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Christiaan's Blog

You can read all Christiaan's blog posts on this page.

The Daily Toilet Thoughts

Posted: December 16, 2012

My friends tell me I poop a lot. At least three times a day, they say. That might not be true, but I do have a regular bowel movement. That’s fine because I think a lot during my daily visit to the loo. It is a good environment to think, I must say. My mother used to complain about the time I spent in the bathroom. “We can smell you in the living room!” At that time I was mostly reading the adventures of Donald Duck instead of thinking, but that changed over time. My toilet in the student house I am living in is located at the balcony. No joke. It’s a legacy of cheap post-war construction that was never renovated since students will pay for it anyway. “It’s like I’m camping,” first-time visitors of my humble cottage say. The size of the cabin is so small that I have to open the door so I don’t catch my knees on it.

"It is hard to imagine that I flush my poo with drinking water at home, while here in rural Tanzania, people don’t even have sufficient water to drink, let alone to flush the toilet."

It is defecating of a different kind in rural Tanzania. In Ihanda, a small village about a hundred kilometers from the capital, a toilet is called a latrine: a small hole in the ground with either a wicker or stone wall built around it. In the case of the first, privacy is not something you should care about. Don’t get me wrong – I believe squatting to poo facilitates the work of the intestines, but not the hygiene. Imagine the feces of you and those of your neighbors piled up together for over a year. I didn’t have to imagine: I just pointed the flashlight inside. A whole world of strange species were crawling around in there. Obviously not the best hygienic circumstances in the world. In addition, there isn’t a sufficient water supply in town, so people do not wash their hands after their visit. That causes serious illnesses in the long-run: one of the biggest problems Ihanda is facing nowadays.

It is hard to imagine that I flush my poo with drinking water at home, while here in rural Tanzania, people don’t even have sufficient water to drink, let alone to flush the toilet. Both Dutch and German governments are financially supporting a lot of small projects that try to improve this situation in Tanzania. A small and local non-governmental organization does this by constructing new toilets and educating the users. Educating what? Educating how to maintain the toilet, but also how to wash their hands properly after a visit. Within two years the community has to pay a part of the construction costs back and finance the maintenance themselves. Myself, I have been thinking about how to change the flushing of the toilet. Using rainwater could be an option, but where am I going to store it? Besides, it isn’t convenient to use a bucket every day. What would be the best way to do it then? Questions, questions, questions. Enough to think about during my next visit to the toilet. Toilet’s calling. I’m off.

All roads lead to China

Posted: December 7, 2012

We hitch a ride with a group of Ethiopian engineers and they give us shelter. Next thing I know I’m in the middle of southern Ethiopia’s breathtaking nature, in a luxurious compound alongside what is still a bumpy road.

I am having dinner with 21-year-old Abrham Mulu. Tasty pasta with spinach and beef it is tonight. Abrham tells me he is in his last year of civil and urban engineering studies at Hawassa University and is doing his compulsory internship at the Ethiopian construction company. This company is working to improve the road between Yabelo and Mega, which for many years has been in a bad state. That road covers some 100 kilometres and will be transformed into two lanes. This construction is part of the greater Mombasa-Nairobi-Addis Ababa road planned for completion in 2014.

This concrete can be a catalyst for Ethiopia's development, explains Abrham. "There will be different changes for our country. First of all, a much larger trade exchange will take place between Ethiopia and Kenya. The current state of the road is so bad that there are barely trucks on this route which connects our capital with the port of Mombasa. A new road will improve transportation and reduce the costs and time... a new town will arise. That'll bring economic possibilities."

"Abrham surprises me when he says he has never before spoken to a farangi, a white man"

A small settlement on the other side of the compound attests to these words. Inhabitants from the region are hoping to earn money by selling coffee and tea to the workers. That number of merchants is growing. "Of course," says Abrham, "they discovered that they can make money by selling small goods and services to the Ethiopian and Chinese workers. Imagine what will happen when hundreds of people pass by every day as soon as the road is finished."

