George Clooney, UN toilets, crashing laptops and a whole lotta mud

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Some of you may have seen George Clooney on Larry King last night talking about the situation in South Sudan. As you know from my previous posts, this is an area that is dear to our hearts. A big focus of our program is providing water and sanitation to the schools in this war-torn region. Just as I was heading to Kajo Keji County, South Sudan to scout some schools, my computer crashed (probably from a mixture of the terrible roads and intense dust clouds). I’m back up and running and write this latest update in clean clothes from the comfort of my Los Angeles home.

To get to Kajo Keji from Uganda you have to cross the river on a ferry because there is no bridge. I’ve done this many times and the experience is always fascinating… watching busses load on there with bikes, vehicles, people and trucks loaded with goods.

Because of this inconvenience, the border crossing is very easy. There is none of the chaos that you encounter at the other more popular borders. It’s more like a small town checkpoint. George even knew some of the guards so we ended up sitting and chatting with them while they processed the paperwork. The guards even offered us bottled water, which seemed very ironic. Kajo Keji, like the other areas we work in South Sudan, is just like the wild west. There is no power, no water, no real roads, nothing. It’s like a bomb just hit it. When we are in other areas of South Sudan where we work, I often stay in huts, where they bring the water for bathing from the river. But I love working in Kajo Keji because we get to stay at the UN compound, which means power, a real toilet and the only wi-fi I get to use outside of Kampala.

The local staff who work there are incredible and there is nothing comparable in the bush. The huts have self-contained bathrooms with running water. This particular compound was set up by UNHCR to deal with repatriation of the refugees who had fled to the neighboring countries during the war. Most of their work is complete now and they are planning to close the facility within the next couple of years.

On the first day we met with one of our friends who is a local official in charge of relief and rehabilitation. He has been helping us from the beginning and we always enjoy catching up with him. Luckily for us, he was able to travel with us for the three days we were scouting, which is always good when it comes to navigating. Wilson is a great driver but these areas are off the grid and the roads are crazy. Sometimes there is just no road at all. You just go off of the bumpy foot trail into a field and eventually end up at a school, 10 km later. So it’s definitely good to have a local riding along.

We spent three days visiting schools in four of the five payams (a payam is like a sub-county). As with the other counties in South Sudan, the pupils were mostly studying in huts and under trees, with raggedy blackboards leaned up against them. Very often they had no lunch at the school, or at home, so they would just play soccer during their lunch break with homemade soccer balls. There were no supplies, except a coveted box of chalk that all the teachers shared and were required to return to the box after each class. Kids sit on the ground or sometimes on large USAID and UNICEF cans.

The second day it rained heavily. It was heartbreaking to see the kids walking to school in the cold and rain. It was early morning and we were eating some chapatti and having coffee at a little bush restaurant when I noticed a small boy who was about 6 years old. He had slipped down in a deep puddle and was trying to hold back the tears as he struggled to keep up with the others, in his tattered school uniform which was completely covered in mud. It was cold and I knew he would probably be sitting in that muddy uniform all day.

As we traveled, we met no vehicles whatsoever, anywhere. There were only people trying to make their way in the mud and rain. Some of the resourceful ones would pick the large leaves from the banana plants and use them as an umbrella to shield themselves from the periodic downpours. I also get saddened on days like this when you inevitably see children filling their jerry cans with the disgusting water from the puddles.

The first education office we visited was completely deserted. I was clear that nobody had bothered to come in because of the rain. After waiting for over an hour (standard in Africa), we sent someone to bring a representative from the village. In a little while, an older man came trudging through the mud. He was wearing shorts and wellington boots… he was also completely wet. He unlocked the door and took us into the “office” where his first action, as is standard, was to hand us the guest book to sign. He then explained that he was a village elder and had been in charge of the schools in this area for many years. He went on to say that when the county officials decided to bring in new people to oversee the schools, they removed him from the position. But according to him, the people they assigned to the post never come. It was simply too remote. So with nobody else to do the job, he was continuing on… for free. Before we left, he asked me, quite seriously, what tribe I was from. I looked around in confusion at Wilson and George, who said in unison, ”America!!” Guess I just never looked at it that way.

Most of the schools we went to that day had few pupils or teachers because of the rain. It really made us feel bad for the ones who did make the effort to get there… the ones who wanted an education at all costs. The secondary students always steal my heart, particularly the girls. There is no incentive to proceed to secondary school, and plenty of obstacles. Girls drop out at a staggering rate after 4th grade. Sometimes grades 5-7 only have about five or six girls. So when you see the girls in secondary school trying so hard to get an education, you feel particularly obligated to help them.

Providing water to these schools does increase attendance… that’s a fact. There is also a crisis in terms of access to sanitation facilities. It’s all about basic human dignity…. something we often take for granted in the West.

After traveling to six schools in that payam (many were virtually empty because of the rains), we finally reached the last one of the day. Little did we know, this school had been waiting for us all day. They had received word early in the morning that we were possibly coming and prepared a program for us. When we arrived, there were about five hundred kids waiting. They sang songs and did skits about how badly they needed water. Right now the closest source for them is two km away from the school. It was so touching.

All in all, we identified ten very needy schools to start with. We are drilling the first five wells in November, as soon as the rains dry up and the equipment can access the areas.

After that we are crossing our fingers and hoping for the best with the historic referendum election. This could determine whether they go back to war or not. I know these people pretty well now. They are our employees, acquaintances, beneficiaries and friends. It’s hard to imagine them having to run from areal bombardments or being shuffled back into the refugee camps. These communities have been struggling for 20 years of war and are desperate for a chance for peace. They want to pull themselves up and move forward. They want to be like the rest of the world. If all goes well, South Sudan will be a new country soon. They have a long way to go. They need so much. But clean water at their schools is the best first step. What better way to begin a new country than with healthy, educated youth.

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Author: Stacey Travis

Founder and Executive Director of Drop in the Bucket a water charity building water wells and sanitation systems at schools in Africa.

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