Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Sudan Now, Sudan Then Part III

Our people have no drinking water, education or healthcare. I do not mean that we do not have government provided/subsidized drinking water, education or healthcare – I mean it does not exist in Sudan. Does not exist by virtue of the fact that the majority of Sudan has no access to them.
 
I studied in private schools during an era where private schools were a necessity for some (in my case, having English as a mother tongue). In this catholic school, I met my lifelong friend whose mother had sent her there, to create structure and discipline in the absence of her father, a national legend, who had passed away. Others came for other reasons.
 
When we were growing up (in the 80s), Sudanese perceived private schools as the place where students went after flunking out of public schools. I will show you here what some of our “public schools” look like now.
 
Public Healthcare? You may ask. Well, that would require public hospitals, one would assume. If your fate lands you in a public hospital, be prepared to bring your own gauze, cotton, injections, the works. You will require a relative to “donate” blood, although there is no guarantee that you will receive blood if required. (True story: Friend’s mom needed blood. Her daughter donated. Afterwards, blood bank stated that mom’s blood type unavailable. Daughter was universal donor, so just asked for her own blood. Blood bank refused as it hadn’t been subjected to mandatory testing. Daughter no blood, Momma no blood. Happens all the time. Welcome to Sudan.)
 
Services? Electricity is pre-paid in Sudan. One would assume that one could expect uninterrupted service since it was already paid for. In full. One assumes wrong. Speaking of prepaid power and public hospitals, recently, a public hospital went three days without power because there was no money to “buy electricity”. (While the Private Hospital owned by the Minister of Health had all the power it needed. Thanks for asking)
 
There is no standby generator in public hospitals, so if you are unlucky enough to be in the middle of an operation when the power goes out, we will pray for you in heaven, and know that you are in a better place.
 
Water? In the land of the Nile, those of us fortunate enough to have access to the outdated water supply network, are very often left high and dry. The day after giving birth, I was forced to drive to my parents’ home because there was no water in the house. (You will understand the ramifications and magnitude of this drive if you are Sudanese, and I bet one or two of you gasped).
 
Ironically, if there is no water in the house, there is a very large possibility that within a certain radius, there is an artificial lake gushing out on to the streets, rivaling Lake Volta.
 
So, what happens if you do not fall within water coverage? (This refers to almost everybody in Sudan, since networks only cover cities, and by no means is this coverage complete) You buy water, that’s what you do. You wait for someone in a donkey-driven cart, equipped with a rusty blue-painted barrel, and you contract him to fill your plastic jerry cans and tin buckets. The quality of the water is indescribable. Suffice to say that the source of the water is broken water network pipes or irrigation channels. Bottoms up.
 
So, I sit in my site office, building towers and watch workers walking in with shoes wired together. Because it is part of my job, I tell them that they cannot work without proper shoes. I tell them it is for their safety, for their protection – they tell me I am taking food out of their children’s mouths.
 
In a perfect world, their employers would make sure that they were fitted out, but in Sudan, the employers defect on their commitment and only those with shoes can work that day. I go make a scene, urging the contractor to do what’s right by his people, and he laughs, “They got to you? Melted your heart and you come talking to me.” Hitting people is bad. We frown upon it. Move on.
 
The joy when the workers get their shoes is heart breaking. They come to thank me for being their advocate. What breaks my heart is that they shouldn’t need advocates. They shouldn’t miss work because they were not given the proper tools. And, in this, lies the story of my country. We have reached a point where no one has rights. Everything is treated like some sort of gratuity.
 
You are SUPPOSED to make sure your people have food to eat. You are SUPPOSED to give people access to clean water. You are SUPPOSED to provide basic healthcare for your people. You are SUPPOSED to provide jobs for people with various skills (not mock college graduates as recent reports quoted the President stating that college graduates were unskilled and unhireable – translation: useless parasites).
 
Before this government, some people say our fathers’ generation was spoiled – primed with a sense of entitlement. They got the best education and healthcare for free. Truth is, the haves and the have nots were in the same quarters, lived the same lives. The differences were superficial and superfluous.
 
In the Sudan of today, the haves have food. The have nots have nothing.
 
I am a professional with umpteen years of experience under my belt. I walked away from a job in Dubai because I wanted to be part of building my country. I deserve to have a few bottles of perfume and the occasional facial. I deserve a vacation and the option to splurge on an “impulse buy”. My children deserve the occasional treat for being left alone while we seek the means to make school payments, rent and groceries. Disposable income. That quaint term. Wonder what that’s like.
 
