Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Ethiopia and what came after

The first thing I remember about arriving in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, is the Ethiopian Airlines employee on the shuttle bus that took us from our plane to the baggage terminal. I asked him, "who's the best wireless carrier in Ethiopia?" (hoping to get a SIM card once we cleared customs), and he laughed, "there's only one carrier in Ethiopia: the government." My initial impression was, "that does not bode well for Ethiopia." (The next morning when my friend Jon and I walked around for an hour trying to find a place that sold SIM cards, were eventually escorted by a young woman who was eager to help us, and found a large concrete building where they wouldn't sell us a SIM card because we didn't have passport photos at least partially confirmed that impression.)

(No, it is not equally difficult to get a mobile phone in America - just a mobile phone contract. If you don't believe me, go to your nearest convenience store and peruse their prepaid offerings.)

But the second thing I remember is that we left the airport and drove to our hotel on a three lane highway that was both paved and flat. I didn't see a single motorcycle taxi the entire way, and I wondered if we were really still in Africa.

The truth in Addis, as in so many places, is that the impression it leaves depends very much on what the observer chooses to pay attention to. Addis is vast and sprawling, unafflicted by the population density - the sheer amount of people - that I'm accustomed to in African capitals. Addis is well-developed, with its paved roads and not totally unbearable traffic, tons of restaurants and coffee shops, and well-maintained power grid. Of course to see that, one has to overlook the shanties that press up right against the walled compounds and ignore the fact that many of the restaurants are pretty empty and what tables are occupied are as often occupied by a foreigner as not.

Nonetheless, I'm still riding high on Ethiopia generally and Addis in particular. Sarah and I joke that we should go there on vacation again sometime when she's not pregnant and can actually enjoy the food (except we wouldn't fly through Juba again). The reasons for my affection for Ethiopia are, in no particular order, as follows:
The generally excellent climate as a result of its high altitude. It never got too hot - at times it maybe even got too cold - and when the rains came they were a sight to behold.
The ubiquity of the best coffee in the world. Our unassuming hotel served up what I deemed at the time to be one of the best espresso machiatos I had ever had. This prestigious award was revoked a few hours later in a hole in the wall coffee shop that actually served the best espresso machiato ever. Even when we were in a far flung village with limited medical services and a dicey road, our $5/night hotel (bed bugs no extra charge) served us top notch espresso machiatos with every meal. I wonder if the Italians give away industrial espresso machines as part of some aid package or something (and, if they do, Mr. Berlusconi, might I draw your attention to the fledgling nation of South can have as many wives as you can afford here).
The Ethiopians we met were, across the board, kind and hospitable. As in, business owners were willing to let strangers use their bathrooms and people smiled at us but didn't stare and stuff. Even the black market currency exchange guy (who jumped into our van, pulled money out of his sock, made sure that we counted it all to ensure that he wasn't shortchanging us, and then jumped out at the next intersection) was really sweet.

Maybe the most important reason that I'll think fondly of Ethiopia was because the projects we saw there were examples of the kind of development I want to be a part of. In particular, we were able to visit three child sponsorship sites run by Compassion International - and at all three we were with friends who sponsored children at the site.

Compassion caught me a bit off guard: I've seen the evaluations of child sponsorship programs by various development economists that suggest that child sponsorship isn't a very cost-effective approach. Visiting a Compassion site, however, reminded me that cost-effectiveness isn't always the most important measure of a dollar spent and that some things that can be observed can't be measured. Goods given and services rendered can be quantified, but is there an equation that measures the depth of kindness and affection that caretakers demonstrate towards children? Is there a way to gauge the impact of the hope offered to families when other members of the community come alongside the families to support their children? I'm not asking if anyone has ever attempted to quantify these benefits - I know people have - what I'm suggesting is that those measures always miss the mark.

In short, visiting a Compassion site reflected to me the tensions that I feel like we're constantly holding: data and good management matter, but so too do people; strong programs can be impactful, but so can strong people. We hold out effectiveness over mere good intention, at the same time recognizing the vital role of relationships in fostering truly vibrant communities.

Sarah and I came to Nimule armed with knowledge that we thought we'd immediately put to work and change people's by the hundreds and thousands. Right away. It has been almost a year now, and as we look back most of the things we expected to do haven't come to fruition - no teacher training, no literacy programs, very little small business development - and the truth is, no one is beating down our door begging us to do those things. And I should be devastated by that fact, except for this: there is a children's home that is right now this very moment being run entirely by a local staff, and those people love those kids with profound affection - we got to be a part of that transformation; there are specific kids that we have seen overcome unthinkable trauma and become more fully the best versions of themselves - we got to stand with them through that process; every day now, children come to our house to read stories, play games, do arts & crafts, and help Sarah in the kitchen - we get to continue investing in their lives; we have men and women from the community come into our home every week and share with us their vision for this community - we get to be a part of helping them achieve that vision.

We are not superstars. We are not anyone's heroes. I think at one time I wanted to be both of these things. Instead, I find that I'm happy with what we are becoming: we are a part of many people doing what they can to bring wholeness, reconciliation, and redemption into this world. It's humbling, it's a whole lot different from what we expected, and it's something that we will carry with us the rest of our lives - no matter where we are or what we are doing.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Our New Nation

When I remember the independence of the Republic of South Sudan in the years to come, it won't be the flag raising or the official ceremony that I'll remember. Instead,
my first memories will be of the final hour of unity and the first minutes of separation.

