This is awkward. Sir John Holmes, the Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, flies in to Khartoum tonight en route to Darfur. I suspect the Khartoum press corps may be otherwise engaged.
Another day of madness in Khartoum. Flat out reporting on the primary school teacher who has been arrested here for naming a teddy bear Mohamed. Strictly speaking it was her kids that named the bear, but anyway she’s the one in trouble.
I’m currently staying with Meskel Square and his missus who works for the BBC and our collective phones have been ringing off the hook with requests for interviews, packages, pieces and the rest. It makes me feel kind of guilty that I was moaning about taking a punt on getting here in the first place.
The only people who don’t seem interested in the story are the Sudanese. I have yet to meet anyone who has taken offence at the episode. Most seem a bit embarrassed at the whole affair and are baffled at the way the British press has soaked up every detail of the story. The Sudanese press has barely reported the story and politicians have remained silent.
My money is on a speedy resolution. The Brit press officers and the school authorities are keeping very quiet, which to me suggests a deal is being done in private. The last thing they want is a huge fuss which might force the Sudanese government into a corner, and prevent them backing down.
After all you don’t me to point out that this isn’t a government that responds well to being shouted at.
One of the golden rules of being a freelancer is never to complain about lack of work. I have been moaning about being stuck in Khartoum for the past week, unable to get to where I want to be. And then Sudanese police arrest a British teacher here for naming a teddy bear Mohamed. All hell has broken loose.
I’m not going to discuss the sad tale of Gillian Gibbons. She’s all over the web now.
But it’s already afforded me a fascinating insight into Khartoum’s schools. Unity High School where Miss Gibbons was teaching was founded in 1902 along Christian lines in the days of Brit rule. Walking into its shady courtyard was not unlike walking into a Cambridge college or English boarding school – except with Arab arches. This is the school favoured by the Sudanese elite, and a smattering of aid and oil workers.
United Nations workers tend to prefer KICS - Khartoum International Community School. It gets rave reviews from parents but apparently costs more than Gordonstoun so only an option if Uncle Ban is providing a good education allowance. Apparently it was shipped over brick by brick from the UK so that Sudan’s very own answer to Richard Branson – Osama Daoud Abdellatif, chairman of the DAL Group - could give his kids the very best education.
Today’s story suggests that there are tensions between a Muslim population governed by Sharia law and westerners educating their children at American or British schools. I suspect they actually rub along pretty well. Many well-to-do Sudanese want their kids to go to international schools. The fear is that there may be a minority of hardliners who need little encouragement to bring their people on to the streets.
People come from all over Khartoum to eat fish at Shieb’s little restauarant over the Nile in Omdurman. It’s little more than a couple of bare rooms with a scattering of plastic chairs and tables outside. Inside the heat is fierce as two blazing fires heat vats of oil where the freshly caught fish is frying. Outside it is cool at this time of year. Men – only men – dressed in Jalabiyas take breakfast.
The fish arrives battered and piled on paper, just like back home. Cutlery is not provided. Hunks of the hot, soft flesh are best eaten first covered in juice from tiny green lemons, then dipped in bitter green chilli sauce and wrapped in a hunk of fresh bread.
The juice runs all the way down the arms of the unwary diner to their elbows. Delicious.
No-one was quite sure what type of fish was being served. It didn’t have the sort of muddy flavour of tilapia but looked a bit too flat to be Nile perch.
Anyway, my fixer Al Siir assurd me that Shieb had by far the freshest fish and oil of any of the fryers of Omdurman. “Everyone comes here,” he told me, “because they know that Shieb has the most tastable fish.” Indeed.
After a tiny glass of sweet tea we were on our way, fortified for another day of trying and failing to obtain a travel pass.
Kalma camp in South Darfur is the most miserable of the region’s miserable camps. It is too big by far. Something like 90,000 people live in its shacks and mud-brick homes in a sprawling mass of humanity where seething tension frequently erupts into violence as tribe plots against tribe. Most charities dare not venture inside Kalma. Here’s how one of my colleagues summed it up last year.
The Sudanese authorities have long wanted it shut down. Most aid workers agree the camp is a disaster but fear closure will be exploited to ensure that the regime’s opponents suffer even more.
The African Union came up with a plan to restore stability: A three-month programme to clear guns from the camp. So far so good.
Only it seems this is not fast enough for the government. Tomorrow (Thursday) residents have been told they must begin giving up their guns. On Saturday, the army will go in.
I’m told residents have already begun building barricades. Aid agencies fear a mass exodus with thousands fleeing into the bush as Kalma burns. There they will be cut off from aid once again.
And to cap it all, the one aid official who might have made a difference was kicked out a couple of weeks ago. Coincidence?
As one aid worker put it to me…”With Wael gone the UN really is in disarray down there and there is no-one left to kick up a fuss.”
Posted in Darfur, Sudan
My list of favourite African cities wouldn’t be long. Africa is more about its villages. That’s where the history, the stories and the culture are to be found. Too many of its cities are dull collections of 1970s buildings that were too often modelled on the gloomy eastern European utilitarianism of the Cold War.
Not so Khartoum. For a moment it seems as if Africa has been left behind in a cloud of incense and spices. Like North Africa, the city’s coffee sellers, markets and mosques seem more Middle East than Africa. For my money the Arab world does cities better than African Africa. Mogadishu’s Italianate villas along the coast and the souks of Tripoli are enchanting places to explore (briefly, and in the company of an armed escort in the case of Mogadishu).
This is my third trip to Khartoum so far this this year. And it always manages to be fun and frustrating at the same time. I’m staying with Meskel Square and his missus, and tomorrow my fixer Al Siir (of whom more later) and I will breakfast on fresh, fried fish in Omdurman as is our tradition.
