Saturday, December 24, 2011


What is it to be a refugee?  Of course, in the technical sense of the word it means something about being forced to leave where you live and travel to a place that isn’t your home.  And I guess the reasons for leaving where you grew up can really vary.  I mean here in Sudan it often has to do with the fact that there’s no more food, or that someone is attacking your home.  Those are the truest technical definitions of what it means to be a refugee, right?  But people here leave their home because it doesn’t make sense to stay there for other reasons too.  If you want to have a high school education you need to go somewhere where there is a high school.  If you need to make some money to take care of sick parents or poor friends you go where there are jobs to be had.  If there is exciting work to be done in a far off place you go far off.  If you want to marry the perfect one but there isn’t space for her where you live you move somewhere else.  Obviously we’re not just talking about Sudanese villagers.  But there’s something of the reluctant refugee in all of us, isn’t there? 

Tetherball with a stick, a piece of rope and a sock filled with dirt.
When I came back to Sudan in November I spent just a couple days with Dorette in Juba before I went a few hundred miles north to a refugee camp near the area where the contested border between the North and the South will eventually be drawn.  I say “eventually” because nobody really knows for sure where either country will end and the other begin.  I was told the place is a refugee camp so I naturally started picturing the images you see on TV about drought stricken Ethiopia and Somali refugees packed into a Kenyan wasteland.  I imagined flies and emaciated children under a blazing sun and people lined up sweating at a water faucet.  But that’s not what I found when I got to Yida.  I found kids playing with a homemade tetherball.  And I heard people singing around a fire late into the night.  I saw lots of trees and people making huts out of grass.  There was water enough that people could get what they need.  I saw old people sitting under trees talking to one another and kids wandering from house to house in their new “village” to play with their friends.  I saw people who had been forced to leave their home but who had brought most of their home with them.  Of course they didn’t want to be there, but they had made it home. 

A tea & hookah shop in the market.  
Daily chores in the camp.
Listen, I don’t pretend to know what it is about their lives to these people that makes living in a refugee camp bearable, even in a sort of nice but still unfamiliar place like Yida.  But there is something there that helps things to somehow seem normal despite the fact that things are definitely not normal.  Maybe it’s the fact that the most valuable things they own can be put in a bag and carried with them.  Maybe it’s because the people who mean the most to them are coming along.  I don’t know, maybe it’s the fact that regardless of where they are waking up and going to sleep, they know who they are.  Maybe ideas like that are why it’s appealing for someone like myself to leave home with just what I can carry and stay for a while in a strange place with someone I love.      

Maybe more of us are refugees that we realize.  I certainly left where I grew up to travel to a far away place.  Some of us leave our hometown for a place that isn’t so hostile to our ambitious goals.  Some of us leave because the way of life we believe in is being somehow oppressed and we feel like we simply have to go.

It isn’t easy to leave home, especially when you don’t feel like it’s your choice.  But life can be bearable, and even amazing, despite being in someone else’s land and not knowing if you’ll ever go home again.  We bring home with us when we don’t forget the important relationships.  And we find home in the place where we sit around the fire with people we love.  Living like this isn’t easy.  And the Sudanese in Yida have serious challenges ahead.  It’s not a perfect place.  But we could probably learn something from them.  Something like how home is what makes you feel whole and the people that satisfy you.  Something like that.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Back to South Africa

For my last R&R Dorette and I decided to go to South Africa to see her family and see other parts of the country I haven't seen yet. She arrived the night before I did so she picked me up at the airport in Johannesburg. We went from there to Pretoria where her parents and one sister live. We had some good quality time with Dorette's folks and an AMAZING braai (barbeque) with boerewors (farmer's sausage), skilpadjies (cow liver wrapped in intestine fat) which I was surprised to find is incredibly good, espetada (beef on a skewer with Portuguese spices and garlic) and of course, big fat steaks. See, South Africans don't braai ground beef patties or hot dogs. I've never heard of a meat loving culture such as theirs. And let's not forget biltong, their version of beef jerky. But honestly, biltong kicks beef jerky right in the stomach. So much better. Seriously, if beef jerky were a grocery store donut, biltong would be a hot fresh Krispy Kreme. If beef jerky were a plastic hazmat suit, biltong would be a double breasted Armani.

