South Sudan

Weekly Photo Challenge: Beginning

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This is my interpretation of last week’s Photo Challenge: Beginning.  When I learned that I will be staying in a tent, camping in remote areas with minimal basic facility or none at all (including shower and toilet!) in South Sudan, I decided to cut my hair short.  I  love having long hair and Ive had it for years.  But because it needed a lot of maintenance care like regular shampoo or conditioning, having a long hair in a hardship condition will not be easy (at least for me as I have the tendency to be very vain when it comes to my long hair!)

This photo is a painful reminder of the sacrifice I made for a humanitarian mission.  It also signifies a beginning for yet another new chapter of my life and a beginning of a new journey…far different from the comfortable material world I live in!

Categories: Africa, South Sudan, Wandering the Road Less Traveled: My Humanitarian Missions, Weekly Photo Challenge | Tags: | 14 Comments

Images of my 2013 Gasm Travels

Last year, I was able to travel to 3 countries: United Arab Emirates, Morocco and South Sudan. I went to the first two countries for my holiday break while the last one was for humanitarian mission.  It was my first time to visit these countries.

Here are the highlights of my visits:

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates

One of the things I really enjoyed during my trip to Dubai was watching the spectacular dancing water fountain outside the biggest mall in the world, The Dubai Mall and the world’s tallest man-made structure, the Burj Khalifa. Walking around during the day was not fun at all for me.  I got blisters from walking under high temperature (it was 50 degrees when I was there!).   The best way to see the city is through its metro.  Most of the metro stations are connected to malls and or tourist attractions.  It is the fastest and cheapest way of seeing the city.  As I wandered around, I was fascinated by the contrast of modern architecture to the traditional architecture.  Dubai’s modern architecture can be described as cosmopolitan with unique architectural designs made of steel, concrete and glass.  The traditional architecture uses limestone building blocks and muds as evident in the residential houses, mosques, forts and souqs.   I also enjoyed the various skyscrapers clustered in three different locations: Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai Marina and the Business Bay district. It is advisable to see the skyscrapers during the day and in the evening.   Aside from the skyscrapers, Dubai is the quintessential home of shopping with so many malls to choose from.  I find electronics and jewelries more cheaper in Dubai than in other countries.  Although, there are also various attractions and tourist destinations within and outside the city,  I did a little exploring on my own and got way off the beaten track.  I discovered many unique places such as shops, alleys and secluded beaches.  My visit to Dubai is definitely one ‘gasm’ experience!

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MARRAKESH, Morocco

My visit to Morocco is more of a photographic journey than a mere holiday trip.  In Marrakesh, I enjoyed staying at the Place Jemaa El Fna, the heart of the old Medina (old city). I spent more time exploring the main square and the nearby souks.  It was hectic and crazy, filled with motorscooters, donkey carts, horse drawn carriages, snake charmers, hash-sellers, fortune tellers, food stalls, cafes, vendors and tourists.  Once I was inside the walled city, I was engulfed in the bustle and flurry of the sights, smells and sounds of Marrakesh and the combination of stunning historical and cultural heritage.  I met a real herbalist and learned a lot about tea, spices and herbs.  Together with my travel buddy, we went on a food trip at the square and ate different variety of tangines, one of the most famous Moroccan main dishes.  We also had a day tour of the city through its city tour bus to see the contrast of the old and new medina.    The old medina has several architectural and artistic masterpieces from different periods in history while the new medina is more of a European modern district with 5 star hotels, big shopping malls, fastfoods and a variety of restaurants.

We also toured Essaouira, a charming and vibrant port and seaport town, about 3 hours drive from Marrakesh.  Despite the strong European influence, Essaouira was able to preserve its 18th century contemporary architecture in a North African context.  I particularly enjoyed walking at the Kasbah’s Sqala, a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site which has a remarkable view of the port and the Atlantic coastline. I also got lost while wandering at the old medina and souks and ended up in a maze of blind alleys where I discovered some of Morocco’s best craftsmen.  Since I came from a landlocked country and living in hardship condition during my humanitarian mission, I spent more time relaxing at a seaside bar by the beach.   Essaouira is watersport’s paradise, a perfect location for kitesurfing and windsurfing.  With its subtle beauty, unspoilt sands and wonderfully slow pace of life,  Essaouira was a great relief from the madness of Marrakesh.

