The Hounslow Triangle

Thursday 7th May 2009

Hello everyone!
Here is the first of my African blogs!

However, before I describe my first impressions of Africa, I’ll have to tell you what a drama I had getting there!
My flight was on Friday, at 9.35pm, and I was due to fly to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia and connect to Juba in South Sudan on Saturday morning.
Having gone through the usual tedious process of Heathrow security, I was reading my book, waiting for them to display the gate number, when a voice on the tannoy system announced “Could all passengers on the Ethiopian Airlines flight to Addis Ababa please go directly to the transit desk.”
Hmmmm, it didn’t sound good.

I dutifully went to the desk, where an extremely young employee who clearly drew the short straw, was attempting to explain to 40 irate passengers that the flight had been cancelled and no further details were available at this time!
We were all shunted into a group, and led like sheep back through security and immigration, and out to a bus to the delightful Ibis Hotel just outside Heathrow.
It took several hours to get out to the hotel and checked in (there were about 75 of us altogether), and the hotel staff told us they still didn’t know anything about when our flight would be rescheduled, so although I was in a hotel room, I didn’t sleep very well, as I was paranoid they would suddenly announce that my flight was at 7am and no one would wake me up! It turned out our flight wasn’t until 9pm, so we had all day to wait.

That was the moment that I discovered the black hole of Hounslow! I asked the hotel manager if there were any shops nearby, or anything at all to do, and he just looked at me sadly and shook his head, saying, “‘fraid not, it’s completely dead around here.”
After taking a walk around, I saw his point – literally nothing but hotels for miles around, a few roads, and a sad little Mcdonalds. It was soooo boring!

I wandered the endless corridors for a bit, checked my emails at an extortionate rate per minute, and then settled down in my room to watch Quincy. I almost crawled out of my skin with boredom! Literally the most interesting thing that happened all day was when I looked out of my window into the car park and saw three fat blokes surreptitiously drinking cans of lager behind a van. It’s the kind of sad, scary place that people could disappear into and never come out again – like a Bermuda Triangle of mediocrity.

However, by 9pm I was back in Heathrow, at the gate, where they still had no information about my connection. Eventually we boarded around 10pm, and only then did they announce the connections – most people had one, except, of course, those of us going to Juba, who had no connection until Tuesday (which was the next available flight out there). I assume they’d deliberately waited until we were sat on the plane, to avoid any angry passengers losing it, but then (of course!) two people were so angry about it they decided to get off the plane, so we all had to sit around while they found their luggage etc.

Basically quite the drama!

However, after landing in Addis the airline drove us to a really nice hotel and put us up there, where we had free meals, lovely big rooms and free wireless internet etc. So, after explaining to CHF that I wouldn’t be arriving until Tuesday, I was free to relax and explore Addis for a couple of days!
I was really surprised by the temperature – I had been getting ready for blasting heat, but actually Addis was the perfect temperature – warm and sunny, with a lovely cool breeze. Turns out it’s at quite a high altitude, which is why it’s relatively cool and fresh. So, along with two NGO workers I met who were also heading to Juba, we set off for a long walk around, went to Mercato market (supposedly the biggest outdoor market in Africa), and the University of Addis Ababa, because the best museum is apparently in the Institute of Ethiopian Studies there. Then we went to an lovely Ethiopian restaurant, clearly designed for tourists, but nevertheless really good – amazing decorations, traditional music and dancing, great food and really cheap!

So, having started out really frustrated that my flight was cancelled and there were no connections, I ended up having an unexpected two-day holiday in Addis, paid for by Ethiopian Airlines! I also got a flight voucher worth $150 as compensation for the delay, which was an extra bonus (although it’s only valid on Ethiopian Airlines, so I doubt I’ll get to use it before it expires…)

Anyway, having enjoyed my brief and unexpected holiday in Ethiopia (photos to follow), I arrived in South Sudan at last.

Juba is VERY hot and humid, although I’ve been told that it’s actually cooler now because the rainy season is about to start (I think it’s around 35 degrees). The compound is nice, with fans in every room, and running water, although the toilets and showers are outside in a separate block. There are quite a lot of staff here, and most of the expats are Kenyan, but there’s a couple of Americans too.

Everyone’s been really friendly, and within about 4 hours of arriving, they had given me my own desk to work at, invited me to sit in on a meeting with a UNDP consultant, and asked me if I would lead their assessment team the next day! I declined, as I explained I wasn’t really experienced enough to take over something like that, but I’ve agreed to help them on the assessment, as it means I’ll get access to the population that I need to talk to. They also asked me if I would write the questionnaire they’ll be using, and gave me some templates to work from, so I could add in questions for my own research, or adapt the ones they need to suit my work.

There will be 5 of us going up to the field to do interviews and focus groups, so the other great thing is that we’ll get way more data than I would get on my own, and I can use all of the data collected by the whole team for my research, not just the interviews I do individually myself. I emailed my supervisor to check this, to make sure I wasn’t going to break any rules from the ethics committee, but he said it’s fine – I can call the rest of the team my “research assistants” or something like that, and as long as I inform the ethics committee, I can use all of the data!

Yay! I’ve also persuaded them to let me try a pairwise ranking exercise which I learnt about on my course. They haven’t used it before, but hopefully it’ll work really well and the results will be useful to me and to CHF.

So, I’m slowly adjusting to the heat, although I’m not sure I’ll ever be completely used to it, and the compound is pretty good really – Don was surprised that I wasn’t shocked at how basic it is (compared to some other NGO compounds here), but I pointed out that in Nepal I had to go for weeks at a time without being able to wash at all, so this is pretty nice really! The power here is pretty sporadic, but they have their own generator, which is on all day to power the computers and fans and lights etc, and it also charges up the giant industrial batteries, so that at night when it gets turned off, the batteries have enough power to do the lights and fans until morning. At least, that’s how it worked on my first night! Last night however, the batteries ran out at about 3am, so of course the fan stopped working, and it was so unbearably hot that I couldn’t go back to sleep! They started the generator again at 7.30am, but by then it was time to get up! People here work incredibly hard – they’re all in the office by 8am and most don’t leave until about 7pm, and they work at least half days on the weekends too. But then again, they are entitled to a 1 week R&R break every two months, which you can choose to take in Nairobi, or Kampala, or Addis, – pretty much any of the nearby cities!

There’s a really nice Ethiopian restaurant/bar literally just around the corner from our compound, and Don took me and a couple of other staff members out to happy hour there, and then for a really good meal at a Lebanese place nearby.

There is so much more to say, but I’m sure that’s quite enough for now – this has turned into an epic email, but there’s so much going on, it’s hard to cut it down! I have good access to internet here, so I can check my emails fine. I can also use skype, although the connection isn’t really good enough for phone calls, but I can log on and chat online if anyone fancies doing that.

Better go – I have to check the batteries in my recorder for tomorrow’s field trip and teach the other team members how to do the ranking exercise!

tons of love to you all,

hot, sweaty and happy Maya

ps – I share an office with Lena, a Kenyan woman in charge of the programme I’m working on, and Linda, an American girl who was working in Darfur and got moved down here for the time being. The security guard just came in to tell Lena that here’s a man here to see her. She asked who it was, and the guard answered “He’s a brown person.” We all tried to keep a straight face as Lena tried to explain to him that she doesn’t know all the “brown people” in Juba, and he should have asked for his name (the guard is new and hasn’t got the hang of it yet).
Apparently most Sudanese people will refer to anyone of Indian or Arabic origin as “brown”, and Don said he is always being told things like “Oh you know Kwori – he’s black.” – as if that helps!

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