motorcycle diaries: "i told the storm" / southern sudan

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Jeri Hilt
The Liberator Magazine 2005-2007


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Part One, The Journey

This journey for me began figuratively and literally at Howard University. As a senior I became not only interested, but rather obsessed with the situation occurring in Sudan. I think the immensity of the situation coupled with what seemed to be a passive neglect that was reminiscent of what surrounded the Rwandan genocide are what originally caused me to pause and take interest. I remember having many sleepless nights, unable to get the images of swarms of displaced and suffering people out of my head. This interest, obsession, or whatever, culminated in an ill-thought-out plan to go to Sudan and perhaps, be helpful in some capacity, but more importantly not be afraid to go to a place full of women and children with faces that look like my own no matter how seemingly dangerous. And secondly, to return with a more informed determination to not sit by quietly as another generation of an African people are wiped out by very preventable circumstances. Needless to say, despite the earnest passion that fueled this desire, neither I nor anyone else I had appealed to for this renegade operation were able to get the necessary funds and technical support needed to travel to Sudan at that time. One year and three months later, here I am prepared to leave for Southern Sudan in two days time, and in my mind, I thought that I would mark the beginning of this journey with a trip back to Howard. Somehow I thought the environment would encourage me and give me strength, not just for Sudan but for all of the visions and hopes I once had that seemed to fade away into irrelevance after the devastation and heart break of Hurricane Katrina. So I rode to Howard on a Chinatown bus and went to the last place where I remember feeling academically capable, universally significant and culturally and racially responsible to earn the sacrifices that were made for my opportunity. I did get that same encouragement when I returned to Howard -- from the friends and other students who had the same dreams and aspirations as myself. I will try to bring this encouragement with me along the way, for it is not just my dream to be here and affect change, but many others who must receive the experience through my own.

The Sacrifice

Prior to leaving Louisiana, I spent a night in the hospital with my grandmother. I had been instructed to monitor the nurses as they recorded her vital signs and turned her in her bed. Well, after this interruption every fifteen to twenty minutes all night long, I woke up to find that I looked like a Chia Pet. Though my hair was tangled and enormous, in the larger scheme of it all, it was the absolute least important thing in my world. Throughout the day everyone I encountered, justifiably, asked "what in the world is wrong with your hair?" By the end of the day I had decided that perhaps this was God's way of showing me that for others to recognize my sincerity and devotion to more significant issues, I would need to shed the visual and physical distractions. This among other things convinced me that now was the time to fully commit to this thing and literally cut away all that would impede my ability to focus on the task at hand. That said, by the time I cut my hair in Nairobi not only was I unemotional, but I was rather impatient. I was upset that it was going to cost me more money that I had anticipated: I am staying in the part of Nairobi where all of the Western foreigners live, appropriately called "Westlands." Nevertheless, I knew that this was the only place I could have it cut right away. Afterwards, I felt nothing, but I looked in the mirror and surprisingly thought that I looked the way I felt; a bit young, a bit bare and a bit cut off. After this past year many of my family and friends are in need of restoration. After being cut-off we all need to grow back, my hair will undoubtedly grow back and, I am happy to say ... so will I.

Since my arrival in Nairobi, I have met numerous people working for World Vision Sudan. Whether it is appropriate or not, I am surprised to say that most of the people I have met have been African either from Kenya, Ethiopia, or Sudan itself. This reality has affected me in several ways: on one hand I am encouraged to see that African people are in charge of these operations -- as they should be. On the other hand, I am angered at the world perception that only white people sacrifice their time and energy for Africa. Why are we as black people so marginalized in the conversations about relief, recovery and development when we are often doing the most work at the most sacrificial levels? I was also surprised to find the number of people who have asked or insisted that I stay after my two-month term. Each time the subject comes up I explain that I am way to poor to stay here in a volunteer capacity and that I must go home to help in Louisiana. All reply by saying, the need is greater here and you will have no problem finding a paying job, immediately followed by, I will talk to someone for you. I don't know what that means for my life, but I offer the outcome up to God. As always, his plan is better than my own and so I submit to the greater order of destiny however that may turn out.

Lastly, I will share some of my thoughts and concerns about the official project in Western Equatoria as well as my personal project: From the briefings I have received from various World Vision Workers Western Equatoria is among the most pleasant places in Sudan. The climate, unlike most of the country, is tropical and very green. Everyone comments on how much fresh fruit they have in Western Equatoria. Apparently there is absolutely no infrastructure and although it is one of the few areas not suffering from starvation, the war has devastated the region no less. The more pressing and relevant reasons for the project in Western Equatoria has to do with rising tribal tensions due to a Dinka dominated SPLA (former rebel group now Government of Southern Sudan) as well as the conflict of lifestyles and customary law practices between the agriculturalists Zande and pastoralists which have relocated as a result of the conflict. While I am not sure whether the constraints of time and our resources will produce something which will be adequate for the needs of the Zande I am convinced that the codification of customary law is a necessary first step toward a development of a Southern Sudanese government structure and legal system which does not disrupt and alienate the majority of the population (which still live primarily under customary law systems of government). On another note, I am incredibly anxious about the idea of attempting documentary type data collection. Primarily because I find that I never feel as though I have the right to record other people's lives in a way that may be extractive and subject to misinterpretation. Although, I am not sure to what degree I will be able to work towards solutions in Southern Sudan I am determined to not be a contributor to the problems.

