A Week of Firsts

On Sunday, I finalized the lease agreement with my landlord and moved my stuff into the apartment.  I didn’t stay there that night because I was flying out early the next morning to Juba and it was easier just to spend one last night in the guesthouse.  I have a two bedroom apartment with one bathroom and Khartoum is an accompanied post for MC-Scotland, so here’s the invitation to people I know, if you have any desire to come to Khartoum and you can get a visa, your are welcome to stay.  I guess there are some interesting pyramids near Khartoum, I’ve already checked out the Whirling Dervishes, so there are some interesting things to see and do.

So, I took my first UN flight.  Landed on my first dirt runway.  Saw my first portable control tower.  Got my first glimpse of rural Africa.  I am for the first time in a more rural area of Africa.  

Because commercial airlines don’t fly to a lot of the places where the humanitarian work is being done and the commercial airlines that do fly there are not deemed very safe (so most NGOs will only allow their employees to fly on them in a emergency) the UN operates a network of flights.  They are the World Food Program Flights and they are able to offer these flights through funding by USAID and the European Commission plus they charge non-UN employees to fly, it’s fairly cheap $200 one-way.  I was flying to Juba to meet with MC Scotland’s implementing partners on the BRIDGE program and USAID to get clarification on indicators (that’s a long story).  I flew down with the country director, my boss Provash, the Chief of Party, and one of our Democracy and Governance Advisor.  I sat next to a man who works for the Carter Institute who is here to set up for the election observation.  We had a very interesting conversation. 

“So, do you declare elections free and fair,” I asked.

“No,” he said, “We say they were credible or not credible.”

“What elections have you most recently observed?” I asked.

“Kenya, Nigeria, the U.S. . . “

“You observe U.S. elections,” I asked. 

“Yes, they are part of a group of countries that has agreed to have their elections observed.  I was down in Florida for the last election.”

I laughed, “Florida and what was the other problem state?” 

“Iowa,” he replied.

“Are their problems with the U.S. election system?” I asked.

“Actually, because the U.S. doesn’t have a national registry for elections people can register to vote twice,” he replied.

“Really?” I was shocked.

“Yes, people who own second homes can register under that address,” he explained.  “As well as their primary residence.” 

At first I thought this might be a huge issue, but since in most states or rather all states except Oregon you have to be present to vote, it seemed like it might be difficult or almost impossible to be able to vote in two places on the same day.

“What was the worst election you’ve most recently observed?” I asked.

“Nigeria,” he replied.  “Kenyan also has a lot of problems,” he stated.  

By this time we had landed in Wau on the dirt airstrip, next to the air strip was the body of a crashed airline.  Another first, usually airports don’t leave crashed airlines lying about as it discourages air travel, but here, we passed it on our taxi in.  We weren’t allowed to get off the flight during the stopover and about 11 people got off the plane in Wau, and only a few got on.

“Excuse me,” said the Flight Attendant.  “We need you to move to the back of the plane.”  

“Why?” my seatmate asked. 

“Because the pilot has asked that any passengers in the front rows, be moved to different seats.”

My seatmate persisted in trying to get answers, but none that were satisfactory were forth coming.  He was annoyed at being moved to the back of the plane.  And we were, to the very back.  When I asked the Flight Attendant he told me to ask him after we landed.

After we took off again, my seatmate decided that he was going to the bathroom and then he was going to reclaim his seat in the front of the plane.  I watched as he sat down and then was politely asked to move again.   

All these scenarios were running through my head, the plane is unweighted, but the two pilots sitting in front of me dispelled that myth.

We have inside information that the SPLM is meeting this flight at the airport and they don’t want us to panic when armed soldiers enter the plane was the explanation I settled on.

After we landed I deplaned and approached the flight attendant, “You can tell me,” I assured him.  “I used to work in Iraq, there is nothing you can say that will make me panic.”  

“The emergency door light went on in the cockpit saying it was open which means that the emergency door either wasn’t secure or the light malfunctioned,” he explained.  

I thanked him for telling me and then informed the country director why we had moved.  “Well if it came open,” the CD said, “We could all have been sucked out.”  Maybe they thought that the first three chairs would block the doorway and prevent people from being sucked out of the plane.  Whatever we were safe on the ground.  And it was raining.

We were picked up by a Mercy Corps driver, Mercy Corps operates in the South, MC Scotland operates in the North.  We arrived at an office deserted due to the fact that it was lunch time.  So we went to a restaurant had lunch, dropped our stuff at the Links International Hotel, brand new, with a pool.  Small rooms, but clean and very nice staff, plus the office is within walking distance.

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