Return

And so I am back in South Sudan.  I come to with a start as the wheels touch down in a puff of smoke, in time to watch the wreck of a civil war era MiG 23 fighter flash past the window.  

By now Juba airport looks all too familiar, and this time around – having arrived armed with a visa – the entry process goes off without a hitch.  Sure, getting the visa in London may have necessitated joining a library, but that’s South Sudan for you…

A year down.  Let’s see how this next one goes.

…..

I always appreciate the headspace offered by intercontinental travel.  Cut off from the internet, and with a transit time far exceeding my laptop’s Mud Hut-battered battery, there is an enforced solitude to the whole thing.

On journeys with unrushed transfers this sense is only emphasised by the parade of faces that hurry past you in the terminals and transport hubs: in travel, you feel transient and rootless, in motion on more than just the physical plane.

Reflection settles naturally as the world passes by the window – thoughts turn to where I am going, while inertia draws them back to where I have come from.

On the plane I read through my journal, tracking the experiences and emotions of the past twelve months.  The pen-scribbled lines which often required such a concerted effort to get onto the page at the time now provide a welcome record of what I have been through and lived through.

Reading back I am reminded of our programme’s achievements and successes, the reality of which can easily be overlooked amidst the details and daily struggles of project implementation.

The fact that our project is still in existence is in itself a source of pride.  Twice we were coming to the end of our donor funding, at the very time that we could see a massive ramping up of needs.  Staff had to be let go, and many more of us were operating in an uncertain limbo as we waited for donor decisions; those were not easy times.

In Logistics we secured the procurement, transportation and distribution of over 100 tonnes of project goods in little more than a month.  These goods and materials enabled the construction of nutrition feeding centres for several thousand malnourished children.  The rainwater harvesting storage systems we constructed at schools and clinics will provide clean water during the long dry season, while the eight new boreholes we constructed in underserved communities will provide safe water for many thousands more.  In addition we now have materials pre-positioned in new storage facilities ready for the next spike in need, whether due to food shortages, flooding or conflict.

These efforts may be utterly inconsequential in comparison with the scale of the situation, but they will enable us to respond to the needs of the most vulnerable next time around, and that is something at least.  And in this line of the work you need to hold fast to the small victories…

…..

And so it is with a mixture of pride, weariness and regret that I read through my journal.

I can certainly see the contribution I made in my roles to major aspects of our projects. And yet I can’t quite shake the feeling that I and all of us could have done so much more.  If only we had put in more hours; if only we had had the money secured at the right time; if I had only been able to be more disciplined and focused – if only, if only…

A couple of days ago it was a friend’s leaving sodas and speeches (a South Sudan tradition that apparently spans multiple organisations).  I was struck by what she said, at the end of two years in country.  She spoke of how this place it demands a lot of you, how it requires that you give your all, how it changes you.

And I can see that much has changed in the past year; both in my life, and in myself.

I can see now that this year, and the time in the Mud Hut in particular, has made me more solitary, more comfortable in my own company.  Simultaneously, I can see the impact that extended periods of isolation has had on me, and the resulting aversion to absolute loneliness which has developed.  A confusing contradiction.

My times back home are still marked by a rushing around and a certain manic tendency in which the instinct is to see all the people that I love, all of the time.  But in this place there is a sense of remove which I now find essential to survival.

I have come back to South Sudan in a new job, with a new NGO.  And it feels like both a new beginning and starting again.  I was fortunate that last year I made some good friends, people I connected with and could be myself around.  Now, due to the transient nature of humanitarian work and its short term contracts the majority of these friends have moved on, whether to new crises, new postings in country, or they have returned home to rest and nurse themselves back to health.

And so I find myself once again in Juba, looking ahead to another year.  After a very short turnaround between jobs I have come back wary and decidedly weary.  Two weeks in and I can already feel that I am deeply tired.  There is a balance that needs to be struck here, a balance that I have not yet been able to find. So now it is time for head down and absolute focus, and hopefully it will all become clear in time.

A year down.  Let’s see how this next one goes.