That little village was established as soon as the workers got into their comfortable compounds. But even after a year, they are not that friendly towards the foreign workers. A Chinese engineer passes by and the laughter starts. "They eat dogs!" a man yells. "They are crazy. They cannot even talk English." Abrham tells me about their 25 or so Chinese colleagues. "There are many obstacles with the Chinese," he says. "Language is the biggest one. They don't speak any English, so we have to communicate with hands and feet. That is terrible if you are constructing a road. Apart from that, they're not willing to share their feelings. That is in contrast with our open culture," says Abrham with a faint smile on his face. "We do need friendship to work together, but communication frightens them. That's sad, really sad."

But the student is not negative about China's presence in the continent. "I believe they are doing a good job. Furthermore, they are here because of their abilities. They are also a cheap working force, let's not forget that." Being the highly educated, eloquent and enthusiastic guy that he is, Abrham surprises me when he says he has never before spoken to a farangi, a white man. "There are some tourists I saw, but I never spoke in depth with one of them," he says. "Most of the time white guys think we, as African youngsters, are not mature, but rebellious. But we are not. Even though our skin is black, we have a bright mind."

The Sudanese Highway

Posted: November 16, 2012

"You are lucky," said the old man. "There are many cars on the road today. Tomorrow is Eid. Every soul goes back to his roots, to his old family house where he grew up. There, they will celebrate. You'll manage to get to Old Dongola easily." But it was two hours after that good cheer and not a single car had passed by that went further than the nearby village.

The road in front of me seems to be an endless road. The Chinese had an easy task when they constructed the road in 2007: not another obstacle than sand is present here. In one straight line I roll my eyes up and down from my shoes to the horizon. Still no car in sight. In the meantime a hospitable family is waiting for us 70-km away in Old Dongola to celebrate Eid.

"Not much later a sheep is being put in the back to give me company."

Eid al-Adha is one of the oldest Islamic holidays celebrated by Muslims all over world. It honours the obedience of prophet Ibrahim who sacrificed his young son Ishmael to God on top of a mountain. Happy about his willingness, God sent Ibrahim a ram to sacrifice instead. The best animals around are being sacrificed as an act of remembrance during Eid. In Sudan, these animals are mostly sheep. The sacrificed sheep is divided into three parts: the first part is for the family; the second for relatives, friends and neighbors; and the third goes to the poor. Even if you have a quarrel with someone, you can invite them for a nice piece of meat too.

But these peaceful activities have another side as well: within two days over 100 million animals are being ritually slaughtered. Various questions arise in my mind, one being whether I can or may say anything about these sacrifices. Most of the meat I eat myself is produced in huge factories where animals have no significance, other than being a nice piece of meat for hungry men.

A white pickup truck in the distance interrupts my thoughts before I can make any judgment. I put my thumbs high up in the air and the car stops. “Hop in the back of the car!” shouts the driver. Not much later a sheep is being put in the back to give me company. It bleats as if it can hear the knives sliding already. I try to chill down this scared animal by patting it, but it does not stop bleating until the car stops to drop me at the house of the family that invited us. Yonder, preparations are being taken for the slaughtering.

One of the younger boys asks, "Where do you want this killing done tomorrow morning?" The father of the house replies that it can take place in the garden of this house. We are in a tiny little village that is located not far from the only highway in Northern Sudan, Highway A1. That same night the shuffle function of my music player makes me hear one song more song before I fall asleep. Bob Dylan.

Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
God say, "No." Abe say, "What?"
God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you better run"
Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done?"
God says, "Out on Highway 61"

Next morning, I was woken up by one of the sons. "We just slaughtered the sheep. Breakfast is ready. Are you coming?"

The Sudanese brothers

Posted: October 30, 2012

Sudan has been the stage for long-running conflicts and dramatic desertification, causing the movement of thousands of Sudanese, looking for a better life within and around the country. The split between the north and south in July 2011 and the deflation of the Sudanese pound, have caused the number of socio-economic migrants to rise even higher. Christiaan hitched a ride with two internal migrants from Kordofan, a former province of central Sudan.

