And so I am back in South Sudan. I come to with a start as the wheels touch down in a puff of smoke, in time to watch the wreck of a civil war era MiG 23 fighter flash past the window.
By now Juba airport looks all too familiar, and this time around – having arrived armed with a visa – the entry process goes off without a hitch. Sure, getting the visa in London may have necessitated joining a library, but that’s South Sudan for you…
A year down. Let’s see how this next one goes.
I always appreciate the headspace offered by intercontinental travel. Cut off from the internet, and with a transit time far exceeding my laptop’s Mud Hut-battered battery, there is an enforced solitude to the whole thing.
On journeys with unrushed transfers this sense is only emphasised by the parade of faces that hurry past you in the terminals and transport hubs: in travel, you feel transient and rootless, in motion on more than just the physical plane.
Reflection settles naturally as the world passes by the window – thoughts turn to where I am going, while inertia draws them back to where I have come from.
On the plane I read through my journal, tracking the experiences and emotions of the past twelve months. The pen-scribbled lines which often required such a concerted effort to get onto the page at the time now provide a welcome record of what I have been through and lived through.
Reading back I am reminded of our programme’s achievements and successes, the reality of which can easily be overlooked amidst the details and daily struggles of project implementation.
The fact that our project is still in existence is in itself a source of pride. Twice we were coming to the end of our donor funding, at the very time that we could see a massive ramping up of needs. Staff had to be let go, and many more of us were operating in an uncertain limbo as we waited for donor decisions; those were not easy times.
In Logistics we secured the procurement, transportation and distribution of over 100 tonnes of project goods in little more than a month. These goods and materials enabled the construction of nutrition feeding centres for several thousand malnourished children. The rainwater harvesting storage systems we constructed at schools and clinics will provide clean water during the long dry season, while the eight new boreholes we constructed in underserved communities will provide safe water for many thousands more. In addition we now have materials pre-positioned in new storage facilities ready for the next spike in need, whether due to food shortages, flooding or conflict.
These efforts may be utterly inconsequential in comparison with the scale of the situation, but they will enable us to respond to the needs of the most vulnerable next time around, and that is something at least. And in this line of the work you need to hold fast to the small victories…
And so it is with a mixture of pride, weariness and regret that I read through my journal.
I can certainly see the contribution I made in my roles to major aspects of our projects. And yet I can’t quite shake the feeling that I and all of us could have done so much more. If only we had put in more hours; if only we had had the money secured at the right time; if I had only been able to be more disciplined and focused – if only, if only…
A couple of days ago it was a friend’s leaving sodas and speeches (a South Sudan tradition that apparently spans multiple organisations). I was struck by what she said, at the end of two years in country. She spoke of how this place it demands a lot of you, how it requires that you give your all, how it changes you.
And I can see that much has changed in the past year; both in my life, and in myself.
I can see now that this year, and the time in the Mud Hut in particular, has made me more solitary, more comfortable in my own company. Simultaneously, I can see the impact that extended periods of isolation has had on me, and the resulting aversion to absolute loneliness which has developed. A confusing contradiction.
My times back home are still marked by a rushing around and a certain manic tendency in which the instinct is to see all the people that I love, all of the time. But in this place there is a sense of remove which I now find essential to survival.
I have come back to South Sudan in a new job, with a new NGO. And it feels like both a new beginning and starting again. I was fortunate that last year I made some good friends, people I connected with and could be myself around. Now, due to the transient nature of humanitarian work and its short term contracts the majority of these friends have moved on, whether to new crises, new postings in country, or they have returned home to rest and nurse themselves back to health.
And so I find myself once again in Juba, looking ahead to another year. After a very short turnaround between jobs I have come back wary and decidedly weary. Two weeks in and I can already feel that I am deeply tired. There is a balance that needs to be struck here, a balance that I have not yet been able to find. So now it is time for head down and absolute focus, and hopefully it will all become clear in time.
A year down. Let’s see how this next one goes.