Anil’s story-Chapter thirteen: Land of Mahdi- Sudan- 1991 to 1994
Source: Google photo of Sudanese tribal woman
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I had often thought of quitting the overseas work and return to the Philippines for good. Living alone overseas did not appeal to me anymore. The kids were growing up and Jasmine was handling them alone. I also did not need the money. We had a very nice house in Naga all paid for and were solvent. Jasmine was not extravagant and we lived a simple but comfortable life so there was no need for me to stay in places like Karuzi in Africa.
The African problems had to be solved by themselves. I found the Burundian people at ISABU very uncooperative because they did not share the idea of farmer as a partner in development. It was their schooling and training that was top heavy. It was just like in Mali except that here the mentors were Belgians who taught them values that did not mesh well with the concept of working with poor farmers. The intellectuals if they could be called that were Tutsis who had no empathy with the Hutu farmers.
They resented that I pushed for appropriate technology to help solve farmer’s problems. When I designed a hand operated grain blower to clean grains that was actually based on an IRRI design, they laughed at me and said that I was going backwards. The way to go forward for them was to import expensive machinery from Belgium and not build primitive hand operated tools.
These people had a closed mind that nothing could penetrate. I loved the farmers in Burundi. They were simple people who were excited with the new blower or the crop varieties that increased their yield, but the Burundian researchers had other ideas. It was just like in Mali. The project gave me full autonomy in doing my work, so I did a lot of good and very productive work. Americans were happy and came to see the trials in Karuzi.
But literally I had enough. I was tired of dealing with the Burundians who could not understand what farming system was all about. I sought their cooperation but only the North Koreans were interested. The ISABU director had died in a road accident so my link with them was also lost. Then the Frenchman in the project had started spreading lies about me so that too discouraged me to stay on and fight this lonely battle.
So, I left Burundi gladly. I did not know what the FAO was going to do because I had not heard from them. I was at this point not too keen on working anywhere and wished to go back to my loving family in the Philippines, but I had to make a stop at Sri Ram Pur once again.
Nirmal’s daughter was getting married, so they wanted me to attend her marriage. I had to spend nearly two months there and then pick up Annapurna to bring her to the Philippines. She was eager to travel abroad for the first time in her life and visit the Philippines.
I have written enough about the Sri Ram Pur people so I will not repeat myself. I found Nirmal very busy preparing for the marriage of his only daughter. The groom had been selected through match making as was the custom and he had purchased the gold jewelry etc. already that he showed me eagerly. There was some communal tension in Sri Ram Pur so the mayor had imposed curfew that made going around difficult. But somehow the preparations went ahead, and the invitation cards printed.
Nirmal had included my name on the card as sponsor, but I noticed that in the final printing my name was omitted because Sabita did not want it. She had also refused my gift of a Sony radio/tape recorder to her daughter by saying that they could afford a better one. I had given Nirmal a check in dollars for his daughter that he neglected for a while to put safely away and left it here and there on the coffee table or somewhere else.
When I asked for one invitation card to give to someone, Nirmal neglected that as well until a day before the marriage making it clear that my guests were not important to him. My gift of the radio was later passed on to Parvati because Sabita did not want it. As if they were bent on humiliating me in every respect. I put up with everything silently.
I was a stranger here so could not really help him in anything because I did not know anyone anymore. I waited patiently for my stay to end so that I could leave but one week in that house seemed very long let alone two months. Annapurna did not make it any easier by constantly harping on my silence and said I was a very boring person who did not know how to talk to anyone. I did not go out or talk to anyone.
Finally, the day of the marriage the groom’s party arrived from Delhi by train so I went to the station to receive them along with Nirmal and others. There was a problem when the bus driver could not be found anywhere while the guests waited so I suggested to hire a few taxis, but I was overruled in this effort. Nirmal’s friends did not give me any importance because they took their cue from him. Anyway, the driver was later located, and the guests lodged in a hotel but here too there were problems.
The hotel rooms and the bathrooms were dirty because the person in charge had failed to clean everything before the guests arrived. Again, I tried to help but my help was ignored. Later in the evening they all arrived at the house but there was no one to receive them. The reception committee of girls was busy with lipsticks and mascara, so it was very embarrassing for Nirmal being the host and the father of the girl.
I was just a silent witness to all these dramas. The reception for the invitees was held outside the house on the sidewalk under a tent where the caterers prepared food and coffee and put them on tables for the guests to help themselves. This was the new trend. Gone were the traditions of serving food to the guests and urging them to eat. Now people came to eat by picking what they wanted and soon left without once entering the house and seeing the bride and the groom or anyone. Many did not know who I was so paid no attention. Nirmal was busy with the ceremony inside the house.