So after a few days in Pretoria seeing some of Dorette's family and good friends we took a short flight down to the Eastern Cape Province town of Sedgefield where her younger sister, Magda, lives. Sedgefield is one of the many places in SA where the beauty can take your breath away. This is the breathtaking view from the deck of a house that Magda was housesitting in Sedgefield.

Here Dorette and I enjoy a soak in the hot tub on the deck of that house.

We saw some wales playing out in the ocean from the deck that afternoon too (South Africa is known for whale watching opportunities).

When the sun set over the mountains the light mixed with the mist coming off the ocean over the neighborhood and created an unbelievably beautiful scene. Magda is a fantastic cook. Among the many incredible meals she made was this plate of finger food.

The next day Magda took us to the Knysna Forest, a national treasure where wild elephants live and a society of impoverished Dutch woodcutters lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We actually had to step over elephant dung on the hiking trail we walked! The water in the Knysna's creeks is a crystal clear brown color from the silt of decayed leaves at the bottom.

My baby and I in the Knysna Forest. Before we left Pretoria for Sedgefield we had dinner with one of Dorette's great friends, Fannie. During dinner Fannie invited us to Mfubu, the game lodge that his family owns in the Krueger National Park. It was his early wedding gift to us. We hadn't planned on spending a weekend that way but one can't turn down an opportunity to see the Krueger or, as I would find out, Mfubu. The lodge is built on stilts and is situated on a river inside the park.
There are no fences and often elephants and other animals just wander through the camp to check out the action. A couple of times I saw Water Buck grazing right under the walkway. One night we heard a leopard's unique growl and the next morning a lion roaring very nearby. It was an absolutely amazing weekend! Thanks Fannie!

The Krueger has all of the "Big Five" animals. It has lots of elephants and antelope of all types, from Impala to Water Buck to Sable Antelope to Kudu.

And of course, we had a braai each night. One night it was beef and mutton, mmm m-u-t-t-o-n, and one night it was giant king prawns and snoek. Let me tell you something. If you should ever find yourself on death row faced with the choice of a last meal, you MUST ask for giant king prawn braai! If you don't, well, you never really lived. The only problem we had to deal with at Mfubu were the monkeys. They get into the tents and destroy everything, poop all over the lodge and steal food. One morning this guy ran off with a half kilo of mozzarella right behind Fannie's back. Luckily the monkeys attract hungry leopards. So if all is right in the universe Karma should come around and get this little bugger. :)

We had an awesome time in SA in July! Please, if you get the chance, visit. YOU WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Presidential Visit to Kurmuk

So yesterday Salva Kiir made his first visit to Kurmuk and to the Blue Nile State. We were supposed to have a visit from him at the hospital we manage after he made his public address at the soccer field, the town meeting place. However, the weather deteriorated and his entourage felt that if they waited too long they'd be unable to fly out in the afternoon. So after the rally at the soccer field he headed to the airstrip and was whisked away to Damazine, the next stop on his Blue Nile itinerary. Anyway, here are some images of the festivities.

Salva, the President of the autonomously governed South Sudan (also the First Vice President of Sudan proper in the Coalition Government ) makes a loop around the field in his trademark black cowboy hat, waving to his supporters. Kurmuk's Governor Malek stands next to the Pres in a lighter brown suit.
Security was tight, with SPLA soldiers surrounding Kiir at all times.
These two fellas perform a traditional dance emulating battle, in honor of Salva Kiir and the SPLA's accomplishments in Sudan.
All of the different cultural groups in the Kurmuk area turned out to witness the President's first visit to town. This gentleman is from the Falatah tribe, a nomadic pastoral group.
An interesting character from the Dinka tribe, the majority tribe in South Sudan. Salva Kiir is also Dinka.
Here's an albino member of the Myack tribe. They're not all albino but it seems there are more albinos in Kurmuk than I ever saw in Yei.
Some wee little men made their way up a tree to catch a good view of the proceedings.
Some even more wee little men socialize from moms' backs.
And here's me, with my thick cotton Sudanese suit in the high 90's F heat. Goodness gracious it was hot yesterday!
But we feel privileged to witness President Salva Kiir's first visit to Kurmuk. It was a nice thing to see and it was well received by the community.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Vacation: South Africa

For my most recent R&R I decided to go to South Africa, mostly Cape Town, thanks to good reviews from some guys who have been. What a perfect decision, I must say. And thanks to some special local insight it was the best R&R I've had yet!

