Monday, June 28, 2010


More often than not I think in terms of 'convenient' versus 'inconvenient' rather than in terms of 'safe' versus 'unsafe' when looking at situations. For instance, when arguing with a khat-fueled taxi driver about the cost of rides as they relate to the colour of skin I found the episode most inconveniencing.

(In India he would have been a 'rickshaw wala' and I would have had a great deal of fun arguing over whether I should pay the meter rate or some other, arbitrary, fixed rate. But it is also more likely my rickshaw wala would merely have been drunk rather than strung out on amphetamines.)

Little things arise all the time which can be most inconveniencing. In the middle of the night, when I need to exit my room to use the adjacent washroom, it is often full of cockroaches (usually near dead due to the precautions I take with insecticide, but inconveniencing nevertheless). Since leaving Djibouti-ville I have been generally limited to taking 'navy showers' and, along similar lines, am required to fill and haul buckets of whatever whenever I wish to use and then flush a toilet (after completing my dutiful inspections for cockroaches). Whenever I try to buy anything, anywhere, I am certain I am getting ripped off, but prices are never posted and - most inconveniencing - no one speaks English.

As another for instance, which arose a few evenings ago here in Ali-Sabieh, I had arranged to have my laundry done at the Hotel Palmeraie by Hassan, whom I deal with generally with respect to all things culinary. He speaks very little English but after a few minutes and attempts usually understands what it is I am requesting, he is highly agreeable, and most situations are resolved with exclamations of 'd'accord!', 'tres bien!' and 'merci beaucoup!' on his part (along with the passing of a few hundred Djibouti Francs on mine).

While I am no longer staying at the Hotel Palmeraie, this place is too French for me, and I'm uncertain as to my laundering options. During my stay at the Hotel Palmeraie I arranged for my laundry to be done and this was accomplished within the span of 24 hours for a few hundred francs (whereas, during my stay at the Hotel Alia in Djibouti-ville, the cost was close to seven thousand francs). So I thought, why not now?

On attending at the Hotel Palmeraie for dinner one evening late last week I discussed the matter of my laundry with Hassan and whether I might be able to bring it by the next day (I attend at the Hotel Palmeraie for dinner most nights as other 'restaurants' in Ali-Sabieh do not offer written menus, nor do they offer much in the way of spoken English). He was amenable to this, as far as I could tell, so I agreed to return the following day.

During my previous stays in India and Ghana I was able to wash my clothing by hand in buckets supplied by my respective landlords. Laundry detergent could be purchased at most shops in any given neighbourhood: generally not far from wherever I might be living. In Djibouti, everything is written in French, and I'm at a loss for doing things myself; so I opt to add more currency to the local economy and hire someone to do it for me.

To get my laundry to the Hotel Palmeraie I considered packing it all inside my travelling backpack. After considering the size of this backpack, and finding it too large an item to be carrying with me across the city, I opted to try to cram all of my laundry into my everyday backpack (on doing this my backpack looked very much like a cube with shoulder straps). I also thought against introducing a new, larger backpack to the general crowd of people who accost me when walking around, who wonder how I am doing, where I am coming from, and if I might be able to give them some money.

One other wrinkle is that I do not have regular transportation in Ali-Sabieh so I was required to walk across the village from one extreme to the other, beginning with my current residence at the LWF compound. In the mornings and the evenings there is generally a cool breeze blowing through Ali-Sabieh making the walk quite bearable. On this particular evening, however, there was no breeze. I was therefore required to pause partway to replenish the fluids I was losing on this hot summer night.

Hassan was there to greet me with a menu in hand when I arrived at the Hotel Palmeraie. He scurried back to the kitchen or wherever he goes after he hands me a menu to give me time to write down my selections; I used this time to wipe the perspiration from my face and arms, drink more water, and carefully remove all of the laundry from my backpack.

When Hassan returned and saw the large accumulation of to-be-cleaned laundry, he explained, with heavy heart, that either the machine or the girl who uses it is broken.

Most inconveniencing.

I expressed my displeasure, gave him my meal selections, and repacked all of my laundry for the walk back to the LWF compound on completion of my meal. Ultimately, with the assistance of the LWF staff, I was able to hire a girl to do my laundry. She arrived early the next morning - most convenient - and did a great job. She has all of my future business so long as she wants it.

