Saturday, July 26, 2008

A new day has come!

Things are looking up! It had been a long few days. Every night, I'd think 'It will be better in the morning', but I would wake up unmotivated and the day would go by frustratingly. It felt like I was in a slump I just couldn't get out of - I wasnt writing. I wasn't doing anything really. The day before I left for southern Sudan, something changed. I woke up happy and actually accomplished a most impossible mission. I had bought a phone to replace my dysfunctional one, from a random stall at the market. I got no receipt for it, went home and found out it doesn't charge. So I figured I'd go back and get it repalced. I took the bus to the "stade" as I had time before, but it dropped me off at a different end. If you can imagine, hundreds of busses parked in every which direction and a huge market. I had no idea where to go. So the fact that somehow, I was able to find my way back to the store was, in and of itself, remarkable. That I was able to find the same guy and that he gave me a new phone was even more so - and a sign for me that things were about to change for the better. Then I went home and wrote two articles.

I am writing this first part of this posting in my notebook on board the plane to Juba, capital of southern Sudan, and it feels so good to be out of Khartoum. Not that I don't like it there, but I needed a change and I wanted to do more reporting on the ground. Plus, southern Sudan is considered much more "African" than the Arab north, so it should be a different experience. Some people have express concern about me going - as an Arab - to a place that was at war with the Arab government for two decades. Southerners were taken as slaves, their villages burned, their women raped and men killed. A peace deal was signed in 2005, but tension remains between the north and the south, especially along the border. But if I get into any trouble, I'll just pretend I'm a Latina! Besides, I met the ambassador to the Arab League in the waiting room at the airport and he's Egyptian too! So I've got someone in power on my side!

So here is Juba! It's VERY different than Khartoum. Much greener, cooler, much less developed of course, although it is a booming economy with construction of new homes, hotels, buildings at every corner. Since the end of the war, people have been returning at an incredible pace. People here all have their own local dialects (Dinka, Nuer, etc), but Arabic is the common language between them, although it is native to none of them. They also speak English, although Arabic is more common.

I am staying at the UN base here. And is has been quite the experience. These are the "containers" that people work and live in. Rows and rows of them. Two days later, I still get lost everytime I have to go from one to another. Wayne has been an INCREDIBLE host, and there is such a nice group of guys here that I feel right at home. It's quite different than Khartoum, where the international community is quite clicky. It feels like being at camp actually - showering in common outdoor bathrooms, eating at the cafeteria, having a group of buddies that you hang out with regularly. Everyone complains about the social scene in khartoum, but here it definately isn't lacking and there are plenty of nice restaurants to go to at night. In fact, as I'm typing this, the UN compound's disco is blaring through the walls.

I think that's all for now. Just be re-assured that the bad days are over (for now!)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Hell in Sudan

At the risk of sounding overdramatic, these last few days have been hell, so prepare yourselves for a good rant. Everything that could go wrong has, and nothing has gone right. I can't even count the number of times I've just broken into tears in front of complete strangers - it usually helps you get what you want faster, actually.

The first step was going to the police station, then getting my old phone number back, then asking the airline if they could refund my ticket to the south (also stolen), then realizing the ticket hadn't been written on the list of stolen items on the police report, so back to the police station. Each of these trips, of course, costs time, money, and wears down on your patience as everyone wants to chat with you, ask you where you're from, what happened when the bag was stolen, etc - and you just want to finish your business and get the hell out of there. Back to the airline, they say the head of the office is at a different office - go to Street 15. I go to Street 15, they say he's at the airport. I go BACK to the airport... it goes on and on like this. The embassy was probably the worst of all. To issue me a new passport, they wanted a birth certificate and all sorts of original ID that of course, I didn't have. So my parents had to take some things to a Passport Canada office in Ottawa. I had to bus back downtown to get passport photos taken. Come back to the embassy only to have the guard tell me they're closed and won't let me in. Go back the next day. They tell me it will cost close to $300 to get the new passport. I don't have enough money with me. Add on another trip. Throughout this whole process, the phone I am using (a backup to the one that was stolen) is acting disfunctional. Today, I go buy a new one, only to get home and find that it doesn't charge itself - ie. it's broken.

Today, I realized I have been back in Khartoum for 11 days (at $50 a night I might add) and have achieved absolutely nothing. I need to accomplish something soon before my spirit is totally crushed. Today, I hired a translator to help me to through an interview I would use - they ask for so much money, and then they translate worse than I do on my own!

Ok, I think I have gotten it all out of my system. May tomorrow be a new day...

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Ultimate Mistake

It is the oldest trick in the book. I should have known better... I should have, I should have...

