Saturday, 12 December 2009

The Sudan Studies Conference in South Africa: thinking about personalities.

The conference was not what I had expected. The format was a bit rushed and some sessions might have been better held as discussions rather than formal papers, but there was also something inspiring about the week... and something very very cool! 

It was this: the fact that it took place in South Africa, in a country that many observers see as a miracle of social transformation and at UNISA, a university engaged in the training of the Southern Sudanese government. Thabo Mbeki was there and many of the younger South African participants told me that they really believed that Sudan matters to Africa as a whole. They said Sudan is not just about Sudan, but about Africa too. 

I had never really thought to compare the two countries, despite being in an African studies department dominated by South Africans and those who study the country, but in some ways, the South Africans at UNISA really inspired me and made me wonder about the pan-Africanist project more deeply. 

A Sudanese De Klerk?

One presentation in particular got my attention. Gavin Bradshaw gave a paper on Conflict Transformation and the Future of Sudan, comparing the South African experience with the Sudanese situation. He emphasized that South African liberation involved intensive pre-negotiation and that reconciliation was central to the country's transformation. In Sudan's case, the CPA might have been too rushed in comparison and issues of justice were overlooked. In the question session afterwards, Taban Lo Lyong from Juba University made a fascinating point: 

"That year, there was more than one person who won the Nobel Prize. You come from the Mandela University, but there is no De Klerk University. Surely we don't just need a Mandela but a De Klerk as well. Who will be our unexpected saviour?"

Bradshaw welcomed the comment and asked the audience to figure out who in the NCP represented a Sudanese versions of De Klerk? Who will have their "road to Damascus moment"? Who will negotiate? Who will concede power? Who will listen to pressure? Bradshaw spoke of the need to approach and cultivate this person, show him (or her) that there are other sources of support and legitimacy from which to draw power. 

I have been doing a lot of South African reading since I got back to the Edinburgh library. Primarily I am interested in learning more about Black Economic Empowerment and how successful the government has been in addressing the economic legacies of apartheid, but there is so much more to learn as well.  I am currently reading Mark Gevisser's biography of Thabo Mbeki: A Legacy of Liberation. I whole heartedly recommend it to anyone interested in the South African story. 

A Sudanese Mbeki?

A common complaint among Southerners living in Khartoum is that the SPLM does not include them in the re-building of Southern Sudan. They tell stories of how they are labelled "Jelaba" when they try to return "home". They are seen as outsiders or worse, traitors and are informed that they did not earn the spoils of peace because they did not fight in the struggle. I was even told that the Southern government brought in huge numbers of Kenyan and Ugandan teachers, because those in the North are either not competent enough or trusted enough to teach. The language card is often played: Northern educated southern Sudanese grew up in an Arabic speaking educational system; their qualifications are therefore, inappropriate. But one interviewee told me something quite beautiful. He said "What they fail to understand is that we were fighting too. We were fighting to become teachers. We were fighting to become engineers. We were fighting to become doctors. We had our own fight in Khartoum."  But it seems as though this side of the struggle remains unacknowledged by the SPLM leadership. 

You get the sense that the ANC understood the importance of exile to the struggle. They understood that education was key to liberation. Thabo Mbeki himself was sent away in order to study. Gevisser suggests that even his own father, Govan, who was at the very heart of the movement's armed wing, the MK, saw that his son was not a soldier but an intellectual:

"I asked Goven Mbeki why he took such a strong line on his son, given that he himself was on MK's high command and an avid adherent of armed struggle. "I didn't approve of him joining MK," he said resolutely, "or of him staying in the country. All the young people were excited about fighting, but we elders knew the other side. We realized not everyone was going to be a soldier." Perhaps, then, Govan Mbeki's hard line with his son masked a deeper perceptiveness. He knew enough about Thabo to understand that his destiny was not as a soldier on the barricades but as an intellectual. There was a different world of engagement in the struggle waiting him abroad, one that would suit him far better and take him much farther". (Gevisser, 2009: 79). 

So we should therefore not just ask who is the Sudanese de Klerk, but who are the Sudanese Mbekis as well. Certainly as the SPLM attempts to transform itself from a rebel military movement into a legitimate political party and government, it needs to make use of these educated "Jelabas" in the North. And as Southern Sudan transforms itself from a battlefield into a functioning country, these teachers, engineers and doctors are needed to get the country going again.

After the conference, Gavin Bradshaw approached me to talk about the Juba version of the Khartoum Student Seminar Series, organized by Lotje de Vries in the South. He said he was involved in training hundreds of young Southerners in order to get them up to the Masters Level. He was dying to find such seminars to stimulate these students outside the classroom. I am glad that the SPLM is now acknowledging the need for education. THIS IS GREAT! But I wonder whether this precludes the inclusion of the educated outsiders who are still waiting for homecoming in Khartoum. Especially if the South becomes independent, what will their futures hold?

You have to ask: Is their exclusion an issue of trust or power? There is another interesting aspect of the Mbeki story that might offer clues. In autumn 1962, a group of young South Africans travelled out of South Africa (in a roundabout way) to Tanzania to be sent abroad to study. Gevisser writes:

"The PAC comrades were given the choice of scholarships in the West. With the exception of Mbeki, however, all the ANC comrades were told they would be going to the Soviet Union and other Eastern European bloc countries. Mbeki did not stay long in Dar-es-Salam: He had been expected at Sussex in early October, and he was already several weeks late. Neither knowing that he had a preexisting scholarship nor understanding why he alone was being sent to the West, Mbeki's contemporaries in exile harbored resentment about his early departure to Britain was to fester for years. Vincent Mahali believed that the 'pre-existing scholarship' story was concocted by the ANC to cover the fact that Thabo was being given 'special treatment' because he was Govan's son, that this released him from the 'months and even years of deprivation... that most of us 'commoners' would have to go through." The impression would linger, and cast a long shadow over his ambitions" (Gevisser, 2009: 84). 

Gevisser, Mark (2009) A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki and the Future of the South African Dream. New York: Palgrave, Macmillan.

Monday, 7 December 2009

the space of economy.

I have come back to bonny Edinburgh for a couple weeks to figure out my plan for the year ahead. I only have a few months left in Sudan and I want to make the most of that time by summing up what I have already learnt and looking at what I need to explore in more depth. Today, I am trying to construct a “mindmap” in order to explain all my ideas and models to my supervisor tomorrow afternoon.


Rather inefficiently, I have spent the whole morning thinking about space. Perhaps this is due to the view outside my friend Paul’s window: Grey horizons speckled with meandering seagulls and endless roofs.


What a word.

In some ways, the word speaks to a certain ambiguity, to a lack of meaning, a lack of identity. To paraphrase Yi Fu-Tuan, space is undefined place. Or perhaps place is defined space. 

To give a concrete example, when you drive between village A and village B, you pass lots of space. If, however, you have a collision somewhere along the way, part of that space suddenly becomes a place in your mind: you will always think of that bend or that tree as the place where “it” happened. It is imbued with certain memories, emotions and meanings.

What I find so interesting in economics is this dichotomy between the economy as a "space" and the firm as a “place”. One has experience and relationships within a firm: we have to finish the order before the holiday next week, my colleagues like to hang out in the evenings in the pub but I have a baby to look after so I can’t come, the office is in a nice location but the factory is too far away and so I try not to make too many visits, and, for the life of me, I can’t understand the secretary on the third floor who seems to arrange all the office files in transliterated Farsi. 