A few nights ago I was sitting on the terrace of the Hotel Palmeraie, having just finished my dinner and reading my copy of 'Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell', and a member of the local American military detachment (they rent a compound adjacent to the Hotel Palmeraie) asked if she might join me for a while. I accepted her company and we chatted briefly about the village, the weather, and then what I am doing in Ali-Sabieh (what I would like to do in situations such as this is relate specifics of what I'm doing, which are largely confidential, but what I end up saying are uninteresting things about the theory of a functioning administration of justice).

She explained to me that she and the rest of her detachment had been invited by 'Monsieur Le Prefet' to an Independence Day celebration in Ali-Sabieh that was supposed to begin at 8pm but had been delayed until 9pm. She showed me her very impressive invitation (lazerjet no doubt!), the details of which were printed in French so they were lost on the both of us. After a few minutes we were each of the view of leaving the terrace so she went her way and I went mine.

On my way I happened by the location of the Independence Day celebration as it was being set up in front of the office of 'Monsieur Le Prefet'. A large crowd was gathering and the local military was present, between the the crowd and the office, standing 10 or so meters apart, wielding blue hats and machine guns. I was somewhat interested in what might be happening with this celebration and considered staying but, in addition to the machine guns already present, I recalled that my new American friend was also carrying a side-arm.

Something told me there was a real possibility this crowd may become unruly, or at least might express great interest in me: the only white non-military person among them. The dichotomy of 'safe' versus 'unsafe' became alive in me and I thought it better I return to the LWF to watch football with whomever might be present.

Ghana beat the United States to advance to the next round. Go Black Stars!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Khat Scratch Fever

I have ready access to water; I actually just bought two more 1.5 litre bottles for the day (I've just finished my first bottle for the day). I would say I drink between 3-4 litres of *water* a day, plus coffee, coke, or whatever other fluids I may take in. Now that I am in Ali-Sabieh, accessing bottled water becomes a little more tricky. It's in just as many proximate shops at which I may purchase it, but Djibouti-ville and Ali-Sabieh are quite different in many respects. One big difference is the fact that there are *many* white people in Djibouti-ville; I feel like the *only* white person in Ali-Sabieh at present.

Accordingly, going to shops to make purchases thus becomes an invitation for people to approach me and ask me for money. I'm not inviting them, per se, and in fact feel terrified at times (especially when these people are in large groups, while members of which are chewing 'khat'). Little children run after me shouting "Monsieur! D'Argent!"; grown men walk up to me with hands outstretched who simply say "D'Argent." On some occasions, people who approach me will know a little English (which they offer after I say "je ne comprend pas; au revoir"); they will ask me my name, where I'm from, tell me Canada is great and that people speak both English and French there ("not me," I tell them), and then they ask for money because they are hungry.

Sometimes I feel bad for these people; sometimes I want to unleash the karate when I see them chewing a mouth full of khat. In neither case do I give them money.

Khat is something that is chewed by people throughout East Africa and the Middle East. It is a plant that has properties similar to amphetamines. Walking around Djibouti-ville I've seen a few road accidents, or the evidence of previous accidents (cars with the front end smashed in; lamp posts that have been knocked down), all of which the result of drivers chewing khat. It is a Schedule I drug in the United States; we don't particularly want it in Canada either. For whatever reason, the United Kingdom does not have a problem with khat.

Yesterday offered me a most inconveniencing experience involving khat.

At the end of the day, on leaving the office, I stopped at a fruit and vegetable stand to purchase some lettuce and tomatoes. I was staying in the spare bedroom of a colleague's flat in Djibouti-ville, and she wanted to make chicken salad for dinner, thus requiring lettuce and tomatoes and my effecting this purchase.

Across the street from the fruit and vegetable stand was a taxi, and the driver kept banging on his door, whistling or otherwise making sounds in my direction, trying to get my attention so that I would hire him for the ride home. I didn't want a ride from him so I shouted "no!" (on more than one occasion) and shook my head indicating a general unwillingness to hire him as my driver. Eventually, I made my purchase (the proprietor of the stand actually had to leave and go to another stand to get the lettuce and tomatoes I desired), and I proceeded to walk back towards the roundabout where the Hotel Alia is located; across the street from the hotel is a convenience store ("YESMart") where I'd planned to purchase two baguettes and a six-pack of 1.5 litre bottles of water.

