Saturday, October 13, 2012

Abyei, oh Abyei

     This week I accompanied the Archbishop of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan, Dr. Daniel Deng Bul, on an assessment visit to the Abyei area.  Abyei ("Ah-bee-ay") is a disputed area along the border between South Sudan and Sudan.  As part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 the people of Abyei were supposed to be given the chance to vote whether they wanted to remain a part of the north or become part of the south.  But disagreements over who should be allowed to vote - only year round residents or also nomadic tribespeople who pass through during the year - and general intransigence on the part of Sudan have prevented a vote from taking place.
     We had travelled to Abyei in January of 2011 because we were interested in seeing how the town of Abyei was returning to life after it was destroyed by soldiers of Sudan in 2008 & 2009.  Also, we wanted to see the plight of the thousands of people who had returned to South Sudan from the north and had resettled in the Abyei area.
     What we found in 2011 was a town that was rebuilding but which faced great difficulties in terms of security and resources.  The returnees in particular were struggling, people who were largely dumped in make-shift camps located miles from the town in places without clean water or food.  The returnees were trying to build shelters and re-establish their lives in a place to which they were tied by history and family but in many cases not by any experience.
     In May of 2011 northern soldiers again invaded Abyei.  The UN soldiers who promised to protect the civillians, part of their mandate, fled at the first shots leaving the civillians to the invaders according to refugees we interviewed.  According to UN figures, over 100,000 people fled Abyei.  Most of the people, Ngok Dinka tribespeople mostly, fled southwards towards the town of Agok.  Agok has been overrun with refugees who have struggled to build shelter and find a means to support themselves.  When we visited in 2011, the ECS primary school was hosting 1200-children with about 12-teachers.  Now, with the influx of refugees from Abyei, the school has around 4200+ students with 32-teachers.  Most children sit on the ground all day under trees to learn, while their families live four or five familes to a small makeshift shelter.
     After they captured Abyei the northern soldiers and their allies the Arab-Misseriya tribespeople who bring their cattle into the Abyei area to graze during the dry season went on a frenzy of looting and destruction of the town.
     What we saw of Abyei town on this visit reminded me of the photos of Hiroshima after the atomic blasts at the end of the second World War.  There were streets and a few straggling survivors, but everything else was destroyed.  Every shop, every tukel and school and office, even the churches - except for the mosque - was destroyed.  The buildings built of local materials were all burned, the permanent buildings had their doors and windows and roofing materials removed.  We visited the local power generating station and found the two large generators burned and destroyed.  Citizens who had fled southwards to the town of Agok told of how the northerners put rocks and debris down the bore wells so they could no longer be used, and especially cruel act.
      I found the experience particularly unsettling because I remember vividly the town we visited in 2011, and I could hardly believe the scope of the destruction I saw on this visit.  I have never visited a war zone before and was unprepared for the level of destruction I experienced.  Even the house we stayed at in 2011 was destroyed without a trace.
      I will be writing more of our visit to Abyei, but I wanted to share some photos from 2011 and now so people can see the destruction that has occurred.  I also ask for people to pray for the people of Abyei and for a peaceful resolution to the crisis there.

Archbishop Daniel Deng (L) and Bishop Abraham Nhial (R) meeting the Abyei County Commissioner in Jan 2011

The same office in October, 2012

Abyei town Dept of Social Services, Oct 2012 showing destruction

Abyei town, Jan 2011 showing residents rebuilding homes, note presence of power lines. 

Abyei Town, Jan 2011 showing rebuilding

Abyei Town, Oct 2012, homes abandoned or destroyed

 Abyei town, Oct 2012: Abandoned homes, even the electric wires removed from the poles.

ECS primary school, Abyei, Jan 2011. Note doors and windows in place

ECS Primary School, Abyei, Oct 2012. Doors, windows and roofing removed.

 Archbishop Deng (C) praising the rehabilitation of the ECS Primary School, Abyei, Jan 2011

The same location, October 2012

LR Duffee at ECS Primary School, Abyei, Jan 2011
LR Duffee at same ECS Primary school classroom, October 2012

Abyei Roman Catholic Church, Oct 2012: roof missing, fixtures removed

Abyei Roman Catholic church, Oct 2012, destruction of altar

 Archbishop Deng (R) decrying the destruction of the crucifix which adorned the top of Abyei Roman Catholic Church, Oct 2012

 ECS Church, Abyei, January 2011

ECS Church, Abyei, January 2011

Site of the ECS Church Abyei, Oct 2012. A small tukel has been built on the site.