My mom was also ignored. She was old and could not help anyone in any way but she still was the owner of this big house and being the grandmother of the bride deserved some respect and attention, but Sabita said that she was too busy even to die. The girls stayed up whole night playing VHS movies one after the other along with the bride and the groom. I was told that this too was a new tradition. They also inspected each and every gift to evaluate its worth and who gave what. This was to be their subject for the gossip in days and weeks to come.
I was very annoyed by everything I saw. Now we had to leave for Delhi where another reception was planned. There too it was the same story. The caterers left the food on the table for the invitees to take as they wished. I did not know anyone there so no one paid any attention to me. But I was happy that it was finally over and we could leave for the Philippines.
So one fine morning we flew to Manila and from there by bus to Naga. Jasmine wanted Annapurna to enjoy her stay with us so spared no expense to make her comfortable. She bought her gifts, took her to parties at her friend’s house, to movies and to many scenic places like Balatan and Legaspi to show her the Mayon volcano. She took many photos for her and gave her the prints in several albums to take back to India.
There is no limit to Jasmine’s generosity because she has a big heart unblemished by petty feelings and jealousy. It was as if she could not do enough for Annapurna. So Annapurna returned to India very happy. Her visit to the Philippines and her first trip abroad flying for the first time was very successful. She had many photos to show and many things to talk about but found Sabita not interested. Her relationship with them was from this point on to go steadily downward.
Soon the FAO office in Rome offered me the job of the project chief of a Farming System’s Project in Sudan and hired me as the Chief Technical Adviser or CTA in the multimillion-dollar project and invited me to go to Rome for the two-week orientation program. This was in January 1992.
I was sad to leave Jasmine and the kids again but promised her that it was going to be my last assignment, so she had to bear with me for a while. I will come home during leave and she and the kids will be able to visit me in Sudan during the school holidays. I did not tell the FAO that it was to be my last assignment because it was none of their business.
The FAO office in Rome is on via Delle Terme di Caracalla near the old ruins of the Roman bathhouses of Caracalla and is a massive monolithic and quite ugly building with marble façade. It is also close to the Coliseum and can be reached by the metro Circus Massimo. It covers enormous grounds and is complete with the flags of all nations that UN represents fluttering in the wind in the front.
The security is really tight in the building. No one can go in without first checking in with the security people who then call someone you knew there to verify if you are expected and then issue you a temporary pass for the visit. In my case they had to issue a 14-day pass later on that I had to always wear for scrutiny by the guards. I was also given the commissary card, but I had no use for the whisky and got some chocolate they sold there.
There is a nice bookstore where I found the Salman Rushdie book that the clerk charged me double for by saying that it was the last copy. I naturally could not bring a book like that to where I was going so sent it to Jasmine through someone who was going to Manila.
The FAO offices were just cubicles on both sides of the long corridors on every floor and were spartan. There were some 3000 employees so you could easily get lost there and had to remember the floor and the corridors. People sat in front of their computer terminals and peered into the screen whole day or talked to overseas managers endlessly on phones. I found many of them very nervous and chain smoking. They were also cool and calculating but one of them invited me to have coffee with him upstairs.
The Egyptian woman was meticulous in explaining the complex accounting procedures to me for several days and the very nervous finance officer explained to me how their Finsys or financial system program worked on the computer without ever looking at me and smoking constantly.
On a Sunday I walked around the thieves’ market nearby or went to the Vatican that I was familiar with. I had spent one month in Italy when I was working in Algeria. So on the whole the training went well.
The UN people are real gentlemen and very proper in everything they did like giving me an extensive training in accounting and office procedures and giving me a detailed contract that spelled out everything about my salary, benefits and privileges. They determined my salary based on my qualification and years of experience and not on my last salary.
This was in sharp contrast to the Americans who would not even give me a written appointment letter and failed to mention what rights and benefits I had or deserved. One of them even said that I had no rights, only some privileges implying that they could be taken away anytime.
I was very impressed by the FAO and its staff in Rome. Everything was done by them including my visa to Sudan and the generous allowances to settle me down there. I was the CTA of an important project with a huge budget and had the sole discretion to spend the money of course according to the UN rules to advance the project goal, hire the personnel and set up the project in five locations in Sudan from scratch. My only guide was the project document and the accounting procedures I had learned in Rome.
They promised to send me technical help from time to time from Rome but on the ground, I was the head, and no one could challenge my sole authority. I learned as much as I could about Sudan and its people, but the real education began when one bright morning I arrived in Khartoum.
The FAO was the dream job for the professionals because, so few are chosen. However, I had the qualifications and the experience they were looking for although the ability to speak Arabic would have been a great advantage to me. But to find a Ph.D. in agronomy with vast experience in the Farming System’s research who could speak Arabic was almost an impossibility, so I was the choice of the FAO.
You can see the Aswan dam in Egypt flying high over it and the huge lake Nasser spread out over the desert. But Egypt was mostly desert with the Nile flowing south to north and irrigating a very narrow strip of land on both sides that was green. The rest was brown. Further on we were in Sudan, but the landscape did not change at all. It was still the same Nile and the brown desert on both sides.
