Archive for the month “July, 2013”

Bug. Beautiful, Blue-eyed Bug.

Bug.  Beautiful, Blue-eyed Bug.

Perspective is a wonderful thing. Only I know just how big this bug was when I took the picture.

If I told you that it had just swallowed a cat, whole, would you believe me?


Biker Bob is Back.

Biker Bob is Back.

Actually, saying that Biker Bob is back is a bit of a cheat, because, up until this point, one year into our placement, Biker Bob was never here to start with.

I picked up the nickname after I did my VSO pre-departure motorbike training in Kidderminster about a year ago. If there is the slightest possibility of you having to ride a motorbike during your placement, VSO insist that you take the Compulsory Basic Training (CBT), and get a certificate to prove that you passed it.

I spent two days being trained and duly got my bit of paper. The first morning of the training was on a car park outside a Social Club in Kidderminster, trying to manoeuvre around traffic cones and learning how to change gear, use two brakes, check mirrors, stay upright, fight the mounting sense of panic and keep looking to the front, all at the same time.

In the afternoon, the instructor decided that it was time to go on the road and we spent a merry afternoon riding around a sleepy housing estate, before the kids came out of school. He followed me on the biggest, noisiest, scariest bike you’ve ever seen and spoke to me, in a calming voice, through an ear-piece in my helmet. “You might want to cancel that indicator, Robert.” A few minutes later “Do you want to cancel your indicator, Robert?” And then “Do you think you still need that indicator, Robert?”

“Arghhh! Give me a break. I’m still upright, aren’t I? I haven’t hit anything, have I? What do you want? Multi-tasking?”

On the second day, my instructor decided that we should go out around the Cotswolds for the day. How nice! Six hours of intense concentration and nervous tension, resolutely resisting the siren voice in my ear-piece that was trying to convince me that it was, in fact, quite safe to get out of second gear on a completely flat piece of open road that stretched off into the distance. He assured me that I would not spontaneously combust if I went over forty miles an hour. I wasn’t convinced.

I decided that some people are natural bikers and some ain’t. I ain’t.

One thing that I did learn during these two days was just how many manholes there are in the average road. When you are a biker, as a colleague at Brooke Weston unhelpfully pointed out to me, the amount of contact between the rubber of your tyres and the road is no more than the area of a couple of credit cards. Manholes are therefore something that you try to avoid because, when they are wet, they are slippery and your grip on the road is reduced even further. Oh, what fun!

I have been a car driver for more than 40 years. However, before doing this course, I don’t think I had ever noticed a manhole cover in the middle of a road. Now, I realised, they were everywhere. And I had to avoid them, and get out of second gear and stay upright.

“How about switching off the indicator, Robert?”

We use the word ‘nightmare’ far too often these days, but in this case….. Yes. I think it’s an appropriate description. Bloody nightmare!

Fast forward a couple of months and I’m in South Sudan, very relieved to hear that all of the School Inspectors, with whom I am supposed to work, have their own bikes, so I could go out with them and not have to have a bike of my own.

Nothing happened. Well almost nothing. I went out three or four times before the excuses started, No budget for fuel. No money for maintenance or spare parts. All of this was true and it was combined with the very low level of government salaries and the fact that salaries are frequently paid up to two months late. So motivation isn’t what it might be. And I stayed put.

I managed to busy myself with other things, including the major distribution of text books, but nothing which necessitated me having to drive a wretched motorbike. The more I learned about the medical facilities here, the more I was happy to use my bicycle or simply walk.

But as time went on, I started to think that I ought to do something to break the cycle of inactivity amongst the School Inspectors and I decided to take up VSO’s offer of a motorbike and an operating budget, so that I could take Inspectors out to visit schools and actually do some of the things that I was sent here to do.

Last Saturday it arrived. A big, ugly, red beast. I had to pick it up from the middle of the crowded market on Saturday evening. As I signed the papers and took the keys, surrounded on all sides by curious onlookers, I kept thinking to myself, “How do you get into first gear, again? Which one of those pedals is the brake? The thing must have a clutch. Where is the clutch?”