People recognize the social and spatial limitations of their own immediate environment and can see how the iron laws of economics are sometimes constrained by the practicalities and prejudices of everyday life. Even within the discipline of economics, we have a whole branch of organizational theory (which Oliver Williamson just won the Nobel Prize this year) in which the incentives and motivations of competing interests within the firm are analyzed and addressed. However when it comes to the economy as a whole, it is much more difficult to theorize about such issues because the economy cannot be so firmly rooted in place, in reality; it is everywhere in fact.

Yes, the economy is a space. It is ambiguous. It is arena full of abstractions. How long would it take to ‘map’ all the social connections and spatial peculiarities of an economy? Is that even possible? I sometimes wonder whether it is merely the size of the economy that makes  aggregation so convenient or whether there is something deep within our way of thinking that blinds us to consider a more concrete lived experience of the economy.

I have all these ideas about how different social connections within the Sudanese company allow the system to function. How different cogs within the machine allow and restrain other parts to turn, and how these cogs are rooted in quite different ideologies and beliefs about the nature of the country as a whole. There are competing visions of how the economy must be run. I have started to play and experiment with the organizational theory of firms to try and map these connections, but I have yet to find such a theory applied to economies, especially developing economies.

In some ways, a developing economy is seen as an organization in its own right: How do we develop “the economy”? they say over a bowl of fuul in their offices. But in order to speak of the “economy” as a kind of organization, we need to place it somewhere. We need to transform the economy from a space into a place.

How do we turn the economy into a place? That’s what I want to know.

Now I shall get back to that mindmap...

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Corruption and Culture: wasta is embedded but not inevitable.

Last week I read a great paper: The Impact of Favouritism on the Business Climate, A Study on Wasta in Jordan. It was based on a research project conducted in 2006 by the German Development Institute. SO much of it is relevant to my project here in Sudan that I spent the whole day scribbling notes and quivering with excitement (and yes, I do recognize that this is probably not the normal emotional response to such an article but PhD students have strange emotional responses to a variety of seemingly benign stimuli).

First of all, it made me realize how much corruption specialists in Africa and the Arab world need to talk to one another. Take for instance: Jordan. It is a tribal society operating beneath an authoritarian regime that uses patron-client relationships to shore up its support base. It is experiencing a dramatic yet temporary economic boom due to a war in a nearby country, which has brought both large numbers of people and rent flows across the border. In addition to the relocation of military personnel and aid groups from said country, it has also received its own huge influx of aid and yes, it is also experiencing a construction boom in its capital due to returning oil migrants and their remittances. Can anyone see the similarities with Sudan? And say, a whole bunch of other African countries?

It makes sense to look beyond your region for clues and inspiration. I am lucky to study Sudan in this regard because it straddles both the Arab world and the rest of the African continent so I am exposed to two sets of literature. One thing I have noticed about these two worlds is the way in which corruption is talked about. In the Arab world, corruption is generally seen as upholding stabile (but authoritarian) regimes, while in Africa, corruption is seen as a de-stabilizing force that needs to be stamped out from above. There have been attempts to move away from this approach,  Blundo and Olivier de Sardan's “Everyday Corruption and the State: Citizens and Public Officials in Africa” and John Githongo’s work on Kenya show how it is deeply embedded in society; tackling corruption requires broad-scale social change from the bottom up. Some corrupt practices are upheld by traditional values about respect for family and loyalty to kin and tribal groups and sometimes it is so commonplace that people might not perceive it as out of the ordinary, as something that can even be changed. It is seen as inevitable.  

As I was reading the Jordanian piece, I began to think of my own reaction towards the preferential treatment I receive in Sudan because of my gender. For example, when I go to buy electricity, I am ALWAYS shepherded to the front of the very long queue. The first time it happened, I was reluctant. No! I said to myself, I will not give in to this patriarchal system in which men think I am unable to stand in the heat like everyone else. We should be equal! But then the men really insisted and made me feel quite bad. And of course, it was a bit hot in the office, so I decided- just this one time- to oblige. The next time I went, I was in a special hurry because I had to get to an interview, so I decided- just this second time- and then so on and so on. Now when I go to buy electricity, I don’t need to be obliged. This is what we women do! I know my rights! I have become embedded! I push the front with a certain degree of entitlement and no-one says a word. Because that’s the thing; the men WANT me to cut them. They expect me to cut them. And they might very well tease me if I don't. If I were to resist, I would probably be seen not only as a bit of a weirdo, but also as a bit of a social deviant as well and I am guessing if a Sudanese woman refused this preferential treatment, she would be perceived as rejecting her own culture. She would be mocked by all present. It is very difficult to resist culturally sanctioned forms of privilege… especially when one is late... or particularly hot. 

The Jordanian article does a good job of showing that while wasta is thoroughly integrated within Jordanian society and is often defended as a form of tradition, it is still widely perceived as undesirable and something that people would like to change about their society. I like this approach; understanding that it is embedded in culture and yet not “letting it off the hook” in some bow to cultural relativism.

Last week, I read another article about corruption: John Hooker’s “Corruption from a Cross-Cultural Perspective”. Hooker defines corruption as any process that undermines or corrupts a cultural system. He argues that while the West sees relationship-based business practices as inherently corrupt and undesirable, in certain parts of the world, they maintain the trust in the economy:

“In much of the world, however, cronyism is a foundation for trust.  A purchasing agent does business with friends because friends can be trusted.  He or she may not even ask to see the company financials, since this could insult the other’s honor.  It is assumed that cronies will follow through on the deal, not because they fear a lawsuit, but because they do not wish to sacrifice a valuable relationship in an economy where relationships are the key to business.  In such a system it is in the company’s interest for the agent to do business with friends, and cronyism may therefore present no conflict of interest. " (Hooker, 2008: 3)

Now I see the benefit of relations in business. IN every part of the world, business is structured around relationships and intimate trust between partners. However, for every relationship, there are others involved; those who do not have such close relations and are therefore excluded from the cronyism. This is the biggest problem with corruption in my eyes; in that it excludes and carves society into those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’. Sometimes this ‘in’ and ‘out’ is based on characteristics such as family, tribe, and gender- things that cannot (easily) be changed or faked- and sometimes this ‘in’ and ‘out’ entails political and civic engagement with the state. Corruption can turn the state into a private club and that just ain’t right anywhere in the world.

Most importantly, by excusing corruption as a manifestation of traditional culture, you preclude the fact that culture can change. Cultures can become more inclusive of outsiders and more amenable to new technologies and ideas. New modern Sudanese businesses are a testament of this fact. They bring in foreign management experts at the beginning to set up systems of employment and management, but then they make these systems their own. They don’t want to hire foreigners forever; they usually have a strategy to ‘Sudanize’ their businesses in the long run. We should not view such systems as inherently Western; they can be moulded to fit different cultural systems and be made part of that culture. Of course, we also have to question how 'accessible' these modern businesses are to ordinary people (but that is another post!).

Which brings me to my last point, relationship-based business practices are not always efficient or sustainable. When it comes to employment, hiring someone solely on the basis of her relationship with you is probably not going to get you the best candidate for the job. It is all very well hiring your cousin to man your sweet shop, but when we start talking about important industries like water, petrol and health, you might want to dip into their qualifications just a bit to see if they have ANY experience with water, petrol or health. Wasta is not just unfair; it is also inefficient and possibly dangerous. Take for instance, the awarding of pharmaceutical contracts by state insurance companies: do we want to approve a drug from a company that has a close relationship with the manager of the insurance agency or do we want one that will provide safe and effective drugs to members of the public? I think the choice is clear. It doesn’t matter what ‘culture’ you subscribe to, for certain things, we should rely on rules, not relationships.