Part Two

The day we were meant to begin our series of flights to Southern Sudan we met first at the World Vision office where we had the good fortune of meeting a Kenyan man named Jeremiah who was also leaving on the same series of flights traveling to his field post in Yambio. Jeremiah helped us move through the check-in process at Jomo Kenyatta airport with great ease (traveling in Africa this is not always a feat as simple as one may expect). After going through security, we sat and waited with all of the other foreigners -- mostly white -- who were also traveling to Lokichoggio and then on to some location in Sudan.

Lokichoggio is the last Kenyan town before the Sudanese border and consequently has become the hub for UN and international aid agencies working in Sudan. The town itself is rather small, but just beyond the sprinkling of Kenyan villagers, mostly Turkana (a tribe very culturally similar to the Massai), there is an entire world of storage tents and organization compounds. Loki, as it is called for short, is used as a base to move food and supplies to the field. I guess I knew these things before we arrived, but I never imagined the paradoxical reality of what was essentially a very rural village and facilities of the world's largest aid agencies. The brown thatched mud huts clustered among huge, white structures of plastic and expensive white UN range rovers was quite a sight. Leaving the airport in a large white van, we sped past the tall thin people wrapped in bright red blankets. When we reached the World Vision compound, we found one of the field officers watching satellite TV in a dusty parlor on old wooden furniture with cheap cushions. He looked as content as can be and welcomed us to take some tea from a wooden table overrun by ants.

Shortly after, we watched a bad Bollywood film and then set out to look around. Interestingly enough, the owner of the home across the dirt road from the World Vision compound owned at least four peacocks. We went looking for them, and took pictures of the peacocks walking around in the dust. Benson, a World Vision guide, also took us to see some ostriches that were being held in an enclosure a short walk away. How strange was this place fully of strange animals living among white tents and herdsmen ...

Later that night the entire staff from the World Vision office in Loki set out for dinner. Apparently, every aid agency who could afford it, had dinner at the UN dining facilities. It looked like an outside bar and grill that one might find in Florida or Hawaii. There were outside benches with wide thatched umbrella covers, and a nice television posted up beside the bar. I ate pizza, rice and spinach with a strawberry juice that reminded me of jungle juice from home. For desert, there was mounds and mounds of watermelon and pineapple -- I couldn't believe my good fortune.

Over dinner, everyone heading back into the field talked about the things which they hated most and were not looking forward to as well as which locations had the best mango and oranges. They asked us if we were ready and gave us stories of things to be prepared for: the heat, the bugs, the "rough" living. I naively responded, "sure I am prepared, I am from Louisiana and if there is one thing I am used to it is heat and mosquitoes." They chuckled softly and changed conversation. I should have known then that there was something amidst, but before I had the time to process it adequately, the gentleman who had picked us up from the airport asked me how much my luggage weighed. I immediately remembered his facial expression at the airport when I struggled to put it into the back of the van. "It is exactly 30 kilos, I think," he said. "The limit on the flight to Sudan is 15 kilos."

I stared at him blankly, there was no way I could afford to lose half of my luggage, I needed everything in that bag as well as several things that I didn't have. He continued to chew his food seeming to enjoy my obvious discomfort. "Well, if the flight is full they will insist that you abide strictly to the weight limit, but if there are fewer passengers than maximum capacity I might be able to make a deal with my friends at the airport." My heart sank as I previewed the image of me throw half my belongings out of my bag at the 6 a.m. flight in absolute frustration. I wanted to cry …

Why didn't anyone from World Vision tell us this before now? I could have saved a lot of money and energy buying things I could not afford and now would not be able to carry. I must have looked like I wanted to cry because the guy told me not to worry and he would sort it out for me in the morning. This was hardly comforting and I continued to stress about the matter.

When we returned to the compound I tried to tell myself that this was no big deal, and that I was just going to have to cut down my load to bare necessities. After all, if I could cut off all my hair, spend thousands of dollars of (borrowed) money to get here, surely I could re-evaluate my luggage and suck it up. So I shuffled through my bag and pulled out all of the clothes I had that were reasonably nice as well as everything I thought I could stand to leave behind. They already said that I could leave things in Loki for storage and bring them when I return from the field. I managed to reduce the big bag by 10 kilos and shift the rest of the weight in my carry-on into a disguised and small package. At 7 a.m. we boarded the small plane and the engines started.

Part Three

We flew to Southern Sudan in a small, non-pressurized eight-seater. After being told horror stories of planes that couldn't land because of flooded runways, or planes being knocked haplessly about in the air during rain storms, I had no idea what to expect, but like everything else, I knew it would be out of my hands. Luck would have it that the skies were crystal clear with not a rain cloud in sight. The entire three-hour flight we could see the whole terrain of Southern Sudan (the part we were flying over of course). It was surprisingly plush and green. As we passed what seemed like endless forests we hardly saw any recognizable communities or 'developed' areas aside from the capital, Juba (which looked surprisingly small from the aircraft) and Yambio (the town we were stopping in to pick up Suzanne the project consultant).

