Jose Simsa – Part 2

Excerpts from Jose’s Blog – Part 2

25 Nov 2019

There are many instances of families being decimated through wars and natural disasters.  None more so than in Sudan, where, prior to dividing into two countries, whole villages would be wiped out causing massive displacement of people.  The two major population groups were Arab and African.  There was an unstated position of Arab dominance in the government and the commercial sectors.  The African communities were mainly found in the rural areas and in the south of the country.  The displaced South Sudanese gradually made their way to Darfur where large refugee camps grew and the people were looked after by a large international NGO Sector.

I was a HoM (operations) for an agency that represented all the Caritas, CAFOD and NCR.  The program had its main site of operations in Nyala, Darfur.  The major refugee camps were quite nearby, but we were getting news of groups of people moving in from other centres.  It was decided that we would investigate to see if we could find these people and bring them in to relative safety.  The CPO (Child Protection Officer), Senior Logistician, and myself set out with an interpreter and driver.

About three hours into the journey, we came upon a guarded outpost that was manned by members of the SLA (Sudanese Liberation Army).  We needed their agreement to go further, and also any information they may have on the moving groups of refugees.  With the interpreter’s help, I began to negotiate.  The SLA had seen and spoken to some groups of people who had been chased out of their villages by Janjaweed (government militia).   International NGOs had good standing with the SLA and they were quite happy to share this information plus directions to where we would find the displaced people, but they needed permission from their superiors.

While we waited, we were offered tea.  The senior SLA rebel took my hand and we walked (hand-in-hand as was the custom) to their shelter.  In such situations, I tend to blend and accept what to outsiders might appear to be unbelievable.  And so I sipped tea while holding hands with a heavily armed SLA rebel soldier and thought nothing of it!  We found the walking groups and sent trucks to collect them the following day.

2 Dec 2019

A week of mixed emotions – my dear old girl, Sophy, went to doggy heaven on Monday 25 Nov.  It was peaceful for her and hard for me.  Hope there are a million smells for her to sniff and nice corners to have a doze.

Our two music groups – AllSorts and Jam Tomorrow played at two CASPA sites, and Jam Tomorrow participated in the Bay St Festival.  These occasions lifted my spirits considerably – there is a feeling that is hard to describe when you are playing music and so enjoying it.

Africa is a huge continent, full of music with distinctive sounds and beats.  There were many occasions in different African countries where the music impacted my life.

Botswana 1986 – I was in Gaborone (the capital and of ‘First Lady Detective Agency’ fame).  I was told Hugh Masekela would be playing at the stadium – I’m a big fan – so I went along with all the population of Gaborone!  Concert began at 8.30 with local artists and groups who were really talented and got the crowd going.  As the hours went by I wondered if I was at wrong venue, but it was the only place in town to accommodate the crowd.  Everyone reassured me Hugh Masekela would ‘be on next’. By 2.00am, I was beginning to question my sanity when the great man arrived along with his fabulous group. He’d had a gig in South Africa and just drove up to Botswana after!!  He blew that trumpet and sang with a group for three hours and the crowd woke up and went wild (including me).  That was my introduction to African time, and love of music, and I was in seventh heaven!

Zimbabwe 1995 – We were repatriating the refugees back to Mozambique.  They had been in five camps along the border for many years.  It was the occasion of our first group to be repatriated; buses were lined up and people milled with their few possessions.  Those who were waiting for future convoys began singing in farewell as the buses filled and slowly departed.  Then a few scratchy guitars, drums and steel instruments with a sound like xylophone joined in.  The music became more animated, people formed circles around the musicians and swayed to the sounds.  If you wanted to dance, you pointed your foot to the bandleader and when he nodded you went into the centre of the circle and danced.  Several people urged me on but it was another hour before I pointed my foot and went to the centre.  It is hard to describe how freeing such an action is – I danced for the allotted minutes and it felt like flying.  After, one of the women said ‘You are the right structure but the wrong colour’!!