The taxi driver was still across the street as I proceeded to walk. He started to slowly creep beside me, banging his door, shouting at me, motioning for me to get into his taxi. Across the five-way intersection where we were at that time was another convenience store (the name escapes me right now) where I might also purchase bread and water; I decided I might as well stop here and hire this taxi, so I told him to "wait here" and I went inside.

On making my purchase, the proprietor of the store placed my water in the back seat of the taxi for me, so I got into the front seat and we were on our way. I asked the driver if he spoke English, he indicated that he did, so I told him "I'm going to Siesta, but not the hotel" (the "Hotel Siesta" is a popular hotel that features a swimming pool; my colleague's flat is down the street from there).

Generally, when I get into a taxi, I establish with the driver that the ride will cost 500 Francs; all taxi rides in Djibouti-ville cost 500 Francs, unless you call in advance for a ride (700 Francs), or are going to the airport (1,000 Francs). I failed to establish this at the outset with my new English-speaking friend and this omission would prove to be to my detriment.

The driver was going exceptionally fast, he was tailgating, and he was blowing through roundabouts without due regard to other motorists; this driver was chewing khat, and I was holding onto to the 'holy shit handle' above my head for dear life.

Eventually we made it to my destination, and the driver jumped the curb and pulled up onto the sidewalk outside the gate. I thanked him, reached into my pocket, and pulled out a 500 Franc coin. He said "no, no, no; it is 1,500 Francs". I argued in the negative, indicating that all taxi rides are 500 Francs in Djibouti-ville (I did not get into the exceptions of calling in advance or going to the airport, as neither exception applied in this instance). He wouldn't have it, responding with the assertion that I was his brother, and I had to pay 1,500 Francs.

With an exasperated look on my face, I exited the taxi, I took my six pack of water out from the back seat, and returned to the passenger side window again offering the 500 Franc coin. He wouldn't have it. I placed it on the passenger side seat, collected my water, and began to walk away. He shot out of the driver's side door and rushed around his taxi to block my path. At this point, not only was I his brother, but I was also white, so I had to give him 1,500 Francs. All I could say was "so what?!" and I directed him to take the 500 Franc coin.

Eventually, perhaps roused by the discussion of the colour of my skin, the security guard for the flat complex came outside and stared at me with a blank expression on his face; soon enough, another security guard joined him. Neither could speak English, or at least enough to be helpful in the situation. I again told the driver he should take the coin or I would put it on the ground and walk away; as he was not taking it, I put it on the ground and walked away.

The driver wasn't done with me. He followed me through the gate, into the compound, and continued to berate me because of the colour of my skin. This wasn't fun anymore; it wasn't really fun to begin with. I didn't want him to follow me anymore. He was indicating I should call the police. I couldn't be bothered to respond so I proceeded inside and informed my colleague that I was slightly detained on arrival as my taxi driver required that I pay 1,500 Francs due to the colour of my skin. She confirmed the price of taxi rides in Djibouti-ville (500 Francs, with two exceptions) and said I was wise not to pay any more than that on principle.

At this point the driver started ringing all of the bells to the flats in the compound. The security guards were doing a poor job indeed. My colleague opened her door, yelled at the driver, and indicated she would call the police. He stated to her that his brother had to pay 1,000 Francs because he was white; her response was that she was calling the police and she shut the door.

Somehow, through no effort of my own, the cost of a taxi ride for this particular white person was now 1,000 Francs. Was he breaking? Should I break? I asked my colleague if I should just give the driver another 500 Francs to make him go away. She was firm in her resolve. I should not pay any more and it was a matter of principle: the taxi ride costs 500 Francs and I should not be intimidated into paying anything more.

So this white man wasn't breaking, and neither was 'his brother' the taxi driver. The bells kept ringing for a few minutes, then the driver went outside of the building, stood inside the gate of the compound - I could see him through the kitchen window staring up incredulously. After a few more minutes he sat in his car outside the gate. My colleague could not remember the number for the police, nor did she know enough French to make placing a call worthwhile.

In any case, the driver eventually left, and the 'security guards' got a stern talking to from my colleague.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Safety Dance

I know the reason I'm in Djibouti is to evaluate the systems in place for attributing fault, punishing the guilty, and setting wrongs right when wrongs have been committed against individuals or the community well-being in the Ali-Addeh refugee camp. But, for the most part, I feel like I'm somehow hermetically sealed in some kind of protective bubble: the situations I'm investigating are far removed from the present; I'm exploring the past in the protected confines of an office; these situations are happening in the abstract and the people I'm interviewing are merely relating to me information that will be useful for my study.

