Tomorrow is October 9th. October 9th is my brother’s 25th birthday (Happy Birthday, Jaron!). October 9th also marks the 3-month countdown until the results of the referendum voting are scheduled to be announced. The referendum vote will decide whether Southern Sudan will become it’s own independent country – A new country declared over night. Beginning in August,the Government of Southern Sudan announced that every 9th of the month will be observed as a public holiday until the 9th of January. After Saturday, there will only be 2 “9ths” left… And no one feels ready for that.
As I type this, a demonstration is walking by our office. A male and female voice take turns yelling through a loud speaker. I can make out enough of the Juba Arabic to know that they are talking about a New Sudan – a separated South Sudan.
Things are tense, there is no doubt. Every organization is in the middle of “contingency planning” including the one I work for. A major part of my job is overseeing staff plans over this period of time. I have drafted policies for when our Sudanese staff should travel to register for the referendum and for voting. I have also been tasked with developing our key messages as an organization during this sensitive period of time. I am highlighting our neutrality, impartiality and our consistent dedication to serving and helping the most vulnerable in Sudan, regardless of the outcome of the referendum. I have to encourage Sudanese staff to avoid wearing our organization’s t-shirts while they are participating in political rallies, registering and voting. We could never ask our Sudanese coworkers to hold back their opinions, but we do ask that they try not to confuse our mandate with their own opinions… tricky sometimes. As for the rest of our staff – Kenyan, British, German, Dutch, Danish, Australian, Irish, and American – all of us have opinions and theories. But we have to careful to remain supportively neutral and impartial. Again, tricky at times.
I have been thriving in this role. I love it… and it seems to suit me really well. Our staff are exhausted (as Brian and I are as well), but I love that it is a part of my job description to support the staff. The challenge is to find ways to feel motivated and inspired during really difficult days.
I have been lucky to have housemates and neighbors who enjoy jogging, so I have been running almost every morning since I got here. I wear my Vikings t-shirt (Favre AND Moss!… pigs will be flying any day now) and run down the quiet streets, past tukuls where women are starting fires for tea and men sit sleepily chewing on wood to brush their teeth. Every morning we run by one man who is clearly homeless. He sits in the same place outside a pharmacy across the road from the hospital. He must have TB. At exactly 6:45 am every morning we jog past him and he is coughing… coughing up a lot of fluid. He hits himself on the back of the head as he hunches over and coughs. Later, as I drive past him at 8 am, he is sitting, back against a bundle of all of his belongings, wrapped in a faded green blanket, watching what was a quiet street only 1 hour earlier, now bustle and surge with all sorts of life. Students in bright uniforms walk to school, women draped in vibrant, printed cloth dash across the street with large bundles of food on their head to cook for their loved ones in the hospital (meals are provided by families if someone is in the hospital… so you can imagine how that effects a family when someone is in the hospital), and mutatus (taxi vans), bodas (motorbike taxis) clog traffic as vehicles filled with government employees, NGO workers and military try to squeeze through the chaotic congestion. I am in one of those vehicles. I wave to him when we make eye contact… “See you this evening”, I think to myself, “and again tomorrow morning”.
He is my mile marker. When I reach him in the mornings during my run, I know exactly how much distance I have left – past the petrol station, over the stream, and home. He is my inspiration. When I pass him, I run harder for two reasons. Firstly, because I think that if he could, he would join us. I can see the hate he has for his disease and how it cripples him. But I am not crippled. I can run. I can feel the air coming into my lungs and going out again. So I run harder… because he can’t. Secondly, I run harder to become stronger. I sit at a desk every day, behind this laptop. A majority of my job happens remotely, and almost none of it involves me interacting with people like him – people in need. But I know that what I do helps people like him. I support a staff that consists of doctors, nurses and engineers who provide emergency and primary health care, nutrition and clean water projects to people all across Southern Sudan. I know that when I am encouraging managers to do staff appraisals, that means that those doctors are getting a chance to hear about what they need to improve on – how they can help people like my mile marker better. I know that when I meet with a staff person and ask them what they need in order to do their job better, I can encourage, build up and spur on those who are on the front lines. Every morning I want to stop, and go put my arm around my mile marker. I want to pick him up, and bring him home and figure out a way to improve his life. But instead I run harder. I run hard to stay healthy for him, so that maybe some day, one of the doctors or nurses I support will take care of him and his life will be improved.