I suspect that the day the grey-haired old Kawaja picked up his bright red, boy-racer bike and stalled and stuttered his way through the market will be a story that many people will be telling their grandchildren for many years to come. How I got home, I really don’t know. What I do know is that it took me at least ten minutes to unclench my right fist off the accelerator.

So Biker Bob is back. I’ve spent the last couple of days taking my new bike out to play. Just riding it around the local paths and in and out of the tukuls. Everyone tells me that it’ll all be second nature within a week. I hope they’re right.

Linda has so far declined the offer to be my co-pilot/pillion passenger. I think she wants to see a little more confidence, and a little less terror, in my face before she takes me up on the offer.

Martyrs’ Day.

Today we all got a day off work to commemorate Martyr’s Day.  It’s the equivalent of Armistice Day in the UK where you remember and honour those who died for their country.  In South Sudan, the bloodshed during the two civil wars was so extensive that almost every family  was personally affected by the war.

July 30th was chosen as the day on which to honour those who died, because it was the anniversary of the day that John Garang, the ‘Father of the Nation’, was killed in a helicopter crash in 2005, only months after the final signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with Khartoum that brought to an end nearly 50 years of war.

Pretty Bird Guarding Its Nest.

Pretty Bird Guarding Its Nest.

Just to brighten up your Sunday.

T-Shirt of the Week.

T-Shirt of the Week.

101 Uses for a Swiss Army Knike #94

101 Uses for a Swiss Army Knike    #94

Can you see what it is yet?

101 Uses for a Swiss Army Knife #94

101 Uses for a Swiss Army Knife   #94

Mending Linda’s earrings.

It’s a Girl’s Life.

It's a Girl's Life.

Last week, Linda and I held a meeting at the local girls’ school. We had asked for the opportunity to speak to the Primary 8 girls. These are the girls who have got all the way through to the final year of Primary education, which is an achievement in itself.

We are currently planning a seminar on Gender issues for the County Education Directors and their so-called ‘Gender Inspectors’, many of whom have little idea of how they can even begin to tackle the enormous gender imbalances that exist in this society, and particularly in the education system.

Our aim in this meeting was to get discussions going amongst these girls about the challenges of being a young woman in the South Sudanese context and to celebrate the fact that, against all of the odds, these girls were still in school at the age of 14-15.

The next part of the master plan is to get some girls from the local secondary school to come to talk to this group about the transition from Primary to Secondary, a journey that far too few girls are allowed to make. (Last year only 864 girls completed Secondary education in the entire country. The total population of South Sudan is something around 10 million.)

We began the meeting by introducing ourselves, explaining that we were, in fact, married, which is something that people genuinely find hard to understand. Sudanese men are hardly ever seen out in the company of their wives, so the idea of working alongside your wife is a weird concept. The fact that I only have one wife, (and no cows), just does not compute!

We asked the girls to tell us some of the problems that they faced in being young women in today’s South Sudan.

Straight away the answer came back – forced marriage and early marriage.

Young women in Dinka society have no say in whom they marry and when they marry. Indeed, not even the father of the young woman concerned has any influence over these decisions. The whole thing is decided by the girl’s uncle, her father’s brother, who speaks on behalf of the family and the clan.

He, in consultation with other senior men in the family, will decide on the husband and, more importantly, on the number of cows that will need to be paid to the girl’s family before the girl is sent to her new household. Indeed, in some cases, the choice of husband will depend on which man is the highest bidder, a practice that favours older men who have accumulated larger herds of cows. (See the newspaper article above.)

The views of the girl herself are of no consequence.

A girl is considered ready for marriage as soon as she is “mature”, i.e. after her first period. The figures speak for themselves. Last year there were 159,000 girls in the school system at Primary 1, (6 to 7 year olds). By Primary 7, the figure had gone down to 17,146 and only 11, 028 made it to the end of Primary education in Primary 8.

The drop-out rate from Primary 1 to Primary 8 is enormous and early marriage is a big part of that drop-out. Interestingly enough, the drop-out rate for boys is not much better, which raises all sorts of questions about how well children are prepared for primary school, and, more to the point, how child-friendly those school are, once the child is enrolled.

