Sunday, January 8, 2017

It's Christmas Time in the Desert

With my friend's cabbage patch baby
I’ve been especially lucky over the last few years to be able to spend Christmas with my family. It’s kind of one of my favorite things about working with Neverthirst, who actively encourage my Yuletide escape. By the end of the year, having diligently forgotten to take frequent R&Rs as recommended by psychologists and aid worker experts and concerned bosses, I’m ready to get out for a couple of weeks. More importantly, I really like spending Christmas with my family because I like them. We have fun, and I buy my nieces and nephews everything they want, and people generally have significant amounts of Amanda-appropriate food shaped like Christmas trees or Santa hats around their houses waiting for me to eat, so everyone is happy. But add in IAS work, and December becomes a month of go crazy until you collapse at the airport in Newark for 13 hours because you buy stupid tickets. Can I just ask that you all remind me to get others to help me buy tickets in the future? Because I make bad decisions. I buy the cheapest ticket and forget to check on how long the layovers are. But in spite of the fact that Asky Airlines wrote New York on my boarding pass instead of Newark, I made it. And I can use these 13 hours to read up on how to do a proper ECHO proposal, and when I realize that is horribly boring and only the fact that my fingers are freezing into icicles is keeping me from falling asleep on the papers I had Emelie print out for me, I can stop doing that and write this blog.  And really—if you’re ever traveling from N’Djamena to Newark and you notice that your boarding pass says New York, don’t worry. That’s just because Newark doesn’t exist as a city in their computer systems. It doesn’t really exist as a city in the minds of most New Yorkers either, interestingly enough. Don’t ask, though, how they happen to have the right airport code correctly programmed in.

He makes that bandage look good.
So December started off with a bang of me moving into my new apartment, when Felix’s lovely mum moved back to reclaim him. He made sure to get into a huge fight with the neighbor cat the week before she came back so that he was limping around with an oozing wound, leading her to believe that I cannot be trusted with small animals. So thanks for that, Fifi.
My new apartment is perfectly fine for me, except that my downstairs neighbor and I are in a feud. I mean, he’s kind of a skeevy guy, and I would have tried to develop a healthy frigidity between us, but his very inconsiderate parking habits have pushed our relationship into enemy territory.  Note: spell check is not recognizing “skeevy” as a word. I don’t think I made it up, but if the spelling is wrong, I blame learning French. It ruins your spelling. Is it “address” or “adresse” or “projet” or “project” or “apartment” or “appartement”? Nobody knows anymore.

I also had a couple of days without electricity, as we were trying to figure out the payment system for the electricity and it took us a while. I was disappointed in myself for being as frustrated as I was by that. I mean, I’ve lived without electricity in my house for more than a year in South Sudan, but I guess I thought I’d paid my dues or something. Frustrating things are really only frustrating if you weren’t expecting them. I got over it and bought some candles and nearly set my hair on fire a couple of times, so it ended up OK.

I don't know if this will work, but
this is the face of Evil.
Besides my Enemeighbor, I’ve also been harassed by a local pigeon. I’m working on a name for him. Robird Hitchcock. Pidgington Franklin. Beelzebird. I don’t know. But I do know that when I looked into his eyes, I saw Evil staring back at me. In the mornings, after I’ve come back in from my run, I often hear him diabolically pounding on my door, demanding entrance so that he can attack me on my turf. The first time, I thought it was my Enemeighbor coming up to talk about the parking situation. When I saw the Bird furiously pecking at the glass, I gave him a gentle kick in the face (against the glass, not his actual face, calm down PETA). He flew off, and I thought that was it, but he bounced back like a boomerang, this time landing on the handle beating the door with his wings.  He comes back every few days to make sure that I know he is still here and he still hates me. How did Daphne DuMaurier end all the evil birds in her book? I should have read the whole thing…or was it just a short story? I should have paid more attention in English class. I’m sorry Miss Searcy. I did not realize the important life lessons I could have taken away from your class, if I hadn’t been distracted by having to be the best at everything. But I can still recite the first few lines of Mark Anthony’s speech about Julius Caesar and that has come in really handy. But seriously—what is the Bird’s kryptonite? Clearly, it’s not being kicked in the face…

In case the video doesn't work.

