Tuesday, September 27, 2011

To Yei and Back

I’m back in South Sudan after a too-short trip to the Keys, where I ate great food, caught up with old friends, and soaked in as much of the girls and Tahra as possible in 10 days. Happily wrestled with weeds and dead banana branches in the yard. Swam at Fort Zack in wind-smacked chop one day, then floated atop water like glass the next, half-submerged ears muffling the happy squeals of kids up the beach. Tahra’s blessed cooking and my own sheets; the smell and feel of my family’s skin, the pleasant mustiness of the old apartment; Gryffyn and Ursula’s bellies, and laughter; tears over missing tutus, hair brushing and shoes. Home.

A few days after returning to Juba I invited myself on a working trip down south, where I’ve not yet been, with a colleague who oversees my company’s education programs. The place is called Yei, and there seemed a good deal of envy and interest from my co-workers when they found out I was going. “You must try the honey!” “You will like Yei, the weather is nicer!” “It is greener and cooler than Juba, and there is much rain!” Someone even said Yei is known as “Little London” though no one could say why. Our mission: to check on the status of four young school teachers from states in the north, for whom my company is providing full scholarships at the Yei Teacher’s Training College. And some higher-ups asked me to do a little outreach on the company’s behalf at the Yei Crop Training Center and the Women’s Empowerment Program, two big projects we have supported.

We drove southwest out of Juba in a direction I had never been, skirting some low hills on the edge of town. There, the asphalt ends, and white signs stick out of the bushes marking the future sites of big new national ministries – immigration, social welfare, water resources and irrigation – they will all be out here on the edge of town in new buildings, miles away from the crowds and bustle in downtown Juba where everything is currently located. Now, though, the area is used for dumping; every 20-30 yards or so, I can see a two-wheeled track beaten through the grass and acacia shrubs and little forest enclaves strewn with thousands of flimsy empty and flattened plastic water bottles – some of them could have been mine. I admit that I don’t know where my trash goes, though there definitely is not any recycling program here. Why not? Everything is expensive here. Taking care of trash is very low on the country’s priorities list at the moment. I do, however, see a future for a recycling-based NGO.

It will be a four hour ride on very bumpy dirt roads to Yei, which is not far from the border with Uganda and the dreaded Lord’s Resistance Army rebels, possibly the most insanely inhuman rebels on earth. We are transporting the wife of the principal of the Teaching College, who has clearly done some shopping while in Juba. We load up her stuff in the back of the green Land Cruiser Prado, cushy inside but with an unwholesome smell emanating from the dashboard, apparently, on my side of the car. The further south we drive, the more jungle-like the landscape becomes. The northern areas I’ve seen have lots of savannah, but down here it is hillier, some low mountains and escarpments, and the landscape is lush, and green, and suddenly a new type of tree pops up – teak trees. There are groves and groves of them, mostly immature – harvested for buildings and furniture and flooring, certainly. I’ve not seen these trees in Juba or in the north. Other highlights of the drive: my first wild monkeys. I had not before seen monkeys in South Sudan though they are here. These are just little guys, three of them, reddish-brown, loping along like monkeys on all fours across the road, scampering into the green. And a monitor lizard, big and brown, crossed the road in front of us. My colleague says he has seen cobras out here too.

We arrive in Yei, which bears no immediately discernible resemblance to London, and interview the young teachers at the college, in a computer lab. They are tired at the end of the day and a little wary of two inquisitive guys asking a lot of questions about how they are doing. Emotionally they are fine, they say, but academically they are struggling. The college is rigorous, classes are taught in English and these young women spoke other tribal languages and Arabic mostly when they arrived. So they had language challenges in addition to adapting to a new environment far from home (they are all from the northern parts of South Sudan, culturally and ethnically distinct from the south part of South Sudan.) But they are relishing their time at college, in particular, the on-the-job training which involves teaching actual classes in Yei-area primary schools, under the observation of college instructors.

We next stopped by the Yei Crop Training Center, without an appointment, at about 6 pm. We got through the gates and drove past well-ordered plots of maize, sorghum, okra, pineapples, sesame, peanuts, eggplant and hot peppers, interspersed with papaya trees. Food is growing here, and not just staple crops, I was happy to see. Yei is known as a self-sufficient agricultural zone where small-holder famers grow a lot of food, I found out. Melons and pumpkins were growing in abundance. We found David Bala, the principal, who graciously showed us around his home on the center – he is a farmer, and he leapt at the opportunity to give us a private tour. Next to his house, I saw a papaya tree growing fruit the size and shape of nuclear missiles. His goal when he retires from teaching is to launch a pineapple farm with 4,000 pineapple plants, and to add 600 beehives for honey. I commented about his beautiful passion fruit and voila, his wife Mary, whom he calls Madame, brought out a glass pitcher of cold, bright orange passion fruit juice, squeezed from his own fruit, and cookies she baked herself. I tried some of his avocado juice, too, which was delicious and rejuvenating, and he wouldn’t let us go without taking a half-dozen ears of freshly harvested maize.

Our night in Yei was spent in the New Tokyo Hotel, billed as the nicest hotel in Yei. It was almost clean – Spartan, with no discernible Japanese influence or connection, other than the name. No internet and one channel only on the TV (reggae music videos); no AC and no hot water. But the twin-sized bed was ok and there was a working fan. I slept under a mosquito net and awoke sweaty at 1 a.m. to find the power had gone off. It came back on at 6 a.m. in the morning. I ate a boiled egg on a dry bun for breakfast with my Nescafe, and at another ag training center we picked up some honey, which indeed was good. Said a quick hello at the Women’s Empowerment Center, where war widows were running a nice micro-enterprise project (a guesthouse) on the green banks of the Yei River, and then embarked on our four-hour bump back to Juba. On the way, we successfully avoided a crazy-eyed, drunken soldier (allegiance unknown) who flagged us down for a ride that we declined to provide, without rolling down the windows, after determining he was unarmed.

Busy market, Yei (aka "Little London")

Boda guys with Man U jersey and stickers, Yei

David Bala in his eggplants, behind his house at the Yei Crop Training Center.