Archive for the ‘Food, glorious food!’ Category

This weekend, I fly back to London for Christmas and I have been wondering how it will feel to be catapulted in to the climactic point of the festive season with no warm up. From the heat and dust of Sudan, to a frosty land of tinsel and lights; mince-pies and mulled-wine; frenetic Christmas shoppers and Wham’s Last Christmas at every turn.

Last Saturday we held a Christmas party for about a hundred of our local Sudanese staff. We slaughtered and barbequed two bulls, cleaned and cooked a veritable mountain of intestines and bowels and distributed bags of second-hand clothes donated by kindly-Americans as gifts. Mid-celebration, I found my reflecting upon how ‘un-Christmassy’ it all was. In this place you cannot hide behind the Christmas tree or lose yourself in the Christmas brandy. No Santa Claus, no carol-singing, no decorations in my tukul; just something which looked a lot like every day life. Do they know it’s Christmas time at all, Bono?

And then someone read the Christmas story.

In a time of insecurity and political fragility, a man and woman travel hundreds of miles to return to the village of their birth in order to register their names for an election.* A heavily pregnant woman walks for days in order to find somewhere to safely give birth.** A woman cries out as she gives birth in a mud-hut; outside the cows low under a night filled with the brightest of stars. A couple flee a country with their new born baby and spend the next few years as refugees, waiting for it to be safe enough to return home.*** A village is raided and burnt; in the morning, the massacred bodies of children are found.****

This is Sudan. Here is Christmas every day.

* Registering for elections

** Giving birth in South Sudan

*** Returning refugees

**** Akobo massacre


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At a first glance, it seems normal: pastoralists move in search of water. But here is hostile terrain with invisible and complicated boundaries; with feuds as old as time.

Yesterday as we drove to a neighbouring county, we passed through oddly empty settlements. No women outside grinding; no naked babies running around outside tukuls; no cows. A blood feud with those in the neighbouring district means that the nearest remaining water source is off-limits to the once-occupants of this area; consequently they have been forced to migrate to find water for their cows.

UNICEF recently warned of the impending food-crisis in Southern Sudan as a result of poor rains, with Jonglei – as ever – worst hit.  Last rainy season, the river at Yuai was full and flowing until January. So much so that the nutrition staff would have to park their vehicle on one side and wade through in order to access our emergency feeding centre. This year it never really became a river; certainly over a month ago when we tried to cross it, we found nothing there at all.

During the dry season our nutrition programme moves, along with the people it serves, to an outlying cattle camp in an attempt to reach malnourished children who have been forced to migrate in search of water. This year it is feared that water will elude them, even there.

* The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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As the rainy season recedes, life in Nuer-land hots up. Less available water, more movement, more fighting.

It’s been a busy, volatile and challenging week – a testament to the change in both season and temperament, perhaps. Yesterday morning I was awoken at 5.30am by one of the irritating roosters we purchased recently, crowing extremely loudly, right outside my tukul. I finally managed to get back to sleep only to be awoken again by a barrage of heavy gunfire in the nearby village. At least the gunmen chose a more sociable hour than the cock. My temperament has changed too, it seems: I ate the chicken prepared for lunch with an unusual degree of relish.

At the beginning of the week, our nutrition and health teams journeyed to one of our more distant feeding centres to carry out routine activities. Not long after arrival, the community rushed to them with a gunshot victim and a severely ill old man and the team soon found themselves on an emergency dash through the bush, transporting the patients to a health facility. On the way back, the gears on the larger of the two vehicles failed in spectacular fashion. Somehow, they managed to persuade the land cruiser all the way back to the compound in fifth gear. No mean feat considering there are no real roads and the grass is as tall as the windows in places.

Late the following evening, as we savoured our rice and goat (for a change) in the dark of the mess-area, one of our nurses rushed in. After an arduous labour, a local woman giving birth in our health facilty nearby had produced a healthy baby but had failed to deliver the placenta.  It was late, completely dark and staff were exhausted after a gruelling day, but left until the morning she’d surely die. The decision was made to transport her to Médecins Sans Frontières’ health unit in Pieri where the doctors were standing by. They made it there in time, saving the woman’s life, despite the lights on the vehicle giving up the ghost mid-journey. They battled their way through bush-land to Pieri in pitch-black darkness, guided by nothing more than the light of a torch and the stars in the sky.

Security is heightened due to talk of forthcoming disarmament and our activities are persistently hindered by logistical challenges, but donor reports do not wait. So amidst all the to-ing and fro-ing we’ve been immersed in reports and proposals for which the deadlines are – conveniently – all at the same time.

So I thank God for small mercies: growing friendships; the one and only fan on the compound; the discovery of a tin of tuna in the store; emails from much-loved friends at home and Bombay Sapphire in the evenings under an inconceivably large expanse of sky.

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After what was a truly blissful nine days R&R in Uganda I’m back in Sudan and it’s hot, hot, hot. I’m pining for Kampala’s cool climes.

