…Rumours of Lucy, Gbenga, and I leaving Jonglei State, and of Lucy and I being seen downing a few gin and tonics in Juba while toasting the women carriers of Haat are true, but not of us leaving South Sudan. We fly into Juba on a Wednesday, and are back in the field on Thursday and Friday in the Khor William and Lologo neighbourhoods where we carried out our one day wellfield reconnaissance survey in what seemed a lifetime ago.
These neighbourhoods of Lologo and Khor William were chosen for our urban water exploration program by ICRC public health monitors. They determined there is a high need based on tracking of outbreaks of waterborne diseases such as diarrhea, typhus, and cholera. The crowded hand pumps and continual parade of Nile River-bound bicycles, wheelbarrows, and foot traffic all carrying jerry cans and buckets is clear testimony to the inadequate water supply.
Besides the urban setting, the hilly topography, the hydrogeology and geology are completely different and half a billion years older than in the Upper Nile Basin sediments where we have been working in the north, in Jonglei. Juba is a continuation of the African crystalline basement aquifers that I am so familiar with from Acholiland in Northern Uganda.
In fact, our Juba data sets look very similar to those of our 2018 Geoscientists Without Borders program in Uganda, and are easily interpreted. We confidently site a number of new wells and improved locations for existing wells. We also site a potentially high yield production well in thick, weathered crystalline rock that is in close proximity and we interpret/assume/hope is hydraulically connected to the Nile River.
After covering the neighbourhoods of Khor William and Lologo, we carry on to St. Augustine and Block 4. Of course we can drive to the sites, which now feels a bit like cheating, but allows us to accomplish a lot with a smaller crew. We hire men and women from the communities. Local community leaders, the drivers, and John and Philip from ICRC’s Juba Water Rehabilitation team also jump in to guide us through the neighbourhoods and lend a hand. We complete all the geophysical survey lines on our checklist in a week.
In the neighbourhood of St. Augustine, the children are out of school as it is exam week. I scramble a bit of Arabic and English with my dozen Acholi words and an even smaller vocabulary of Nuer to chat with the kids while the automated data acquisition does its thing. There is a fierce frenzy of jump rope happening on the acquisition line. I am grateful that we are not doing any seismic surveys and I don’t have to recruit a local bully to shout “quiet on the line” in multiple languages and shut down all the fun.
It is startling how well the children in these multi-ethnic neighbourhoods seem to play together, cooperate, interact with adults, and carry on with their chores. Somehow I doubt that Salva Kiir or his Cabinet have taken a stroll through any of these neighbourhoods, for they certainly could learn a thing or two. In fact, it is unlikely that the children of any senior members of the government are even to be found in South Sudan…try London, the United States, or perhaps Kampala.
I have heard all the snappy clichés from foreigners. “It’s not a country with an army…it’s an army with a country..”…”it’s not a failed State, as it never became a real State…”…etc. Personally, I am getting to like South Sudan and its people. The conclusions of our report will be limited to siting water wells; but from my limited experience here, there is no doubt in my mind that this is a country very much worth saving.
Today was our last field day in the wetlands of the Sudd, and tonight is our last night, assuming the helicopter arrives as scheduled. You may think I will not miss waking up at night covered in soldier ants, the evening choice between sitting outside with malarial mosquitoes or cocooning in a sauna-like tent, bucket showers of swamp water while being devoured by various other biting insects, putrid pit latrines, instant coffee, 40+ degree heat and 100% humidity, unemployed young men with AK47s, “footing it” (African for trekking) through flooded wetlands, etc.
Actually, I do enjoy a few of the above, at least occasionally, including bucket showers and the swamp walks. The guns simply become part of the scenery and are evidence of why we are here.
What I will miss and remember is traveling 1300 km by helicopter, 450 kilometers by boat, and 250 km on foot through pristine wetlands and seeing almost no evidence of a human hand... being in a riverine environment where the only moving boats, besides our ICRC speedboats, are dugout canoes and reed rafts...the dawn ritual of letting the livestock out of the giant tukul barns, and guiding them through smoky pyres of burning dung to drive away the insects…and not a single match was used to light those fires....extraordinarily friendly and helpful villagers....toddlers crying because they have never seen a white person...flleeing, and then curious youngsters who crowded around every drone flight...learning about a place that I never even knew existed....the incredibly strong, gracious, and handsome women of Haat that did, well, just about everything that required muscle and patience. …and of course the tremendous camaraderie that was created among our Nuer, British, Nigerian, and Canadian team.