Now as I approached Khartoum, some green patches appeared. Here the Blue Nile came down from the highlands of Ethiopia and met at Khartoum with the White Nile that originated in Uganda and Burundi and became one mighty Nile. I had read that General Gordon who was employed as the Governor of Sudan by the Khedive of Egypt in the 18th century was murdered by the fanatic hordes of a madman called Mahdi who preached fundamentalism.
Gordon appealed for help from London, but the help came too late. Queen Victoria urged her generals to save Gordon but the bureaucracy and the difficulty in communications delayed the expedition force that finally arrived late and took tremendous revenge on Mahdi’s followers. Mahdi in the meantime had died.
His remains were dug up and scattered to the jackals by the British. They hanged a lot of people in reprisal to General Gordon’s death and would stay for nearly one hundred years to rule Sudan. Here the educated people spoke English, but Arabic was the national language. The British brought the railway and telegraph to Sudan and taught the people the governance and built many institutions to do so.
My first impression of Khartoum was a negative one. It was a shabby, dusty and dry city laid out in a rigid grid pattern on the eastern side of Nile. You could hardly see any tree anywhere although there was some greenery near the river. They grew some crops and fruit trees on some islands in the middle of Nile. The other side of Nile was Omdurman which is an old city where there is a huge mausoleum of Mahdi. His bones were rescued by his followers and now buried in the place which was a national shrine.
The Hilton hotel is located near the Nile where I stayed but soon moved out to another hotel in town. The FAO office did not send anyone to pick me up at the airport because they said they did not know I was coming. Their office is on the 10th floor of a tall building where I was introduced to the representative and others. The program officer was from Yemen and a nice person. He took me to Wad Medani and other places to introduce me to the Sudanese people who would one way or the other be useful to my project.
Source: Google photo of a Sudanese tribal woman
At this time Sudan was fighting a long-protracted war in the south where the mainly Christian people of various tribes were seeking autonomy from the Moslem north, but Khartoum was insistent upon fighting because they wanted the entire country to be under Moslem and sharia law. The war had devastated the south and sent hundreds of thousands of refugees some of whom were settled near Khartoum in massive camps in the desert.
Source: Google photo of Sudanese tribesman
One could see these tall and often ugly Dinka tribesmen in Khartoum and elsewhere in the country, but the Arabic speaking Sudanese populated the north. They wore white gowns and very white turbans. Women did not veil themselves but wore a chador over their head. One could see mosques everywhere reminding you that you were in a Moslem country.
Wad Medani is about 60 km from Khartoum and is the head quarter of the Agricultural Research Council or ARC that overseas all agricultural research in Sudan and was involved in my project that I had come to set up with their help. Wad Medani is in the middle of a vast agricultural plain called Gezira that is irrigated and produces cotton, sorghum, corn, small millets and many such crops on large scale. They use small aircrafts to spray the fields. Here I met with the director of ARC who said that he had studied at Calpoly in the United States which was my alma mater.
So, it looked as if I was in the right place after all. I was eager to go to El Obeid which is where I was supposed to stay and set up the project office, but I did not have security clearance to leave Khartoum. No one could travel anywhere in Sudan without one, so I waited for several weeks until it came through. I placed advertisements in local newspapers to announce that the project was in need of field assistants soon and checked with the local UN office about vehicles and started sending orders for office supplies etc.
Then one day I flew out to El Obeid in the ARC Fokker aircraft. It is some 600 km by road, but the road is good and asphalted all the way. I was to meet with the researchers of the ARC station here where they were to give me the office space and facilitated the start of the project. They had a radio through which I could reach Khartoum or Wad Medani. The Sudanese who worked here considered themselves the elite of the country in terms of education and mostly connections.
It did not take them long before they started name dropping like the minister of agriculture is their cousin or they know the president etc. They showed me the office space they would give me but presently it was used as a warehouse full of foul smelling something that would require at least a month to clean up. They were eager for the project to start and offered me tea and promise of help. This was the honeymoon period so to speak.
I took advantage of my short one-day visit to line up a house to rent as my residence and bargained with the landlord to a reasonable rent and gave him one month to fix up the house that needed a lot of renovation and fixing. This done I looked for a carpenter who had a workshop and ordered a house full of furniture that he promised to make and deliver in one month time. So, within 24 hours I had a house and furniture and an office that would all be hopefully ready in one month’s time.
I flew back to Khartoum greatly elated by what I had accomplished in a short visit. Now I had to see how many vehicles had been ordered and where were they garaged. I had to get the vehicles out, hire some drivers and get the UN license plates for them. Then I placed an order to deliver a tanker of fuel to El Obeid that our office in Khartoum secured in Port Sudan. I also ordered motorbikes for the field assistants.