Today in the camp was some kind of 'Celebration Of The Child' as put on by the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). As part of this celebration, biscuits were being distributed to children, and at some point in the day these biscuits were moved into the compound for ease of distribution (or some other equally compelling reason you might think of - the one I provide is mere speculation).

Digression: there is a 'policy' in place that staff are not to smoke in the refugee camp. I'm presuming this policy is in place for international staff, as I have seen some local staff smoking; or perhaps they're just not of the same policy-following bent that I am. I haven't asked why the policy is in place, or otherwise questioned why there is a policy in place, but have again used my powers of speculation to assume the policy is in place to prevent the refugees from seeing us smoking. So I've found a quiet, secure place where I can't be seen smoking: in the latrine. Coincidentally, the latrine stays a few degrees cooler than its surrounding; again, by speculation, I believe the concrete walls are slow to transfer the heat of the sun from the outside to the inside (it's been a few years since I studied heat transfer - but I believe my math is accurate here). In any case, for the next few months, until one of my superiors catches me or reads this blog, I'll be smoking in the boys room. But I digress...

At approximately noon, while walking back from the latrine to the office in which I was observing a resettlement interview, I was pulled aside by one of the refugees I'd met last week - he is very interested in talking to me about some of the things I'm studying (and in particular, as they have been affecting him over the 19 years he's spent in the refugee camp). As the gentleman and I were discussing his situation, something of a commotion started a few steps away from us. I later learned that someone - either a refugee or a local - was attempting to dispossess the LWF of some of the biscuits intended to be distributed to the refugee youth in celebration of their status as children.

Soon, the commotion escalated to the grabbing of shirts and the shoving of bodies; eventually, fists started flying in the form of punches; ultimately, rocks of all sizes began being thrown first by the two pugilists, and then by the bystanders. I was quickly ushered by the refugees - for my safety - through an open door so that I could wait out the commotion with one of my colleagues; she assured me that 'security should be quick to put down the commotion'. She was correct, and when I exited the office a few minutes later, everyone on the outside was all smiles: and any element that might otherwise reignite the troubles was standing outside the compound, looking in through the gate. All that was left to show there had been any sort of commotion were large rocks lying everywhere and the lingering memory of shouts and crashes.

And so it is that I have been blessed with the gift of context.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Times Withdrawal

Life in Ali-Sabieh is pretty laid back (as far as life in regional capitals I'm familiar with goes). These are long, tiring days here, but nothing is rushed; life is lived at a reasonable pace. There are many people on the street, sitting in the shade, doing their best to conserve energy in the summer sun.

I wake up shortly after 6 o'clock every morning to ready myself for the day, then join my Nairobi colleagues for breakfast on the terrace at the hotel as we wait for the rest of the mission team to arrive. They serve us coffee, tea, and a basket of baguette pieces; we're given the option of having either an omelet or butter and jam to accompany them (but not both). The weather is cooler than it will be in the afternoon, and sitting on the terrace proves to be a nice way to start our day as we wait for the bus from our office to pick us up to take us and the rest of the mission team down the gravel, mountain road into Ali-Addeh.

At the Ali-Addeh camp, we drive into to the compound and find refugees waiting to be interviewed by my three Nairobi colleagues for resettlement in other countries (resettlement is one of the three 'durable solutions' the attempts to provide for refugees). My colleagues are here for the express purpose of interviewing them for resettlement. One is a Kenyan, one is a Norwegian, and one is an Anglo-Saxon (though markedly more British than I am); all three women and have been on resettlement missions all over the region.

I'm not part of this mission; I just hitch a ride with the mission team as a way to get into the camp. I'm not really part of the regular program (as I explain to the refugees who approach me: "I have no influence over resettlement or registration so I can't help you with [insert problem here]"). I just try to catch rides where I can (for instance, this weekend, the bus will be taking the mission team back to Djibouti-ville on Thursday, which I will hopefully take as well; my being in Djibouti-ville will be precarious at best and, with the office being closed on Friday and Saturday, I plan to show up at the office on Sunday and cross my fingers that a car is heading back to Ali-Sabieh and that it will have room for me and my things).

