Nobody Likes it Hot -or- Are You My Father?

After writing everything below Bethany and I had a discussion in which she asked if I planned to write a note at the top of the blog, this note, that pointed out that this is the first blog I have written since returning to Sudan 3 months ago. I respectfully disagreed with her, insisting that I had written other blogs since arriving… then she went through the blog archives and proved that I had written one blog, two days after we got here… were all those amazing, award winning blogs just a dream…

Yesterday it was 118.5 degrees. When it gets that hot do I really need to include the .5? Does .5 degrees even make a difference when the air is so warm you feel like you could choke or when your body creates pools at every point of contact with any other solid object? No. No it does not. When it gets that hot you don’t think of .5, you think only of what it would be like to not have power running your fan or your air cooler. But then, sometimes, when you are thinking about that, your power source actually quits. Like yesterday… the yesterday that was 118 + .5. That is when you realize that the tranquil beauty of the desert is a lot like the emptiness of outer space viewed from a shuttle. It is big… open… beautiful… but to step outside of the protective shell around you and to venture into that beauty can only end badly. Very badly.

Last week I became a father. Ahmed, our guard, gave us his neighbor’s child, Mahadi. At first Mahadi was unsure about the whole deal, but we slowly convinced him by offering him a car in return for his becoming my son. There was a disagreement when I told him he would have to go to school, but I made a clear, linear argument that he understood… “madrassa, grush katier… ma madrassa, ma grush” – School, lots of money… no school, no money. At the end of the bargaining around the coffee of the night he agreed to come to America with us and start his own new life. And then he wasn’t my son anymore… he went back to being a fun boy that comes around to laugh at us. To some children it would have been cruel to joke about a lifestyle that a khawaja can bring, but Ahmed made it funny, very funny… for all of us. He showed his affection for the boy, whose father is away working somewhere in the middle east, by mocking the Western coddling of children (literally hugging him and squeezing his face the whole time), and he made many jokes about the way that we would be as parents to the boy. To be honest, he is definitely better off with his family here than he would be with us. Kids are still too scary to be a serious topic…

I have been silent for a long time because of the ridiculousness I felt had consumed our lives… I had nothing to say… words could not express what I felt because each feeling has been fleeting. I feel one thing, then nothing, then everything, then something. Quite a strange pattern of emotions over the last months… the shifting tides of feeling are not done with me…stay tuned…

I read an amazing book this month… it is called Shantaram… here is the opening paragraph:

“It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realized, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them. It doesn’t sound like much, I know. But in the flinch and bite of the chain, when it’s all you’ve got, that freedom is a universe of possibility. And the choice you make, between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life.”

Whoa. Read it again. Now go buy the book. Seriously, that first paragraph of the book has more to say than many full novels I have ever read. It is a work of serious beauty that has really helped me through some hard times this last month. Bethany is reading Atlas Shrugged, which is apparently experiencing a resurgence in popularity due to the economic times.

Work has been tough, but signs are there that it may improve. The US has installed a permanent envoy to Sudan, which should help thaw USG/Sudan relations which may work out… may not… the US doesn’t have much leverage to play nice with, so I’m not sure how they plan on repaying Sudanese efforts at making NGO work easier, Darfur a safer place to work, etc. I’m talkin’ realpolitik here, not human rights mumbo jumbo…

Anyways, that’s it from my rattled brain!



Back in Kassala

We’re back in Kassala! We are very happy to be back.

We have now been in North Sudan for 3 months and of those three months, we have spent 1 month in Kassala total. We’re hoping this next stretch is nice and long.

We have been adjusting (again) to being in Kassala. The eight hour trip from Khartoum went by like a breeze. When we got back there was one major change that had happened since we left – It got HOT. From what we can tell, the temperature hovers around from 105 – 115 during the day. The first weekend we just laid around a lot. I could tell that my body was really struggling to adjust. We do have air conditioners around the house which is great.  Unfortunately the electricity has been pretty spotty. So there are times when there is nothing, not even a fan, to give us relief. So drinking lots of water is the name of the game!

We have been getting up early in the mornings to go running. It’s still warm, but we are trying to go before the sun comes over the mountain which helps a lot.

It’s been really good to be back. We are getting back into the routine of drinking our Jebena 3 times a day (coffee with ginger and pepper). Brian has been digging into a lot of meetings and catching up on what he missed while we were away.

We went hiking/climbing on some of the hills yesterday morning. It was so great. I can see why people get addicted to rock climbing. It was just a great time. There are so many hills and mountains around here, we could probably go climbing every weekend and climb something new every time.

