Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Third World Journalism

I spoke in Senegal about the difficulty of journalism in that part of the world - heavy African accents, translation, difficult phone lines - and that was when I was working with a UN office. Here, mostly on my own, I have experienced a whole set of other difficulties. To replicate a sound-proof booth in which I would record my voice narration for a radio script in Canada, I turned off my fan in my room in Khartoum, sat between a folded mattress and threw a sheet over my head. As I sat there sweating in the heat, trying to record my voice in silence, the maids would start chatting outside my thin walls, or the adhan would come on. So you wait, until you get some form of quiet, and try again. It's really quite entertaining.

What else is different about work here? Well in Juba, my main form of transport was the back of a motorcycle, through bumpy, muddy streets that are sometimes impassable, although the drivers always try. To save on gas, they turn the engine off and just coast if they are going down hill and then turn it back on as they start to lose momentum.

In southern Sudan, access to very important politicians is quite easy. It's a new, semi-autonomous government, built from scratch in 2005 after a peace deal with the northern government they had been fighting for two decades. One day, I stopped by the office for press relations for the Vice President to try to schedule an interview. I found a Canadian Sudanese working there, who immediately liked me because I was Canadian, and tried to get me a spot with the Big Man. All of a sudden, I found myself in the Vice President's office - and he goes, "You want to do it right now? I'm free." It was as easy as that!

The hardest part about working in a post-conflict society, I would say, is winning people's trust. As a North-American and as an Arab, people are skeptical of me. Right across the country, people resent the West as they see its interference as the root of problems in Sudan. In the south, people are suspicious of Arabs, who dominate the northern government and with whom they have had many problems historically. When you start asking a lot of questions, they wonder if you are a spy working for the government. In many cases, in the areas where there is a big humanitarian presence, people have already been asked questions by NGOs, the UN, etc. and don't want to do it all over again. So when little old Heba shows up and sticks a microphone in someone's face, they are often not keen to participate! ... That being said, once you spend the time, win the trust and convince them of your purpose, they usually come around. I often get the reaction, "You came all the way from Canada? Why did you leave your wonderful country to come to this?" When they realize I am trying to help spread the word about their living conditions, they are quite cooperative.

I did however find myself in a bit of a bind recently, when I talked to some members of the Dinka tribe along the border with Uganda. There have been problems in that area over land. During the war, people fled to Uganda as refugees leaving their land empty. Then, as the fighting progressed to other parts of the country, Sudanese living further north fled their homes and settled in this empty land along the border. Now, when the refugees come home, they find people on their land, and this understandably, has led to come tension. So I tried to raise this issue with the chiefs of the Dinka community, who were among those who settled on the land. They were quite defensive, and within minutes, I found myself surrounded by big tall men screaming at me. "You come from the West and try to create divisions among us!" Needless to say, I got out of there as fast as I could!

But then I had to stop and think about whether he was right. I told myself, as I told him, that my goal was not to divide, but to find the truth in order to help come to some kind of resolution. But regardless of my goal, is division not the result?

If you think back historically, many of the problems in Darfur have their roots in the British style of rule - control in the center and some form of self-rule, which resulted in neglect, in the peripheries. Some trace the origins of problems between north and south to British rule as well. One govt consultant blamed all of Sudan's problems on the US sanctions, which forced Sudan into an untenable financial situation, isolated from the world economically. As a result, he told me, the govt had no money to invest in its country, and people took up arms, tearing the country apart. "For the West to come back now and say the government has neglected its people... it's bullshit." Of course now, with countries coming in to reap the benefits of the booming oil industry, you can understand why many people say, as one taxi driver told me recently, "Sudan would be perfectly fine if all these people got the hell out of our country!"

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