Each morning at the compound in Ali-Addeh, I try to find a free room in the compound, and for the first hour or so I review my notes from the previous day(s) and otherwise occupy myself with puzzles from my Sudoku book. I try to set up meetings with representatives from the various sections in the camp - there is one Ethiopian section and seven Somali sections. I also try to meet with representative groups in the camp, such as the Somali Youth Committee, and the Committee for Southern Somali Women Refugees. I interview them about life in the camp, attempting to elicit information about their cultures and how they deal with 'problems' which may arise in and around the camp. As I say, I try to arrange these interviews in advance; but if I don't have an interview scheduled, many of the refugees who spend time around the compound during the day speak English, and I'll ask them if they wouldn't mind sitting with me for a while to tell me a little about themselves, their culture, and life in the camp.

I'm beginning to get some idea about how complex life is for the refugees in the camp (and for refugees outside the camp, but that's a different story altogether). Because of the fact that the refugees come not only from different countries, but also different tribes/clans within the countries, the whole justice system in the camp is incredibly complex. It's a steep learning curve and I'm only starting to understand many of the dynamics surrounding the refugees, the local community, and the state and non-state actors providing support services in the camp. Being a person whose comfort circle includes getting information from secondary sources, these primary-source interviews are something foreign to me; but I get a little more comfortable with each one, and I'm getting a better understanding of which questions elicit the most useful discussions with every passing day.

At about 4 o'clock, my Nairobi colleagues have completed their resettlement interviews for the day, and we all load back onto the bus for the long drive back to Ali-Sabieh. It's nice being on the air-conditioned bus and I generally find myself falling asleep on the ride home despite the rocky and mountainous terrain.

We have dinner on the hotel terrace at 7 o'clock and, in the meantime, I may or may not walk to and from the office to briefly take advantage of an internet connection (as I am doing this evening in composing this blog entry). Sitting here, at the office, I've just read an article on a NY Times blog concerning the Tea Party, metaphysics, and American political discourse, and my humble opinion is that this article is three shades of brilliant. One of the comforts I miss from Canadian office life is arriving at work early, pouring a cup of coffee, and sitting down to read the NY Times from my desktop; or even being able to read it over lunch. The mere act of sitting and reading in a climate controlled environment, with easy access to hot and cold beverages, are things I miss. I'm adjusting to 'working in the field' - to more austere conditions than what I've been used to in the recent past - but it's a process. Being where I am, without access to North American news media, I have no one to chat up about the 'Very Angry Tea Party' - who would even know what I'm talking about. Sadly, this process is one of withdrawal.

The menu at the hotel features various baguette and meat combinations - being the sandwich fan that I am it is all I could ever ask for. We're given the option of french fries, spaghetti, or green beans to accompany our meal. I try to mix things up, but there are only so many combinations that are capable of being made. The food is good, not too spicy, and the basket of baguettes is bottomless as far as I can tell.

There are a pair of near identical, malnourished cats that sit under our table, meowing at our feat as we eat. They will occasionally attempt to jump on our laps if we aren't paying attention (given the state of their hygiene, at the dinner table - while we are eating - this is especially alarming). The waiter informs us that he feeds any scraps to the cats (he's a Francophone, so I'm relying on my Nairobi colleagues to translate for me); the cats sure don't look like they're getting any scraps, but it may just be they have metabolism deserving of my sister's fat cat Franklin's envy.

I'm at the hotel two more nights then back to Djibouti-ville for the weekend to get more cash from one of the two functioning ATMs in the country - both of which are located in the capital within walking distance of each other (to my chagrin, my debit card does not work, so I have to withdraw cash on my visa, then transfer money from my bank account to the visa online afterward). I move into the guest room of the LWF office when I get back to Ali-Sabieh and then spend the following two to three months living there, watching movies on my laptop, and re-reading the books I have brought with me (including Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which I've already read twice before - on two different continents - the book is that good).

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Grasshopper and the Spider

I'm lying in my bed, under my mosquito net, watching The Runaways on my laptop with the air conditioner running at 'medium cool'. I can hear knocking. Is it the movie? I can hear more knocking. I turn down the volume on my laptop: someone's knocking at the door.

"Hold on!"

I'm trying to figure out where the opening in the mosquito net is. I don't want to pull out too much of the net from where it is tucked under the mattress because I don't want mosquitoes getting inside as I vacate this enclosure.

