South Sudan, Letter two, Small Road Trip

April 8, 2012

Easter Sunday

Juba, South Sudan

Dear Friends,

Maribou StorksFriday, April 6:  Everyone is waiting for the rain. When the rain comes this area is very productive, if not, famine.  It looks encouraging.  On Sunday the barometer dropped and we got thunder and lightning signifying, for that day at least, nothing.  Monday and Tuesday the clouds teased us.  Wednesday night we got our first downpour.  I sat on the verandah looking at kids running in the rain, but the rain was short. On Thursday afternoon we got another brief downpour, followed by more sun.  Thursday night the rain on my metal roof drummed me awake. Friday we got a brief morning downpour.

The Jebel Lodge, or “the camp,” is full of old hands, some holdovers from empire, some aid workers; quite a few are both.  Johnny, a retired brigadier, is now a horticulturist who has written a book on the plants of South Sudan.  He told me “The Sudan doesn’t have a proper monsoon.  It rains on and off, we just hope it is enough.”

The radio station broadcasts a lot of news about the coming rains. One official urged farmers “as soon as the rain drops, drop your seeds.”  I wonder if these farmers really need to be told that.  Apparently they do.  When many farmers were pressed into the army land lay fallow.  Some of them do not want to go back to farming so need some persuasion.  They have good reason for not going into their fields. After 20 years of war there are a lot of land mines.

The approaching rainy season generates other news.  The rain brings increased malaria.  There are already reports in the news of typhoid and a fear of cholera.

On the veranda during “sundowners” (there is still a bit of the empire here) we had a proper downpour.  I sat with several “old hands.”  Johnny was there as were Richard and Jilly. They were farmers in Zimbabwe.  Richard and his 4 brothers inherited their father’s farm. Richard was the only one interested in farming so he worked hard to buy out his brothers just in time to lose his farm in Mugabe’s seizure of white owned farms.  Richard and Jilly now work for the Norman Borlaug Institute building a farm for the army so it can feed itself and so soldiers, when they muster out, know something about modern farming techniques (more of that government persuasion).  The soldiers have land ready for seed. As soon as enough rain comes, Richard and Jilly will head to the farm.

z Field StrengthWe talked about African trees and birds.  Richard and Jilly take a hike each evening on the hill above the compound to watch the Marabou Storks roost in the trees.  I joined them.  The conversation turned to malaria. They’ve all had their bouts.  It turns out I am the only one taking anti-malarial drugs (aside from gin and tonic) and the only one wearing bug gunk. “It’s ok, you are only here for a short time, and you should protect yourself.”  All of them carry a new drug from China (arternether/lumefantrin — Coartem), that has a high success rate once you get the disease.  The discussion was triggered by an item on the BBC World Service about a new strain of malaria resistant to Coartem.  This worries everyone.

Old Men at church at RejafSaturday, April 7:  The roads get better when you leave Juba, less traffic, I guess.  Today Moses and I set out in a land cruiser to do field strength measurements for the radio station. Dan from Idaho, a “copper” (advisor to local police), was concerned that I would be driving around in a vehicle loaded with extra antennae.  He knows the local cops.  They would surely hassle me. He was so concerned he made sure I had his card in my wallet so I could call him when we had trouble. He would intervene.  When he saw me Saturday evening he expressed relief.  Not to worry, no problems.

We rode around Juba, checking signals in different neighborhoods, then we crossed the temporary military type bridge, put up in the 1960’s, the only bridge over the White Nile in all of South Sudan.  While water trucks are supposed to fill up at the water purification plant there were a lot of trucks lined up on the Nile’s banks taking on untreated river water (no pictures please). Moses tells me that they put some chlorine in the tanks and he buys the water but does not drink it. He buys bottled water for consumption.

Waiting for Grace in RejafThe radio was playing happy African pop music as we traveled through the town of Gumbo and its market, down a road running about 300 meters east of the Nile to Rejaf East (each town has a “west” partner town across the Nile.)  Although the rains have only just started we’re watching the greening of Sudan.  The cassava has leafed, trees are greener — some are flowering.  They weren’t a day ago.  Kids splash in puddles along the road.  I try not to think or the mosquitoes that will follow.

In the shade of trees lining the Rejaf churchyard dozens of colorfully dressed women and children wait for the priest to arrive for an Easter Saturday baptism.  Four old men, leaning on their canes, called out to Moses.  “You brought us an old man like us.”  These “old men” are about a decade younger than I.

Kolye West SchoolWe walked through the village to the Nile.  It is the season to reroof the turkls (round huts). Large bundles of grass lean against the huts waiting the village’s men to get to that hut.  These turkls here have painted geometric designs that I’ve not seen on similar structures in Juba.  At the river boys are fishing.  Large mango trees drop their fruit for the goats to eat.  People like mango too and washing the fruit in the Nile is one of the reasons some think typhoid has started again.  I’m glad I got my shots.

UN Tent near schoolBack in the car and across the Nile we travel to Kolye West, where Moses went to school.  Outside the school someone has pitched a big white UNICEF tent.  Some folks from the village stand by the tent and wonder why.  There is a similar tent in front of the school at Pokiman. One of the village leaders tells me that the school is closed because it can’t attract teachers.  It is too long a drive from Juba and, after going to teacher’s college, teachers do not want to live in grass roofed mud walled turkls.  He said the village has two goals, build teacher housing and clear land for farming.

Koyle Termite mound with RockAn older man in an ESSO “t” shirt with tiger prints across the back wants to take us to the village sacred place. He climbs into the Land Cruiser and directs us to drive across a field.  The driver is worried about mines. The old man says “Look at the path, it is well worn.”  But the Land Cruiser is wider than the foot path. We set off on foot, never straying from the path.  At the end of the path there are two things, one is a cemetery for soldiers killed in some old war. The old man says they are Brazilian but Moses and I have no idea when the Brazilian army had troops in the Sudan.  One of the crosses has the title “Chevalier” in front of the name.  All the names looked French.  The graves are near the sacred site.  It is a termite mound with a huge rock balanced on top of it.  I ask how the rock got there.  The old man says God put it there.  As we approached the mound the old man told us to keep silence. We circled the mound, heads bowed to keep from hitting the rock balanced above us.  After we completed the circuit the old man broke off a part of the mound and put a piece in each of our mouths and told us to swallow.  He said it was part of the ritual.

In the town Moses goes to a little store to buy some Fanta.  People know him as the local kid who went to university and who they now hear on the radio.  He broadcasts in the local language, Bari.

Saturday night at the bar I’m talking with an international group of expats.  A stunning local woman walks by.  Someone says, “there is a 500 cow girl.”  Woman here are graded about how many cows in dowry they will bring to their families.  For a moment I thought this was just guy talk but women actively participated in the conversation. This woman is highly educated, with a good job for a western oil company.  Her family was actually was offered 500 cows in dowry.

Easter Sunday, April 8, 2012:  I went down for breakfast late today, at around 10:00. The Jebel Lodge breakfast was full of both locals and some expats.  Folks are here for Easter Brunch.  One couple, the man has an impressive armful of Christian tattoos, wished me a happy Easter.

As the rains come to East Africa trees flower, the cassava is green and seeds wait to burst.  Easter is a movable feast.  Perhaps it should be celebrated at different times in different places on this earth, at each region’s own time of resurrection.  This year Easter’s timing is right for here.  It’s the right metaphor for life’s recycling. “He is risen indeed!”

Happy Easter!

Take Care,

Rich McClear

This Gallery shows pictures from where we took field strength measurements.  The Map tracks our drive.

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