After moving into my new house, I went on a couple of trips to the field. One to Mongo/Bitkine with the lovely Rhyan and her father, as she had been begging me to take her out of N’Djamena from the moment I met her, and I wanted to oblige because I like making people’s dreams come true. I would make a great fairy godmother. Better than the Cinderella one because I don’t believe in enforcing curfews like a dictator. But Cinderella’s fairy G-mom and I did provide similarly fragile dream-transportation vehicles. Or at least I have the driving skills of a dog turned into a human. Two times in two days I popped the tire and had to change it and get it fixed. The first time, some chivalrous men drove by and helped. I allowed it because they didn’t really look like serial killers (though you never know and that’s why you should be able to change a tire by yourself) and because they had a fancy air-pump jack, and mine was particularly rusty and hard to turn. The second time, I did it myself. The first time it was a direct result of reckless driving, the second time it was a result of driving a vehicle over roads that were never intended for small cars. But they were troopers, and I think it just added to the adventure of the journey. I mean, if you never know when the driver is going to pop a tire, you can never fully relax. Or you shouldn’t, at any rate, because she will drive 140-150kmh if it looks like everyone is asleep and not paying attention to her…

Enjoying the view

Sewing teacher trying on the dresses.
He makes that dress look good. 

What's in the box? Oh, you thought I could
get out of Bitkine without bringing a live chicken back to N'Djamena with me?

A poster of animals in the guest house where I stayed.
I'm thinking one of these animals hopped a long way from home
or else Africa is getting way more exotic than it used to be.

After that trip, I had a few days at home, and I used one afternoon to bake Christmas cookies with my favorite Chadian kids. They helped for about 10 minutes and spent the rest of the time watching movies on my computer and eating candy and drinking soda that I bought them. Best day every for them, and they are so much cute.

I think Sefora single-handedly
drank all the soda. You can see it in her eyes.
This is why we get along--mutual love of sugar.

These kids are my neighbors now and I love it.

The bakers!

Then I had a Christmas party for N’Djamena people before two of our expat staff went home to their respective countries for Christmas. We had Lebanese food (their choice) and cookies (courtesy of me and the Adorables) and candy (courtesy of Leif, who listened to me and did not send licorice. He is slowly realizing that normal non-Viking people do not like it.). Then I had to drive to Abeche to meet the drilling team there, share more cookies with drillers and by standers, have another end of the year party, and get into another feud, which I think I have amicably resolved now. Then there were several days of office work, involving lots of planning, lots of French meetings, and lots of signing checks and receipts and proposals. And now somehow I am in America.  I hope I will be able to get on a not-delayed flight to Nashville and fix my non-functioning sim card with minimal effort. I know I’ll have fun with the family, and I won’t write again until next year, so breathe easy. 

Christmas cookies and roasted goat meat. Festive!

These guys love a good Christmas tree-shaped cookie.

Radwan says, "I look like an American now, right?"

I interrupted this meeting to serve cookies because I'm a girl and I do that.

Party time.

See you in 2017. If you decide that you want to come visit me in Chad. Or if we happen to meet up in some airport or some other interesting country. Or if you invite me to come spend my R&Rs at your house. So many possibilities… Merry Christmas!

Amanda with Baby Amanda and
Emelie with Baby Emelie.
One of the perks of the job is getting cute babies named after us!
We are OK with that!


Monday, November 28, 2016

Thanksgiving Week Uganda-style

Took this photo from the back of
the boda-boda as we were racing off.
But somehow I missed photographing
the elephants and giraffes I saw...
I love Thanksgiving. I like the food, the nice-though-possibly-historically-questionable story of Squanto and the pilgrims, hanging out with family, and official (in my mind) beginning of Christmastime. Usually, however, I’m not in the US, not with family, and not eating traditional Thanksgiving food, and this year was no different. Though, I generally try to at least make something out of pumpkin (I have some in my freezer, which I’ll use when I get back to Chad). This year, I wasn’t in hotels that I could talk into letting me use their kitchens, and even if I had been, there is too much involved in pumpkin foods that would not have been available there anyway. So my Thanksgiving meal was Ugandan chicken stew, chapatis, a neon green apple-flavored Miranda soda, and later that night—mangos. Let’s be honest, would I have preferred to eat turkey and dressing, cranberry sauce (the jellied, completely unhealthy kind from the can without berries), and several kinds of pie, followed by watching all the new Gilmore Girls episodes with both of my sisters, wearing all their clothes and using all their blankets (their houses are always too cold for me). The answer is…probably. I missed my family (and I really missed the food), but I had a pretty good Thanksgiving week, and I got to spend it with people who feel like family.