I suppose what the John Hooker article was trying to argue is that it is necessary to pay attention to cultural beliefs and the way practices are embedded in peoples’ ordinary lives. The GDI article gives four potential reasons why wasta persists in Jordanian society:

“ (i) because many people are not aware of the fact that they can reach many of their goals without wasta, (ii) because there is little incentive to refrain from using it, (iii) because of socio-cultural norms which keep it in existence, and (iv) because of Jordan's political system, which benefits the political elite.” (Loewe et al., 2007: 2)

Some of these reasons must be tackled in a top-down approach that deal with the state, but some are more dispersed. We can start looking at public information, incentive systems and ways to lower the costs of non-corrupt practices. In the GDI article, they talk about how governments can streamline their regulation to make wasta redundant: why would anyone bother resorting to wasta if they can do things without it? When we talk about hiring, we can lower the information costs for companies by providing a centralized database of candidates. We can make sure qualifications mean something so that strangers are trusted. We can work with businesses and universities to insure that information about graduates is accurate and that they have learnt the right skills while at university. We can employ more equitable training and internship schemes that give everyone the opportunity to acquire experience.

Yes, corruption is governed by culture… but culture can change!

One thing that the Hooker article seems to neglect is that contemporary African corruption is partly a result of colonial corruption; Indirect Rule and Native Administration and that “African” (never mind mentioning the individual countries) culture has been changing for centuries and centuries. It is not a romantic constant. He ends his article by saying:

"Yet African cultures kept the human species alive for countless millennia, while they were the only cultures.  In an age increasingly concerned with sustainability, we may see a return to some of the communal values of traditional cultures, while practices that are now dominant on the world stage may come to be seen as corrupting because of their unsustainability. " (Hooker, 2008: 17)

I think the main problem with such articles is that they do not dig deep enough. They try to survey the whole world in twenty pages and then ask us to be culturally sensitive. It seems highly irresponsible to defend corrupt practices as culture without understanding the cultures in question in the first place. If you want to be culturally sensitive then you have to listen to what people from that culture are saying. In the Jordanian article, the reader gets a very clear impression that people do not want wasta to carry on as usual. It may be sustainable in the sense that it is deeply embedded in society and difficult to change, but it is not particularly sustainable if we think about the frustration and marginalization of sub-groups. In Sudan, I have the same impression. Most people want to talk to me about wasta because they are not happy about it. Some hate it because they are excluded. Others hate it because they see that it is unfair to their friends and colleagues and others yet, because it is in inefficient and unsustainable for business. Of course everyone tries to resort to it because sometimes there is no other way… but that does not mean it is inescapable. We can be creative in our policies and we must listen to ordinary people: why do they engage in it and what might encourage managers and business owners to adopt alternative practices?

I sometimes like to compare corruption with environmental costs. There is a cost to society that is not being addressed by conventional cost-benefit analysis- I think there are some interesting parallels to make. I remember when we studied environmental management systems at LSE. We learnt that while most big businesses eventually adopt environmental management systems either because they are cost efficient or because they have come under lobbying pressure, small businesses are less willing to do so. They see themselves as too small to care. And yet such small businesses account for over 50% of the UK business carbon emissions. They also hire over 50% of employees. If we can find ways of bringing these companies together and lowering the costs of environmental measures for them as a group, then we can get at a huge chunk of carbon emissions in the UK.

In a similar vein, in Sudan we might be able to encourage big businesses to adopt equal opportunity hiring practices because it makes economic sense for them to do so- they want the best candidates for the job and they can invest time and money into finding them- but for small businesses, this is simply not possible. This is why it is so important to find ways to lower the costs of information about candidates and make qualifications really mean something to employers. We have to find creative ways of changing the incentives of business to make them forsake wasta on their own.

It is reassuring to read papers like the Jordanian piece because we can learn lessons from other countries.  I really liked hearing about how their project had created a public discussion about wasta in Jordan. Their report was seen as proof that wasta was hurting the economy. I also appreciated that the team talked about corruption in a way that people could relate to. By labeling something as “CORRUPTION” you immediately make people feel like they are under attack. Wasta, on the other hand, is something that people want to talk about. In my own research, I see this every day. I am not so sure I would have the same success talking to people about Fasad (corruption). These little things matter. This is why we must be culturally sensitive, because we need people to talk about it openly and frankly. But we shouldn't give in to cultural relativism and forget that it can be unfair and exclusive.. nor should we ever view it as something inevitable. Culture can change. 

Monday, 26 October 2009

Harassment in Egypt: An Economic Model minimizing negative externalities

Last weekend I came across another “Egypt wins the Noble prize for works in the field of Harassment” article on the bbc website. This particular article was about men harassing women on their mobile phones, sometimes in quite aggressive and unpleasant ways. After spending two years in the epicentre of harassment (a.k.a. Cairo), such stories do not surprise me at all… the only surprise is how quickly women get used to such verbal pollution. 

Yes, even shy young 21 year old Laura learnt how to walk down the street completely oblivious to men and boys yelling at her at all hours of day and night. She was once followed home by half a dozen policemen and then chased by a man in a trench coat on a deserted beach at night. She won't mention the taxi driver incident because that was really quite unscrupulous (and arguably the worst commute in the history of commutes). Recently, a friend told me she got harassed eight times while crossing a street (the Egyptians really want to keep that noble prize). 

In the end, you build up this toughness inside of you that allows you to get through the day. You are an island of Zen in a sea full of sleaze and you imprint a stiff upper lip upon your mouth that cannot be shaken by catcalls.

*It must also be said that Cairo is a beautiful, interesting, exciting city and I wouldn’t have lived there if I did not enjoy the place and the people and learn so SO much* 

But when I go back to Cairo on holiday that I realize how much tougher I was back then. Sudan has weakened my defences and has made me forget how to be mean. But there is one trick I still remember and I want to share it with any girls who might still have to put up with this ****.

It is called applying economic principles to men… specifically sleazy men.

Lesson One: The internalization of externalities.

We might like to think of the harassment as a form of pollution. It has a social cost that is not born by the emitter (the boy in the tight t-shirt on the corner giving you the eye, is a kind of factory, a factory of sleaze, if you may). 

Please refer to the graph below, on which we have the X axis with the quantity of harassment and the Y axis with the price or cost of harassment.

We also have a demand curve. Although it is actually a little more complicated than that because we are dealing with a delusional demand curve- i.e., the harasser thinks that the service he is providing is desirable to consumers or “ladyfoxes” but he is in fact delusional and therefore produces a very rare form of demand curve that is usually found in only extremely command controlled economies in which the planner has no grasp on reality at all. This is why we can never eliminate harassment completely because it is based on non-rational human behaviour. We must abide by an equilibrium of sorts. If these men were utility maximizing individuals (with more profitable ways of spending their time) they would pursue other ventures. But given the state of Egypt’s economic, political and legal policies (which are conveniently out of the confines of this model), we must move on to the two supply curves…

Like a factory producing a toxic gas, there is both a private and public price/cost of harassment. The private cost, or price reflects the harasser’s own costs: his need to preen himself in the morning, watch American movies with pen poised in hand, perhaps spend hours in front of the mirror perfecting his delusional behavior and then finally the effort it takes him to leave his house, acquire ladies' phone numbers and loiter on the street aimlessly. If we consider his opportunity costs, this private price of harassment might be extremely high (especially if he has enough wasta to get a job). These private costs produce the supply curve on the right and we find the equilibrium level of harassment at Qp and Pp.

