he kicked me. I was stunned that someone would do something like that for no reason. So, being the person I am, I walk up to this guy and ask him why did he kick me and my friend is right there with me. As soon as we start talking to him a swarm of people gather around us. My friend explains that this guy kicked me to the crowd and the circumstances surrounding it. The response was forget about it and just leave and people were beginning to get hostile. So I said to my friend let's go. We both knew that people around here are armed, and of course we are not and violent reactions to disputes are too common. Besides, if I get killed my body would probably not be at home, washed and funeral rights could not be performed in 3 days time from where I am right now. I have to consider those things. I was livid about this incident. I felt very helpless, I wished I had some of my crazy male cousins around here at that moment, but then of course it would have created a mini-war. So now I don't go to the market. I had been warned previously about the market, but I still have this Peace Corps mentality that I need to mingle and engage with the community, get to know people, learn a few more Dinka words. I had all that taken away from me within the span of a few minutes. I wondered why he would kick me when the one he had the words with was my friend. Then I remember, my friend is a man, and he was probably trying to provoke him through me, so it wasn't a personal thing, the guy was just a hot-headed jerk who mistakenly thinks that a stranger owes him something. Then I thought about other situations that have happened to some women I know around here; the young lady who braids my hair was slapped when she was having a minor disagreement with a guy here and another woman who is a doctor was also slapped. I thinkthe doctor was slapped during an immunization because the inoculation was painful to her patient, a child, so the father slapped her. So at least I wasn't slapped. For me that would put me over the edge, it is the ultimate disrespect. I don't know what I would do if I was slapped, but it would probably be something that would make it impossible for me to stay here.

I have decided everytime I write about something negative, I have to write about something positive. Earlier this week I was with my two co-workers doing an awareness with teachers, students and the community elders in a community a few miles outside of town. Part of the local protocal is that we say a proper good bye to the important people; in this case it was the teachers and the elders. After saying my farewells to the teachers I went to the circle of elders and they were so kind. The oldest man in the group said he would marry me, but my father wasn't around to start the negotiations. I mean this man was old, but apparently not too old for another wife! The elders expressed that they were happy that I was there and made a beautiful prayer that I exceed them in age and have lots of children. It touched me so because it was sincere. That someone would want you to have better or more good things than them is not common in the individualistic, competitive society where I come from, so it is refreshing when people wish that for you and it is real. I nearly cried -especially since I had been having some bad days recently. I generally don't experience this kind of well-wishing at home unless it is with family or I am around other Muslims.
Oh, and the other good news is that my stock is rising. I am up to 500 cattle now as an offering for a bride-price!! I don't take the offers seriously, but hey I am a woman and it is flattering nonetheless.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Just when I think I am spinning my wheels to keep ...

Just when I think I am spinning my wheels to keep myself preoccupied in Rumbek something happens that tells me that I might not be a foolish idealist afterall. Yesterday we had a workshop with the youth and it was spectacular. There is a youth group that has been approaching us to do some activities with them. I was initially hesitant because officially, the youth is not the target population for the program here. However, I had a conversation with a colleague here who works for another INGO, or rather a complaint session about our work. We discussed the barriers which exist that inhibit us from accomplishing work goals and objectives. She said to me that we need to focus on the youth because they would be most receptive to change. It was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me. I thought about it, here I am trying to convince communities that have been at war for more than 2 decades to trust me, a stranger, discuss very sensitive topics with them and advise them on how to lead healthier lives. They have been in a state of resistance all these years why would they not resist me and whatever I bring. Undoubtedly, I still believe strongly in the human potential to develop and achieve -that is part of who I am, but behaviour change is an extremely difficult thing for anyone but especially for adults. It seems that I had forgotten that. Additionally, a part of me was just curious to see what would be the difference between working with adults versus youth in this context. So I said let's try; they are motivated enough to keep walking long distances to our compound to inquire about working with us, that alone earns them my attention.
Well, the difference between the two groups was like that of night and day. These students were interested, posed questions, were humorous and it was a joy facilitating with them. It was one of the most perfect work-days that I can remember since I had my first McDonald's job at 16 years old. Very life-affirming. I wish I could work with them all the time, but if I did I would probably lose hope with the adults.
I have been speaking with some people about some of my skirmishes with the local Dinkas and then last night I spoke with a sister from Khartoum about some experiences she has had (very scary) and she had to point out to me something that I had thought about before I arrived in Rumbek but dismissed too quickly. It seems that my issue is that I am being mistaken for a northern Arab. To me that is ridiculous, but virtually any Black person whose skin is more brown than ebony could be mistaken for someone from the North. Firstly let me help you to expand your definition of an Arab. In the United States at least, and I believe the same is true for much of Europe we think an Arab is a light skinned/olive skinned individual with curly to kinky hair who, speaks Arabic. Like African Americans, Arabs come in all shades of skin color. I used to look at all Sudanese as being Black, after all As-Sudan literally means the Land of the Blacks in Arabic. I was initially shocked and offended some years ago to learn that the northern Sudanese consider themselves Arabs and not Black, after all they look like they would fit in at one of my family reunions. But being here has helped me understand why they consider themselves Arab. So an Arab is defined by language and culture and not skin color. I had previously written about how as a Black person in Africa I am often put into a local ethnic group, well that can be a good thing because it makes me less conspicuous, but it can also be dangerous depending on socio-political and historical factors. Well at least now I know. I know I said last week that I would tell you about the incident that will be forever known as, "The Kicking at Rumbek Market," but I don't want to revisit that right now let me be happy about one of my most perfect workdays ever.