Thanksgiving meal
 With the influx of South Sudanese refugees into Uganda (nearly 3000 per day in recent estimates), Neverthirst is looking into supporting the relief efforts in northern Uganda. So, as Africa Programs Directrice, I last-minute planned a trip out to visit our local partners on the ground, worrying them with my spontaneity, though everything worked out fine, as it always does. I was also especially happy to be re-united with Repent and his family, who fled South Sudan and are now living in Arua, more on that later. (Note: I’m going to throw out names of Ugandan towns like you should know where they are, and you SHOULD. Get a map.)

I arrived in Entebbe at 1am, waiting an additional 30 minutes for my one bag to slowly tip off the conveyor belt. Good news, friends: Uganda has reduced its visa price back to 50USD! Last time I was here it was 100USD. I didn’t know it was possible to reduce visa prices, but I am ALL for it. I shuffled off to the hotel that I usually stay in and slept for a few hours. Later that morning, I headed to Kampala, where I would meet up with Asiki and bus it to Koboko (about a 7.5 hour drive).

With Asiki on the bus,
eye bags courtesy of
inter-Africa travel
 Adventures in Uganda started out with a bang. Though we arrived at the station on time, we couldn’t get a hold of Asiki, and we watched our bus slowly glide out of the station before we saw Asiki, standing right there, not answering his phone to tell us that he was there. We’d already looked for him and couldn’t find him. So as we are hugging and greeting each other, our bus is driving away, and he is totally unconcerned about it. It turns out, he had no reason worry.

Apparently, enterprising young men on motorcycles (we call them boda-bodas here in Uganda and South Sudan) hang around bus stations for just such cases as this. “Hop on,” they said, “We’ll catch the bus.” So we did. I tried to get on side-saddle because I have a slight aversion to straddling a man that I don’t know, but they said, “Ride like a man!”, which turned out the be the right call as we sped through town, trying to catch up. Spoiler alert: we did.

Goat bike bag. So handy.
Get one in Uganda.
We smushed into our seats on the bus (Asiki is a large man), and settled in for the long, slightly sweaty trip. Besides getting to catch up with Asiki, the highlights were seeing a large bull elephant lumbering by the roadside (no photos because my phone was buried deep), and hearing Toto blared over the bus loudspeaker. I mean, it is important to realize that there are some African radio stations that will play that song, though it wasn’t actually raining down in our part of Africa at the time.

Yup, we are Family.
The next few days were fairly filled with work, and I’ll attach some of the photos. We were mostly in a town called Yumbe, as well as Koboko. Our partners are doing assessments of the water and sanitation situation in Yumbe, and I went to visit some local officials and see a bit of the area. Truthfully, I found myself on the verge of tears for much of the time. I spent some time just with Repent at the beginning of my time there and heard his stories of escaping South Sudan. The time his car was hijacked on the Juba-Yei road (where I traveled a few months earlier to the great concern of my boss), and the man in their group who did not have any money to give was shot in the head right in front of them, his blood splashing on Repent. Later, as Repent realized that the situation was too dangerous for him and his family to stay, he used the rest of his money to hire a car to take his family and their main belongings to Uganda. As they were leaving, they were caught in an ambush by Dinka soldiers who have been on the war path for Equatorians (including Repent and his family). Repent said that he made eye-contact with one of the soldiers, but somehow they let them pass. The cars in front and behind them weren’t so lucky. If you were praying for his family during this time (I may have hassled some people to do this), he thanks you, and believes that God chose to protect his family because of the prayers of the Church.

Home school in Uganda
As I heard Repent’s stories, my heart ached for what he had been through, but I’m also fiercely proud of the decisions that he has made for his family throughout all of this. When he decided to leave, his neighbors suggested for him to just run to the jungles with them, but knowing that he was not familiar with those jungles, as he was with the ones around Mundri, he decided to leave. Sadly, when the UNHCR brought them into the camp, they refused to transfer the things that they had brought with them, requiring them to leave them in a designated area where they could return for them later. Those things were all stolen. Another brave decision he made was while waiting in the camp, where they stayed for a little over a month. He realized that he was really struggling with witnessing the brutal murder of the man in the car hijacking. Knowing that he needed help, he went to a pastor, also staying in the camp and asked for prayer. That helped him to heal, and he is doing much better now. Finally, he decided to use his salary to move his family out of the camp. He moved to Arua, where our biosand filter partner, Loguya, helped him find an affordable house. Before leaving the camp, he informed the director of his decision, so he is still eligible to receive help as a refugee, even though he is now living in town. If he had just disappeared, he might have lost this benefit. He also set up classes for his children and his wife to help them learn English so that they can join the school system in 2017. He’s pretty great.

