Land Cruiser League Table

In Juba no-one (white) walks. But I'm in the minority that doesn't have a Land Cruiser – I'm here as a researcher on my own – so I have to get around dodging the hurtling Land Cruisers on foot, or on boda-boda motorbike taxis. (There's apparently an entire ward of Juba General Hospital nicknamed the 'Senke' ward, after the Chinese 'Senke' motorbikes that seem to be the essential accessory of every entrepreneurial Juba teenager).

Over the last week I've developed an objective NGO ranking based on Land Cruiser driver courtesy, which I hope will guide your charity Christmas-card buying. At the risk of multiple libel suits, here it is:

  • 10/10: Mines Advisory Group - impeccably courteous drivers at all times. And with a healthily robust attitude to handling unexploded bombs. And head-quartered in Manchester. Full marks.

  • 7/10: Vétérinaires Sans Frontières - weird charity, slightly weird driving. Particularly poor road positioning, but not often driving fast, so scores higher for general safety.

  • 5/10: UNICEF - very fast, quite erratic, bad at roundabouts (whichever 1930s British colonial civil servant planned the road system in Juba, they loved roundabouts)

  • 3/10: World Food Programme - WFP drivers scare me for all sorts of reasons – they're the logistics road kings, staffed by hard-bitten Kenyan ex-truckers who don't take any shit from anyone. But mainly because they NEED TO GO TO INDICATOR SCHOOL.

  • 0/10: Save the Children UK – arsehole roadhogs. SC-UK vehicles twice bore down on me while I was walking along the road - there are mostly no pavements - honking their horns and then drenching me in mud right before important meetings. Evidently model their driving style and attitude to pedestrians on that of their patron.

Time/Money = Change

I've spent the last week in and around Juba, the ramshackle capital of southern Sudan. Since 2005, when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed between the Sudan People's Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) and the northern government in Khartoum, Juba has exploded as an army of NGO workers and East African businessmen of every stripe has arrived to make the town their base for the reconstruction of 'New Sudan'. The town's population has nearly doubled in three years. Juba's (still mainly unpaved) roads are clogged with a perpetual stream of NGO Land Cruisers; and the banks of the Nile are lined with accommodation camps, filled with overweight, Ray-Banned private military contractors and white 20-something 'development advisers' drinking and dancing to the camp sound systems that blare out across the town on Friday nights.

I know I'm a misanthropic bastard, but there's something very unsettling about seeing the development circus camped out here in full force. I've never been anywhere else where the development 'industry' has dominated the life and economy of a place so completely; and where both its logistical mastery at bringing conveniences to those it chooses, and its entrenched racial and social divides, are so blatantly on show. Before I arrived I'd been told many horror stories about the hardships of life in Juba: the $200-a-night swampy tents, the heat, the flies, the endless logistical breakdowns and complications, the boredom. None of these are true, at least not any more: it is very hot, and very expensive, but as an NGO worker with money I can live extremely comfortably. The wireless internet in my shipping container room is faster than anywhere in Kenya. Meanwhile the dozens of people living under sticks and plastic bags directly next to my container, most of whom likely fled to Juba during the civil war, have never had running water; and they're living under self-constructed plastic shelters because the SPLA bulldozed their huts last week to make way for new buildings (evidently that USAID-sponsored town planning project is going really well). But what does that matter when I can can sit under the mango trees by the Nile with my NGO colleagues, drinking Moonberg lager and browsing Facebook? Man, it sure feels good to be developing stuff.

Town Planning, Juba-Style

This snide sketch is, of course, unfair. The sheer resourcefulness of most of the development organisations here (and private business) is extraordinary – that's why I can drink ice-cold beer and watch Sky News. Many of the development workers I've met are likewise resourceful, committed, thoughtful and talented people (albeit almost entirely white, save for the secretarial staff and security guards). And much of their work takes place elsewhere in southern Sudan, in some of the most deprived and challenging conditions in the world.