On that night people began gathering a few at a time on the compound of Cornerstone Children's Home, where our friend Juma John had told everyone to come for a midnight celebration. The crowd would bring light to the new day by lighting candles at midnight, illuminating a new nation.

The gathering grew steadily larger and larger, from just a few dozen at 8pm to several hundred by 11pm. Groups presented songs and dances, men made speeches. Between every presentation someone would interject how many minutes remained until independence.

Juma's speech (30 minutes until independence) was a call for the citizens to be responsible for their new nation, to live in righteousness and combat corruption, and to remember the sacrifices - millions of lives lost along the way - that had brought them this new hope. The plaintive nods and murmurs of agreement drove home the reality that everyone in attendance had a story of deep personal loss along the way; they all knew someone who had died in the war or in exile, and in this final hour they were all remembering. By the same token, they had all worked for this peaceful transition and chosen a path of forgiveness over vengeance.

At Juma wrapped up, he called for someone from the crowd who had been alive to celebrate Sudan's first independence from Britain in 1956 to come forward and share what that experience had been like. Not a single person took up the invitation, so he asked again and still no one accepted. He called on the oldest person he knew to come up and share; the man diplomatically informed him at he wasn't that old. I scanned the crowd for someone and couldn't pick out anyone who fit the bill. Maybe it was the late hour, but maybe it was the already scant demographic. They moved on and began distributing candles.

At midnight, the first candle was lit by Samuel Juma. Samuel, a Sudanese refugee living in America, has been the driving force behind Cornerstone Children's Home. When nobody else was doing work with orphans in South Sudan - and despite the fact that he himself had no experience doing so - he felt like he had to do something for the vulnerable children in his homeland, so he started a feeding program. He hoped and believed for this day for as long as anyone, and now - framed against the 24 bedroom home that already houses 60 children - he brought the first rays of light to the new day. From him, the candles of those next to him were lit, and so on until hundreds of people of all ages and sizes stood holding their candles aloft in a sea of radiance. They all placed their hands over their hearts, closed their eyes tight, and sang their new national anthem for the first time. And then they danced. Played. Laughed. Prayed.

I didn't see anyone cry; maybe they had shed enough tears each the last 25 years. That didn't stop me crying, of course. Over and over again, one of the many young girls who live at the home would run up to me in delight, face aglow both from the candlelight and the enormity of her smile, and I couldn't help thinking that this new nation was for them - a nation of promise and possibility. It's not a perfect thing - far from it - nor is it a guarantee that everything will be good and right from now on. But maybe, just maybe, they'd be able to live the rest of their lives as uninhibited and full of joy as they were on this one night. It's not such a bad thing to hope for.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Juba, Part 2

During our two days in Juba, I was left over and over again with the impression that every system that might keep a city alive was failing; meanwhile there were always people around who would keep their own lives and the pulse of their neighborhood beating, just on a much smaller scale.

I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get money from an ATM. I went to every single ATM in Juba, to no avail. Despite claims that Visa would work, this incedibly intricate network designed to ut money in people's hands was useless to me. The money changers who sat at the perimeter of the car park, however, always smiled to see me and always gave me an excellent ate of exchange to turn my fleeting supply of Ugandan shillings into Sudanese pounds. They kept my low grade sense of panic from developing into a full throated outbreak.

Sarah and I spent an hour walking around the Ministris complex looking for the office where we needed to extend our visas. When we did find it, it was hidden behind a building which was hidden behind a building - and by building I mean a stack of prefab boxes. Once we actually got our visa renewed, we found that they were marked for single entry - pointless for us as we were leaving the country the next day, but the SPLM official in charge assured us, "as long as the date is valid, nobody will care if it's single or multiple entry."

By late afternoon we found ourselves at Oasis Camp - one of those prefab hotels along the river Nile. It was only a few hundred meters from our guest house, and while the rooms were overpriced, the restaurant (though still expensive) served delicious meals in a sitting area that sat right on the banks of the Nile in an environment of calm and serenity.

Maybe that captures Juba: calm and reprieve can be found for a price, otherwise life is chaotic and governed by the circumstances of the moment.

After two days in Juba with no ability to access money, we had run through almost everything we had. After paying for our guesthouse and a ride to the airport, we were left with 150 pounds (about $50); we were delighted. Juba airport, though, was about to wipe the smiles off our faces. In the airport terminal there wasn't a single computer, there was a single boarding gate, brown outs were frequent, and our boarding passes were handwritten - I saw one man given only a confirmation number written on a torn off scrap of paper.

And then there was the shakedown: as we went to get exit stamps in our passports, the immigration agent told us there was a 92 pound exit fee per person. I told him I didn't have 184 pounds, he told me I could pay $90 instead. I told him I didn't have that either, and he just shrugged and held onto our passports. I asked, "if I can't pay, does at mean I can never leave Sudan?" He shrugged again. I pulled out our last 150 pounds, offered it to him, and watched as he counted it. "Where's the rest?" he asked; it was my turn to shrug. He sampled our passports and returned them to us.

For the next hour we sat at the gate and waited for our flight to board, stewing in frustration. And then our flight was called, we were patted down for security, we boarded, and sitting inside the prop jet we were returned to a world of order and sanity - a salve on our wounds.