 ECS Church, Abyei, October 2012


Wednesday, October 3, 2012


            In December of 2010 I organized a trip which took me from Juba to Nairobi, then by overnight train to Mombasa (See “The Night Train to Mombasa”), thence by boat to Zanzibar Island off the coast of Tanzania.  I finished the trip by taking a ferry from Zanzibar to Dar es-Salaam in Tanzania and then flying back to Juba via Nairobi.
            I like making circular trips, traveling in a single direction.  I don’t like having to either backtrack or return over territory I’ve already covered.  It boarders on the maniacal I suppose, though I am willing to make tactical retreats where necessary.  Anyway, it was nice to get away in the days before Christmas and to have the opportunity to see some of Africa beyond South Sudan.
            It was important to me to arrive on Zanzibar by boat.  How else could you approach an island except by water, really?  Arriving by air seemed pointless.  However, finding a water route to Zanzibar proved quite difficult.  Ferries which used to operate between Mombasa and other points along the Tanzanian coast had ceased operating.  I figured I could travel by bus from Mombasa to Dar and then take the ferry over, but that went against my principles since I would have to ferry again from Zanzibar back to Dar when my trip was over.  And besides, long distance buses in Africa are nearly always miserable.
            Searching on-line for a water-borne option, and I did waste some work-time planning my trip, finally turned-up a cruise-ship that was making a five day journey out of Mombasa but which would, if requested, drop passengers off at Stone Town on Zanzibar the first morning out of port.  Perfect!  I made a reservation satisfied that I had found the final link in the chain of my adventure.  And just making reservations from South Sudan was difficult.  There are few on-line credit-card purchases in Africa, and you wouldn’t feel safe giving credit card information over a cell-phone.  I had to wire funds from Juba to Nairobi for my train ticket and hotel reservations on Zanzibar, and through the use of scanned forms was able to book my cruise-ship tickets via email.  People back home don’t appreciate the ease with which they can be parted from their money.
            I found Mombasa dreary, just a large commercial city, like Omaha but hotter and grimier.  The locals were pleasant enough, no one bothered me.  The city is overwhelmingly Muslim, and even the Anglican Cathedral was heavily influenced by Islamic architecture, though the interior bore traces of the British who occupied the country for so long.  There were innumerable brass plaques lining the walls giving testimony to the piety of past congregants.  “Sir Reginald Thomas Plash was a dedicated member for forty years,” “Edward Lukken Willoughby served on the vestry for twenty years, 1910-1930,” “Lady Davinia Swindle Ernst sang in the choir for many years,” etc.  It was all very charming and I was surprised in the middle of the day to have the cathedral to myself.
            I was so glad to be leaving Mombasa that I left for the cruise ship an hour earlier than necessary.  My scooter rickshaw driver had a hard time finding the dock; I had to keep giving him directions even though he was local.  I was the first passenger to arrive and the operators were not quite ready for me so I was left to cool in the company’s offices. 
"Ocean Mist"
            The ship was called the “Ocean Mist.”  It was Cambodian flagged and had just undergone extensive renovations to the tune of millions of dollars according to one of the crew.  The captain was an old Greek, looking perfectly cast in his role.  This was going to be its maiden voyage.  If that was the case I felt sorry for the investors.  The ship was nearly empty, probably no more than forty or fifty passengers for a ship that could carry over 200.  My impression was that most of the passengers were Iranian or some other type of middle-easterners who had come for the prospect of gambling in the ship’s casino.  Swarthy, secretive men trailed by numerous silent women clad in bhurkas.  Westerners whose only impression of people from Arab countries is from movies or television do not appreciate the individuality that bhurka clad women are able to exhibit.  Far from monolithic or dull they are highly expressive in their accents and details in addition to the henna tattooing with which married women adorn themselves.
            Because this was the ship’s maiden voyage the operators had gone to a lot of trouble to arrange for local musicians decked out in African garb beating drums and other percussion instruments to line the walkway to welcome the guests.  It was somewhat gruesome, like someone’s twisted version from an old Tarzan movie of what Africans should look and sound like.  Still, it was entertaining.  Since I had arrived so early I was able to retire to the upper open deck and sip a Coke and watch everyone else arrive.  It wasn’t cheap; my one night cost me $250 with everything included, but after nearly a year in Juba I was ready for some luxury and the ship was very, very nice.
            The operators had requested that passengers dress for dinner.  As I always travel in a suit, something I learned early on gets you far better service than dressing like a typical American in ragged jeans and a dirty t-shirt, I arrived in the dining room comfortably attired.  Given the low number of passengers the ratio between staff and customers was ridiculous.  Throughout my dinner I was never surrounded by fewer than four waitpersons who seemed to hang on my every mouthful and who whisked plates away and placed new ones before me with astonishing speed.  At the end I wanted to linger over my coffee but it felt so uncomfortable being stared at by so many staff I finally left.
            When I awoke the next morning I found that we were just arriving at Stone Town, the capital of Zanzibar.  I motored to shore and wound my way through the famous narrow streets and alleyways.  I was heading for the guest house located adjacent to the Anglican Cathedral.  I had studied a map of Stone Town in my “Lonely Planet” guide to Africa, but it was difficult to keep track of all the streets which were like walking through a maze.  I find it intimidating when I arrive in a strange place like Zanzibar.  Although you cannot help but be observed to be a tourist, still you do not want to appear to be a complete sap being easy prey for the touts and others who can cause trouble.  The one thing I knew was that the cathedral was located on one of the highest points in town and so I figured so long as I kept walking upwards I would find it which I eventually did.  Probably from the time I arrived on the island until the time I reached the guest house had only been about ten minutes but it felt like I had been walking for hours.  The air even in the morning was hot and humid.
            The Anglican Cathedral in Stone Town was built atop the site of the last slave market.  Arab traders had for centuries brought slaves captured all over the African interior to Zanzibar for sale.  One of the first Anglican missionaries decided to build the cathedral right on the site, the altar being built on the spot where the tree to which slaves were lashed was located.  There is a museum on the cathedral grounds describing the history of slavery on Zanzibar.
Anglican Guest House