Camp--look way back and you can see tents all the way to
the horizon. Grass in front is being mowed to fit in more tents.
 Driving around Yumbe and Koboko, some places are filled with tents, as far as you can see. These tents are filled with South Sudanese refugees, who left behind everything they know just for a chance to survive. They are surviving in these camps, but camp-life is interminably boring. There is no work. There is no way to get work. There are lines to wait in for daily food rations that aren’t enough to fill up hungry bellies or medicines that aren’t enough to fully heal recurring illnesses like malaria or water borne diseases, likely contracted from poor sanitation. Lucky people might be near one of the hastily-constructed water points, but most are not. In these cases, they might spend their days searching for water, which might be enough to drink but not to bathe. NGOs are working to set up schools, and some are up and running, but there is not much else for people to look forward to.

Chairperson Aziz Aluma. This is a leader-
working hard for his people, generous
to neighbors in need, not in it for the glory.
If we had politicians like this, I might actually
try to find my voter's registration card.
Other places are being razed to make room for more tents and shelters that are coming soon to meet the needs of people that keep pouring in. It turns out, according to the chairperson of Keruwa Sub-county, the local population agreed to give this land to the South Sudanese refugees. Just to GIVE it to them. For FREE. Pretty impressive, huh? In his words, “They let us come in back in 1986 when there was fighting in our country. And many of us stayed for around 6 years or so. We want to do the same for them.” He also admitted that they are hopeful that NGO presence in their area will bring more infrastructure to their region, which is not as developed as other parts of the country. Apparently, most of their current hand pumps and many of their government buildings were built back in 1993 and 2007 during previous refugee relief programs. For this part of the country, where only 3 out of 10 families have access to clean water, there is need for some outside help. As NGOs prepare to help thousands of refugees, locals hope that their needs won’t be overlooked.

Water source that Ugandans are using.
They are hoping that the nearby camp will
rate a hand pump that they can share.
Some locals are actually pretending to be refugees
so that they can get access to some of the things
that refugees are getting. It's not a great idea,
but it's not a crazy one either.

 After spending a few days driving around refugee camps and local host communities, I went back to Koboko with Repent and Loguya to visit the biosand filter project. This project helps to provide filters to refugees and host communities. And I always enjoy hanging out with Repent and Loguya. We come from a breed that doesn’t worry too much about safety standards. Last we were together in Morobo, we squished 3 to a motorcycle to drive around to project sites. We did that again in Koboko, but mixed things up a bit riding in the back of a truck with the filters. Some people run 10k races on Thanskgiving, I rode in a truck and then walked around for two hours from house to house installing filters. Got a nice little chacos tan on my feet. Then, in true Thanksgiving fashion, I ate too much for dinner. It differed in that I ate mangos instead of turkey and pie, but that stuffed feeling was there without the background noise of a football game that I don’t care much about. So basically a win.

Riding in the truck.

Repent and Loguya joined me.

Robin and Victor installing filters.
Robin really liked it when I told him the
story of Robin Hood.

The first house where we installed a filter.
Beautiful view, lovely South Sudanese refugee family.

Thanksgiving pre-feast walk. Somewhere around here
Repent told me he was hungry, and we tried to finish up
so he could get some food...

About half of the family who will drink from this filter.

The family dog came with this family all the way from Yei.
That is loyalty.

Hey-I stopped working and just played with the kids.

Rose Nyoka is a woman who is going to succeed
no matter what. She and her family fled the fighting in Yei.
She then registered as a refugee, but rented this house outside
the camp where she has started a small shop, selling whatever she can.
She and her family were cheerful and hard-working. Super-excited about their
filter. It says a lot when people realize the importance of clean water and
are willing to pay a small (to us, not to them) amount to get it.
Rose was mad that her sister got the guys to install the filter in her kitchen.
She wanted it in the sitting room so people would see it. 

3 on a motorcycle. Just like old times in SS.

Thanksgiving meal in Uganda with Family.
Good food. Especially Repent liked it because he was really hungry.

After I had almost finished the meal, I saw this bug.
And the thing is, I had not ordered bugs for dinner--
you could, but I had ordered chicken.
I push this guy off to the side and ate the food that I ordered.