Only 3 out of the 306 Primary schools in Lakes State are wired for electricity, (and that doesn’t mean that they have fuel for the generators.). Less than half of the 3,640 Primary schools have a latrine, and corporal punishment, although banned by law, is widely used as a way of dealing with discipline problems.

So, next week, against this background, we are holding a three-day Gender Seminar for our colleagues in the Ministry of Education. Some of the things that we will be saying could be quite challenging for many of the people in the group, one of whom, I happen to know, recently paid three hundred cows for his third wife.

If this blog comes to a sudden end after next weekend, you’ll know that we have been drummed out of town.

Post script: A very sad bit of news hit us on Tuesday. One of the Primary 8 girls, who was in the meeting with us on Friday, died on Sunday. We are told it was malaria.

Magic! And Not Before Time.

Magic!  And Not Before Time.

Five years ago, there was one company selling bottled water in South Sudan. Now there are more than twenty.

Rubbish disposal in a place like Juba is a major challenge and the concept of littering just doesn’t exist. So discarded plastic bottle are a constant and growing menace.

Maybe this story is a first ray of hope.

A Tale of Two Niles.

A Tale of Two Niles.

Ethiopia is one of our neighbours. It is in the highlands of Ethiopia that the Blue Nile has its source.
Hundreds of miles to the south is Uganda, which is home to the top half of Lake Victoria. Lake Victoria is the source of the White Nile, which is the river that then runs through South Sudan and on into Sudan.
The Blue Nile and the White Nile meet at Khartoum and become the River Nile, which continues to flow north through the Sudan, and on into Egypt, until it meets the Mediterranean.
So much for the Geography lesson. Now we go on to History.
When Britain was the Colonial master of Egypt and the Sudan, its main interests were in Egypt because of the strategic importance of the Suez Canal as the short route to India. Britain didn’t care much about the Sudan. After all, there was nothing there worth having, apart from the waters of the Nile that flowed into Egypt.
The British administration hardly bothered with Southern Sudan at all. They considered it to be a backward, sweaty, malaria-ridden swamp full of warring tribes, wild animals and nasty diseases, – which it was. They administered the whole area from Khartoum and, at Independence, were quite happy to leave it in the control of the powerful Arab political elite in the Sudanese capital.
As for the water, the British in about 1929 granted Egypt the right to ‘own’ the majority of the water from the Nile, which is why Egypt now has a huge agricultural sector all based on irrigating the banks of the Nile. Sudan was allowed to use some of the water as long as it didn’t threaten Egyptian agriculture and none of the other countries that the Niles flow through were given any consideration at all.
Fast-forward sixty or seventy years. And this is where our History lesson finishes and we go on to Current Affairs. All the countries along the Nile are now independent, including even South Sudan, and they do not see why they need to be bound by a sweetheart deal done between Britain and Egypt in the 1920s. They all need water for agriculture, for industry and for domestic use. They all need electricity.
And that’s why Ethiopia has decided to build what will be the biggest hydro-electric dam in Africa, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which will generate 6000 megawatts of electricity, (I have no idea what that means, but it does sound like an awful lot of light-bulbs). Once complete, the dam will take at least seven years to fill.
Egypt is not happy. As Ethiopia plans to export the cheap electricity to all of its neighbours, everyone else is delighted.
President Morsi of Egypt, who was deposed by the Egyptian Army a few weeks ago, was very embarrassed last month, when a secret meeting between him and some of his MPs was ‘accidentally’ recorded and broadcast. Some of the MPs were calling for the Egyptian Government to train, arm and equip rebel forces in Ethiopia to destroy the Renaissance Dam and if necessary to overthrow the Ethiopian Government.
Once the recording was aired, President Morsi strongly denied that there were any plans to attack Ethiopia or to fund rebel activity. For the time being, the building of the dam goes on. It should be completed in about three years’ time.
Ex-President Morsi is now sitting in a military prison. His future is uncertain to say the least. Egypt anxiously awaits the outcome of the power struggles going on its streets and behind its closed doors.
Whoever takes over the country is going to inherit a considerable headache. What is going to happen to the Egyptian economy when Ethiopia starts to fill up its dam? How should Egypt react to this challenge?
Watch this space. The politics of water usage is a fascinating and scarey business as populations grow and global warming changes all of our certainties.

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