After arriving in Yambio we exited the aircraft and stood in a sweltering field of red dust (actually the runway) for about fifteen minutes until Suzanne arrived, on the back of a small motorbike. Suzanne, whom I had only exchanged brief e-mails with, was, in fact, a very pretty Kenyan lady with brown and reddish braided hair. Looking hot and exhausted, she joined our small cropper and we were off once again. This time as we flew over Yambio we could see circular clearings within the dense forest that each contained several small circular huts.

Forty minutes later we flew over more of the small circular clearings sprinkled precariously throughout the forests as we approached Tambura, our destination. This time, I was alert and attentive as I stepped off the small aircraft into what would be my home for a short time. At the perimeter of the red dust clearing in Yambio there were what looked like the Tambura welcome crew, a small group of residents who had obviously gathered to watch the plane come in. Among the group were several dusty little boys, two soldiers in blue and white camouflage, and a few other adults (no women that I can recall).

The thing I remember most was the sharp contrast between the shorter dark brown men, and the conspicuously taller black skinned ones. The former, I knew from my readings, were Zande and are the tribe credited as being the largest indigenous people of Western equatorial. Their skin was brown with red undertones seemingly the same color as the red dust surrounding us, which somehow seemed to validate their kinship to the land. The taller, darker skinned men were Dinka (also the primary tribe comprising the SPLM/A who had moved into the region during the war and obviously remained). The Dinka men had the most beautiful blue/black skin I had ever seen, flawless -- like black satin. They looked out of place and I could immediately tell that the red colored dirt upon which they stood was not their indigenous homeland: it didn't match their skin or their demeanor. Their tall thin frames and black satin skin seemed better suited to the desert savannah area they come from. Nevertheless, both groups were there to receive us as we descended into what was a surprisingly familiar environment of sweltering heat, red dirt, and endless forests.

Ten minutes later we arrived at the world vision camp after a very bumpy ride in one of those white U.N.-style range rovers. The camp, more often referred to as compound, was exactly as it had appeared in the digital photos the program director had sent to us. It was quite cushy at first glance, there were three small concrete houses which were meant for us to sleep in and several mud huts with thatched roofs (the local architecture of choice) for all of the other services, the dining-hall (hut) the kitchen hut, the office hut, and so on.

Shortly after we dropped our luggage in our little concrete homes we were informed that we were going to the SRRC office (Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission) to announce our arrival, and later to visit the commissioner of Tambura county to make a courtesy visit and announce our project. These visits required a change of wardrobe: For us Western ladies, it meant putting on T-shirts to replace our tank tops, and for Suzanne, an African woman, it meant changing into a skirt as well.

After announcing to the world the new foreigners had arrived, we returned to camp for the remainder of the evening. Although I am sure there were endless thoughts going through my mind that evening there are only a few that stick out above the rest. The most prevalent of these: the deafening silence that accompanied the encroaching sunset, the immensity of the forest (commonly referred to in many parts of Africa as the "bush"), and the humility that overwhelmed me as I carried the water for my first basin bath.

For the sake of brevity I will discuss one of them here: The basin bath.
After dinner, someone announced that the water had been warmed and we were free to shower. This water-warming process was actually a large, metal barrel that had been laid on its side on top of a real wood fire. The water for everyone's bath in the camp had been heated inside and could be removed with a pitcher from an opening in the belly of the barrel. As I carried my water basin full of warm water for which someone had to physical pump the water, gather the firewood, and carry both on top of their head so that I could have a gallon or so of warm water, I felt like crying. Even as a volunteer in an area that had seen twenty years of war, I was among the most privileged.

A Sudanese man with smooth dark skin saw me shaking as I was carrying the basin slowly, trying not to waste a drop of the precious water, and took it from me. He carried it into a small concrete room with green screens to cover small window openings and sat it on the floor. He left and showed me where to latch the door behind him. I stripped, squatted near the basin, and tried to wash away all of the selfishness and ungratefulness of my very 'American' privileged life.

At that moment and everyday since, I have attempted to begin anew, remembering everyday as I look at my own reflection in the water of the basin that God has kept me and my family through every trial and every storm. So despite my unwilling acquaintance with the flying bugs and relentless heat of Southern Sudan, I renew my faith daily, and am humbled to think of the magnitude of my blessings.

Part Four

I feel like so many different things have happened since I was last able to write, but instead of trying to recap (and run the risk of losing power etc.), I will just begin with today and mention what the first week in Tambura has been like, as it is relevant. Today is Sunday, and since there are no days off in the field (not even Sunday for a Christian organization), I was up by 6 a.m., and by 7:15, we were on the way to the third and final day of our second three-day-workshop since I have arrived in Southern Sudan. The workshops last three days each, and they are geared toward data collection for our research. I will talk about the structure of the workshops in more detail a bit later, but basically, the workshops help facilitate our research.

We are collecting information about the Zande customary law, which has never been written down, by conducting research in every county in Western Equatoria (the area of Southern Sudan formerly designated as the Zande kingdom). Suzanne, the consultant, conducted the research in the first location on her own before we arrived. Tambura, where I am now, is the second county and on Friday of this week we will be moving to Ezo which is in the third county. In each county we are conducting two three-day workshops one in the largest town in the county, which is also where the World Vision camps are located, and one in another smaller town in a different area in the county. So earlier this week we held a three-day workshop in Tambura and since Friday, we have been traveling to a town called Source-Yubu to hold the second workshop. As these workshops go on, we are also conducting interviews with elders in the community, relevant traditional authority figures, and other individuals. The workshop itself is basically a way of dividing our research questionnaire into five parts; letting a mixed group of community members answer the questions on Zande traditional law as a group; and then presenting their answers to the rest of the workshop members for verification and commentary. The idea is that in this way we are able to get the most representative perspective on Zande customary law by letting large groups of people contribute.