The scariest thing is not knowing how long we can be here… how long we can do this. Brian and I both signed two-year contracts, meaning on paper we are here through 2012. But we could all be pulled back to Nairobi in January… or even before.
But until then we will keep going, looking for our mile markers when we are tired, taking the inspiration to make us run harder while we can.
In 8 weeks I have been on 3 continents and 7 countries.
June 15th we left Iraqi Kurdistan.
July 15th I arrived in South Sudan.
And on August 15th the world has stopped spinning at a dizzying pace, long enough for me to sit, reflect and hammer down some notes.
Goodbye to Iraqi Kurdistan
Sweaty hugs in the Sulaymaniyah airport. Nawzad, Omar and John squeeze us, thank us and we all say that we hope to see each other sometime in the future… though we don’t know if that will happen. We wave goodbye and Brian and I sit down in the crowded airport. I look out the windows at the hills. Those hills where 4 Americans were taken hostage by the Iranian government, those hills where people sought refuge from Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons dropped in the name of Allah, those hills that are now crowded every weekend with families who are enjoying their new-found freedom. We board the plane and say goodbye to Iraqi Kurdistan.
We land in Istanbul, Turkey. The drive from the airport to our hotel is stunning. We are still in the Middle East, but not the same kind. We are on the cross roads of the East and West. We eat dinner on the rooftop of a hotel, overlooking the river on one side, and Old Istanbul on the other, with the magnificent Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque.
We take our time walking back to our hotel. The cobblestone streets are lined with cafes, bars and restaurants. Though our stomachs are full, these places beckon us to sit and drink something more, eat something more. But we opt for a drink on yet another rooftop, overlooking Old Istanbul that is now lit up, continuing to show off its ancient structures.
Breakfast on the rooftop. We are in the land of cheese and honey, olives and bread and strong, delicious coffee. We could stay on that rooftop with our breakfast, but the city calls.
The heat is already causing sweat to drip down our backs as we find our way to the Hagia Sohpia. We enter its large doors and step into the damp protection of ancient stone. We gape as we walk through each corridor and hallway. The centre dome makes our necks ache, and we were tempted to lay on the floor, as others are doing, in order to save our necks and still try to experience the full stature of the rotunda. Islam has stamped its names for God over the wings and faces of giant angels, but even these massive stamps cannot cover what was built as the glory of the Roman Empire.
Our next destination is a Turkish mansion that has turned into a Museum. Intricately painted tiles line every wall in every doorway, hallway and walkway, each design is more stunning than the previous. We take endless pictures of the blues, reds, and golds. That kind of artwork cannot simply be walked past. I try to imagine living in a place with so much color and beauty. I think I would go blind.
We walk through the massive mansion grounds until we feel our stomachs telling us it is time for lunch.
We walk down narrow streets and alleyways through the city toward the river. Once we find the river we walk until we find a line of brightly decorated boats. We have found the Jimmy Johns of old town Istanbul. Men in gold-embroidered vests on the boats pass fresh fish sandwiches to the hundreds of customers standing on the sidewalk. As the waves moved the boats UP and DOWN, I am sure that at least one sandwich will get thrown into the river, but as I watch, the men on the boats and those receiving and distributing the sandwiches are obviously used to this… and not one fell. I watch as our sandwiches are prepared on the hot grill right on the boat. We sit with the hundreds of other fresh-fish sandwich fans next to the boats and savour each bite.
When we have eaten our fresh fish sandwiches we walk to the Turkish bizarre. We literally get lost in the endless paths through the ancient market. Its age is covered by endless options of fabrics, tiles, tools, and trinkets. Our upcoming travel plans don’t permit us to buy anything… so we are forced to decide we will have to come back.
