Jonglei

In this place of cattle songs and bridal bartering,
There is blood in the air and conflict between the clods
Of sun-dried equatorial earth.
It may not yet run red, but give it days.

This place, barren, flat and empty, is marked by dichotomy,
Binary seasons and sudden shifts in message and intent.

Our pronouncements and activity plans fall short.
We fill collapsed latrines with the evidence of spent efforts,
Expired chemicals whose dates ring out a chorus of our failure,
A procession of missed targets,
A cavalcade with hubris at its head.

We skirt around the periphery of it all, oblivious,
The inheritors of far flung fancy and colonial folly –
The cattle lands and peace-stick prophets give us short shrift.
We do but meddle.

We sit each evening behind iron fences
Oxidising to the echo of battered calf skin.
‘Mobilisation’ has rarely carried such ominous portents –
We hear the beating as villages empty.
This is the rush before the run of red.

…..

In the hurried breath that precedes the storm
Iron sheets grate against uprights,
The wind a diaphragm whose movements conduct
A chorus pitched as a choir of women in labour
Ushering forth something terrible and new with their strains and tearings.

This evening tukuls will collapse under the weight of bad weather,
Fence posts will snap in the face of it all
And nature’s theatrics will be accompanied by an entirely human counterpoint
As cattle raiders and neighbouring tribes sneak in beneath the cover of the rolling skies.

These are not my people, and perhaps I should never have come,
But this evening will find me sheltering alongside strangers,
Lying between a circle of concrete six feet below the earth
And watching tracers pass overhead
As automatic writing fills the skies.

No, these days the nights are never still.
Even for a dark-dweller as myself the mornings come as welcome relief.
Maale, Murle – hold off another day.

The unspoken rules of war have dissolved over decades
Leaving innocents at the heart
Of a cycle of revenge and revenge
And staked through wombless women.
Please, Lord, give us days.

And so we wait, filling backpacks with essentials and the keys to flee –
We hold onto our own days here,
And we guard them jealously.

…..

In the aftershock of the storm
My mud hut swells and creaks.
The plastic sheeting hung over the wire mesh windows
Drift and press against in the breathing out,
Rhythmic and redolent of the ocean.
I am all at sea.

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Rest

R & R: Rest and Recuperation.  Every aid worker’s favourite acronym.

The bright shining beacon at the end of three months in a mud hut, refugee camp or the pressure of a country head office, these three little syllables hold forth the promise of a return to normalcy, or at least a couple of weeks on a beach somewhere, drinking margaritas until you forget about the intensity of it all for a while.

A couple of years ago a wise and experienced friend told me that the humanitarian system is geared around taking people who are energetic, hard working and care too much and wringing it out of them.  There was a wry smile as my friend imparted his semi-serious warning but now, a year down the line, and I can see that there was a grain of truth to his pronouncement nevertheless.

Before I came to South Sudan I thought of R & R as something of a humanitarian perk. A bit of cash to fly somewhere interesting, a few additional days leave to explore the more pleasant corners of whichever region you find yourself posted.  Something worthwhile and enjoyable, sure, but by no means essential.

Now, however, I have seen too many of my friends and compatriots burnt out and exhausted. Unwilling to give up until the next target has been met, the next grant secured, they keep going and keep going until they come to a sudden and abrupt halt.

Dublin - Eden Quay at Night

Dublin – Eden Quay at Night

There is joy to this life, of course – joy and the privilege of service which I wrote about in my first few months are very much present.  But self-care is mostly an abstract concept in this line of work, and saying no often doesn’t come easy, or without a cost – for you, for the project, or the beneficiary – or so our inflated sense of self says, at least…

And so the very drivers which make people want to do this humanitarian thing can be the thing which pushes them that step too far.

I have read several critiques of humanitarian work in which the author pins the emotional hook of the piece around their disdain at the sight of an aid worker walking around a refugee camp or similar with a hangover on a Sunday morning, as if this were somehow an abnegation of their duty to or belief in humanity.