16 Jan 2020

I remember crossing the border between Zimbabwe and Mozambique, and having to change to the local currency at the border station.  Having come through a war of self-determination with Portugal followed by a prolonged civil war, Mozambique’s currency had lost a lot of value.  On the advice of my driver, Arnold, I took a capacious bag to hold the money.  When I paid for our first meal inside Mozambique, I couldn’t believe the pile of notes needed to pay for our modest fare!  In fact, after paying for our first evening’s accommodation, I was concerned that the pile was not enough to get us to the capital, Maputo, two days drive away.  Mozambique was so devastated that Maputo was the only place with banking services at the time (1993-4).  We barely managed and while in Maputo, I made certain that I exchanged enough dollars to get us home again.  Poor, long-suffering Arnold was so happy when we crossed the border back into Zimbabwe because he would get sadza with his meals again.  All the chasing after fuel and having to negotiate the roads in a foreign and damaged city were nothing compared to the lack of sadza.  I had really enjoyed the potatoes in Mozambique but to Arnold a meal wasn’t a meal unless it had a liberal helping of sadza!

(Ed. note – Sadza is a thickened porridge made out of any number of pulverised grains. The most common form is made with white maize)

27 Jan2020

Eleven days since my last post – the self-nagging begins in earnest when I’ve passed the seven day mark – I question the benefit of ‘must’ and ‘have to’.  It would be too easy to give up with some self-concocted ‘feel good’ excuse but when the muse kicks in it’s energising and fun!

In Pakistan, the more north you travel the more conservative it becomes.  The northern reaches are the most beautiful, with stunning and dramatic scenery, but narrower in attitude.  I was in the habit of always wearing the shalwar kameez even though in parts of Lahore and Karachi, modest western style was accepted.  I learned to cover up more as we (Wakheel my driver and I) pushed through North Western Frontier Province.  It was hard going as the roads became more difficult but Wakheel could coax another mile from any vehicle.

It was a seesaw time – on the one hand as a westerner, I could be invited to events where women are not usually found – e.g., a game of bushkhazi – on the other hand I would be expected to be with the women in seclusion.  This last was actually very invigorating.  Those women in their own walled areas knew how to enjoy themselves!  There would be singing and dancing and many naughty stories being related.  To me, it was the best of both worlds because, of course, no male could be invited not even their family members.  They were the occasions that provided me with welcome relaxation from the rigours of staying firm but modest in my negotiations in the male-dominated public sphere.  Those occasions preserved my sanity and sense of fun.   I often remember those women and wonder how they fare.

21 Feb 2020

Sri Lanka in the 80s and 90s was in the throes of an undeclared civil war where death and disappearances were commonplace.  In some ways, it hardened, or perhaps built barriers, in people, so that the atrocities became part of the norm.  Driving along the canals and seeing floating bodies; watching the large ships moored at sea and knowing they were the holding pens of interrogation and torture; travelling in the north between the opposing sides with a white flag tied to the jeep; trying to find relatives of people in the south to take messages of hope and support; noticing what seemed to be the extreme youth of armed groups and hoping nothing would startle them while passing; and curfews dominating life.

This race of gentle, courteous people whom you have grown to love – how can they be responsible for what you see?

Nowadays, there is peace of a sort, but the underlying tensions have not altered much.  Tourists can enjoy the beautiful island without being touched by, or aware of, its cruel and recent history.  A new era of colonialism has emerged in the form of villas for expatriates being built along the stunning coastline, and the growing economy is, as usual, in favour of the ‘haves’, while politics is dominated by the same names.

Nevertheless, Sri Lanka is a jewel in the ocean and its breathtaking scenery keeps on giving.  You never forget its beauty, the spices, the tea, and above all, its gentle, warm people.

6 Mar2020

Rain and lots of it!  Garden looks lush and there is a smell of cleansed earth.  Good for the soul.  We are in my favourite season – autumn.  Sunny days and cool nights. It’s the time to savour the outside before the cold winter descends.

I’ll only mention Covid-19 because it’s here, along with many other countries worldwide.  On the flip side, the world of comedy is having a field day with the panic buying and storing – particularly with the resulting rationing of loo-paper!