On the way to our Sahara Dessert tour, we crossed the picturesque High Atlas Mountains passing by the Col du Tichka with an altitude of 2260 m.  This part of Morocco looked like another country.  The landscape was amazing.  I felt like I was floating in the air while standing at the highest peak on top of the mountain.  Then we visited Ourzazate, the Gate of the Desert.  People here are mainly the traditional indigenous tribe called Berber.  It is a popular tourist town, home to the world’s largest film studio, the Atlas Film Studios.  Several Hollywood movies including Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator and The Mummy were shot here.  30 km away from Ouarzazate is the Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou, another UNSECO World Heritage Site in Morocco. Located at the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, the Ksar is a traditional pre-Saharan habitat with houses built entirely of earthen materials with rich red mud plaster.  The houses crowd together within the defensive walls with high angle towers dating from the 17th century.  Its stunning location was where one of the Star Wars movies was filmed.  Most of the tourists find it exciting to walk the same streets as their favorite movie stars once did.  This part of our trip was well worth every minute spent here not to mention the photographic opportunity in each and every corner of the Ksar.

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CENTRAL, EASTERN and WESTERN EQUATORIA, South Sudan

Although my stay in South Sudan was work related, I was privileged to be able to see three different states aside from its capital, Juba.  South Sudan was my first humanitarian assignment in hardship location.  To be able to serve the newest country in the world was a humbling experience, something I will never trade for anything else.  It was one of my best if not the greatest experience in my life.  For more of my humanitarian experience in South Sudan, visit this link: Wandering the Road Less Travelled: My Humanitarian Missions.

South Sudan

Categories: Africa, Asia, Dubai, Morocco, South Sudan, United Arab Emirates | 4 Comments

Weekly Photo Challenge: Joy

One of the joys of working in Africa is interacting with the local communities in rural villages.  In South Sudan, local people, old and young, greet each other by shaking hands.  They are always curious as to the purpose of my visit.  Some would even stop by to chat with me asking about my country or other personal stuff like are you married, why you don’t have children etc.  Often I am mistaken as Chinese.  They greet me with Ni Hao (Hello in Chinese) or call me simply as China.

But what I like the most is when children excitedly shout Khawaja everytime they see me driving or strolling around the village.  Khawaja is the term that South Sudanese use to refer to foreigners particularly white people.  It is always a joy to hear children shouting Khawaja while waving at me with a big smile.  I am the only expatriate in my team, hence, I get all the attention.

One time, we passed by a primary school and students aged 4-7 were all waving at me shouting Khawaja.  On the way back, we decided to visit the school to conduct a mine risk education.  As soon as the car stopped, about a hundred children rushed towards the car all eager to see me.  I was mobbed by children all wanting to have a glimpse of the Khawaja!  Some even wanted to touch me and shake my hand.  Luckily the teachers came on time and asked them to go back to their classrooms. Before I left, I taught them how to do the flying kiss gesture.  Since then, everytime I pass by that village, children would greet me with a flying kiss.

However, in far flung areas, this is not the case.  Since white people are rarely seen in the area, young children are scared of me.  One time, we were mobilizing the community members for another mine risk education, when about 4 young children passed by.  I called them to join us.  As I approached the children, they were so scared that they started crying (shrieking actually) and ran away as if they have just seen a zombie walking.   The adults were laughing at me.

There was also one time where I heard one boy asking my colleague whether I am a man or a woman because I was in jeans and wearing a cap.   South Sudanese women always wear dresses, sarongs or skirts, rarely you will see them wearing trousers.

Children in the main town are more welcoming.  They are always excited to greet me usually asking me to take a photo of them.

So for these week’s photo challenge, I am going to feature photos that show JOY.  Here are some of the children I have befriended during my field work.  They were the ones who requested me to take photos of them and film them while they sing a song for me.  It was a joy to watch as they show off and pose for the camera.  They were so happy when they saw their photos and videos.

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Joy

Joy

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Here is the video I took of my little friends as they embodied life’s simple joys.

Categories: Africa, South Sudan, Wandering the Road Less Traveled: My Humanitarian Missions, Weekly Photo Challenge | Tags: , | 17 Comments

Weekly Photo Challenge: Community

Last Sunday, December 15, heavy fighting broke out in Juba, the capital of the newest country in the world, South Sudan. Hundreds of people have been killed and about 20,000 seek refuge at two UN campuses.  According to the Human Rights Watch, there is likely that the fighting can lead to civil war as South Sudanese soldiers and rebels have executed people based on their ethnicity. About 500 people have already been killed and the fighting have now reached other states in the country.

