Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The road to home

The other day, I started my way home from the USA to Khartoum. I drove down from Boston and my trip down to JFK was fairly uneventful, at least until I got close to NYC.....Actually, just before New Haven, I realized I didn't have a map and I wasn't quite sure of the route to take down to JFK. The interstates around NYC get pretty complicated and they're double-named as "Parkways" or "Expressways," etc. I can never remember which one actually goes south to Queens and JFK. I stopped at a gas station in Connecticut and the attendant -- who could have easily have sold me a map -- convinced me that I didn't need one: "Just follow I-91 to I-95 and you'll see the signs to Kennedy." Well, it didn't quite work that way and, before you know it, I was deep in a major traffic jam on the top level of one of those 5-decker interstate connections near NYC. Traffic was totally stopped for about 20 mins and I was beginning to panic. So, I called Nate (in California) on my cell phone and, as I suspected, he was at home by his computer. He immediately saw on his computer where I was stuck and he guided me off the interstate and through a rather seedy part of Brooklyn (or Bronx?) and back to another interstate which took me to JFK. Ah, the wonders of technology! In Japan, everyone has Global Positioning in their cars with nifty little screens that show exactly where one is and where one should be. Not so in America! Anyway, I got to the airport OK thanks to Nate.

Twenty-four hours, two plane rides, and some time in a transit hotel in Dubai and I was back in Khartoum. I would have liked to have gone to bed but next door there was a wedding celebration in progress! And, the folks had the band with its loud-speakers blaring into my bedroom. There really wasn't a place in the entire apartment where it wasn't LOUD! And I mean REALLY LOUD!!!! This rhythmic drum (like bongos) under a wailing soprano! In certain settings, it's actually quite an exotic sound but not right when I wanted/needed to get some sleep! It was RIGHT UNDER my bedroom window and I don't think it would look good for this foreigner to go down and ask them to turn it down!!!!

Talk about two worlds! The road to home could not have been longer!

Thursday, February 09, 2006

In the Heartland

It had been a few years since I was last in Iowa but it only took a few minutes to know that I'd arrived. It was the coffee!! I mean, Iowa is one of the only places on earth, I think, where coffee is so weak. Not a Starbucks to be seen in Waterloo. Well, that's not quite true.....there was a Starbucks in the Target store! But that's about all I was able to find. Not that Starbucks is that great, mind you, but at least the coffee is worth drinking. I had forgotten how weak Iowa's coffee is. Twenty five years ago when I was making my parish rounds in central Iowa, pretty much every farm home had a warm pot of coffee. It was the same then.....pretty weak. I guess that's why those farmers could drink so much all winter long and still keep so steady. But in those intervening years, Americans woke up to a stronger cup of java and I found my way back to Europe where they've brewed the stuff for real over the centuries. Europeans who have ventured into the heartland of America inevitably remark on the strange coffee that's served there. The whole subject is a subject of some derision. But, if they've gotten word of it, the people of Iowa could care less and they still keep serving up that colored hot water they all "coffee." With every sip, I knew I was at home in the Heartland.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Summit Results

The African Union summit has come and gone and downtown Khartoum has never looked better! Streets are immaculate, curbstones freshly painted, construction machinery neatly stored… looks like home right when company arrives. Since the Arab League is scheduled to have its summit here next month, I suspect that the “house-cleaning” will continue until then, at least. I realized the other day how most Americans would probably never have even known that the AU was meeting, let alone what the outcome of the meeting was. Sitting here in the middle of things, one gets a very, very different picture, indeed. And now the buzz includes all the speculation about the recent Hamas victory in Palestine and how that really upsets the tenuous balance in that region which – from many different perspectives – is a lot closer to Sudan than one would think.

There are all sorts of stories and reports about the AU meeting. Very interesting, indeed!

• None of the heads of state of Arab countries – with the exception of Ghaddafi of Libya – came to the AU meeting. A snub that was noted by everyone.

• Most of Sudan’s neighbors – Chad, Uganda, Egypt, Ethiopia – were here, either. Another big slap in the face for Sudan.