I now see that this is getting the whole thing back to front and upside down.  The desire to escape for a brief moment is not a dereliction of duty but a very human response to the inevitable suffering with which you are confronted, or undergo yourself.  At some point there must be a break, or something will snap.

A friend, more eloquent than I, summed it up perfectly:

People sometimes say to me, ‘it [aid work] must be so rewarding’. More like a sense of pouring cement into an ever-widening crevice. Even as we struggle to cover the very basics, the feeling is that we are barely papering over the cracks of problems much deeper than we can begin to address. Hence the sense of barely suppressed despair that is palpable among many aid workers.

After only a week off in my first seven months, I was running on empty myself when I first went home, at Christmas.

Home has much to recommend it, all of which is highlighted and intensified after three months of long drops and boiled goat.  The bitterness of freshly ground coffee, leavened with a single sugar.  The warmth of a city wrapped up for Christmas, all knitted jumpers and sparkling lights.  Old friends and familiar places, weighted with memory.

But the return brings with it its own particular set of challenges.

The past few times I have come back I have alighted in London, and the drop off point is jarring.

One week – Jonglei: mud huts, pitch black nights filled with stars and drumming and the occasional Antonov overhead, carrying with them portents and probably weaponry.

The next – London: several million people jostling for position, watched over always by false advertising, everyone constantly in motion, seemingly with little destination.  Everything seems at once familiar and artificial, a little too real to be trusted.

When you are away, relationships get put on hold, and the details that are missed between the frames of the time lapse snapshot can be hard to recreate upon return.

This disjunct, the sense of being an outsider looking in on your own life, is strange and unsettling.

The Liffey at Sunset

The Liffey at Sunset

One of my closest friends, who had herself left behind the comfort of the familiar in the past year, put the word on it thus:

When you are so far away, even if you are doing what you want to do, there is a certain element of holding a part of yourself very still and careful until you are safe back in a place where you can fall apart and let all the shit you had to go through take its toll.

I have termed the adjustment period Mud Hut Head – it takes a while to build up the courage to poke your head outside again, and after so much time spent in a particularly intensive environment and headspace, the results when you do are not always pretty.

But I am incredibly fortunate to have friends magnificent enough to offer me the patience and love and space that I require, and help me tease out the threads and patterns that have begun or been exacerbated by the muddied surroundings.

In essence, R & R, this return, it offers an essential lifeline, providing a run-up to get you through the insecurity, under-resourcing and eighteen hour days.

In the absence of systematic pastoral care or psycho-social support structures, R & R is an essential attempt to enable people to rest and forget in healthy, rather than destructive, ways.

It enables you to find the joy in the thing again.  Otherwise, what’s the point?  It is near impossible to offer anything of value from a place of emptiness or exhaustion.

And so I find myself back in Jonglei, with an immediate procession of targets and reports, infinitely grateful for the rest I have just received.

Deep breath.

Stuck

We have had visitors in Jonglei.  Our Logistics Manager and our roving technical genius were out with us to review the project, and to identify areas where there are room for improvement.  There are, it transpires, many such areas, all of which are – unexpectedly – now my purview.

At the start of this year our venerable logistician, who had been with the project for five years – an aeon in humanitarian terms – found himself a new job, and ventured off to pastures new.   And, due to the essential combination of proximity and willingness, I now find myself responsible for all of our project logistics.

First among the many challenges facing us is the state of our fleet, for one of the difficulties with operating in an environment such as Jonglei is that it takes a tremendous toll on vehicles, upon which you are reliant for essentially everything.  The compound of hostile terrain and unsympathetic driving combine to drastically curtail the lives of our trusty Land Cruisers.

Stuck

Stuck

Through a combination of ingenuity, stubbornness and duct tape some of the vehicles are now pushing five years old, and it shows.  So, after six months of sitting prone in axle-deep mud we conducted a review of the fleet to determine the functionality or otherwise of the vehicles now that movement is possible once again.

