Monday, August 11, 2008

That sounds about right

It is my newfound use of this phrase that inspired someone I work with to inform me that I'd officially been working in South Sudan for too long. It's a phrase that conveys agreement, while at the same time expressing a disinterest in any sort of precision relating to what you're talking about because whatever it is is the norm to such an extent that it isn't questioned. For instance "My flight hasn't started boarding and we were supposed to leave an hour ago" "That sounds about right", or "We're out of tea and there are ants in the sugar" "That sounds about right" etc, etc.

So the question then becomes whether the phrase is an expression of complacency on one hand, or an understanding that nothing can be expected to work perfectly here, so that close enough is often your best choice. I'm not sure to be honest. There's a great song that begins with "One of my friends taught me the most glorious lesson, that in this life there is no need to ever be complacent." If complacency is "smug and uncritical satisfaction with one's self or one's achievements" then perhaps the sentiment I've described is the opposite of complacency. It is the recognition that no matter how hard or long you work, there is so much to be done here that it feels like you're wading through waist-deep mud no matter what approach you take. For instance, Unicef distributes drug kits to organizations that support Primary Health Care Centers and Primary Health Care Units. These drug kits contain all the basic medications needed to diagnose and treat basic diseases, and without them the health centers are essentially impotent. So after months of organizations informing Unicef that stocks were getting low, the kits were finally delivered. All at once. All in Juba. So now you have literally thousands of tons of drugs sitting in NGO compounds because the drugs are, in fact, mostly needed in the field, not in Juba. But the roads are terrible and hiring a charter to fly your tons of drugs out to your site (if your site has a landable airstrip) is incredibly expensive. The UN Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) has kindly donated 80 hours of flight time a month to INGOs for shipping supplies. But they won't take anything of this weight or bulk. So Unicef distributed life saving medication in such a way that no one is using them and the medication is sitting on shelves slowly moving towards its expiration date? Sounds about right.

There are many more humorous examples of how this phrase is applicable to daily life here. For instance, " This beer is warm" "Ahh sounds about right", or "There's a goat giving birth outside our front door", "Yup, sounds about right". If nothing else, it just goes to show you how much you can get used to, some of that is positive - like not being phased by everyone you meet saying "morning" regardless of the time of day. On the other hand a friend of a friend told me a story the other day about being asked to name three pivotal events of the past week, one of which was having an AK-47 held uncomfortably close to his temple at a traffic stop. Rather than being frightened or vowing to get out of Juba, he began asking his friends how many lbs/inch of pressure it takes to fire an AK-47, so that the next time it happened he would better be able to gauge how close the finger on the trigger was to firing the gun. That's not normal. But normalizing things that would ordinarily offend, scare or repulse you is part of life. Rats darting out from underneath giant piles of trash is normal in New York City, goats tiptoeing among piles of burning trash is normal in Juba.

Many people have asked me what it's like here, they want to know details about everything from the day to day to the extraordinary. And even after two and a half months I still stand by my original assertion that it's not all the different from many other places I've been. Manhattan it's not, but then again nor is it a place that would be beyond the imagination of anyone. So either I am particularly adaptable, or the world is smaller than we've all been led to believe.

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