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Archive for the ‘Jonglei State’ 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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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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So I’ve finally made it and it’s everything and nothing like I imagined it to be. I knew there’d be mudhuts and naked children. I didn’t know that I’d fall asleep each night to the sound of singing and beat of drums from the village next to the compound. Nor that I’d feel suddenly and inexplicably at home – something I didn’t ever really feel in Juba. It’s a different world here in every conceivable way, and it’s not just the bucket showers, pit latrines and diet lacking in micro-nutrients.

When the charter plane deposited us in nearby Pieri, a hundred little faces with matchstick legs and bellies swollen with worms watched and laughed as we loaded ourselves and 500kg of food and medical supplies onto the waiting landcruiser and set off through open fields to Motot. I was rather pleased to have secured the only seat next to an open window and squeezed in next to three 7 foot Nuer men, ready to take in the view. I realised why the seat had been left vacant as soon as clods of mud and cow poo began flying in and splatted me in the face.

From a distance Wuror county in Jonglei is a beautifully verdant, pastoral landscape. At a closer glance, the rainy season has transformed it into swampy marshland where children wade knee-high through water and mud in order to get anywhere. Our driver battled valiantly, but we were soon stuck and I looked on as water poured out of the rear doors of our sinking vehicle. Mercifully we were only a couple of kilometres away from the compound so after an hour frying in the midday sun, feeling useless watching men try and winch about two tonnes of weight out of a bog, I gave up and walked back to the compound with the guard, who was kindly carrying what I believe is to be my new double mattress on his head.

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Tomorrow morning I leave for Jonglei (again). All being well, this time I will actually reach our programme compound, move into my new little mud-hut and begin the work I came to Sudan to do. I try to imagine what it’ll be like, but I can’t. Seasoned aid workers tell me it is quite literally the remotest place they’ve ever been, as my (abbreviated) sojourn to the area a couple of weeks ago attested to, but all I have at the moment are imagined images and these pictures, taken by a colleague:

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On Friday, I left Juba for Motot on a wee charter plane. I was excited and nervous and emotional, but ready. By Friday evening I was back in Juba after what was possibly the shortest field trip ever! Suffice to say I spent the best part of a day on a teeny, weeny, flippy, flappy plane. It felt much like being in a small car – a mini metro, perhaps – thousands of feet up in the air. Whenever I felt hysteria brewing I deployed my unique gift for sleep and promptly shut my eyes.

The plane journey taught me so many things. It taught me just how big Sudan is: flying for hours with the land stretching out flat and green from horizon to horizon, not a landmark in sight.

I learned a lot about clouds too: I didn’t realise quite how precisely they cast shadows on the land. Only in Sudan where the canvas is so bare is it so evident. Nor did I realise how much Boeing 747s protect you from the full force of turbulence. In our little plane the clouds shook and rattled us like abusive spouses.

I didn’t know that when I stepped off the plane in Pieri  airstrip (three hours walk from Motot) I would feel like I was nowhere. Where is this place? Who are these people? Does the world even know it exists?

At Pieri, I caught a tiny little girl creeping up behind me, hand gingerly reaching out to touch my skin without me noticing. Just as she made contact, I turned around and she screamed in abject terror. It was funny.

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