Straight From the Field: Mercy Corps in Sudan

Straight From the Field: Mercy Corps in Sudan

Senior Web Writer Dan Sadowsky, writes about his experiences in the Sudan with Mercy Corps.
Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps.
Mercy Corps' Sudanese staff share stories of struggle and hardship. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps.
February 6, 2008 9:53 pm

The Sudan of Their Dreams

On today's flight from Agok to Wau I sat across the aisle from Achel, a tall and spirited Dinka woman who trains women entrepreneurs in business skills for Mercy Corps. From Wau she'd fly to Khartoum to surprise three of her sisters, each of whom was traveling from homes outside Sudan to visit their father.

As we stepped off the 11-seat UN aircraft and walked toward the open-air terminal, she told me she'd just taken her first steps in Wau since she fled in 1998.

I heard bits and pieces of Achel's story the last few days, during which she served as our interpreter at our project sites in Twic County, southern Sudan. Growing up with limited opportunities in Khartoum. Coming back to southern Sudan when her father, a government employee, was transferred in 1985. Hiding under Wunrock's enormous baobab tree at the first sound of Antonov bombers.

And now on the red-dirt tarmac, I was reminded of her cover-of-darkness flight from Wau. I pointed out that her last trip between Wau and Agok had been on foot, and this one was in a Cessna. She laughed. "That time it took us one month." Today's ride took only 48 minutes.

Our Sudanese staff members share the same traits of my Mercy Corps colleagues anywhere in the world: friendly, hardworking, dedicated to helping improve their country. But here, each has his or her particular tale of hardship and turmoil.

I doubt there's a single member of our national staff whose life was not dramatically altered by Sudan's civil war. But each one persevered.

There's Michael, an upbeat 24-year-old program manager who spent six years of his childhood as a soldier. Or John, an IT specialist schooled at a refugee camp in Kenya. Fighting uprooted another staff member, Nyanchol, from her home during a time when peers in safer countries were finishing high school and going on to university.

I doubt there's a single member of our national staff whose life was not dramatically altered by Sudan's civil war. But each one persevered. Today Achel manages a program that in the last two years has supported 15 women-owned enterprises, from restaurants to tea stalls to lodges. She doesn't think much of the work habits of men here, so for the future, she says soberly, "We are depending on the women."

For our Sudanese staff, war is part of all of their pasts. But what's encouraging is that now all of them — instead of hiding, fearing, waiting, hurting, suffering — are building the Sudan of their dreams.

Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps.
Senior Web Writer Dan Sadowsky poses with Sudanese basketball star, Manute Bol. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps.
February 5, 2008 11:19 am

Meeting Manute Bol
Not far from a youth center Mercy Corps built in the town of Turalei is the ancestral home of the second-tallest man to ever play in the National Basketball Association (NBA).

Manute Bol is best known for using his 7-foot-7 frame to block more than 2,000 shots during a 10-year professional career. But he's also a devoted activist for southern Sudan. To raise money and awareness for his homeland, he's marched in a three-week "Sudan Freedom Walk" from New York to Washington and boxed in a Fox-televised celebrity match.

Now 45, Bol lives most of the year in Kansas, but we heard he'd returned to Turalei (for the funeral of his half-brother, he told us) and he graciously received us when we dropped by unannounced late this afternoon.

Sitting under a tree in a specially sized lawn chair, he greeted us with a "What's up, guys?", told us he was enjoying his brief visit to Turalei ("It was cold in Kansas"), and said he was looking forward to being the guest of former teammate and current Warriors General Manager Chris Mullin at the Celtics-Warriors game in Oakland later this month.

Some excerpts from our discussion:

Dan: You did a lot to raise awareness of displaced Sudanese during the war. Just now off the main road we saw busloads of people returning to Turalei.

Bol: Yes, they started coming back last week. They don't have a lot — no food, no shelter. But it's good for them that they come back, because Khartoum was very difficult.

Are you still involved in activism around Sudanese issues?

Yes. I talk about Darfur a lot. In January, I went to the Iowa caucuses and did a rally for the Sudan Peace Initiative. If you become president, what can you do for Darfur and southern Sudan? That is the question.

What changes have you seen here since the peace?

There's a big difference here. People are walking free, you're getting your own thing, nobody bothers you. That's the way it used to be.

What is the role of Mercy Corps and other NGOs in strengthening the peace?