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And Yet The Books

Inside the dome of my mosquito net, its borders edged by the clip-on light that illuminates my Kindle, I am reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It is sparse, bleak and unsparing. It is late, I am tired. I have worked a sixteen hour day and have another one ahead. So I read myself away by battery-powered light, tented. Like I used to do when trying to hide my clandestine page turnings from my parents. I have always tended towards the nocturnal.

I reach a passage where the unnamed protagonist’s wife, bowed and tired in the aftermath of some unspecified apocalypse, decides to take her own life. I think of losing those I love, the far away ones who are never far from my mind. I have a moment where I curl up and mourn that which I have not lost.

The man-made disaster unfolding in the here and now, this very real crisis, it is anything but unspecified. I think of the many thousands of people who will be spending the night with empty stomachs, in temporary shelter or none at all, leaving behind one kind of uncertainty and fear for another. How daily I parse their suffering into clean and clinical sentences as I present the argument as to why their lot warrants particular recognition, why they merit assistance when others do not. Is this a zero sum game in which we are engaged? I think of the abstract faith of my youth, the angry gods who called out for blood and obedience. I can see it writ large, here.

Passing it off as the workings of a tired mind I close my book for the night. The screen fills with images of fountain pens, the nibs narrowing down to one still point. I turn off the light and feel the whisper of the fan as it languidly churns the air.

……………………

And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
And, touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion.
“We are, ” they said, even as their pages
Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
Licked away their letters. So much more durable
Than we are, whose frail warmth
Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.
I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,
Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.

– Czeslaw Milosz

Security, Security, Security

This week has found me dressed in kevlar body armour and the famous blue peacekeeper helmet, driving a 4×4 through a minefield, leading a team through checkpoints manned by drunken soldiers, and being ambushed by a rebel militia group.  It was all a simulation, of course, but most definitely the most dramatic of my otherwise fairly sedate South Sudan exploits nevertheless.

To contextualise, I have been on the UN SSAFE (Safe and Secure Approaches to Field Environments) training, an exercise whereby some Real Men conspire to somehow make land mines and kidnappings a surprisingly dull topic of study.  Three days of acronyms, procedures, powerpoint presentations and the constant refrain of “use your common sense”.  Worthwhile, of course, but – 4X4 driving aside – much less exciting than it initially sounds.

Even if the largely classroom-based format left something to be desired, the instructors themselves were most interesting individuals indeed.  The gentleman who headed up proceedings was a former Royal Marine called Shiner.  Shiner called me Mr Hat and said I reminded him of Joe Strummer.  I liked Shiner.  His second in command was a stocky Croatian with an exhaustive knowledge of minefields, and some suitably horrific stories to boot.  His “when I was a bad guy” intro to one particular piece of counsel had the unsettling ring of truth to it.  Anyway, he was now in United Nations and to atone for his sins he had us to practice his pedagogy upon.

There are a few things that have stuck with me.  Firstly, don’t trust the movies.  If someone throws a grenade at you do not attempt to throw it back: it will not work.  Similarly, if you step on a land mine you’ve had it.  There is no chance to slide a knife under your shoe to enable you to safely step off the trigger plate, or other such Bourne-style shenanigans.  Once you’ve tripped the fuse the first you’ll know about it is when you are ten feet in the air waving goodbye to your leg.  Indiscriminate and awful weapons, the most depressing fact of all is that three of the five permanent members of the UN Security  Council are non-signatories to the anti-land mine Ottawa Treaty.  We live in a terrible world.

It is interesting also to observe, however, how that which is self-evidently the best option – or at the very least the least dumb thing to do – in a classroom quickly becomes anything but obvious when put into practice.  Of the 20 or so others on the course there were very few I would like to find myself in a genuine security incident with.  Indeed, if I were to encounter a potentially violent scenario, in several instances I would probably feel safer with the aggressors than my fellow trainees.  Common sense, it transpires, is thin on the ground under pressure.

