I hope you’ve all had a good week in your respective homes. I must say I don’t think any of you were as hot as I was this week, living in South Sudan. I stayed in the county of Twic (pronounced twich). One of the local tribes, a more famously known one, is the Dinka. In their local language Twic means hot; the Dinka are correct, Twic is hot. The Dinka, if you have heard of them are famous for being TALL and THIN. There are many that are refugees in countries all over the world, because of the long war between North and South Sudan. A peace agreement was signed almost 2 years ago now, so many people are returning, but there is doubt as to if it will hold. The North is Muslim and where the capitol is, Khartoum. The South is Christian, and the capitol is Juba. The South wants to be independent from the North, however there is a hitch. The South has the natural resource, oil. Of course, the North does not want to lose the possible money, so the war began. That is a very simplified version of what has happened anyway. According to the peace agreement, in six years there will be a vote to decide if the South wants to stay with the North. It is pretty much assumed, and planned for the fact that the South will vote to be independent, and the North won’t let them go, so the war will start again. But, for now, the area has peace for the first time in about 21 years.
For those of you aware of Darfur, Sudan, these 2 issues are not related aside from both being problems with the North Sudan government in Khartoum. Darfur is a state in the West of Sudan, in the Northern part. The Northern government hired a militia to commit genocide there, and it has been happening now for 4 or so years. The UN is trying its best to stop the violence, but the North Sudan government is NOT cooperating, and states there is no problem and foreign NGOs and the UN have exaggerated the issue. They claim the militia acts alone of course, despite loads of evidence to the contrary. Unfortunately the UN is powerless (they essentially can’t enforce laws, just ask people to follow them—the people choose not to listen), and just have meeting after meeting to talk about the issue with the North Sudan Government, while every day men, women and children are being killed and run out of their homes in Darfur. Sudan is a sad place, but you wouldn’t know it from the people you meet. As is par for the course, the people find joy in living their lives, in the little things, and do not sit around feeling sorry for themselves and their situation. What is hopeful for South Sudan is many of the people who fled the country in time of war, especially young men who were being targeted, were moved by the UN to countries around the world and resettled. These individuals have gained an education and are now coming home to help build up South Sudan.
THE TREK and the famous Loki!
As you can imagine, Juba (South Sudan capitol) is NOT a fancy town with a capitol building etc. As it was the centre for the resistance to North Sudan it was heavily targeted during the war and bombed/burned almost out of existence. If you look at a map of Sudan, you will see Juba is in the far south, closer to the border with Kenya/Uganda then the unofficial North/South border. For those of you following politics and African issues since the 80’s you know that this area, Northern Uganda, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Congo, etc etc has been home to many wars and tragedies over the years. Because of this, an international hub of sorts was needed. WFP, UN, NGOs, USAID, EU, etc have been shipping people, materials, machines, medicines, food, etc into the area for two decades now. A small very obscure town, called Lokichoggio became the centre of many operations. Loki, as it is called, was a small village in Northern Kenya. In the mid-80’s it was designated as a contact point for the many operations occurring the area at the time. An airstrip was built, UN and WFP built large warehouses, and of course hotels started popping up. This town became the hub for getting in and out of Uganda, Rwanda, Congo, Sudan, etc thus many UN and NGO workers needed a place for a layover as they waited for their flights to their various emergencies and destinations. In short, what was once a small sleepy village is now still what you would call a village, but with several nice ‘hotels’ and or camping sights, restaurants, and bars. Most of the stuff was brought in on planes and trucks over the years. There is even a ‘duty free’ shop at the airport. The airport has one PAVED strip and then several trailers and shacks that act as the airport itself. It is staffed by WFP as most planes going in and out are WFP planes. When things were at their height in the area, Loki was ‘the’ place to be if you worked in international aid. Everyone was passing through there, so it was the meeting place. The first stop on your way to R&R for most workers who spent their weeks in tents in rural Congo or Sudan. It was a happening town. Now, as things have calmed down in the area, so has Loki. I am told it is not what it once was, but I must say I was still impressed. You fly from Nairobi to Loki. You see NOTHING as the plane starts to descend. And still, 5 minutes from landing you see nothing. Then, there it is—Loki; the airstrip, about 15 tent/insta warehouses that say UN, UNICEF or WFP on the roof, and the surrounding town. Most