We found that in our fleet of five we had only one fully functional vehicle, a year old three seater pick up – Mobile 4. The first weekend back Mobile 4’s HF radio mast sheared off.  As the radio is the only reliable way to contact the base or Juba when in the field, this left us with a grand total of zero fully functioning vehicles.

Leaving the mechanics to their Sisyphean task, Fernandez, Alick and I decided that it would be worthwhile to conduct a driver training exercise wherein we tested both the driver and the vehicles’ ability to drive handle the unforgiving terrain.  And so we headed towards the remnants of the river which for much of last year separated us from the project sites.

Where once the river was chest deep and took two hours or more to cross, now the unrelenting equatorial sun had withered it to knee deep and several hundred metres wide.  Deciding to see how far we could get we ploughed straight on.

Sunset Over Swamp

Sunset Over Swamp

We didn’t very far, of course, but that was the expectation, and at first it was all an awful lot of fun – splashing around in the embarrassingly shallow water offered a welcome relief from the heat of the office.  But after an hour or so of utilising the jack and mud plates and alternating between coaxing and brute force it became apparent that we weren’t getting out.  The four wheel drive wasn’t working, we didn’t have a winch and all we were succeeding in doing with each attempt was further embedding the wheels in the thick clay, and amusing the onlooking children.

As three of the five vehicles were on the other side of the river at far away project locations and the one remaining vehicle in Yuai was completely non-operational we were stranded.  Fortunately, we had another NGO staying in our compound at the time, so we radioed base and waited.  As the sun went down there was a burst of AK-47 fire from across the river.

In the end we got back without too much trouble – the oft-repaired towing rope snapped on the first attempt, but we were soon on our way.  But it was a reminder of how easy it is for a series of simple oversights to potentially spiral into an altogether more serious situation.  Without a torch between us, no backup at base, no spare food or water in the vehicle, broken four wheel drive and a broken winch, we were helpless.

In an emergency, these are the basics upon which you need to be able to depend.

There is work to be done.

……………………

Medevac

This morning there was an accident.  

Our WASH (WAter, Sanitation and Hygiene) team were staying in our sub-base in Motot this week, carrying out mobilisation to engage the community in beginning the process of replacing the latrines that were destroyed in last year’s floods.

Some of the chemicals that are used for water quality testing had expired and needed to be destroyed.  As one of the latrines in our compound in Motot collapsed during the rains it is now used as a rubbish pit.

Usually when incinerating rubbish, a small amount of diesel is used as fuel for the fire.  In this instance, however, the guard used petrol instead, and a lot of it.

The critical difference between the diesel and petrol is that diesel, of course, is much more stable, and therefore burns more slowly.  Petrol ignites immediately upon contact with open flame.

The instant that my friend struck the match, the pit erupted, engulfing him in the flames.

The news came in over the radio while we were eating breakfast.  We immediately got in touch with Juba to arrange a medevac via the UN, who diverted a flight for us.  But the airstrip in Motot is apparently too short for UN planes to land on – despite the fact that identical planes flown by other aviators can land there without difficulty – so the team had to travel back to Yuai by road, over the cracked and pitted tracks, bathing the patient’s wounds with water in the absence of proper medical care.

Four hours after the accident the flight arrived, and our brave and uncomplaining teammate – smiling and joking throughout – was whisked back to Juba for stabilisation and onwards to Nairobi, as it transpires that there are no facilities for the treatment of burns in South Sudan.

As traumatic as the whole incident undoubtedly was, we can consider ourselves fortunate that the outcome was not more serious.  Our teammate is going to be fine.  And there are many ways in which this could have gone even more badly wrong – returning to Yuai the gearbox broke, and we had to send another two vehicles.  In this case the delay was incidental as the flight had not yet arrived, but in a genuinely life threatening situation these are the moments that count.