"Are you driving in the direction of Khartoum and can I ride with you?" Full of excitement, I await a response from the man in the passenger seat. With his deep dark skin, Andrew is clearly not from the region in which I am right now. His brother, sitting in the back, smiles at me. The driver, who says something in Arabic, seems to be coming from this northern region.

Hitchhiking in Northern Sudan has been good so far; there are not many cars on the road but if one passes by it stops as soon as I have my thumb in the air. My last ride was on board of a huge yellow truck. But I was forced to stop here at Al Gabzah because its engine was overheating.

"Yes, we are driving to Khartoum. You can come with us but you have to pay for an amount of the gasoline," Andrew replies. Paying for a ride is perfectly normal in Africa. So, after halving the price to 25 Sudanese pounds (4 euros 20 cents), I throw my bag at the back of the pickup and I hop in.

Andrew Yassir, who is 24, and his 30-year-old brother Tingil are being driven by a chauffeur. They are on their way home, to Khartoum. "We work in construction and are building houses,” Andrew begins to explain. “Four months ago, we got a contract in Dongola, a town in the northern part of Sudan. That is where we are coming from now. The Feast of Sacrifice will start tomorrow and for that reason we have holiday now. My brother and I are Christians, you know."

"Whether it is Khartoum or Dongola, we will work anywhere, wherever they need builders," Andrew carries on. "The people in Dongola are very good people, they give you tea, coffee and food in their houses. Although they are Muslims, we do everything together. We drink together, we talk together and we eat together. The only difference is that they go to the mosque and we go to church."

"When I was seven years old I travelled to Juba, South Sudan, in search for a better education in English,” says Andrew.

The brothers are originally from Kordofan, a region that has seen an increase in violence between the Sudan army and the Sudan Revolutionary Front, a coalition between several rebel groups. A conflict arose at the beginning of 2010, right before South Sudan became independent, following a dispute over the oil-rich region of Abyei. British newspaper The Guardian says an estimated 1.4 million people have been affected by this conflict. The Yassir brothers are two of them.

"When I was seven years old I travelled to Juba, South Sudan, in search for a better education in English,” says Andrew. “By that time, there was no education at all in Kordofan. We are a poor region, you see. But schools in Juba were just as bad. I decided to go back to Kordofan when I was ten.” Andrew tells me that he and his brother came to the conclusion they had to look for a job. Up until a year ago, they didn’t have any money. “We found that job in Khartoum, where cleaners and builders are much needed. We earn a good living and the work is not that bad. We have a lot of Kordofan friends who also work in Khartoum and I even have a girlfriend in the city."

But, Andrew does not want to spend the rest of his life in the Sudanese capital. "I really want to go back to my family. But I can't, there is no chance. I hope I will see them one day again. I miss them. It has been many years since I saw them for the last time."

Besides, the young Sudanese man does not want to work too long in the construction world. He says his dream and ambition is to go to school, a religious school. “I want to become a preacher so I can teach people that you should love and not kill each other,” he tells me. “Furthermore, I want to teach them not to steal, not to cheat, and let them understand the word of God."

Tingil’s ambition is rather simple. "I am planning to work as much as possible so I will have a lot of money. When I have reached a certain amount, I will deposit it in the bank and give some money to poor people. That's all."

A true Salafist doesn’t do politics

Posted: October 20, 2012

"You would like to draw a map before we enter this deep jungle," says Abdullah. "If you are talking about Salafism, you must be well aware of what you are talking about." I am sitting in the luxurious lounge of a ferryboat that takes me from Turkey to Egypt, exchanging tourist destination Taksim Square for the chaos of Tahrir Square, so to speak.

I am talking to Abdullah Luxembourgi, a 31-year old Salafist. "I was born as Julien, though." He is on his way from Belgium to his place of residence, Yemen. Luxembourg is trying to set up a business selling European trucks on the Arabian Peninsula.

"The Arabic word salaf means predecessor and the 'i' in salafi refers to that. Like Hollandi refers to Holland," explains Abdullah in perfect British English. "We stick to the religion as it was obtained by the Prophet Mohammed, may peace be upon Him. For that reason, we reject any other form of Islam as being pure."