We find a café in the bizarre and sit and cool off under the cover of the market.
The afternoon flies by with the Babylonian cisterns and the Blue Mosque.
We stop by the hotel, change and prepare for our last supper together. The next time we will have supper together will be in South Sudan.
We eat on the cobblestone streets, telling ourselves not to think about how wonderful the day has been… to enjoy even though it will be over far too quickly.
We buy ice cream from a sidewalk vendor who is paid more for his performance than for the ice cream… but it is worth it.
We sit in the park that sits at the feet of the lit up Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque and try to decide which is more spectacular.
As I lay in bed, flashes of colour tiles dance behind my eyelids. History and modernity met on these streets. And we were all too quickly about to say goodbye to it.
Parting of ways – This narration goes the way of Switzerland
We say goodbye to each other on the cobblestone street in front of our hotel. My next destination is Geneva, Switzerland, his Nairobi, Kenya. As my taxi drives away from him, our paths separate , but both lead us into the craziest, most exhilarating 4 weeks that either of us have ever had.
I land in Geneva with visions of Turkey still looming in my mind. I walk from the train station to the hostel I have booked for the night. With my pack on my back and my guitar in hand, I trod down the streets of Geneva, suddenly waking up to where I am… not Kurdistan, not Turkey, but Switzerland – Europe!
I pass pubs and cafes, making mental notes to check them out when I have lightened my load. I arrive at the hostel, check into the high-school-like monstrosity that houses hundreds of people every night. I walk up the 8 flights of stairs with my heavy load (the elevator is broken) and when I finally make it to my room, I jubilantly open the door. The door swings open a bit more forcefully than I have intended (again, my hands are quite full) and I give a little shout when I see, facing me from the bed in front of the door, one of my roommates – a mummy. It is a mummy wrapped in hospital gowns and clear, plastic rain jackets from head to toe. I do not know if my roommate mummy is male or female, or even if it is real at all. In the room of 8 beds, I figure this mummy could be a prank of some kind… for one of my other roommates, perhaps? I force myself to walk into the room, and to my relief I see a young, blond girl sitting on the top bunk of one of the beds. I pause, catch her eye and point to the mummy, “Do you speak English?”
“Yes”, she replies with a heavy accent.
“Is… everything ok?…” I ask, still pointing to our mummy roommate.
As I point at the mummy, to my great surprise, the mummy moves with a loud crinkle of rain coats. So it indeed was alive.
The girl laughs and says, “Yes… I have been here all week and she has been in here like that every day…. I don’t know…”, she responds more to my face expression than the my question.
So the mummy is a she and it is alive. But a very innocent looking young girl has lived with her all week and she seemed to not be possessed or injured in any way, so I take it on faith that I will be ok for this one night.
I drop my things in my locker and make for the streets of Geneva. I can see from my hostel window that there is a gap in the skyline a few blocks away. I wondered how far I am from the lake and decide that I will head in that direction first. My search is short. I walk two blocks, I turn a corner and, voila, there is Lake Geneva, lined on the other side by the Alps. To my surprise, the beauty brings tears to my eyes. I walk up and down the lake, pausing to soak it all in. The architecture that lines the lake is beautiful, and the companies that are housed in those structures are amazing – Rolex, Cartier, HSBS – wealth. That’s right, I am in Geneva. UN flags wave in the breeze beside Swiss and French flags.
I get to know the city a bit, and I settle on a café to spend my evening.
I get into the café just in time for a heavy rain to begin to fall. Though I want to stay out and continue to explore the city, the rain forces me to do what I actually need to do in the café – start to work. I have about 2 pounds worth of documents in my purse that I must read within the next two days in preparation for the Medair training… which is, after all, the whole reason I am in Switzerland. I sit in the café, eat, read my documents, occasionally… ok frequently… stopping to watch the rain and soak in the atmosphere of the café. Once my head is full of new information, I walk back to the hostel. Upon entering my room, I discover my roommate mummy is still in her cocoon, but she is laying down, not sitting up.