            The guest house was a lovely two story structure located next door, nestled amongst palms and flame-trees and covered with bougainvillea.  My room was charming with cool tile floors and a four poster bed inset with decorative tiles.  Zanzibar is predominantly Muslim and two mosques were located close by the cathedral.  The muezzin sings out the first calls for prayers at 5:30am which made for early mornings.  Even in Juba I know it is a tough night’s sleep when I am awake early enough to hear the first call to prayer.  People at the cathedral with whom I spoke said that by and large Christians and Muslims got along well, though I heard a few months ago that in reaction to some perceived slight some Muslims had rampaged through Stone Town and destroyed a church.  I wonder if having to wake up so early every morning puts some Muslims in a perpetually bad mood.


      Stone Town is a walker’s delight.  The heart of the old central part of town consists of numerous narrow alleyways, wide enough only for pedestrians or scooters.  You can spend wonderful hours wandering through the alleyways admiring the architecture, much of it Arabic in character.  Doorways in particular feature extensive decorative carving and wrought-iron hardware.  I found the residents pleasant though non-committal, no one bothered me (other than touts) but no one really greeted me either.

        I arrived in Stone Town on a Saturday morning because I was keen to attend Sunday services at the cathedral.  I understood that the main service was in Kiswahili, of which I have a poor grasp, but that there was an English service as well.  Sadly, the English service was attended by only about a dozen parishioners and rather than being held in the cathedral proper was held in a small chapel next door.  Most of my fellow congregants were tourists like me, just passing through.  One thing that did annoy me though was that the service was at 8am.  The cathedral’s website said the English service was much later in the day the result of which I delayed my planned departure for the beach until Monday.  But once I arrived and learned of the early morning service I regretted that I would have to burn another day wandering around Stone Town – which honestly, you can get a good feel for in a couple of hours  – rather than head to the beach.
            On Sunday I purchased some plantains and locally made bread and bottles of water.  The beach resort I was heading to was located on an isolated stretch of beach and I was afraid supplies would either be difficult to find or terribly expensive.  I learned both the positives and negatives of human behavior that day.  In the main market in Stone Town I purchased plantains and bread but had to pay inflated “muzungu” prices.  I remember when I was buying the loaf of bread the price the seller quoted me was twice what the local lady before me had paid for the same item.  When I complained to the seller she merely shrugged her shoulders as if to say, “tough.”  I told her she should not engage in such practices, it was dishonest.
            But in the small Indian owned shop where I purchased bottles of water and some other small items, all I had were a few large Tanzanian notes and the owner said she could not make change.  This lady, who had never seen me before in her life, allowed me to take my bag of groceries with me with the promise that I would return later and pay her what I owed.  I was overwhelmed by her trust and kindness and I made a frantic effort to break my large bills so I could return and pay the shop what I owed.
            In the evenings vendor’s set-up grills all over the main square down near the harbor where you can wander the stalls until you find what looks good and then order your dinner.  Being an island there was all manner of seafood which would be made into kebabs and cooked over the flames.  I had some fish and chicken kebabs, it was great and watching the large crowds milling about the square was a pleasant way to spend the evening.
Buses in Zanzibar
         I opted to take the local bus to the beach.  If you want to get to know a place, take the local transport.  Lonely Planet said Bus 309 would take me to Jambiani Beach and sure enough it did.  The bus park was located near the guest house and I arrived on Monday morning after breakfast.  There were dozens of buses of all descriptions heading everywhere.  Decently enough, they line up in numerical order and although 309 hadn’t arrived yet, it was easy enough to find the place where I should wait.  I had to fend-off numerous touts offering taxis and many other items for sale.  At one point a young Masai male arrived, decked out as they always are in red plaid and equipped with his dagger and other accoutrements.  He looked so lost and terribly out of place I was compelled to ask him if he needed help but he said he was ok, just waiting for another bus.