As I continue to monitor the situation in the news, I thought of the times when I felt that sense of community among South Sudanese despite of their different ethnicity. The only thing that I can think of is working with my Community Liaison team in the field. I am the only expatriate and the only woman in my team. My local colleagues belong to different tribes and ethnic background. Seeing them coexist as teammates, workmates and eventually as close friends is a joy to watch. It is even more exciting everytime we camp together with the technical team whose members are mostly soldiers with different ethnic background. They play football and cards together, watch football match together, they eat and share meals together, they camp together and travel together. They often teach me the differences in their beliefs and tradition without being offensive to one another. There is always that sense of belongingness and identification as one people – as South Sudanese.

This week’s Photo Challenge allows us to interpret the word COMMUNITY in any way we want. As a way of tribute to my South Sudanese friends and colleagues, I am featuring that sense of community I witnessed in South Sudan to show to the world that amidst the fighting and tribal wars happening in the country, there is still the presence of ethnic diversity among its people — that feeling of oneness and belongingness where one matter to one another.

In particular, I am going to share one of my experiences…one that I will forever remember during my deployment on field with my team. We often travel in convoy, usually in two cars or more if the technical team are with us. I love seeing our land rover vehicles in convoy cruising in the countryside. We are always mindful of following our Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) when traveling because of the insecurities in the areas we go to. Often, we communicate via radio to check one another making sure that we don’t lose sight of each other while on convoy. Because of the bad condition of roads in the country, we often encounter road accidents along the way which makes us stranded for more than an hour sometimes almost the whole day stuck in the middle of nowhere. This is where I often see the spirit of communal unity and cooperation among my local colleagues as well as with the nearby communities.

One day, we were on convoy with the technical team (about 5 cars) heading to a far flung village when we encountered a road accident. A truck was stuck in the middle of the road blocking our way. My men hurriedly went down to check the situation.

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They immediately offered to help.

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Two of our vehicles got stuck also when we tried to maneuvered to the side of the road.  The road was muddy and slippery with huge puddles everywhere. This is always the case when it is rainy season.

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Nearby villagers also volunteered to help. It was a sight to behold. South Sudanese of different tribes and ethnic background working as one community.

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After all our vehicles managed to pass by, everyone cheered, shaking hands and hugging each other for a job well done.

As the new conflict arises in the country, my prayers goes to my colleagues and friends hoping that they will remain to be the way they used to be — as one family, one community.

There are several images that I wanted to share but I opted not to show them in public to keep the identity of my South Sudanese colleagues.

For more on the current situation of the South Sudan Unrest, please visit UNMISS Videos on YouTube.  Here is one of the videos uploaded:

 

Categories: Africa, South Sudan, Wandering the Road Less Traveled: My Humanitarian Missions, Weekly Photo Challenge | Tags: | 3 Comments

Being In Tune With Nature

On my previous post, In the Midst of Hardship, I described the difficulties I have encountered in the field while on deployment for a humanitarian mission in South Sudan.  Towards the end, I discussed some of my coping mechanisms.  One of these is being in tune with nature.  How do I do that?

Every morning, I am awakened by the sounds of my ‘little’ friends.  Their presence give me a reason to get up.  They actually push me to wake up every morning!    Why? Watch this and LISTEN!

Who would not want to wake up with their charming tweets and chirping sounds?  Their soothing and calming natural sounds help me connect to nature and the world outside.  And when Im out to greet them, they always make me smile with their colorful looks.  Guys, meet my very cute ‘little’ friends!

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Every morning, they come and visit me at the campsite.  I am not familiar with bird species but I have not seen such kind of small little birds in different colors in its natural habitat.  (I only see birds like these in pet shops or inside a cage kept as pets at homes).  They do look like the bee eaters but I am not sure.  Although they have their local names, I prefer calling my ‘little friends’ according to their colors.

Yellows (photos above) are often my morning companions.  They come in groups as early as 5:30 am.  They often stay on top of the trees or shrubs and sometimes join me while I drink my coffee outside my tent.

Blues (birds below) are my companion at work.  I always see them around when I am visiting the communities, usually distracting me when they start flapping their wings and create their unusual tweets.   One time, I was giving a Risk Education session and I saw one on top of a branch making funny posses as if catching my attention.  I couldn’t stop myself from admiring my ‘little’ friend that I had to excuse myself from my participants just so I am able to take a photo of Blue.

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Blacks are my afternoon companions.  I often see these little fellas when I go for walks in the village or to watch the African sunset.

