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.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Garang Follow-up

It has been over three months since Sudanese First Vice President John Garang died when the helicopter he was traveling in crashed in southern Sudan. Those of you who were reading my blog in early August will remember some of the events that I recorded at that time. The crash was blamed on all sorts of things -- bad weather, pilot error, and, yes, assassination. But, of course, no one took responsibility for the crash and it was announced that an international inquest would be undertaken. To date, there has been no progress in the investigation.

Yesterday, I spent some time talking with a good Sudanese friend. As it often does, our talk ventured towards the political issues facing Sudan. "You know," my friend (I'll call him Tarik) "Garang was becoming popular among the notherners (Muslims) here in Khartoum. In five more years, the Peace Agreement calls for there to be a referendum. If Garang were to have run for President (against the incumbent President Bashir), he would certainly have had all the southern votes and, quite possibly, a large number of northern votes as well. He could have easily become President of a united Sudan."

"Do you really think so?" I asked.

"Definitely," replied Tarik. "But now....?" He shrugged. There was silence for a while. "I know those men (Bashir and his cohorts). Most of them were in my university class."

That one sentence spoke volumes. In a country like Sudan and a city like Khartoum, those school-day friendships have been exxtraordinarily important through the years. Tarik is a man in the know although he is quietly opposed to the current regime.

"You know," he continued, "when a FORMER -- not a sitting -- Vice President of Lebanon was assassinated, there was an enormous international out-cry. There was an inquest and the United States and its allies rose up in anger when the results of that inquest were made public. But, when a sitting Vice President of Sudan dies under very suspicious circumstances, it receives hardly any attention whatsoever." Tarik shrugged again; one of those "what-can-one-do?" kind or shurgs. "Garang was black...."

Neither of us had to say anything at that point. This is Africa and, despite the on-going concern about Darfur and a few well-intentioned conferences and concerts to raise consciousness about African issues, the West has always been slow to confront the issues here. We'll probably never know the truth behind Garang's death. And, even if we do, I wonder if anyone in the West will really care or act.

Back at it again

After many comments from loyal readers, I'm glad to say that I found the "send" button for my blog once again. In the many weeks since last posting here, I have been deluged with work and I have been traveling outside of Sudan, neither of which makes for good or easy posting conditions for blogs.

The work stuff has to remain "off line" for reasons of confidentiality even though it is often the most interesting and, even, "juicy" stuff of all. Included in the past 6 weeks of my work: a weekend-long Board Training Retreat; the arrival of a new teacher; the untimely resignation of another teacher; a Meet-the-Superintendent presentation to parents; two meetings of the Board; the purchase of a new car for me to drive; etc. If you really want to hear about that, send me an email and perhaps I can fill in the blanks.

The travel stuff, however, is totally appropriate -- well, mostly appropriate! -- for this blog. One trip was to Harare, Zimbabwe, where I attended the annual meeting of international school directors within the African International School Association region. The conference itself was excellent! AISA brings in great speakers and facilitators and the time in Harare was chock full of good and useable material for a guy like me.

Getting a glimpse of Harare was fascinating. Flying in over Zimbabwe, one sees some of those "Out of Africa" type of landscapes with those lonely umbrella-like trees dotting the landscape. The Harare airport is, at first glance, a very modern facility and I felt like I was back in a (semi-) developed country at the very least. Changing a bit (US$50) of money, however, brought home one of the stark realities of life in Zimbabwe: rampant inflation. The local currency is "Zimbabwe Dollars" (or, as the locals say, "Zim-Dollars") and the one US dollar (US$1) will buy sixty thousand Zim Dollars (ZD$60,000). That's right, you read correctly SIXTY THOUSAND Zim Dollars! So, for a mere US$50, I got back THREE MILLION Zim Dollars! And, since the highest denomination bill is ZD$20,000, that was about 3-inches worth of cash!

To put this in even worse terms, ZD$20,000 will not even purchase a loaf of bread in Harare! The cab driver told us that on Monday he went into a pub and ordered a glass of local beer. It cost ZD$20,000. On Thursday, that same glass of beer cost ZD$30,000. A 50% rise in less than a week! Of course, salaries do not rise with any of that same swiftness. You can imagine the result. The situation is almost comical when I realized that most of the "money" which I was given was in the form of "Bearer Cheque" with an expiry date of Dec. 31, 2005. The ultimate of "Spend It or Lose It" thinking! In a 5-month period this year, inflation was clocked at 400%!

For foreigners like me who come into the country with "hard" currency and only stay for a short period, this all works to the good. I could have -- and did have -- a sumptuous meal at a gourmet restaurant for $12. The "real" price of the gorgeous Zimbabwean hand-crafts (batik fabrics, carved wooden items, etc) was outrageously low. Of course, for the Zimbabwean merchants, it meant a meager existence, to be sure.

The city of Harare has a modern "feel" to it but one gets the impression that just beneath the façade, things are deteriorating rapidly. But, the people seem to be long-suffering. They have had the same President (Robert Mugabe) for the entire 25 years since gaining independence from white rule and nothing seems likely to change until Mugabe gives up power at some unknown date in the future.

The other trip was to Tokyo. This time around, the contrasts between the African experience and life in Tokyo couldn't have been more stark. Frankly, it was good to be back in a country where everything "works." There was no thought of whether or not the electricity would be there 24/7 or whether it was safe to eat the food or drink the water. The Japanese obsession with cleanliness and orderliness was a comfort for someone like myself who had lived for the past 4 months with neither of those commodities.

Besides, it was great to see so many great friends whom I have come to appreciate even more in the months since leaving Tokyo!

Of course, I had time to spend with Greg who is living there in Tokyo on his own this year. He is working hard at a number of part-time jobs -- all of them in the teaching/education field -- and he has built a nice network of friends and colleagues so that his life is going well.

After hours and hours in airplanes and airports, it was, however, good to get back "home" to Khartoum. There is still a ton of work to be done at the school but, for the most part, it's interesting and challenging work. My apartment feels more and more like "home" and it's been great having people over for dinner and for relaxing evenings. I am already working with my travel agent to arrange much more travel......most of it work-related, including a February teacher-recruiting trip to the USA which will take me to Iowa and New England, and a March school-accreditation visit to Karachi, Pakistan.

So, while there's no rest for this weary traveler, there is, it seems, more traveling ahead. I'll try to find ways to be a better blogger in the mean time. It's certainly good to be back on line!