However, since I live in Sudan, I see too much. I see the anemic look in the malnourished people on the streets, I see the people that have cracked under the unbearable pressure. I see the struggle of children working to feed families and women working desperately to subsidize their income, selling bed sheets and thermos flasks. I see the suffering, I see the pain and harden my heart so it does not break in two.
 
I will try to buy treats for my children, and turn off the AC in my car (taking advice from A Tree Grows In Brooklyn). I will not buy an anniversary present for my husband, so I can pay for the exam I need to take abroad. I will not go to the doctor this month because maybe the pain will go away on its own. I will give the money to the sick mother who needs to get well to take care of her children. I will have a basic breakfast, so the little girl in the ICU can get the heart scan she needs. I will not get a facial so I can pay for the kids’ school bus and give my husband one less thing to worry about.
 
I will do what I have to do. Our family will do all it can. But I wonder. When do I tell my children that the struggle I put them through was optional - not how it's supposed to be? When do I make the decision that as my country suffers, my family may have a shot at a better life? When do I close my eyes and heart to the hurt that is Sudan and become another refugee, a guest in a more accommodating land that may provide me with that most elusive of dreams, a disposable income?
 
This is my land. This is my home. This is my country. These are my people.
 
Cry, beloved country.

Sudan Now, Sudan Then Part II: The Moral Dilemma of the Middle Class

The point of this “blog thread” (for lack of a better phrase) that I started almost a year ago, was to point out what my small family is going through. Two working professionals and three small children and barely making ends meet. When I started, I wanted to write about how hard it is to afford a vacation or birthday gifts and reward the children with a “special” toy when the report cards come in.
I wanted to write about the struggle of buying shampoo and hair conditioner – and the perfume you wish you had. That was a year ago. Before South Sudan seceded (and we wish them luck on their new voyage) and before the economy of Sudan tanked. It didn’t “take a turn for the worse”; our economy did not “face sudden difficulties”. Our economy tanked.
The acceleration of the deterioration and inflation were swift, ruthless and fierce, as the day oil money was gone, the entire country learned a lesson in economics overnight. The oil that been pumping for most of the government’s 26 years in power was gone. The oil revenue was nowhere to be seen. Not in strategic projects, not in agricultural programs, not in the country’s infrastructure, nor in our educational or medical institutions.
The money was gone. All of it.
Not even the na├»ve wondered where it had gone. There was some speculation about how the Sudanese Government owned a complete “frond” of The Jumeira Palm in Dubai. Others spoke of towers in Malaysia and villas in Turkey. A few officials had purchased local apartments in the distinguished local “Misheirab” Qatari Project, spun the rumor mill.
This speculation may vary in figures and geography but they all came to the same conclusion. Sudan was broke. Sudanese officials were rich. Hmmm… (For the record, the President spoke on National Television, that livelihoods were in the hands of God, implying that the disgruntled were heathens).
The official rate of inflation over the past year was estimated between 40-60%. That is a large range but the truth of the matter is that it is not reflective of the expenses of the Sudanese citizen that have more than doubled.
What does an average family need? School tuition and associated transport expenses. School Sandwiches. Food. Breakfast at work. Filling up the car. The occasional household purchase. Detergent.
As our young family struggles to keep up with our middle class[1] needs, you can’t help but think of the other families. The single income, working laborer that has the same commitments as you. He too has to pay rent. In a country where public education is no longer free, they too have tuition, and too often, their children go without sandwiches. Prepaid power bills and talk of pre-paid water too. The children become malnourished. Then they are susceptible to sickness that cripples the family, attempting to pay for medical treatment, or accepting with heartbreaking resignation, the death of their child.
How can my country go on like this?
Cry, beloved country.
The well dressed man rummaging through the trash has become a familiar sight. The old man at the street light begging for change and the men of all ages selling tissue boxes on the streets. (I don’t get that; when did disposable tissues become a “must have” item for all vehicles?)
How has my life changed as a middle class working professional? Our grocery list has taken a hit but while we cut back on meat, they cut back on meals. We cut back on shampoo and imported detergent, they cut back on soap. We cut back on power bills, they cut back on power.
I find my struggle very real and resent the fact that it sounds bourgeois. I tell my children that we can’t go on vacation but they tell their children that there is no food, this night. I resent the fact that a country should provide basic living for its people, and anything more is considered a luxury.
It hasn’t always been like this. As a matter of fact, we can say that it has never been like this because this government managed to take an operating nation and turn it into an oil producing nation with the longest river in the world, and reward it with the dubious position at the top of the Failed State List (http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/washington/2007-06-18-failedstates_N.htm).


[1] Personal classification that is open to dispute, because if middle class means the average, then in my country, the middle class do not have basic human needs.