But even amidst the contingency planning and worst case scenarios it eventually emerged that the most effective method of ensuring your safety is really quite simple, conceptually at least.  Here in the humanitarian world we have an especial term for it – acceptance – but in essence the idea boils down to two very common, but infrequently practiced, values: respect and humility.

The idea is that in order to be safe in the area in which you are working you need to have the community on your side, which is best achieved through gaining the trust of those you are living amongst and serving.  You will have to balance the very real needs of the communities against their inevitable demands for things beyond the scope or remit of your project, and the hard-nosed realities of budgets and donor priorities, and this will involve saying no.  Promising the world when designing a project might feel good at the time, and it may even have been well intentioned, but to promise something and then not deliver can seriously damage your standing.  Much better, and much more difficult, to maintain your integrity and be honest throughout.

Acceptance, then, is a long-term strategy that is easy to conceptualise, difficult to implement, and easy to lose.  It may sound straightforward, but I expect that in practice it will prove anything but.  Common sense, I have heard, is thin on the ground under pressure…

……………………

Cynicism, Sacrifice and Humility

Life in Juba occasionally feels like an experiment in communal living, a monasticism with new and interesting methods of self-flagellation, and significantly less silence. There have been a number of occurrences of late which have given me pause to reflect upon how reliant we are on the kindness and sensitivity of those around us. When you live in such close proximity to people a certain amount tension is inevitable, and with the continuous movement of people team dynamics are constantly shifting. It is a fragile balance, easily damaged and difficult to repair. It is at times like these that I am deeply grateful for the existence of Björk.

However, the community most on my mind of late has been the one which I am going to be living amongst come September. I am increasingly aware how little I actually know about Yuai, my soon to be home. I have read reports and proposals aplenty and can tell you all about the PHCUs (Primary Health Care Units), nutrition needs and WASH (WAter, Sanitation and Hygiene) projects that we run. I have read books on the history of South Sudan, about its colonial past, and the extended civil war and factionalism which lead to its separation from the north. But the reality is that I know very little about the Lo Nuer, the Dinka and the Murle, the main tribes in my locality in Jonglei – the state in which Yuai is located – as communities or as people.

If there is one thing I do know about Yuai, however, it is that it is an extremely isolated place. If you Google the name of our previous base in Jonglei the first result is not a news site, or even an agency report, but my friend and predecessor’s blog from two years ago. This is not somewhere with international media attention, or indeed international anything.

I have recently noticed that when I tell an experienced field worker, especially one nursing a beer, where I am going to be based their instinct is to chuckle knowingly and remark that if you can survive Jonglei you can survive anywhere. One Jonglei old hand posed the most challenging question I have fielded so far: ‘What are your motivations?’

Now I have been asked that question, or a variation thereof, plenty of times, and considered it independently many more, but this time the question was put in a concrete context. The seasoned aid workers I have talked to, their stories – or the ones that seem to mean something at least – are not about well managed projects, balanced budgets or sociological observations. The stories that mean something are those that tell of feeling welcome, about trust, warmth and connection. And this particular aid worker, who has worked in Darfur and on the Kenya – Somali border, outlined why Jonglei was the most difficult context he had worked in. He touched upon the many impediments to working that I am well aware of, from the rains that turn it into a sodden and impassable swamp for five months of the year, to the sheer scale of the place. But he also talked about the more personal elements – the inherent suspicion bred of decades of civil war and intertribal violence; the absence of a hospitality culture and concomitant reticence of the communities to allow you to participate in their lives; the tendency towards entitlement and aid dependency that meant that engagement, initiative and buy in to the projects were frustratingly difficult to achieve; that he had never once been invited into a family’s home for a meal. And it was the second group of frustrations that made Jonglei so difficult and dispiriting. His advice was that I need to be sure of my motivations, and clear on what I want to achieve, or else I would invariably get frustrated and demotivated by it all.

Now his experience may not be representative, but the larger point still stands: in a context such as this the pat “I’m here to help” answer just doesn’t cut it. Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t contain some truth – idealism definitely motivates many people to get into this line of work, but it’s not enough to sustain you. Bleeding hearts don’t last. And if we are honest with ourselves, neither is it entirely true.

