Thursday, November 05, 2009


Not everything in Darfur makes perfect sense. I just completed a paralyzingly dull day of workshops on the environment and natural resources in Darfur - most of which was in Arabic and thus of predictably little value to me. One of the few portions sufficiently translated was an exploration of how an explosion in the number of nomadic herders (and consequently in their flocks) has ravaged the environment of Darfur. The numerous and hungry sheep, goats, cattle and camels devour grass, shrubs, trees, roots, and whatever other edibles they can find in an already shockingly inhospitable environment. This further dries the environment, erodes the soil, kills most of the plants lucky enough to escape the goat's teeth. More immediately, it also drives the growing number of herders onto land occupied by a similarly soaring population of farmers, where their critters, being critters, find lovely and well-nurtured crops upon which to feast. The herders are desperate, the farmers aghast, and one or both of these parties usually has an AK-47. Throw in a hefty dose of Machiavellian meddling from the central government and a ton of complexity I haven't hinted at here, and voila - you get the Darfur conflict. So it's clearly an idea beyond reproach that, among a great many other things, weaning a few well-armed nomads off their herding lifestyle might pay some delightful dividends in reduced environmental damage and bloodshed.

The next presentation was a discussion of how to improve the lot of nomadic herders by making it easier for them to increase the size of their herds.

This is one of the lesser of many insane contradictions espoused by well-meaning people today. What an odd place.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009


I suppose I could say my plate is full. I'm bouncing back and forth between Khartoum and various metropoles of Darfur and, on one happy but too brief occasion, Switzerland. I'm working absurd hours, though to be fair I just partook of my first proper weekend in a month or so. I'm learning a ridiculous amount about subjects I hadn't known existed. All this is in service of a $2.5 million project that operates (lightly and loosely) over an area roughly the size of France. Oy. But jeepers, it's interesting stuff - at the nexus between war and poverty and the environment, using technology waaay beyond my understanding to tackle (or at least comprehend) problems similarly beyond my pay grade.

If only I didn't have to relearn Spanish in the next 3 days. Speaking of which, I'm strongly considering abandoning my bid for the Canadian Foreign Service, propelled largely by their hideous lack of communication over hte last year, their nightmarishly disorganized HR department, and my growing impression that I'd spend most of my career trapped in Ottawa, sequestered away from the (rather captivating) sort of field work I'm doing now. Choices, choices...

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Long days...

Tonight after leaving work, the last by an hour or more, I settled into a wire chair at the Lebanese restaurant with which I've grown too familiar over the last months. After eating I ignored the bill on my table for an hour while devouring the final heartbreaking pages of What is the What, which I've been criminally tardy in completing. I'd recommend it immensely even if I weren't here. I recommend it all the more for the fact that I am.

I've been gone awhile from the interweb, and a few inquisitive folk have written requesting tales of adventure. I've written little because I have little to tell. There's a mundanity to my daily life you wouldn't expect from the exotic sound of Khartoum. My office is a block from my home, and between the vicious hours I log at the former and the few I while away at the latter, I pass many a day without leaving sight of either. But it's time for me to invest a little more effort in finding (and sharing) the bits of wondrous texture I'd encounter if I weren't working so damn hard, like the melody of the evening call to prayer that rings from the mosque just out my front door.

More wonder should be easier to find now that I'm dragging myself out from behind my desk. My project, a potentially fascinating mix of environmental science and conflict management, is beginning to rise steaming from a murky ocean of paperwork and take ungainly flight. I'm off to Switzerland on Wednesday to consult with a long-courted subcontractor, and back for a blink on the weekend before I depart for South Darfur for two weeks. There will be more to tell - always is, I suppose, if I make the time to tell it.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Cliffhanger resolved...

A pygmy hedgehog just wandered into my living room, snuffled around a moment, and vanished behind the couch. Not what I expected from a legendarily shy creature.