We left for Sourc-Yubu at around 7:15 a.m. for the third time since Friday. The drive takes roughly one and a half hours by road, but that means very little in terms of distance. I have never seen anything like the roads here. It can hardly be referred to as a road at all, but more accurately described as an area that has been cleared of trees. Other than that there is little about it that even resembles an actual road. The terrain is jagged and can only be passed in a heavy-duty vehicle like the UN-style land cruisers. The dips and bumps are so severe and frequent that it takes a strong stomach not to feel like vomiting after more than twenty minutes. The name of the town Source-Yubu literally means "the source of the river Yubu." This river is extremely curvy, and in order to get there from Tambura it must be crossed twice. Now this means actually driving through the river in the vehicle (which is not as bad as one would expect considering that it is now the end of the rainy season).

And so now, for the last three days, I have been traveling very early in the morning to this town. Source Yubu is actually a border town between Sudan and the Central African Republic. Many of the refugees fleeing the war in Sudan entered into the Central African Republic by passing through Source-Yubu. On this Sunday, I was determined to listen to gospel on my CD player (a rare indulgence), while we made the trip.

Before discussing the workshop I would first like to talk about the ride through the forests to get there:

Since I have arrived in Southern Sudan, I have had many experiences that have reminded me of things which I have either imagined or seen at some point through my own experiences. This trip to Source-Yubu was no different, as I focused all of my energy on the road ahead (a strategy we use to keep from getting motion sickness), I could see people moving through their daily chores: women and children carrying crops and water on their heads; men traveling by bicycle to bring goods to the market; and people bathing in the river while others are trying to fish in the shallow water. These things occurred at brief intervals of long stretches of unabated forests. The miles and miles of enormous trees and bush were only interrupted occasionally by darts of colorful fabric denoting that there were people in the area.

The gospel music playing in my ears gave me an odd sensation, the familiar songs mixed with the familiarity of black people walking along small roads in the forest felt almost like any trip to my grandmother's house is Ruby, La. Meanwhile, I was starkly aware that the people I was seeing were conspicuously different than the faces I know. Now matter how familiar my heart and mind recognize the differences: here the children's belly's are swollen from malnourishment; not all of them have clothes; the women carrying water -- some with babies on their backs -- have walked long distances to reach the river; and the men with bicycles have traveled even farther to reach a place where they may exchange some goods for others they desperately need.

As the truck bumps along, I think of the place where I am going and wonder how many people walked this road fleeing the war, how many days did it take them, what did they eat, how did they change the babies, where did they sleep along the way … my mind wanders and my curiosity fades as I hear a song that makes me feel at home again. In an instant, I am thinking of these same questions and seeing the same images -- but only this time, much closer to home. This time, I am thinking of the refugees from New Orleans, they look like the people bathing in the rivers and marches as we drive by. How long did they walk before they reached a bridge or dry land? How long did they wait? How many days did it take them? What did they eat? How did they change the babies? Where did they sleep along the way? It went on and on like this through more forests … more gospel songs … and distant, yet familiar, faces. Thus, the paradox continued. I faded in and out of comfort and disillusionment; awe and sadness, and such was the ride to Source-Yubu.

By the time we reached the site for the workshop I could smell the mendazis (kind of like African donuts) and hot sweet tea that the ladies were preparing for us to eat during our break. As I stepped out of the truck the ladies are smiling, and complimenting my new skirt. I had it made in the market out of a nice fabric from Congo, I immediately remembered that it was Sunday and noticed how beautiful and peaceful the world seemed here; how nice is would be to play with the babies that the female participants will bring instead of writing notes all day long. Nevertheless I am greeted by smiling faces. Good morning, Good morning, Gene Pie (how are you?), Pie Tete (I am fine).

Part Five, The Workshop

So there are several things about the workshops that amaze me. First is the willingness of the people to participate in them for no pay, and second is their willingness to travel extremely long distances to get there. This particular workshop was facilitated by the Payam (equivalent of the mayor) of the town Source-Yubu. He informed a group of people about the workshop and told them that they should be in attendance to discuss the traditional Zande law. Everyone had been there for no fewer than eight hours everyday for three days and now they had arrived on a Sunday, which was their biggest market day. Fortunately there was only one group remaining to present their answers to the questionnaire which meant that we should have been ending around lunchtime. Although everyone continued to participate it was clear that their minds were far away and this was all getting a bit old. I tried to long interested and polite and write as quickly as possible. The most frustrating thing about workshops is the translation. I absolutely hate not being able to communicate freely. At one point I even thought that if I stared hard enough and could just focus then all of a sudden the words would make sense to me, but all of my hoping and starring was to no avail and I inevitably continued to ask the translator what the different debates or comments were about while being acutely aware of the fact that he was summarizing everything to about a fifth of the content that the workshop participants were actually giving.