But none of the development workers I met in Juba seemed really to have thought about the impact of turning a war-ravaged town into a Western NGO playground whose economy is entirely dominated by the organisations supposed to be 'rebuilding the economy'. (There's a nice short film about Juba, Time/Money = Change, which discusses this far better than I can. I've shamelessly stolen its title for this post).

The political truce on which this playground is built is also supremely fragile. More on this later: but sitting in Juba drinking cold beer it's very easy to believe, as southern Sudan's international donors seem to do, that what they are engaged in is post-conflict development. Speaking to officials from the SPLA and the (SPLA-dominated) Government of Southern Sudan, though, it becomes quite clear that southern Sudan isn't at all in a post-conflict situation. It's in a ceasefire phase, which elements within the Government and SPLA evidently regard as a lull: a period of regrouping and re-consolidation of forces, not of peacetime rebuilding.

The SPLA's new (Dyncorp-built) interim headquarters seems emblematic of southern Sudan's current situation. SPLA IGHQ is a grid of smart pre-fab buildings several kilometres out of town, dusty bedding plants standing between pimped-up, tinted-window SPLA Land Cruisers and broken military vehicles. For all the new ministry buildings in town, it's clear that this is the real political centre of the Government. A massive, half-completed statue of John Garang, the SPLA's iconic leader who was killed in a plane crash in 2005, stands in the centre of the compound, its raised arm sticking out of the top of wonky plywood scaffolding. The SPLA's been installed here for at least 18 months now, but in most of the offices I visited it seemed like they'd just moved in. Boxes of paperwork stood between smart new computers without any power, draped with velveteen soft furnishings and SPLA flags. The whole base, meanwhile, is surrounded by ramshackle encampments of soldiers in tents, tukuls and shipping containers. Soldiers with nowhere to go, and nothing to do.

It's very hard, though, not to like the SPLA. This is my first real encounter with a secular liberation movement - most of them were finished by the time I hit my teens, and we were left with impenetrable religious fundamentalism and dried-up European Trotskyism. Nearly four years after the Sudan ceasefire, the spirit of a government formed not from professional politicians, but from the eccentric, under-resourced leaders of a twenty year bush war, is still infectious. There's even something entrancing about the military mythologising on which Southern Sudan's official political culture is based. Everyone has an extraordinary story to tell from the war, and before long you're caught up in it too. I was told about how one year, at the end of months of brutal fighting against heavily armoured Government of Sudan forces, SPLA soldiers were called to attend the SPLM's national convention; how they walked for seventy days across the length of Sudan to attend their party's convention; spent sleepless days and nights debating fine points of constitutional law for the country they were yet to found; then walked thirty days back to take part in the siege of Juba. Like other liberation movements, commanding this vast, illiterate tribal army is a cadre of over-educated political dreamers that you don't encounter in more 'mature' governments. For twenty years they've lived simultaneously in two worlds: the bush bases of southern Sudan; and the universities and conference tables of Europe. One SPLA officer I met talked about leaving the front-line in the 1990s for the cloisters of Queen Elizabeth House at Oxford; and having submitted his Masters' thesis in a balmy Oxford June, flew straight back to Sudan to command an attack against a Government tank column.

For all its flaws - the brutality of its child-soldier-recruiting, landmine-sowing civil war; its tribal fractures; its failure to transform itself from a military organisation into a civilian government - I can entirely understand the magnetism of this movement on which the 'New Sudan' has been precariously founded: the intoxication of the ambition to remake a country with a rag-tag guerilla army fighting an impossible war against an immovable enemy. They country they got from the war though, with its air-conditioned Land Cruiser convoys, mine-infected roads, starving villages and bulldozed tukuls, can't be what they dreamed about.


Don't eat the matumbo

This is the sympathy-seeking illness post – if my bowel movements or self-obsession bore you, please look away now (although obviously I can't understand why you'd find either anything less than riveting).