NGOs have an office there with one or two staff that live there full time. They basically are logisticians helping the movement of supplies and people run smoothly. The town is not fancy in any way shape or form, but some of the ‘hotels’ are. They are generally compounds with a main building housing the office and then lots of little Tukuls (Pronounced Too-kul; mud huts with thatched roof). The Tukuls are of course an improved upon version of local housing, with our version containing electricity, beds with bed nets, screens in the windows, locking doors, and even flushing toilets and showers. It’s surprisingly nice. After landing in Loki, my colleague Simon and I spent the night at one such compound. The next morning EARLY EARLY we were back at the airport to a catch a WFP/HAS plane. HAS is Humanitarian Air Service and is run and funded by the UN to transport people and stuff in these areas. There is also an “Aviators without Borders” company that helps transport things. (side bar, I must say I love the ‘without borders movement.’ The first was Doctors without Borders in France, technically Medecins Sans Frontiers. I am not sure who was second but I have seen Dentists, veterinarians, nurses, aviators, plumbers, clowns, engineers, construction workers, surgeons, mothers, children, students, etc etc all ‘without borders.’ If your curious, clowns without borders builds playgrounds for children, or that is what I heard). Back on target, after leaving on a 40 passenger plane packed with more supplies then people we were off to Rumbek, South Sudan. Rumbek is another hub over the border where there once was a small town and now there is logistical centre. We changed planes to a smaller plane, now a 9 seater, to head off to our destinations. There were 8 of us on board, Simon and I, and then WFP, UNICEF, and Action Against Hunger workers; all off to our different destinations in South Sudan. Simon and I were lucky and were the first stop, as the plane was making 6 stops that day! Up and down, up and down—like a roller coaster. For Simon and me our final destination was the town of Wunrok. Wunrok is very rural, very dusty, and very hot. There are several NGOs working in Twic who all have their offices here in Wunrok. ACF (Action Against Hunger), Mercy Corps, and GOAL. Wunrok is more or less in the geographical centre of the county; however it is not the administrative centre. That is about an hour drive (in dry season) from Wunrok. Each NGO has its own compound, a fenced in area with Tukuls, structures, and tents storing all their goods. GOAL has been here for almost 9 years now, and did not pull out during the intense fighting in the war years thus is highly accepted by the community. I am not sure how long the other NGOs have been here. GOAL runs the bulk of the health care in the area, completely staffing 11 health care centres and 20 or so health units. There is no local capacity to staff the centres, let alone resources to run them. If it were not for GOAL there would be no health care in this county. GOAL also has water and sanitation projects, immunizations centres, and nutrition projects.
Some of my favourite features of staying here in Wunrok would probably surprise you. In my Tukul I have my favourite bed ever. It is a simple bed, just a wood frame of what looks like scrap wood and a mattress. But, what I love about it is the fact that it is a canopy bed. Don’t be thinking it’s one of those fancy canopy beds you see in an IKEA catalogue, much simpler. The canopy part is a mosquito net. Something about having that mosquito net completely surrounding you and not touching you is very comforting (for those of you who have not slept with a mosquito net, they generally are round and hung centred above your bed then drape down to the sides of your bed. They are full static electricity, and cling to you if you get near them. It’s very annoying and mosquitoes and can bite you through the net if its touching you). No matter what creature flies into my Tukul, and many do, it can’t get me! I’ll hear buzzing around me, but don’t have to worry b/c the little buggers can’t get near me. It’s grand. My second favourite thing is the showers. As I explained earlier it is HOT here. Yesterday the high was 44 Celsius (that’s like 110 Fahrenheit). During the day things just shut down, it is too hot to breathe let alone be out and about. We have outdoor showers here, which for those of you long time members of my list you will know I LOVE outdoor showers. I learned this in the Peace Corps, and my love still continues. Here the showers are nice. It is a cement structure, with three stalls. Above each stall is a large black plastic water tank that can hold 420 litres. Running from the bottom of the tank is a small pipe with a shower head on the end and a simple on/off switch. NO ONE uses the showers during the day as the water is boiling hot from the sun, rather people shower early in the morning or after sunset. Me, I prefer around 9:00pm. The sky is full of stars, there is a slight breeze, and the water is still warm from the sun. I wish it was a cool canyon breeze like in Utah, but not in this flat area—it is a breeze nonetheless. Once you are wet, the breeze actually makes you feel a little bit cold, if just for a moment. It’s the most refreshing experience ever – nothing beats your end of the day shower under a sky full of stars.
