Friday, February 10, 2012

"It bites you, and you fall asleep"

I have been in a dusty state capital called Bor, in Jonglei State, for the past few days. We are rolling out a new 12-month work plan and presenting it to our Jonglei team in the field, all of whom are currently grounded in Bor due to deadly cattle raiding between enemy tribes in other parts of the state. The fighting has caused massive displacement and claimed nearly 1,000 South Sudanese lives since December. Our Jonglei staff, a team of about 11 young educated South Sudanese men working in governance, financial management, planning and budgeting and in the education sector, are working and living out of a hotel built on the banks of the Bahr el Jebel, a fast-moving tributary of the Nile. The hotel has spotty electric generators and internet service, and there is no air conditioning, so we have the windows open in the office we are renting here. About 50 yards outside our window there is a borehole with a hand pump where area residents fill yellow jerry cans with fresh water, seemingly round the clock. The empty cans are piled high around the hole as people wait patiently, sometimes for hours, for their turn to pump and fill. The work of obtaining fresh drinking water here is hard and never-ending, and children as small as two and three are enlisted to carry little buckets and containers from the wells.

During a Powerpoint presentation on the work plan yesterday, the team leader raised his hand and pointed at a large brown fly that had entered through the window. All 15 of us in the room silently watched the fly zip around for a minute or so. If it buzzed anyone, the person would duck and swat with wide-eyed alarm. I seemed to be the only person in the room who did not know why this particular fly was cause for such concern.

When it went back out, we closed the windows to prevent if from flying in again, even though it was sweltering in the room (temps are now higher than 100 degrees during the afternoons.) Everyone seemed greatly relieved, and we got back to our business. Later I asked a colleague what would have happened if that dread-inspiring fly had bitten me.

You would be sleeping, she said.

The fly makes you sleep?

Yes. It bites you, and you fall asleep.

Turns out I had just had my first known encounter with a tsetse fly, whose bite carries a disease called Human African trypanosomiasis, also known as sleeping sickness. The disease is endemic in 37 sub-Saharan countries and killed 48,000 people in 2008, according to Wikipedia. This insect, which only lives a few weeks, injects a parasite into its victims that invades the central nervous system, causing confusion, reduced coordination, fatigue, mania, insomnia and progressive mental deterioration leading to coma and death. I now understand why the bug was so deserving of our attention. It is an airborne serial killer.

I kept my eyes peeled for large brown flies when a colleague and I walked down to the river's edge after work. About 100 yards away, on the other side of the water, a cluster of a few hundred Dinka cattle herding families were encamped, with their animals. They were just shadows in a haze of dung fires lit to keep down the mosquitos, but we could hear laughter and the clinks of pots, and make out lines of tents and stick-built huts built on the very edge of the river. We could also occasionally see sets of huge, magnificently arcing cattle horns poking through the smoke, and hear the lowing of the cows, which sounded startlingly close, rolling across the river top. We watched a wiry man hard-paddling a canoe hand-carved from a neem tree and patched with sheets of tin, from our side of the river to the camp, and back.

I want to go across and see them, one of my colleagues said a little wistfully.

I will do it soon.

Saturday, February 4, 2012


I am back in South Sudan after spending a wonderful holiday at home in Key West, marred at the end by some very troubling Tahra health developments: auto-immune disease and kidney problems. After 40-plus years of fantastic health, she was diagnosed just as I returned to South Sudan – practically while I was on the plane. My parents, TJ and Victoria, immediately flew to her rescue from Virginia to help take care of the kids as she recovered from a blood transfusion after a biopsy. Still there nearly a month later, they have been lifesavers, and have become surrogate parents to the girls, who can’t ever get enough of them. Our Key West friends, many of whom helped with the kids and in other ways too numerous to mention, carried us through the last few painful and frightening weeks, too. Tahra is now feeling a little better though some adverse reactions to new, heavy-duty meds have complicated matters. Fortunately she is working with a very concerned and capable nephrologist, and we are starting to see a little light at the end of the tunnel.

Before Christmas, after much thought and discussion with Tahra, I agreed to accept an extension of my contract in South Sudan for a period of time yet to be determined. Originally I had planned only to do this for eight months, until December 2011. Over the past few months there have been negotiations between my company and its funder, over the scope and length of our proposed continued project, and finally things were resolved when my company settled on a contract extension out here through 2013. My company wants me to stay, though final terms for me are still to be negotiated and Tahra’s new health condition has given us much to think about. In the meantime, next time I’m home, in early March, we are relocating up to western Massachusetts, to occupy a rustic, 150-year-old farmhouse on 25 acres in Berkshire County, enabling Tahra and the girls to be much closer to family while I’m in and out of the country. We are keeping the apartment in Key West, with our close friend Hanrow Hartley installed as house sitter.

The big news in Juba these days is all about South Sudan’s recent decision to shut down its oil wells in protest over the north’s theft of millions of barrels of oil from the south-to-north oil pipeline. The south owns the oil but the north owns the pipeline, refinery, and port where the oil is picked up by tankers. Since the south’s independence in July, the two sides have been dickering over the price-per-barrel for export over the pipeline. Since no agreement on the fees could be reached, the north allegedly decided to steal millions of dollars worth of oil from the line, and in retaliation, last week the south shut down its wells. This action will hit both nations hard in the pocketbook, but here in Juba, citizens are applauding the move. The government says it has enough funds in reserve to get by without oil revenues for a while, and has even signed a contract to build its own pipeline from its oil fields through Kenya (to the south), which will take anywhere from 1-3 years to complete.

Meanwhile, there is renewed inter-ethnic combat in the north part of South Sudan, with a pair of tribes called the Murle and the Nuer going at each other in cattle and people-stealing raids that have left an estimated 600-700 people dead, and hundreds of women and children abducted, prompting apocalyptic front-page headlines in both the New York Times and the Washington Post recently describing the “descent into chaos’’ of the world’s newest country. There is no widespread chaos in the capital, Juba, though Landcruiser-jackings involving expats have been on the rise, prompting my company to bump up our curfew and make some other security modifications.

The other big change since my return: it is now HOT – up over 100 degrees on some days. Arizona desert hot, as in, even your eyelids feel hot when you walk outside. And we are in the dry season now, with no rain for months, and none expected until May or so. Dust and wind are kicking up. When I play football now, sometimes we lose the ball in clouds of dust. Two weekends ago as I stared out of my bedroom window at the empty lot across the way, a mini-tornado blew through, picking up all the trash and flinging it 500 feet high into a giant, swirling vortex of plastic bags and bottles and papers. It was strangely beautiful.