I was in Chad, on the western border of Sudan, filming the Sudanese refugees who had fled their country in the wake of the Darfurian genocide. Over a hundred humanitarian organizations were there as well, and they had long since snatched up the few available vehicles in a country that has less than 30 miles of paved road. Hiring a pickup truck - even one held together with duct tape and baling wire - was far beyond my means. So I rented a donkey.
. I called him "Jumar". He was gray with a black stripe across his shoulders - just like every other donkey in North Africa. And since he didn't even look up when called, I couldn't pick him out of a lineup if my life depended on it. The Sudanese were completely baffled by this, as though I couldn't recognize my own dog at the park.
Most mornings I'd ride Jumar out through the ankle-deep sand to the local refugee camps. Once there, I'd tie him to a tree in the donkey parking lot, wrap a ribbon around the tree trunk, and head off to work. The moment I was gone, the local kids would scamper out, untie Jumar, and tie him to a different tree. I'd come back several hours later, exhausted from trudging around in the 100+ degree heat, and start wandering tree to tree, muttering "Jumar?" into each donkey's ear. The kids thought this was hilarious. I did not. One day, thoroughly sick of the game, I borrowed a dry-erase marker and colored Jumar's left ear red. This worked very well until it rained and Jumar's entire face turned pink. His owner thought I had given him some weird Western disease and had a meltdown.
But my real goal wasn't just to film the refugee camps and marketplaces. I wanted to get into a local village and show what life had been like before the genocide. The humanitarian workers told me this was impossible - that I would never get permission from the government. I finally rode out to the airless compound where the local bureaucrats hung out, handed my petition to a listless assistant, and sat down on a broken chair to wait. Eventually a well-dressed man sitting at the large scuffed desk at the front of the room shuffled indifferently through my stack of paperwork, a permanent look of disdain etched into his face. Halfway through he dropped my papers and looked to the next petitioner. Just then another assistant came in and muttered something into his ear. The bureaucrat looked at me sharply and a brief, whispered conversation took place. He crooked a finger at me, and I approached, wondering if I was about to go to jail.
"You are the white girl with the donkey?" he asked sternly. There was no point in denying it - Jumar was tied up less than twenty feet away. The man stared at me for a moment, then the mask of disdain dissolved into a smile, then a full-bellied laugh. He shook his head a couple of times in disbelief, shuffled to the end of my pile of papers and stamped them with a resounding thwack. When I left he was still chuckling.