Yesterday, me, Ben (the Cdn journalist) and Omar (a Sudanese friend) were out for dinner and decided to go to a park to hang out. I was debating going home and doing work, but eventually agreed and went along. It's this cute thing lots of Sudanese do - they just sit of patches of grass smoking sheesha and drinking tea. It's like the only social activity there is to do here at night, other than go to a restaurant. So there we were on the grass, smoking sheesha when two guys came along. One of them picked up the sheesha and started pulling it away. Some of the coal fell on the ground. Someone said maybe he was angry that a woman was smoking sheesha. Someone else said he was just drunk and causing trouble. It was all very weird and I didn't really understand what was going on. Eventually, they left the sheesha and walked away - leaving us all a bit flabergasted as to what that was all about. But we carried on. Omar went to get tea. And I saw a lady carrying popcorn and turned to my purse to get out some money.

And that's when the fun began. My purse wasn't there. For a minute, I thought it was just me being paranoid, but I looked again - and it really wasn't. Immediately, I knew I had been robbed and I jumped up to go somewhere - but didn't know where to go or what to do. We were in a dark, crowded park. The guy was already long-gone. Where do you start looking?

We started randomly running around, trying to ask people - fruitlessly. Ben thinks others must have been in on it too (on top of the two guys who distracted us with the sheesha), since someone would obivously have seen him, but nobody said anything.

I was so lost. I just started running aimlessly. My passport, lots of cash, my digital camera, my phone - everything was in that bag. It was so stupid of me on so many levels, and I knew that, and I was so angry at myself.

When I first got here, I carried my passport, some of my cash, and a mastercard in a pouch that I wore under my clothing. Some money and other credit cards were in my purse, and the rest of the money stayed at home. As time went on, I became more and more comfortable here - it is so safe and I never had any problems - that I stopped bothering to wear the pouch. I should logically have left it at home, but I had gotten in the habit of taking it with me (at first I was staying in a hotel I didn't trust, and then I was often going to places where I needed official ID). So it was thrown into the purse with everything else. It is the thing everyone always tells you - don't let your guard down. But I did.

Someone afterwards said, "there are always thieves in these parks" and I felt stupid once more for not even considering that possibility. I wasn't even watching the purse, wasn't even worried about it.

So that drop in vigilance has cost me thousands of dollars, a camera that I need for work with pictures that I can't get back, and huge amounts of time that I don't have - as I now have to apply for a new passport, go through the process of getting a visa again, which is - after the prodigy child preacher - the most excrutiating experience ever (employees who could care less send you from one window to another to another until three hours later, you're ready to kill yourself), and delay my trip to the south, which was already way behind schedule.

When Celine and I went to Spain four years ago, people kept warning us of the thieves and that it was inevitable that we would be robbed at least once - never happened. Since then, I have been to many countries where this sort of thing could happen and never once had a problem. So I guess it was bound to happen eventually.

I'm safe and people have been very kind and helpful, so I guess that's what is important. But ugghhh - how frustrating!

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Pulitzer Center

I had mentioned before that I received a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for this trip. The blog is up and running now, so you can check it out here. For a description of my project, you can click here. They will also post links to all the radio broadcasts and articles I am producing from here.

Otherwise, things are going well. I never really finished telling you about the village. Here's a pic of me in the multi-purpose cloth which serves as a blanket at night-time and a full-body garb during the day. NOT easy to walk in however, although not as hot as you would imagine.

In the last post, I wrote "The Simple Life?" with a question mark, but never explained why. Mohammed always used to say living in the village is such a jihad - or struggle. "Everything is a struggle," he would say. To open the front door of the house, you have to pull on a metal wire that sticks out of a hole, until the latch loosens. To go to the bathroom, you have to use your hip to shove the door shut. To shower during the day, you have to put cold water aside at night - otherwise, it will burn your skin from sitting in the sun. Nothing is smooth and simple. I always scoffed at this "jihad" he referred to. Life wasn't so bad. They had enough to eat, they had a safe home - "Don't be so high maintenance," I would tell him.

But after a few days, I began to understand what he meant. I did no cooking or cleaning while there, and had no baby to take care of, but at the end of every day, I was dead tired. The heat in and of itself is exhausting - and there is no escape from it. But these women, who spend all day in the heat, cooking, cleaning, feeding the screaming babies - it really is a struggle. Their husbands are mostly gone off to Saudi Arabia to make the only money that keeps them surviving.

Here's the baby of the family - Dodi. While his mother is busy with chores, he sits with no underwear in the dirt, a slobbery piece of cheese in his hand, mixing with the sand on the ground and then entering his mouth. His mother has no time to do anything with him - so he just sits at home all day, unstimulated. And while she is the most patient and loving mother I have ever seen, she didn't seem to have much understanding of simple parenting concepts - stimulating the child with new places, things; letting him fall so that he learns to walk on his own, etc. Or maybe she understood but just didn't have the luxury of being able to provide it. Her husband has never even met his son, who is a year and a half old. He's been in Saudi from before he was born.