The whole thing has underlined the need for care and rigour.  As NGO employees we are fortunate to have access to an infrastructure that other Jonglei residents could only dream of, but nevertheless, we are isolated, we are vulnerable, and we need to take responsibility for ourselves.

Tomorrow we are taking the guard, who himself suffered minor injuries, to the MSF hospital in a neighbouring county. Next week we will carry out training on the identification and handling of different fuels, and we shall spend our Saturday carrying out a review of all our safety and security procedures.

In Jonglei you must always be on the alert.

The Bridge on the River Pathai

The dry season has begun in earnest, and with it conflict, drought and hunger.

Our assessments before Christmas indicated that the widespread flooding had decimated crops and food stores, and that household supplies would begin to run out in January.  With the next harvest season not until August-September time this would leave many families facing a hunger gap of over seven months.  Now, come February, these predictions are proving all too accurate.

The Nuer are a pastoralist people, and each year the men and youth head out in search of water for their most important assets: cows.  But with the move to the cattle camps goes an important source of food – milk, often mixed with the blood of the cow for extra iron, is a dietary staple – and the protection offered by the men along with it.

For this is traditionally the time when the majority of interclan and intertribal violence occurs – ‘security incidents’, in bloodless NGO parlance.

The Bridge on the River Pathai

The Bridge on the River Pathai

This year the always-fragile environment is further complicated by the continued presence of former SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army – the South Sudanese army) General David Yau Yau, who defected for the third time last year.  It is frequently alleged that Yau Yau receives arms and support from Sudan, who are keen to ensure Jonglei’s continued instability in order to prevent South Sudan from being able to access the oil reserves that lie beneath the swamps.

Regardless of the source of his provisions Yau Yau has proven extremely effective at disrupting the functions of the state, engaging in skirmishes with the SPLA across Jonglei, while simultaneously upending civilian life by re-arming the youth of the Murle tribe.

Seen as the main antagonists by the Nuer, the Murle are a small tribe who frequently face marginalisation and discrimination as a minority in a country still broadly split along tribal lines.  The SPLA faced international condemnation for its human rights violations against the Murle during the 2012 disarmament campaign: a report by the NGO PACT and the South Sudan Law Society alleged that the disarmament was “accompanied by beatings, intimidation and harassment but also more serious reports of killing, torture, and assault (including sexual abuse) in multiple locations across the state”.

Yau Yau has played on this discontent to rearm and recruit the Murle youth to his cause, while the Nuer do not trust that the SPLA are capable of or willing to protect them, and rumour has it they are beginning to rearm themselves.  Whether this is precautionary or in preparation for pre-emptive measures is unclear, but either way the portents are not particularly encouraging.

Panorama

Panorama

Last week the largest attack in over a year took place, with 134 mainly women and children reported dead, and another 500 people still missing.  (See this AP report for a sense of the scale of the attack.)  Facts are still emerging, but the consensus is that Yau Yau and the Murle youth were involved.

Such insecurity has lead to people in the more vulnerable border regions fleeing their homes.  Combined with the shortages of food and water that many are experiencing and there are growing numbers of Internally Displaced People (IDPs).  Stripped of their traditional social support structures and coping mechanisms, these people are particularly vulnerable to malnutrition and disease.

Situated at the only bridge across the main – dirt – road across the state, Pathai is one such destination.  Offering a market, the possibility of work, proximity to water and relative security, thousands of IDPs have arrived in the past month, putting pressure on the already strained resources of the host community, and conditions are deteriorating rapidly.

Last week our WASH (WAter, Sanitation and Hygiene) and Nutrition teams carried out a rapid needs assessment, and the findings were not good.  37.4% of the children were found to be malnourished, with another 35% at risk of malnutrition.  The World Health Organisation’s threshold for a nutrition emergency is 15%, which makes the severity of the situation very clear indeed.  Without rapid intervention, these levels of malnutrition, combined with the lack of adequate water and sanitation facilities and an almost complete absence of healthcare, means that loss of life cannot be far away.  And this is only the beginning of the hunger gap.