Chris met me there from Baltimore so I wasn't lone ranger-ing it the whole time. I didn't glean much deep insight about life or learn anything especially significant about myself, it was just pure Rest and Relaxation. We spent most of the first week driving around the Western Province (go WP Sharks) seeing all the cool stuff that it has to offer. We even went a couple hundred kilometers up the west coast. After Chris went home I spent a day driving around wine country and then just lay around Ashanti Lodge hostel for a couple days soaking up the sun and enjoying the neighborhood.

This is part of the coastline near Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope, which is claimed to be the "Southwestern" most point of Africa. It's funny, they say there's been a legal battle between the managements of the parks at the Cape of Good Hope and at Cape Agulas, which is actually the Southern most point of Africa where the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean meet. They're arguing over the right of Good Hope to make its claim of southwestern most point. We never made it to Agulas because we heard it wasn't as pretty as Cape Point.

This is the coast in Paternoster (Our Father), about 200km north of Cape Town, around sunset. My South African connection in Sudan recommended this visit. Thanks for the suggestion!

Found this on the beach in Paternoster.

Yes, those are ostrich on the beach! Cape of Good Hope.

That's looking down from the very edge of the top of table mountain in Cape Town.
Clouds covered it when we visited but it was still really cool up there.

The new World Cup stadium they're building in Cape Town. This view is looking down from the top of Signal Hill.

This is on the side of R27 on the way up the western coast to Paternoster. There was a huge fire on the other side of that hill. I think it gives an interesting effect to the picture.
The Frenschhoek valley in wine country.

That's Cape Town and Table Mountain in the background. I'm standing on Robben Island, the prison where political dissenters like Nelson Mandela were taken during apartheid times.

So how did I like the trip? As if you couldn't tell, I was blown away. I am trying to figure out how to get back there as soon as possible!
Devil's Peak, Cape Town, South Africa

Saturday, February 28, 2009

A thought I had...

What if, somehow, we were forced to abandon
all except for only one word
for every letter of the alphabet?
Meaning that we'd lose all ability to communicate
through language, save for twenty-six words.
We'd step back two hundred thousand years
in terms of the sophistication and eloquence of our speech,
our most highly evolved means of communication.

Without question, the first word
that should be saved from annihilation should be "Love."

It's fear that nudges you to make that decision.
Imagine a world where love has been neglected
for some Lounge or Liberation,
and you'll feel the emptiness of a bad dream
press down on your chest.

Love must always be communicated without confusion
or chance of mistake. It's the one thing
that can overrule any Laborious Lot
or acrid station in Life.

I wouldn't fear the Limiting of our Language
nearly as much as the Loss of Love.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Lingual Hoops

I have the pleasant fortune to be surrounded by myriad languages, African and otherwise. Sometimes we have to go through a number of degrees of translation to get a point across to a particular parson. It's kinda fun.

This is a picture I took of the National Staff's morning devotions. The guy standing up on the left, Edward, it teaching in English. the guy standing up on the right, John, is translating from English to Juba Arabic. Then between them sitting down are two guys engaged in another translation. The guy in the yellow shirt, Jimmy, is translating from Juba Arabic into Swahili for the guy in the black shirt, Yaya, leaning his head toward Jimmy. These guys know so many languages, it's amazing! Edward speaks English, a tribal Ugandan language I can't remember the name of and Juba Arabic. John speaks English, Juba Arabic and Cockwa (a tribal Sudanese language). Jimmy speaks English, Juba Arabic and Swahili, and Yaya speaks Swahili and French only. I'm sure these guys probably know other languages that I'm not even aware of.

Who says Africa is a land without educated, intelligent people!?

Monday, January 26, 2009

Cold Toilet Seats

What do I remember most about Christmas in Switzerland? Not snowboarding in the shadow of "The North Face", not the Christmas Markets and gluwein, not meeting an international cast of characters you wouldn't believe, and especially not waking up with pneumonia on Christmas morning. What I can't get out of my head is the freezing, frigid, forbidding, frosty feeling toilet seats. I'm not kidding. Those things were like giant frozen doughnuts. There's no relaxing with a magazine when you're covered in goose bumps. But I guess that's just the price of admission, so to speak. Switzerland was amazing!