I lay down and listen to the mummy shift beneath her plastic cocoon and laugh. Life is too much sometimes.
I start the morning early. I have a lot to accomplish and not very much time. I need to go shopping in one of the most expensive cities in the world and find some necessary items I wasn’t able to get in Kurdistan in preparation for my trip. I hit the streets of Geneva and I am proud to say that I am able to find the best store for all of my needs – Manor (it’s like a VERY classy version of Target… it has EVERYTHING) – and I don’t break my entire budget getting the things I need!
Big Fall and Little Blessing – A Story from Kurdistan
One of the items on my list is to have my watch repaired. My LOVELY sister bought me the watch and had it sent through a coworker all the way to Khartoum, North Sudan last fall. I LOVE this watch and have not gone a day without wearing it.
Well one bright and sunny morning in Kurdistan, Brian and I were at our favourite produce stand. It is a tiny little stall STUFFED with bright and beautiful, fresh produce. I was admiring a pile of perfectly red plums when a stout Kurdish man tried to squeeze past me in the stall. I stepped to the side to avoid getting bumped into the precariously stacked plums. Well the step I took was actually into a crate of cherries, and I completely lost my footing and my balance. I felt myself hopelessly falling, so I tucked my arms in to avoid taking any plums, peaches or pomegranate down with me, and SPLAT, I fell directly onto a tray of Apricots. Brian and the Kurdish men in the stall all stopped, stunned. Brian grappled to help me up and I slipped and stumbled my way out of the stall. I kept mumbling “I’m sorry” in Kurdish, and I started to consider how much it would cost to repay the vendor for his Apricots, but by then a crowd had gathered outside of the stall it became very clear that the vendor was more embarrassed than me and basically said, “just go”. I turned the corner and stopped to survey the damage. My pants were COVERED in sticky Apricot guts, my knee and arm were throbbing, and the worst part that I discovered was that my watch was broken.
Our apartment was a few blocks away and we had to walk to the office to meet some people so had to quickly hobble back home to change my pants. I was limping with an achy knee, and I realized only after I returned home that I hadn’t quite found all of the Apricot skins on the street corner, I had walked home with Apricot skins hanging off of my rear end. I am sure it was quite a sight for the neighbours.
As embarrassing (and slightly hilarious) as the whole thing was, the thing that really made me upset was the fact that my watch was broken. I took it off and set it on the counter, not having the heart to throw it away.
Just one week later we were packing to leave Kurdistan and I was in the process of ceremoniously throwing the watch away. “Goodbye, watch-that-my-beloved-sister-bought-me”, I said. I was about to throw it away when Brian stopped me. He took the watch and inspected the damage. He pointed out that I was about to go to the THE watch country… and that if there was any hope for the watch, Switzerland would have what it needed. Touche, Brian. I kept the watch in my backpack and added “get beloved watch fixed” to my list of things to do in Switzerland.
As I escalate up and down the amazing Manor store in Geneva, I come to the watch floor, and think of apricots and plums. I think about the worn leather that has darkened two shades of brown and how the threads are fraying and the holes are stretching on this watch in my backpack. I take a deep breath and step off the escalator. I wander past perfectly lit cases filled with watches of every shape and size in every kind of metal, with every kind of jewel or stone. I look for the least pretentious-looking man working at a counter and ask him where I can bring a watch for repair. He points across the room to another counter. On my way to the repair counter I tell myself that a Target watch is perfectly acceptable, even if the leather is worn out… and covered in Apricot guts… it is the watch that I love. I step forward at the repair counter, apologize for not speaking French and find a friendly English speaking repair man to help me. I present my shabby, sticky watch to the man and sheepishly asked him if it can be repaired. He smiles and simply said, “Yes.” Now this is great news, but I am only half way to celebrating. I bite my lip and ask the second half of the question, “Great… and how much will it cost?” The man bites his own lip, squints and looks up at the ceiling. I sigh. What was I thinking trying to get a WATCH repaired HERE, one of the most expensive cities in the world?! I look at him as he puffs out his cheeks and appears to be calculating the cost. He looks back at me after a moment, smiles again and says, “Madam, it will cost you nothing!” He laughs and then I laugh and thank him profusely in the only French I know, “Merci! Merci Bou Coup!”. I have no idea what he does, but the repair is extremely simple, quick, and apparently, even though it is a Target watch, the repair is free.
