Jonglei, At Last

So I have made it to Jonglei. A fleeting visit, little more than a landing really, but now at least I have a concrete image on which to pin my expectations.

It came about because the project needed money. In Yuai there is no bank, no handy ATM, and so when reserves are low somebody has to transport cash from Juba. Not the most secure method of asset transferral, but in the places in which we operate there is no other option. And so I was enlisted to act as courier.

I was to fly out on an early morning flight with MAF, a small aviation agency whose magazine we used to receive when I was a kid. On the back page was a cartoon featuring Maffy, an anthropomorphic single propellor plane. Back then I wanted to be a pilot, and I wanted to fly Maffy. Maffy was always smiling. I was looking forward to meeting him, even if it was to be as a passenger rather than pilot.

Maffy and Me

We had the paperwork to confirm that I had permission to carry large amounts of hard currency, so I wasn’t expecting any bureaucratic impediments. But this being South Sudan, as my bag was going through the scanner in Juba’s chaotic airport I was pulled aside: I lacked an essential stamp, without which the money couldn’t travel. Wandering the back alleys around the airport with a backpack full of cash looking for an unmarked hut was an interesting experience, but fortunately it passed without incident.

In the air I was able to appreciate for the first time the vast empty scale of Jonglei. The largest of South Sudan’s ten states, Jonglei is similar in size to England but with about two percent of the population. Flying in a small plane offers an excellent vantage point as you keep low, well beneath the clouds. Along the way we crossed over a white UN helicopter; it looked like it was skimming the treetops, so low did it fly. There was little but scrub and verdant marshland as far as the eye could see, with expanses where even the trees petered out. No sign of life. None discernible from 5,000 feet anyway.

We were very nearly unable to land. As we approached Yuai the pilot became concerned about the runway. Flights had been cancelled for several weeks due to flooding, and whoever assessed the state of the landing strip was rather more optimistic than the pilot would have liked. We did two flyovers, and after some hasty calculations it was decided we could attempt a landing. We made it, but the pilot didn’t think we were going to be able to bring people back with us. I didn’t want to have to break the news.

The runway was lined with people. While the pilot drove off in one of the Land Cruisers to determine the usable length for takeoff we unloaded the plane’s precious cargo – fresh fruit, tins of vegetables, coffee, eggs and other welcome supplies. This done I handed over the money to our logistician and, waybill signed, took in my surroundings.

Members of the community were gathered loosely around the plane, some chatting away to our team, some hanging on the edges. There were a lot of tall, stringy people, the majority of whom were marked by the distinctive forehead scarification common in South Sudan. There were kids in football shirts. One or two were naked. Many looked in need of a good meal, and some, yes, appeared prime targets for flies. Then again the flies didn’t appear to be particularly fussy.

As I hadn’t shaved in a few days I had the beginnings of beard poking through, and I noticed some of the kids pointing at my chin and giggling. I am the eldest in my extended family so I’ve always been good around kids. I like their unapologetic enthusiasm, their energy and their lack of pretence. I like running around and spinning until I’m dizzy. So I smiled and tried to make friends, indicating that there was nothing to fear from my mildly stubbled jawline.

Soon the pilot was back and the runway was indeed too sodden to allow a fully laden takeoff. Several members of the team who had been expecting to go on leave had to stay behind, and those who were able to come onboard were only able to bring one bag of hand luggage. It was a pretty unpleasant situation, but as the pilot pointed out, it wasn’t his decision. The laws of physics are the laws of the physics, and there was nothing that could be done.

And so less than five hours after taking off I was back in Juba. My time in Yuai was very brief, and several weeks after the fact my memory of the initial experience has dimmed somewhat. But I do remember that the overwhelming impression was of distance, an acute awareness of the gulf between my experience and theirs. What, really, do I have to offer these people, whose lives are about as far removed from my own as one can conceive of in this day and age?

Soon I shall have the opportunity to find out. Runway saturation allowing I am heading out on Thursday. It’s short notice, but I am excited, and a little nervous. A lot of Jonglei is flooded at present and tens of thousands of people have been displaced from their homes. We are the main agency in Uror County and so we are taking the lead in the emergency response and are undertaking NFI distribution – Non-Food Items, in aid speak. Mosquito nets, water containers, sleeping mats. The essentials to help people get by until the flooding subsides. I’m looking forward to helping out and learning how these things are done.

In the meantime I have a few days left to say my goodbyes and fatten myself up in anticipation of an impending diet of rice and goat. Juba, it’s been a pleasure.

……………………

 

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And Yet The Books

Inside the dome of my mosquito net, its borders edged by the clip-on light that illuminates my Kindle, I am reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It is sparse, bleak and unsparing. It is late, I am tired. I have worked a sixteen hour day and have another one ahead. So I read myself away by battery-powered light, tented. Like I used to do when trying to hide my clandestine page turnings from my parents. I have always tended towards the nocturnal.

I reach a passage where the unnamed protagonist’s wife, bowed and tired in the aftermath of some unspecified apocalypse, decides to take her own life. I think of losing those I love, the far away ones who are never far from my mind. I have a moment where I curl up and mourn that which I have not lost.

The man-made disaster unfolding in the here and now, this very real crisis, it is anything but unspecified. I think of the many thousands of people who will be spending the night with empty stomachs, in temporary shelter or none at all, leaving behind one kind of uncertainty and fear for another. How daily I parse their suffering into clean and clinical sentences as I present the argument as to why their lot warrants particular recognition, why they merit assistance when others do not. Is this a zero sum game in which we are engaged? I think of the abstract faith of my youth, the angry gods who called out for blood and obedience. I can see it writ large, here.

Passing it off as the workings of a tired mind I close my book for the night. The screen fills with images of fountain pens, the nibs narrowing down to one still point. I turn off the light and feel the whisper of the fan as it languidly churns the air.

……………………

And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
And, touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion.
“We are, ” they said, even as their pages
Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
Licked away their letters. So much more durable
Than we are, whose frail warmth
Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.
I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,
Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.

– Czeslaw Milosz