I went to visit my friend Jen from high school. She lives in a town called Basel, in northern Switzerland on the border with Germany and France. Actually, on my first day there we went shopping for groceries in Germany where it's cheaper, then went to France to have lunch at an Italian joint. That day was a whirlwind tour with stops in Kenya, Holland, Switzerland, Germany and France. You know me...bound to ramble.

The day after I arrived we took off with our snow gear and started a trip to Bern for sightseeing and then to the Interlaken area for snowboarding. Jen's friends Dina, Richard and Marcelo came along. We took a train to Bern, the capital, to see the city and a Christmas Market. I found out about gluwein at the Bern Christmas Market. I'm not sure what I did all my life without that stuff! It's a hot spiced wine with cloves and orange juice. Wow! Mom, Dad, you never told me about this stuff when I was a kid and we used to go to Christmas Markets in Germany.

A really cool hostel put us up that night, complete with internet for the bargain basement price of 15 min. for 2 Franc. The city was really nice, especially in contrast to almost every African city. It reminded me a lot of Germany from when I was a kid. There are cobblestone streets, and Christmas decorations, and there's even a bear pit. Yes, you read that correctly, there are bears right in the middle of the city. But they were sleeping when we were there so no pics. Imagine that, bears sleeping in the winter time. Bern was just like every other square inch of Switzerland in that it was immaculately clean. They tolerate graffiti a bit but don't look for a discarded ticket stub to wrap your gum up in. And don't even think about spitting it on the ground.

I saw an amazing thing in Bern. Someone had actually taken a genuine, authentic picture of Santa Clause. And he looked exactly how I always thought he would. Apparently he's a man after my own heart. A connoisseur of sorts. ;)
Anyway, after a nice rest we proceeded by train to Lauterbrunen where we checked in to the Valley Hostel. A fantastic cozy little place. Our home for the next two nights.
Lauterbrunen is a beautiful little town tucked into a valley in the Bernese Alps. There's a really tall and thin waterfall on one side of the valley and spectacular Alpine vistas all around. That's something there was definitely no shortage of up in the mountains. I've never seen a place so hopelessly beautiful.

The first day in Lauterbrunen Jen, Richard, Dina and I went hiking way up on one of the ridges lining the valley to a high town called Mürren.
Along the way we stopped at an unexpectedly cool little mountain tavern-type place for a beer. We were always stopping for a beer...on a hike, at 6 pubs along a city walk, in the middle of a ski run. Seriously. Oh the joys of a European Christmas. But at this place on the top of a mountain there was a trampoline. And wouldn't you know it, Jen and Dina had to jump on it. Kids.

The next morning it was off to Kleine Scheidig for a day of snowboarding. I really doubt if you could find a place to put a ski lodge with more stunning scenery. It was enough to take my breath away as I snowboarded down trails that took 25 minutes to finish. The scenery and the cold both worked to leave me breathless several times. And, of course, we stopped at all kinds of taverns along the way down to grab a beer, which I hear is the best remedy to bring back one's lost breath.

An example of the awe inspiring snowscape I found up there was the view of the world famous Eiger Mountain. The Eiger's north wall is the inspiration for the name of the outdoor equipment & clothing company, The North Face. That's it right behind me. I snowboarded in its shadow for two days. Just incredible.

So we made it through two days of winter wonderland fun with only Jen suffering a semi-serious injury. Silly Jen. Then the sun set on our ski weekend and we took the train back to Basel, satisfied.
On Christmas Eve Jen cooked a phenomenal seafood alfredo dinner and hosted a party with a bunch of her friends. I felt like I was in a United Nations conference discussing what the world needs to do to about something. There were 2 Americans, 2 Australians, a Swiss guy, an Uzbek, a Tartar Russian, a Moldovian and a Chinese chic. It was incredible, like everything else about my Christmas this year.
I think the one thing that everyone needs to remember, besides the fact that your cheeks will freeze in Switzerland, both sets, is sure about it before you invite me to come visit. Because I'll do it.