I walk away from the Manor store with everything I need, and even though I don’t NEED it, I walk away with a fixed watch.
I get on the train and go to my next accommodation – the very small flat of a couple of employees from Medair. Being that I had to book my accommodations last minute, AND that it is summer time in Europe, booking hostels is tough… and I wasn’t able to book a hostel for one night. I contacted Medair and a very generous couple were going to be out of town so they let me stay at their apartment. I walk to their place from the bus station in the rain. When I get into their apartment, there is no mummy and no plastic, sterile environment. Instead there are fresh flowers, and little bowls filled with Swiss chocolate. Having my own apartment for almost a whole 24 hours is amazing. I walk to the grocery store and buy crackers, delicious cheese, and of course, more Swiss chocolate. I take a bath and savour the solitude I know I won’t have for many days and weeks to come.
June 19th – 26th Medair ROC
I wake up in the morning and walk to a café for breakfast. I watch the rain continue to fall outside and try to prepare myself for the upcoming Relief and Rehabilitation Orientation Course with Medair.
After I have taken another bath and say goodbye to my perfect little accommodation, I cathc the train to Vallorbes, a town right on the border of Switzerland and France. Within minutes I am meeting other Medair candidates and Medair staff and my whirlwind week has begun. Because I have come straight from “the field” I share a room with one other girl instead of about 6 which both of us are grateful for.
The orientation course kicks off and from here, I apologize, but I really can’t write any more about my experiences that week. This is partly due to the fact that there is just too much to write about… and it is also partly due to the fact that we are asked to keep our experiences to ourselves for the sake of others that may end up going through this process.
Suffice it to say that it is a week full of lessons and experiences that I will never forget as long as I live.
June 26th – July 15th
Now, I sit in Juba, South Sudan. I spent two more weeks in Switzerland which can be summarized in a chapter of Scripture that has never been so alive to me
September 4th we stumbled off of a plane, down an escalator and into the loving embraces of Grandma and Grandpa Conley. I could still feel the dust and dried sweat on my shirt, pants and shoes. We were wired and a little buzzed from our first class flight from Detroit to Minneapolis (free drinks, baby!) and before we knew it we were seeing Mom and Dad and Jaron and Jesse and Heather and Amy and Kevin and Charlie and eating and laughing and… we were home.
We woke up at 6 am the next morning and unpacked and did three loads of laundry. I think this was the beginning of my “culture shock”. In Yei I would put a few items of clothing in a bucket to be washed, and I normally wouldn’t see those items for close to two weeks when the cleaners were finished washing, drying on the line and ironing so all of the “critters” were nice and dead. Laundry is a slow process there, so being done with ALL of our laundry in a matter of hours was a little shocking. Other than the initial shock of the convinience of things, the only other area I felt shocked by culture was in social settings and SHOPPING. My poor sister was with me when I was trying to buy some socks just a few days after we came home. I got really overwhelmed with all of the choices and started to have a mini meltdown when Heather finally said, “Bethany, they’re just socks” and brought me back from my spiral. Other than that Brian and fell right into a routine of enjoying family, friends and everything in between.
Brian flew to North Carolina for a week for his orientation with Samaritan’s Purse. Every day that week was filled with as many friends as I could fit in to see and it was wonderful. When Brian came back from North Carolina we promptly went up to Crosslake, Minnesota to my grandparents cabin. We spent the weekend tucked in front of the fire while Grandma took the boys fishing. From there our time turns into a little bit of a blur. We anticipated leaving to go back to Sudan the last week of September but it became obvious very quickly that our visas weren’t going to be ready by then. So we relaxed a little bit, enjoying the fact that we had a “little more time” to see people and enjoy being home.
