Another Field Trip

In International Development, Sudan, Travel on July 6, 2013 at 11:41 am

I’ve been on another trip for just about 2 weeks now, I have another week to go as I write this.

Before I get really going… I really vacillate on how to blog and what to blog about, since I know a lot of my friends and family want to know what it’s like when I’m out here.  I also feel conscious of my place in my profession, and that I want to write credible blog posts.  So, I’m always torn between providing an account of what I’m experiencing, while also recognizing that to a lot of grizzled expat aid workers and people with long time regional experience, I may sound like a total noob.  So, recognizing that this is my very first time in Sudan and South Sudan, and that I came to work with my Khartoum and Juba staff respectively, and that I didn’t actually go to where the REAL work takes place (North Darfur and Maban/Upper Nile state respectively)… There’s my disclaimer.  Hopefully I’ve layered on enough humility and you’ve read enough about me on this blog to know where I’m coming from.

On to Khartoum

Khartoum was kind of a depressing place.  I just get the impression that Khartoumers are anxious.  After reading about Khartoum a lot, I was expecting a shinier, nicer city.  It’s more or less as bombed out and neglected looking as any city I’ve visited in West Africa.  Yes, there are some very nice restaurants and a halfway decent attempt at a real shopping mall.  There are a couple of pretty nice buildings along the Nile.  But in general, the neglect was kind of shocking.

On Neglect… In Khartoum you’ve got pretty grand colonial administration buildings built by the British in downtown Khartoum.  Yes, the British were pretty much colonial bastards in Sudan that divided and ruled and did some terrible things.  Maybe you don’t want to honor their legacy, maybe you want to assert yourself as an independent place.  But you do have to run your country, and you presumably want to have a nice, functional capital city where you can take care of business and serve your people.  The British built pretty nice buildings to run the country and get stuff done, and they’re crumbling and condemned-looking right in the middle of downtown Khartoum.  On Friday evening when everyone’s home hanging out, we went out to dinner, and the city looked abandoned and post apocalyptic, as if everyone died decades ago and this is the decayed state of a city that shined in the 1960’s.

The service economy, at least in terms of the places I went (expat-friendly restaurants and the mall) was employing mostly southeast Asians, which was strange.  I’d go to a restaurant and be waited on by a Filipino or Indonesian woman.  I wasn’t there long enough to start asking about this, I wonder why the businessmen running the place aren’t trusting Sudanese people to bring me coffee?

There was no alcohol.  At all.  Anywhere.  I heard you can get some someplace where Sudanese people are not allowed.  But that would be a serious adjustment for a westerner living there.  You can’t go out for a beer.  The malt-beverage advertisements lining the boulevards are misleading…

There were some nice things though.  The Sudanese I met in Khartoum are very hospitable.  All along the Nile, during the afternoon I noticed people setting up plastic chairs loosely based around people who will be selling tea and other treats, and by dusk people were filling up the chairs, hanging out under the stars by the Nile, chatting the night away, while their kids played nearby.  It was quite idyllic actually.  Definitely something I would love to do next time I pass through.

As for the work – I don’t want to get anyone in trouble.  Suffice it to say that the Sudanese government has an enormous role in the reason and methods NGO’s are operating in Sudan, especially Darfur.  Darfur remains an unstable and dangerous place.  (It’s been reported the last 48 hours that some local-national (i.e., Sudanese) NGO workers were caught in the crossfire and one killed in a firefight near a refugee camp in Nyala.)  This instability causes the displacement that NGO’s are there to salve, and the NGO’s ironically defer to the government to generously allow them to work in Darfur.  I want to say more but I want to be able to come back and maybe someone is reading this. So, to the extent that NGO’s will be allowed to work in Darfur, I envision steady work there for some time.

My next stop after Khartoum is Juba, South Sudan, but I have to get through the airport in Khartoum first.

  1. I had a very similar experience there a few years ago and struggled in writing about it in the ways you describe. I still struggle with writing about the content of my work, both out of a responsibility to protecting the identities and privacy of the communities with which I work and out of a desire to tell a story, but not quite knowing how. As a result, I mostly write about MY experience in all these settings, but I am very conscious of the missing piece. Thank you for telling the story so honestly – I am looking forward to reading more of your field dispatches!


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