However, this is not where the story ends… for there is also a public cost, the shared frustration of Cairene womankind: their reluctance to leave their houses when grumpy, the added noise and environmental costs of travelling on public transportation, the costs of occasional humiliation and perpetual aggravation, the costs of having their supposed FRIENDS hit on them unexpectedly and unscrupulously, using lines from Saved by the Bell and Top Gun… I don’t need to carry on here, right, ladies? So there is this whole other set of costs that the delusional emitter is not considering. He is operating at a level of harassment way above equilibrium! Bad harasser; one must abide by the iron rules of economics!

This is why we must internalize his externality…

There are many ways of internalizing pubic costs to the polluter. In environmental economics you can do this with pigovian taxes, credit schemes, industry agreements/bench-marking standards and finally civil tort law when it gets really bad. But in this case, we need to introduce the principal that the polluter pays… because, let's face it, he is the delusional one. 

So how do we do this with annoying men calling you at all hours of the day?

It is very simple. You make him pay for the call.

When an annoying boy calls you, you answer the phone and put it down on the table in front of you. He can listen to whatever ambient noise is in the vicinity of your phone. He can listen to your flatmates discussing who was the last person to take out the rubbish. He can listen to your cat hunting flies. He can listen to people on the bus silently filling out questionnaires. He can listen to the judges on ‘So you think you can dance’ give their verdicts. He can even listen to Arabic classes if he likes… But he will pay for the call and he won’t get to talk to you.

The polluter PAYS!

Importantly, there should be no verbal exchange. Answer, place phone on table, ignore. Eventually he will internalize this public cost as his credit slowly trickles away and he will lose interest in the failing enterprise. 

It is a great way of internalizing the cost of harassment and it works extremely well. It might even help to diminish the original delusional demand curve slightly, which is something the model cannot quite explain (I really wonder if there is a researcher working on the economics of harassment. I’d like to see his models). 

And boy do I wish there was a way to internalize those street costs. Any ideas people?

Saturday, 17 October 2009

The Implementation of Paranoia: the UK government's Prevent programme

I have occasionally been made to feel very paranoid while doing research in Sudan. You hear stories about informants watching researchers and passing on information about the lives of foreigners living in Sudan. My own topic isn’t so sensitive but even I have the odd bout of hysteria from time to time. When a new acquaintance seems very eager to spend time with me or seems to know things about me that I don’t think I have told him, I feel disarmed and paranoid… I question his motives. But this makes me feel terrible, because at the end of the day, people here are so kind and sweet that it is entirely normal for someone to aggressively befriend you in an unexpected manner. For instance, last week I met this extremely sweet lady at a party, who two days later, rang me up to tell me ‘she loved me’. I smiled. This is Sudan. I suppose in the UK, this would seem strange but here, you go from stranger-hood to intimacy in about an hour. Really. No need to exchange life stories. 

I really really hate being made to feel paranoid about such kind souls.

But that is what this kind of information gathering does to you; it makes you feel paranoid and mistrustful, always guessing the motivations of new friends and colleagues even when you have absolutely nothing to hide (because I don't). I have heard of such feelings within foreign NGOs and companies in Sudan too, especially in sensitive areas. Covert information gathering damages intimate bonds between INNOCENT people and to me, this is the absolute worst kind of repression: damaging relationships. If I was Braveheart (which thankfully, I'm not), I think I would modify his battle cry somewhat: yes, you can take my freedom (well, a bit), but you can never take the innocence with which I approach new friendships!

So… I was so very shocked and outraged when I read about the UK government’s “Prevent” programme. Here is an article about the programme and a video describing both sides of the argument:

Now putting aside the humorous image of suicide bombers dancing to “mood music” (I wonder what kind of music they prefer- probably Celine Dion), doesn’t this make every other Briton completely shocked and liable to pick up a flaming plank of wood and swing it wildly in the direction of Westminster? What the hell does the government think they are doing? 

Really, really you think it is ok to collect information in schools and mental health projects?!!! Mental health projects?! Mental bloody health projects? I mean, really!

My whole research project is about social capital and trust, about how we might be able to design policies that move the Sudanese labour market away from internal-group trust towards more inclusive social-wide patterns of training, recruitment and promotion… social wide trust!

But back in the UK, my government is trying to do the exact opposite. I do not want my government to alienate huge numbers of my fellow citizens in this way. That is precisely the way you create frustration and extremism in minority groups, by pushing people out of the community of trust and depriving them of their human dignity. We can beat extremism by offering British Muslims exactly what we offer each other; the right to live a private happy life. 

I think we need some outrage right about now! Who is with me?

P.S. I promise to return to more “Sudanese happenings” next time. I still have a whole bunch of historical tipping points to write about. What treats for you! ;)

Saturday, 10 October 2009

The 1964 Tipping Point(s): Collins and Gladwell (and a bit of Father Jon)

I finally (after much procrastination) finished the late Robert Collin’s A History of Modern Sudan

The first few chapters were tough going. I sincerely believe that Sudanese leaders throughout history have conspired to share similar names so as to confuse future generations of historians. I also believe that someone needs to workshop Sudanese liberation movements on the use of more varied acronyms. At least Anya-nya had some panache. The others: SLA, SPAF, SPAFF, SSDF, SPDF, SALF, SSIM, SSLM, SSUM and of course the splinter SPLMs (Nassir, United, etc.) need to let some new letters in on the action otherwise they will be forgotten for all eternity.

A couple weeks ago I took a break from “strictly necessary reading” to read “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell. This book is currently making its merry way round Khartoum (my friend Melissa, the librarian, says someone should do a PhD about what kind of books make their merry way round Khartoum and I agree). I wonder if the Tipping Point will tip Khartoum.

The Tipping Point is all about how the velocity of social change should be compared with the velocity of epidemics to show how small but important individuals and groups can “tip” wider society into profound change.  It demonstrates how often seemingly extraneous pressures can have profound unforeseen impacts on society; a slight change in the social temperature might cause the virus of an idea to spread. The ‘tipping point' is that crucial moment when ideas or trends cross a critical threshold and bring along the whole of society in their wake.

Sudan is a good case study to look at “tipping points”; there have been so many attempts at democracy: elections that have produced indecisive governments, which in the context of underlying tensions have led to social discontentment, uprisings, and finally, military coups. It seems crazy when you consider how many different “types” of government have held the reigns of Sudanese politics; the government swings from left to right, barely ever stopping in the middle to assess the past. In some ways this is both disheartening and comforting. It suggests that there are many different groups silently present within Sudanese society that rise and fall with time, depending on context and public opinion. Who knows how the future might tip…

The first tipping point I want to write about is 1964. The year that Sudan had its beautiful “October Revolution” but also the year that the Southern conflict truly burst from its womb.

Robert Collins writes,

“In 1959 the Southern Problem as it came to be known, did not exist. To be sure, all the elements were in place- the northern Sudanization of southern administrative positions, the mutiny and subsequent disturbances, the broken promises of federalism for Sudan, and the deep-rooted ethnic, cultural, and religious differences that found their expression in the disdain for, disenchantment with, and discrimination against southern Sudanese by northerners. The harsh repression of the “Southern Sudan Disturbances” after the 1955 mutiny had stunned the southerners into momentary passivity, a brooding bitter silence awaiting a spark to ignite the conflagration known as the Southern Problem” (Collins, 2008: 77-78).