We’ve had a lot of highlights being home. But one of our highlights for sure was being at my parents’ house when my mom’s cow, Irene, gave birth to a beautiful little calf named Bull’s-eye. Brian and my mom saw the entire delivery (I caught the highlights and I’m fine with that) and we got to see him get on his feet and start nursing like he had done it a hundred times before.
But just like all of life it is the little things that are special. We’ve loved cooking and baking, watching the leaves turn colors and fall to the ground and, though we’re all excited for it to be over, watching a historic presidential election take place.
We don’t know when our visas will come through, but it could be as soon as the second week in November. We are looking forward to starting something new and we will keep you posted on all of the progress.
Well, maybe I overstated it…its not like it is an enormous change…in fact, for most of you it will be an unnoticeable change…but it’s a big change for Bethany and I…
WE’RE MOVING TO SUDAN….AGAIN!!!I officially resigned from my role as the Area Coordinator with ARC International this week and accepted a position with Samaritan’s Purse International Relief in…Sudan!
What?When did this come about? Well, Bethany and I have been discussing the future lately and, given a variety of circumstances, have decided to move on from our respective employers.To be honest, Bethany could probably stay with TPO quite a bit longer, but it is really my circumstances that have led us to this decision.It was such a hard decision to come to since ARC has some of the best people I have ever worked with, but it was time to go…
Are you going to come home?!When?I know that is what you are all asking, but just hold on a minute!
What will you be doing?I (Brian) will be the Program Manager for the East Sudan programs which are in their infancy.Eventually the focus will be relief food distributions, agriculture, water/sanitation, nutrition, and a small field hospital.It is young, so a lot of the job will be government relations, program/project development and proposal writing, and a little bit of everything else!
So, what about Bethany?There is nothing secured at this point, but it is likely that in the next months a position with the organization will open up that matches her interests and abilities. Also, the position is accompanied so Bethany and I can move there together without any problems.
So where exactly is this East Sudan you are speaking of?East Sudan is technically the NE part of Sudan. We are moving to Kassala town in Kassala State which borders Eritrea…
Yellow = Central Equatoria State/Yei, where we are now
Red = Kassala Stae/Kassala town, where we are going
Grey = The country of Eritrea
Blue = Darfur area…no we aren’t there, near there, doing anything with it, etc.
What is it like there? Apparently it is hot. This week average low is 77, average high 95.
(I would put more pictures but my computer is tweaking)
OK, looks neat…so when are you coming home? We will be arriving in the US on the 3rd of September and leaving on/around the 26th of September for Sudan again. In that time I and possibly Bethany will have to spend 5 days in North Carolina for Samaritan’s Purse orientation, but the rest of the time we will be soaking up time with family and friends, eating good food, drinking good beer (the culture in the north is entirely dry), and seeing everyone we can. It is a short time, but we are going to do our best to see everyone we can!
So when are you moving back to the US for good? When are you going to have babies? sigh.
OK, hopefully that whets everyone’s appetite! Look forward to seeing you all soon!
Hello, Everyone! We both realize that we are dropping the ball on our blog, but we do intend to do better… we promise.
As I posted in the previous blog, Brian and I traveled to the archipelago off of Tanzania called Zanzibar. In an e-mail to my family I advised them to say the word “Zanzibar” in a half-whisper and it sounds as exotic as it was. We had an amazing time. On our last day there I wrote in my journal about our time and I thought it pretty much sums it up. So here it is.
I don’t know the date but I think it’s Monday – yes, Monday. I am sitting in our room at the Karibu Inn in Stonetown on the island of Zanzibar. Our windows are wide open and we are listening to an “intense” soccer match in the alley below us. The next building over is maybe 10 feet from us, as are all of the buildings in this enchanting town. Time has ceased since we have been here. We have barely spoken of impending decisions that will shape our future and the thought of going back to Yei is like knowing you have to wake up from a dream. From our first moments here in Stonetown I could feel every weight begin to melt off of me. I soon forgot about my fears of the future, my frustrations with the present and my fantasizing past. We sat at a cafe on the beach drinking coffee and after watching fisherman hard at work, got lost in the maze of alleyways and exquisite architecture.