My LEAST favourite thing surprisingly enough isn’t the heat or the spiders. I know, strange. Rather I don’t mind the snakes, scorpions, lizards or even spiders (I haven’t seen any huge ones to be honest), but the wasps are out of control! They are 2 inches long and with a wing span of like 10 feet (or so)!! You can hear them coming and the buzz of their wings makes me cringe. There are just so many here, and I swear the swoop and dive at you just to make you nervous. I have yet to be stung, but it’s only a matter of time! I lie in my bed and watch them fly around my Tukul making little nests with baby wasps! Eek. As soon as they leave my Tukul, I get this small metal pipe and knock down the nest, but the stupid things don’t give up and just start another one!
And now for an update on my situation here. As I told you, I came here to help the nutritionist, Mara, with a nutrition survey. They didn’t have enough supervisors, and this survey is very important to this area. It is vital it is of good quality, especially the mortality data. So, Simon and I came out here to help. We got here on the last day of training for the enumerators, and quickly met our teams. The next day we helped start the preparation of materials, gathering scales and testing them, height boards, MUAC tapes, reference weights, etc etc. About half way through this day the news came—there are 9 CONFIRMED cases of measles in Twic County. So you know, one confirmed case can be considered an outbreak, so 9 is a crisis. The survey is post-poned and we are all now helping manage an emergency measles vaccination and vitamin A campaign. This is actually the 3rd time this same survey has been cancelled. I feel bad for the nutritionist, it’s very frustrating when you know you need the data and know you need to do this, but of course you can’t go out and do a survey in the midst of an outbreak. You would just go house to house and see children dying. You can’t be using the limited resources, for example cars and people, to collect data, when they could be used to move vaccines and immunize children. So, we are all immunizers today and for the next week. Such is life – nothing ever goes as planned.
Well—two days later, more updates to the story. I started this email the day the word came out about the outbreak. We are now 2 days into the planning for a MASSIVE campaign targeting all children age 6 months to 15 years (about 200,000 in this county). Today we got word that we now have a total of 38 confirmed cases and 2 deaths. I think you’d be surprised how logistically difficult it is to move vaccines. Measles vaccines are live, and must be kept cool. Once opened they can only be used for 6 hours. Here in Twic electricity is scarce to none, so how do you keep 20,000 vials cold (they each have 10 doses)? How do you get them here cold? How do you transport them into the community keeping them cold? How? It’s a massive operation that is taking time, more time then we would have liked, but logistics is the name of the game in the field. If you can’t move the vaccines and store them, you can’t immunize children. You need generators, fuel for the generators, power cords, freezers, hundreds of ice packs, hundreds of coolers, reliable vehicles, and a very organized and experienced team. It’s crazy hard.
Well, I’m back in Nairobi now—I was shipped out on a HAS transport. The satellite internet (Bgan, for you techies) wasn’t working and I desperately need to be in contact with my team and they had enough manpower for the Measles Campaign, so I came out. It was nice to spend the night last night without hedgehogs fighting in my Tukul!
I’ll let you know how things progress from here.
Ciao to you all, and Happy St. Patricks Day (as you can imagine working for an Irish NGO, we get the Friday off)