During lunch, and after the workshop had been formerly dismissed I ask someone to take a picture of me, and the translator Natalie. As soon as I did this someone asked me why hadn't I taken a picture of the participants in the workshop. I tried to explain that if I took a picture I did not have the means to distribute it to everyone, but they were sufficiently pleased to let me take the picture and then just look at it on the display of the digital camera. Before we left we asked a lady where exactly was the source of the River Yubu, she pointed towards the trees and said, "it's not far, I can take you there." We agreed and started walking behind her. As we walked down a long row of enormous trees (apparently planted by the British) she pointed out to us several different landmarks of her birthplace. "This used to be the house of the first British man to come here (it had been burned down by the SPLA during the war and now only the cement remained) … this is the department of agriculture (a thatched roof on four posts with several logs as benches) … up here is where we crossed into Central Africa during the war." She pointed to a break into the trees and began telling a much more personal story. She was, in fact, a returnee and had lived in Central Africa for more than 15 years. While she was there as a refugee, she had lost five of her ten children and her husband. She had been back to Southern Sudan for almost one year and was making a living as an English tutor for elementary kids (if I understood correctly). Just before the trees broke, indicating that we were about to cross into Central Africa, she took us off of the small road down a barely recognizable path through the bush. We followed her down and down and down a woodsy hill until we came to a very small break in the bush where there was only a trickle of water. "Is this it? I thought it would be really big." "It is," she replied, but to get to that place is farther into the bush, but this is indeed the source of the river, this small water turns into the big river that you crossed twice to get here. She then broke off a small branch and gave it to me. "Take this leaf from the source of the river Yubu, take it to America and tell them that here many people are suffering." I held the branch/leaf, took a photo and started walking back.

Southern Sudan is full of strange occurrences, in twenty minutes I had walked the path taken by thousands of refugees to cross into Central Africa; saw the source of the river Yubu which was no more than a trickle at "Source-Yubu" but that people were bathing in thirty miles away, and had been given a branch as a souvenir. By the time we reached the truck which had been waiting in the center of town both I and Suzanne (the Kenyan lady who had taken the walk to Central Africa with me) decided that we needed a drink so we emptied out water bottles and filled them with the sweet palm wine that the residents of Source-Yubu were selling in the market.

Some of our workshop participants were there and they seems amused at the idea of us drinking palm wine in the street. Everyone was staring at me, not unusual for someone who looks like me in the middle of Southern Sudan. I am sure they were thinking 'who is this Arab girl in an African skirt with short hair?' I tried to smile at everyone and stole glimpses at the beautiful babies as they were being carried around on their mother's backs. Soon after, we climbed back into our vehicle and headed back to Tambura.

Part Six, Water in the Dessert

Today is first day that I am feeling almost like myself again after being quite ill for some days. During the time that I was sick I had some interesting experiences, thoughts and emotions. And while I do not intend to dwell on the experience I know that getting sick in Southern Sudan has been, thus far, one of the most significant occurrences since my coming here. No doubt it will shape my view about the entire trip and so I have decided to include a fairly significant portion of that experience in one of my blog entries for its relevance to my perspective if nothing else.

Onset of sickness: the first day

Today I had woken up quite normally and decided to accompany Suzanne to the evening interviews. It was going to be one that I had attempted to do the week before, but it had been cancelled because the participants had not yet arrived and our vehicle was going to be unable to wait. When we pulled up into the square of BaZande (a village whose name literally means the father of Zande) I remember distinctly that there were very many children who surrounded the vehicle and were looking inside at me. I was particularly irritated which should have been the first indication that I was not feeling like myself, however, at the time I just remember thinking that I did not want to feel as though I was on display and that their starring and who they thought was either an Arab or a white lady was just both ignorant and rude. After a few minutes I feeling like a zoo animal I climbed out of the back of the jeep and went to sit on a bench. Of course all of the children followed me and made a complete circle of starring eyes as I sat. I stared back at them and tried to lift some of the causes of their fascination from their faces. They continued to stare so do I… I had to turn al the way around to see them all and we sat there like that. Finally our interpreter, a man named Mario, walked up to the outside of the circle they had formed and asked them (in Zande of course) why didn't they practice their English with me. None of them responded to this, but soon after they all dispersed as if they had all been called by their mothers to go and have lunch. Shortly after the children left we began our interview. All of our interviewees were male and they were seated in front of us on a bench. Not long after the interview started I leaned over to tell Suzanne that I was not feeling ok. She asked me what was wrong, and I couldn't say exactly, but I knew that I wanted to lie down right away because I felt exhausted. I continued to try to hold it together for the interview and kept a steady eye on my watch for 1:00pm, the time that the driver was supposed to arrive. I figured that if I could make it until then, I could excuse myself and so and sit in the vehicle. Well, the driver was nearly half an hour late I was fuming, but as soon as he arrived I went to the car and laid down in the seat. I am not sure whether I fell asleep or not, but I don't remember anything until almost 2:15pm when Suzanne and Mario were getting into the vehicle. I was silent the whole way home because I knew that this was not a good sign. Tomorrow we were supposed to be traveling to Ezo, the next location for our research. When we arrived back at the camp I made myself eat something and then went to lie down right away.

