Life in Laos through the lens of a diplomatic wife raising twin toddlers.
As I mentioned in a previous post, the major changes I made in my life ten years ago eventually led me to the things I had always dreamed of doing, one of which was to work in humanitarian aid. While we were in Uzbekistan, my then boyfriend (now husband) and I met the country director of an international organization and through her recommendation, we were hired to work in Darfur, Sudan a few months after leaving Uzbekistan. My boyfriend and I managed to get married first, but going to Darfur was the closest thing we could call a honeymoon at the time.
We were hired to go to a remote town in South Darfur called Kass. He was to set up a brand new field office and manage it’s operations while I jump start community programs aimed at assisting the “internally displaced persons” (IDP’s*) affected by the Darfur conflict. We would be the only foreigners in the new office, and aside from our driver, one security guard, a housekeeper and one program staff, a total of at least nine more staff members and a slew of volunteers would have to be hired by us. Did we speak a lick of Arabic? No. Did we know anything about hiring people in a conflict/IDP camp zone? No. Did we know much at all about what we had gotten ourselves into? Definitely not.
This is the first post in a series called “Honeymoon in Darfur”. I’ll begin with how we got there and how we lived in order to give you a context for the place and our day-to-day life.
We flew to the capital of Khartoum and spent several days meeting staff, receiving equipment, obtaining travel permits, sitting through briefings about the situation in Darfur and security issues, and visiting nearby IDP camps to observe programs similar to the ones we were tasked to do in Kass. What little we managed to see of the city aside from the hotel and office included a Turkish restaurant, an Italian restaurant, a mall with a huge supermarket, and a drive along the Nile River. The city proper is vast with three distinct sections joined at the confluence of the Blue and White Niles, but we experienced only a subset of one district.
After Khartoum we flew west to Nyala, the capital of South Darfur – a small city that is the hub for all humanitarian operations in the region. There were over 2,000 foreign aid workers there, although we only saw the same handful of faces at the various inter-agency meetings we attended. Given such a large foreign population, a vibrant economy was thriving to support all the aid workers and their office operations. The weather was extremely hot but there was often a nice breeze most evenings and we would sit on the roof and enjoy the fresh air and changing evening light. Mosquitoes and creepy crawlies were not too bad (YET), and we found Sudanese food to be quite good – pita-like bread, lots of rice, tomato-cucumber salads, beans, roast chicken, eggplant dishes, and yoghurt. The only thing we wanted that we couldn’t find was ice cream.
Sudan is a predominantly Muslim country governed by Shar’ia law so the people are extremely conservative. All women cover their heads, and there are lots of mosques with loud-speaker calls-to-prayer throughout the day. Our office/guesthouse compound in Nyala was right next to a mosque, but for some reason when they blast the call-to-prayer at 5am right over our bedrooms, I did not hear them and snored on. Unfortunately, my husband was not so immune nor amused. There was absolutely no alcohol allowed whatsoever, none for sale anywhere. You can be arrested if they find it in your luggage at customs. The only people who have access to alcohol are the large aid organizations who fly it in on their own cargo planes with the relief food and supplies. So for a special treat, we would go to an Indian restaurant to drink a nice frothy lassi (an Indian yogurt drink), or to an Italian restaurant and get what they called a “cocktail” (a delicious mix of fruit juices including guava). Life in Nyala was not very exciting, but comfortable nonetheless.
Routinely, aid workers traveled between Nyala and Kass on a United Nations helicopter, the “official” mode of transport given that the road to Kass was declared a “no-go” road by the UN due to violence. However, after a few missed attempts to take the heli and a fast dwindling time-line for starting our programs, we were give permission for a military escort by the African Union (AU) to drive up to Kass in our two pickup trucks loaded with electric generators, water pump, office furniture/supplies, mosquito nets, and jerrycans for extra fuel (looking back, this was a ridiculously minimal list!).
We arrived safely in Kass after a bumpy two-hour drive, our overloaded trucks flanked in front and back by two AU vehicles literally spilling over with heavily armed soldiers in full combat gear. It seemed a little over the top just for two hawajas (“foreigners” in Arabic) to travel but that’s what it took to get us started in Kass. When we thanked them for escorting us, I naively asked if they needed to transport the 20 soldiers (who road on the back of their pick-ups eating dust the whole way) anyway to the AU base in Kass. The soldier laughed and said, “No, we needed all these men to out-gun (read: intimidate) potential threats along the road.”
Welcome to our new home for the next six months…
*IDP’s are often mistakenly referred to as “refugees” even though they are still in their native country but have fled from their original homeland.
See more of this series at:
When have you been thrown into the deep end of something that you didn’t quite feel prepared to handle?