The most difficult response I received when I told people that I was moving to South Sudan was when people expressed the sentiment that I was doing something brave, heroic or sacrificial, which wasn’t uncommon. This was difficult firstly because of the stirrings of pride that accompanied the praise, as the ego was burnished a little too brightly. And it was also difficult because I disagree, for reasons that are difficult to express succinctly. What I am doing is not heroic, it is not a sacrifice, and it is not even particularly unusual – there is a veritable glut of us out here.

By presenting or seeing yourself in such a way – as heroic and benevolent, with wholly altruistic intentions –  you are painting yourself in a position of power: you are someone here to right the wrongs that the South Sudanese cannot, you are here to solve a problem. In doing so you strip those around you of their agency and autonomy, not to mention their dignity. Uncomfortable colonial overtones abound. We are not saviours, and we will not be welcomed as such. Nor should we expect to be. In fact, where I am going it sounds as though I may not be welcome, at least at first. But there should be joy in what we do, regardless of whether or not we experience an emotional affirmation in recognition of our efforts.

“I slept and dreamt that life was joy.  I awoke and found that life was service.  I acted and behold, service was joy.”
– Rabindranath Tagore

In his elegant and challenging piece for the Atlantic, Teju Cole points out: “…there is much more to doing good work than ‘making a difference.’ There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.”  The ‘here to help’ chestnut makes it all about us, about our need for validation and fulfillment, and it defines our purpose by what we are able to achieve. And when we are faced with our inability to effect change, as we inevitably will be, such thinking sets one up to become bitter and cynical as we are confronted with the seeming futility of our efforts.

“If you believe you’re going to… change the world, you’re going to end up either a pessimist or a cynic. But if you understand your limited power and define yourself by your ability to resist injustice, rather than by what you accomplish, then I think reality is much easier to bear.”
– Chris Hedges

To return to the point about being honest about our motivations, and the problem with the ‘sacrificial saviour’ narrative. There are of course things which I have given up to be here, important things, comfortable things, safe and secure things. There will be things I will miss – weddings, birthdays, late nights chewing the fat with old friends, and myriad similar moments, and these are things I value and do not set aside lightly. But the distinction needs to be made – this life is not in and of itself a sacrifice.

I have chosen to be in South Sudan, and I want to be here. I find it exciting to be somewhere new again, to be back on the continent where my interest in justice, development and the wider world was kindled. I like living somewhere where the everyday has an edge, and less bubble wrap to soften the edges than it does in Ireland and the UK. I enjoy observing the chaotic bustle and colour of the streets and marketplaces, the three people per motorbike approach, the feeling of a city bursting at the seams. I love the smell before a storm, and how the rain here has a weight and heft where back home it is most often grey, dank and half-hearted. I love the interesting people you meet: people who have done things of value and whose character and authority speaks of their knowledge and experience; adrenaline junkies who’re addicted to the buzz of chasing the latest disaster; people who have seen too much and succumbed to the cynicism that I spoke of above – the range is fascinating. I love my job, I love that I’m learning all the time, and I definitely enjoy the intermittent feeling that I am actually quite good at what I do.

All of which makes the frustrations and disappointments that much easier to bear, and makes it all the more gratifying when you know you have contributed to something worthwhile. For our projects, the good ones anyway – the ones where the internal and external circumstances align sufficiently with good planning and available funds – they do do good. They make a difference. But it is incremental, it is slow, and it is difficult to quantify or to measure. It is difficult to determine causality, and even more difficult to watch your efforts and hard-won improvements be wiped out by events outside of your control.

Being honest about the range of your motivations can also keep attitudes in check. If you think you are somehow doing people a favour by deigning to work and live in their country the implication is that they owe you something, whether a debt of gratitude or some form of preferential treatment. And such attitudes will inevitably spill over into your behaviour. Whereas if I am honest about the fact that I am benefitting from being here, and that it is a privilege and not a sacrifice, then I will treat others accordingly, with respect and a willingness to actually listen to the needs of the communities we are serving, rather than imposing my ideas of what is best upon a context about which I can ultimately only ever know very little.

