Friday, 29 January 2010

It is official. The Sudanese winter is over.

How do I know that?

Because my shoulders are still pink and pulsing with the memory of the morning shower. 

It's a great pity because I have really been enjoying the mechanical switching on and off of the water heater each morning. First thing out of bed, I rush to the bathroom, flick the pleasant red switch and then stand there, singing to myself: tadaaa, beam of red is iniated. Rockets are ready to launch. Time to proceed to tea, news and email before leaping into the steaming waves of water that shall issue happily from my recently stolen shower head with a great big smile on my face. Ilhamdulilah. 

But this morning was not such a picture of happiness. Instead of turning on the hot tap, I might as well have jumped into a vat of chemical solvent and then stuffed myself with gravy. 

Anyone can tell you that laws of thermodynamics that usually pertain to bathrooms do not apply in Sudan. The hot tap produces cool water which has been stored in the mini tank in your bathroom, while the cold tap produces water that could be used in hospitals to singe off unsightly boils and cysts from peoples' necks and bottoms. If you foolishly turn on your heater, you basically heat water that has already been boiled: The kind of hot that even the most resilient Japanese and/or the immortal Ancient Greeks would whine and bitch about. 

Yes, it is rather depressing. Winter is over. Heat has returned to reign victorious. Good bye novelty of socks! Goodbye open car windows! Goodbye pleasure of waking up at 5, switching off the ceiling fan and then jumping back into bed to savour the last couple hours beneath the warm and cosy sheet.  

Still, I suppose I should dust off my stiff upper lip: the encroaching spring heat will no doubt compare favorably with the Scottish sky: Hey ho, what delights have been brought from the moon by golden storks with tails like peacocks? Oh majesty of white! Clouds, so clean and crisp they could be used as table cloths on the tops of Downing street... but they will soon to turn grey... and then to black... and then produce physical masses of cold that shock on arrival. Sun, bake me while you last... For I shall not complain. 

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Those that can't...

Unemployment sucks. It not only deprives you of your financial security, but also your dignity and respect. You have to ask for help, you have to show your shame. In the UK, it's the welfare office but in Sudan, there is another kind of social insurance institution: the family. 

Sudanese family members help each other out---without question. If you can't find a job, your parents will happily support you until you do. It doesn't matter how old you are, if you need it, someone in your family will look after you. 

Older interviewees talk about how this "cushion" makes youngsters too picky or over-ambitious in their job search. Instead of getting a job at the bottom of a company and working their way up, they say that young Sudanese want to start at the top. They are not patient enough for the workforce. They say that in the past, they had to earn their positions through hard work. 

Part of the problem is that most jobs today do not involve training and promotion like they did in the past. A company that offers recent graduates training will see it as a favor, not as a necessity. Young graduates simply don't want to get stuck in a job for five, ten years without further training. Their qualifications will become void and they will not be able to improve their position. It may pay to be picky. (and I would add, that it is difficult for young people to get any kind of job at all!) 

If you can't study, one alternative is to study. If you can't find a job with a bachelor degree, you can do a masters. If you can't find a job with a masters, you can do a PhD. This up-hill educational slide is especially true of women. While a young man must think of saving for his wedding day, young women are less constrained financially and are therefore more able to pursue their professional ambitions. In certain fields, like architecture or bio-chemistry, for instance, I have been told that women dominate because there are so few jobs, men opt out for more profitable but less professionally ambitious careers. Women stick it out. As Sudanese culture places a huge emphasis on education, further education for women is seen as a worthy pursuit. 

I recently spoke with Hind Abbas Ibrahim, a communications professor at the University of Khartoum and she commented that this uphill slide was the one positive side of unemployment in Sudan... but I have noticed yet another silver lining. 

If you can't get a job, you can volunteer. So many of my Sudanese friends volunteer and give considerable portions of their free time to social organizations and charities... and especially those without jobs. It is seen as a good way to wait for a job.

Long ago, I was a volunteer research assistant at the Population Council in Cairo. I was helping out on their study of the costs of marriage and Gulf migration. I remember reading an article about how Egyptian unemployed young men were "bare branches" and might pose a security risk. The rise of harassment has also been blamed on this economic state of affairs. While this is possibly true of Egypt, I feel that in some ways, these bare branches might also be positive in other parts of the world.  

You could say: There are a great number of young, educated Sudanese who are extremely frustrated by their economic situation and could pose a security risk to the public. They are dangerous!

But you could also say: There are a great number of young, educated Sudanese who have plenty of free time which they do not want to waste at home. They are brimming with potential and are ready to volunteer for good!

Just a thought...

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Looking through a Sudanese telescope: the beauty of complex valuation

From my favourite Georgrapher:

"Biological nature that is accessible to the naked eye is actually a tangled mess, and whatever mathematical order there is may be just coincidence. Physical nature- the stars above- is by comparison more orderly, but even there modern scientists tend to discover chaos, historical accident, and violence rather than the simple harmony taken for granted by their predecessors. Still, physicists have not given up. The test of profound truth is still beauty. As the astrophysicist S. Chandrasekhar puts it, 'In my entire scientific life, extending over forty-five years, the most shattering experience has been the realization that an exact solution of Einstein's equations of general relativity... provides the absolutely exact representation of untold numbers of massive black holes that populate the universe. This 'shuddering before the beautiful,' this incredible fact that a discovery motivated by a search after the beautiful in mathematics should find its exact replica in Nature, persuades me to say that beauty is that to which the human mind responds at its deepest and most profound" (Tuan, 2000, 157)."