The next day, I woke up and went about business as usual, I knew that I wasn't feeling tip top (which was certainly not the best idea while traveling on roads in Southern Sudan) but I showered and packed before going for breakfast, a effort which took absolutely all of my energy. When I arrived at breakfast, I was told that I should stay because there were no on site doctors in Ezo and World Vision was the only NGO on the ground. The tentative plan was then for me to join the group in Ezo on Monday when the car returned to bring Suzanne out of the field for her R&R in Nairobi (mandatory rest and relaxation for all World Vision staff after six weeks in the field). I reluctantly agreed, meanwhile, the compound administrator sent for some medical personnel to come and administer to me a test for malaria called a paracheck. They came around 10:00, pricked my finger for their test and the result was negative. I was so relieved—foolishly I would later discover—but the person who administered the test advised that I take the treatment for malaria anyway, explaining that my symptoms matched that for malaria and that sometimes malaria causing parasites could be in the blood stream without the test detecting them. I did not argue with his advice and he gave me the first of three doses of eight pills at that time. I spent the rest of the day in bed feeling devoid of all energy but still relatively resting comfortably.

The next day, When I woke up, I took the second dose of the anti-malaria medicine and returned to my bed. At 10:00am the compound manager stopped in to check on me and I told him I was still the same, and would remain in bed. By 12:00 noon I was having the most horrible stomach pain, diarrhea, headaches, and fever. I didn't call out for anyone because I knew that no one was there until finally I gathered the strength to send the guard to find Simon the camp manager. I then went, to the radio to try to call our main camp at Lokichoggio to inform them that I was not ok and that I needed to see a doctor. A lady named Ann told me from the other end that there was a doctor named Nicholas and that I should send for him. I knew that this outcry for help was all that I had the energy for and I left the radio station/hut and walked back to my room. I was so overwhelmed with fear, pain, and frustration that I just wept. What a horrible place to be ill, English was not the first language of anyone around, I had to radio to Kenya to ask to send someone for a doctor, and here I was suffering to no avail. Not long after had exhausted myself with tears, Simon arrived and said, that he would get me a doctor, but that he was sure it was just the anti-malaria medication that was troubling me. I rolled over towards the wall, what else was there for me to do but wait.

After some time, the doctors from MSF (Medicines San Frontiers—a French organization commonly called Doctors Without Borders) arrived, interestingly enough everyone that works with MSF in Tambura is actually from Spain. Thus, there were three Spanish people in my tent, two women, and one man. I explained to them that I had been feeling ill, but tested negative for malaria, and then given anti-malaria medication. They assured me that all of the symptoms I was feeling were indeed a result of the anti-malaria medication and that I should just take Ibuprofen to try to reduce the discomfort. I did this and returned to my bed.

Although the experience of being ill had been tough, at this point lasting nearly three days and two nights, there was nothing as bad as the coming of night fall on Saturday and Sunday, both nights it rained –or should I say there was a monsoon—all night long, and on a tin roof this was miserable. I had two main worries, first there was no easy way to the bathroom without getting soaked so I prayed to either not need the latrine or for the rain to stop before I did. Second, the sound meant that I could not sleep through the pain in my stomach and my general discomfort. It was the longest night ever. I think the medication, the pain, and the isolation after some time began to have more severe effects than just the medical issues. As I lay there I was paranoid that something or someone was outside, as I faded in and out of an exhausted, feverish sleep I remember having convinced myself that there were two people in the room with me, one was a woman holding water and the other a man holding food. Neither ever spoke but I was afraid that if the rain did not stop they would get tired and leave me without the things I needed. After awaking in the morning I was surprised to find that my nightly delusion had been impossible. I really thought that they were there and my greatest fear through the night was to find that they had left me. I probably would have disregarded my own delusions and never mentioned them again, but I had a similar experience the next night. Once again, it was raining the entire night, so I still had the issue of accessing the bathroom and not being able to sleep through my pain, but the next night I had a much more uncomfortable issue. I had throw-up shortly before going to bed and as a result my nasal passage was almost completely clogged. You could imagine the stuffiness of a hot rain while not being able to breath properly through your nose, and worse of all it was night time so there was nothing to do but sleep and no one to speak to or consult with. I felt like I was suffocating slowly and I just thought that when I have sinus congestion at home I take clariton so I looked in my medicine bag and I had some, I took one and shortly after I could breath only partially through my nose. I prayed for God to clear up my nasal passage enough so that I could breath properly to get some rest because it would be another 12 hours before there would be anything else that I could do. So as I lay there thinking to breath in through my mouth and out through my nose one breath after another I suppose I eventually fell asleep, but yet again I remembered in my slumber that I was supposed to be waiting on one man and one woman to help me, with breathing I suppose (I recognize this doesn't sound very sensible but it is true nonetheless). Each time I was awakened and alerted that these people had arrived to help me I also realized that I had been breathing fine on my own because I had been sleeping so I thanked God for sending them and would start the process again…in through my mouth out through my nose. Eventually morning came and I realized that I was breathing fine. It was am experience that I will never forget and these helpers or angels of mine whoever they were never left me and in my medicated, suffering and delusion I will always remember the small brown figures maybe Sudanese but certainly African who helped me to find water as I walked alone in the desert.

Part Seven, The Real Naandi

This Blog is from about two weeks ago. I am posting it now because I have been both ill and without e-mail for some time. I will continue to post subsequent blogs as I can...

