Monday, June 26, 2006


It is my great pleasure to offer congratulations to the new members of the Lakes State Ministry of Information, Youth, Culture, and Sports staff. These talented young professionals have worked hard for the past five weeks honing their skills as journalists and reporters in order to prepare them for their new positions as Public Information Officers in the ministry.
At our graduation ceremony, held today June 26, 2006 at 2:30 at the old UNICEF Camp in Rumbek, the efforts of the VEGA-sponsored Media Training class were recognized by the Minister Adak Costa Mapuor as she awarded each student a certificate of participation. She was in turn pleased to be presented with the fine product of their labor, approximately one hundred news stories, some of the first written in Lakes State in many years.
Success comes to those who work with passion. I believe this is especially true here among the Media Training class members, who have tirelessly sought accurate information from high and low and throughout in order to write "New News Stories." May they never forget to ask themselves the question, "Who Cares???" and that there is a "Larger Significance," to stories even as simple as that of Lele, the grenade-happy drunkard. Freedom of expression, press, and access to information is not simply part of the Constitution, it is with you.
Thanks to the Internet, we are together, even though in separate countries. More importantly, thanks to you the Media Training class for the fantastic times and fond memories. I will always look forward to hearing the news from Rumbek.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Village Idiot Article II

The title of this article, "World News Exclusive Report," was written with tongue in cheek. You can probably tell, though, that I'm starting to get a little nostalgic about all this as I only have one week left. I just got started in Rumbek!

Special Reporter Jon Stewart, on assignment here in Rumbek, Sudan! And the news for the day is as follows: skies are blue, birds are chirping, the markets are up and running, and children are laughing and playing. Yes, all of this is happening here in Sudan, despite what you may have heard about what’s happening in the Darfur region. You see, there are no international press releases coming from here in the south, where evidence of progress is visible every day. The civil war between this country’s north and south lasted 22 years, and ended in early 2005. Southern Sudan is the center of a rebellion that fought for and eventually won relative autonomy from the central government.
The really good news is that everyone here is optimistic about lasting peace. What’s more, NGOs from around the world have descended on this country and are working like a pack of rabid wolves to help tackle the problems created by the long war. They are doing things like rebuilding schools, training teachers, removing landmines, feeding families. Even more, the structures of government here are staffed by some really great people, and although things are far from perfect, they are working tirelessly to create strength and stability.
I have been training journalists for the last four weeks, and I learned how easy it is to report depressing, maddening, and tragic stories when good news often seems so flippin’ boring. Who cares if an old women successfully crosses the street and goes home to bake cookies? There are thieves out there, for gods sakes! And murderers . . . terrorists!
Not that I’m whining, but it’s hard work, even forgiving the physical conditions. For one, I have about one month to try to instill ideas like objectivity and accuracy. It has been pretty daunting at times. Zang! I realize how connected things can be, the world over. For example, the tendency for reporters to report on negative events, because they’re frankly more interesting, seems pretty universal. It happens in my class, and it’s exactly what’s happened to Sudan in the world press. The depressing Darfur situation has overshadowed this relatively optimistic part of Sudan, where people can be damn touchy about needing sympathy, after struggling so hard for what they have.
The work is also difficult because I’m not sure exactly how my students will be employed after the training. I would like to see them find jobs working for a private newspaper or radio station. The problem there is that such media just don’t exist in this part of the country. They will have to email their stories to publishers and broadcasters, at a high personal cost. Instead, they will most likely be working for the government. That means they could be forced to write good news – too much of it.
Anyway, the Sudanese are not the only ones taking advantage of the peace. This reporter is having a blast bombing around Rumbek getting news stories with my students. I usually pick a team of reporters from class in the morning and let them drag me around all day into the places they go to get news – into interviews, taverns, the prison, courts, the markets. I’ve met everyone in town – from religious shamans to the traffic police officer and school children to the town mayor, SPLA soldiers, shackled convicts and politicians from all over Sudan. I also know how to get around. Need to get back to the hotel? Hop on a catering lorry (truck)! Left behind at a social function? Bicycles are made for two in this town!
By the time this story prints, I will be close to home. The trip has gone by too quickly, and although I can’t say I’m not ready to leave, I will always have fond memories of Rumbek and the people I know here. More importantly, it’s refreshing to be hearing good news coming from Sudan. We all hope the Darfur situation is resolved soon. In the meantime, people in southern Sudan are overwhelmed with reasons to celebrate.

