Tuesday, October 07, 2008


Goodbye to Sudan... for the time being?

Ali tapped the map of Ethiopia with his index finger. “I’ve been here…. And here…. And here…”. But he wasn’t a tourist, he was pointing out the refugee camps and routes he’d taken to reach them.

It was sobering to realise that every person I’d met had been touched in some profound way by four decades of civil war: as refugees, soldiers or both, and as people who’d lost family members and friends, witnessed or - let’s admit it – even committed atrocities.

But here they were, hungry to learn, eager to play a part in a country with a still uncertain future, working with small local groups, international NGOs or projects like our community radio stations. When I think back to recruiting our team of five journalists in Kurmuk, taking them from scratch and working closely to train them as broadcasters, seeing them develop and gain confidence in just a few weeks, I knew that it was worth taking the trouble with people who were clearly smart but had been held back by scant educational opportunities and the legacy of war.

My one big sadness was that, thanks to the burglary, I wouldn’t see the team actually get on air. The logistics of ordering and shipping replacement equipment meant a long delay, so the team was to return to base at Rumbek with me and my lovely co-trainer, an ebullient female Kenyan broadcaster, Terry Micheni.

Terry, the team and I were due to return on the one flight out a week, giving us a week back at Rumbek, then each of us back to our respective homes. All the radio station staff were going to Rumbek for a team meeting, so when we weren’t actually listed to get on that flight, my heart sank. The next option was a private charter to collect us and another team who’d not found room on the flight either.

Unnervingly, I was to give Rumbek a weather report on the morning of the flight to see if the plane should even bother taking off, let alone go to Kurmuk. We knew that if it rained and the airstrip became unworkable, the charter would be lost and we faced a nail-biting time waiting for another to be organised, our flights back home looming ever nearer. So when the thunderstorm crashed and the rain lashed at 9pm on the night before, Terry decided to put her faith in god, while I trusted to the vagaries of the local meterological conditions.

I had a vision of a night of heavy rain, then calling in at 7am to be economical with the truth about the weather, and causing an awful crash as the plane landed on a sodden runway. However, at 6am, thanks to god, Allah or meteorology, the day was brightening and the clouds clearing. Much as I loved Kurmuk, the prospect of green vegetables and no sloppy lentils was an exciting one, so I was glad to be getting back to Rumbek after two months.

I was concerned that our team of green journalists would be intimidated by meeting people who were old hands now at broadcasting, but I needn’t have worried, as they charmed everyone they met and held their own in group discussions and our social get-togethers, and when it was time for them to return to Kurmuk after a few days, tears were shed on both sides as we waved each other off to our respective futures.

It was genuinely sad to be leaving Sudan after an eventful four months. I’d met some amazing characters, made some new friends, received invites to several countries, rejected innumerable propsals of marriage, worked intensively with people who repaid that work by visibly developing in their knowledge, skills, enthusiasm and motivation, and seen ways that small changes can lead to bigger things. Much as I needed the break after sixteen weeks of thinking about work, planning work, talking about work and actually working, I didn’t feel like this was a final goodbye to Sudan, more an “adieu” until we meet again.


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