I found 10 vehicles stored in various offices by the UN so I got them out, fixed the plates on them and took them to a research station in Khartoum to park there until I could move them to El Obeid and elsewhere. I was walking around so far but now I had my own car and a driver.
The applicants for the post of field assistants started to come in for interviews and I spent a lot of time with them and selected a few but the main issue was to select a local project director who was to be my counterpart. After screening several candidates, I selected a fellow from El Obeid station and asked the FAO to appoint him with a good salary. This was done after some delay but finally his appointment came through but the thorny issue of national project professionals or NPPs remained unsolved.
In El Obeid lived a German CTA in another project who had promised me a house and help me settle down, but he died in an automobile accident at this time. But I had found a house on my own and was eager to move to El Obeid soon. Because the rains were due in May, so I was pressed for time to get a work plan for the season prepared soon before the planting began.
The security clearance had delayed me in Khartoum for nearly two months but now there was no time to lose. I left for El Obeid soon and settled in my renovated house where soon all the furniture were set up. The carpenter had kept his word and the landlord had done so too. Only the question of the office remained which was still being cleaned but I ordered office furniture and the FAO delivered tons of office supply etc. The computers I had ordered in Hong Kong also arrived, so the office started shaping up fast.
But I was troubled by the calculating looks of the Sudanese researchers who soon started bringing their female cousins to apply as my secretary. They looked at me with suspicion and mistrustful eyes. One in particular struck me as a devious person who had eyes like snake and face full of pock marks. He was the director of the station and often name dropped.
These girls all came loaded with gold jewelry but could speak little or no English. Their typing skills were very doubtful as well, so I rejected all of them. I then found an Egyptian woman who was young and spoke English reasonably well. She was naturally fluent in Arabic and knew how to type so I hired her on the spot. This did not sit well with the Sudanese because she was a Coptic Christian but selecting a secretary was purely my prerogative, so I ignored their snide remarks and got on with the job.
I had brought most of the vehicles to El Obeid and the fuel had arrived to be stored at the station. I had also hired the drivers and opted for an administrative assistant who could get things done in Khartoum for me. I was in good mood and set about making a work plan for the coming season The field assistants were selected and sent to their stations. In addition to El Obeid, I was to administer 4 other stations spread-out all-over Sudan. These were Idd el Ghanam, Umm Kadada in the Darfur region west of Sudan and Ed Damer and El Saada in the eastern part of Sudan.
So I went to all the sites and helped settle the field assistants there in rented houses and brought them motorbikes and the vehicles with the driver and some fuel. They started the selection of farmers for the field trials that were to start soon but we were still working on the trial protocols in El Obeid.
Sudan is a vast country. West of El Obeid there are no roads but trails through arid regions that look like desert. You could fly to Nyala to reach Idd El Ghanam or to El Fasher up north to reach Umm Kadada but these two airports had only dirt strips that became soft during heavy rains, so planes had difficulty in landing. By road it was too tiresome and took several days.
The road to Idd El Ghanam was particularly bad where even the 4-wheel drive vehicles bogged down in the deep mud or got stranded because the wadis ran full and could not be crossed. The road to Umm Kedada was a bit easier because it was mostly desert.
The roads in the east were better so I could easily drive to Ed Damer because the road was newly asphalted up to Shendi by Osama Bin Laden’s company and the road from Ed Damer to El Saada was just desert trails so also easy.
But the distances were vast. It took me two days to reach Ed Damer from El Obeid and the same time to return making the road travel bone weary. There are a number of roadside stands selling food and drinks 24 hours a day but in some places like Umm Kadada, the food was truly awful.
Back in El Obeid I pushed hard for the completion of the work plan and asked the El Obeid researchers to get busy planting the trials in various sites with the help of our field assistants. Now the trouble began in earnest.
I found out that these Sudanese were not used to work in the fields because they considered themselves elite of Sudan. They hired assistants and laborers from the station to do their job. I did not agree with this set up because in a farming system’s project it was the farmer who was our partner. He did most of the work under the supervision and active participation of the researcher.
It was against the principle to bring in hired laborers to work in the farmer’s field, but the Sudanese insisted on this way and now demanded that their workers be paid full time plus overtime. They also demanded enormous salaries for themselves. When I said that I observed they did not go to the field and did not in any way work in the project, their answer was that they were thinking so I have to pay them for their thinking exercises.
The ARC people came but they sided with the Sudanese researchers of El Obeid. It was a very bad beginning for the project but elsewhere in the western part and in the eastern part the work took off and many trials were planted the very first season.
But soon everyone started asking for money. The gas station attendant of the station would not fill our vehicles with our gasoline unless I paid him, the guards would not watch our offices at night and so on. When I argued that the Sudanese government has signed a legal document saying that they will be responsible for a great number of things like office space, housing for the staff and rent etc. it fell on deaf ears. No one honored the agreement between the FAO and the government.