South Sudan Birds

And finally, Reds, my favorite traveling companion.  I see them often in the bushes along the roads.  They distract me from the tough rough roads that I had to endure traveling in far flung villages.  Sadly though, I was not able to take loads of good photos of Reds because of road security issues, we can’t stop regularly just for picture taking.

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South Sudan birds

South Sudan offers a variety of Bird life because of the presence of wetlands.  It is one of the things that I love traveling in the field.  However, because of insecurities, cultural considerations and the kind of work that I do, I am not able to practice photography using my DLSR camera. Good thing I brought my compact digital camera with a very good Leica lens.  (There are a lot of places especially in the main towns and cities where taking photos are prohibited.  I was once caught by an undercover National Security personnel while taking photo of the River Nile. I had to delete the photo in front of him while explaining that I was taking photos only to show to my family because of its biblical relevance.  Since then, I am careful of taking photos particularly in the city/town proper!)

Instead, my photographic memories compensate to my lack of photographs.  Indeed, watching my ‘little’ friends in their natural habitat help me take my mind off my hardships. Their relaxing sounds help me fall asleep, unwind or wake up to.  They brighten my day and make my difficult situation a bit more pleasant to live with.

 

Categories: Africa, South Sudan, Wandering the Road Less Traveled: My Humanitarian Missions | Tags: | 4 Comments

In the midst of hardship

I have been working as an international development worker since 2006 and have worked in several developing countries.  However, my humanitarian mission in South Sudan is by far the most challenging and most difficult, yet the most fulfilling job i’ve ever had. I would not trade this experience for anything….not even my past ‘Gasm’ Travels!

Here is a peek of my humanitarian lifestyle, in the midst of hardship.

My deployment entails travelling with my team (a group of 4 male national staff) in far flung places often on unpaved rough roads,….

South Sudan

in muddy, flooded highways…..

South Sudan

notwithstanding the imminent dangers of road accidents, robberies, car hijacking and ambushes….

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as well as the Unexploded Ordnances (UXO) or unexploded ammunitions and anti-tank landmines and other remnants of war that are scattered in roads, in farms and gardens, in the bush, communities even within town centers.

This was taken during one of our clearance operations in one of the communities in Central Equatoria State. This is a main busy highway connecting a village to the main town. Unknowingly to many, there were a number of unexploded air bombs and mortars half buried on the ground which if detonated can cause a massive explosion.

UXO

When we reach our destination, we first look for a place to camp either within the village center or outskirt of town.

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Here are the various campsites we had so far….from Western Equatoria State to Central Equatoria State to Eastern Equatoria State….south sudan

Yes, I sleep in a small tent (which is often leaking when it is raining!)

…And this is my home…..welcome to my humble abode!

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….and this is my office….

South Sudan

Welcome to our kitchen! We hire a cook from the village.  We use charcoal in cooking.  If there is no borehole nearby, the river water serves as our water source. 

South Sudan

What we eat depends on how much budget we still have and what is available in the village market.  At the beginning of deployment, often there is meat but after a few weeks, my local teammates end up eating the same kind of food….the greens, a local leafy vegetable cooked in peanut butter.

South Sudan

A typical meal of South Sudanese is a combination of Greens and Ugali (made of cornmeal flour).  It is also the cheapest and most available food in every village.  Here is how Mary, one of our hired cooks, prepare the greens.

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There was one incident during our last week of deployment where we ran out of money in the field.    Luckily I always have my emergency canned goods stored.  However, the guys opted to hunt for food.  It has just rained that night.  I was inside my tent preparing for bed.  I saw them with a cup kneeling under a bulb light as if doing some rituals.  The next day, I asked them what they were doing outside my tent.  They showed me a cup full of flying ants.  These are the insects that come out after the rain.  They told me that it was for dinner.  They showed me how to prepare it, removing first the wings and drying the insects under the sun.  Then after a few hours, they fry it in oil then greens are added.  Voila! Sauté Flying Ants with Greens! (By the way, they also eat it raw!)  I did try it, it was not that bad…it was just like eating…um, well, insects…:)

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Well, that is not yet the most difficult ordeal I have to go through.  Bathing, pooing and peeing are what I call the worst in humanitarian hardship.    I have never cursed my being a woman because of these toilet issues!  I struggled a lot on this aspect especially as I am the only woman in the team.

