**This is straight from the field, so please forgive any grammar or spelling mistakes.**
Our driver, Wilson and I are leaving this morning for Juba, the capital city of South Sudan, where I have meetings all week. I’m especially looking forward to this coming Saturday when Juba will host South Sudan’s historic Independence Day Celebration. On July 9th, the Republic of South Sudan will become the 193rd country in the world.
Following our trip to Juba, our logistical director, George and I are flying to Aweil County in the Bahr El Gazhal region, near the Darfur border. The road to Aweil is in terrible condition and it could take four days traveling by car. Fuel prices are so high that I’m certain it’s cheaper to fly. Aweil County is an extremely needy area and we just connected with a new driller there. Our plan is to meet with local officials and start setting up a team to work in the area.
Wilson is driving me to Juba in George’s small car and he’ll return to Uganda to work with our project director, Jacob on projects there for the next two weeks. We are leaving our truck in Uganda where it is needed most.
I have to admit that driving this small car is very different from the truck on these crazy roads. We’re just going from Gulu to Juba, which is about a 5-hour drive, but we can’t get there soon enough. On the way, we pass the site of a recent bus crash! It’s been a big topic of conversation around here. Two busses collided a few weeks ago, killing around 50 people. We stop to see the wreckage, which is still at the roadside. The whole situation is completely tragic and you can feel a somber energy around the mangled busses.
Juba is very busy with people getting ready for the celebration. Many world dignitaries are coming and security is very tight. Traffic police are pulling over cars with window tint and ripping it off, on the spot.
Hotels are booked solid. Luckily we have a place to stay! But there are a few items missing from the room… like a towel, which I didn’t notice until I came out of the cold shower!
Wilson left today and George is coming tomorrow. So for one day I’m here by myself. But it’s okay. I know people here and feel very comfortable.
The ladies who work here are extremely nice and even willing to walk to get me food from a place down the street. So far, it’s been beans and rice or fries. I tried the fish once but it’s too fishy for me. I’m sticking with vegetarian!
When things cool down, I sit outside on the balcony compiling the documents I need to take to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UOCHA). There are blinking Christmas lights hanging from the building, which is funny since it’s a hot Sudan night. I can see several blocks from the balcony. Although we’re in the city, it’s very quiet. People are just sitting around or slowly milling about. I have a Romanian man who works for the UN staying in the room on one side of me and an Irish road contractor on the other.
Everything in Juba is very expensive. Jim, the Irish contractor, told me about trying to rent a place and the first price was 600 Sudanese pounds a month. Then, when he showed interest, they raised it to 1800 Sudanese pounds. These folks here take haggling to a new level and are unapologetic about it. We’re so fortunate to have such great people working for us, who help up keep prices in line. If we didn’t have great connections here, I know it would be a difficult place to work. The need is so huge but it’s not that easy to navigate. This may be why fewer NGOs have come to help. I think they will start coming now that the country has independence. I just feel so fortunate that we connected with such a great team from the beginning who really make things flow smoothly.
I tried to exchange money here but there are no Sudanese pounds at the bank. The new country will have a new currency and I’m guessing nobody wants to get stuck with the old money. I also try to get a modem for my computer but it comes “African-style”, with no proper receipt. I’m sure they bought it from the black market and I can’t turn in sketchy receipts for that much money, so I send it back and try to get one from the company but they are completely sold out. Cell phone reception is also terrible. This region needs so much in terms of development.
A Chinese family bought the hotel where we’re staying. They’re working non-stop to get it ready for the big weekend. The biggest thrill to me is that they’ve installed AIR-CONDITIONING!! It’s hot, hot, hot here and, because of the cost, I’ve never stayed in an air-conditioned hotel. In the past, tents were renting for $200 USD per night. But these guys are working hard to make this place nice and the price is still good. There is a sign that says they plan to have internet, cable, hot water and meals coming soon. Most importantly, they have the generator going all day (instead of just at night, as before). Juba runs on generators and a lot of places only run them at night. Only having power at night makes our mobile office a lot less efficient, especially once the computer battery dies. All the printing also has to be done at night, at the same time we’re charging all the cell phones, satellite phones, cameras, etc. Today the mobile office is running 100% though – cool and air-conditioned, with non-stop power.
Here in Juba I feel like I’m on another planet. There are extremely tall, coal black, towering, Southern Sudanese men coming out of their rooms for morning tea. The men all wear this African loungewear that consists of matching short-shirt sets, in floral patterns. But there is no questioning their manhood. You know around here that all the men fought in the war and lived in the bush for decades. These guys are tough, despite their delicate floral attire.
This is the 3rd time I’ve had a Sudanese person say to me, “You got fat!!” Now this has happened on three different trips, when I know I haven’t gained any weight. That’s one thing I know for sure, I don’t gain weight around here. So after the third time, I ask my team what they mean. They tell me it’s a compliment like, “You look healthy” or “You look good.” This is a place where people have seen their friends starve, literally. Sometimes I forget just what all these folks have gone through. I know it in my head but it’s hard to comprehend that everybody here has been dealing with war their entire lives. They’ve seen the worst of the worst that humanity has to offer…. famine, war, disease and excruciating poverty. I guess being fat is a good thing to them. It sure puts everything in perspective. It also makes me even that much more honored to be here to help get water to the villages and to share in this historic independence celebration.