I in the meantime was pushing very hard for the FAO to formalize the contract to hire the national professionals and sent to them all relevant documents. Finally one day it was signed and the NPPs were now directed to work full time for the project and report only to me. But again, they balked and said they could not work full time for the project but wanted full salary. Most of them worked as consultants outside and used the project computers at night to do their work. This earned them good money plus they did not have to work for me but got paid just the same.
The snake eyed person was their leader and spokesperson. In short, they found the FAO project their fat milking cow. They did not care about farmers or ways to help them but always bragged about the package of technology they were developing for them. I was in an impossible situation.
My counterpart was the worst person chosen and the fault was partly mine. I had trusted his resume and the endorsement of the ARC in Wad Medani. He was given a car, a driver and an office but he did nothing. He went out but not to the fields and wanted to control the money. This was not allowed under the rules. Only I as project manager and CTA was responsible to the FAO to spend and account for the money, but he resented it.
When I asked him to read a report I had prepared to send to the FAO, he kept it on his desk for two months and said he was writing the forewords. No one had asked him to write anything, so the reports were delayed. He started conspiring against me and saying that I was paid high salary whereas he was paid pittance although he was equally qualified etc. etc.
The Khartoum Government did not respond to my request for them to pay the rents of the houses for the junior staff and build their permanent residences as soon as possible but they always said that they were short of funds so no rent could be paid and no houses were built. The situation in Ed Damer was very bad where the female staff had to be housed properly. In Idd El Ghanam it was the same story where an FAO employee from Tunisia who was also a CTA decided not to cooperate with my project and help my staff there to the great embarrassment of the FAO in Rome.
He would say one thing to the visitors from Rome and do another when they left. He saw our project as a rival and not as a partner and made awful remarks. Then the Sudanese person who was the coordinator in Ed Damer started stealing money and made false receipts in Arabic knowing I could not read or write Arabic. A receipt of 100 pounds became one thousand by adding a zero while he pocketed the 900. This went on unnoticed until the Arabic speaking accountants in Rome spotted the anomaly and asked me to explain. But this would happen after almost two years.
I was having difficulty in keeping an eye on 5 sites while the UN cut our project budget drastically, but Rome advised me to shut down two sites and transfer the staff elsewhere to consolidate the project.
El Obeid is a dusty town where only a few roads are asphalted. Sometimes the rains flooded the town to a depth of few feet. It had one cinema and one park where people sat in the evening to escape the heat. It had one hotel and a few low-class restaurants. The only place where I could go, and sit was the Syrian club where the El Obeid Syrians gathered a few times a week to socialize or play volleyball. They warmly accepted me and often invited me to their homes. They were Sudanese but remained apart because they were Catholics. The girls wore short skirts and western clothes that the Moslem Mollahs did not like. They castigated anything western on TV and radio all the time. The Syrians did not mix with the Egyptians who were Coptic.
The Egyptian Coptics had their own club, and their women too wore short skirts and western clothes making the Mollahs upset. It was a Moslem country where one could see the cement hands holding Koran and a gun in many traffic circles. Women were shabbily treated and often shouted at.
I stopped this practice when I forbade anyone shouting at my secretary and insisted that she be treated with respect and dignity. In return they accused me of being a foreigner who did not understand their culture.
Sudanese often asked me if I was a Pakistani or Bangladeshi. When I said no, then they assumed I was an Indian Moslem and were very surprised when I said no again. What was an Indian Hindu doing in a Moslem country?
The housing situation in Ed Damer got worse so I made a decision. I gathered all the villagers and asked their help to build a residence complex for us just outside their village. The project would provide the doors and windows and some other costs. They agree and built adobe houses in a short time and a separate house for the female field assistant. In El Obeid I had found some shelter for them in some villages but in Idd El Ghanam now called Idd El Fursan I still had trouble and paid the rent from the project funds. I had to take care of the staff everywhere and explain to the FAO later the justification for the expenses.
One of my staff based in Nyala fell seriously ill and had to be evacuated to Khartoum by plane but the pilot refused to take the responsibility, so I had to get a doctor from El Obeid to certify that the patient needed very urgent medical assistance. He was flown to Khartoum, but he died soon after anyway. Another of my staff in El Obeid was seriously sick so I took him to Wad Medani personally where he had a brother to look after him. He got well. So, there were many problems that I had to handle right away.
One of the more serious problems was that of communication with the field and Khartoum. At first another project office helped in transmitting the radio messages for me but soon the radio operator started asking for money. They were all UN projects and were in theory supposed to help other UN projects, but I had mentioned about the Tunisian in Idd El Fursan. It was the same story here as well.
I tried to make friends with them by inviting them to my house for dinner. They came and had dinner but never returned the courtesy. They were aloof and uncooperative from the start and nothing I could do to win their heart.