In other words, the cultivation of humility is essential to doing good well. It speaks of trust and integrity, and like anywhere in the world trust has to be earned. Now it may just be that in this particular place there are more impediments to relationship than in most. But such is the privilege of being here.

……………………

Juba, Jubilee and a Modicum of Morissey

As you may well have noticed, last week Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her Diamond Jubilee.  Across Britain the waves of monarchism continued unabated for four days.  Despite the rain millions made their pilgrimage to London, publicly displaying their fealty and devotion, inclement weather be damned.

Juba did not escape this very un-British display of collective enthusiasm, as the below photographs bear testament.  As an Irishman with broad republican leanings, finding myself surrounded by the symbols and baubles of Britain’s colonial heyday I felt it my duty to inject an element of proper leftist cynicism into proceedings.  This mainly took the form of inappropriate song suggestions such as The Smiths’ ‘The Queen is Dead’ (“I said Charles, don’t you ever crave / To appear on the front of the Daily Mail / Dressed in your Mother’s bridal veil?”) and the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’ (“God save the Queen, the fascist regime…”) but it was gratifying nevertheless, for the reactions elicited if nothing else.

Truth be told, the celebratory atmosphere, not to mention the concomitant Pimms, were most welcome, and not only because it happened to be my birthday.  Working for an NGO I live in a world populated primarily by other aid workers, with a revolving door cast: staff turnover rates are high, frequently so too are stress levels.  In between the spreadsheets, reports and endless statistics that mask unthinkable human suffering, it’s a good idea to relax and socialise where you can.  And there are some lovely bars with thatched roofs and cold Tuskers to hand, their car parks heaving with 4X4s, and a few other expat hang outs, not to mention the apparently lively house party scene.  But as pleasant and unthreatening as Juba may seem we do live in a walled compound and abide, albeit reluctantly, by curfews and travel restrictions, for this is a city of in betweens.

Juba may be a national capital but this is an urban centre in its infancy, birthed of conflict – our compound still has a bomb shelter, now put to use storing breakfast cereal – and institutional poverty.  There are three tarmac roads, each of them lined with litter and semi-permanent structures, while scaffolding-clad building projects are common, each seemingly unfamiliar with safety standards as metal skeletons wave in the wind.  In September 2011, two months after independence, the government announced that they were moving the capital to Ramciel, in Lakes state, a place described by the Sudan Tribune as “almost no man’s land”.  And so Juba’s fate, too, appears uncertain.  For now, NGOs wait and continue to operate out of shipping containers as air conditioned hotels spring up around them.  This may not be our makeshift home for much longer.

And what of the Jubilee?  While it might not be mine to celebrate, in a context such as this I can appreciate the pleasure that this expression of patriotic sentiment brings to my friends and colleagues, and the comfort of a tangible reminder of home, even while disagreeing with the idea of monarchy itself.

And so I find myself in South Sudan, coloniser and colonised enjoying a scone.

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Transit, Deportation and Reprieve

So I have arrived in South Sudan.

After a frantic period of packing, goodbyes and intensive lying around in London’s grand array of parks, it was time to go.  Heathrow was buffed and sheened in anticipation of the Olympics, but otherwise as grey and soulless as the next airport.  A curious and unsatisfying place for farewells.  Nevertheless, after two years of applications, internships and administration this was it: my first overseas assignment.

Alighting in the sticky heat of mid morning Juba everything was coated with the surreal sheen of the overtired.  Perhaps this was why the threat of deportation summarily issued by the guard at border control seemed amusing above all else.  Welcome to South Sudan.

We had been warned about the constantly shifting entry requirements and it soon transpired that I was lacking a crucial form which you definitely needed for entry but which definitely didn’t exist the week before.  After an hour and a half of shuttling back and forth across the arrivals-hall-cum-baggage-reclaim-cum-customs where one’s suitability for entry into the world’s newest nation is determined, I was eventually granted a reprieve.  While my more experienced colleague and travelling companion took the brunt of the dressing down – read shouting at – I took the opportunity to observe.