The Day After I arrived in Ezo we traveled to a place called Naandi for a second workshop. Naandi was three hours from Ezo so the plan was to camp there during the workshop days to avoid driving six hours a day for three days. We had alerted the local administrator, called a Payam, that we were coming and hoped that he would find some sort of accommodation for us in Naandi. When we arrived we were taken to an abandoned hospital facility and were told that we could sleep inside. We had brought camping equipment so we originally figured that we would put our mattresses on the concrete and that the hospital building, which hardly resembled one at all, would at least be a shelter from the imminent rains. Well…we soon figured out that we forgot to pack the mosquito nets and all elected to erect tents outside, since the tents could be zipped closed to avoid mosquitoes.

Shortly after arriving we soon discovered that we had missed the market day in Naandi, and there would be no food available to buy until Sunday. This was devastating; it essentially meant that we would not have any food other than the beans and rice we carried to feed the workshop participants at lunch and some small snacks that we had managed to scrounge up at the tiny market in Ezo. The significance of market day in an area that has been devastated by civil war for twenty years is unimaginable. It is literally the only lifeline or means of acquiring goods of any kind. Without access to markets we would have to rely on our personal supplies and the hospitality of others.

After discovering that we would be having no dinner or breakfast for three days (other than our private stashes, which for me was a bag or raisins and a bag of cashew nuts) we also found out that the drinking water we brought, which had been boiled to kill all germs, had been put into a jerrycan that was previously used for gasoline…all, I mean all, of our drinking water now smelled and tasted like gasoline…the trip was becoming a nightmare.

Anyway... there are many things that I have discovered I can live without: I have learned how to bathe in two liters of water—outside if necessary, even with clothes still on, I have learned to make a bath room facility if and where ever necessary, I have prayed through malaria, my numerous fears, and the worst kind of pain, but no water and food... that was a bit much.

While we were there the project officer, a man from Southern Sudan named Emmanuel coined the term "the real Naandi." He kept saying, "now this is not the Naandi we expected, this is now the real Naandi." The phrase struck me because I also had to realize that the Southern Sudan I had been living in was not the real Southern Sudan, it was the Southern Sudan that World Vision had created for its staff. A 'World' of private camps/compounds with cooks, water carriers, guards, and managers to assure that everything is as comfortable as possible. But this… this was a place where there was no world vision staff, there was no food available to be bought unless you grew it yourself, not even salt in the market, and certainly the first place in the world that I have ever traveled where you couldn't even get a coke (not even in a bottle). He was right, we were thirsty and hungry in 'the real Naandi', sleeping in tents, and depending on others to give us even some boiled water to drink.

Nevertheless, the people in Naandi were very kind and very excited that we were there. The Payam even brought us a bag of oranges from his personal tree (a luxury we were practically fighting over). According to them, we were the first group to attempt to actually hold a workshop in Naandi, apparently most people held workshops in the nearest larger town called Ezo and the residents of Naandi, if they were to attend, would travel there by bicycle, which is at least a five hour bike ride. Fortunately for us, they finished the workshop a day early and we were able to travel back to Ezo sooner than expected. Now, after experiencing "the real Naandi" Ezo looked like a paradise over flowing with drinking water and food to eat. I drank four glasses of water as soon as we arrived and had to pee all freakin' night long, but I was even thankful for the out-house in Ezo and even an closed area to bathe.

Just not strong enough: The Truth about Ezo

So today or tonight rather is October 31, 2006, the current time in South Sudan is 8:35pm, and the thirteenth day that I have been unwell. Yesterday around 3:00pm I decided that I was leaving the field to return to Nairobi to see a doctor. Since the first day I felt ill (Oct. 19th) I have been trying to convince myself that all would be well and that what I was going through was normal and that it would soon pass. First the malaria, then the continuous stomach pains after malaria, then I got my period and decided that all of the pain and discomfort that I was feeling was a result of that, but yesterday, last night and about two hours ago have all contributed to my ultimate breaking point.

Since I have been in Ezo we have not had a vehicle so we have been walking roughly three miles into town for all of our interviews. As most of you know I lived an eternity away from my college last year at Oxford so for me the walk should be a piece of cake right? Well…despite the heat and the fact that I haven't eaten a real meal since October 19th—I have basically been living off of oranges, a carefully rationed bag of cashew nuts, and a even more carefully rationed bag of raisins…so given those circumstances along with the incessant and unrelenting pain in my stomach…I was sure that I was going to pass out on the walk back from these interviews in town. The only reason I absolutely refused to collapse was the knowledge that if I fainted on a dirt road in Ezo, a town in Southern Sudan where there isn't a single doctor (and it's the largest town in this county of the state of Western Equatoria) I knew that mostly likely, looking like an Arab I might either die there.

So... I turned up the Kirk Frankiln in my headphones (thanks Shelly) and begged God to have mercy. I made it back to camp to find that the water that had been boiled for drinking had run out…but I had about three gulps left in my water bag (thanks mom). Anyway, thirty minutes later when I caught my breath I used the emergency satellite phone to call and alert the office in Nairobi that I was not well and that I might need to be evacuated. At this point I told them that I would let them know in a few days because my research was incomplete and I was still hoping to recover.

