Saturday, June 14, 2008

 

Out in the bush


Well I've just come back on Friday from nine days in the field, with just a pitstop at base in Rumbek to get clean clothes and wash the mud off. These days have been a bit of a baptism of fire, with just three and a half days to find my feet in Rumbek, then straight off to the bush to rough it.

First stop was Leer (pron 'lair'), a village in the Bahr el Jebel flood plain, Western Upper Nile. It was badly hit during the civil war, and now in the rainy season, is home to nomadic Nuer tribes, come to bring their cattle to pasture and camp down in their tukuls for a spot of makeshift farming. It's also in an oil-rich region, which makes it vulnerable territory when it comes to north-south ownership.

Driving in the 70km from Tharj Jath airport in a Save the Children landrover on long straight dusty tracks through a swampy plain, we passed small settlements, flocks of cranes at the watersides and herds of cows and goats roaming the roads. Leer is a settlement of tukuls with a handful of NGO camps and a dirt airstrip running through the middle, home to roaming cattle, goats and people, and which becomes a quagmire after just a few minutes of rain.

It was no surprise that the only camp we could fine some room was also the shittiest. My colleague Sam and I were directed to a brick building with a room which a crackhead would have turned their nose up at – ripped mattresses, fly-blown curtains flapping at broken windows, beer cans and general ugh. We'll have a tent, thank you very much. Apparently it's unheard of for a male and a female to share a tent without indulging in “jiggy-jiggy” so Sam was somewhat taken aback at my suggestion, but we went with it anyway.

The camp was run by people who looked like extras from a Romero zombie film, and its squalour was unspeakable. Ah yes, the flies. Leer is famed for its flies, which have you flapping your arms manically like Ian Curtis until you get used to them tickling all over your arms, legs, hair and face. After that you concentrate on just keeping them off your food and drink, a battle you don't always win.

I was busting for a pee, but was horrified not only to smell, but to hear the latrine from ten feet away, a million flies licking their lips in glee at the prospect of a fresh-laid meal. Needless to say that was my one and only visit and I wasn't sure if I'd live to tell the tale. Sam demanded a chicken, and I was looking forward to the prospect of living on the five apples, lime pickle, tabasco and handful of sesame snaps I'd brought to tide me over the next few days.

Oh well, if you're going to get a taste of developing Africa, you might as well go to one of its worst places first.

So off to the radio station, Naath FM ('citizen' in Nuer), which is run by a team of four guys plus a mentor who is tasked with supporting the manager. I use the words 'run', 'team' and 'four' advisedly, as the manager is awol, two of the staff turn up when they feel like it, and just one reporter/ presenter actually does any work, so the poor mentor has taken over the management role and is struggling with only one reliable person.

First night in the zombie death camp was hellish. Apart from its flies, Leer has packs of dogs roaming it, though many of them have been killed by local youth, but our camp seemed to be a refugee centre for the remaining ones. Of course they indulged in a howling competition much of the night, then came heavy rain and thunder which drove them away, and then cleared to be replaced by a cockerel crowing loudly from 6am right outside our tent. I couldn't figure out whey we'd been honoured with its exclusive presence until I went outside to find it tied by the foot to our tent pole. If you ask for a chicken, that's just what you get.

No breakfast at camp, though I'm not sure I'd want their speciality flyup anyway, but Sam demanded the chicken be cooked for him, and back we went to look at the unfolding disaster of the radio station.

Unfortunately the heavy rains had turned he airstrip, which lay between us and Naath FM, into a sludgfest of Glastonburyesque proportions, and subsequent heavy rains that day made matters worse. Fortunately I had my wellies and rain gear, so it was just the physical struggle to get across the airstrip that was the challenge, avoiding the worst puddles where the kids were spearing filthy fish, landrovers slipping and sliding across it.

A heavy sigh of relief when we heard a tent had become available at another camp, still rough and ready, but with food and a friendly smile from Simon, the Kenyan manager. Most of the people staying there were barking, but at least they were friendly. Got a landrover back to the zombie camp to pick our gear up, to be greeted in our tent by a pot of cold congealed chicken. Well, Sam had asked them to cook it, so that's what they'd done. He left it behind, so I just hope somebody ate it.