On Friday we shared the results of the report with the other NGOs active in Uror County, discussed the appropriate interventions and divided out responsibility for the different sectors between us.  We shall be leading on WASH and Nutrition, and working alongside Care International to provide Non Food Items (NFIs) – mosquito nets, blankets, cooking utensils and other such essentials.  Another NGO are carrying out a Food For Work programme, employing the recent arrivals to repair the flood-battered road, which is essential if we are to get supplies through, while UN FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) are sourcing food to distribute through the World Food Programme.

The final step in the process was to get a more accurate picture of the number of arrivals, which we attempted on Saturday.  The process was rushed and the organisation somewhat lacklustre, while the sheer amount of languages involved lead to crossed wires about who was meant to be being registered.  I’m not all that confident in the accuracy of our findings, but they’re a start.

But this is humanitarian aid.  It is messy and improvised, simultaneously hurried and too slow, conspicuous for both guesswork and bureaucracy.  Marked by contradiction, yes, but it lessens human suffering and it saves lives.

……………………

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.

Dusk

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.

……………………

Of Soap and Scarification

Yuai is larger than I expected: tukuls stretch across the flat earth, reaching out beyond the compound perimeter for about a kilometre in each direction.  The epicentre of the village is the runway, the primary connection with the rest of the country, carefully maintained by the community.  When it is dry it is possible to drive from Juba to Yuai, but it is a two day trip, mostly through the bush and areas that have not been properly demined.  Not the most appealing of prospects.  In the rainy season even that option is unavailable, so the runway is the sole entry and exit point, enabling the transportation of supplies – both commercial and humanitarian – and people. Little flippy flappy planes ferry NGO workers into and out of the village and, in the occasional event of an overlap between a medical emergency and an available plane, transport patients to the MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières) hospital in Lankien.

As the county capital Yuai is home to the Commissioner’s office and entourage, while the South Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (SSRRC) have a basic operation here as well.  In spite of this honour there is little in the way of infrastructure, essential services or commercial trade in Yuai.  MSF Holland run outreach activities in Uror County, so there is limited access to basic healthcare, but as their nurses split their time between three villages the clinic is only staffed ten days a month; the rest of the time services are provided by semi-skilled local staff.  There are no roads here, no electricity, no shops.  This is the first place I have been where the seemingly infinite reach of Coca-Cola’s grubby corporate tentacles has not yet penetrated.  There is, however, a weekend market, presently understocked and overpriced due to the logistical difficulties presented by the rainfall.  The recent revelation that it may be possible to buy a – London priced – beer may well expedite my first exploration.

Action on the Runway

Nevertheless, while facilities may be basic Yuai is a lively place.  On my first Sunday there was cheering and the sound of rhythm outside the compound.  It sounded much like a crowd before a football match – urgent, pulsing.  It transpires that, with the rains subsiding somewhat, my arrival coincided with the resumption of an inter-community gathering, a combination competitive dance and marital selection ceremony.

Before I go any further, a brief explanation of the administrative structure of South Sudan is necessary.  South Sudan is made up of ten states, of which Jonglei is the largest and most remote.  There are six counties in Jonglei, which are further broken down into payams (sub-county districts, of which there are eleven in Uror), bomas and, finally, villages.

On what appears to be alternating Sundays people from three payams come together in celebration and competition.  On this particular Sunday I ventured out, feeling distinctly conspicuous and equally curious.  Now I am not very good at estimating the size of crowds but my colleagues and I agreed that there were over a thousand people present.  There were flags and sporting uniforms and young men running and dancing in unison along the runway.  The County Commissioner was leading the way with the chants and ceremony, welcoming the competitors and spectators alike with patriotic evocations.  The soldiers, present to maintain order, seemed coolly removed from proceedings.  Of course, as soon as I started taking photos a large group of kids gathered, mugging for the camera and generally showing off.  There was a sense of community, of identity and civic pride.  Unfortunately I was unable to stay to watch the completion of the competition and the following marital selection elements but I hope to catch those next time around.

