Thursday, 21 May 2009

The Khartoum Student Seminar Series and the invasion of the NGOs

I thought I would write a brief post about the Khartoum Student Seminar. Check out our upcoming presentations (I am next!):

So far we have had four presentations and I think they all have been pretty successful. Originally it was supposed to be a student-only affair but in recent weeks, we have opened our gates to NGO folk. 

It is interesting having them come...

For one thing, they have forgotten "how to be students". It is kind of funny. I didn't realized how much academia tames you, or maybe intimidates you into silence during question sessions. The NGO people are not afraid to speak their mind and it sometimes gets pretty difficult trying to chair! A bit like a panto, but better than a silent audience. 

It is also nice to have them join because they encourage us to be more policy-minded. There seems to be a disconnect between research and policy. At the last Sudanese Studies conference, I don't remember meeting a single non-academic. What is the point of researching Sudan's social and economic issues if your research doesn't get listened to by policy-makers? Is it all an exercise in theory-making? No! 

Of course, the communication should be two-way. It is easy to slip into idealism or conversely, over- criticism when you are far from the action. Despite flaws and ideological bias (as my presentation on Tuesday will attest), we do need to be somewhat sympathetic to policy-makers working on the issues. They have hard jobs and have to grapple with these concepts on a day-to-day basis. 

In short, it has been great to have them along!

Saturday, 16 May 2009


My favorite dog in all the world has left this world for good. Baloo!!!

Someone said that death comes in threes. Well, this week it seems to have come in fives. My friend’s sister passed away. Another friend’s research participant. My friend’s grandmother and Osman’s cat. Of course a grandmother or sister seems a more painful loss than a cat but death affects us all differently and some are more sensitive than others.

I have been thinking a lot about death this week. I don’t really believe in heaven and hell and so it’s hard for me when someone goes. My Mongolian friend told me that when a dog dies, his next life is a human. Unfortunately you are supposed to cut off his tail to make the transformation easier. I don’t know if I believe in re-incarnation. For one thing, there are more souls alive today than ever before. Population has exploded, so where do all the new souls come from? Maybe we have become diluted. The same volume of “soul” is in the world, but it has to be divided among more bodies? I am not sure.

My friend (who has just lost his grandmother) told me that he thinks that death is a kind of parting gift from the deceased to the living. When someone dies, it brings together the family of the deceased and makes them cherish life all the more. At the end of the day, only love is left. Nothing else matters. 

I do believe that when you lose someone you love, you can take them with you in life. You have to make room for their souls in your body. You have to remember why you loved them and take their best qualities in.

Baloo was probably the sweetest friend I ever had. She was so gentle (and occasionally cowardly); she was forgiving and loving; she was always happy to see a friend. I know I am not as forgiving as her. I know I am not as selfless and loving, but in the spirit of Baloo, I am making room for her in myself. I will take her with me.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Vocational Training in Mayo: an eye-opener.

Over the past couple weeks I have been visiting a Sudanese charity called “Together for Sudan”. I originally got in contact with them because they provide university scholarships to women from less economically developed parts of the country.  I was very frustrated with my original sample of university graduates, as there was little diversity. I was trying to cast my net wider (but in a very timid way)…

This week, Together for Sudan took me to Mayo, an area on the edge of Khartoum to see a vocational training centre they help run. I suppose it was a chance to see “how the other half live”.  I had heard a lot about the area: ”it is dangerous”, “it is where people from the South live”, “be careful there!” so I was curious to see it for myself. I had been there once before, sort of by accident (an unexpected bus turn led to a whole new landscape and a very puzzled Laura) but at the time, I didn’t really get “deep” into the neighborhood. This was my chance.

The vocational centre is run by St. Vincents and has a strong relationship with a local church. They offer electrical engineering classes, computer literacy classes and a “refrigerator” unit to train people how to fix refrigerators (obviously very important in Sudan!).  After the training, graduates go out into the world to find their own jobs (handymen have an interesting way of getting employment of which I will write another post about one day).

This is apparently what the inside of a refrigerator looks like.