Things come in twos and threes. I've been very lucky so far in Kenya – I haven't had the faintest bit of stomach trouble, despite travelling quite a lot, and eating more meat than I've ever eaten in my entire life. Until last week – which also happened to be my last week in Nakuru, trying to get everything finished up work-wise, and to get myself organised to move on to Nairobi.

From Monday to Wednesday I was in Churo in East Pokot, further up the Rift Valley: an astonishingly barren place that seems to have been forgotten by the government, the NGOs, and modernity. My organisation's conflict management interventions here are also worse than useless: like holding a seminar for famine victims. It's a place full of cows, where a cup of milk costs more than in Nairobi (the drought has made the local cows dry up, and transport costs for packaged milk are enormous). It's the only place in Kenya I've seen some children go to school naked (not out of charming traditional practice, because their families can no longer afford clothes during the dry season).

Shamefully, this neglect is at least partly to do with the fact that everybody seems to hate the Pokots – and the community leaders of the Pokots, at least, seem to hate everybody. Hating the Pokots, in fact, seems to be the one thing that unites communities in the Rift Valley. Samburu and Turkana groups, for example, are engaged in intensifying fighting and cattle-rustling against each other, but in several places have been brought together in a kind of grim peace to fight Pokot raiders. More significantly, Pokot politicians are even less important than Samburu and Turkana MPs (themselves junior acolytes to the 'Rift Valley mafia' which, along with Kikuyu-dominated Central Province MPs form the two major power blocs in Kenya's parliament). So Pokot politicians don't get to 'eat' at all when the spoils are carved up in Nairobi.

Anyway, more about East Pokot, the land the do-gooders forgot, later on. This post is all about ME!

The only thing to (actually) eat in Churo on Tuesday was matumbo ya mbuzi – goat intestines, which, quite literally, tasted of shit. I only ate a small amount, with a lot of maize to compensate. And felt absolutely fine for the next two days, and the journey back to Nakuru. And then, at precisely 4.17pm on Thursday afternoon, my digestive system melted.

I just about managed to get home, perched on the back of a boda-boda bicycle taxi (the quickest way to get home, and conveniently affording rapid dismount facilities for tactical chundering on the way). I make it up the four flights of stairs to the flat to find W, the building's security guard, standing outside the door waiting for me, and talking very fast in Kiswahili. Through the bilious haze I think he's saying that my (heavily pregnant) landlady is having a baby (anazaa), and that she needs me to come with him to the hospital. But I can't be sure. W speaks no English, and my Kiswahili is worse. I also don't tend to need much gynaecological vocabulary, day-to-day. I end up rudely ignoring him, and pushing my way through the front door. The flat, uncharacteristically, is empty. My landlady is nowhere to be seen.

This is very bad news. So now I'm on the floor of the bathroom, evacuating, er, dually, and simultaneously grappling with my Kiswahili-English dictionary trying to look up anazaa. As I'm doing this, W returns and starts hammering on the front door again, just as getting to 'Z' in my dictionary to find out that '-zaa' does indeed mean 'give birth'.

Fuck. This is now very bad news.

Unfortunately, I can't seem to find the words for “I'm being sick”, so am forced to just sit there idiotically shouting siwezi kuja (I can't come) and matumbo, matumbo (stomach, stomach) – which I now realise W the guard may have thought meant I was masturbating in the toilet while confirming my landlady's gravidity.

After about half an hour of hammering and evacuating, I'm ready to make the lunge to the front door. I open it, and W is still there heroically saying Esther anazaa, anazaa, kuja, kuja, asking me to come with him. So now my liquifying bowels are fighting my English 'rise-to-the-occasion' gynaecological chivalry. I want to ask where the fuck Esther's boyfriend is, but can't remember the vocab for 'boyfriend' or 'fuck' either.