Here are some pictures from our hike yesterday:

Me and the Rocks
The Rocks and I
The View
Enjoying the view
Brian and Rocks

Bringing it Home: Sudan in Midwest Terms

I was trying to describe our circumstances to a friend about a month ago. Our situation is confusing, even for us, so I decided to try to explain what we’ve been experiencing in “midwest terms”. We throw around the names of all of these “K” towns; we are supposed to be in Kassala, but we got kicked back to Khartoum, last year we spent a lot of time in Kampala… blah blah blah.

So I’m going to try to explain our situation in some familiar Minnesota terms – try to bring it home a little bit.

So let’s pretend that North Sudan is the Midwest.  Here’s the layout:

Minneapolis, MN = Khartoum

Milwaukee, WI = Kassala town, Kassala State

The Dakotas = Darfur region

According to this layout, this is how the series of events has gone…

One day, Brian and Bethany arrived in the wonderful capital city of Minneapolis. Minneapolis is not only capital of the Midwest, but it is also the hub for SP’s project all over the Midwest. The country director, deputy country director and fnance and logistics directors live in Minneapolis and manage all of the projects in the Midwest from Minneapolis. SP has a large office with two apartments over the office where the SP staff can come from the Dakotas and Wisconsin on their way in and out of the country. So we arrived in Minneapolis, eager to get to our project sight and new home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

In order to travel anywhere in the Midwest we need to get travel permits. For us to get to our new home and project sight of Milwaukee WI, we have to get travel permission from the country of the Midwest first. So we hung out in the office/apartment in Minneapolis for two weeks waiting for the Midwest government to grant us the travel permits to go to Milwaukee. We got our travel permits to go to Milwaukee! Yay!

So we got in a truck with our travel permits and started the 6 hour (8 hour in real life) drive.  Along the way, we were stopped at a few points where we would show our travel permits to the people at the points and then continue on our merry way. We arrived in Milwaukee WI, our new home and got settled into our new house.

For 20 days we got to know the town of Milwaukee. We were able to get travel permits and go to exotic field sights like Sheboygan (Hamesh Koreb). We really enjoyed our time on the Eastern border of Wisconsin.

One day, while we were in the exotic field sight of Sheboygan, we got a phone call saying that we had to leave Sheboygan immediately and go back to Milwaukee. It turned out that our 1 month visas to stay in the Midwest were expiring and the Wisconsin government was insisting that we had to go back to Minneapolis to get the visas renewed. We made some phone calls to try to find out if this was normal protocol. We knew we only had a one month visa for the Midwest to start with, but we also knew that our new visas were being processed back in Minneapolis. Well, we found out that this was not protocol, and that most times people just wait in the project sight until the new visas are finished processing. But we had to listen to the Wisconsin government, so we went back to Milwaukee from Sheboygan. Once we were back in Milwaukee, Brian met with the state officials and tried to see if we could stay in Wisconsin, rather than getting kicked back to Minneapolis. They said no, so after only 20 days in Wisconsin we drove back to Minneapolis. This was a confusing and frustrating circumstance to be in, since our visas deal with us staying in the country of the Midwest, not in any state. But in typical US fashion, the debate over states rights vs. the federal government was fierce, with the state winning out in the first round.

We ended up waiting for almost two months in Minneapolis. In the meantime, many organizations got kicked out of the Dakotas, causing them to leave the Midwest entirely. For a while, we were not sure if SP was going to get kicked out of the Dakotas as well, meaning that SP would have to leave the Midwest along with the others. There were some rallies and demonstrations in Minneapolis while we were waiting, but we were in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood, while most of the rallies were downtown. So in our quiet office/apartment in Minneapolis we were comfortable, far away from the rallies downtown and the tensions in the Dakotas. We got to know the staff in Minneapolis really well and we met a lot of the staff coming in and out of the Dakotas. Though we wished we were back in Milwaukee, we found a quiet routine in Minneapolis.

Then we got good news! We got our 6 month visas to stay in the Midwest! Woo Woo! The only problem was that they put a note in Bethany’s visa saying she cannot do any work while she is in the Midwest. That became a bit of a problem and while we were only waiting for our travel permits to go back to Milwaukee, we did some investigating about ways to see if Bethany can get a work visa. Then, the same day that we got the travel permits (yay!) we found out that there was little hope for Bethany getting a work visa (boo). So we are now excited to go back to Milwaukee, but instead of Bethany helping with the SP programs, she will be learning Arabic and just making a life in Milwaukee. So off to Milwaukee we go! Yay Milwaukee!!!