Hours and minutes and days and dates floated away with the ocean tide and we found ourselves on the northwest coast in Nungwi staring at the clearest/most vibrant waters I have ever seen. With perfect white sand that felt like we were walking in a giant bag of flour and cool winds that soothed our suffering skin, we fell into this dream neither of us want to wake from. We drank our cocktails under different constellations which only added to the feeling that we had fallen into a different world. We planned our days according to the tide and our stomachs. We slept peacefully like tired children after a long day at – well, the beach!
We took our first snorkeling trip ever where our feet didn’t touch dry ground for over half the day. Wesignaled to each other under water to look at creatures we have never seen before. We swam through schools of fish like we were one of them and almost scraped our flippered legs on cities of colorful coral. We marveled at the differences between this “Zanzibar – ians” and their life and spirit compared to the traumatized people of Sudan. The difference was encouraging and devastating all at the same time.
And now as I try to take pictures of our pristine white room with high ceilings and the best seats for the soccer game below, I am happy and grateful for all of it – The dream, and the difficult life on the other side of the dream that made it possible at all.
One year ago, after a slow summer day at Bordertown, Rachel and I went to Curry Park on the west bank in Minneapolis to celebrate World Refugee Day. When we arrived we found two stages with alternating performances of dancing, poetry, music, speeches, etc. Inside the center was a maze of booths with literature and information for refugees and about refugees, one of which Brian was at for ARC. There were quite a few people milling around, eating somosas, walking through the booths, watching and listening to the performances. My favorite part of the day was the dancing. There was a group of African-American women doing a form of ethnic dancing with grass skirts on. I was mesmerized by their movements and the beats of the drums coming from their drummer. At one point they invited people to come and join in and my friend Carmen and I hopped up and made complete fools of ourselves but had a great time. The day was really educational for me. With the backdrop of the Riverside apartments and huge amount of Somali refugees that inhabit that area, I was proud to be able to take part in an event that brought awareness about the people in our own back yard.
Cut to last week. World Refugee Day was fast approaching and the NGO’s here in Yei met once a week to plan for an event to happen in “Freedom Square” here in Yei town. Though the plan was originally to have the celebration in nearby Lainya County, it was decided to move to Yei due to recent LRA attacks near Lainya. Whenever a “Day” like Women’s Day, or World AIDS Day, or any kind of designated “day” comes around, all of the NGO’s are called upon by the local government to support and organize the “day”. Well I was really interested to see what this side of World Refugee Day would look like in a place where the life of a refugee is an experience many have had.
I arrived to Freedom Square with some coworkers to find a large crowd already gathered. Each school in Yei was represented with their student choirs dressed in uniform, ready to perform for the audience. We were only waiting for the guest of honor. People sat and waited and listened to loud, distorted music from the blaring PA system. Suddenly a white UNHCR vehicle drove right through the middle of the crowd and the music stopped. We were all asked to stand while the guests emerged from the oddly clean vehicle. Two men stepped out, one in a white military uniform, the other in a blue police uniform. The one in the police uniform was talking on his cell phone loudly, apparently oblivious (or very aware) that hundreds of people were silently staring at him. He continued to talk on his cell phone while the MC welcomed both of the men and officially opened the World Refugee Day presentation.
First came speeches from UNHCR (Unite Nations High Commission for Refugees). Then the man in the white uniform was invited to give a speech. He started by speaking to those Sudanese who are still in exile in refugee camps in Uganda and Kenya. He asked them to please come back to Sudan, because their country needs them. He went on to welcome those refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Rwanda and Central African Republic. He then made a point to say that Sudan has been especially kind to the refugees who are here compared to the experience of many Sudanese refugees who were attacked and killed by rebels in Uganda and Kenya.
