Nuer Building Techniques

11 August 2011

A few weeks ago, we had a team meeting and HR workshop about what we thought the potential bad and potential good things were about MSF here in Lankien. This project has been here (between emergency evacuations) for many years, and has become a real hub. We often deal with refuels for bush planes on the mud airstrip, and Lankien itself, because cut-off over-land for most of the year also has become a central haven where refugees, if they can get here through the swamps, often will not go any further. The Daily labourers, who I have to hire from a crowd of a hundred or more gathered on a Monday morning, are always an interesting bunch, often from all-over. The women always playful, the men friendly and across the board, they are keen to work, sometimes more than the national staff, at least to begin with. I let them work for a few weeks, then have to lay some off because of MSF/ South Sudan Labour laws.

When I was away, I was apparently missed by them a great deal, probably because I enjoy their banter so much. They are a raggle-taggle bunch, who  I try to find skills in – and increasingly succeed, as the new skillset emerges and galvanizes here in the ‘Lankien sieve’. They are still all deepest, darkest Nuer, of course, with the exception of a couple of brown faces (sometimes Darfuri, or another northern tribe), and as I select them, often randomly in the panicky limelight of Monday morning, I increasingly go for the older men. They seem to work harder, and be more conscientious. Their English is usually non-existent, compared with the modern youngsters, who at least know how to say ‘How are you?’.

I go for days, sometimes, without hearing a word from the workers, but there is one older man who I brought in because he claimed to know how to thatch ‘Tukuls’ (the mud hut building technique). This old cowboy is a bit of a character, and, as I came across him in the compound yesterday, having walked through with the usual string of Nuer greetings, met him with the usual ‘Sheboot ke mahl’ (Good Afternoon).

‘Good Afternoon, my Dear’, was the instant reply, ‘please  follow me, gentlemen, and study my work’!

From somewhere, Puok (that is his name) has learned this old colonial English, and, with a Unicef notebook always tucked under his arm, he wanders around the compound, waxing lyrical. Puok has been hired because we have now the long-awaited go-ahead from Amsterdam to renovate and rebuild our Tukuls in the TB village, in the area of our ‘Sputum-Positive’ patients.

A Nuer Thatcher, by the name, I think, of Gatluak Duel.

It has been a real pleasure to be able to employ a workforce of Tukul teams who need absolutely minimal supervision, are not being employed to ‘build in the Kuwai way’. They can be left, for once not needing micromanagement, to do what they do best.  I have enjoyed watching how they construct – in that same way yurt-builders and celtic round-house builders do – their own mud round houses. Long conical poles to the crown sit their ends on top of low mud walls structured with woven sticks and lovely local rope.

A Tukul Crown against the Dry Blue Sky

This age-old lashing-together of concentric crowns makes me ponder some Darwinian universal theory of a common ancestor. How are these home-building processes so similar the world-over?  

Makuach and the Tukul Teams

This is the Tukuls in the midst of rebuild. Patients are 'shacked-up' with neighbours, waiting eagerly as they watch their new dwellings take shape.

New Tukuls in TB Positive!

Anyway, it is a pretty and sociable experience, despite the comical ‘Sputum Masks’ which make the workers look like they have beaks. My thatching lessons in TB Positive were one of the highlights of my week, and since providing new homes for all those delighted live-in patients, I have become extremely popular in TB Positive!