NAIROBI: Before I left for Darfur on my last trip, a friend of a friend asked me what the place was like: “Is there anyone there who isn’t a refugee? Do they all live in camps?” I was taken aback by her question. She works for the United Nations in Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan and perhaps might have been expected to understand a little about Darfur (and the distinction between IDPs and refugees – but I’ll ignore that for the time being). It made me realise that a lot of the things I take for granted in the places I visit would surprise people who haven’t visited some of Africa’s trouble spots.
I have sipped ice-cold beer and watched Premiership football live on satellite TV in a hotel in a northern Ugandan aid camp, bought flash drives in dusty Kenyan towns with sporadic electricity and drizzled olive oil and balsamic vinegar on my green salad at an NGO house in Darfur.
The influx of aid workers and UN officials does astonishing things to economies that have previously been based on little more than the goat – not an old-fashioned form of currency but the animal. The first time I visited El Fasher, in northern Darfur, I was astonished to find olive oil in the town’s dusty general stores. By my fifth trip it was no big deal. But it was my friend-of-a-friend’s question that reminded me that for readers of my stories the presence of olive oil would be as astonishing as I found it on my first visit and a way of talking about another side of the conflict in Darfur. In this story, the local population is not a passive victim of what is happening. The people are actors in an economy, ready to take advantage of whatever blows their way.
So yes, four million people in Darfur are entirely reliant on aid. Many people live in abject misery in cramped camps. But so too there are towns. There are taxis. And there are entrepreneurs with a ready eye for a buck, who realise that the American and European aid workers who have descended on their town might like some olive oil for their salad.