Nor any drop to drink*

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


I felt the earth move this week.

There I was, minding my own business melting in the 40 degree furnace otherwise known as our office, when out of nowhere an enormous explosion sounded.

The walls shook, I shook, my heart jumped out of my chest and hid under the desk. There was an overly-long second in which an itsy-bitsy part of me thought that a world war had probably just started. And then the walls of the office and the people inside all regained their composure and looked wildly about for an explanation.

Apparently de-miners were in the area, detonating landmines.

We are all terribly grateful for the de-mining, of course, but a wee bit of warning would have been nice. Technically they are supposed to explode them away from the general populace, but what with Motot meaning ‘small’ in the local language, clearly they decided not to bother … Ka – boom!

I had been labouring under the pleasant illusion – until the Big Bang of yesterday, that is – that Motot was happily devoid of said unexploded ordinances. It seems I am wrong. Looks like I will have to cut down on all those carefree country ambles after all …

Easy like Sunday morning

Last Sunday a trio of us embarked upon a rather English Sunday morning stroll through the bush to the Motot drinking pool. The imagination-defyingly unvaried topography in this area makes the pool the one and only tourist attraction. Although tourists are a little thin on the ground in these parts, admittedly.

It’s an unexpectedly pretty walk. Now that the waters have receded, the once-swamps have metamorphosed into sandy bush land, littered with seashells (a wonderful mystery to me). Here and there, a flower supplies an astonishing splash of magenta along the way. The pool itself is vast and lily-topped, though it is not big or full enough to sustain Motot’s cattle; already the young boys have led their cows away in search of greener pastures.

The pool is a momentary lapse in an otherwise homogenous landscape. Oh, but it is beautiful, this strange and arid place.

It’s getting hot in here

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.

Gout and guns

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…

Welcome to my world

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.

War cries

Fighting has broken out in Motot, a couple of kilometres from our compound. Over the past few days – fearing for their lives if they stay in the area – some of our local male staff have been requesting leave from work. It’s an inter-clan dispute: people were killed, revenge is sought, and so it goes on.

As I type, war cries sound from the village next door. The women are beating their hands against their mouths; horns are being sounded; there is singing and the beating of drums. Soon there will be gunshots. Yesterday one gun-shot victim was brought to our clinic; tomorrow perhaps there will be more. An army vehicle drove past our front gates today, soldiers hanging off the back of the pick-up truck. But the response, indeed the capacity for response, is inadequate, even for this comparatively small-scale violent episode. With a heavily armed civilian population, even the smallest of disputes turns bloody.

We are safe here: the threat is not directed at us and almost never is, but the same cannot be said for many of our local staff who live in Motot and are involved in the conflict. Or perhaps the families they have left behind. I pray that it is safe for them to return soon, but it’s hard not to feel frustrated and a little desperate when in all likelihood, it will happen all over again next week or next month.