Jasmine and the kids came to El Obeid to spend their vacation but really there was nothing to do for them. It was worse than Timbuctoo. Jayanti learned how to bake cake at the Catholic mission and also had her hands dyed with henna, but Ashis was really bored. There was nothing to read and I had no TV. Jasmine tried to keep busy with cooking and some housekeeping but said one day that she did not trust my servant. Perhaps he was stealing money.
I took them to the El Obeid water reservoir one day and had a picnic. The foreigners of El Obeid were a strange lot and unfriendly. When we invited one Dutch fellow to dinner, he forgot to show up. Others came but never returned the courtesy. I had become thin due to constant traveling all over Sudan and poor food on the road that worried Jasmine and the kids.
I took them to Khartoum which at the best of times was not a pretty town. Jasmine was dismayed at the shabby hotel rooms where I mostly stayed and poor-quality food. There was an Indian family in Omdurman where they served traditional Indian food so that is where we used to go. She was terrified one day when the infamous haboob hit Khartoum one day.
Haboob is a terrible dust storm that can appear suddenly and cloak the entire city in darkness in broad day light. The dust is so thick and choking that one has trouble breathing even inside a closed car. It was a novel experience for her. She had never known anything like it and was glad when it was over. I used to go to Omdurman to buy some books they sold on the sidewalks. I picked up a few good books on Sudan there.
This story is not complete without mentioning the Nepalese fellow who came to join my project. I had to get the approval of the Sudanese government for this fellow to come and join the project so one day he showed up and said that he was an economist. His idea I soon found out of survey consisted of interviewing 4 or 5 farmers to fill up long questionnaires and then he wrote up voluminous reports by extrapolating the answers. He called it key informant survey. I called it a preposterous short cut that produced erroneous conclusions, but he insisted.
He lived alone and refused invitation to my house. In 18 months that he stayed, I went to his house only once for 30 minutes, so our relationship was cold and unfriendly. I do not know why it turned out that way but it was like everything else in Sudan. He left the project but left no mark. He vanished and I never knew where he went.
Jasmine did not enjoy the terribly long flight back to the Philippines but at least we were able to see each other. Soon I went home for my first leave. Back in Sudan the grinding work and fighting the bureaucracy and the devious Sudanese of El Obeid sapped my energy like never before.
But by this time I had received the long-awaited radio that I installed in my office at El Obeid and was from that time on able to reach any part of Sudan. I sent my secretary to Khartoum for one week of training on how to use the radio. She was an excellent student. She typed my reports, did the accounts with my help, went with me to the bank, handled the radio to receive or send messages, solved any problem I had like the alternate fuel storage facility that she found for me downtown. She did many such chores with a smile and more while the administrative assistant looked for something to do. I was very happy with her, but the Sudanese were plotting against her to get her out of the project.
The Yemeni project coordinator in Khartoum in the meantime had been posted in Egypt. He had been very friendly and helpful to me but his replacement was another story. This fellow of unknown nationality was hostile to me from day one and often spoke in an uncivilized manner on the radio that many others could listen to.
I had to from time to time do the budget revision as mandated by the UN but one day I found to my surprise and dismay that this chap had done a budget revision by himself and sent it to the UN office as a result of which some 60000 US dollars were slashed from my project.
I said that what he did was wrong. I could report him and get fired on the spot, but he was very well connected in Rome. That is how he had gotten his job in the first place. I fought very hard for several days to get this money restituted to my project and had to go to many ministries and wait for long hours for them to sign or write letters. The Egyptian fellow at the UN office was also very unfriendly and kept me waiting in the outer room for long time while he attended to other matters. He said that he had to correct my English. Obviously, it took him a long time to do that.
But finally, the money was restituted. I said that if he did such mischief again then he will be in more trouble than he can handle. No budget revision is ever to be submitted without my approval and signature because that is the rule. I never reported this misconduct of the project coordinator to the FAO although it became known to the Rome office somehow anyway.
The bad roads in the west took their toll on the vehicles that now needed frequent repairs and spare parts that were hard to find in Sudan. The photocopying machine in my office started breaking down as well. Someone borrowed the project camera and returned it later, but it never worked again. My servant meanwhile was caught red handed stealing from my house, so he was taken to the jail only to be released a day later.
They said that they had no budget to feed the prisoners. The fellow promptly left the town but a policeman came and suggested to me that for the consideration of a fee, he was willing to go and look for the culprit in Khartoum. It was a pure con job, so I disagreed. The thief had stolen my money, the traveler’s checks and the project camera. I never recovered most of the money and the camera but the American Express after nearly 8 months of writing refunded me the loss.
The second-year work plan was made on time and field trials started but the problem of national professionals remained and got worse. The animal science part of the project was doing well in El Obeid and also in Darfur. The agronomy work continued in Ed Damer but so did the stealing.