Sometimes, we are lucky to find a public latrine nearby. Otherwise, we will do a makeshift latrine and bath area (my ass prefers this as it is more a ‘bit’ hygienic compared to the public latrine!) Or if not, tall bushes along the road or behind a big Mango tree will do. 🙂

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Top Photos: Public Latrine; Middle Photos: Makeshift Latrine; Lower Photos: Bathing Area

But in the midst of hardship, I had to find ways on how to divert my mind and not be affected by my difficult situation.  Here are some of my survival tactics:

When living in the tent is becoming unbearable, I would close my eyes and imagine I am camping in the wilderness of Australia.  When it is rainy and cold, I imagine camping in the highlands of Scotland.  It makes things more bearable just thinking of those beautiful places I have been to and reminisce those ‘gasm’ feelings I had during my travels.

I learned that in hardship situations, meditation and imaginations help a lot.  When I am fed up with eating canned foods or greens, I  would crave for something so I can focus on having it. So I will count the days till the end of the month when I can go back to the city  and treat myself with proper good food!

Lastly, being in tune with nature can have positive effects on mental and physical health creating balance in our inner ecology despite the ever changing environment.  The smell of wet earth after the rain, the amazing African sunset that brightly colors the horizon and the chirping of the birds in the morning are some of the reasons why I love working in the field.

Amidst these hardships, I have learned to relax, to accept and to go with the flow.  As what the saying goes, ” The more difficult it is to reach your destination, the more you will remember the journey. ”

Watch out for more on my survival tactics in my future posts…..

Categories: Africa, South Sudan, Wandering the Road Less Traveled: My Humanitarian Missions | Tags: | 13 Comments

A Glimpse of Hope for South Sudanese

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We were on deployment in one of the remotest villages in Central Equatoria State when I took this photo of my South Sudanese colleague’s hand reaching for the flag using trick photography. You can create trick photography using the following techniques: 1. making your subject seem abnormally large in comparison to the rest of the setting; 2. making your foreground and background look as if they have little or no distance between them. I did the latter.

Last July 9, 2013, I was privileged to have witnessed the celebration of the 2nd  independence day of the newest country in the world, South Sudan.

After   decades   of  civil  war,  the  Republic  of  South  Sudan  finally  gained  full  independence from Sudan on 9 July 2011. Development  progress  is  somehow  evident  already  in  the  capital,  Juba,  in  terms  of  infrastructure  and  real    estate development. However, the city is still far from being a modern capital city.

The whole country still lags  behind  in  terms  of  basic social services and other infrastructure facilities like paved roads as well as having an airport with no international civil  aviation standards and river channels not having been made navigable.

There is no electricity supply yet in most part of the  country  including the capital Juba.  Businesses and offices make much use  of  generators.  Water  supplies  are  mostly  from  boreholes  or  River  Nile  fetched  by  water  tank  trucks, and being delivered daily to every household.  Drinking water are mostly from imported plastic water bottles available at small shops.

Aside from the limited access to social services, widespread epidemic diseases has been plaguing the country, with Malaria and Typhoid cases rising in numbers.

Social unrest and tribal wars that causes widespread conflict displacement in certain states  have  also  escalated  since the country gained its Independence. Other crimes such as robberies, ambush, car  hijacking, and killings  have  intensified  the past few months particularly in the main roads leading to Juba.  Expatriates humanitarian NGO workers have now  become primary targets of crimes since the beginning of this year.

Only  after  two  years  of  independence, the  government’s  reputation has already been tarnished by rampant corruption and  political  instability.  Hence,  South Sudan  entered  the  international  community  as  one the poorest countries in the world with more than half of the population surviving below the poverty.

However,  despite  the  immense  challenges  facing  the  country,  its  people  are  still  hopeful  that  the country can move beyond these social problems and eventually enjoy its status as the newest sovereign nation in the world.

But for now, South Sudanese are celebrating their new found freedom, relishing the end of decades of war.

Peace and prosperity to South Sudan!

Categories: Africa, South Sudan, Wandering the Road Less Traveled: My Humanitarian Missions | 11 Comments

Scarring: A sign of beauty

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Most of us do not like wrinkles as this is a normal sign of aging.  But here is a tribe in Central Equatoria in South Sudan, the Mundari tribe, known for the scars etched deep in the forehead. Each tribe in South Sudan has its different designs to mark their identity. But for Mundari tribesmen, markings on the forehead signify not just identity but also beauty. Without the scars, they are considered as a child yet to mature or ugly to the eyes of many and so no chance to find a mate. Another interesting trivia from the field….

Categories: Africa, South Sudan | 10 Comments

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