The centre also runs health training for predominantly female groups. This is the project that Together for Sudan funds. The current health class is about to graduate in a week: 90 women, 10 men (the men were all at the back and seemed curiously quiet amidst the female majority). They will now move on to the hospital part of the program and after that, employment (insh’allah)! The students come from all over Sudan, ranging from Southern Sudan, the Nuba Mountains, Darfur and the East. They are a variety of ages, from 16 to the ambiguously described “old” (The women at the back of the class were described as “old” but they didn’t look particularly old to me; they did however, look more “reserved” I was instructed to take a separate photo of them).

The not so elderly "elderly" at the back of the class.

It was a funny situation. I wasn’t entirely sure why I had been placed in front of the class (100 eyes staring at me, inquisitively) and it was obvious that the students weren’t entirely sure what I was doing there either. I suppose Together for Sudan was proud of their program and wanted me to see it with my own eyes. And I can understand why. The room was full of positivity. The teacher was very charismatic and it was clear that the students liked him and respected him a great deal.

The teacher.

Victor, my friend from Together for Sudan (and the one who organized the trip) asked me if I had any questions for them and (after a brief panic of “shit, I have to speak Arabic in front of 100 people?”) I managed to get into the swing and ask them some questions. They in turn got to ask me questions.

You know, I have gotten so obsessed with university graduates that I have really closed my eyes to the other routes to employment. Of course, I see people from a variety of different backgrounds every day in the street, in offices, on the bus and even living next-door to me, but just getting the chance to talk to aspirational young people trying to acquire some training to get ahead in the job market, it was a real eye-opener. I am planning on going back to visit them after their training at the hospital to see how they get on in finding jobs. Some of them said that they had friends who did the same course who are now working, so this is a good sign.

I suppose what the trip really did was widen my scope. I have become totally obsessed with “focusing my research”. From “trust in the economy” to “getting a job” to “getting a job after university” to “getting a job after graduation from the University of Khartoum’s engineering department in 2007” that I almost have nightmares about it. I have become short sighted- staring shyly from my own self-imposed spectacles. That is the tricky thing about research: knowing where to draw the line and realizing when you have drawn it too tightly. I am now trying to re-draw that line.

I shouldn't forget that my project is ultimately about trust and social mobility; whether people are able to transcend whatever their social class, ethnic group or geographical origin to become part of a “Sudanese labour market” (if there is such a thing) and whether or not the economy is moving in such a way as to encourage less personal routes to employment. Lately I have realized that I don’t just need to look at different sectors (private, foreign, government) but also different fields as well. Some fields are clearly more accessible than others for “outsiders”. The trick is to find a way to compare and contrast between fields without comparing apples and well, guavas.

From now on, I resolve myself to be more open-minded about my research participants, more creative in my methods and more persistent in my gathering of contacts. Insh'allah...

Sunday, 3 May 2009

“That in itself is interesting”: In defence of statistics!

It seems to be a common utterance among research students in Sudan these days: “That in itself is interesting.” A mantra we utter as we stare down the barrel of impossibility and leap into the pit of despair (Perhaps I am being a tad dramatic).

A snapshot into my current mental state:

No statistics on the tribal background of recent graduates? “That in itself is interesting.”

Not very many engineering graduates from Southern Sudan and Darfur? “That in itself is interesting.”

I can’t talk to half the graduates because they are working in the Gulf? “That in itself is interesting.”

People don’t want to talk about that issue? “That in itself is interesting.”

But the mantra only gets you so far… Every now and then, it would be nice to have one problem/pain/patience-free day when I don’t have to utter those words and shake my fist into the sky. But I am not alone.

Last night, I went to Nahla Yousif Khiery’s excellent presentation on children and the law in Khartoum State. She hit upon a common problem of Sudanese research; the lack of statistics. In her case: the ethnic/tribal background of young offenders and victims of crime.

Nahla wants to make the case that certain groups in society are more vulnerable to crime, either due to poverty or lack of political/legal leverage. She has plenty of anecdotal evidence to back this up but she does not have accurate statistics. She is in the same boat as a lot of other researchers.  WE WANT SOME STATISTICS!

