Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Patience pays off... but sometimes the dividends are monkeys

Research is sometimes a matter of endurance and patience, especially when conducted under the Sudanese sun. But at the end of it all, there is reward. 

A couple weeks ago I turned up to an interview and found that the manager had double-booked me . In order to placate the look in my eye, his secretary gave me extremely strong tea and told me to come back in a couple days. Instead I asked if I could get some information about the organization to better prepare myself for the interview and accordingly, I was directed to another floor. 

Here, I was given some more tea and then told to wait while a man fetched some books. I sighed and resigned myself to the sugary mix. If research is sometimes a matter of endurance, then in Sudan this endurance is represented by tea. How much tea can you consume in a single day? How much tea can you consume when you have already consumed four cups before lunch and feel like your eyes have been hooked up to a ECG and need a medical consent form in order to be blinked? 

I look into the cup, wondering how expensive a stomach transplant is in Sudan, but etiquette dictates endurance and so I bring the cup to my lips.

While I am waiting and plotting the logistics of pouring the tea into the potted plant on the desk, an old man comes into the office. He has a smile on his face that would lift a beached whale and a little twinkle in his eye that says "I don't give a damn". 

I wonder.

He sits down in a chair, put his hands above his head and tells me he's going to tell me "what's really going on in here". What follows is nothing but the most honest and deep internal description of the workings of an organization that I have ever heard. He has a happy growl of a voice, the kind of voice you would expect a sheepdog to have if you were lucky enough to catch him in a monologue. 

Is this fate? One interview postponed so you can have another with a sage-like shepherd?

This morning I had a similar experience. I was supposed to have a meeting at 10 am. I had been told to come to a specific bank on the other side of town. The company's office was right next door... or so they told me on the phone. 

On the way over, I called up the secretary to check but she was not there. I asked the man on the phone if he could give directions to the driver but it turns out that this man was both the most confused and the most confusing man on the planet. The taxi driver hung up midway through the conversation declaring "This man is crazy! He probably just wandered in and picked up the phone! He is an idiot!" I decided to call the manager directly. He reassured me that the company was right next door to the bank. "JUST come to the bank" He said. So I did. 

I got out of the taxi, paid my fare and then proceeded to wander around like an idiot in the sun looking for the company's sign. I couldn't find a single sign that didn't involve the words "Pepsi" or "Zain". The advertising seemed to loom like the sun. And I became thirsty. 

I called up the secretary's line again. I didn't want the manager to think I was a complete idiot. This time, the simultaneously confused/confusing man had been replaced by a stern woman who was, unfortunately, equally confusing. She told me that I was in completely the wrong place and I should get into another taxi. Confused, I handed the phone to a new taxi driver and after a very long winded explanation, the man hung up and said:

Ten pounds.

Excuse me? Ten pounds? The man said it was right here!

It is far, far, far, far away! 

Then the driver added, 

Ten pounds.

I decided I did not trust this man. The manager had said that I should come to this bank and even if all his secretaries seemed to doubt their location in the universe, I was going to trust the boss. It was his company, surely he knew where he was sitting. I started to wander in the direction that the woman had described on the phone, all the while trying the number again- but now no-one was picking up.

Downtown Khartoum is probably the hottest place I have ever been. It is not just the sun and the lack of shade, but the noise and bustle of the traffic and the dust that wafts every time a bus screams past. I looked at my watch. 10:35. I was hot. I was angry. I was so utterly confused. Had I entered some fantastical research universe in which people contradict themselves and send you on wild-goose chases for kicks? Why had three different secretaries told me completely opposite directions? Why had the manager told me to come one place while the taxi driver seemed to want to take me to Kassala or some other far flung spot? I took a deep breath, ducked into an abandoned building site and called the manager one last time. 

This time- low and behold, Ilhamdulilah, praise be to the single cloud in the sky- the original secretary picked up the phone.

Laura? Her voice was like a cool breeze, Come to the bank and I will find you.

I have no idea what was going on. When I think about it in my head, I feel like there must be some plausible explanation. Were they just messing with me? Was their phone line split between two companies on opposite sides of town? Or am I just a little bit mad? When I entered the building, I looked into the faces of the other secretaries and wondered which ones had spoken to me. Which ones needed to acquaint themselves with reality. 

Or was it me that had lost the plot?

I cooled off. Literally.

The nice (sane) secretary gave me water- ice cold water that swept away the heat from my brow and then a nice man came in with a tray of tea, peanuts and dates. Peanuts? It was as if my stomach had perused the menu and made an order... and at 11:00 when I was sufficiently cooled and well fed, I finally had my interview-- which went really well. Thank you kind souls!

Now I sit in a nearby park. I have my notebook out, my list of possible interviewees on my lap, my phone pressed against my ear. But someone is watching me. 

A monkey. She sits up above in a tree, a baby monkey strapped to her back. They are both giving me the eye. I wonder if they can smell the peanuts on my breath. 

And it suddenly dawns on me, I am a lucky girl. This is research in Sudan and I am going to miss it when it's over.

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