In recent years, talking about this strand of Islam has often been characterized by ignorance and fear, says Abdullah. "Even my relatives don’t know much about it. As soon as it comes to this for her sensitive topic, my mother starts talking about something else. Talking to my grandma, I started summing up all prejudices about Muslims and by the time I was finished she nodded and said, "Yes, indeed." But people can just come and talk to me. Like you did."

Besides their strict approach to Islam, Salafists are often seen as adhering to political movements, like Sharia4Belgium or the Salafists in post-Mubarak Egypt, who recently received a lot of media coverage. "Those guys are all idiots," states Abdullah with fire in his eyes. "They are not Salafists. Based on your belief you construct your actions in daily life. If you change anything of your original belief, your belief will be corrupt. The ways of conducting politics are already contradicting with Islam." According to Abdullah, the Egyptian Salafists actively involved in politics have nothing to do with Salafism. "They are marketeers, not believers. They analyze the audience and make up their name in sake of the votes. Salafists and politics do not go hand in hand."

"I wish more people would ask me questions."

The receptionist calls that dinner is ready. As hungry wolves the passengers rush to the dining room. Abdullah thanks me for my questions and my interest in his particular view on religion and Islam. "I wish more people would ask me questions."

Seeing the long queue waiting for rice and chicken, I decide to go and smoke a cigarette in the fresh air on the upper deck and reflect on the conversation while looking over sea. There, I meet Vasilev, a Greek docker. He points in the direction of Egypt and tells me that he dislikes the whole Arab world.

"I pray too, but not five times a day. They are all crazy and it is one big bordello over there. At night they drink alcohol and in the morning they say sorry to Allah. They are all crazy in the Arab world. I don't like them."

Just one meter beneath us, Abdullah is waiting in line for his dinner. I wish Vasilev and he would be standing next to one another and start talking. Have a conversation about differences, about similarities. Whatever the subject, they should just talk. But Vasilev says he will not join for dinner. "I already had dinner with the crew."

Dreaming of the sea

Posted: October 11, 2012

"Could you please do something for me?" Anett's deep green eyes are looking at me from behind her glasses. "I have never seen a sea. But I would love to. Could you please look through your eyes for me at the Mediterranean Sea? And if so, can you take a photo of it, post in on Facebook and tag me in the picture?" As a landlocked country, Hungarians have to go abroad to see such a large body of water. Anett is highly educated as a university student and speaks good English. However, she was never given the possibility to go to a sea.

Ever since the beginning of human history we have seen conflicts coming and going. Every single conflict needs to be put in perspective. Nevertheless, ignorance and disinterest are common characteristics of the origins of conflicts. Traveling to South Africa on the off chance, we’ll probably encounter many. Germans told us to watch out in Hungary. The Hungarians, in turn, strongly urged us to be on our guard in Romania. "Don't trust them." The Romanians say it about the Bulgarians, and so on, and so on.

"There might just be some that are the same - dreams in Hungary and Bulgaria, dreams in Egypt and Kenya."

But I wouldn’t want to focus on conflicts here. Instead, I wonder what people dream of. I am not a magician who can make them come true, but only a traveler with an interest in those dreams. There might just be some that are the same - dreams in Hungary and Bulgaria, dreams in Egypt and Kenya.

At this very moment, I have the privilege to cross the Mediterranean by boat, from the picturesque Turkish coast of Hatay to Egypt's prosperous harbor town Port Said. Switching Ataturk for Ramses. While floating on the calm blue waves, I will watch the Mediterranean Sea. For Anett, hoping that she will see it with her own eyes one day. Before that happens, I will grab my camera to make a nice shot of the great wide blue and post it on Facebook. Wait for that photo Anett, you will see it.