This point was repeated when a drama group I have been working with did a drama simply about the life of a refugee. The drama began with a group of women fleeing Sudan with only a few belongings. They flee to Uganda where they were sure they would find some peace and stability while their country was at war. However shortly after the women settle in their refugee camp the LRA come and attack and rape the women. The women are then brought to a refugee hospital where they are video taped and interviewed. It was so interesting to watch these drama actors make a fun drama out of traumatic experiences. The audience roared with laughter at the raggedy, unkempt LRA rebels. I’m sure somewhere Kony’s ears were burning while hundreds of people mocked them. I have to believe there is something therapeutic in that for the people who have faced his group.
My favorite parts were the school choirs who sang songs. Each school choir wrote a song to perform about Refugee life. They belted these songs out at the top of their lungs that give me goose bumps. Here are the lyrics to one of the songs I recorded on my camera. I’ll try to post the video when we get to Kampala this week:
We are victims of war. We are victims of war.
Yes we are. But the lord will help us to undo the trouble we have. We shall be happy.
We are the refugees today. The lord is with us. We shall be happy forever.
We are the refugees today the lord is with us we shall be happy forever.
We are from exile. We are from exile.
Yes we are. But the lord will help us to undo the trouble we have we shall be happy.
We are the refugees today. The lord is with us. We shall be happy forever.
We are the refugees today. The lord is with us. We shall be happy forever.
Next to the children’s choirs, by far, my favorite part was very reminiscent of last year’s Refugee Day celebration in Minneapolis. One of the largest tribes in the Yei area is a tribe called Kakwa. So one of the last parts of the day was a traditional Kakwa dance by a group of men and women. Sure enough, I heard drums beating, women ululating and the swish of grass skirts. A group of about 20 people emerged through the crowd and they began to dance in a circle around a group of men drumming. I turned to my coworker who is also Kakwa and asked if the grass skirts were used often in traditional dances, to which she responded with a smile and an enthusiastic, “Yes!” Within minutes soldiers, and audience members joined the group to dance. As I watched and snapped pictures I thought about the dancers in grass skirts in Minneapolis last year and suddenly I didn’t feel so far away.
Then I woke up minutes later, suddenly feeling every mile we flew away from home. The guest of honor, the one in the blue police uniform who talked on his phone loudly, took the stage. I was ready to hear more words about refugees and the story of millions of people. Oddly, the man asked a woman to stand up on the stage with him. A woman dressed in a beautiful red pant-suit stood up. He began rattling of in Arabic and as his message was translated my proverbial balloon was burst. “Now! You see here a woman dressed very smartly in a pants-suit! We will not arrest women who are dressed like this!…” A kind of silence went over the whole crowd as he went on, “We WILL arrest women wearing trousers that are too tight to the buttocks and the legs!”
I am sorry to say that hearing this, though it was out of context for World Refugee Day, was not news. For about a month now women in Juba and in Yei have been thrown in to prison, beaten and even stripped for wearing trousers that are, in the opinion of the officers at the moment, too tight. The stories have been horrifying and people everywhere are confused and outraged that this had been continuing to happen. Sitting in the front row, I looked down at the trousers I was wearing (if we call them pants here everyone thinks we’re talking about underwear…), wondering if they would be considered too tight. I was embarrassed as a woman and as a spectator. Up until this point it was a bit unclear if this was just bored policemen having fun or if it was coming from higher up… well his message was devastatingly clear. It seems this mandate is coming straight down the chain of command in the government. It is funny how on the one side we are all rooting for the Southern government to make decisions for themselves, and then when they do… Now that’s a catch 22.
All in all the day was enlightening. I walked away in my trousers humming tunes sung by beautiful voices who have seen more trouble than I ever will. What a world.
Brian and I are headed to an island called Zanzibar off the coast of Tanzania on Saturday! It’s been three months since our last break and we are very ready for it. We will actually be there for the 4th of July so Happy Independence Day if we don’t get a chance to say it later!