The census debacle last year revealed one of the biggest problems with research in Sudan: the government does not want to include tribal background in its statistics. We can look at this in two ways:

Possibility Number One: The state wants to treat all citizens equally and there should be no differentiation between tribal groups. 

Some say that British colonialism is to blame for the often-violent tribalism in Sudan; that in some way, the colonial administration created or at least strengthened the boundaries between different groups in an effort to control and manage its colonial subjects. Appadurai writes, that in India colonial body-counts not only created “types and classes (the first move toward domesticating differences) but also homogenous bodies (within categories), because number, by its nature, flattens idiosyncrasies and creates boundaries around these homogenous bodies, since it performatively limits their extent” (Appadurai, 1993: 20). To a certain extend this is also true in Sudan. By classifying peoples according to homogenous descriptions, the colonial state flattened the social world and institutionalized identity.

So perhaps the government’s rejection of tribal classification represents a firm rejection of the colonial mentality and even, the whole idea of tribalism itself. A new Sudan? 

Possibility Number Two: The state wants to conceal ethnic/tribal inequalities and make discrimination or marginalization less visible.

This is a more cynical view to be sure, but it’s hard not to slip into cynicism when you are frustrated with dead ends.

I don’t like to think of the state as a systematic “hider” of the truth. Managing people is a messy business and institutions don’t always get things right; they are clumsy. That is not to say that they don’t ever try. In fact, someone working in Darfur recently told me that the government has been trying to pick up the slack of the departed NGOs and has sent doctors and aid into the camps. Well, the non-rebel controlled camps. This is very good news and just goes to show what the Sudanese state can do when there is political will. 

On the other hand, you do have to wonder: Knowledge is power. Statistics are proof. The state, like all states in the world, wants to sell a certain image of itself to its public. They don’t want to look bad and statistics might make that... well, tricky. 

The Danger of Statistics

It is hard to imagine that something quite so nerdy as a statistic might start a war, but we must not forget that the Darfur conflict began with the publication and distribution of the Black Book; a book that served up the country’s statistics and exposed Darfur’s economic and political marginalization to the masses. Statistics can be very dangerous. Especially when they come from angry rebel groups with guns.

But what about all the timid, and some might say, tiny researchers out there who just want some statistics to get them through the day? Maybe a few statistics that will allow them to make the case for a change in child justice laws? Or for recruitment policies that help more marginalized groups? Or targeted health education?

Perhaps because I am British and I study economics, I like statistics. I like to draw models and classify things with attractive colorful keys and occasional shading when color printing is unavailable. I like graphs and pie charts (and not just because they make me think of pie). No, gluttony aside, I think that statistics are grand; they allow you to observe patterns among huge groups of people; they allow you to find inconsistencies and vulnerabilities; they allow you see what is going on at the national or even international scale. I would go so far as to say that you cannot look at the big picture without a portion of statistics on your plate. 

Of course, statistics are not perfect and you can manipulate them until they no longer mean anything at all. I know this because I have tried to use SPSS. And of course, they are not always the best tools (especially when they are unreliable). Indeed in Sudan, ethnography might be preferable, but then again you cannot do participant-observation for the whole of Sudan. It is a very big place!

So, your final answer...

If programs are to target vulnerable groups, then the state and the NGO community need to be able to “see” these groups as groups. We need to lobby and argue for better, more thorough statistics! We need to be able to see what’s going on if we want to get to the roots of problems. And that I am afraid, requires us to see tribes. 

Perhaps then we can all stop saying: “That, in itself, is interesting.” (Although I am sure there will be other opportunities to bring out the mantra).

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Motherhood on my doorstep... well, window ledge.

No serious blog today.
No rant.
Just birds. Baby birds!

These are my new neighbors. From egg to disgusting featherless monsters to cute chicks, all in a month or so...  Soon they will be flying the skys of Sudan. Mash'allah!


They have flown the coop!