"Just a second!"

I squirm out from under the bug net, walk over to the door, turn the key once and open it. My colleague is standing outside my room in her nightgown, hair net and flip flops.

"Can you kill a spider?"
"Probably; hang on… what the…? Oh no."

I quickly shut the door and as I do a grasshopper hops into my room.

There are hundreds of grasshoppers on the pathways outside of the rooms of the hotel - all rooms have exterior doors - congregating around the lights that have been left on. Two nights ago it took me three attempts and 10 minutes to get into my room amidst swarming grasshoppers. When the grasshoppers swarm it can be overwhelming. There are no cats outside of my door to eat the grasshoppers because a low wall running alongside the path to my door prevents the cats from seeing and getting to the grasshoppers. To avoid this situation I now keep the light outside my door turned off.

The grasshopper in my room isn't large, but I still won't sleep if I know there's a grasshopper in my room. I try to grab the grasshopper with my hand, but every time I get close it starts hopping frantically. More than frantically: maniacally. For want of anything else, I grab my baseball cap and throw it on top of the grasshopper. The grasshopper manages to get out from under it and resumes hopping around the room. After a minute or two of hopping passes I again throw my cap on it, quickly close it around the grasshopper, and carry it outside as it hops frantically inside my hat. I can feel the grasshopper, hopping inside of my cap as I carry it outside and release it in the garden.

I walk the few steps to my colleague's room and see that her door is slightly ajar. I gently knock and push the door open to se her sitting on her bed. She motions with her hand, above my head and to my right.

"The spider is there."

I look up and to my right. The spider is there.

It is the largest spider I have ever seen. Larger than my hand. As large as my head. With long, sprawling legs, stretching out across the wall and ceiling, like an afghan blanket hanging from above.

I take a step back through the door and look at my colleague sitting on her bed. I lean forward and again I peer up and to my right to look at the spider.

I have never seen a spider like this before.

I look at my colleague.

"I'm sorry, that's too big. I'm afraid I can't help you."
"Then I'll have to go and get one of the men to do it."
"Yeah… I'm not that kind of man. I'm very sorry."

I go back to my room, open my door and quickly rush in before a grasshopper can follow me. I go to my bed, untuck the mosquito net from under my mattress, squirm back under my mosquito net before frantically tucking the loose end back under my mattress. I roll over, adjust my pillow, and press the space bar on my laptop to resume watching my movie.

A few minutes pass by. I can hear some banging in the next room. I presume the spider is being killed by one of the men.

I envision what I will do if I ever encounter a spider that large and don't have a man around to kill it: I will spend 15 minutes staring at the spider, pacing, before I attempt to kill it; miss; and after 5 more minutes of deliberating I will give up, crawl under my mosquito net while leaving the light in the room on so that I can watch the unmoving spider throughout the night.

I try to forget about the spider.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Night Running

I'm starting to freak out a little bit and I'll tell you why: I noticed this morning that I'm developing a slight 'arm rash' in the folds of my elbows. This might not worry you, but after reading what follows you will discover why it worries me.

A little over five years ago I arrived in Accra, Ghana, for my first international volunteering experience. I was with my friend Andrew (the local population called him "Andrews" because this name appeared in the locally published Christian Bible). The two of us would go on to Kumasi after our first week in Accra, but for the first week we were based in Accra with six other volunteers and one organization representative for orientation and training.

Ghana is one of many countries where malaria is present and prophylaxis is required. At one point, Andrews actually purchased a digital thermometer so he and I could monitor our temperatures periodically throughout the day to discern the slightest elevation as indication of fever and the onset of malaria (there were always slight changes but we were comfortable with the range within which the changes took place). This purchase was not made until some weeks after that first week in Accra, after we had relocated to Kumasi (and had, by that time, heard many of our new acquaintances had succumbed to malaria).

While still in Accra, we dubbed one of the other volunteers 'arm rash' because she developed rashes in the folds of her elbows and later the folds of her knees; anywhere skin folded I believe (though my memory is not as sharp now that it is five years later). It turned out this girl did not start taking her malaria prophylaxis until the day she arrived in Ghana, rather than taking it in advance of arrival (as is prescribed). She developed malaria within a week. On this present trip, I did not start taking my malaria prophylaxis until two days before arriving in Djibouti (36 hours, really), rather than a week prior (as is prescribed). I can't recall if the arm rash is a sign of the onset of malaria or not.