Hospitality during wartime: walking into Syria

Posted: September 9, 2012

More than ninety hours have passed by now with no rocket attacks. The town is quiet and desolated, but at some places shouts of despair can be heard. A man stands confused in front of a chaotic pile of stones - something which once was his home before the bombs hit. He cannot find his two children who are buried under the ruins. He blames the neighbors for not helping him. “But why should we look for dead people, if we cannot even help all of the wounded,” says one of the neighbors, while he stares with glazy eyes to his wailing neighbor. A pink shoe with a Mickey Mouse print resting on a pile of rubble is one of the many scattered reminders of the tragedy that took place here.

This is Azaz, a Syrian town 30 kilometers north of Aleppo, the heart of the Syrian civil war. Nearly one month ago, August 15, it got heavily bombed by MiG fighter jets from the Syrian government. Dozens were killed, many of them being children and elderly. 40,000 people used to live here. Right now it is a ghost town. Long queues stand in front of the bakery, one of the only shops that did not close. The baker does not think of leaving Azaz, in contrast to others who went to neighboring Turkey. "What should the people eat when I am away?"

However, fear is the legacy of the airstrike. The remaining people simply do not have the necessities to seek for refuge. It is questionable if their suffering is worth the high cost of victory. The conflict is getting more intense. There is no end in sight.

"I lost my home, but not my smile."

Those who did flee the country are now mostly living in refugee camps. Only some can afford to live in an apartment. The number of Syrian refugees in Turkey has increased tremendously and has risen towards 100,000. For that reason, a camp close to the border was closed – under capacity. The Turkish border town of Reyhanlı is nowadays characterized by its many refugees and rebels. It is there where we meet Mohamed, an English student at the University of Latakkia, Syria. He fled his country last week and shares an apartment at the edge of town with his relatives. They are happy to see us and wonder why we are here. After having explained them that we are interested in the conflict, smiles appear on their faces. "Shukran, thank you."

It is too complicated to discuss this highly complicated conflict with its many facets and faces in a 400-word blog. But one thing was striking during my experiences there. As the sun goes down, we have a delicious Iftar dinner served by Mohamed and his family. It was Ramadan, the annual period of fasting for Muslims. Although they fled their country recently, they invited us for this happening. "It is an honor for us. In this way, we can show you that Syrian people can actually be very hospitable." I am sure that we will encounter this magnificent kind of hospitality as well during our trip through Africa. There, we will also be meeting (internally) displaced people, in Sudan and Ethiopia for example, visiting a refugee camp.

To quote Mohamed: "I lost my home, but not my smile."

What a spider and a hitchhiker have in common

Posted: August 17, 2012

I used to be afraid of spiders. Every night before going to bed, I checked my sheets for those little horrifying creatures. The reason why I was scared was because I didn’t know what to expect from them. Always when I discovered such a predatory arachnid, I freezed. But the spider freezed as well. It would not move but stare at me with its eyes dark as the night. Leaving the eight terrifying legs and the two poisonous fangs aside, I found that particular freezing characteristic the scariest of all. Would it crawl towards me? Or even jump? (Yes, jumping spiders do exist: watch out for the Salticidae family). I did not know. The fear continued to exist.

But as it goes for all fears, mom had a solution. "Don't be afraid! That little spider is way smaller. It is probably more scared of you than you of him." It worked. I don't check my sheets anymore. I am not averse to sharing a bed – even spiders are welcome now. With the departure of Thumbs Up Africa coming closer, people start to ask questions like "Hitchhiking? Isn't that extremely dangerous? Are you not scared of getting a ride from a creep?" or "I would never take a hitchhiker with me, you never know who he or she is."

"But as it goes for all fears, mom had a solution."

Well recently, I started to answer this particular questions by referring to my old fear of spiders. Indeed, as a hitchhiker I can be afraid of the person that offers me the ride. You don’t know what to expect. Like I was afraid of the spider. The other way around, the driver can be scared of me as well. He doesn’t know either what to expect. Just as the spider was afraid of me. I cannot communicate with the spider, but with the driver I can. The possibility is there, to show him that taking a hitchhiker can be fun. Who am I not to use that possibility?

