Back From South Sudan and Surprise Visit from UNICEF

Friday morning we arrived at the tiny airstrip ready to head back to Juba, the capital of South Sudan. While we were waiting, I saw one of the representatives from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), who had also been in the general NGO meeting the day before.  He told me that they were excited to hear more about our unique toilet design, saying they were particularly interested in the idea of sustainability. He casually mentioned something about a sub-contract for some “quick implementation” projects they have coming up. I wasn’t planning on bringing our Loo Crew up to this region for at least another year. But I’m certainly willing to reconsider.

As the plane took off, the vast landscape below appeared extremely desolate. The soil is not good for growing crops, in the best of conditions, and we learned there is fear of famine this year due to a lack of food and the great number of returning refugees.

This brought to mind some of the people we’d met during the week in the villages.

Bahr El Gazhal is one of the poorest regions I’ve seen.  Everybody coughs and hacks all the time because they’re sick.  They walk very long distances to collect dirty water.  There is very little in the way of basic infrastructure, such as clinics for those needing care, and having no money to pay a doctor even if there were facilities.  School enrollment is extremely low and the children in the villages seemed unusually skeptical of me.  I was told that the only light-skinned people they’d really ever known had been Arabs, whom they feared, because they had grown up during the bloody civil war with the North. I hope that having clean water at their schools will help increase these kid’s chances of getting an education and learning about more the outside world.

We visited one lady who lives with her four children in a thatched hut with huge holes in the roof.  Her son is named Doctor John, after the late Doctor John Garang, the leader of the South Sudan revolution.  Garang died in a helicopter crash, in 2005, just after the Peace Agreement was signed.

Despite the dire living conditions, the people seem to have a faint sense of hope for the future, now that they are their own country, independent of the North.  The Republic of South Sudan flags boldly wave everywhere, bright and colorful against the stark, desperate background of life in Aweil.

I was excited to get back to Juba.  We dropped off an updated letter to the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), notifying them that our trip to Aweil was a great success and we would be starting our program in Aweil East County, which has 128 schools.

Next we left for Yei, which is a county over by the border of Congo. We had a big meeting scheduled to discuss the drilling costs for the team we’ll be working with in Aweil.

It was raining all the way there and apparently the locals call it Small London because of that. Our meetings went perfectly. We negotiated the exact price we had hoped and everyone left the meeting happy.

Driving back to Uganda you could actually see the Congo border. There were Congolese merchants on one side of the road and South Sudanese on the other.

After driving all day, we finally reached the Drop in the Bucket offices in Gulu. The next morning, the teams from the field started showing up early to turn in their reports and receipts.

I was happy with everything our team had accomplished while we were in South Sudan.  They handled follow-up on a number of projects and did assessments of schools in two new districts.  We now have even more schools in need on our list.

Our office was a mess with dirty boots, field paraphernalia and two weeks worth of collected data, from two teams, strewn about. As I was sitting at the desk trying to get things organized, I noticed a surprise visitor at the gate. Through the window, I could see a UN truck pull up. They wanted to talk about our toilets and asked us for a budget. That was unexpected and a nice welcome back to Uganda.

Later in the day, I also received an email from the UNICEF Chief Director of Water and Sanitation for the entire country of Uganda.  He was asking if we could come to Kampala for a meeting with them about our toilets.

I finished up the pressing business in Gulu and packed my bags, again. I spent Friday with our office full of people. We had Jacob going over his reports and getting new assignments; Geoffrey, one of our builders, discussing materials needed for his project at Gulu High School; and our new accountant, Elvis, helping me put together the budget for the UNICEF meeting.

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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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