There the driver lent the vehicle to an unauthorized person who caused serious damage to the car. The repair bill was horrendous, so I wanted to fire the driver. Now the driver ran to his mentor for protection who happened to be the former ambassador to the United States who had begged me to hire this fellow.
He promptly called now the FAO rep to protest and said that the driver was a poor fellow and should be given a second chance etc. etc. The FAO rep was an American fellow who often had compelled me to hire people in my project whom he wanted to get rid of himself. I paid the repair bill and took the driver back. Such is the power of connection. In Sudan it seemed that everyone was connected.
Hiring people was easy but firing them was not. They made lifelong enemies, but I had no choice but to fire the administrative assistant who was of no use to me and a few drivers. I also fired a field assistant for the neglect of his duties, but I could not fire the national project director yet. The researchers at the El Obeid station were also proving to be difficult to handle because they still refused to work full time for the project and wanted full time pay.
So I sent the Director of the ARC in Wad Medani to Rome to sort out some of the problems I was having with the people in El Obeid. He went there at the project expense that I had authorized but once in Rome he said that it was I who was the problem because I did not understand the Sudanese people etc. No one in Rome believed him and sent him home.
Western Darfur: If you watch the CNN or BBC these days you will often see the Western Darfur and the problems there. In 1992 the problems were in the making and simmering under the surface.Darfur is bigger than France in size so you can imagine the distance. Here there was a conflict developing between the nomads who called themselves Arabs and had large herds of camels and goat or sheep that they constantly moved from region to region for grazing.
This brought them into conflict with the settled farmers who also had their animals and contested the grazing of huge herds of animals on their territory the nomads brought in. Darfur is very dry, and animals had to be watered in few watering holes near the villages that also caused conflicts that would later erupt in full scale war in which thousands died and millions would become refugees in vast camps. But in 1992 I could still drive to Umm Kadada that I had to soon close due to budget cuts.
There is a bad road between El Fasher and Nyala but south of Nyala there are no roads. During the rainy season I had to cross the fast-flowing wadis in the evening using the car headlights as the source of light and holding on to a rope and carrying our bags on our heads. This is how bad it was there. Then there were roots and sharp objects under water that could seriously damage the tires. If you have ever tried to change a tire in mud and water when jacking up the car is nearly impossible, you will know what I mean.
Here in the south Darfur many Africans had settled who had come long ago from West Africa with the intention to go to Mecca on pilgrimage but had never made it. They now settled in villages near the wadis which run dry most of the time but are full during heavy rains. During the dry season the wadis look dry but there is moisture under the sand so these farmers plant mango trees near the wadis. A wadi is a natural drainage system.
So the mango trees grew very well and produced tons of fruits. They also planted banana and many other crops. The villages here had a settled look. But now they were in conflict with the Arab nomads who invaded their territory for grazing and water. The Arabs hated the villagers whom they considered non-Arabs and would attack them again and again but that was still a few years away. I had to keep the staff here, keep them supplied with fuel for the vehicles and rent for their houses and salary every month.
But when I wanted to send a computer there on the UN plane one day, the project coordinator from Khartoum refused. This was the same fellow who had revised my budget without authority and my consent. I had earlier written about the Tunisian fellow here. I sent him music cassettes as a gift and invited him to El Obeid or in Khartoum, but he always refused.
The Filipino community in Nyala is worth mention here as well. There were only two or three of them, but they had heard of my Filipino wife through the grape vine. They would say hello only if you had a Filipino wife and not otherwise. They really did not care who you were but would always press their resumes on your hand just in case you were hiring. If you said no, you were not hiring anyone, then they would just turn away and never look at you again. The one who ended up living behind my house in El Obeid later could never stop bragging about his house and cars back home and how much money he was spending bringing gifts for the relatives.
But one person who was an Englishman and lived in Nyala is worth writing about as well. He had an Iranian wife who hated everyone. Once I went to his house just to say hello because he had seemed friendly in the past. Now he hurriedly came out to meet me outside his house sort of blocking the main door. She soon peeped to see who had come and made faces. He then asked her in a pleading voice if she would be so kind enough to prepare a cup of coffee for me to which she did not reply at all.
Instead, she just stood there for several minutes not saying anything and disappeared somewhere. I understood and took the hint. I was not fond of coffee anyway. But I always found it odd that foreigners who were so totally isolated and a thousand kilometers from anywhere could be so unfriendly and so unwelcoming. This was also true in Mali and elsewhere. How can anyone explain this phenomenon? I can’t.
Eastern Sudan: If one considers the western part of Sudan desolate then the eastern part is more desolate because there are vast tracts of featureless land where nothing grows and where there are no villages. Shendi is the only town between Khartoum and Ed Damer and Shendi is just a hell hole. It has changed little since the days of General Gordon except that the road to Shendi from Khartoum is new and well made. It gets worse after Shendi.
