Monday, 1 October 2007

UNHCR Compound, Iriba

Now about to start our fourth day without running water – which leads to all sorts of interesting ‘economies’, such as shaving in the bottom half of a plastic bottle, and other exciting ‘boy-scout’ remedies – don’t even think about the loos! I suppose, looking on the bright side, at least we should have no problem getting plenty of space on the plane home next Saturday.

And talking of brightness, after a week of relentless African sun, I’m doing a very passable imitation of a conker. During one of tonight’s inevitable power cuts, I was able to sit at the head of the table, glowing quietly like Three-Mile-Island, and allow everyone to finish their delicious meal of chopped mambo leaves and hominy grits with a subdued Ikea-like illumination.

Today we went out to Amnabak, a refugee camp only about thirty miles from the Sudan border. With about seventeen thousand inhabitants, it is one of the poorest we have visited – no wells or permanent water at all – it comes in everyday by water truck. Lots of small animals though, sheep goats, and of course, hundreds and hundreds of donkeys.

Despite the extremely unhelpful military guards, we were eventually able to enter the camp, and gradually people arrived in the community ‘hut’, to hold a meeting to discuss problems and possibilities with their livestock.

We are now quite used to these – they seem to follow the same pattern. There is a front row of ‘the sheiks’, or at least men who think they are important. Then at the back sit a couple of rows of women – all dressed in dazzling coloured veils and robes, and often with babies secreted underneath who emerge squalling from time to time during the meeting.

The men usually start of with same tactics – please give us more water, more food and more (free) veterinary medicines. Then we ask them about diseases, and we get a list of symptoms that is often very hard to pin down. But while this is going on, the women at the back gradually start chipping in, usually with more pertinent suggestions. After all, it’s normally they who actually do the work of looking after the animals on a daily basis. I mean, in a community like this, just who do you think will have to carry the water home from the water-point? They gradually grow in confidence, and even start arguing with the menfolk.

They then took us around the camp – visiting the market, and the shacks and huts they’d managed to build. How on earth do the women manage to have such clean clothes in conditions like that – and with water rationed to just a few litres per head?
As we came back the World Food Programme lorry arrived with the month’s rations.
A huge crowd (of mostly women and children) quickly gathered to receive their dues.
It was sobering to think that this grain had probably been flown across the Atlantic in some super airliner, or container ship, then trucked across the desert in huge road trains – but finally, it’s loaded on the back of some placid old donkey – lowest of low tech, but it works a treat!

Jeremy Hulme

PS - Tomorrow we head back to Abeche, at which point our wonderful wi-fi access is start to end. We'll update the blog as and when we can, but it may not be for a few days!

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