Sunday, May 20, 2012

Next Big Thing?

            I’m rapidly approaching the end of my two-year term of mission.  I cannot believe how quickly the time has passed.  It would be incredibly difficult to try and explain here, now, all of the things I have witnessed and experienced, how this experience has altered my life in so many, many ways.
            Many of the things I have witnessed are mundane happenings and merely different than what I’ve experienced at home but otherwise hardly remarkable other than their being exotic compared to what I’m used to.  But other things, especially in the way people view their lives and each other, are amazingly complex and will require from me further consideration and reflection before I will fully understand them.  People here can at once be so very considerate and then again so very brutal with one another, at once incredibly generous and the next surprisingly greedy, but there is a genuine difference between our sensibilities, those of us from the west and the people of Africa and yet the people here are aware of the world and want very much to be a part of it without losing their Africaness, as it were.  One of the biggest challenges I observed is the struggle within the people here of adapting to western ways while still retaining their intrinsic sense of shared community.  There are some people here who gladly wear western dress and grab everything they can with both hands, by methods both fair and foul, while others still retain the village concept of shared wealth.  In the end I’m certain the more western attitude will prevail.
            One of the difficulties I face is what to do after being here in Sudan.  While I’ve been here I’ve been privileged to observe the Referendum in January, 2011, which then led to the creation of South Sudan on July 9, 2011.  I’ve witnessed this new country as it tries to grow and develop but also while it struggles with internal conflicts such as tribal warfare and insurgencies.  It has been an amazing time to be present here and I don’t know what could top this in terms of world experiences.  But on a more personal level, I have been able to become part of a great community within the Church and also within the ex-patriot community here in Juba.  I’ve created a life here that I enjoy, in which I’ve become competent and useful, and I don’t believe my work here is done.
            I’ve tried to imagine going home but I cannot picture what in the world I would do for employment.  My work experiences have been so varied and extreme; I’ve almost never had a “normal” job, which has been both my delight and terror.  It’s difficult to imagine what I would be deemed suitable for back home while here in Africa I’m viewed very highly as a person with badly needed skills and experiences.  I miss home, I miss my friends and family, but I’ve also settled into a life here and now when I’m at my most experienced and capable it seems a shame to abandon all I’ve achieved.
            I do not want to continue working as the finance manager for the Province, of that I’m sure.  After two years I am exhausted from the continuous daily grind of trying to keep the Province going.  I believe I can look back with some pride at the fact that I was able to pull the Province back from the edge of financial abyss, certainly in terms of its international partners who had all but given-up on the ECS, and that I was able to raise the level of general financial management somewhat from what I found when I arrived.  But now it’s time to turn things over to someone with stronger administrative skills than I possess.  I’m fortunate in that I was able to hire to take my position someone much more capable than myself in terms of creating financial controls and who has a better vision for how the Province’s financial systems can be organized.  I always found myself so busy trying to put out fires and keep everything going that it was difficult to find time to see where this tottering ship was heading or create better systems of control.
            I have applied for a handful of jobs around town, and though I was being considered for one I haven’t made any progress with any of the others.  One problem I’ve had is having enough time to send off applications.  By the time I get home in the evenings, cook dinner and clean-up it’s usually already pushing 9pm which doesn’t leave a lot of time for going on-line and completing applications.  I’ve been so busy lately that I haven’t even applied anywhere in a month.
            One of the areas in which I was very interested in working has been in the field of micro-finance, helping people to do what I did back home which is to save money and start their own small businesses.  Access to credit, to banking tools such as establishing savings and checking accounts is incredibly limited here.  If you consider all the ways in which people are able to access credit in terms of debit and credit cards, ATM machines and regular banks, there is probably greater access within one mile of a busy roadway like Route 3 back home than exists in all of South Sudan.  I’ve long realized that creating a network of community banks in which people can access credit is one of the greatest challenges facing this country.  Doing something about this problem has interested me for a while.  I’ve prayed about it and thought about this work for a while and hoped that an opportunity would open up.
            Thus I was surprised when about two weeks ago my friend Raj – who’s real name is something like Nyana-Raj but whom I always called Banana-Raj which he good naturedly didn’t mind – came to me to ask if I’d take over his microfinance project.  Raj, who is from Chennai in India, has been here for about two months heading up a microfinance project that has been working in our Juba Diocese for about a year.  Like most microfinance projects this one began with helping interested people to have a safe place to save their money while educating them about business and management and then when a sufficient pool of money had been established and some good ideas presented making small loans to help people get their businesses off the ground.  So far the results have been very good, the repayment rate is somewhere around 90-percent and most of the businesses are doing well.  Juba, fortunately, is a fast growing city and there is strong demand for almost all goods and services and businesses which are well run and which pay attention to providing good customer service – an alien concept here – can succeed.
            What I’d like to do is to take this small project and make it a Provincial project so it can be expanded throughout as many of our dioceses as possible.  One of the lessons I have learned from my forays out to the dioceses conducting training is how desperate some of our people are to start their own businesses if they can be well trained and if some start-up capital can be provided.  Few people here have any experience managing a business or of being trained in how to manage finances.  But I believe that within every diocese there are a few people capable of managing who could create businesses which would provide employment and income where none existed before.  To my mind, this is a far better idea than any bottomless aid program which teaches only dependency.
            So, where I am now is trying to decide if this project is the gift it appears to be, an answer to my longings, or if I would be better-off returning home and standing in the employment lines or keep sending out applications here and hoping something materializes.  I knew when I got into all this two years ago that I wanted to spend the next decade of my life involved in international development work in some way.  One of my motivations was reading Jacquiline Novogoratz’s book The Blue Sweater describing her experiences working in third-world countries, mostly in Africa, helping people to create their own small businesses.  I really think this is what I’d like to do for a couple of years and it seems like my experiences here to date have prepared me for this opportunity.
            When he was visiting here last November Bishop Suffragan of Virginia, Rt. Rev. David Jones said he didn't know what God had in store for me next but based upon my background and what I'd experienced in Juba he was thinking it would be amazing!  That's pretty heady stuff and it has made me conscious of wanting my next move to matter.  It's probably silly, but I feel the weight of the bishop's statement and it has encouraged me to be thoughtful about whatever I do next.
            Oh, and just in case anyone wonders, yes this IS a paying job, a salary plus housing and living allowances so I will cease being a poor missionary and once again enter the world of the gainfully employed.  If I decide to do this I will probably go home for a month when my term as a missionary ends in early July and then return around the beginning of August.  There is a rule that so long as you are not in the US for more than 30-days in a year any income you earn overseas is not taxed, so that will influence the amount of time I stay at home.  Just long enough to get my laundry done, fatten-up a bit and say hello to folks.
            We’ll see, but I'd really appreciate people's opinions.

