Friday, 24 September 2010

Losing Consciousness

I lost Consciousness on Monday. As you may imagine, I’m not quite sure how it happened. I think it might have been in the morning, in the gym, which is a lean-to beneath some mangoes, with a view of the Nile through the somewhat grubby plastic awning.

The gym’s got a working exercise bike, with a little fan to wave away the mosquitoes. I’m sure I had it then. Then, the next thing I knew I was in bed, looking for something to send me to sleep. That’s when I found I’d lost it.

I do recommend to you the Oxford series of Very Short Introductions. Last December, M1 was supposed to be doing an essay on the French Revolution. I’d long since lost track of my Pelicans on the subject. For all I know they are even now growing an ever-deeper bloom in the dungeons of Mandallay. Too lazy to search under the record collection and various nick-nacks from afar, I ordered The French Revolution: a Very Short Introduction from Amazon. It was a delight to read, and I was very gratified that the author regarded the texts I was meant to read in the Remove as good “modern” history. Perhaps I’ll dig them out, but probably I’ll take his word for it.

Mrs M barely blinked at my pretentious request for the Very Short Introductions to Linguistics and Consciousness as Christmas presents. Linguistics was a very dry mouthful, but Susan Blackmore’s Consciousness has pictures. It has been quite entertaining. It’s only taken me six months to read the first 20 pages, and there are barely the same to go.

But now I’ve lost it. I left it on the exercise bike I think.

My youngest sister is a Buddhist. She wrote out a short passage, with a coloured-in crayon drawing, for another sister (I have many of them) on the subject of mindful washing-up. It now hangs framed next to the sink. I think it’s all about being in the moment with the washing-up brush and the scouring pad and the bubbles.

Losing Consciousness has not quite made my life flash before me, but it has made me wonder. When, for instance, did I become content to skate so lightly over the world’s surface, when I sally forth as a freelance? I used to want to try everything, to learn languages, to smell wood smoke and sweat on damp clothes, huddle on the back of a truck, chew food on the street.

Well, alright, I’m still partial to a goat.

But by and large, I’ve become a bit of a Holiday Inn-er, riding between the office and the hotel. And nowhere more than here in Juba, a capital city next door to South Sudan, but nothing, they tell me, like it. And the ministry is only next door to Juba.

I once heard tell of a consultant who entertained his colleagues all the way through a two week assignment in Zimbabwe with his concern as to whether the Harare Sheraton would credit his frequent flyer card with Tier Points towards his Platinum Card, or Non-Tier Points.

He is not one of the Bridge’s Happy Band of Mercenaries.

There again, travel is not what it was. I am not against all travel guides. I won’t hear a word against the Latin America Handbook, which gave me many hours of entertainment when the BBC World Service on short wave had filled my head with a surfeit of snap crackle and pop. But the Rough Guide and the Lonely Planet are oxymoronic.  Thanks to them, the planet is no longer quite so rough or lonely as one might like.

No, the road less travelled is surely the washing-up. Or if, as so often happens to the itinerant freelancer, someone is doing it for you, the washer-up may hold a key to the mindfulness of the ministry that is the freelancer's elusive holy grail.

My ministerial pre-fab is cleaned by a lady I know as Elizabeth. When I was given a desk, she came and washed, then dried, the desk-top.


We are getting to know each other. She cleaned the windows one day, and I helped her reach the bit at the top behind the mosquito screen. Then she came in with a tin of sweets to celebrate the fact that her cousin has just got the top job in the ministry.

The kitchen is just the other side of our thin metal wall. When we stop talking and typing, we hear her humming resonate the biscuit tin that is her domain. I am not the only one who comments how happy Elizabeth sounds in her work. Every day, she is the first to arrive, and the last to leave. She brings us hot water and clean Pyrex tea cups, and sometimes I bring her a cake from the hotel.

One day I mentioned to a Sudanese colleague that Elizabeth had gone to fill the flask with hot water for tea. “Who’s Elizabeth?” he said. He knew her by another name.

Next day, Elizabeth gave me a sheet of paper with two other names for herself. It reads

                Akongo => it means Alcohol
               Angieh =>   "     "      Cold

She said that her mother died soon after her birth. Her father was a drunk and died two months later. Her aunt gave her these names.

“I do not like these names,” said Elizabeth Akongo Angieh.

Before I could do anything, I was assailed by a large and fictional lady crashing into the office in a small white van. Before I could stop her, Ma Ramotswe herself of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency had bounced off the highway from Cape to Cairo to take posession of my soul.

“Then I will call you Blessing,” I heard myself say.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Good Evans

EE Evans-Pritchard, 1935 Pitt Rivers Museum Oxford

 Juba, Southern Sudan

“I’ll tell you the thing about Soo-darn.” The way Doctor Doctor Tremendous pronounces Sudan reminds me of the way some of his North American compatriots used to say “Sarddarm Hoossain”, and, most memorably, “Kowsowvow”. Somehow it conveyed their unshakeable assurance that they knew about the things they were treading on.

Doctor Doctor T has left a fine rhetorical pause, so that all those in the warren of offices at this end of the ministerial pre-fab have the pleasure of awaiting his insight. “It is this.” Another pause. “In traditional tribal society here, they don’t have kings. That’s right!” He is triumphant now. “That’s why social anthropology was invented here!”

Now that Doctor Doctor Tremendous is getting into his flow, I settle my gaze on the plastic strip at the top of my laptop screen where it cuts off the expanse of Tremendous’s white shirt and striped tie. That way, I can feign enough interest to avoid rudeness, without encouraging him to expand further. My good South African friend Paul says such niceties are quite wasted on foreigners: Dr Dr T couldn’t care less.

“That’s right!” he continues, unnecessarily. He is, of course, rarely wrong. “That’s why the British colonial authorities hired Evans-Pritchard. They were failing to subjugate the Sudanese, and that's why he did all his work on the Nuer and all the other tribes of Southern Sudan. No kings, you see. Same as Afghairnistarn. I know a great deal about it actually. I’ve studied this in many countries.”

I have to admit that his theory engages me. Like his namesake, DDT is all-pervasive, indiscriminate, hard to get rid of, but nevertheless useful from time to time. God bless America.

Evans-Pritchard, the Nuer, the Azande... The haze of my student days in the common room of the School of African and Asian Studies seeps back at me. The social anthropology students are sitting on the floor, smoking Indian bidis, or wearing Vibram-soled clompers...

To me, the social anthropology students all appeared either impossibly good-looking, or to be raised some six inches above the singed carpet, or both. Sometimes they enacted anthropological events, of which the most dazzling was a New Guinea pig exchange. Having arranged a day, the students converged on the Common Room to present each other gifts of ever-increasing numbers of Britain’s plastic pigs, as testimony to each other’s, and thereby their own, greatness. Eventually, a hoard of students besieged and ultimately overran the office of Professor David Pocock (who liked to lecture first-year students on the significance of shit in social anthropology) with plastic Gloucester Old Spots in their Hundreds and in their Thousands.

That's all I remember about social anthropology, except a documentary about the Pitt Rivers Museum that Mrs M had a hand in.

Evans-Pritchard with Zande Boys
I wonder what Sir Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard would have to say about our consulting tribes. I expect we behave a little like the tribes of colonial officials and soldiers he met in his travels across the world. Take relations between the Upstreamers and the Downstreamers.

The Downstreamers live in the next plot down the Nile from us, and some Upstreamers don’t think much of them, largely out of jealousy. The Downstreamers’ camp started out, like ours, under canvas, but has now turned into neat permanent dwellings, with patio doors and a gentle curve in the road, like a suburban corner of the homeland. “A little picket fencing,” quipped an Upstream wag, “and they could film Desperate Housewives here.” At the end of its suburban road, is the Downstream shrine: an open bar under a thatched roof with two big screen TVs blaring different sports channels. It’s very pleasant, but it’s a bit, well, Downstream, like a Holiday Inn. Their leaders regard the compound as secure, because there is a guard at the front with a book. Sometimes Downstreamers sign their guests in and out. Their leaders are Americans, and they are passionate about security. They send each other messages warning drivers to vary their route. Above all, however, Downstreamers are experts on everything and everywhere. Like DDT, they have researched, tamed, and transformed hundreds of countries. Some display a dazzling technical knowledge, based on diligent research. For others, it is clear that just by flying over a country, not even invading it, they learn more about it than the miserable natives glean in their entire lives.

Downstreamers visit our Upstream camp. For many, it’s off-limits, security-wise. And those who do visit, generally just come once. Our pre-fabs are overcrowded, the bar is rubbish, and so is the internet connection and the TV. The Upstream management allow cats to wander around the dining area, and no one gives a damn. There are all sorts in the camp, particularly Russian helicopter pilots, and local people, just wandering in, to sit by the Nile. It’s hard to imagine how the Upstreamers stay clean. Evidently, they don’t. (Regrettably, I may be partly responsible for this perception by removing my shoes in meetings at the ministry.) The food takes hours to order and more to arrive - visitors rarely try the excellent and varied Upstream buffet. Worst of all, the Upstreamers are so stand-offish you wouldn’t think you existed. If they have a business card at all, they refuse to put any letters after their names, or their position in the corporation, so you never know who you’re talking to. Their knowledge is a patchwork, sometimes clever, but sometimes out of date and threadbare. And as for their attire, you’d think clothing was still rationed.

Take your choice: Wisteria Lane or Bletchley Park.

However, the big sloppy chairs under the mango trees take a lot of beating. Unfortunately, the cushions won’t take a lot more before they crumble through the remnants of the cane into the Nile.

This Upstreamer knows better than to brag about anthropology. It’s pretty certain that any of my fellows can make me feel a mug whether I choose ministerial intrigue, sport, or cinema. In this company, therefore, my special subject is silence. And that’s the worst thing about Upstreamers: we’re just as vain as the Downstreamers, just too vain to admit it.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Thinking inside the box

Wednesday 8th September

For reasons which escape me, Sudan bans the use of cameras without an official permit. And even though South Sudan seeks independence from the North next year, the rule still applies. Indeed my team leader tells me that a policeman reprimanded a visitor recently for looking too long at the bridge over the Nile. 

It’s not that I set out to be different, but I’m not very good at copying the way other people do things. Long ago, I went for a job with a consultancy firm. A man in a suit chatted with me in a bar at Victoria, then invited me to an event called an Assessment Centre, where they gave us pastries and orange juice. They talked a lot about thinking outside the box, pushing the envelope, and blue sky thinking. Next day, the chap in the suit rang me to say that perhaps I thought just a little too far out of the box for his clients. Mrs M professed brief indignation at his folly, and went off to work.

This evening I am thinking inside the box.

Like many buildings in Juba, my hotel bedroom is a pre-fab hut.  It is made of grey coated metal panels, linked by galvanised struts. They seem to treasure protective plastic on things here, and it hangs like sunburnt skin from the roof.  Fortunately my room also comes with air-con and a lady called Saaeda who cleans it and washes my socks. And the hotel seems to have recruited from all over the region to cook rather tasty versions of TexMex, Jalfrezi, Irish stew, and Ugandan matoke plantains.

My pre-fab is in CAT Alley, as we call it, as this part of the hotel “camp” is largely populated by freelancers under contract to CATatonix, the celebrated consulting firm. CAT Alley is also home to many cats who remind me of Mandallay’s dear departed Trinny. We had thought her looks to be Egyptian, but these pussies' fine bone structure, ginger blotches on white fur, and ringed tails suggest that Trinny too may have been South Sudanese. Either way, Trinny must have been a lady of the Nile. For the great glory of my hotel is that it is on the west bank of the White Nile, a great conveyor of water, a quarter mile wide, by which we eat our big East African breakfasts and dinners. We also take pastries from the breakfast buffet in paper napkins for lunch.

In the morning, my associates and I leave our tin boxes, and enter a 4X4. We bounce over the dirt till we get to Juba’s small network of paved roads, and then fan out with our papers and pastries, to our various ministries and offices. These are also largely in pre-fabs of grey coated metal panels. We spend much of the day stabbing at our rectangular laptops, to the background of each others’ conversations through thin walls. My boss entertains me by talking about the plays he is writing, and his forthcoming book on Juba Arabic, that he says is a pidgin of classical Arabic. He skypes his brother in Khartoum, and the whole family joins in. Then he shares a bag of hot, fat cassava chips with me. My laptop goes on standby.

In order not to lose my wits entirely, I have to seize the sliver of day between the working box and the sleeping box. So at 5.30 I chivvy my zealous fellows to the 4X4 to jig back to our night-time cuboids, where we can watch the rectangular portable television, or type more rectangular emails, if there is a connection.

Running shoes on. My relaxed team leader says it may not be wise to leave the beaten track. The war has been over for five years, but land mines are still a possibility. He later explains that the landmines in question are deposited by people who lack access to Thomas Crapper's contraption, or even to a pit-latrine.

At last, a brief moment without rectangles. The cars, motorbikes, children and animals criss-cross between the pot holes and obstacles. Many of the tracks are just made by feet and vehicles. All around are hovels of laths, wattle, cardboard, plastic sheeting emblazoned with UNHCR, most homes barely more than shelters, and no taller than me. These seem to be returnees from abroad, or country people in search of work. People sit, wash, cook, eat in the open.

I hear voices, African languages of which I know nothing, then suddenly a few slightly more familiar sounds, perhaps Juba Arabic.

Old men and children cheer me on, and some join me for a few yards. We negotiate a herd of goats being driven towards the market pen, where men holding tethered animals are in earnest debate. A rich goaty aroma rises with the dust. Tall long-horned cattle look over the fencing. Beside a footpath is a rough plot patterned with mounds, perhaps for cassava plants. 

 “Morning!” shout the children at any time of day. Or “How are you?”, and once “Give me one pound.” They carry jerry cans to fetch water, from where I have not discovered. Ours comes from a borehole below the hotel. It is clean, but makes the tea taste of salt and earth. Suddenly I get a biff on the bum, and turn to see a young girl, waving her plastic water can triumphantly, shrieking with laughter with her brother.

The dusty remnant of sunset at my back guides me East over the potholes to the flashing green illuminated palms of the hotel entrance. I sit by the blackening surface of the Nile, and watch ghostly branches bobbing in the water.

If I’m honest, I’m rather disappointed that no one has apparently seen the moon tonight in time to declare Eid, so we could all have a day off. I could take my laptop through the heat down to the trees and easy chairs beside the river. But they haven’t.

Instead I lie on the bed, and two miracles happen. Mrs M hooks my phone up to Skype, despite her professed ignorance of any invention more modern than the Biro.The other miracle is that all three Ms find their tongues to grace me with a version of their lives appropriate to an old man.

Tomorrow is another box. I wonder what’s in the envelope.

Sorry for late posting. T 'internet isn't what it might be here.

Friday, 3 September 2010

There be Rhinos

1st September 2010

I was some way from Marple Bridge, when I received the call to Southern Sudan. The entire Mandall family was strolling to the jetty for a day-trip from Puerto Pollenca in Mallorca, when I had to deal with the embarrassment of having the phone in one hand and suntan lotion in the other. Ten days later I find myself en route to Juba.