P.S. While typing this last sentence, a pretty big Arabic spider looks at me. To be honest, not all fear is gone. But hey! That little bit of uneasiness gives some spicy taste to life. Something that is fading in this overly organized western world…

One way to say 'Thank You'

Posted: July 24, 2012

While the sun is burning on our skin, we cross the border between Hungary and Slovakia – not more than a few abandoned buildings since the inclusion of both countries in the Schengen Treaty. “Hey, you guys need a ride?” a young, blonde woman waves enthusiastically from the passenger seat while her car passes us by at high speed. Some hundred meters further, the car turns towards our direction. We run up to the car which has a Polish license plate. “Where are you going,” the girl asks. “Cracow,” we say. “We are going there too. Join us!” she says with a smile. We feel relieved. We have a ride. We finally have a ride.

It was my first time hitchhiking, from Budapest to Cracow. With some healthy adrenaline we left Europe’s biggest music festival at an island in the Danube to visit Poland’s cultural capital, but without much success. The Hungarians waved friendly, but couldn’t bring us further than a few kilometers; the road to Slovakia only had two lanes and was only used by local commuters. That night, we slept next to that road which is, on the other hand, a good sleeping place since it was pretty quiet at night with not much traffic passing by.

“Do not thank us, but do the same for someone else if you have the chance.”

Back to this Polish car, belonging to Anna and Pjotr. They turn out to be street artists living in the place where we are going. “We are really happy to take you.” A full day we sat in the back of their car. The Polish couple offered us food, drinks, and even a place to sleep in Cracow. After three days of good partying, interesting conversations and a severe illness of which they took care, we asked them how we could thank them. We get a sparkling answer in return: “Do not thank us, but do the same for someone else if you have the chance.”

A week earlier, Anna and Pjotr hitchhiked through Turkey. An old man drove hundreds of miles of detours – just to bring them into the right direction. When they asked him how to thank him, he gave the same answer as Anna and Pjotr gave us. “By giving you guys a ride, we say thanks to this Turkish guy.”

What this Turkish man meant is in South Africa described as 'Ubuntu'. Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize winner for his leader role against apartheid, explained this philosophy focusing on human's relations with each other as following:

"One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can't exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can't be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity."

Quite a good philosophy for the Thumbs Up Africa trip, perhaps even a perfect philosophy of life.

Ever-changing world, ever-changing thoughts

Posted: June 25, 2012

To be honest, I am critical of development aid. Not that Thumbs Up Africa is focused on development aid, but Africa is inextricably connected with it. For that reason, I have been thinking a lot about it lately. This was not always the case. In fact, I strongly supported all kinds of projects during my time at secondary school. “I want to do something in Africa,” I used to say. In 2008, my school gave me the chance and I went to northern Uganda. It was an interesting and beautiful journey through the ‘Pearl of Africa’, but above all a life-changing experience: more than ever, I was confident to work in the sector of development aid.

"I was sure that I wanted to work in this sector of development aid. Nowadays, I am not that sure anymore."

Nowadays, I am not that sure anymore. As soon as I started my studies International Relations, I began questioning the certainties I had about development aid. Whether it was my study, or my active involvement in development aid; those questions arose. For instance, it was astonishing to read that foreign aid to Africa had grown significantly in absolute terms over the past decades. Nevertheless, this continent actually became poorer rather than more fortunate. What does foreign aid really achieve? Does it even have a positive influence? Or could it even have a negative influence?

A second trip to northern Uganda made the question marks even bigger. Besides the physical journey, it was a journey through my own thoughts. I discovered that my ideals conflicted with reality. Not that I doubt anyone’s genuine feelings: charity is a noble goal. However, the outcome of a good intention does not necessarily have to be good.

Because of these doubts, I am even more looking forward to the hitchhiking journey through a large part of Africa. Actually, I still can say “I want to do something in Africa”, namely travelling. Not restricted by a feeling that I want to ‘help’, I might develop a clearer view on this whole issue of development aid. I can’t wait until the moment we are on the road. We can listen, we can talk, we can exchange. A journalistic road trip, that’s what it is going to be.

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