On the way to Shendi you come across the ruins at Meroe where the ancient ones built small pyramids that are no more than 20 or 30 feet in height. None of them are intact and are vandalized. At the base you can still see some very beautiful carvings, but they too are vandalized by people writing Ahmed love Fatima type of graffiti by scratching crudely on the fine carvings. No one cared about the past. At one time Sudanese pharaohs ruled the entire Egypt but that was a long time ago. Then you come to Ed Damer which is another disappointing town on the way to Dongola. Nile in this part takes an S shape and passes through many cataracts before becoming straight at Abu Simbel and Aswan. But I have not gone that far. The trip to Ed Damer and El Saada all the way from El Obeid was over 900 kms that always wore me out. I had to close the El Saada site due to budget problems and transfer the staff but Ed Damer continued.
Back in El Obeid the Sudanese now started black mailing the project by saying if they were not hired with high salary, they will not cooperate anymore and will block any appointment of people if I chose to hire from elsewhere. I gave them one more chance to prove their worth and asked the FAO to confirm their appointment using a formula called reimbursable loan agreement or RLA. I did not quite understand how it worked but the problems remained the same. They liked to get their salary but not work for it. They had become a total liability to the project and were wasting precious resources.
Jasmine came to visit me during my second year and stayed with me for a month but it was the same story. El Obeid was still the same dusty and dirty town where there was nothing to do for young children or for Jasmine. Jayanti tried to make friends with the daughters of my neighbor, but I do not know if she succeeded. Ashis was worse off but they never complained. This is what I really appreciate in my family. They knew that I was the head of a very difficult project where many people were not cooperating, and hell bent on giving me a hard time.
This made me often irritable. They said that I should return home and be happy, but I could not. At least not yet. They had to endure the period of Ramadan when no food is available anywhere but thankfully, they came at the tail end of it so I was able to feed them properly. Now I was glad they were going back home. They had seen enough of Sudan and were not impressed. It is not a tourist country.
I had to go home one more time, but the FAO Rome office knew my troubles and proposed that I transfer to Myanmar where they had already obtained the approval of the government, but I wished to complete my term of three years in Sudan and leave for good to retire. I was determined that this will be my last assignment anywhere. I was not going to go to another hellhole leaving this hellhole. That made no sense, but the FAO people were only trying to help me. They were very concerned.
So, I went home for a month. I had already discussed with Jasmine the matter of moving to Laguna in the near future where the kids will study at the University, so she had in the meantime purchased a lot there. Now during my home leave, we drew up plans for a beautiful house that we will build there. This was also the time when Annapurna came to visit the Philippines the second time. Jasmine said that she will go to Laguna and get the building permit and look for people to build our house.
I returned to Sudan after putting Annapurna back on a plane to Delhi. I could now sense that the Sudan situation was becoming more and more untenable. I was right. During my absence the counterpart fellow wrote nasty letters to Khartoum accusing me falsely of all sorts of things. I then made up my mind quickly to resign and return to the Philippines.
I wrote to the Rome office that I had come to the conclusion that my usefulness to the project had come to an end therefore I wished to leave Sudan and the FAO by the end of March of 1994. I had spent more than two years and three months trying to setup this project from the scratch and had succeeded in establishing the project in three parts of Sudan. The junior staff were working well and were doing useful work, but I left the fate of the national project director to the FAO.
They replied that I should stay at least until the middle of April because they were sending an evaluation team. This team finally arrived so I spent a whole day and evening talking to them in Khartoum about the project and the problems some had caused. They listened silently without saying anything. Obviously, they would hear another side of the story from the El Obeid troublemakers and then perhaps make up their mind. I did not care.
I had given this project nearly two and half years of my time but now it was time to quit and rest. I had enough of my international career. I later heard that the FAO had fired the national project director and a few others no doubt upon the recommendation of the evaluation team.
I left Sudan behind for good. I did not have the same feeling as in Haiti. I loved the Haitians, and the project was tremendously successful but here I was not so sure although I did try. It is just that the odds were too great to overcome. I suggested that my replacement be a Moslem who can read Arabic. I do not know to this day whether the FAO found someone. Now many years later the entire Darfur region is in turmoil. Who knows what is in store for those poor people?
Thus I ended my professional life with a simple letter. It took me to distant places, and I was able to achieve a great deal in many countries like Vietnam, Algeria, Burundi and Haiti but everything must come to an end. I gained a lot of experience and met many people, some good and some bad but that is life. The lesson learned is that one has to know who the good people are and cherish them. One has to also know who the bad people are and avoid them.
Note : The following links are given here for you to read Anil’s biography in French, Japanese, German, Spanish and Russian languages as well. Anil’s biography in French.
Note: My blogs are also available in French, Spanish, German and Japanese languages at the following links: