Letter 8 from South Sudan, where I wonder if I am getting too old for this.

August 30. 2012

Juba, South Sudan,


Dear Friends,

P1260022 - CopyMy mother once asked me why I didn’t stay home like she did, close to her parents.  I told her it was because of her father, my grandfather, who at 13 was apprenticed to trade as a grocer in Derry City, hated it, and ran away to sea.   His travels took him across the North Sea to ports exotic to him (Rotterdam and Hamburg) and then across the Atlantic to Halifax, and New York, and finally, coasting the Eastern Seaboard.  He told me his favorite port was Baltimore, “A man can have fun in Baltimore.”

While these travels seem limited in today’s jet age, as a kid his tales of Ireland, Liverpool, Germany, (including a stint on a barge on the Rhine,) Halifax, Montreal, and the exotic Baltimore were wondrous.  Grandpa not only told tales of places he had been but told me other sailor’s stories (or perhaps stories he had read, translated into sailor talk.)  He told me about Alaska “where a man’s spit freezes before it hits the ground.”  I had to see that, and I have.

As an adult I’ve learned that things he told me were only partly true.  He would pull out a map and say “Richard, this is Africa.  A white man can’t live between these two lines,” pointing to the two tropics. “His constitution just won’t stand up to it.”   It helped form my early attitudes toward Africa, only heightened by my love of Joseph Conrad’s “The Heart of Darkness” and perhaps by all the “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” punch lines of jokes and cartoons.

I am uncomfortable with Grandpa’s racial characterizations.  And besides, we have proven that all sorts of people can live in all sorts of climates and Africa “between the lines,” as my grandfather would have said, is the very cradle of human existence.  But much of the equatorial Africa is not a healthy place — for people of any race.  As well as being the cradle of humanity the region is the incubator of HIV and Ebola, a concern just now since it has also broken out in Congo and Uganda.  South Sudan has closed its borders with Congo.

Illness is never far from me in Juba.  I’ve had a bout of something both times I’ve come.  Colleagues at work and in the compound have come down with malaria, worms, amoeba, infected spider bites, poisonous spider bites that have swollen an arm to multiple it size, dengue fever and a suspected case of TB.  Sean says that while in Juba he never really feels well, others around the table echoed that.

Lulu with her Tom and Jerry and Tweety Bird pads (2)Malaria is the big killer.  One colleague lost a baby to malaria while I’ve been here.  Others have come down with it.  Most of the expats I work with who are here long term don’t take prophylactics for malaria because of the long term impacts of the drugs and because many of them already have weak livers because of too many “anti-malarial” gins and tonic.  Many colleagues who have been here a while have had malaria several times and count it as part of the job.  Fortunately the Chinese have come up with Corterm, (anternether-lunefantrin) based on a Chinese herb used to treat Malaria since the 4th century BC.  It’s been synthesized and is available relatively inexpensively (for expats and those who work for them).  In Asia there is now a strain of Malaria resistant to Corterm, and this causes concern here.

There is disagreement about when the mosquitoes that carry malaria feed.   Most folks in Juba say between about 9 at night and 5 in the morning is the malarial peak, therefore bed nets are very important, but it is ok to have cocktails on the verandah.   Others (including some of the websites I’ve consulted) say the insects feed at sundown and sunup, which is just when we are all taking dinner and drinks or coming to breakfast — outside.  During sundowners I sit in my long sleeved denim shirt, heavy jeans and socks impregnated with insect repellent while my colleagues have short sleeved t-shirts, shorts and sandals. I not only rely on air conditioning in my container (which the CDC says helps prevent bites) but ALSO use the mosquito net.  I spray my container every night before going to dinner (and have found mosquito carcasses lying on top of my bed net when I get back.)  I am taking Malarone.  I’m just not cut out to become an old Africa hand, for whom stories of surviving malaria, dengue, or spider bites are part of gaining field cred.

Kitty The leopards have names now, Lulu is the dominant, Baxter is the omega.  They are both girls so the names do not make complete sense.   Suzi justifies it with one word “Brits.”  They’re now hunting every two days, alternating between guinea pig and rabbit.   They like guinea pig better, they eat it all up while leaving some bunny behind.  They are about to graduate to chicken.  If Kenya does not give them a permit the cats will probably be set loose in a national park in South Sudan.  No one likes that idea because hunting guinea pig and bunny rabbit is a bit easier than hunting whatever is in the bush.  Plus they are accustomed to human company. They prefer being fed by their people and when one got loose she came back for dinner.  This is one of the loose ends I will end up leaving when I leave South Sudan.

Our new morning program “The Dawn” on Eye Radio (it has a Facebook page) is off to a good start.  Our discussion of the “bride price” and cattle raiding it encourages promoted an opinion piece in the “The Citizen” a local daily newspaper.”  The program sounds better than I had any right to expect and we’ve gotten some very good “sound pieces” that tell people’s stories in trying to find clean water, dealing with garbage in the streets, waiting for a bus that never comes, tainted meat, and the bride price.  We’re telling the stories from a street level and not just by talking to a government official or NGO leader.  There are some rough edges but I like what the staff has done so far.   The water piece has sound of trucks pumping water from the Nile and a graphic description of what is happening just upstream.  That is followed by the sound of people bargaining for water from the truck.  In contrast it has the sound of kids pumping water from a well in one of the villages with a bore hole.

This project ends in September, although the radio station will continue, but I don’t know if I’ll be back.  Some days I’m beginning to think I am too old for a hard country like South Sudan.   I ache every night after bouncing and twisting for between 45 minutes and an hour on Juba’s constantly shifting roads.   When I started to think I too old for South Sudan I caught myself and thought “well, you have a choice, what about the old people who have no choice, who have to live here?”  Then I realized that I haven’t met any South Sudanese older than I am.  I was introduced to a group of old men on the last trip, village elders, and they were a decade younger than I.  Perhaps, literally, I am too old for South Sudan.  (Life expectancy for males is 60 years according to the CIA Factbook, 42 according to the charity World Vision, which is trying to raise money.  The truth is probably somewhere in between.)

Anyway, I am out of here.

Take Care,

Rich McClear


One thought on “Letter 8 from South Sudan, where I wonder if I am getting too old for this.

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