Naked Guys

            One of the more interesting phenomena I’ve witnessed in Juba has been the appearance every so often of naked guys walking around town.  This is Africa and I expected, having grown-up with National Geographic magazine, that I would encounter a higher level of nudity than one experiences back home.  And this has been true, especially when you pass by places like the Nile River where people regularly go to bathe.  Public water is scarce so having places like rivers and streams in which to bathe are important.  I’ve sometimes seen dozens of people, mostly men, bathing at the riverside.   Along the Nile in Terekeka there was a “men’s section” and further downstream a “ladies and children’s” section for washing-up.
            Breast-feeding in public is also much more natural and open than is done back in the US.  But then this corresponds with the general view of breasts here which, unlike in the west where female breasts are viewed as sexual objects and used for advertising everything, here they are considered merely milk delivery devices.  In Sudan, a woman with large breasts is considered no more sexually appealing than another, but she is deemed potentially better able to feed many children, something which is done very openly anytime, anywhere.
            But the phenomenon I’m talking about is the appearance every so often of fully grown men walking around naked or mostly so.  There are about four or five men, all of whom appear to be if not directly related certainly belonging to the same clan or tribe, who wander around different sections of Juba in various states of undress.  They all have a dazed, wild look in their eyes, unkempt hair and since they seem to live on whatever they can scrounge, are on the lean side though in general they appear to be remarkably fit.
            I hadn’t been here long when I spied a young man, looking to be around 18-years old or thereabouts, a wild look in his eyes, nonchalantly walking along a nearby road completely naked.  When I got home I mentioned this to the others I lived with and they all started telling of their encounters with naked guys around town.  I began to notice that I would see this particular fellow around our part of town, and that I would see other naked guys regularly in other parts of town.  It was as if these fellows had divided-up Juba and each decided to occupy a particular section of town.
            The fellow I used to see around here I now see mainly over in Konya Konya, and there’s now a different, slightly younger guy I see near home and who regularly walks past our office, same vacant dazed look on his face and the scraps of clothing he has managed to obtain hanging off his body.  The oldest member of the group I see over in Malakia.  Malakia is an area crammed with retail shops owned mainly by Arab merchants for whom personal modesty is important.  I have no way of knowing but imagine the merchants of the area persuaded this particular fellow to wear shorts, or at least the front section of shorts, which are held-up by a piece of rope and completely open in the back.  I remember driving over to a merchant in the area with one of my housemates who upon observing his bumm (she’s English) opined, “he seems very firm.”  
            I once saw a woman who appeared to be from the same group, having the same general appearance, but she was fully clothed.  It’s an odd phenomenon, nudity.  Where it is appropriate such as in bathing or swimming, it raises not the least interest.  But where it is inappropriate such as in someone walking around town or in any other casual setting it is widely frowned upon.  It’s hard to explain but it makes sense if you appreciate first, how practical people here are; one can hardly wash-up if dressed, can you?  And second, how also generally conservative people here are, a legacy of the decades of Arab occupation which is one reason while in public most people here are fully covered in long sleeves and trousers or skirts.  The lady I encountered was fully clothed because were she not one, she’d be the object of advances and two, it would be considered entirely inappropriate for her to be seen undressed.
            About a month ago my housemate and I were walking home after work.  When we passed by the crosswalk on Unity Avenue in front of St. Joseph’s Catholic School we saw a fellow standing in the crosswalk completely starkers.  The funny thing, well, in addition to his being completely naked, was that he was standing in the crosswalk and in between moments of looking up towards the sky and motioning wildly he was attempting to direct traffic along the busy road.  In this he was actually a little more successful than the crossing guards who occupy the same place in the morning because motorists were certainly slowing down to look at this naked man standing in the middle of the road.  School fortunately had already let out for the day; there were only a handful of students still around who had to witness this spectacle.  This fellow didn’t look anything like the other naked guys around town, well, other than being naked.  But we speculated he might have slipped-out from Juba Hospital located across the street, perhaps ill with some sort of brain fever which deprived him of his senses.  Like the other naked guys, no one seemed to bother him or yell anything at him but just pretended like he wasn’t there.  Never a dull moment in Juba!