I didn't know about you guys until last year. But when I came to town, I saw you guys had built things. You guys can build schools, build wells.... The refugees (who've just arrived) are struggling this year. Next year, they will find their own thing and live better.

To raise money and awareness for his homeland, he's marched in a three-week "Sudan Freedom Walk" from New York to Washington and boxed in a Fox-televised celebrity match.
Do you think all the talk in the U.S. about Darfur distracts people from the issue of peace in Sudan?

They should be talking about both. Right now, in the U.S., all they want to ask about is "What's going on in Darfur?" They think the CPA (Comprehensive Peace Agreement) was signed, there's peace, everything's okay. They're wrong. You can see it. Southern Sudan is not right yet.

Do you think the peace in Sudan will last?

If the northern Sudanese want to be with us as Sudanese, they have to prove themselves. If they want us to be unified, they need to prove themselves (to the southerners).

How do you see the role of sports in southern Sudan's development?

Nothing's been done. It's hard. USAID and Nike built one basketball court in Juba. You need to build some courts. We will try, too. I'm talking to the NBA about it.

I'm surprised to see there isn't a court here.

This is only the second time I came here for a while. I was here for three-and-a-half months starting last August. I used to stay for only one or two days, because they were bombing the place.

Are you playing basketball these days?

I got in a bad car accident (in April 2004) and lost the use of both my hands (he raises his arms to show his disfigured hands), hurt my knee and broke my back. I was in the hospital for six months. These days it is very hard for me to walk.

Do you still keep in touch with (former NBA player) Charles Barkley?

Yes, but I have not talked to him in a while. Charles changes his phone number every week.

Has he invited you to appear on "Inside the NBA"?

No. I wonder why. I think it's because he knows what I will say.

Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps.
After returning to her home, Achichong named her son after her home village, Maker. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps.
February 4, 2008 11:31 am

Abyei: The Heart of the Matter

"We're in the middle of nowhere and at the middle of it all at the same time."

This is what a colleague said today as we neared the end of a half-hour hike along a sandy footpath, bright red gum acacia trees lining the way, to visit a temporary housing project that Mercy Corps helped the community build for returnees to the Abyei area.

I couldn't have said it any better. Perhaps more than any other place, Abyei — a border region anchored by a dusty, chaotic, unexceptional town of the same name — holds the key to a lasting peace in Sudan. That includes peace in Darfur, and by extension peace in Chad, northern Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo … all the conflicts on the Sudanese border.

A critical crossroads for both northerners and southerners, Abyei is such a controversial area that it received its own special protocol in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended Sudan's civil war.

The CPA [Comprehensive Peace Agreement] awarded Abyei residents their own administration, a formula for divvying up its oil revenues and a referendum on whether to remain in the north or become a part of a southern state. When the peace nearly fell apart in October last year, it was largely over a dispute about the implementation of the Abyei protocol.

It's a highly charged environment, one where impartiality is critical to success. Our approach is to put the community in the driver's seat, let them steer their own development (mainly infrastructure and services), and help them to address local challenges that, if lest to fester, could threaten the agreement nationwide.

She was nearly blind and didn't have enough food — she'd had nothing to eat by 3 p.m. — but that seemed almost inconsequential to her.
What we saw today was an example of our efforts to help Abyei with one of its primary development challenges — the ability to handle an influx of returnees. Last year we helped the community construct several housing projects where people coming back to Abyei can stay for a few months while they build their own homes. This particular compound, outside a village called Maker, was nearly empty when we dropped by (it was Sunday afternoon, and were told many were either in Abyei town or in the forest collecting wood and grass for their new homes).

But we did meet one elderly woman who told us about being driven from the area by steal-and-burn marauders more than two decades ago. She was nearly blind and didn't have enough food — she'd had nothing to eat by 3 p.m. — but that seemed almost inconsequential to her. "I am very happy to be in my homeland," she told us.

Earlier we talked to a 19-year-old Dinka girl, Achichong, who'd been born and raised in Khartoum to parents who'd fled in the mid-1980s. Achichong said she'd been eager to see the place she'd grown up hearing about, a place she also referred to as home. She was poised but shy, so to stimulate a little bit of conversation, I asked her the name of her son. Maker, she said — same as the village.

"We came back to our homeland," she explained, "and I named him for this."

Contributed by Dan Sadowsky, Senior Web Writer for Mercy Corps.

To read another Global Envision field diary from Africa, see Notes from the Congo.

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