Global Handwashing Day, Yuai

One civil institution which Yuai does have is a primary school.  Last Monday was Global Handwashing Day, and our WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Promotion) team organised a celebratory event at the school.  The event was charming, well attended, and tremendously impressive.  The pupils and teachers had evidently put in considerable effort, conjuring up drama, dance and song to mark the occasion.  One MC wrote a sort of beat poem which he delivered in English, directed towards the County Commissioner, the guest of honour who sat centre stage in his suit and sunglasses, watching over proceedings.

And this, alongside the apparent quality of the education the children were receiving, was the most encouraging element of the event. This was not just a token gesture organised by a few teachers.  There was evident buy in of community and government leaders, a genuine recognition of the scale of both the problem and the possibility of progress through relatively simple – if fundamental – behaviour change.  Present were members of the SSRRC, senior county health and civil officials, representatives from other NGOs, and various community and tribal leaders.  All at an event encouraging the use of soap and latrines.

For while it may not be glamorous, diarrhoea is the leading cause of child mortality in Sub Saharan Africa.  It is estimated that one child dies from the illness every 20 seconds, and as 87% of people in Jonglei do not have access to adequate sanitation facilities there is still a long way to go indeed.  (For further information, in collaboration with PATH Tearfund have recently released a report, the Diarrhoea Dialogues.)

The Commissioner again took an active role in proceedings, demonstrating how to use a simple homemade tap – a ‘tippy tap’ – and made a speech emphasising the importance of good sanitation practices.  He spoke about how he, along with many others, used to practice open defecation in the bush, but how they always did so at night – which was evidence, was it not, that the practice was inherently shameful and detrimental to the health of one’s community?

The use of shame to drive behaviour change is something which doesn’t sit comfortably with many in the West, especially those like myself from a country whose national psyche is in many ways marked by a very Catholic sense of guilt.  However, when it arises naturally as a result of a recognition of the consequences of one’s actions – rather than being externally imposed – it can be a tremendously effective driver of positive change, and it plays a central role in many sanitation behaviour change efforts.  In aid speak this is known as fostering a demand-led approach – for what good is it if an NGO spends time and money building facilities that nobody uses and quickly fall into a state of disrepair?

In order to build sustainability – another buzz word.  Durable, lasting results, in normal language – agencies strive to ensure that the impetus for change comes from the communities themselves.  One of the processes that we use to do this is called CLTS – Community-Led Total Sanitation.  Or as one senior colleague memorably put it, Community Leaders Talk Shit.  With CLTS you take, as the name suggests, community leaders for a walk where you visit open defecation sites, examine the stools, their proximity to water sources, where the flies might go next and how such things contribute to the spread of disease.  Then you run sessions where you teach people how to dig a suitable pit for a latrine using locally sourced materials.  As an incentive Tearfund will provide the cement slab that covers the latrine, and soap and jerry cans for handwashing facilities, but only to those that have constructed the rest of the latrine.  An element of competition is also injected into proceedings as whichever village has the most latrines is rewarded with a bull and a celebratory party is held.  All very ingenious, and it is proving encouragingly effective.  This really is only the start of the process, but seeing the tangible results of several years work played out in drama and song was most gratifying indeed.

One final thought.  In his address one community leader spoke out against tribal scarification.  Himself marked with the deep parallel lines that denote that he is Lo Nuer, he spoke of the birth of a new nation and of the need to move away from old tribal divisions.  Scarification is both a signifier, a mark of belonging, and a rite of passage for young men.  It is becoming less common in much of the country, but in some places it continues to be practiced.  In an area such as Jonglei, however, where tribal conflict is an ongoing and ever-present threat such sentiments, when expressed by a respected community elder, are a welcome and encouraging sign indeed.

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