So I'm freaking out a little bit.

Things are progressing a little faster in the camp than I'd anticipated. My supervisor had explained to me that, before I would be able to start interviewing refugees from the Somali sections, I would need to sit through a series of repetitive introductions with leaders and elders. This hasn't been the case at all. First thing yesterday morning a meeting with the Somali Youth Committee was arranged for me and I sat with an audience of about 100 youth, explaining to them who I am, what I'm doing here, and my interest in learning about their culture and their ways of 'solving problems' in the camp. Everyone wanted to be the first one to tell me everything there is to know about their culture and their ways of 'solving problems' in the camp. I actually had to end the meeting after an hour and explain that I would be coming back many times and would hopefully be able to meet with everyone individually or in small groups.

Shortly thereafter I was taken to a meeting location within the office compound inside the camp where I met with nearly all of the Somali section leaders - even representatives from the Ethiopian executive committee arrived shortly after we began, presumably not wanting to be left out. Again, I explained who I was, what I was doing, and my desire to learn all about their culture and their methods for 'solving problems' within the camp. After I said my piece, each leader took a turn thanking me for attending at the camp, telling me a little bit about dispute resolution systems (incredibly well-organized, and quite different from what I had been told from outside sources), and providing real life examples of situations that had arisen in the camp.

One situation that has struck a chord with me is one which arose several years ago, relating to the Danish cartoonist who expressed himself by drawing and publishing a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed. At the time of it's publication I can recall there being a significant public backlash - one experienced all over the world in relation to this publication, with the cartoonist himself receiving a number of death threats (for the life of me I can't recall what eventually happened to him).

In the Ali-Addeh camp, in response to the cartoon, I was told that a number of Somali boys destroyed the Ethiopian church. This problem has since been resolved, and my sense in the meeting room yesterday (among both Somali and Ethiopian section leaders), was that it was resolved amicably; however, I'm hoping to gather more information relating to this incident as it should shed a great deal of light on the level of satisfaction and confidence the refugees have in the dispute resolution systems currently in place.

At the end of the day, after returning from the refugee camp to the hotel in Ali-Sabieh, I had an interesting conversation on the terrace with one of my colleagues who is here on a resettlement mission from Nairobi. I'd asked her whether she'd encountered any instances of 'witchcraft' in the Ali-Addeh camp or other camps to which she'd visited in the past. Indeed, she had, and in the village in Kenya in which she grew up there were cases of both witches and 'night runners'. I'd never heard of 'night runners' before so she explained that they are people who run about the village at night - completely naked - knocking on doors and windows and 'creating a disturbance'. She also explained that they are not dangerous like witches, but they are treated like witches just the same.

We continued sharing stories until there was no sun left, about our travels and previous encounters with witches - mine from Ghana and hers from all over Africa - and wished each other to be free of encounters with 'night runners' before retiring to our rooms for the evening.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Parlez-vous Anglais?

'Parley-vous Anglais?' are generally the first words out of my mouth anywhere I go in this country. The response is, typically, 'non' or 'un petit peu' (the response isn't even in English). To them I say 'je parle Francais un petit peu', and then I struggle along, largely in poorly composed English sentences.

Indo-China was comparatively much easier; everyone spoke English in Cambodia (to varying degrees). I probably shouldn't be surprised that not everyone in the world speaks English. But I have lived for many years in an Anglo-centric universe (despite my own country being both English and French). I wish I could go back in time and slap the 15-year-old version of me who gave up on French class. In retrospect, and for many reasons, speaking another language would have been of immeasurable benefit (as I found in Ghana, where my Twi lessons paid off immeasurably in negotiating down the price of various purchases: "me pa wo kyow; te so kakraa"). C'est dommage.

This is my second day in Ali-Sabieh. My temporary accommodations in the Hotel Palmerei are considerably more austere than what I was getting used to in Djibouti-ville (no running water as yet); though the price, remarkably, is not commensurately lessened. Again, this is just temporary, and I am looking forward to what will become my semi-permanent address in Ali-Sabieh (which I will elaborate upon in future posts).