So for those of you who were wondering, I have decided to take a chance on Khartoum’s red tape, searing heat and congestion in an attempt to nail a juicy story with no guarantee of a decent return on my time. I get my first indication of whether it’s going to work on Saturday. Already I have been advised that my idea is feasible and at other times that it is utterly hopeless – in some cases by the same person. But then that’s what I’ve come to expect in this city of minarets and mobile phone masts.
Being a freelance foreign correspondent is great. I’m my own boss, picking the stories I want to write, when I want to write them. For weeks at a time I sit around drinking coffee, reading the papers and scouring the internet – and I call it work. Some mornings there’s time for 18 holes and I can still be at my desk before London wakes up. Then a phone call and it’s a week bouncing around in the back of LandCruiser in northern Kenya, or following Ethiopian troops into Mogadishu, or racing around Botswana’s Okavango Delta in a speedboat searching for celebrities.
There’s no security. No health coverage, pension or holiday pay. But so what? Other than chief taster at Harvey’s, there can’t be a better job.
It’s just that sometimes there are deeply frustrating weeks too. At the moment I’m trying to set up a trip for one of my newspapers. It’s taken eight days so far and I’m still not sure it’s going to come off. That’s eight days that I haven’t been able to file for anyone else. Essentially eight days with no income. After a lot of haggling I’ve managed to win my editor over to the idea that I should be paid for my time. But it’s not much.
For most of my trips I can get several newspapers on board, work out a day-rate and head off on the first available flight. This time around no-one else is much interested. Editors have got reporters tied up in Pakistan, camped out in Perugia, or just back from Burma or southern California – and all the time the cost of covering Iraq and Afghanistan is eating away at shrinking budgets. As usual it is coverage of Africa that is first to suffer.
My dilemma is whether or not to crack on with my trip. If it comes off then I should have a great yarn, and be able to sell it several times over. It could be one of the best stories of my time here. If it doesn’t come off then I’m even further out of pocket. And this is the downside of being a freelancer. I’m now a businessman with a bottom line to worry about.
Maybe I’ll just play golf this afternoon.
The more time I spend in Africa the more I realise that I was totally wrong about the best way for this blighted yet beautiful continent to lift itself out of its trough. From the vantage point of Royal Tunbridge Wells (in the south-east of England) it was easy to blame Africa’s problems on colonialism. What chance did the place have, I reckoned, if tribes had been bundled into inconvenient nation states and all their best resources were plundered? The answer seemed straightforward. We in the west had a moral responsibility to pour cash into the place. I once would have liked the message spread by the celebrity economist Jeffrey Sachs and his pompous rockstar pal Bono. Aid, trade and debt relief. Yes, that sounded about right.
Until I got here.
Aid, trade and debt relief don’t make a lot of difference in countries whose leaders have no real interest in helping their own people. Debt relief only helps if the savings are invested in roads, hospitals and education rather than Toyota LandCruisers for ministers. Aid disconnects government from voters by making the United Nations or NGOs responsible for water supplies, or food, or even roads. And what difference will fair trade initiatives make to a subsistence farmer in Tanzania growing enough maize to feed her family? Not much hope of tapping into the global market, fair or otherwise.
But there are some exceptions. And one of the best I’ve seen uses aid to help small-scale farmers sell their produce to British supermarkets. The charity giant Care has helped farmers in the village of Kibweze, Kenya, switch to farming the sort of vegetables fashionable in Islington and made funds available so they can meet the strict standards required by Europe. Their baby aubergines and mangetout are bought up by a private company to sell on to Britain.
The village is booming. And the best thing is that Care can be removed from the equation and the farmers would carry on doing their thing. In this case aid has been used to help poor rural farmers reach a wider market.
But the problem is that some of those same voices who argue that helping Africa develop is a good thing are also arguing that we shouldn’t be flying our vegetables halfway across the world because of the impact of carbon emissions. The arguments are all here in an article I did for Time.com. All I’m going to add here is that if you have any qualms about buying airfreighted food, there are a few farmers in Kibweze I know who would urge you to buy their produce. And I would add my voice to theirs. This is just too good an idea for it to be allowed to go to the wall on a misunderstanding of carbon emissions.
This series is inspired by a moment last week when my slick journalist’s poise deserted me. Briefly. It is not the first time and probably won’t be the last. Anyway, it happened as I introduced myself to a rebel commander via telephone.
ME: So where are you?
REBEL COMMANDER (VIA SATPHONE): Erm. Erm. Who did you say you were again? (CLEARLY WONDERING WHETHER I AM ABOUT TO CALL IN AN AIRSTRIKE) Can I just say I am in Darfur?
The rest of the conversation was stilted.
Khartoum needs no excuse to make life difficult for the international charities that operate in Darfur. Now Zoe’s Ark has handed them a perfect reason to get tough on organisations trying to dish up food or provide water to some four million people.
Newsweek has taken a look at this issue. But I think they’ve missed the point by conflating this episode with the damage done on the advocacy side of things by the Save Darfur Coalition.
The real issue here is the impact that irresponsible charity workers can have on more reputable outfits.
Take Darfur. I understand that country directors of all the international NGOs operating there were called in by the commissioner general of Sudan’s Humanitarian Affairs Commission on Thursday to be read the riot act. The actions of Zoe’s Ark in neighbouring Chad have placed them all under suspicion. They were left in no doubt that they could expect greater scrutiny and more problems moving workers around the country. I am told that French aid workers are already being denied visas to enter Sudan or permits to travel to Darfur. Ministers have been quoted in the local press accusing Unicef of child smuggling.
The charges are clearly ridiculous. And no-one in the Khartoum government can really believe them. But that doesn’t matter.
As one of my pals in the aid world said: “This whole thing has given Khartoum a big stick and all the signs are that they are going to use it.”