I have long wondered why, how and when mathematics began its slow and painful encroachment into my world. As a child, I was never particularly pleased to find myself in a Maths classroom with my eyes stuck on a graph or sum. For sure, I had some lovely maths teachers over the years. An amazing East Bergholt-ite who allowed us to spend a week charting a commet across the sky. I remember his revealing that, if the commet had come but six months later, it would have filled the entire sky at But when it came time to make important decisions about my preferences in life, I did my very best to avoid any serious mathematical thought. Who needs to know the slope of a line anyways? I live in East Anglia, possibly the flattest part of the UK! My future lay in words, in history, in politics, in anything that did not start a sentence with a "x" and end it with a "y". The mathematical creep had yet to begin its chase.

The first instance of creep took place in Econ B at LSE. Full of spirit and enthusiasm,  I soon realized that my beloved Economics, rather than involving social-political discussions, instead involved unsavory looking equations whose symbols seemed to taunt- what the hell is that little triangle doing in here?!- I plowed on ahead, reluctantly teaching myself the laws of Calculus and forcing my eyes to confront the endless stream of numbers and symbols that bled down my professors' powerpoint slides. Day in, day out, oh how my eye balls shed tears! By the end of my first year, I no longer winced at the sight of an equation but I had firmly decided that my future lay somewhere else... somewhere a whole lot less mathematical. 

It was therefore, somewhat of a disappointment to learn in the other half of my undergraduate degree, that nature, yes, nature could be reduced to number: contigent valuation, the assigning of economic value to environmental goods. This little "trick" of environmental economics has managed to persuade the world to factor the environment into its economic and financial calculations... ilhamdulilah- Necessity is the mother of all invention. But can you really assign value to nature? Is the value of a tree or flower reducible to its market price? Is the value of a national park reducible to the travel costs of its visitors? Is the value of an island reducible to the compensation of its inhabitants in the event of a flood?I remember answering an essay question: Is any number better than no number at all? NO, I said, NO it isnt you creeping little mathematical equation, you! It is only because the environment tends to be rather mute, that we happen to think so. 

Now, far away from environmental economics, in the safety of sandy Sudan, I have found my passion in something else, in the study of social networks. But here too, mathematics is encroaching. Run away! Run away! Social capital, the assigning of economic value to social relations, has begun to creep this way!  

Don't get me wrong! It would be wonderful to "measure" social relations, to assign value to different sorts of relationships: which are important, which are draining, which relationships will get you a job, which relationships instead ask YOU to get THEM a job.. the cheek!... but wait, there is something wrong with this... 

We assume that all human beings value things in the same way. But many Sudanese interviewees have forced me to confront an important chicken-or-egg lesson: Are relationships the pathway to money, or is money the pathway to relationships? The family firm is a case in point. To what purpose is a business run, to make money or to make a family? Do we live to work or work to live?

Today I was interviewing a Sudanese businessman-academic- ex-civil servant (the triple threat of Khartoum) about the problems of privatization in the field of agriculture. He had taken part in the privatization of the telecommunications industry in the 1990s and was frustrated that other industries, like agriculture and transportation, were less amenable to his model. He explained that many agriculturalists did not want to sell their land. They valued the land more than the money. Try as the government may, these stubborn farmers/landowners could not be bought. This reminded me of the story of the Darfuri cattle herder, who was very wealthy in terms of of cattle but lived simply and did not spend money lavishly. In the end, this was to prove his undoing. Instead of choosing an expensive bus ticket, he chose the cheapest alternative and died in a terrible bus crash. His cattle herd was not convertible into money. It was the well of his prestige, even in death. 

Not everyone sees money as the absolute source of value. For many Sudanese like the Darfuri herder, cattle is the source of their dignity and identity. It is the currency of marriage and the currency of prestige. Social relations ARE the ends, not the means in this particular community. In fact money might not even be A means at all. Incorporating these individuals into the same economy as the rest of Sudan has been a challenge that has faced many governments throughout the country's history. It is a dilemma that needs a more complex solution than simple monetary bargaining. But there is an important lesson here. We should not assume that everything of value can be bought. We cannot assume that everything of value can be measured with the same currency. Instead we should build models that acknowledge different kinds of value in different social settings. 

Yes, as I said before, necessity is the mother of all invention, including different kinds of capital. We want to be able to incorporate natural and social "goods" in order to avoid taking them for granted. We do not want economic development to destroy the fabric of our social relations and natural environments and we should therefore endeavour to find cunning ways of including them into our decision-making processes... but we should also remember that these capitals (social, natural and even ethnic, if you go with the latest Comaroff book) are, by their very nature, convenient inventions of our minds. We have invented these different kinds of capital to serve a need. They are built not on some physical reality "out there", but on our own considerations of value. In this sense, they are extremely contextual: they have been constructed out of particular ways of choosing what is and what is not valuable to society at one point in time and one place in space. 

It is a frustrating lesson, because like the mind of the physicist, there is an allure to maths, there is a yearning to find simplicity in the workings of the world, but perhaps there is a deeper source of beauty in this lesson, for we learn that, as human beings, we are far more beautiful than the stars and the moons above, because in contrast to our cosmic companions, we CANNOT be reduced to numbers. Instead of shuddering before the beauty of simplicity, we should shudder before the beautiful complexity of our (human) nature and the myriad ways in which we view the same world. 

Isn't that more beautiful than anything you can see through a telescope? For when did a star make value from its mind? Never.  Abadan! 

Saturday, 16 January 2010

I promise there is a post or two coming, but in the meantime.

I have been out of the cyber loop for a while and I promise there are some posts to come, but in the meantime, here is my Christmas movie:

Little Bird Shuffle on the Boardwalk, featuring Fats Waller on vocals... For Loula.