Saturday, June 17, 2006


This picture has become one of my favorite pictures of Rumbek, Sudan. It jives so well with this conversation I had last night with a man who spent 3 weeks photographing Dinka in the bush. He really impressed upon me the uniqueness of Dinka, in a sort of anthropological sense (not my area of expertise by a long shot). Here is a people and a culture that pre-dates, he says, the whole of Western civilization. They have managed to survive as a people because they are very skeptical of outside influence, a result of centuries of occupation, colonization, and capture for slavery.
Anyway, as a pastoral people, they value cattle very highly. The other day when a bull darted in front of our vehicle, I yelled at the driver, Mustafa, "Hey, you almost took out that guy's IRA!" A Dinka will look at this picture and tell you the type, name, age, sex, and approximate value in multiple currencies of the cow. He or she won't even notice the guy standing next to it, or the UN equipment in the background. It's more than status, wealth, retirement accounts, currency. Cows are a source of livelihood; milk is nearly sacred, with properties of holy water, gold, and chocolate chip cookies all wrapped into one. Families share it in a particular way: starting with the youngest and on up, they nourish everyone according to need. Cows are also like pets, almost part of the family. You can imagine why it is an incredible honor for a family to slaughter a cow for a special occassion.
The Dinka also place a lot of emphasis on age. Expat volunteers here can really take advantage of this fact: anyone over 60 might as well be Oprah Winfrey, they get so much instant respect. Elders are known as "monydit" or "rendit," and relax most of the time, when they are not needed for public speaking. "Parak" means a young man, as distinguished from a boy because he is not allowed to milk cows. The young men are responsible for the cows. Women seem to do all the hard work: they spend most of the day getting water and preparing meals.
Most noticable about the Dinka is their height. After that, you notice how dark their skin really is: pure black, almost. They also have little hair, and very smooth skin with almost no poors. They can also jump very high. Three feet or more, from standstill. It's crazy.
I hope I'm not a failure as an anthropologist. See, your average PhD would not have any desire to use words like "cool!" or "weird" or especially not "zang!" I am a different case altogether. I think the Dinka are freakin' cool, and I'm glad to spend time with them and even teach a class, even if I'm a little weird to them, being pasty white, sweaty and fresh outta cows. The Zang! can happen any time. It's usually when I realize that, for all the change the NGOs here want to affect, and all the resources we pour into this area, we can't but hope to just nick the surface if we can't grasp the culture, if we can't think like Dinka. Who says they need it? Afterall, UN equipment just breaks down after a few years, but a good cow will feed a family for a lifetime.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Hand Grenades: Bad for the Environment

