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.



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.


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.


Of Locusts and Long Drops

It is the beginning of the dry season and Jonglei is re-emerging from the the mantle of water that has cloaked its surface for six months.  Large parts of the state are still flooded, but in some localities the waters are subsiding. Next month we may be able to cross the river and visit the project locations for the first time since May.

Yet this evening it is raining in Yuai.  I love the smell before rain.  It is the smell of fresh starts and possibilities.  There are thunderclouds rolling across the sky and thick forks of lightning dashing themselves against the earth.  Raindrops are drumming against the tin roof, fireflies are circling and there are frogs hopping across the floor of my office.  Everything is new.

I have arrived at an opportune moment, in the pause before the resumption of activities, evaluations and funding proposals.  This is an ideal time to get to know my teammates, to get a good overview of the project and the sectors in which we the work, and to find my feet.

Taking advantage of the comparative calm I am taking things slowly at first, allowing myself the time and space to let it all to sink in.  I have had briefings with the project managers and we have identified areas for me to get involved in, from evaluation of the damage done by the flooding through needs assessments and planning for next year, while from Thursday I shall be handling all of the project’s finance functions for a month.  There is a lot to learn, things that I have wanted to get involved in for a long time – useful, practical, how-to-run-a-project type things.  After an extended period of reading about and reporting on the projects from a distance it is a relief to be in the field at last.

Irishman in the Rain

On the other side of the compound, I have unpacked my bags and settled into my room – and contrary to expectations it is in fact a room, albeit one made out of mud and cow dung, rather than the tukuls (mud huts) we had in our previous base.  I have done my best to make it feel like home. I have lined the sills in front of the mesh windows with mementoes, and I spent a good chunk of my first weekend carrying out improvised home improvements, plastering the cracks with mud and The Irish Times to keep the locusts out.  Inside I have a plastic table and chair, and a bed with a mosquito net. There is an electric light, the primary function of which appears to be to attract a vast array of insects, and a socket which provides intermittent power in the evenings, when the generator is on.  It is enough to get my laptop, with its constantly whirring fan, through an episode of Newsroom anyway, for which I am profoundly grateful.

The compound itself isn’t much to look at, maybe twenty five metres by twenty five metres, with one concrete building – the main office, containing the all-important safe room – and a variety of mud constructions and corrugated iron outhouses; all of which is surrounded by a four foot fence of iron sheeting.  We have a combination of solar and generator power, while ablutions take the form of long drops and bucket showers.

There is, however, less of a sense of privation than one might expect.  While certainly challenging – I found two scorpions in my room last night – overall my new living conditions are rudimentary but not unpleasant: as one recently-departed Jonglei veteran put it, “I feel like I’ve been camping for two years”.  No, what is hardest is the mindset shift, the psychological distance.  I am acutely aware of how far away I am from everything that’s familiar, and there have been a several moments where I have had to stifle a sense of rising panic.  But these are already diminishing in frequency.

While I appreciate that this may not be the case come dry season and the concomitant intertribal tension and cattle raids, for now all seems calm and quiet.  The night sky alone makes it all worthwhile.  Uncorrupted by light pollution, the sense of infinite space above seems an accurate reflection of both the sense of possibility and the scale of the problems below.


For we are operating in a fragile and volatile environment, at the confluence of a series of recurrent crises that conspire to keep Jonglei in a state of chronic humanitarian need.  The situation here is what we call a complex emergency – one borne not out of a sharp, isolated shock, such as an earthquake, coup or tsunami, but a combination of structural vulnerabilities that leave a legacy of conflict, hunger and disease.

Uror County stands at the nexus of three recurring emergencies: flooding, on an annual or biennial basis; drought, which alternates with the flooding; and intertribal conflict, the frequency and severity of which is traditionally exacerbated by drought.  Combined with a massive shortfall in governmental basic service provision and an almost total lack of infrastructure, further limiting access to services and markets, and these cyclical crises combine to keep the people of this area in a state of severe under-development and near-perpetual humanitarian need.  And as in many parts of the country, the situation is getting worse.

In July Oxfam released a report, Tackling the Food Deficit in the World’s Newest Country, that found that half of South Sudan’s 9.7 million population are facing food insecurity.  Despite the scaling up of aid efforts, at the time of publication the situation had already reached emergency (pre-famine) levels in parts of five of South Sudan’s ten states, including Jonglei.  Oxfam predicted that the “emergency classification means that people will lose their livelihoods with little chance of recovery; there will be a significant increase in severely acute malnourished children [the most serious level of malnutrition] and mortality rates”.

This analysis is borne out on the ground.  WFP (UN World Food Programme) have recently completed an analysis of Uror and the initial findings are far from positive.  The floods have had a severe impact on the Food Security outlook in the region, causing a shortfall in the annual harvest and destroying existing stocks.  The implications of this are serious: WFP calculate that household food supplies won’t last beyond December.  Considering that the hunger period traditionally doesn’t start until February or March, the expectation is that there will be a nutrition crisis next year.  We are likely to be in humanitarian mode for some time yet.

Nevertheless, I want to be careful not to overload the negativity or to present a picture of a stereotypical helpless African village.  No, while there are problems on the horizon Yuai is a place with a sense of energy and community that really is a pleasure to be a part of.  But more of that in the next post.  For now it is a privilege to be here, and I only hope our foreknowledge of the coming shortfalls will translate into successful proposals and donor support.  As there was in Juba, there is a lot to do – but here it all seems much more tangible.  I suspect that the adjustment period may have to come to an end rather soon.


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.



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