Sunday, August 6, 2006

I fully retract the statement that people here don...

I fully retract the statement that people here don't value cattle more than human life. Empirical evidence leads me to assert that human life in the local culture is less important than cattle. The North versus South war has been replaced by inter-tribal conflict; which takes fewer casualties but is even more senseless. Cattle ownership in the society is equated with money, power and status. Throughout history, on every point on this globe people have done heinous acts for money/power/status. So here it is not the owning of the cattle per se that is problematic it is what one is willing to do to get the cattle which is associated with money, power and status. There is a story of a young man who impregnated a young lady outside of marriage and was killed by the girl's brother. He was not killed because he dishonored the girl, ruined her or any of those reasons that you might think. He was killed because now that the girl was pregnant she would get fewer cattle which poses a problem for the brother in his search for a wife. No one bothered with the fact that now this baby will forever be fatherless, and imagine the pain of the mother; to endure a pregnancy and know that you own brother killed you child's father. What will this mean for the child's future relationship with his uncle? The tendency here is to react violently without critical thought.

Furthermore, I have to be honest and say of any culture I have had the chance to interact with significantly, this local culture treats women the worst I have ever seen. Working in development I hear often that women in Islamic societies are oppressed and abused. I spent some time in Guinea in West Africa which is about 95% Muslim; and the women there were treated with respect and care and protected. Women were treated better there than in South Africa, a primarily Christian country which has the highest rape incidence in the world and they were certainly treated better than here where women are a comodity in a man's bid for power.
If you are still not convinced let me tell you about an accepted cultural practice here. If there is a dispute within the family here and the mother and father are in disagreement the son has the right to physically discipline his mother!!!!! This is to help her come to her senses and agree with the father. So this boy/man who spent 9 months in his mother's womb, was nursed by this woman and cared for as a child can beat his mother and everyone is fine with that. How humiliating for a woman. As development workers we have been given the politically correct mantra that "We are not here to change the culture." Squash that. People (particularly the local community) need to be actively engaing to change that aspect of this culture. As I think about my work and the way I interact with the local community I can see how even with me there is some of that lack of regard for women present. I see it in small ways like not being quick to respond to my requests or questioning one of my work related decisions. When we were in Akot last Sunday for the VCT there was a man there who was not able to get tested -it was getting late, we were running low on test kits and the guys were tired. So this man is literally demanding to me that we stay longer, in fact his exact words were; " I say you stay here." At that point I was too sickened with the sexism here; so I told him who was boss (me) and that my commands are what will be and then added that there was absolutely nothing he could do but live with it. He looked like he wanted to punch me. A woman with more power than him was too much to take. I have more stories like this (one day I will tell you how I was kicked in the market!!), but I cannot stay too long in negativity.

Happy news is that I have an incredible circle of friends in Rumbek who have fascinating lives. As someone with an adventurous spirit, I devour their stories and live for a moment in them. Everyday I laugh. Outside of having work that you enjoy, the way to survive living in an aid town is to have elements of life that will help maintain sanity. All of the aid organizations have self-contained compounds with international expatriate staff living there. For example, I live, have an office space (a tent) and eat at my World Food Programme compound. It is very possible for me to only leave my compound when I go out to the field for work. I cannot live like that so I walk or catch rides to other compounds and socialize. I try to make it to the Mosque every Friday, sure I don't understand 95% of what is being said, but being there is comforting and provides me with so many other benefits. This is how I maintain my sanity.
When I look at my challenges in Rumbek I do so comparatively. If I was not in South Sudan dealing with sexism or violence, I could be at home in Chicago dealing with racism or inner-city crime/violence, but be alot less fulfilled in my work, not travelling and of course I would not experience the depth of human diversity at home as I do here. So I said all that to say, despite all the things that may cause me grief, I recognize my blessing and treasure it.