In the early days of my work in Zimbabwe, (mid-’80s), there were shortages due to the sanctions that had been imposed.  My first visit was like re-entering the ’50s with the fashions (lots of crimplene), the old models of cars (Peugeots were, and are, big in African countries), NO plastic bags, and the roughest loo-paper!

When in Harare, I made certain to visit the leading hotel (frequented by expatriates and white Rhodies).  After coffee, I’d head to the rest room and luxuriate in the feel of the toilet tissue.  In time, I became quite adept at ‘appropriating’ 2/3 rolls to take home.

In that period, it was not unusual for people to ask you to bring plastic bags on your next field trip.  But despite the sanctions, food was readily available.  In those days, before the big drought, Zimbabwe was the bread-basket for Southern Africa.  Everything on the table was produced locally and tasted delicious.  If people dropped by, the custom was to serve tea and jam sandwiches.  All locally grown and/or manufactured – tea, coffee, bread, butter, jam, milk and sugar.  Beef was the main meat eaten, and vegies were often cooked in a delicious peanut sauce.  Freshwater fish from the lakes and rivers, and a variety of crops on the farms.  There was even an emerging wine industry.

I didn’t return to Zimbabwe until the early ’90s.  By that time, the drought was at its height and it wasn’t uncommon to see empty shelves in the shops.  The five refugee camps along the border with Mozambique were at capacity and basic rations were being trucked in from other countries.  To me, it was astonishing as my memories were of ample, nutritious foodstuffs.  Zimbabweans had come out of a long war of independence and only wanted peace, but the new struggle was to scavenge for enough food to put on the table.  AND plastic bags had found their way there.

24 Mar 2020

It would be good, at this stage, to list the positives in my life as it has evolved since retirement:

  • As I sit here typing, I can see out the large full glass sliding door into the lush garden I have created since moving into this small retirement complex in 2005
  • I can look around the compact one-bedroom unit and see the memories of a rich, full working life mainly in the developing countries of Asia and Africa and latterly, in remote indigenous communities
  • My email and phone contact lists contain the contacts of many of the people I have worked, lived, and loved with, and learned so much from, in far-flung countries
  • I enjoy good health with small limitations
  • I play (keyboard) in two combos – world music and jazz – a real buzz
  • I am part of a very large extended (very loud and noisy) family. Joy!
  • I have loving memories of life with my partner of 47 years and treasure the memories of our grandson who was taken from us, and hold close to the friendship with our daughter and her son
  • And last, but definitely not least, I have enjoyed the unstinting love and company of four rescue dogs in their ‘senior’ years!
  • There that’s perked me up no end and despite the current situation and its restrictions I’m once again feeling very satisfied with, and looking forward to the next chapters of ‘my fortunate life’.

28 Mar 2020

The last time I had involuntarily allowed my hair to grow was in Sudan in 2003-4.  I was based in Nyala, Darfur where services for women were non-existent.

At first, I was so busy establishing shelter with a multi-faceted accompanying program (food, health, education, landmine awareness training) for the many refugees thronging into the nearby areas, that I didn’t have time to look at my hair.  A chance comment from an American community health nurse, who was confined to base waiting for the establishment of a camp, made me aware: in a distinct Southern drawl she said; ‘well yoall I won’t get bored, I’ll simply watch your hair grow!’

Now 16 years later, I’m the one watching my hair grow.  I can blame it on the restrictions of the virus (even though hairdressers have the blessing from ScoMo).  It will be an experiment that will go on for the life of COVID-19, and provide some sort of a yardstick e.g., lockdown lasted for — and in (?) weeks my hair grew (?) inches!

I remember going into Khartoum for R&R after three months stint in the camps of Darfur.  One of the staff in the central office had enquired from family and discovered a discreet ‘Beauty Parlour for Ladies’ in a secluded section of town.  Off I trotted – how can I ever forget the looks on those statuesque, tall, beautiful Sudanese women as I arrived with the appearance of a wild woman from Borneo!  I was whisked away and for the next three hours I was scrubbed, pummeled, oiled, de-haired completely, painted and coiffured, and emerged transformed!  When I returned to Darfur my Sudanese staff thoroughly approved, while the few expatriate staff looked as though I’d lost my mind.  There’s no such thing as ‘keeping up appearances’ in emergency relief work!