• Protocol usually dictates that the Presidency of the AU will go to the Head of State of the host country, in this case Sudan. But the AU wasn’t about to let this happen and it denied Sudan the job, basing its actions on Sudan’s inaction in Darfur.

• The AU has been sending its troops as “peace-keepers” to Darfur. Sudan isn’t particularly happy but at least it means that the soldiers are African and not Western. Well, the economics of “peace keeping” have taken their toll on the AU and the AU has now requested that the UN take over those responsibilities. Apparently, this has the Sudanese leaders seeing red! The prospect of non-African troops on Sudanese soil is not something they are ready for……especially if any of those troops are American. Of course, the Americans are stretched pretty thin these days in Iraq and Afghanistan so it will probably be Europeans who march into Darfur. Still, the Sudanese government is NOT pleased with any of that! What will an influx of foreign troops mean for us? Only time will tell.

On a lighter note, it seems that Ghaddafi provided his usual blend of eccentricity and humor to the meeting. Did you know that all of his personal security (body guards) are female? Hmmm…. Ghaddafi insisted that his tradition tent be erected on the lawn of the large villa the Sudanese provided for him to use during his stay. Ghaddafi will NOT sleep anywhere else but in his own private tent which, by all accounts, is pretty impressive. Another piece of Ghaddafi trivia: He has this thing about how he enters an assembly like the AU had…..He insisted that he should be able to get out of his limo and walk DIRECTLY to his seat, bypassing any people or groups. So, the Sudanese authorities knocked a hole in the wall of the auditorium where the meetings were held and they put in a new door just for Ghaddafi to use so that he could, indeed, go directly from his limo to his seat in the hall. A couple of our school’s staff saw Ghaddafi shopping in the big, new mall near the school. I guess he drew quite a bit of attention when he showed up on Wednesday unannounced.

The Hamas victory in Palestine has everyone stymied. I was at a party on Thursday evening where there were a lot of diplomats present. It was a very informal gathering, nothing at all official. After a couple of drinks some diplomats in that setting begin to simply talk quite freely about world affairs. To a person, each of them expressed total shock and surprise about this turn of affairs in the Middle East. It seems that it really turns the peace process on its side…..once again.

One thing for sure…..there is an underlying tension in this part of the world which, if you live elsewhere, you might never notice. I leave for the USA on Tuesday to recruit new teachers. Given that American news reporting tends to be so USA-centered, I’ll have to be careful to keep a close watch, albeit from afar, on these developments. They could spell problems for me/us down the road but only time will tell.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

African Union Meeting

Well, the long-heralded annual summit meeting of the African Union has begun here in Khartoum. So far I haven't seen or heard much reference to it on CNN but there certainly is a lot of buzz about it here in Khartoum. The meeting has brought 32 heads of state into Khartoum from virtually every country in Africa. The Khartoum government has built 40 big villas down along the banks of the Nile to serve as headquarters for these dignitaries. I heard from one of my friends whose father is the Sudanese Ambassador to Libya that the villa for Ghaddafi has a huge lawn/garden on which Ghaddafi has had his infamous tent placed for him to sleep in and hold audiences in. At least there's a bit of comic relief for the AU folks.

It's hard for anyone who hasn't experienced the Khartoum Airport to imagine but I was told by an official at the US Embassy that the airport would shut down each time a head of state arrived. Flights in and out would be halted and the traffic around the airport would be stopped until each motorcade -- 32 of them! -- had left the area. Now, Khartoum's traffic is chaotic at the best of times.

Security in Khartoum is actually pretty good but they have definitely notched it up a bit this week. The government announced last evening that the next three days would be "holidays" for government workers. Many private companies are closing as well. We're staying open here at the school. The traffic was minimal today.....I'm sure everyone is enjoying this sudden gift of three days off work.