The school where Kambagiri Foundation is building
biosand filters has many signs like this all around.
Life lessons on plaques.
I have yet to 'think twice before acting' or 'promote patriotism.'
I also take pleasure in breaking school rules and regulations.

I also avoid the monotony of safety,
if at all possible.

This one, I got down though.
Check mark for me.

Mango Thanksgiving

My last day in the north, I decided to spend with Loguya and Repent’s families. I got to meet Loguya’s wife and adorable mischievous youngest child and forget to take photos. Then I spent the rest of the day with Repent and Joy. They were so excited to make lunch for me. Joy made my very favorite South Sudanese dishes—peanut butter greens and beef stewed in a tomato sauce served with the blob, aka aseeda aka posho aka ugali aka linya. I stuffed myself again, and it was a nice Thanksgiving 2, even though there were no leftovers. It was especially great to see where Repent is living and hang out with his kids again.

Me and Halina.
Still BFF and E and E and E.

Joy's amazing cooking. So good.

Oliver had an earache and he kept moaning.
But he let me rock him to sleep. Sweet boy.

Family photo sans Oliver.
I had just got him to sleep!

I carried Halina most of the way to the store,
and I nearly died. Glad she was a lot smaller
last year in May.

After lunch, I took them to a nearby supermarket with the idea that I would buy them whatever they wanted. My nephews and nieces love it when they get to choose, but I think this overwhelmed them a bit. I was just thinking that it would be nice to for them to have some toys, as they lost all of that when their stuff was stolen. Repent told me that Halina was crying for her doll that I’d bought her before so he had gotten her one of those terrifying plastic white girl dolls (no wonder children are afraid of me after seeing those things), but it broke into pieces a few days later. I wouldn’t blame the boys if they helped it along. (If anyone wants to make another little cloth doll for her, let me know. Shameless begging but I really think sewing people could make one for way cheaper than I bought it in the airport in Addis.) Anyway, this time Halina chose a large green car for her toy. You can pull back on the tires and it will roll by itself. Awesome. And no worries about gender-stereotypical toys for this girl.

With her car.

My time with the Repents was too short, but good anyway. Next day back to Kampala via bus, and I saw two giraffes just wandering by the road looking all cool. I was unfortunately too far away from the bus driver to yell at him to stop so I could take a photo.

Got to hold this cutie while his mom got situated in the bus
the next row over. Such a calm, beautiful baby.
So nice to be able to borrow other people's kids for a bit.
And then hand them back over so you can finish what
you were doing before, which in this case was
texting Micaela. 

The view from my hotel in Uganda at breakfast.
I should have stayed another night, if I had
known that Ethiopian Airlines would not give me
a hotel overnight since I could have taken a flight this morning,
and that would have allowed me to make their once a day flight to NDJ.
But if that is the case, then they could always deny hotels to people-
"Sorry, there was a flight two days ago to Timbuktu. Should have taken that.
Now wait 78 more hours until the next flight."
So I decided to pull an all-nighter in the airport, which is where I'm writing this.
It is after 6am, and I'm still not tired.
I've gotten a ton of work done. Maybe I should do this more often.
Maybe I am one of those people that doesn't need to sleep at all, so when I try
to sleep, I can't. And instead of getting frustrated that I can't sleep, I should just not sleep.
Of course, I don't usually have a giant bag of Haribo Smurfs with me. I think they helped.
Thank you, Entebbe Airport for having the best candy.

My beautiful friend Charity and her cousin Daniela came to see me off.
They are both university students. Daniela has a scholarship, but I'm helping
Charity. Donations are welcome. Charity is getting her degree in social work, and
hoping to work with the refugees coming in to Uganda. She especially wants to
help counsel those who have suffered traumatic experiences. She's hoping to get
an internship in one of the camps this summer.
Last time we were together, we were in South Sudan, trying to find ways to get
her to university. She was feeling stuck in Mundri, finished with all the studies there,
unable to find work. Fending off proposals from eligible and not-so-eligible bachelors.
She knew she wanted an education first--not typical for most girls her age in town.
She was willing to wait and now she is in school.
I said it on FB, and I'll say it again:
these ladies are the future of South Sudan. They give me hope for the future.
They love their country and their people. They are educated, wise, kind, and hard-working.
I hope that someday they will be in positions of leadership in their country.
I know that wherever they are--whether in a career, in the government, or raising a family of their own,
they will be excellent role models for those around them. I'm honored to know them.