Last week, as practice, my class worked this story that had happened over the weekend. Here are some of the details . . . An area man by the name of Lele comes home from a night at the bar. He is frighteningly drunk, beyond comprehension (his own or anyone else's). He, however, is determined to get his whole family involved in a sing-along. The neighbors wake up and come over, and soon a huge argument erupts. Then, the argument gets a little tense when Lele whips out a hand grenade and starts threatening everybody in sight. Things get even more nasty when the hand grenade goes rolling out of his hand, with no pin. Seven people wind up in the hospital and Lele goes to prison after he is tried the following day in the above courthouse.
This is what is often known as a "post-conflict environment." Things like this grenade incident happen all the time. I can spot a hick with a gun rack in the US; in Rumbek, some of the bicycles have gun racks! So weapons are everywhere, as a lot of the ramshackle army ended up bringing their stocks home with them, stashing them away, and continuing to solve conflicts the way the army trained them. It gets much worse, though. 22 years have done more than deprive an entire generation of education. Young men in the army don't know anything else. Who can you get-among men who were once field lieutenants and battle-harden soldiers with huge war-time responsibilities-to do things like basic accounting? And it gets worse. Child soldiers exist among this society, often shunned and considered crazy. One of my colleagues asked her class about them and they knew exactly what she meant when she referred to them as "human landmines."
Anyway, back to Lele. He was the butt of many jokes in class for behaving like such an idiot. You see, I laughed when, a week later, I shook the man's hand and asked him what the hell he was thinking. This happened on Monday, when two of my more brazen students talked their way, with me in tow, into the Rumbek Prison for prisoner interviews. We entered through this huge rusty swinging door into a large courtyard with 100 guys, many in shackles (the murderers), sitting in nice rows under a mango tree. The commissioner introduced the journalists to the group and my students started their interviews. Probably 45 minutes went by, and they interviewed 5 or six guys apiece while the rest of the group was silent. Then one of the students starting yelling. "Jon, get over here - This is Lele!"

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Mango Tree Press

Here are some shots of the Mango Tree Press. As you can see, we're squeezing out much more than juice here! The taste of good journalism is much sweeter, and it doesn't sting when it gets in your eyes. In the top picture are all my students together, enjoying a guest lecture in the "Mango Tree Newsroom," where we meet every day. The other picture was taken last Friday; we went to lunch to celebrate (we're still learning shot composition).
Here's what I'm doing: I report to the Lakes State Ministry of Information, Culture and Youth Sports. It's a small, catch-all ministry in the Lakes State (think Texas or Vermont equivalent in Sudan) headed by a wonderful woman named Adok Costa Maupor The long name represents the truly expansive responsibilities this ministry and all others must play in southern Sudan's political environment. The Ministry are the clients, essentially, of a USAID-funded program facilitated by myself, a visiting expert in media provided by Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance (VEGA). Catch all that? Capacity building is buzz word here: I work at increasing the media capacities of the Lakes State Ministry of Information and yadda yadda.
A few interesting notes: First, VEGA is new at this media game. They have never done anything like this before, and in fact my project was labelled as a "pilot." How does such a young guy, with no experience in capacity building and only amateur experience in media, get this position? I begged for it! Yep, I wanted it bad, and you know what? I love it, and so far it's a huge success because my students are really going out there and fighting for stories, demanding facts. I owe the VEGA staff and other volunteers BIG, too.
Second, and relatedly, media, whether you like it or not, serves political functions. Therefore, my brand of capacity building is much more quirky (fun!) than other areas, like farming or information technologies, for examples. And there are no freakin' rules! No precedents. No examples. Just me, skating along at speeds politically equivalent to those at which even Russian Olympian speedskaters lose control and start getting hurt. Have I crossed the line here? Am I offsides or out of my lane? How would I know? Do they even have ice rinks in Africa? Strange things start happening.
Anyway, the heart and soul of this assignment is this group of 21 young journalists. They have been hired by the Ministry to become, essentially, public information officers for the Lakes State (think Texas or Vermont of Sudan). I have four weeks to give them all the knowledge and practical skills they need to rush into the fold and start gathering and writing news stories that will go out to the rest of Sudan, Africa, and farther. Just yesterday we began actually interviewing. I meet with the class in the morning, they organize into groups based on where they need to go, and off we go. At the end of the week we will have 50 completed news stories on events throughout Rumbek and the state, with interviews of Rumbek citizens from criminals in the prison to the Governor of Lakes State.
In addition, I will advise the Minister on how she can best manage media in the State. To be completely and dreadfully honest, she doesn't have a whole lot to manage right now. In fact, the whole state is without newspapers or broadcast stations. Internet is ridiculously expensive for those who can manage to find a public computer. Instead, my focus will be on suggesting additional volunteer programs. Increasing the Ministry's capacities in the area of media: what's next? Personally, I think what this state really needs is some private investors to get radio stations built. Any takers? I've got some experienced reporters!