To Robert Collins, this spark came in the form of educational policies in Southern Sudan. “Papa” Abbud, the new “prime minister” who had taken power in the coup of 1958 carried on the former government’s policy of Arabization and Islamization of southern Sudanese education. Six Islamic schools were opened in the South, along with mosques and the changing of the day of rest from Sunday to Friday. These changes were not accompanied by increases in economic funding and some projects actually had their funding re-directed to projects in the North! The government also targeted missions in the South, forbidding missionaries from opening new schools and from practicing Christianity outside of their churches. Finally in 1964, missionaries were completely expelled from Southern Sudan. Many Southern Sudanese Christians fled to Uganda during this time, where, under the leadership of Joseph Oduho Aworu, a Latuka school teacher and Father Saturnino, a Latuka Catholic priest, they founded the Sudan African Closed Districts National Union (SACDNU) which was later changed into the Sudan African National Union (SANU) in 1963. Within Khartoum, there was also the “Southern Front” and the formation of small armed guerrilla movements within Southern Sudan. With the support of Joseph Oduho and Father Saturnino, these guerrillas formed into the “Anya-Nya” movement in 1963.

In 1964, the Anya-Nya had its first significant success in an attack against the Bahr al Ghazal capital, Wau. This was met with harsh reprisals by the Sudanese army and from this point on, the army started to enforce its rule more harshly throughout the South.

I recently met Father Jon, an Italian priest at Comboni school in downtown Khartoum. He had been in Khartoum during this time and remembers the year well. He confirmed Robert Collin’s reading of the period, that it was the attack on the missionaries and changes in education that really sparked the conflict (of course, he would say this as a missionary!). Father Jon also remembers other smaller changes in the atmosphere of Khartoum that Collins does not mention. He says that in the 1960’s the composition of Christians in Sudan and Khartoum in particular, had begun to change. In the late 50’s/early 60’s, the Christians of Khartoum were mostly foreigners but there were also significant numbers of Hindus in the capital. When pressure against Christians and foreigners in general began to rise, many fled to South Africa and Comboni became increasingly Sudanized. It had always been a place of “encounter” (as Father Jon likes to describe it), a place where Christians and Muslims could meet and mix, but in the early 1960’s, Christians in Khartoum had begun to leave in drones. He also said that the government attempted to shepherd foreign businessmen in the South into the three main towns: Wau, Juba and Malakal. He explained that the army did not want them to see what was happening in rural areas. Many left Sudan, going to Uganda and Kenya to settle permanently.

Robert Collins gives the impression that Northerners knew what was happening in Southern Sudan during this time and that is why the students at the University of Khartoum had their famous meeting. The priest remembers it differently. He told me that the students (like many in the North) did not really understand what was happening in the South and that they wanted more information from the government. Whichever source you believe, on the 22nd of October 1964, students from the University of Khartoum violated a government ban against their meeting and publically challenged the police. Many were injured during the clash and one student, Ahmad Qurashi died in hospital following the incident. This prompted huge demonstrations in the capital against the regime. There had been growing discontentment before this time. There had been rebellions within the army, opposition from Nubian groups (which were joined by the Sudanese communists) against the building of the dam and the flooding of their lands, and of course, the growth of the Muslim Brothers in Sudan. But these isolated opposition needed some general feeling among the population in order to tip them into mass action. The Southern Problem and the visible repression of the student demonstration in the form of the death of Ahmad Qurashi pushed these feelings into a wider arena and precipitated the end of the Abbud regime:

“On Saturday 25 October 1964 the High Court, using its supreme authority, issued a permit for a large demonstration led by a spontaneously organized group of teachers, engineers, lawyers and even doctors calling themselves the National Front of Professional, who were soon joined by trade unionists and radical members from the Gezira Tenants’ Association” (Collins, 2009: 81).

“Papa” Abbud apparently watched from the balcony of his palace as the whole city drew into the streets. On the 26th of October, he dissolved the Supreme Council. Father Jon remembers this day, for it saw mass celebrations in the capital. He said there were so many people in the street, you could only see heads, no bodies, no feet. From Collins:

“the usually reserved Sudanese poured into the streets, men dancing and women ululating to gather in huge crowds charged with delirious joy. An enormous celebratory wave swept through the capital, and the legend of a bloodless revolution soon became deeply embedded in Sudanese folklore. “Remember the October Revolution” became the rallying cry during the bloodless fall of Numayri’s military regime in 1985 and has remained so in Sudanese anti-government demonstrations ever since” (Collins, 2009: 81).

I ABSOLUTELY love this line of the book:

“President ‘Abbud quietly departed on 14 November 1964; the day after leaving the Palace he was cheered by shoppers in the suq while purchasing oranges” (Collins, 2009: 81).

The Sudanese population had successfully brought down a military regime through peaceful demonstrations in the capital. It was the combination of underlying resentment within specific communities: the Nubians, the communists and trade unionists, the military officers, the Islamists and finally, the Southern Sudanese and the students/professionals who joined in to push the regime over the edge. It became mainsteam.

However the problems did not end with the dissolution of the Supreme Council.

1964 should not just be remembered as the year of the October revolution but also as the year that the North-South conflict first manifested itself within the capital. Father Jon said that in December 1964, a group of Southern Sudanese residents went to the airport to welcome the Minister of the Interior, Clement Mboro to the capital. He was the first Southern Sudanese minister in the government and was therefore a “big deal”. When his plane was delayed, the group got rowdy and marched downtown towards the palace. Collins describes it quite violently, saying the Southern Sudanese marched, “assaulting every and any mudukuru (those who rise early in the morning before the dew dries to seize slaves)- a nineteenth century Bari term widely popularized among the Southerners after independence as a derisive epithet for any northern Sudanese Arab- in what became a ‘race riot’ that left nearly a hundred dead” (Collins, 2009: 82). 

Father Jon remembers it quite differently. He says that the march started peacefully and that it was only when rumours began to circulate around the city that there was a Southern mob causing trouble, Northerners in a near-by stadium came to confront them. They met in the centre of the town, very close to Comboni school. Father Jon remembers that the school was attacked, windows shattered and that Muslim students in the dorm-rooms had raced out to placate the angry mob. In those days Comboni school educated mostly Muslim students (and the priest believes this is why the school was able to remain open throughout its troubled history, because senior civil servants had themselves been students of Comboni). But in the midst of the 1964 mob, Muslim boarders came out of their beds and rushed to the gates of the church to protect their school from being destroyed. Without them, the priests and their school might not have survived the night. 

December 6th is known, as “Black Sunday” in Sudan, for it was the first time that the capital had seen a glimmer of the Southern conflict with their own eyes. In the wake of such public violence, attitudes towards Southerners began to shift and Northerners grew increasingly suspicious and antagonistic towards their Southern brothers and sisters.

It seems insane to me that a couple months after the October revolution there could be such a reversal in public opinion. The October revolution was such a beautiful moment in Sudanese history, a moment in which Northerners stood in solidarity with their fellow citizens in the South, demanding information about what their government was doing and standing in direct opposition to the government even when faced with the threat of violence and repression. But then, just two months later, an angry mob was able to tear down this solidarity in one bloody night.

Demonstrations and mobs can sweep people away. They can sweep away governments but they can also sweep away public opinion. In some ways, they are a manifestation of Gladwell’s “Power of the Few”.  If they are able to create a “sticky image”, like the death of Ahmad Qurashi or the visible image of Southerners killing Northerners and this image fit this into a context of underlying tension, a few angry individuals can swing public opinion in their favour.

The Tipping Point is a powerful metaphor because it speaks of the fragility and susceptibility of social structure.  Things do not necessarily tip in the “right” way, but in a powerful sweeping way that can have profound and permanent change. And importantly, you cannot always tip back to where you once were.