What would Hugh Grant do? In the Hugh Grant film version there would be some hilarious schtick with Grant careering round the room flopping his hair about and apologising with his trousers round his ankles. In this version I don't have the energy for flopping or hilarity. There's just me, my bowels, and my useless Kiswahili.

Fortunately, I'm saved with cinematic good timing. Just as I'm about to improvise some kind of nappy/bib/plastic bag arrangement to use in a taxi, up the stairs comes...Esther. It turns out she's been to the hairdressers, which W the guard for some reason mistook as a dash to the obstetrics ward. So I'm released from my doorstep agony to retreat for the bathroom, where I stay for the next 24 hours.

Lesson 1

Englishmen: if you learn one foreign language phrase while travelling abroad, make sure it's “I can't come to the door, I'm shitting myself.” If necessary, tattoo it on a body part you can see while squatting.

Lesson 2

A loo-seat is the only essential accoutrement of civilisation. My Nakuru flat has one of only two real loo-seats I've seen outside of Nairobi. This single piece of technology improved my quality of life last week more than mobile phones, the internet and electrification put together.


How many councillors can you fit in a Land Rover?

The answer, it turns out, is twelve. Plus one mzungu, ten Samsonite luggage cases, and an AK-47.

(The AK barrel is just visible next to the driver in this picture)

Two weeks ago I was travelling with another staff member around Baragoi in northern Samburu District, south of Lake Turkana. Baragoi's a slightly odd place. On the one hand it's a typical small town in the arid northern grasslands. There's no electrification, guns and goats everywhere, and all the beers are warm and dusty, having been carried five hours on the roof of the bus (below) from Maralal, the nearest large-ish town (and, incidentally, the final, wind-stripped home of Wilfred Thesiger until his death in 1994). On the other hand, you can buy vodka alongside traditional busaa homebrew in almost all of Baragoi's seven or eight bars, and the main street is colloquially called Bosnia Street.

This is because Baragoi was the recruitment hub for the illiterate Samburu warriors plucked from the vast empty ranges of northern Kenya in the early 1990s, rapidly inducted into the Kenyan army, and sent as barely trained UN peacekeepers to patrol the Republic of Serbian Krajina, a self-proclaimed micro-state in eastern Croatia which existed for just four years before it was pummelled back under Croatian authority in 1995. These men came back, rich; bought cows, built bars and cheap lodging houses; and essentially melted back into Samburu society. Globalisation is strong. And weak.

Anyway, back to the Land Rover. Transport is a bit of a problem in northern Kenya. Amazingly, there's a bus which goes to Baragoi from Maralal. It doesn't go very often, but as you can see it's pretty bitching:

This bus bounces and inches its way over a 'road' which is mostly little more than a rocky track through the mountains. We got to sit in the cab. We listened to Lil' Wayne. It was awesome.

The journey back was a bit more complicated. Some local members of Samburu District Council, though, were on their way to Maralal at lunchtime on the day we wanted to leave, and offered to give us a lift. In theory, awesome. They had a Land Rover, and they were leaving right now, they said. Sasa sasa.

That's to say, after a few hours and a few more Tuskers. By 6pm, the driver had decided to go somewhere else, they said. But this was a good thing, they said: it's better to travel at night when it's cooler and the tyres don't puncture so easily.

(And the raiders like to hijack cars).

But the council chairman wants to sleep, they said. OK, so we leave at dawn. 6am. Sasa sasa. On the dot, they said.

That's to say, at 12 noon the next day. And there were now twelve people who they'd promised could go to Maralal. And they all had fancy, bulky, sharp-cornered Samsonite cases to put on top of us in the back. (They're local politicians. They have nice luggage). So only one of the two of us could go to Maralal, they said

Actually, we both went. We just took it in turns to make human-Samsonite-human sandwiches in the back of the Land Rover. I'm still not totally sure why we brought the Kalashnikov. Still, as I know from Manchester, council politics can be rough...