            After about an hour bus 309 arrived.  The bus was a mid-sized truck in which the box-cab in the back had been removed and replaced with bench seats along both sides and covered with a canopy.  A handful of us climbed in, and I sat towards the front on the right side.  The schedule required about three hours which I found hard to believe for a trip of only around 30-miles.  But not long after we started we stopped in a commercial district along the main road where for over an hour dozens of sacks of flour and sugar and other commodities were loaded onto the canopy roof.  Another stop a few doors away added more freight to our roof and I realized that it was the freight and not the passengers which really paid for this trip down to the far coast of the island.  Once we got going we also stopped frequently to pick-up passengers who waved down the bus and by the time we got deep into the countryside around two dozen people were squeezed into the seats along with a pile of luggage.  The seat next to me was the last to be occupied, no one wanting to sit next to the “muzungu,” until there was no where else left to sit.  So often in Africa I have been the only white person and it is an interesting experience, one that teaches you about vulnerability and humility and kindness.
            After almost exactly three hours we arrived at my hotel.  The cost for the bus ride was 1500-shillings, or a little over a dollar.  By comparison, when I returned to Stone Town a couple of days later opting to use the hotel’s car it cost around $60.  I actually overpaid on the bus, giving the young boy who collected the money 2000-shillings, and he returned my change.
Jambiani Beach, Zanzibar
            I stayed at the Blue Oyster Hotel, a fantastic hotel located directly upon Jambiani Beach on the southeast coast of Zanzibar.  I was attracted to Jambiani from Lonely Planet’s description of it as quiet and it was that.  Pristine white sand, turquoise colored bathtub warm gentle water, swaying palm trees – it was the closest to paradise I have ever been.  The Blue Oyster was a German owned hotel run with great efficiency.  My room was sumptuous located on the ground floor of a two story cottage just off the beach.  When I arrived my bed was strewn with flowers and I felt immediately at ease.  I really appreciated the opportunity to relax and unwind.
View out my door
            The hotel offered entertainments such as visiting a nearby nature park or going out on a small boat to the coral reef offshore to go snorkeling, but I opted to stay put and relax, taking occasional walks along the beach.  At low tide the water recedes about a half mile from shore and locals, mainly women, arrive to tend seaweed which they grow in beds on the sea floor.  Stakes are driven into the ground about ten feet apart and string stretched between the stakes.  Seaweed is planted at one end and follows the string to create rectangular patches.  The water is so clear the plants would receive sunlight all day.  The women come out at low tide to collect the day’s harvest into large sacks.  Who buys it I don’t know, I couldn’t communicate with any of the women to learn much.
            Nearly all the other guests were Germans.  I met one chubby German who was there with his family.  He had lived in Dar for a couple of years working for a company.  He said he loved it and would keep signing up since it was much more pleasant than living in Germany and it allowed him to indulge his hobby of scuba diving.  The only awkward social moment was when they had this special moonlight dinner on the beach.  It was a great dinner sitting on the beach on a warm pleasant evening under a full moon rising out of the Indian Ocean.  But I was the only person eating alone and they had stuck my table right in the middle of the place.  It was hard not to be self-conscious of eating alone.
Dar es-Salaam ferry dock, Zanzibar
            The ferry-ride to Dar was uneventful.  I had intended to save $5 by buying a second-class ticket but the ticket seller insisted I buy first-class.  I was thankful I did since first class was air-conditioned which in the great heat and humidity was merciful.  Getting onto the ferry, I began to really feel more like an African.  In Africa there are no ques, you simply have to push and shove your way through the crowd, and it’s everyone for themselves.  When I first arrived I found this intimidating but I remember smiling to myself as I maneuvered my way through the crowd thinking that I was really starting to fit in.
            Like most African cities Dar was a hole, a dirty, stinking hot sweaty place.  Coming off the boat you are immediately assaulted by touts offering taxis and hotels.  I had already picked-out one or two hotels to try.  I had to be at the airport early the next morning so I only needed a room for a few hours, long enough to catch a nap and explore Dar some.  But it was a few days before Christmas and all the hotels I checked were full.  After the third hotel said they were full I instead just took a taxi to the airport, difficult in the late afternoon traffic heading out of town.  It meant about a ten hour wait at the airport but I didn’t care.   I was just glad to be heading back to Juba, back home as it were.