With subjects like HIV/AIDS, Darfur, refugees, women's rights, education and many economic concerns, one would like to think that this AU Summit might make some difference on this huge continent of Africa. But I'm afraid that I remain cynical enough to think that it's more about posturing than it is about producing any real solutions. The thought of 32 enormously wealthy (at least in comparison to the rest of the continent's population) individuals -- most of them men -- going out of their way to impress each other is a bit more than I want to think about on this quiet Sunday morning.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas from Tokyo! I'm here in Tokyo with Greg and Tatsuo enjoying a few days in this incredible city. This is a "first" for me since during the two years that I was residing in Tokyo I traveled elsewhere for Christmas: Belgium in 2003 and Barcelona in 2004. It's a chilly day here in Tokyo but a wonderfully quiet one. The Japanese like Christmas! It's a good excuse for celebration and, of course, it links into the rampant consumerism that they have going here. At Tatsuo's house, it's a great excuse for a wonderful dinner...shrimp cocktails like only he can make them, grilled Sea Bream done to perfection, a French Duck recipe that he's very proud of and a sinfully chocolate dessert that will kill you if you dare over-indulge. Of course, there's champagne (French) and plenty of good wine for the three of us.

Greg and I enjoyed opening presents that came from overseas.....Debby and Nate remembered us in touching ways. We don't have many of the accoutrements of Christmas -- no tree, no lights or ornaments, no Christmas cookies or the normal North American delicacies -- but we have each other and, on this special day, family is of ultimate importance for us. It's a joy to share this day with him!

I can only hope that anyone who reads this is as happy as I am today. I remember the Blessed Event of our Lord's birth so many centuries ago and I think I know a little bit of the happiness and the pride that Joseph surely felt to see the birth that changed so many lives. Even more, I know that that Birth has given us all a new definition of love incarnate that will last us until the end of time. It certainly fills my heart tonight. Blessed Christmas, indeed!

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Getting It Together: Where's Ma Bell when you need her?

It only took two weeks but we finally – FINALLY – have our phone lines and DSL/internet connection back in service here at the school. What a mess!

It seems that there is a new, rival phone company about to start up, a company based in the Emirates, and they will be competition to the Sudanese-government-owned phone company, Sudatel. Recently, this new rival company was out laying down lines and, as they dug trenches for their lines, they “inadvertently” cut the Sudatel lines that were servicing the school. Sabotage is not out of the question. For a number of days, the lines were all exposed out on the main road in front of the school. Try as we may, we couldn’t get Sudatel to send anyone.

Finally, some workers arrived to splice together the lines. I rewarded them with candy bars – who wouldn’t die for a Snickers bar – and my expediter, Ali, gave each of them the equivalent of $2.00 when they had completed the work and filled in the hole. Of course, the phones still didn’t work but we were told that something had to be done at the main office to get things up and running.

The next day, we got the word that the lines had been stolen! Apparently, during the night thieves had come along and, seeing where the digging had been taking place, they dug up the lines and stole the copper wire. While I think that shows a good deal of entrepreneurial skill, it didn’t help things along for us. Days went by when nothing happened. Finally, we got the phone lines working but the DSL/internet connection was still not functioning and no one at the local Sudatel offices seemed to care.

Finally today, after I told Ali that he should find someone whom we could pay on the side to be “our man,” we got some action. Ali figured out who (a) had the expertise and (b) wanted to earn some extra cash and things got put back together again. The payments will, of course, have to continue for as long as we need someone to check the lines and make sure things are functioning. No matter that we pay the phone company a good sum of money each month for the service……we still need to “cultivate” the friendship and goodwill of others in order for something to happen.

It’s that kind of “cultivation” that keeps a country like Sudan from ever really getting ahead in the world. Enough people get paid just enough in jobs where they really don’t have to produce results that things just come to a stand-still. Under-the-table payments work for some people some of the time. It’s a whole different culture and, along with the incessant heat and dust, it’s what makes this part of the world hard to do business in.

Friday, November 25, 2005

A Sudanese Thanksgiving

Here in Sudan, Thanksgiving this year was a time to remember, indeed.

Debby has been here for the past week as a Library Consultant to the American school. It has been great having her here. She has been working hard at the school each day and we have enjoyed catching up on all the news with each other in the evenings. The weather is absolutely gorgeous -- sunny and warm, but not hot -- and the dust has not been too bad.