Yesterday, and today, I visited the refugee camp in Ali-Addeh. It's not a long drive, only 20km (give or take), but navigating the road is more like 'off-roading' so it takes about a half hour or so to get there. The camp itself is located in a beautiful valley surrounded by mountains; the landscape is not unlike Iqaluit in the summer, with the exception of sparsely distributed trees here and there. But there's no water. There is a dry (dry) river that runs through the camp; but really, there is very little water to speak of (my understanding is the wells in Ali-Addeh do not supply the camp with the amount of water required for a population of 13,000 refugees).

So far, and while accompanied by other members of my office, I have had some limited interactions with the Ethiopian community, including their community leaders, as well as several Somali refugees at the office in the camp. I've explained to the Ethiopians the purpose of my visit and hope to start meeting with them in the coming days to commence my interviews. I understand getting to know the Somali population will not be quite as informal as it was with the Ethiopians so my relationship with their leaders will hopefully build overtime (again, I will elaborate on this in future posts).

The sun is slowly setting and I'm still at the office in Ali-Sabieh so I should start shutting down to make my way back before dark (I learned last night in walking the town with my supervisor that the streets are not well lit - and I don't know this place very well as yet). More to follow as the days unfold.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

A 'murder' of dolphins?

It seems I haven't entered anything on here in five days and, as I find often happens, in long absences, many of the trees are lost for the forest. I won't dwell on this now, and in the future will attempt to write something new every two to three days; however, for this instant entry, I'll just say a bit about what things are shaping up to be.

I met one of my supervisors on Wednesday and confirmed the scope of the TOR for my contract. My project, as is succinctly stated in the TOR, is to evaluate the administration of justice in the Ali-Addeh refugee camp. Little has been written on this discrete topic of the administration of justice in refugee camps (though I have found one comprehensive study from 2006 in the archives I plan to use as a benchmark), and less still for Djibouti in particular (to date nothing has in fact been brought to my attention).

The data in 2006 study to which I refer above was compiled through questionnaires completed by Field Offices and submitted to the author of the report. For my report, I plan to collect all data by personally interviewing the relevant stakeholders: the refugees themselves; local police; the local bar and judiciary (to the extent possible); the local and national government, especially ONARS (Department of the Host Government concerned with Refugees); and international non-governmental organizations. It is hoped that, by submitting the same question set to multiple stakeholders, I will get a more comprehensive understanding of not only what is happening in the camp, but also what the various stakeholders understand is happening in the camp.

One interesting wrinkle that should present a pretty steep learning curve for me will be understanding the complex legal structure resulting from various legal systems stacked on top of each other. At the country level, there is the national system of law importing aspects of the French Civil system, Shariah (Islamic) law, and traditional/tribal legal principles. There are also the legal traditions brought into the camp by the refugees themselves from the countries they have fled (Somalia and Ethiopia being the largest contributors). There are also the international norms which hopefully (hopefully) each of the legal systems respect. I have many months to figure it all out and it should prove interesting if nothing else.

Apart from the above, office life has included further orientation and one staff meeting for the Protection Unit (everyone just happened to be in Djibouti City at the same time - the next meeting is schedule for Canada Day so I'll have to make my way back for this meeting to celebrate). Life outside of the office has included a few trips to both the downtown area and outskirts of Djibouti City with new friends and colleagues. One evening I went to an Ethiopian restaurant with a friend on a year-long contract with CARITAS (my 'salad' included, among other things, ground beef, french fries, and sliced bananas). Another evening I went to a few local establishments with some of my colleagues 'to experience Thursday evening in Djibouti City' (an interesting experience I won't soon forget, but will also feel comfortable leaving behind once relocated to Ali-Sabieh).

Yesterday, along with two colleagues and the four-year-old daughter of one, I went on a snorkeling trip to one of the islands off the coast of Djibouti City by way of speedboat. On our way to the island we came across a 'school, herd or pod' of approximately 200 dolphins who travelled with us for a few minutes of our early-morning trip. For the life of me I could not think of what a group of dolphins is called and was forced to look it up. I didn't think school would apply as dolphins aren't fish; and 'pod' I though only applied to killer whales. I even considered a 'murder of dolphins' - but that only applies to crows as far as I know. This snorkeling trip, again, was a great experience and I'm glad I had the opportunity to get a break from the heat of Djibouti City - however pricey - but one I won't need to repeat again soon as the intense sunburn all over my back will serve as a timely reminder for many days (harkening memories of Thailand and my last diving trip some three years ago that also involved intense sunburns for all involved).