Amsterdam is Tulips: Schiphol Airport has boxes and boxes of them, all frills and colours, all wire and paper, standing to attention next to the travelators. There are bargain buckets of bulbs outside the gift shops, and fibre-glass tulips four foot high too for children to play among.

Nairobi is Elephants: arriving passengers at Jomo Kenyatta are heralded by great plastic heads, crowned “DUTY FREE”, and stationed at intervals along the curved mall.  I settle in the soft seats (it’s 6 hours till my flight to Juba) at the Savanna Self-service, cheek by jowl  with the Java Bar and Lounge. It must be continental drift. There’s plenty of time to sample the tea at both. It’s made with frothy milk from an Espresso machine. At last, here is something authentic and slightly dangerous. Like the tea on Kenya Airlines, this treat is a stout liquor of tang and tannin, nothing like the usual lazy Lipton, lolling in its own tepid mess. It can even shake a trunk at Mrs M's Red Label. Half way through my first brew, I’m ready to charge despite three hours sleep.

Juba, I learned from Mandallay’s daily, is to be Rhinos: at least this is the vision of some consultants. Here’s the blueprint: build a city in the shape of a rhino 10 km away from the current site, and move everyone in. Raze the old town and anyone who happens to be left. It will cost £6.5 billion, a snip at 5 times Southern Sudan’s annual budget. Somehow, I don’t think the consultants will be living at the dung end. Still, I suppose they could put the military in the horn, and perhaps they could co-locate the red light district.

Yes, we consultants like to keep things simple

In which case, here's something I knocked up earlier, a blueprint for the redesign of Nairobi.

The advantage of my layout, as you will see, is that there is considerably more scope for peri-urban sprawl, once the elephant is full up.

My bill’s in the post.

* **

I've no idea whether there are rhinos, mythical beasts if ever there were, anywhere near Juba, though I have heard there is a huge area of open country in Southern Sudan surprisingly undisturbed by the war, and full of wildlife.

Sitting here in Nairobi airport, Juba feels a very long way away still, almost as far as Nairobi from Marple Bridge. Southern Sudan, of which Juba is the capital, seems to be a place known more by rumour than experience. One freelance companion claims to have visited the place, but that was passing through in 1979. I downloaded The Lonely Planet Guide, but it only covers the top half of Sudan.  It stops at the Nuba Mountains.

Beyond is Southern Sudan, a nation-in-waiting that hopes to become independent after a referendum next year. The same article says it’s dubbed the world’s first “pre-failed state”, but that sounds to me about as full of myth as the rhino: let’s wait and see.


* * *
Marple Bridge is Brambles, but hardly unique for that. Perhaps the Apple Lady, as we know her, has left a box of cookers beside her garden gate, with a sign saying “help yourself”.

I see Cheshire Life is running a feature on Marple Bridge this month.

Marple Bridge celebrates the modern northern kitchen. This fine recipe for Lambrini Apples was given to me by local author, Tom Mandall.

“Take 6 baking apples, or else buy them at the Co-op.  I found my brambles in the public car park by the Gardeners Arms in Offerton, avoiding the lower brambles for obvious reasons. I picked enough brambles to fill up the little box between the seats in the Fiesta.

“Core the apples, making sure you remove all the toe-nails. (The boys probably won’t eat them anyway, but Never Give Up Hope.) Score them round the equator, so that they puff up nicely, unless you think they will provide more entertainment if they explode all over the Aga. [This recipe is for Cheshire Life, after all.]

"Wash the brambles too as a concession to hygiene. Stir into them about two tablespoons of unrefined sugar. (This may be difficult to find locally, as we are not terribly refined ourselves.) Stuff the apples, and put them all in a baking dish.

"Search the fridge for something to stop this drying out. I found a tail-end of Lambrini from M2’s Results Day bash. Sweet, vaguely grapey and alcoholic. It must have been for the girls.

"Feel your home fill with the autumn warmth of brambles, apples and industrial ethanol. Goes well with cream, but the boys prefer the yellow stuff.”