After weeks in the bush, Uganda was like a little slice of paradise. It’s lush and green and full of beautiful birds and flowers. The people are delightful. It’s also full of real shops which sell things like shower gel and chewing gum. My wonderful friend Abigail not only hosted me for my entire stay, but also turned out to be a Ugandan (Bugandan) princess – something which she had strangely neglected to mention when we were students together at SOAS. As a result I found myself whisked about in luxurious fashion, enjoying the finest company, dining and entertainment Uganda has to offer.

Moments after arriving in beautiful Uganda, I embarked upon a veritable gout-inducing binge, gorging myself silly on all the food I can’t get in Sudan (which is pretty much everything). Arriving back in Juba, my appetite miraculously vanished again. Must be the prospect of inadequately cleaned goat guts for dinner…

We’re due to fly back to Motot on Friday, though with disarmament of the tribes in Jonglei scheduled for next week, you never do know. They tried to disarm the tribe in our county in 2006: the resulting violence rendered the process nothing short of catastrophic. They’re a fiery bunch, my beloved friends the Lou-Nuer, and they don’t tend to take too kindly to people taking their guns away.

At this rate, I may be stuck in Juba interminably…

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Pictures of the Tearfund compound in Motot.

If you thought that the delectable-looking item roasting in the oven was a goat’s scrotal sack, you were right.

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A week or so ago I went to Pieri to assist with the emergency feeding programme. That day, the children who attended were either on our supplementary feeding programme (for moderately malnourished children) or our outpatients therapeutic programme (for severely malnourished children). The worst cases (severe acute malnutrition with complications) get admitted into a stabilisation unit.

Malnutrition is a constant here (the Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) rate in our county stands at about 22%) and is not a result of a particular event such as a drought or a conflict – rather it is a part of every day life. Only 30-40% of people live within one day’s walk of a health facility; maternal mortality rates are the highest in the world, and one out of every seven children will die before their fifth birthday. That’s enduring poverty for you.

Each week, those who attend the feeding centre are measured and weighed with the results recorded and as you go back week after week, you can see the improvement as the numbers slowly creep up and up on the children’s admission cards (though never reaching ‘normal’). You can literally see the flesh growing on skinny arms and legs. And yet come the hunger season, or the time when we exit them from the programme because their weight for height is deemed to be acceptable, in all likelihood their numbers will plummet once again. This work is so necessary – so lifesaving – and yet so impermanent. Relief work is ever a short term solution, yet stability has evaded South Sudan for so long, preventing it (together with a plethora of other factors) from transitioning into more long term development. NGOs all too often exacerbate the problem of course, by inadvertently encouraging dependency long after a crisis is over.

If you pray, pray for this place: pray for stability, for change, for peace, for strong and committed leaders. Pray that Sudan doesn’t return to all out war next year as so many predict. Pray against the endless cycle of revenge and retaliation which has this place by the throat.

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For the last week we have quite literally been eating the leaves from the trees.

The local market in Motot sells only goat, beef and occasionally onions; any other food has to be shipped in from Nairobi every fortnight on our charter plane. It’s a short-lived joy however, as the boiling heat, coupled with an inconstant fridge means that the food we’re sent lasts only a few days before rotting. So for the first week it’s a feast and after that, the cooks look for alternative options … I’ve eaten the leaves of two different trees this week, fried with onions, and the results were surprisingly tasty (albeit kind of leafy).

The lack of vegetables – in fact the lack of pretty much everything – is due to the fact that the Nuer are primarily cattle-herders and pastoralists. Life, death, birth, marriage: it all comes down to the cows in the end. Even traditional Nuer love songs take a favourite cow as the object. This is all well and good, but as a result means that they don’t really cultivate the land, aside from the odd patch of maize or sorghum next to their tukul. And yet the cows aren’t generally for eating very often either; they’re useful primarily in terms of milk production and in the arranging of marriages. People survive on a limited and not particularly nourishing diet as a result. Much of Southern Sudan is the same: even the apparently well-stocked markets in Juba are full of slightly squashed produce shipped in from Uganda.

And so a critical hunger gap occurs here every year, beginning in February when food stocks finish and reaching a peak in May. Families don’t grow enough to feed themselves and limited household harvests run out before the next one is ready to reap. It’s a precarious and generally deadly cycle, but it’s difficult to encourage farming here: the soil is difficult, and men judge themselves by the quality of their herds rather than the size of their crop. Since South Sudan is in a chronic and complex emergency state, longer term food security interventions run by NGOs are potentially risky ventures. A sudden spate of violence or displacement in a given area and farming projects collapse overnight, leaving the fruits of your labours (and investment) abandoned to be scorched by the sun.

I always figured that people would do anything to feed their families, especially when children here are so malnourished. But I have a lot to learn about life in South Sudan, like what it might mean to have survived over 20 years of war and unimaginable hardship having to exist on little or nothing at all.

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