03 May 2007

BIG Update

I know, it’s been a long long time, again. I don’t know where the time goes. Suddenly, it’s May. How did that happen? For you parents out there you are also wondering, how did the school year pass so quickly? Enjoy your last days of freedom. For you students (old and young) just a bit more to hang on and you are finished.

A lot has happened to me since I last wrote. I went to Kurmuk, South Sudan for a few weeks. I was there to help do a nutrition survey. Kurmuk is one of the contested areas of South Sudan. It has an identity problem; both governments (north and south) feel it is theirs. The people are divided, as it is about 50-50 Muslim Christian. During the war years, it was a heavily contested area which equalled a lot of fighting. There are few structures left in this area just on the Ethiopian border. In fact, from the compound I stayed in it was 2 kilometres to Ethiopia. So close, yet so far away! Samaritans Purse (a Christian NGO as you can guess) had taken over the school in the town (not rural areas). I took many pictures of the school, because it amazed me(you can see one). Entire walls were missing from classrooms still being used and there were holes in the corrugated iron roofs from shrapnel where rain poured in during the storms. But, the kids desperate to learn, showed up everyday. Everyday.

The people were great—the place great—the weather hot. That’s a common theme in Sudan, hot. Granted, I have only been there during dry season. There were a few rainstorms, but nothing like what happens in rainy season. When the rains come, the entire place practically shuts down. There is no pavement, only sticky clay. The roads become impassable for all vehicles except ATVs (4-wheeler or quad bikes) and tractors. Land Rovers and Land Cruisers are parked for the season. We had 2 storms while I was there, and in just those 2 storms life became A LOT more difficult. Just walking from your tukul to the outhouse was a chore. By the time you go there, you were 2 inches taller b/c of the caked mud on the bottom of your shoes. I of course had the great pleasure of getting Giardia while there, and made many many muddy trips to the outhouse. But, I am better now, no more amoebas—just me.

One thing you would not expect in this area is the lack of cooperation of communities in getting land mines removed. The area is HEAVILY mined. There are very few roads that are passable, due to safety concerns. It takes a very long time to de-mine areas, and even longer when the community doesn’t help. Why wouldn’t they help? You ask. Simple, they want the mines there. In South Sudan you don’t talk about ‘if’ the war with the north will start again, you speculate on when. There is no doubt in anyone’s minds the war will start again; it’s just a matter of time. One year, or will they make it all the way to the proposed elections. At that time, they are to vote if they want to become part of Sudan or their own independent country of South Sudan. Long story short, they will vote for independence and the North will not let them go and the fighting will begin again. The land mines were placed in particular areas to protect villages from oncoming armies. The communities know where they are, their children know where they are, they don’t go there. For those of you who know something about land mines you know they shift in the ground over time. So, you can’t be sure where they are as the years go on. The people know this and are willing to take a risk with the possibility someone could come upon a mine that shifted in face of the reality that the war will start again. Can you imagine making that decision?

Most of the people fled during the war years. My translator, who was 33, left Sudan in 1987 and returned in 2007. That’s 20 years of his life he spent in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. TWENTY YEARS. Can you imagine? They, those who fled to Ethiopia, learned Amharic and Oromifa (Ethiopian languages spoken just across the border) and learned to like Ethiopian food. Most of the children you see were born and raised in Ethiopian refugee camps. These kids mostly know Amharic, not Arabic like their parents. It caught me off guard to hear them speaking something I could understand (relatively to Arabic). They were so cute. Kurmuk is FULL of kids. Many of the tribes were practically exterminated during the war, and it’s like the baby boom in the states post WWII. One particular tribe, the Urduks, is making great effort to have as many children as possible back to back to replenish their tribe. They had been heavily targeted during the war. They are Christian and believe in polygamy. We would come upon households with 57 people. Husband, 6 wives, and all their kids! The people are so happy right now. They have nothing, there is nothing left of their home, but they are so happy to be there, to be having babies, to not have to worry about air raids, to just be living. It’s a hard existence, but they are getting assistance from many NGOs and the UN.

Well, we finished up our survey. The levels of malnutrition were low, as most of them have just come from refugee camps where they were fed well (relatively). However, the mortality rate (death rate) among children was very high and mainly due to diarrhoea. Time and again I came upon families who had lost children under the age of 5 to diarrhoea in the previous 3 months. How pathetic is that? How frightening that the bulk of their children were dying from something as simple as dirty water. Other causes of death in the area, malaria and respiratory infections. Those are three of the NUMBER ONE killers in the world of children under five. For those of you living in the states does it strike you as odd? It should—children dying from such EASILY preventable diseases that are not only easy to prevent but to treat. The number one killers in the world are diarrhoea, respiratory infections, measles, and malaria. You are wondering as a nutritionist how do I fit in to all this? Well, 57% of the deaths are exacerbated or originally caused by malnutrition. When you are malnourished your immune system is weaker and you are more likely to get sick; when you get sick you eat less and absorb less of what you do eat, leading to worsening malnutrition. As your nutritional status decreases, your symptoms become worse and you may gain another disease—possibly diarrhoea on top of your malaria. It’s a vicious cycle that kills children every day world wide. This is what I work to combat. It’s far more difficult then you would think. But, that’s a discussion for another day.

Well, up to the present—much to say. Most of you probably know that I am ENGAGED!! I know, big switch in topics. But, I need to finish up here and get to work, so had to move right along. I am engaged to an Ethiopian named Henok. He is GREAT and I hope all of you can meet him some day. He is one of those people whose soul is so beautiful it’s all you can see when you meet them. Their energy is overwhelming and they touch everyone they meet. He is incredible. We are in the middle of the pounds of paperwork required to marry a non-US citizen. It’s annoyingly difficult. And, if you are wondering, I am back in Ethiopia!!! No, GOAL hasn’t gotten back in; rather I took time off from GOAL and took a temporary position at the World Bank. So, I am here for the month of May working with them, then back to GOAL. Hopefully by the end of May my paperwork will be sorted out, so I can just start work again instead of returning to Kenya. But, we shall see. Right now so much of my life is in the hands of other people. Where I live, where I work, when I marry, where I marry, how I marry, how I get around town, what I eat for my meals, etc. All these things are not in my control right now—rather my employer and/or the US or Ethiopian Government. It’s not a good feeling, but its life I suppose. I just have to roll with it for now.

Okay--- I need to run. Here is a picture of Henok and I. It is NOT a good picture of us, really; but it’s all I got for now. I hope you are all well—