Much quieter night in the new camp and although the latrine was pretty minging and you had to negotiate a lake to get to it, if you sloshed it down with water you could damp down the worst of the pong.

The radio station shut down on Saturday due to lack of fuel for the generator, so faced with a prospect of sitting at the camp, I did a rare thing for a non-local and walked to the market. Everybody says “Maly” (“Hi”) and has to shake your hand, so I spent twice as long getting there and reckon by that time I must have met half the population, as well as having a filthy right hand.

All the kids want their pictures taken, and if you find one or two to photograph, within seconds they will become ten or more, all grabbing to see the picture. At one point a charcoal lorry stopped and the two guys got out to demand their picture taken too. Local people travel by foot, motor bike or bicycle, and the bikes are decorated with colourful plastic and cloth flowers, even those ridden by stern-looking military types, and it's not unusual to see men walking together holding hands.

It's proving to be pretty easy to be vegan if you can tolerate the same thing for each meal, as food is either straight veg, or meat, with rice and ugaali (a sorghum polenta-type bland starchy lump), and chapattis for breakfast. This is where the lime pickle and tabasco came in handy, so at least I was able to have a plate of rice with a bit of flavouring on it. Even the meat eaters turned their noses up at some of the food they were served.

Bad news on our last day when we were preparing to fly back in the morning – there'd been a cockup with our flight booking and we might have to stay two more days. However, the office at base was trying to get us 'green lighted' to get emergency authorisation to fly, even in you're not on the passenger list. Phew! next morning it came through so we were back with a team from STC in the landrover to the airport.

The system of catching a plane is intriguing – you check the “manifest”, a list of who's flying where and when, which usually appears about 3pm at the airport the day before your flight, you pitch up and they tick you off the list, carting your hold luggage off to the the plane in truck. However, they don't load it on until you physically identify your luggage on the tarmac by picking it up and handing it to the guy to load on the plane.

Our flights were with World Food Programme twin-prop thirty-seaters, and our hearts sank to hear they knew nothing about us travelling with them, so much conflabbing ensued between Chris the cabin crew and the pilot Simon, finally allowing us to travel. Couldn't have faced another two nights in Leer I'm afraid.

Arriving back in Rumbek after five days was like returning to civilisation, with – gasp! - salads, greens and other veg.

And then out the next day to Malualkon, 180 miles or so north-west of Rumbek. A cheery hello from Simon and Chris, then a stop off at Wau airport to pick up a single-prop light aircraft to Malualkon. One of the things I'm enjoying most is the unpredictable nature of the travel and sitting right behind the pilots is a bit of a buzz.

Malualkon is in direct contrast to Leer. It's much more chilled, no mud, and we stayed in lovely tukuls in the Mercy Corps compound, with – wow! - lentils and cassava leap slop to go with the ubiquitous rice and ugaali.

The radio station Nhomlaau FM (“Freedom” in Dinka) is only as minute away, and it's just as dysfunctional but in a different way. It's beautifully decorated inside with wall drapes, electric fans, it's clean, no flies, and great to see some friendly faces. They just happen to have the idea that they don't actually need to go and get any new programming, preferring to re-play the same eight programmes they've been running since about January.

I'm getting the hang of how people work here: everything's very literal, with clear job demarcations (you'll never get a bloke to sweep the floor, that's women's work), no room for ambiguity and little lateral or creative thinking. There's no place for pleasantries, no please and thank you, just “Give me that”, “Go there”, and it's not just a language thing either. There's a mindset that problems are solved by giving people threats, a beating or worse (seven people were shot dead yesterday here in Rumbek while we were away) and the response to challenges is often “I am a soldier and nobody tells me what to do”. This is not just my experience and it makes you wonder how long a country so damaged by forty years of civil war, a militaristic mentality and tribal rivalries will take to get sorted out to some semblance of a peaceful and democratic regime. Well that's what we're attempting to do, so we can but try. And don't get me started on how women are treated.....


Pics here: www.flickr.com/photos/melita666
Videos on YouTube as and when: www.youtube.com/melitadennett

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