Anyways, it was really nice to get a real taste of Sudan. In the capital, I live a mostly ex-pat life that is consumed by work. There, I got to live among real people, who were kind, generous and really took me in. I was very new and foreign to many of them. I don't think a woman in the village has ever worn pants, played soccer with the boys, or used a laptop (In fact, Mohammed said a computer had never before been used in the whole village).

One day, I went to help prepare the shu'raya (noodles cooked with sugar and served for dessert) for an upcoming wedding. They were making this stuff on mass (the wedding preparation - mostly involving food - went on for something like five days before the wedding). All the women of the village get together and prepare the dough, flatten it, put it through a machine that strings it, then leave it to dry. And by this point, I am told, everyone in the village had heard about me, but some had not yet seen me. I have NEVER been stared at so blatantly as I was that day. They just sat there in groups, looking at me as if I was a weird object they just couldn't get their heads around. But by the end, of course, they each wanted to practice their few words of English with me and have their picture taken.

Anyways, it was a touching place to be, and I will miss them! (Sadly, it keeps becoming easier and easier to say goodbye to people you know you will never see again. Maybe I am becoming cold and uncaring - even more so than before!)

Tomorrow, I'm off to see the pyramids of Merawi - I wonder how they'll compare to Egypt's. Then Sunday, I'm off to southern Sudan (pray that my plane doesn't crash - there have been four plane crashes here in the last two months!).
Here is some henna someone did for me in Dongola, capital of the Northern state and the only big town within 5 hours.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Simple Life?

I just got back from two weeks in a village in northern Sudan (hence my incommunicado status), which reminded that no matter where you go or how many times you travel, you will always have find moments of awe, when something seems so new and beautiful to you.

But let me start from the beginning: the bus ride.

Wayne, an RCMP officer I know from Canada who is in Sudan working with the UN, and I had decided to visit our Canadian Sudanese friend Mohammed, who was on vacation in his natal village in northern Sudan. We arrived at a dark empty street at 3:45 am to catch the bus to the village (called Taitti). We were the first ones there and had to wait a good 20 minutes before the bus even arrived. I hadn't slept, so I was looking forward to a nap on the bus - but there would be no such thing.

"Hey, what do you think that screen is for" Wayne asked, when we got on the bus. "Showing movies?"

A reasonable assumption. But when the show began, well what can I say - I have never experienced anything so excrutiatingly painful.

It was a video of some Muslim child prodigy preacher. Seriously. A six-year-old kid at the pulpit, waving his hands dramatically in the air and screaming in the most horribly screechy voice to hundreds of congregants. This went on for a good 40 minutes. Every time there was a pause and I thought it was over, his screeching voice would resume. The only respite from this horrible, horrible soundtrack (which, ps., was blaring through the speakers) was Wayne listening to his headphones and singing to himself beside me.

After a while, it all became too funny and I couldn't hold back my laughter at the ridiculousness of this video. It must have been the lack of sleep, but when the grown men in the video began repeating "Amin" after his sentences, I just burst into laughter. Every time his voice cracked, I laughed harder. The guy in the aisle across from me started looking over, smiling. SERIOUSLY, WHO IS THIS KID? I've never seen anything like it.

Anyways, when we finally arrived, it was astounding. We were dropped off on the side of a paved road in the midst of the desert. You do a 360 degree circle and find nothing but sand. It was really incredible. From there, we took a truck through the bumpy paths through the desert to the village.

Taitti is made up of about 3,000 people, whose homes are made of mud, but quite nice looking (painted white and blue) and quite spacious, with tons of different rooms and beds everywhere! They use beds as chairs, as seats for guests and parties, and of course, for sleeping.

It was really different being here than arriving to villages in Chad. While the Chadian villages were much poorer, there was an obvious UN presence and thus less feeling of isolation. Here, I truly felt far from the world. People here have no TVs, no radios, no newspapers. I had to walk to a specific spot down by the mosque to get cell phone reception.

They have no electricity - meaning no fans, no computers, no fridges... All food is cooked on the day of, fruits and fridge-requiring foods are rare, and the place is just SO quiet. If you sit there on an afternoon, all you hear are the roosters crowing, and the flies buzzing. It's really amazing, the silence of the place.

The people drink the brown, cloudy water from the Nile. I drank it too. It tastes good actually, and never made me sick - although I tried not to drink too much of it every day. Some families, like Mohammed's, have dug their own wells and built tanks to bring well-water into their

homes - not for drinking, but for washing/cleaning/cooking. This water is burning hot during the day because it sits in the sun-soaked pipes all day. The water from the nile is kept in clay pots to keep it cool. Along main roads or near mosques you will find these pots for passersby to get water if thirsty.

At night, we carried the beds out into the open-air centres of the homes, and slept under the stars.

I'd love to write more (for a better description, check out Wayne's blog at:, but I haven't eaten all day, have about 1,000 phone calls to make, a trip to the south to plan, and an article to finish!

Take care,