On Tuesday evening – two days before Thanksgiving -- we went out to Mayo to visit Ephrem’s family. Mayo is a huge settlement of Internally Displaced People (IDPs) – Sudanese from the south, the west and the east of Khartoum. No one knows how many people are living there. Thousands and thousands, I’m sure. Micaiah Duku and his wife, Joyce, (Ephrem’s parents) live in a small compound with two of their children – Tongu (in his early 30’s) and his wife and soon-to-be- four children, and Samuel, who is about 20 yrs old. We have a number of workers at the school who live in Mayo so I asked two of them to show me the way since I had only been there once in January and I was sure that I'd never find my way on my own. We got to Ephrem’s parents' place at 4:45 and they were waiting to greet us. It was wonderful to see them! For Debby, it was the first time to meet Micaiah and Joyce so, of course, Debby was greeted with great warmth: hugs and kisses all around.

Ephrem’s mother looked wonderful -- dressed in a bright, African print. His dad had on his clerical collar -- looking very official but always his joyful and humorous self. And Tongu was there. That was my first time to meet him. He is a delightful fellow......quiet but with a nice, easy sense of humor. He speaks excellent English -- the best of the family besides their father. I must say that he reminds me of Ephrem when I first met him. Unfortunately, Tongu’s wife and children were not there. Her father had just come up from Juba the day before and she was visiting him in Khartoum. Their new baby is due within the next few weeks, it seems. In the time since I was there in January, your father has built a new little one-room place on his compound. I think it is intended for Tongu and his family. Samuel, of course, was there, too, as well as a couple of their female cousins. Lydia was one of them. Man, is she ever good looking!!! With a great smile and excellent English skills. Too bad she's Ephrem’s cousin…. there would be a great wife, if she weren't! And while we were there, people came by to greet us....being introduced as "step-sister" or "cousin." I couldn't keep them all straight.

We took Ephrem’s advice and brought gifts of food to the family: a big, 100-pound sack of sugar, big packages of powdered milk, and big packages of tea. I've already seen how much sugar and milk Sudanese people use in their tea so I'm not sure how long that 100-pounds of sugar will last!!! They had prepared refreshments for us: tea and soda pop and bottled water, dates, candies, and apples. We munched on these while we all talked and shared stories. Debby had brought along pictures from Mom Wells' 80th Birthday party 5 years ago where Ephrem is prominently pictured. Those pictures got passed around the circle many times during the afternoon......everyone smiling and pointing at (and talking about) Ephrem. He is very much a part of their lives although I must say that he is close to attaining legendary status.

As the sun set, we began to think about going. While we were still seated there in the courtyard of the compound, however, Ephrem’s mother came over to Debby who, at that point, was sitting next to Micaiah. Joyce mother took Debby's hands and began to speak in her native language. It was obvious that what she had to say was of considerable importance because everyone was silent as she spoke. Micaiah translated her words into English: "Now you are my sister and my son is now your son. And your sons are now my sons. May they remain so forever." Amen.

I have been witness to many sacred moments but there was none quite as special, quite as sacred, or quite as profound as that moment when those two women looked into each other's eyes.

A little while later, Tongu got in the car with us and helped us make our way through the dark to the main road to Khartoum.

So, two families have finally come full circle. Our hands have been joined around Ephrem, quite literally, by Debby's visit to Khartoum. What began so many years ago in Cairo -- the link of two very different families from opposite cultures -- has finally been joined and Ephrem is the critical link, the bond between those families. It is hard to describe how profound and rich those moments were with his family. Ephrem was very much a part of the day and, of course, was very much missed.

Thinking back over the past three decades, I have many, many Thanksgiving memories: at the Call farm in Batavia, in the shadow of the Acropolis in Athens, in the tropics of Luxor, in the snows of Moscow, in the shadow of the Tokyo Tower…..but none will quite compare to our experience here in Khartoum in the glow of two very special families, from two very different cultures, who have, indeed, become one in a very special way.