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Michela Wrong Reviews "Six Months in Sudan" by James Maskalyk

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"Michela Wrong is a British journalist and author who spent six years as a foreign correspondent covering events across the African continent for Reuters, the BBC, and the Financial Times. Her debut book, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz (2001) covers the time she has spent in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) as it transitioned from the leadership of Mobutu to the that of Kabila. Her second book "I Didn't Do It For You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation" (2004) is the story of Eritrea and its existence through Italian, British, American and Ethiopian occupation." - Wikipedia.

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The Significance Addicts

As a member of Nairobi's press corps, I often used to socialise with aid workers. The Kenyan capital was a perfect base for us. Its air links meant Africa's various trouble spots, our professional bread and butter, were within easy striking distance: its shopping plazas, cafe's and cinemas made it a place where those who had spent too long in the field dreamed of unwinding. Stints were short, so one always seemed to be saying goodbye to a rangy youth or slim blonde from Concern, or Care, or Goal, or World Vision, or Save the Children or any of the countless humanitarian organisations that wore their hearts on their logos. They tended to be rake thin (some wasting African parasite lodged in their intestines that would take years to clear), hairy (beards, ponytails and stubble that had nothing designer about it), and distinctly clubby, with little interest in anyone outside their world of clipboards, airlifts and white SUVs. They gave off a kind of Ready-brek glow, the aura of the consciously high-minded.

I remember talking to a young Spaniard heading home after a spell in Sudan. A couple of sheets to the wind, he joked about the reception he expected. "You know, in Spain, I'm a saint.' With his dark beard and gaunt profile amoebic dysentery, or a giardiasis, perhaps? he could have stepped straight from a Goya canvas, but I must have looked sceptical. "No, really,' he insisted, making a sweeping gesture with his frosted beer bottle: "Back home, they really think I'm Jesus.' The T-shirted messiah had captured the mixture of admiration and envy with which so many of us regard foreign aid workers. For the young idealist winding up his university studies, few jobs have more appeal. Travel the globe at someone else's expense? Tick. Practise your languages? Tick. Live like a native briefly in an awe-inspiring landscape, among other young (attractive) enthusiasts? Tick. Plunge into the well of human experience and emerge immeasurably the wiser? Tick. Everything promised by an army recruitment poster or a Club Med brochure, but with that priceless extra: a sense of one's own virtue.

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Six Months in Sudan is the story of one of those who tried out the role. James Maskalyk, a young Canadian doctor, spent six months in 2007 in Abyei, a town in an oil-rich stretch of barren land claimed by both Sudan's government in Khartoum and the former rebel movement in the south, working in the rudimentary local hospital on behalf of the Canadian branch of Me'decins sans frontières. In the world of professional altruism, few score higher than MSF. Set up in 1971, MSF is known for its readiness to slash through the red tape that keeps less light-footed rivals chafing in capital cities. From Turkish Kurdistan to Congo's Kivus, the MSF flag is usually the first to be spotted flapping bravely over a muddy sea of refugee tents. The group, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999, also prides itself on its readiness to "bear witness' when politics intrude, staging high-profile pullouts when it feels it risks becoming complicit in a larger abuse.

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I have a law degree (Stanford, 66') but have never practiced. Instead, from 1967 through 1977, I tried to contribute to the revolution in America. As unsuccessful as everyone else over that decade, in 1978 I went to work for the U.S. Forest (more...)
 

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