8 Apr 2020

I was speaking with a musical friend earlier today and made reference to a particular piece of music saying it’s been over 60 years since I’d last played it.  In retrospect, I realise it’s over 70 years!  That’s a substantial period of time – I can’t believe I’ve experienced life for so long – and even more.  I recall my 30th birthday and my joy at being able to say (with credibility) ‘twenty years ago’ – such a goal to attain!

The enforced conditions of physical distancing during the pandemic are so strange.  I’m blessed with friends who take my scrap of a dog for a long walk (he’s about 3kgs, 10 inches high) and goes for close to 2 kilometres.  Now, instead of sitting and having a chat post walk, we space ourselves in the foyer of the building where I live and have a rather loud but much shorter conversation.

It brings to mind when I managed an emergency relief program in Timor l’Este post occupation in 2000.  The program was supported by all the Oxfam agencies globally and staff hailed from a variety of countries.  One of the engineers, a Brit, was a real wag and delighted in sending up our group and often heated meetings.  It was a wonderful feeling to be able to laugh while jostling with the never-ending obstructional problems that impeded our program.  If I missed a comment from a logistician and said ‘Pardon?’ (probably not the only time during our animated discussions)  he’d put on a loud and avuncular voice saying “now dearie don’t you worry, we are here to help in any way we can” while patting me on the arm in a calming down manner.  He was so good at conjuring up characters, many of which we’d probably all encountered at some stage.

He was also a very resourceful fellow and he managed to get me a permit pass to the docks much to the horror of the Harbourmaster who’d assumed from my name I was male.   From then on, I could access the cargo lists and have a better understanding and control over our supplies, the suppliers and transportation.  The country had been completely devastated and literally everything had to be shipped in.  In time, the Harbourmaster came to accept my weekly visit.  My biggest triumph was being invited to drink coffee with him!

17 Apr 2020

Indoor confinement is still the norm and it’s paid dividends in the larger picture.  Australia is managing well in comparison to other countries and I feel optimistic about the future.

Today I shall do some market shopping – a treat I look forward to each week.  No domestic activity is a chore any more, but rather a very welcome distraction.

The only task I haven’t tackled is sorting through musical scores for the two music groups I play with.  It simply terrifies me when I see the piles in the cupboard.  Every time I open the cupboard door I swear the piles have grown to double their normal size!  I find myself avoiding the doors but to no avail – it is a very large storage cupboard and I’m bound to need an item or two each day.  Oh for a magic wand, a fairy Godmother, or seven little people!

During my working life, one of my goals would be to obtain ‘the full cupboard of life’.  In other words, chasing the funding and support to maintain the aid and emergency relief programs I was responsible for in countries of Africa, S-E Asia, and Southern Asia.  One of the donor agencies operating in countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan was the Aga Khan Foundation.  It was a standout agency, in that it had staff who would travel with you to the remote areas where the programs were operating.  They would work alongside you for a period of time and also share your living space.  In this manner, they gained the best knowledge to support your application.  I was never refused by the AKF because of this process of becoming intimately informed about the projects.

I recall being accompanied to a very remote village in the Hindu Kush area near the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan where a program training women in small business and micro-credit was established.  The women had built a co-operative program of raising chickens and selling eggs.  Bear in mind, these women were totally illiterate and lived in a very remote area.  The program trained the women in all aspects of chicken raising, keeping them disease-free, understanding and developing the life and productive cycles of their livestock, how to market their produce, and how to keep the books and remain solvent.  After two years, the collective had become a smooth and well-run business.  The women had also branched out to providing training and expertise to other remote villages in the region.  Their request of AKF was to build a road so they could access market outlets more easily.  Until then, the women had climbed and trekked many miles with their produce to larger towns where markets operated regularly.   They had become leaders in their community and further afield.  One of their main objectives was to build similar collectives in other communities.

Needless to say, these magnificent women got their road and remained leaders in their field!

To be continued . . . ?

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