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Backyard Barbeque: Rumbek Style

I got lucky a few days ago and was invited to this family barbeque, of sorts, here in Rumbek. One of my students handed me an printed invitation, the first clue that this was something important, but I had no idea what I was in for! As I headed out, I only knew that the occassion was the return of this student's father's son-in-law.
It turns out this said son-in-law is a member of the Khartoum Parliament. Big guy. As I arrived, I sat down in a chair next to a few older gentlemen. I was surprised when they were all introduced as members of the Lakes State Assembly. Soon Ministers' cars started arriving, and the small original crowd turned into a huge gathering of family, featuring some big time guests.
Everyone (all the men) sat chatting in a huge circle for a while, and then the food was brought out by the ladies and every person there went through this specialty buffet banquet. The meat was very fresh! (I tripped on the cow's horns) Following dinner, the elder members each gave a brief speech, and the guest of honor concluded. Check out the pictures.
Tomorrow is the first day of what I am calling "The Mango Tree Press." More on that and the details of my project coming up . . .

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

How to Address a Dinka

The title of this blog entry is just one letter away from another, even more intricate topic of discussion, that of how to appropriately choose Dinka attire. Coincidentally, "attire" is that letter plus another away from what I witnessed one Dinka wearing the other day, although such fashion is not very traditional as bicycles and their components have only been available in Rumbek for a little over a year now. The incredible height of Dinkas (they are the tallest ethnic group in all of Africa) is not the only difficulty one might encounter when dressing a Dinka. No, it is also important to remember that firearms are the equivalent of "bling" here in Rumbek, which makes legal consent to any alternative mode of dress rather pointedly absolute.
In any regards, in addressing a Dinka, I am happy to report that height is the only obstacle. And although a Dinka's size can make them appear quite imposing, the imposition is very easily overcome through the use of a deftly executed maneuver: the handshake. "Deftly executed" is key. Many cowaja make the mistake of waving, smiling, taking pictures, or even introducing themselves, or otherwise complicating the address with phrases like, "Gee, what a nice shirt you have on!" or "Wow, nice shop, can I come in?" The wise white man (or woman) knows better. Subtle. Skillful. Confident. Coy. Be as such when addressing a Dinka. I will now reveal the trick, as no magician ever should, especially in regards to such profound slight-of-hand . . .
Think of the last time you were reunited with an old trusted friend. Remember the euphoria, the smile on your face? It's like pulling Grandma's cherry pie out of the refrigerater a few hours before dinner just to have a look, and maybe, just a tiny little taste. Oh how good! Almost sinful! Put that smile on when you walk up to your Dinka just like your best of friends. "Remember those old romps with the SPLA? That one time John Garang showed up when we were drunk with extra grenades? Damnit, man, those were the good ol' days! Haha! How the hell are you?" Think these things, don't say them, as you nod with just a slight upstroke lead by the chin. Then reach out your spread fingers for a crushing handshake. Wham! Lovin' it. Savor it. And when you are satisfied with the strength of your bond, you can then shrug off the euphoria and commence with any conversation you like, in an even-keeled manner-even disinterested, if you so please. An adventurous addresser may even throw in one of these jems: "Is that a mid-eighties model pin grenade? The Reagan years were the best." or "Where'd you get that side-arm, partner? Gun-metal is totally your color!"
I would like to mention that this style of address is completely unsatisfactory with half of all Dinkas. Unfortunately, this writer has yet to discover a successful method of communication for the establishment of any sort of relationship with the finer, and more secluded, neglected, marginalized, and oftentimes owned members of this society. Efforts are showing signs of progress, however, and I would like to report soon on how to do so.