My First Day Off

I've been in Bentiu, my new home for the next six months, since Wednesday afternoon, only a matter of a few days. There seems to have been a lot to take in during that time and today there seems to be a minute now to type some descriptions of where I am on my first day off.

(Background: After far too long waiting in Paris for a Sudan visa to enter the country I finally boarded a flight by Quatar Airways to Doha in the gulf. Then after a short wait in the half finished airport another flight down to Khartoum, the capital city of this, the largest country in Africa. I spent a few days in Khartoum and then it was another set of three flights in progressively smaller aircraft until I touched down in a little eight seater Cessna with a charming smart arse macho south african pilot).

I'm now typing this email on my laptop while sitting in the living tukul, which is a very traditional African hut with a thatched roof made of dried grass and walls of sticks and mud. The floor is a mixture of rough concrete and mud covered in places with woven mats. There is a dining table, some plastic chairs, and at the other end a couch and other comfy chairs. Two rickety shelving units hold spare sheets and towels, and other books and papers. In the corner is a little tv linked up to a rusty satellite disk outside. We can get BBC world and a random assortment of other Arabic stations.

This tukul is part of the inter compound, the perimeter of which is surround by a high grass fence and an inner wall of sandbags. There are around ten tukul and other structures spread around the area. One of these is my bedroom and is built partly into the ground and so they appear very low from the outside. They are circular with the bed in the middle, covered with a mosquito net. There is nothing else in my tukul, except that a shelf is formed by the wall and ground meeting at about waist height and this is where my bags and various other things sit.

It's about 35 degrees now in the middle of the day, and standing in the direct sun is hard. I find it too bright to be without my sunglasses. It gets cool in the early morning, sometimes enough to need a light blanket to stay warm. Everything is covered in fine red dust. The dust come from the road mainly I think and is stirred up by the passing traffic. It coats everything and is not ready helped by the daily sweeping which just stirs and redistributes it again. I try to keep covers on everything I have and keep my laptop well sealed up when not in use.

The working area of this Ribkona village site is in front of the living compound and consists of a large storeroom, mechanical workshop, generator lean to structure and the office building. Inside the office building are several desks, with four of the dustiest laptops ever imagined, I don't understand how they are still operating?! Paper does not stay white for very long after coming out of the printer or photocopier. Just touching anything seems to turn it red, dirty and dusty. There are a number of metal cabinets that appear to not make little difference to the ability of the dust to get in after a few days.

A satellite phone in the corner (that can be linked to a computer) makes it possible to send small emails at some horrendous cost per minute. There is no internet. The newly built cell phone tower in the area appears to be working again for the third day in three months though and so mobiles are only just taking off here. There is village mains power from 1-3pm and 7-11pm sometimes, otherwise we run on our own generator. Water is delivered by tanker a few times a week and is treated with chlorine and delivered to the kitchen and showers from a large elevated tank via some creative plastic piping, sticks, string and odd fittings.

We get up at daybreak which is six thirty or seven and have a cup of tea, and chapatti and jam for breakfast. There is some cereal around that I might get into if I can get the ants out. The national staff show up around 8 and work till 4 with an hour off for lunch. There are four expat staff and about 80 or 100 national staff in total. Under the logistics side of things that I am involved with there are about four key staff I think, with about another 10 under them. Dinner consists of two types of rice and stew with meat and veges and lots of oil, all cooked during the day by our cook Martha. Lunch has so far been made up of leftovers from the night before.

The clinic where most of the actual 'work' of MSF is carried out is about 10 minutes drive away in Bentiu, along a dusty and rough, but surprisingly well made dirt road, which crosses a river (more of a swamp really as far as I can tell) at one point. This river was the reason for having the clinic and the living area separated, as escape in time of trouble from the clinic could be difficult if the bridge was damaged or defended. The situation here is very quiet at the moment. There is a military compound next door which consists of a dusty courtyard area ringed with a low stick fence and containing a single building with mostly open sides. A few boys in green uniforms mill around most days. A large number of women in the town have been issued uniforms last week and nobody can figure out why. Apparently a mine was found in a neighbouring town market last week and has been fenced off till the UN can find a bomb disposal person to get rid of it. I've only seen a few guns so far, though there were two army tanks being washed in the swamp nearby a few days ago.

The clinic is larger than the living area and again ringed in a grass fence with about 20 buildings of various sizes inside consisting of wards, ICU, food storages, toilets, laboratory, tea room and morgue. One area has a secondary fence around it as the TB isolation unit and a face mask is needed when in this area. I haven't spent a lot of time there yet apart from unloading a mountain of boxes of milk powder yesterday that came by truck and having a quick tour.

We have three well worn white land cruisers with drivers to transport us between the compound and clinic, though there area a couple of bikes around that can be used. There seems to be one standard low quality heavy old fashioned bicycle that everyone has here in various states of disrepair. In the area around the clinic is the governor's office, the new hospital paid for by the oil companies, and various other military and police posts. Further along the road from our living compound in Ribkona are various other NGO's and bits of the UN. We visited the folks of ACL (Action Against Famine I think) last night for some drinks and nibbles and slightly combative game of cards. There is also the German Agricultural Action, UN World Food
Program, UNMOS, UNOCHA, UNDP. the list goes on.

The expats I am currently with are all great. The field coordinator Francis is french with a very funny form of english, which certainly still does the job most of the time. He prefixes every name with mama or papa. I have become logco-papa-reaeh-chard (logco stands for administration and logistics). Marie is the nursing supervisor and has been here a few months. Elodie is the expat doctor and beat me here by a couple of weeks by coming into the country via Kenya and the south. Marie and Elodie are slightly younger than me I think and Francis is older. All are french, with Marie originally from Nigeria and only Elodie having really good english. There are also about seven other national staff from out of this area, mainly Khartoum working with us and living in the compound. I'm slowly starting to get to know them as well.

The surrounding country side is a mix of swamp with lush green reeds and some open water, dusty roads, rational villages with tukul's and not much else, and the market area in the distance where animals, trucks, rubbish, dust and people all coexist somehow. The poverty certainly is quite eye opening with the difference from other places I have visited in the world being that there is no contrast. There are no solid houses or sealed roads or running water. Everything is made of tree branches, dry grass walling, mud floors, plastic sheeting or tarps, and for the very flash stalls a few sheets of corrugated iron. It's hard to imagine the amount of development required for simple OECD style living when there is little more here currently than just a mix of desert and swamp.

My job consists of supervising the national staff, keeping everything running and making improvements to both the compound and the living area. Just what this means and the difficulties involved with language and motivation are only now starting to dawn on me. I stare at the line of unused technical manuals on the library shelf here and wish for a few of those 'leadership for beginners' and 'seven steps to achieving your goals' books found at airport bookstands. I'm not entirely sure they would translate to the african mindset well.

My laptop is just about out of battery power, a frog just jumped across my foot, and the 'relationship manager' from the UN force just dropped by for a chat so got to go...


Nakji said…
You haven't posted for a while, hope everything's ok?

How's the French? ;o)


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