The End


Ok. Does that help??? It might not… 🙂

But I hope it does smooth out some of the confusions. There are states here in Sudan just like the U.S. So the capital of Sudan (Khartoum/Minneapolis) is in one state, and our project sight (Kassala/Milwaukee) is in another state. The way the government works is that we just have to do a lot of communicating with the local governments and the Humanitarian Affairs Commission (HAC). Our papers, travels, work plans, everything goes through an amazing network of processes and offices.

The visa thing is something that is almost always in process. So we came with only a one-month visa and now we have a visa that is good until August. During that time we will be due for an R&R, which means we will have to get an exit/re-enry visa, which is another paper process. If we were just to up and leave (Sudan/Midwest) without a permit, we would never be able to get back in. So it’s all a complicated, interesting process. And since I am celebrating not getting a work visa today, what better time to write a lengthy, weird-ish blog explaining all of it! 😉

Just for kicks, I need to tell you how eerily accurate this analogy could get. Think about the whole center of the U.S. as the country of Sudan. If the middle of the U.S is Sudan, while Brian and I were in South Sudan, the U.S. equivalent would have put us in some southern town in Texas. We would have been flying in and out of Monterrey, Mexico (Kampala, Uganda). And just like if the South would have seceded, going from the South to the North would be like going to a different country, crossing a Mason-Dixon line stretched from the East all the way across the US- just like going from South Sudan to North Sudan has been for us.  If you think about the amount of differences between the North and the South in the States and the way one part stereotypes another, just cut and paste that here and there are a lot of similarities! Granted there is a major religious Muslim/Christian divide in Sudan rather than denominational differences, but still it was fun to think of the similarities in the attitudes when comparing the North and South.

So that brings my Midwest/Sudan analogy to an end.

May all Norths and Souths, Easts and Wests find peace and harmony.

Good News, Bad News and DeNile

There has been a pattern ever since we got here to North Sudan. Good news is almost never just good news. So far all good news comes with a “but”, or just straight-up bad news. Today was a great example.

Good News: We got our travel permits! We’re going to Kassala tomorrow (Wednesday)! WOO WOO!

Bad News: Without going into the confusing details, it appears that any hope of me getting a work visa are almost completely dashed. I say “almost completely” because if there is anything we have learned here, it is that nothing is certain (so maybe it will turn into good news?).

There is no problem with me going to Kassala, which is great. I just won’t be able to do any work as things stand right now – not the end of the world,  just means that I will have to be more creative with staying busy here.  We are looking into a few other options as well…. I’ll let you know what happens.

East Sunday was a great day. We woke up at 5:15 and drove down to the Nile river with some of our SP colleagues. A local church puts on a sunrise service on the Nile every Easter and we decided to join them. The service was nice, but the best part was watching the sun rise over the Nile river (insert Elroy’s joke about denial here… I’m ready for it Dad!)

Sunrise over the Nile River
Sunrise over the Nile River

Of course the holiday weekend made all of us think of our families.

We missed you all and hope you had a great weekend!

Almost There!

We have good news! Our passports came through with shiny new visas in them! (insert cheering and clapping here). So we are good to go until August when we will have to renew the visas again.

We are only waiting for our travel permits to go to Kassala that could come any day now! We may be in Kassala next week… but we’ll see. So that was very encouraging.

Apologies for not posting more frequently. It has been difficult to find things to write about lately. Our days since Joanna and Hubi went back to Kassala have been fairly quiet. We’ve enjoyed some quiet evenings watching the 3rd season of Lost (thoroughly enjoying that). We have had the opportunity to meet more of the SP Darfur staff as new staff have been coming in, and other staff have been coming out for R&R’s and such. The situation in Darfur is still dicy. Two more expats were kidnapped (not from SP) this week and for some reason the press hasn’t picked it up. But the few reports we have heard say that they are safe. We are all hoping they will be released soon.

We are continuing to enjoy Khartoum. The weather is getting hotter each day, it seems. Last night we ate at a restaurant that had a grassy area in a courtyard. I could literally feel the moisture the grass was giving off. I miss grass. And clouds. And rain. I know some of you are cursing me right now…. it sounds like the great state of Minnesota has seen it’s fair share of all of the above, minus the grass. My Yahoo weather is set to Minneapolis still, and I have been shocked by how much snow there has been! I kept up a little on the flooding situation in Fargo as well… we’re keeping our fingers crossed for a dry, sunny rest of the month for all of you.

More to come soon!