The South Sudanese are tall and noble, strikingly so, with a penchant for uniforms and epaulettes.  And this is NGO country, that much is clear already.  I counted at least four organisations represented at arrivals, in addition to several nationalities of UNMISS (UN Mission in South Sudan) troops. Tourists were notable by their absence.

Loading a year’s worth of antimalarials and sunscreen into the Land Cruiser and clambering in after it I ticked off one khawaja – westerner/white person – cliché.  No doubt there are many more to come.

My first impressions of the team have been overwhelmingly positive.  The presence of a couple of familiar faces makes a real difference, and I have been very grateful for the warm welcome I have received.  I had heard from other NGOs that Tearfund’s compound was the envy of Juba, and I can see why.  Spacious and with bursts of green there is a volleyball net which attracts visitors for twice weekly matches; a rickety little pool table under a tin roof; a hammock and a tree swing of sorts; and even a paddling pool.  The food hasn’t been too bad either and, although goat has proven as gritty as expected, overall the whole setup is so good that it feels somewhat like cheating…

It is rapidly apparent, however, what a complex and unpredictable environment this is.  A recently leaked World Bank report has forecast that the country will be bankrupt in six weeks as a result of the government’s decision to stop all oil production following a dispute with Sudan over revenues.  As oil counts for ninety-odd percent of South Sudan’s GDP this was an unusual move indeed; the report essentially accused the government of gross incompetence and has apparently ruffled all manner of official feathers.

It is in this climate of piqued pride and mutual suspicion that the Northern and Southern governments are heading to Addis Ababa for peace talks; the last round of negotiations resulted in open hostilities and bombings in the border region last month, so it could go either way.  Amidst this ongoing uncertainty donors are being particularly slow in signing off strategies or committing funds to projects.  Our programme is far from immune from these pressures; there is a lot of work to be done.  Due to staffing needs and the onset of the rainy season, during which the implementation of projects slows dramatically at our field sites, I am to stay in Juba for a couple of months, most likely to work on funding proposals and various donor-focused pieces of work.  It will become clear in time, no doubt.  For now, however, I will continue with the briefings and inductions and try not to panic about the scale of the task ahead.

A final observation.  Having stumbled sleepily through my first day I joined a few of my colleagues for a run in the UN compound.  The contrast between the industrial scale of the UN and everything else in South Sudan is striking – UNMISS seems an unintentionally apt acronym, such is the disconnect.  It is immediately apparent why the UN can never be an agile organisation, and conversely why, when the machine grinds into gear and leverages its considerable resources, it has such potential to effect change.

Marked by paradox, like so much of South Sudan.  This should be interesting.

……………………

Annex 1:

Some choice extracts from the World Bank report, courtesy of the Sudan Tribune (http://www.sudantribune.com/EXCLUSIVE-South-Sudan-economy-on,42512):

“[T]he World Bank has never seen a situation as dramatic as the one faced by South Sudan,” the World Bank’s Director of Economic Policy and Poverty Reduction Programs for Africa, Marcelo Giugale, is quoted as telling representatives of major donors …

Giugale told the donors that neither South Sudan president Salva Kiir nor senior member of his cabinet “were aware of the economic implications of the [oil] shutdown”.

According to the transcript, the World Bank official “candidly said that the decision was shocking and that officials present had not internalized nor understood the consequences of the decision”.

South Sudan is a unique and unprecedented situation globally, Giugale said because “countries in crisis usually face a collapse in growth rather than of GDP”.

As a result of a “sharp” drop in influx of hard currency, once citizens in South Sudan realise that value of their local currency is slipping “there will be a run for the dollars and families with dollars will almost certainly shift them outside the country”.

Giugale pointed out that because most South Sudanese are not fully financial literate the run on the point has not yet happened.

“Once it starts, the currency will almost certainly collapse”.