For the Birds (Of Doves, Hawks and a Handsaw)

It is Remembrance Sunday, and the competing tribes have gathered again, dancing their warlike steps just outside the fence.  I can see heads darting, spears thrusting as I write.  The air is thick with drums and ululation.

The temperature is edging ever upwards these days, heading inexorably towards forty in the shade with another ten degrees to come.  Despite previous predictions the dry season hasn’t yet arrived.  We are currently in a humid in between in which there are sufficient showers that insects abound but insufficient rainfall to make the reptiles go to ground.

After a feigned retreat the locusts are back, and they have brought reinforcements. They travel in packs, this unnamed foe, their sharp odour fouling the air, while the discovery of another snake is fast becoming a daily occurrence.

Snake of the Day

There are larger creatures in residence as well, a variety of noisy corvine beasties that caw through the morning, claws scratching against the tin roof, while hawks perch atop fence posts, casting a possessive eye over all they survey. Hedgehogs snuffle around at nightfall, the quintessential autumnal animal transposed to swampy South Sudan.

The most prominent animal in our compound, however, is the goat.  Knowing that they are destined for the dinner plate they fill the air with plangent cries and gnaw at the ropes that bind them in a last desperate attempt at freedom.

I myself have been feeling flighty of late, with itchy feet and an intermittent urge to escape to nowhere in particular.  A couple of years ago a friend went to work in Darfur, managing a multi-sector project.  When she came back she said that of all the new and valuable experience she gained, above all she learned about herself.  Halfway through my first year in South Sudan and that observation rings increasingly true.

After a period of relative calm things have ramped up rapidly. This month there are two proposals due, the success of which will determine whether or not the project continues next year.  On top of this we have donor, HQ and Juba staff visits; the handover of our health activities to another NGO; and the post-harvest health and nutrition survey, a two week effort on the other side of the still-swollen river.  We have experimented without success with building rafts out of empty oil drums, which means a two hour walk through chest deep water to cross to the other side.

Of late logframes, indicators and results are the last thing on my mind before I fall asleep and the first thought upon awakening in the morning.  Over the course of the past six months, however, I have become more familiar with the mechanics of my inner workings. I am learning to recognise symptoms of exhaustion or an impending crash, and which coping stratagem to utilise to best head it off at the pass.  I have spent years rushing around cities, filling my free time with places to be and people to see, when what I actually needed was to learn to sit and be still.  For the first time in a long time I have had the head space to experiment with solitude.  It felt like a breathing out.

I have always worked well under pressure, and I do enjoy the seductive sense of swollen significance that comes from feeling like what you are doing is both urgent and of grave importance. But it is becoming increasingly apparent that without at least a vague approximation of balance both my state of mind and the quality of my work deteriorate rapidly.  Stating the obvious, I know, but it is gratifying to be able to recognise my tells, those mental twitches that give away the permeability or otherwise of the terrain beneath the feet.

These checks and balances, they are simple measures, easy to implement.  The hint of cabin fever is easily dispelled by getting out of the compound, so I have started going to collect our water from the MSF borehole in the evenings, which has the added benefit of meaning that I get to drive the pick up.  Crashing around the rutted tracks at ten miles an hour has a way of bringing a smile to the face.  At the borehole I am usually greeted by staring kids, fascinated by my skin colour and earring, and vaguely horrified by my tongue stud.  I am an anthropological study here as much as the other way around.

At the weekend I finally visited the market, a sparsely stocked affair with people selling their wares out of tents and tukuls.  There wasn’t much on offer, but I counted at least 350kg of grain in WFP branded sacks.  A legitimate coping mechanism or evidence of UN largesse?  I’m not sure, but after several days of focus group meetings with government officials, tribal chiefs and community members it is clear that dependency is very much a reality here.  The combination of conflict, low levels of education and years of direct handouts has had the detrimental effect of discouraging initiative and suppressing human capacity.  Not enough to negate the need for what we do, but there is the potential to do harm as well as good.  Good intentions are not enough.

On the Road

Otherwise, I have reverted to an old favourite pastime, one which has too often been edged by less worthwhile but more instantaneous pleasures – namely, reading.  This too, however, requires a degree of adjustment, for in my current environs a certain amount of caution is necessary.

Much literature tends to deal with the dark corners and crevices of the human psyche, which isn’t always helpful at the end of a day in which you are trying to suppress the sense of having fallen off the edge of the earth.  Meanwhile, it transpires that spending your days reading security reports and your evenings novels about the civil war is a recipe for the jitters. And so I have shifted tack and am currently balancing out some rubbish fiction with Hamlet and Keith Richards’ fascinating autobiography.  But having unintentionally immersed myself in accounts of conflict, what I cannot comprehend is that the lived experience of violence and war seemingly does little to dull the appetite.

On Friday night the air was thick with insects and the office was a no go zone – somebody had left the strip lights on and the door open, thus attracting all the winged irritants for miles around.  From floor to ceiling the air was black with beating wings.  So we switched off the generator, doused the solar lights and sat beneath the stars.  Inevitably the conversation drifted to security, politics and tribalism.

This particular discussion took in the full range of South Sudan’s myriad socio-economic and political problems – intriguing if typically depressing subject matter. It was the proposed resolution, however, which took me altogether by surprise.  A number of colleagues from several organisations put forth that what South Sudan needs to solve its problems is a civil war.  The argument, in essence, was that it took forty years of fighting to bring forth the Comprehensive Peace Agreement which ushered in an independent South Sudan, so why not another go around?  Even people working on peace building initiatives offered that it is all but an inevitability, and perhaps no bad thing.  It was one of the most disquieting conversations that I have yet been a part of.


I am becoming increasingly aware that I am seated in the lap of tragedy.  Beneath the surface the majority of people you meet and work with have their own tales to tell, or at least to nod at in passing.  It is easy to miss amidst the donor reports and the insect bites, but you come to notice the references to growing up in Uganda or Kenya, to recognise the names of civil war era refugee camps.  It is not my place to pry, and these are not my stories to trade, but there were multiple generations uprooted, displaced and extinguished by conflict, that great bringer of misery and destroyer of development indicators.  And the aftereffects continue to be played out in front of us today.

In our conversations this week a room full of tribal chiefs held up the inter-community gatherings as evidence that the underlying architecture for peace is stronger than it has been in years.  Simultaneously the rebel militia of David Yau Yau is engaged in open conflict with government forces in a neighbouring county, while cattle raiding has begun to ratchet up.  It is hard to know which way is up, but we are dusting off the VHF radios and reviewing our security procedures; my quick run bag is packed and sits by my bed.

At this stage I will admit that I am looking forward to Christmas.  I am looking forward to going to bed without the possibility of small arms fire disturbing my slumber.  I am looking forward to the Mourne Mountains and the Irish Sea, to old haunts and centuries old pubs, to family and friends and all that is familiar and weighted with memory.  After six months, I am looking forward to coming home.

In the meantime, however, I find myself intrigued, entranced and appalled at this place in equal measure, and I will continue to hold out hope that the predictions of civil war do not come to fruition.

Lest we forget.