But a decent welcome to Darfur - or technically El-Fasher, the capital of North Darfur state. What little I've seen of massive Darfur is precisely as flat and dry as you'd expect from the newspapers, with drifts of dust a foot deep against walls. But it is the rainy season, and as we drove in on Monday from the airstrip, goats huddled single-file against walls, seeking scant shelter against a few minutes of unexpected rain, and donkeys clustered, shivering in the low-30s heat, under the few dessicated trees. El-Fasher is a single-story town, nearly as flat and featureless as the desert surrounding it. I've seen very little of it, because Sudan is a country roughly the size of Western Canada, and Darfur the size of BC, and there are few incentives to conserve space when building towns. It's spread out to an almost comical degree, with roads (a term charitably applied) often a hundred meters. The sky is imposingly vast, and after a brief and intense shower yesterday morning, cloudless and startlingly blue.

There goes the hedgehog against, poking unhurriedly around the lawn furniture of my guesthouse.

I'm here in Sudan for a few months to help an NGO coordinate support to people displaced by the Darfur crisis, and I'm unlikely to often offer more detail than that. I'll spend most of my time in Khartoum, the similar dispersed capital that's nonetheless rather more welcoming than Kathmandu, at least according to my single day's impression. I'm here in El-Fasher, many hundreds of kilometres away, until Saturday, learning the ropes and shaking the hands of the people I'll be collaborating with in the coming months.

I've got much more to tell, but first I think it's time to see if that hedgehog wants to be my friend.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

One of blogging's cute ironies is that while unexpected, entertaining, or even tumultuous events often fuel the most fascinating blog posts, they frequently make actually writing such posts a practical impossibility.

For example:

During a brief but lovely visit, Emily and I took a too-short sojourn to Pokhara, the anti-Kathmandu - a serene, yet still marvelously entertaining city where, had I been sane, I would have settled rather than in the nightmarish capital.

The rainy season turned Kathmandu to goo. (Hey, that rhymes!)

My thuggish, sleazy bottom-floor neighbours nicked $500 from my coffee table. I'm loth to go into the details, but suffice it to say that it wasn't due to any silly lapse in security on my part but rather to a previously unexpected layer of depravity on their part. Jenn and Court (my cool and considerably less larcenous neighbours) have informed me that the theft has led to the eviction of the guilty parties, so I'll call that a Paul victory, if a Pyrrhic one.

And I'm in Sudan.


Sunday, June 21, 2009

In brief...

Like many, I'm completely enraptured by what's underway in Iran. An uprising long in the coming and provoked by a ludicrously blatant fraud is well underway. I've learned repeatedly (and always the hard way) that dictatorial regimes are as a rule far more tenacious than one would expect, and tend to hold on long past their appointed bedtimes. However, I see some reasons to hope there's permanent change underway in Iran.

When the monks of Burma rose up against the State Peace and Development Council in 2007, there was never much hope for them, despite the romantic glory of the images and the undeniable rightness of their cause. The Burmese military never showed any signs of internal fracture, or of any refusal to obey the regime's brutal orders. And without any change inside the military, any collapse in internal discipline, no change was ever really in the offing. The situation in Iran feels different. I don't believe that the Iranian police will have the unwavering, uniform mercilessness required to crush a worthwhile uprising through force alone (though the basijis are another matter. I don't really believe that they'll systematically slaughter thousands, in the manner of Tiananmen, as opposed to the sporadic brutality seen in response to protests in the last couple of days. And if that's true, as I desperately wish, then I don't think they'll be able to suppress this uprising; military discipline could fail, and we might see soldiers and policemen siding with the protesters.

Damn, I hope so.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

In which I age cheerfully!

I had planned a great meandering post on this, the occasion of my 30th birthday, but I got far too caught up in having fun and wandering around Thailand. Narcissistic details on my decade marker will surely follow, but I think it's time to go track down more food!

I love Thailand.

And I'm fairly certain that my 30s will treat me as well as my 20s did.

The best times are yet to come.