In 1964, the impression of Southerners in the Northern imagination was still fresh. There were very few Southerners in the capital and they had little experience with the conflict itself. By 1968, this had changed.

Father Jon remembers Christmas day in 1968. On previous occasions, the church had not been full. Foreign Christians had long packed their bags and very few Southern Sudanese were present in the capital. On most days, Christians were not able to gather in huge numbers so it was difficult to assess their numbers. But on Christmas day in 1968, Father Jon said that the church was suddenly packed. It was impossible to get to the front. Southern Sudan had rather dramatically come to the North. Father Jon described this movement as an “invasion”: “Southern Sudan had invaded Khartoum, without firing a shot” He says. Unfortunately, this invasion came without power and without significant integration. The Southerners were kept apart, exiled to the outer reaches of the city. Some were able to penetrate the urban economy and the social body of the city but these were few and far between. In addition, the war had raged in the South and the impression of Southerners in the Northern imagination had hardened into more permanent feelings of strangeness and detachment. And here lies, the danger of Tipping Points.

Small things can make big differences but cannot as easily change back. 1964 was a real Tipping Point for Sudan. A Pandora's box of possibility that tipped out of hand. In this way, Malcolm Gladwell’s tagline: “How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference” does not necessarily have to be positive. It can also be quite negative.

We should learn from these instances in history. We should learn how important mobs can be, how they can quickly damage public opinion in profound ways that do not match perfectly with reality on the ground. Symbolic events like demonstrations and riots can have deep and lasting effects on public opinion and policy. While it is easy to bring together discordant groups with a common enemy, it is much harder to reconcile deep-seated hatred and suspicion between groups who do not necessarily share common ground. The tipping point metaphor is useful in some instances but far less useful in explaining long-term processes like conflict resolution and peace building. At the end of the Tipping Point, Gladwell talks about the search for the “unsticky cigarette”; how you can make something so pervasive an seemingly indispensable unstick itself from social acceptance.  His argument is all about threshold of nicotine and addiction among teenagers, but surely there are some problems, like social suspicion, distrust and deep-seated discrimination, that are not so easily measured and administered.

There are many fascinating projects and ideas about conflict resolution bustling in this city at the moment and I applaud all those people working on such a hard issue. I have heard that UNICEF is going to try to make it a key issue in the future and I am so happy about this. Because it is a hard slog uphill. I would love it if Malcolm Gladwell or others could try to apply the Tipping Point theory to conflict resolution.  It might not be as sexy as a fashion trend or even a popular revolution, but in some ways, it is much much more important. Revolutions can sweep away governments but it is not always as easy to sweep away prejudice. Please Malcolm Gladwell, take your theory into the darker corners of social change! You have so far shone in the light! 

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

What to do....

So it has finally happened… A whole bus of people gave me the “You’re insane look” yesterday afternoon as I tried to explain that I didn’t actually care where the bus was going; I just wanted to go somewhere! Anywhere! With lots of people on it!

Blank stares. Lots of blank stares. “This girl clearly doesn’t know where she is going in life.” I think that’s what their stares meant.

I am doing bus questionnaires at the moment and it is a 1) funny, 2) frightening, 3) interesting and 4) maddening experience.

I have learnt that the Sudanese public transportation system is populated by a combination of extremely kind, obedient, friendly folk who want to fill out my questionnaire, young men who try to use my questionnaire as a way of subtlety giving me their phone numbers while failing to answer any of my questions and then lastly and most regretfully, completely crazy people who make me want to jump out of the window as we hurtle over the Nile river.

The good thing about Sudan is that for every mean bus traveller there are about ninety nine lovely bus travellers who give me sweets, bananas and teach me Chinese. I have noticed that when someone gives me a hard time (i.e. calls over a policeman to question me, asks me why I don’t go back to my own country or demands money for filling out my questionnaire), I get really shaken for about five minutes and then someone else comes along and makes me happy again. You can’t stay angry for more than five minutes on a Sudanese bus.

I had originally decided to do bus questionnaires because Ramadan was making it difficult to set up interviews with HR managers and I wanted to get a general picture of how other parts of the economy (outside my categories) recruited their staff. I am also trying to move away from the more official side of things and I want set up more interviews with individuals who have both succeeded and failed to climb up the social mobility ladder. Bus journeys provide opportunities to meet these people but they are also very very difficult.

First of all, people on the bus are generally not the wealthier members of society. A great number of the people are either unemployed or illiterate. They often don’t volunteer this information and after I sit patiently for thirty minutes, they return my questionnaires blank but slightly crumpled. I don’t say anything because I don’t what to embarrass them. It makes me feel guilt that I have put them in this uncomfortable situation but I don’t know what else to do.  

I guess this brings me to the point of this post. It is sooo difficult to design a common research strategy for the whole population.

Before I started with my questionnaires, I went through this whole battle between using standard Arabic vs. colloquial Arabic. In the end I went with the advice of a Sudanese linguist who told me that if I wanted to make my questionnaire accessible as possible, then I had better use the simplest language possible. He also thought that it would encourage more reflection on the part of respondents. If someone is not used to reading colloquial Arabic, she might step back a moment and think about the questions in a deeper way before she responds. Some of the professors in my department at the University of Khartoum thought that I should use standard Arabic, saying that they always use standard Arabic for these things. One of them helpfully went through and corrected all the questions for me. I said thank you but then went with colloquial. I know that this was controversial and I often get funny responses. In big modern companies, I have had people laugh and smile when they read my questionnaires. Sometimes people try to correct them, telling me ‘this is not standard Arabic’. I know, I know, I know! I want to say. Others like the colloquial Arabic and tell me they think “it is sweet” that a khawaga is writing in this way. I don’t mind being teased if it means that more people can answer my questions but even with simple language, I cannot reach everyone. I am now working on an English version because I have had Southern Sudanese respondents tell me that they do not read and write Arabic despite speaking it fluently. This is true of even quite young Southern Sudanese. Very interesting! In some ways this mimics what I have found in a lot of work places: English as a written language, Arabic as a verbal language. Of course this depends on the work place and I wonder how much access Southern Sudanese have to these working places. I just find it so fascinating how this city is divided so much by language! Maybe that should be my PhD topic!

Privacy and Literacy

Buses are a great place to do questionnaires because they give you access to a diverse group of people outside of their offices. People seem to feel a lot more comfortable talking about their company when they’re not physically there. I am sure this affects how people answer my questions. Up until now, I have been handing out my questionnaires within companies with the official permission of their bosses. While I always try to stress that their responses are anonymous, I wonder whether the work place still inhibits them. Buses, in contrast, are strangely private places despite their congested nature. Whenever I have tried to hand out my questionnaires in public places, people always crowd around and the police turn up and harass me. I have my university letter and ID, so it doesn’t go any further, but it spooks me a little and I don’t enjoy the hassle. Buses let people sit quietly and take their time. Even the policemen I meet on the bus treat me differently. Instead of asking for my ID, they ask if they can fill one out! I have a natural distrust of law enforcers but they can be very nice when they are on their way home…

The two main problems with buses are:

  • -       figuring out how to include the Arabic-illiterate employed folk
  • -       finding a way to make my sample representative, when I have limited information about what the general population looks like.

Buses are private literate places. As soon as you start speaking out loud, privacy dissipates. I know that if I really wanted to get information from the illiterate members of the population I would have to do it verbally, which is impossible in the close quarters of a bus. So it is difficult to include them.

The second problems relates to sampling. Mack, my *favourite* neo-classical economist keeps freaking me out about how I need to make my questionnaires representative of the whole population (despite the fact that last year’s population census is controversial and we don’t even know what the population looks like statistically!!). How am I going to deal with all my responses once I have finished? Tell me Mack, tell me Oracle!