Well, last night at around 2:45 am I began to have the worst pain I have ever felt in my life. My stomach hurt so badly that I crawled out of my mosquito net and began walking around outside with my flashlight. It was the only way I could keep from screaming out in pain. Eventually, however, even this tactic did not work and I just went to sit in the dining hut to avoid waking anyone up. I sat there for hours, crying in the darkness and begging God to let the pain go away. When morning came I radioed our headquarters and asked to be evacuated as soon as possible. The next flight was leaving on Friday from a town that was six hours away by road. Today is Tuesday, how am I going to make it until Friday…there is no alternative…as long as I am not wounded the fastest I can get out is in three more days…

The Nadir

Several hours ago I was in so much pain that I literally emptied out every medication I brought with me in my personal Wal-mart pharmacy bag and contemplated taking some of everything that could possibly take away the pain. Fortunately, I was so frightened and appalled at my own desperation, I started shaking and immediately burst into tears…the next thing I remember was my research partner Sophie and the camp manager, a Kenyan lady named Ann trying to pry pill bottles out of trembling but tightly clenched fists. I promised them that I would eat something and that if I didn't throw up I would take only two extra strength Tylenol…two hours later I don't know what else to do to distract myself from my circumstance other than continuing to type…if I ever make it out of here…I will never go anywhere that does not have at least one hospital again.

Leaving Ezo

The day that I left Ezo I was up early and trying to prepare mentally for what was going to be a difficult journey for me. I decided against taking the medication that inevitably made me throw up. If I threw up many more times after not eating much at all for nearly two weeks I was going to be in bad shape. Besides when traveling in the land cruisers, if one person is sick it tends to trigger a chain reaction. Anyway, it was a trip I would have to make, so the best I could do was get a lot of batteries and the gospel CDs I brought and hope for the best.

I remember thinking that we were leaving early, but in Sudan little happens according to schedule so we actually left around 11:30am. If God still loved me we would cross all of the rivers and mud traps without getting stuck or broken down in the middle of nowhere. The driver, a Zande man named William, was kind enough to let me sit in the front alone (a priviledge few had that was extended to me only because I was visibly ill). William, an aged man with a boyish smile, was a good driver and was as concerned as I was about my ability to make the trip. He would try his best to avoid as many unnecessary jolts as possible. Nevertheless, the time passed far too slowly, we made to stop several times to pick people up along the way. There were few opportunities for people to travel in a vehicle by road, and William, being Zande, was obligated to oblige the most significant request. One of the passengers was a woman, her small child, and her husband. She had apparently had a miscarriage and had not stopped bleeding for several days. She two was leaving in search of a hospital.

As I watched her nurse her baby I knew I was not the person in the most need. Where had she found the strength, after losing a child to continue to care for such a small baby? I had waited three days, but I had no idea how long she had been in her condition, but for her to be (illegally) in a world vision vehicle it must have been beyond a serious situation.

As we crept slowly through the bush and the muddy water, twice we reached vehicles that were stuck and blocked the road. Twice my heart sank, but by the time William would exit the vehicle and approach the other they somehow managed to clear the mud and we were able to continue. He would look at me as he climbed back in the car, without words he was saying "you are a very lucky girl." But I am a blessed and highly favored girl, there was no luck in the matter.

Leaving Sudan: Babies and Guns

Around 9:45 a small aircraft was spotted, so we rushed to the airstrip in case our plane was arriving early. If it did and we were not there, they would not wait. When we arrived the plane we had spotted was landing, but it became apparent very quickly that this plane was not meant for us. The airstrip was filled with SPLA soldiers all armed and in full uniform. When the doors of the plane opened two of their generals stepped down. A few minutes later a slew of vehicles arrived, among them was an open bed truck with two beds of wounded SPLA soldiers. Each man lay bandaged and was being held on the bed by another soldier. The sea of green camouflage and guns was striking against the red dust of the airstrip.

As I waited for my plane to arrive two more UN aircrafts landed and left. Each minute made me more uncomfortable and frustrated. The SPLA generals were singing documents on the hood of the vehicle I was sitting in, otherwise I would have risked trying to video the scene. But since the generals were less than two feet away from my front seat window, there were at least four soldiers walking around and around the vehicle.

They stared and spoke about me in Dinka. My head was covered with a purple scarf (something I thought would make me look less obviously ill), but I am sure they thought I was Arab. Who knows what they thought, I stared blankly into the distance and tried to at least visibly ignore their pacing and piercing stares…

I hated them for bringing their guns to the airstrip…all of the children in town came to the airstrip to watch the planes.

There is no stronger and more obvious contradiction than the image of children watching what they perceive as an amazing creation soaring through the sky, and for that creation to land in a sea of soldiers. The automatic association of soldiers with power and authority is visible even to the blind.

Although my leaving without completing my research or getting to see all of our informers at the conference or even getting to say goodbye once again has caused me great sorrow and regret. There is nothing I am more disappointed by than that scene. If I never return to Sudan, the picture that with forever stand out at the forefront of my mind is an ocean of babies and guns...

{The Liberator Magazine 2005-2007: 6.3 #19 (Pt. 1); 6.4 #20 (Pt. 2); 7.1 #21 (Pt. 3); 7.2 #22 (Pt. 4); Online Journal (Pts. 5-8, previously unpublished)}

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