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.
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.