The other night I was having a discussion with Mack and Manuel, my current “research buddies”. We were discussing the benefits and limitations of quantitative vs. qualitative research. I was trying to argue that some topics are practically impossible to approach in a quantitative way. I used the example of my topic: social capital. A huge aspect of my project concerns discrimination, which is an extremely sensitive topic in Sudan. It is not something the government necessarily wants people to look into. This is why buses are a good place to reach out to people, but it is hard to do it in any kind of systematic way. It is easier to go through companies, but then again we have this difference between the official and unofficial response. And on buses, we have this problem of literate/verbal communication and privacy and then coming up with a way of making my sample representative. 

I am trying my hardest to combine a little bit of the official and unofficial, quantitative and qualitative but I am getting frustrated by the quantitative side of things. I have started to see buses as a way of setting up interviews- using the questionnaires as communication tools. Of course, I shall look at what kind of data I get, but I am slowly being convinced that the quantitative aspects of my project are extremely tricky!!! If anyone has any advice, it would be much appreciated! I have open ears and eyes right now. You hear that, economists and statisticians out there, open ears and eyes- help me! Otherwise you will lose me to the “soft scientists” forever!


Thursday, 13 August 2009

A quick sojourn into the mind of a Khartoum meat exporter, unwinding at the Greek Club.

The pool is bubbling with chaos. The water, furious and warm, is sticky to the touch and altogether too concentrated with human limbs to be a restorative source of serenity. The Greek club is not what it once was.

The old Greek air has been drowned in the manic flappings of grown men and Russian air pilots playing cards at the water’s edge. They show about as much respect for the invisible lines of the lap swimmers as they do for air traffic controllers or the regulations in their blood alcohol level. No respect for the law. Not even Greek law.

This used to be the kind of place you could come and relax, the kind of a place where a man could smoke his cigarette and stare at the still water in peace. Now it is like a Slavic summer camp for hyperactive heavy weights.

A clear winner saunters past.

I admire his tight swimming trunks, featuring an American flag and an eagle. The eagle’s beak is in a strategic position.  Quite simply, it suppresses my will to live.

His thong is complemented by long black socks that come up to his knees. He is an ample man, a real prime rib, pink and round, kind of succulent if you’re into Russian meat. His paunch alone could feed Darfur and have room for export. As I watch him teeter at the edge of the pool, I wonder how Halal he really is.

My phone rings. It is my accountant. He tells me there is a new tax.

“Salam Tax, sir” He says without a trace of irony.

“Salam?” I almost choke on my cigarette, “What about last week? The Jihad tax?”

“I guess they cancel each other out?” He offers.

Whatever happened to economies of war and peace dividends? I curse the day I ever opened my slaughterhouse. No meat is worth this kind of trouble.

I wonder if I still care. It is clear my business will fail whether I care or not. Besides, I have to compose myself for later on, when I tell my father in Lebanon how things are going in Sudan.

Meya meya. Ma fi mushkella.

The prime rib removes his socks and cannon balls into the waves. His colleagues clap.  Captain, they call him. He is a lion in the ring. 

I am a mouse. A mouse in a circus. A mouse in a circus full of tax and regulation hoops and Siberian lions wearing thongs. 

Meya meya. Ma fi mushkella. I say to myself as I down the last drop of lemon juice in the glass and consider the pool as an exit strategy. Death by flapping. 

Monday, 10 August 2009

Exit Visa Limbo Hell

I'm writing this post in my journal in an attempt to quell the chaos.

It's been a long morning and my patience is as weary as the withering AC unit that is currently blowing hot air onto my face.

I'm sitting in the Ministry of Higher Education's Administration of Finance but don't ask me why. I am looking for a woman named Souad who is apparently going to give me an official letter that will fit in nicely with the other two letters I have already retrieved from the University of Khartoum. These letters form the backbone of an impressive portfolio of pieces of paper that I have managed to amass in my three days (and counting) in exit visa limbo hell. Some are photocopies. Some are photocopies of photocopies. Some feature suspicious stamps that cost more than advertised. Some took hours or preparation and patience while some fell from the sky like drops of golden sunlight on cloudy miserable days. My portfolio is heavy, crumpled and grudgingly held in my fist. 

All in all, it has been a pleasant trip in visa limbo hell but I am quite ready to depart...

Souad Ahmed of the Ministry of Higher Education, where are you???? And when will you return to your office and furnish me with the ultimate jewel in my crown? 

For yes, I do wish to return to the Department of Foreigner Registration (or whatever that place is called) and partake in the multicultural jousting sessions you hold in your midst. I want to marvel at the beautiful system in which 10% of the workforce carries out 99% of the work. Perhaps if I am really fortunate, you might throw in another HIV test. It's been six months and who knows what I get up to in Khartoum, the Las Vegas of Africa. There is real money to be made in the veins of khawagas.

I wonder if the secretaries in Souad's office will let me have a go on Solitaire. I have been a very supportive spectator and there are no men to play the mustache game with. Is a nap out of the question?

Man, I wish I had more "wasta".

Outburst over. Malesh Laura. Bokra Inshallah you will get your visa... or at least hand in your passport to retrieve it baad al bokra, or baad baad al bokra... INSHALLAH. Otherwise no holiday for you. : (

Sunday, 26 July 2009

The Red Threat... in a dress.

Over the course of the past week, I have heard two stories of Sudanese women being accused of communism. One was a doctor with no interest in politics whatsoever and the other was a professional involved in multinational business. What makes them commies? 

Their hair.

Now you could argue that hair is intrinsically political- and that showing or not showing your hair is basically putting your religious and political convictions out where everyone can see them (on your head). But communism? Really? I shall have to go back to Marx and find the section on hair. Marx himself had quite the mane- maybe that’s the connection? 

I'd like to sit in on the political science element of security training in Sudan. They must have check lists: "How to identify a communist" 

Step One: uterus?

Step Two: HAIR! 

Step Three: lipstick. 

Step Four: Smoking sex Appeal. 

This is beginning to sound like a cold war film, isn't it? 

But getting back to the ladies in question... Due to their apparent “redness” both faced difficulty in their careers. One was accused of being a communist by a senior hospital administrator and as a result had her “wasta” (social capital) badly damaged. She is currently unemployed. The other got held up by “security” in a big company. Weeks passed and the HR manager got impatient. He went to the security man and asked why it was taking so long. He was told that this woman was a “communist” and posed a security threat to the company. Luckily, the HR manager fought for her (as she was a great candidate for the job) and eventually she was accepted. Ilhamdulilah! But these two cases demonstrate how politics and religion are deeply gendered in Sudan.

There is clearly more than one type of “wasta” in Sudan. In some fields, it is all about family. In others, they want candidates who have studied or worked abroad, preferably in an English speaking environment. Among some communities, like the Nubians for instance, tribe or ethnicity play a huge role. And finally, in fields closely connected with the government, the “wasta” is very political, NCP membership. The doctor told me: “you will get a job in a government hospital if you are a member of the National Congress Party. If you are not, then things will be tough for you.” Scholarships and training abroad are also strongly associated with political "wasta". 

To a certain degree, this explains the different fates of the two women. For the doctor, she was pushed out of the system whereas for the professional, she had enough other connections and support to win her case for her. She had experience in other companies and a critical mind that convinced the HR manager that she was the (wo)man for the job. Here business beat politics. 