That camaraderie almost fractured when GBenga, our logistics officer, was passed the word from the Thuraya satellite phone that our return flight would be postponed as the helicopter would have to overnight in Akobo. He exploded into a fit of completely unintelligible, heavy accented Yoruba Nigerian English, and a wailing for Juba as if it was the Jerusalem of East Africa. Out of mercy, the prank was exposed.
In the morning we boat 30 minutes upstream to Yaakuach. Unfortunately, it has the two types of people I am simply forbidden to photograph, and in abundance. As we approach the bordering wetlands, there are perhaps 50 or so naked boys seemingly frolicking in the wetlands. I then realize they are diving to cut and yank out marsh plants to clear a narrow canal for our two boats to enter. There is the usual large village entourage to greet us and get a good laugh when I debark and nearly do a faceplant in the mud. GBenga can pull out the dance moves to break the ice; I just need my own innate clumsiness.
Besides naked boys, photographing any type of military is forbidden. Yaakuach is full of rebel soldiers, largely hanging around waiting for progress in moving to a transitional government and a unified military.
The acknowledged two most challenging conditions of maintaining the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement are integrating the Nuer and Dinka under a single military command structure, and the establishment of State boundaries. The current and only government South Sudan has ever had wants to maintain the current 10 States which will maximize the demographic advantage of the larger Dinka population. The opposition wants to break up the States into 32 smaller States, and thus decentralize the power of Salva Kiir, the President.
Of course, an even more fundamental problem is that the President, Salva Kiir, is associated with the ethnically and politically driven ethnic cleansing and mass murder of his own population, while the leader of the opposition, Riek Machar, has a similar resume. In both 2013 and 2016, the Kiir government attempted to kill Machar, even while he was officially Vice President. The bullet holes in the compound wall shared by ICRC and the Presidential residence suggest that the feelings are mutual.
There is no flag flying in Yakuach, but there are an anomalous number of young men, some wearing an assortment of uniforms, and a few carrying AK47s. If there is any doubt about who is a rebel and who is a villager, I simply have to reach for my camera and Buzbon, our ICRC Nuer South Sudanese Protection Officer, gives me the eye and a few words. Flags can be misleading as some rebel groups have no flag, others have their own motif, while still others fly the official flag of South Sudan.
We run a 600 m survey directly through the village and well into the bush. Like every other village, Yaakuach has no water source other than the wetlands. Unlike other villages, though, the sanitation here is unusually atrocious, with few or no latrines.
While carrying out the geophysics survey, I GPS our line locations and a few village landmarks – paths, trees, shoreline, fences – so as any proposed drilling locations can be easily located. We will later overlay all our line locations on to Google Earth for easy georeferencing. But with the flux of people abandoning the villages during the violence, others returning (“returnees”) from the North after independence, and the general cycle of repair and disrepair of the village tukuls, the village architecture on the ground can vary quite rapidly. So as to have access to the most current urban plan, I quickly collect drone imagery at each location. Surprisingly, the Yakuach village leaders OK a quick flight as long as I fly well away from the village center and a few hundred meters up where the sound of the drone cannot be heard.
We return to Chuil for a lunch of Nile Perch and rice, and then head downriver to Wuneget.
“Are you a journalist?” The customs officers in the ramshackle arrival terminal in Juba, South Sudan, ransacked through our 10 bags of cables and electronics, but their only concern seemed to be my cameras. Think quick and try the truth, I thought. No country in civil war likes journalists I reasoned. “No, I am here on a mission with the International Committee of the Red Cross to provide water to villages in Jonglei State…I need photographs to document our locations for drilling.” Though I thought I did a good job hedging my bets, I chose the wrong door. I was informed that only journalists are allowed to take photographs. Fortunately, ICRC local staff showed up, and with a bit of negotiation and a few phone calls, we were on our way.
It had been about 48 hours of planes, airports, and little sleep to get to Juba, but it was straight to the Air Ops to weigh our bags for a two hour helicopter trip north to Haat in Jonglei State. Prosthetic limbs on a pallet also heading north did not reinforce my confidence, already a bit shaky with the fatigue, heat, time changes, and the general state of affairs here in the world’s youngest of the 193 countries at the UN. It is the country also predicted to most likely fail. Famine, floods, war, and especially weak governance are a bad combination.
I was informed, apologetically, that we were 200 kg over capacity for the helicopter. My colleague Lucy’s first reaction was to cut some of the equipment. No way, as all those duffle bags provide the only reason we are here. And we are only about 375 kg total, including our body weights, so we were not even close. I would rather they cut the food and water. We let logistics figure it out and carried on with our other preparations. We will see what happens on takeoff in the morning, though the prospect of ending up like John Garang, the rebel and founding political leader who died in a helicopter crash in 2005, was in the back of my mind.