Greetings from Werkok, Southern Sudan
April 1, 2009
I’m writing from the HIV/AIDS office of the Minister of Health of Southern Sudan. This is the first opportunity I’ve had for an extended period of internet access. Following is a relatively brief summary of our adventures since my last post. I’m waiting for nearly 350 emails to download . . . so I have a bit of time . . .
We arrived in Juba on Wednesday March 18th. Its really odd landing in a new place, not knowing the language and not sure anyone is going to be at the airport to meet you. we were actually met by Muki Lita, a friend of Mamer’s, who was to arrange transport for us. Muki (whom we’d never met) yhen handed us over to a taxi driver, who took us to the Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS) conference center. When we arrived, we found Mamer across the street at the radio station, in the middle of a press conference. We met a lady from the State Department, some other dignitaries and the Lost Boys delegation. After the press conference, we went to the “hotel,” dropped off our bags and got shuttled off to another meeting. This was a meeting of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which got capped by a closing speech by Dr. Luk Abion (sp?), Minister of Presidential Affairs. We got ushered to front-row seats, which would have been great if Sherry wasn’t so sleepy that she kept nodding off as the afternoon wore on . . .
After the meeting we went back to the Oasis Camp Hotel, which was a metal Chinese container with an air conditioner hung on one wall. There was running water (cold), a flush toilet sitting on a completely broken-down pressboard floor. There was also a mosquito net over the one bed, which was shorter than my frame. For this slice of paradise, we had the privilege of paying $240 per night! The room price did include all our meals, which we ate just a few feet from the Nile. Astonishingly beautiful!
Thursday (March 19th) we drove to Bor, after waiting hours for the “Jonglei Coordinator” to find a vehicle that would take us. The drive from Juba to Bor was 3 ½ hours of bone-jarring, white-knuckle, nail-biting action. We were traveling in a convoy with the Minister of Finance for the State of Jonglei – along with his machine-gun-toting entourage. Picture the worst unpaved road you’ve ever traveled with giant potholes, rocks on a sometimes hardpan/sometimes sand substrate. Then try to imagine flying over it at 100 – 120 kph. I don’t know exactly how fast that is in mph, but from my front seat perspective, it was REALLY FAST. At one point, we hit some sand and started sliding toward a ditch on the side, but the driver barely slowed down, got the vehicle (a Toyota Land Cruiser) under control and quickly ramped back up to speed.
On Friday March 20th, we finally met with the Governor. Wait. Not just the Governor, but with the Ministers of Finance, Education, Infrastructure, Land, IT and the Commissioner of Bor County. H.E. (His Excellency) Governor Kuol Manyang Juuk was incredibly gracious to us, praising Mamer’s achievement in completing his education. As Mamer explained the AgSudan project, the Governor listened attentively, then basically said he agreed with the whole concept, and then committed to personally invest in the project – as well as take responsibility to help raise the $$ required for startup. He also committed the use of some tractors he has in his compound. Overall, we were completely taken off guard by the positive response we received!
March 23rd. Mamer and I visited the village, and got confirmation that they did indeed want to grant us the 10km X 10km piece of land to start farming.
March 24th. It was 127 degrees today. Over 100 degrees throughout the evening in our tent . . . until about 3 am when the wind and rain started. The good news is that the wind blew so hard that the tent sort of caved in and wrapped against my naked body, with the cold rain touching me – but through the silk of the ten so I didn’t get wet. It was the best part of the night!
I rode a Suzuki 650 (nice machine!) into town to meet with the Governor again, but he pushed us off to the Commissioner of Bor County. What a wild ride this has been (not talking about the moto; I never went above about 35 mph because of the crappy roads).
On Wednesday, March 25th, I visited the village where we will have our farm project. I was the only white guy and the only one who spoke English. My “translator” spoke an English I rarely understood. When I arrived at the village, all the elders and chiefs were waiting for me, excited about getting our project underway. Right after arriving, a young man showed up, who was recently returned from Phoenix. He was very antagonistic about our project and didn’t want the elders to give us the land. So I was standing in the middle of 25 men – all screaming at one another – most of them carrying AK-47s. finally they dealt with the complainer and we were ready to leave; but the one guy who spoke a bit of
English said there was a problem with the vehicles. I had agreed to pay 200 Sudanese pounds total for 2 days transport for me to and from the village; (I had also come the previous Monday with Mamer to get approval from the elders for the land). Now this guy was demanding that I was liable for an additional 200 pounds each for two more vehicles so all the village leaders and soldier escort could come with us to view the land. I told him I had only requested to see the land, and didn’t request either an escort – or a parade! I told them (the elders) they were welcome to come with us, but I wasn’t going to pay. After they yelled at me for a bit, and I stood smiling and refusing to pay for more vehicles, they realized they didn’t want to pay either . . . so we left in one vehicle. It was a Nissan Frontier pickup; I sat in the front seat with the driver (and his AK-47). 7 soldiers, one with a belt-fed machine gun, and 7 elders from the village piled into the bed of the truck, and we were off.
Leaving the village, we entered the bush. At one point, we scared a gazelle and 2 soldiers and one elder jumped out of the truck and started firing! It took about 12 shots – all from the AK’s – but they finally took down the gazelle. Not bad from about 50 yards with a short-barrel gun. The land was pure forest, lots of very prickly trees and bushes. I asked about the animal population on our land and was told it is home to lions, zebras, leopards, gazelles, many other kinds of deer, baboons, monkeys and various snakes. Can’t wait to set up a tent and hang out. Want to come join us?
Since then, Sherry and I have been hanging out at the hospital at Werkok. I’ve been working mostly with Dave Mueller, painting, dry walling, taping the walls, putting on roofs, etc. There is a giant dedication this coming Sunday, at which we expect several hundred to attend. Sherry is busy working at the hospital, assisting in surgeries, handling patients and organizing the pharmacy. She has already done wonders in helping there!
So this is the latest. We might get a VSAT set up at the Werkok compound, which would allow us email and internet access. If not, I’ll try to keep this updated every few days by coming to town and accessing via the Ministry of Health or another NGO that is friendly to us.
Thanks for your prayers. We miss you!