Of course, you could say that political “wasta” is more accessible than family “wasta”. We cannot choose our family members, whereas we can choose to join a political party. I have heard that the tribal explanation is often overplayed; that to a certain degree, political “wasta” is less governed by tribal background than in those industries controlled by family connections. But when it comes to NCP, there are still sacrifices to be made. For women these sacrifices are bigger and much more public.

The “communist” doctor recently had coffee with a male colleague from university. He was about to start his civil service in a military hospital, where he was to be paid handsomely (in other hospitals, this is not the case for those undertaking civil service). He revealed that he had recently joined the NCP. This surprised her for he was not your typical NCP character: a rock musician, a heavy drinker, a smoker and a bit of a “man about town”. He said that it didn’t matter; the NCP was changing, he said, they accepted me as I am. New generation. 

The doctor was pissed off… and rightly so. She IS religious. She DOES pray. She just doesn’t think it is anyone’s business to make judgements about her background based on her appearance. Furthermore, why must she suffer for her bare head of hair when there are men, far less conservative than her masquerading as NCP in order to acquire useful political-religious “wasta” from the same people who call her a “communist”?

Politics and Religion are entwined in Sudan, I get that… but it is important to look at the gender issues inherent in this “entwining”. In Sudan, access to political, and therefore economic opportunity is a thoroughly gendered field. The heart of a woman must be worn on her head at all times... not on her sleeve (a much subtler place). 

If you are a liberal woman, you will become "communist" in the eyes of the public. Whereas, if you are a liberal man, don't worry, you can still get a NCP card. It's what we call: New generation. 

Today I am feeling mighty like a feminist!

Saturday, 18 July 2009

A lesson in English, courtesy of Arabic

One of the things I love about Arabic is the root system. Reading through Hans Wehr makes you stop and contemplate the interconnections of  words and their meanings. Every word has a story behind it. Such reflection soon makes me wonder about the history and interconnections of my own language, English.

I remember the first time I looked up “mathaf” in the dictionary. Mathaf is the Arabic word for museum and comes from the root, t-h-f, meaning “treasure” or “present” or “work of art”. It made me think about museum in English. Why do we call museums museums? Well if you stop and think about it, museum has the word “muse” in it and in a way, museums are indeed the places where we get inspiration. 

So if we were to define museum by its root meaning, would it be “the place where we get inspired”? 

Wow. Makes you want to go off and study Ancient Greek doesn't it? 

Today I made another discovery/realization about an English word: encourage/discourage.

If you take a moment and look at the word, you see that it contains the word “courage”. What can we surmise about the true meaning of the word “encourage”?

Encouraging is all about giving people courage to succeed. Confidence to try… and fail but try again… and possibly fail again, but keep trying!!! (especially when it comes to learning Arabic).

I wish that all those over-zealous types who put so much pressure on their children to succeed paid more attention to the etymology of words, because then they would see that encouragement is all about giving courage… believing in your students and children and making them realize that they are capable of intellectual bravery on their own.

Thank you Arabic for once again teaching me about English!

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Hey man, your ankles are swelling…Idioms of the world!

In celebration of Bastille day, the recovery of my mobile phone and the bringing of cheese from America, I had a few friends over for dinner last night. It was one of those “Model United Nations” moments, when we realized everyone was from a different country. I should have made everyone sit at different tables and discuss trade negotiations over pesto but I was not that cruel.

Besides learning that Indonesia has 17,000 islands (17,000!!!!!!! How many years would it take to visit every one at a rate of one per day? Just think of it!), I also learnt a great deal about Indonesian, German, French and “American” expressions and idioms. 

I learnt that while in English we say “your ears are burning” when someone is talking about you and in Indonesia, they say “the wind is blowing into your ears”, the French say “your ankles are swelling”.

We learnt that while the French say “speak of the wolf” and the English and Germans say “speak of the devil”, in Indonesia they say “Long life to you!” Indonesians are obviously a lot nicer than the rest of us.

It was also noted that in English we like to talk a great deal about our backsides: “You’re full of shit”, “You’re talking out of your ass”, “I’m freezing my ass off out here!” “When the shit hit the fan”. All this bears the question, what is wrong with us?!?

 There were low points to the evening, like the moment I discovered the French expression: “The first one out of bed owns the future”. I much prefer the English equivalent: "The early bird catches the worm". As a vegetarian, I don’t care much for the availability of early morning protein, whereas the future is something to get out of bed for! I wonder if I would have been different had I been brought up in France...

The French do have some good one liners. For instance (literally translated here for added effect) “Those that resemble assemble”. In English we say “Birds of a feather flock together” but then again, we also say “opposites attract” so we clearly do not have a clue about anything…

 Then we got to talking about the Indonesian language: Bahasa. It sounds like the most amazing language in the whole wide world. Here are a few examples…

First of all, they don’t have plurals. This may not seem like a particularly inspiring fact among non-Arabic speakers, but in Arabic every noun has both a singular and plural form and some of them are really difficult to remember! To make things plural, Indonesians just repeat the word, so while one person is an Orang (orang-utan meaning man of the jungle), people is Orang-Orang and every day is se hari hari (Hari=day).

Lovely lovely!

Second of all, Bahasa doesn’t have different tenses. You just say when you have done something. I go to the shop today. I go to the shop tomorrow. I go to the shop yesterday. I go to the shop now as we speak.

Are you equally convinced that Bahasa is the best language in the world and should immediately replace English as the lingua franca of the world?


OK, how about this: there is no feminine, masculine, no cases, no sentence order, no bizarre spellings (it sounds like its written, ilhamdulilah!). Thank you God for every one of those 17,000 islands… I am learning Bahasa as soon as I leave this country.

Finally, I learnt that in Pakistan there is an expression “Without a moustache, you are nothing”. I think this could equally apply in Sudan, land of Freddy Mercury impersonators.

I sometimes like to play a game in Sudan. When I have been indefinitely abandoned in a waiting room full of people eating Fatour and playing solitaire on their computers, I play a little game I like to call “find the non-man”. It basically entails searching the room and surrounding area for a man without a moustache. He is the “non-man”. When you find him, you silently mock him and pat yourself on the back for winning the game. You then return to your seat and attempt to move pencil holders with your mind. 

Anyhow, the whole point of this post is that I learnt a very useful expression this morning which relates to the name of my blog “Whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, or crazier".

Bright and early, I went to an NGO to interview their human resources manager about her organization’s recruitment policies. She was “a bit” late so I had the opportunity to play a quick game of “find the non-man” and talk to the lovely receptionist.

We began our discussion with talk of weddings (a topic of much conversation in Khartoum). I told her about a friend that I knew that had recently got married after quite a long tough life. She had married someone from a very different culture (and religion) and her wedding had not been traditional. She said she thought my friend was “abnormal” because she was anti-traditional and she had married a non-Muslim. I said that I thought this was because she had had such a tough life, and she had therefore become strong.

I told her that we have an expression in English: ” “What ever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger”. 

She then told me that Egyptians have another expression:

“The gun that doesn’t kill you makes you crazy”.

I couldn’t believe it! It was my expression… my hard fought expression…and apparently it’s Egyptian! Ya salem!

Had my time in Egypt instilled in me this idea that hardship makes you crazy? Is that the essence of Cairo life distilled into one single lucid sentence? With the car horns honking in your subconscious as enlightenment fills your mind?!

When I think back on my life, I wonder whether hardship has, on the whole, made me stronger or crazier as an individual. Am I slowly getting madder as the years roll on by or stronger? I can’t decide. Perhaps I have become both…

So I ask you this: are the strongest people in the world the craziest? Or are the craziest people in the world the strongest?