Settling In

14 December 2010

Monday morning was the most daunting morning so far.

The drums have been constant this week. I wondered how one man could keep the same rhythm through the night and well into the afternoon of the next day. Sundays are the most tuneful days, though, with church harmonies and drumming drifting across from the church. Sudanese seem to spend their entire day drifting in and out of song, and working or walking next to folk suits my musical brain very well. Today I heard a liberation song, and as I write, the Mamas are cleaning and preparing our evening food in a happy tumult of quiet song.

Today, Riek, the younger new worker with good English, said that everybody would be sad. We had just seen Tyler onto his final plane, and it was very emotional for the whole community, so I said I was sad, too.

‘No, we are sad today, but we will be sad when you go in nine months’. I have barely been here nine days, and was deeply touched at how much I have already been welcomed into the life of the community. I also feel for these folks, as they must be terrified every time a new ‘cor-medit’ or ‘boss’ is due to arrive for their nine-month stint. Somehow MSF have managed to filter a certain type of character into their organisation, and I have not yet met an expat who does not display the basic characteristics of gentleness, open-mindedness and conscientious professionalism. But one could slip through the net, and these peoples’ lives would be hugely disrupted, their open respect and camaraderie would be assaulted by any abuse from an unscrupulous expat worker. I already feel deeply protective, even having only been here for one ‘rotation’. (Time here is measured in the flight rotations of our MSF plane – every ten days it comes with its one-ton limit of supplies and people, and takes returns to HQ in Loki).

A tsetse fly has been biting me this lunchtime whilst I have been sat at the communal table in the shade. Sleeping sickness is relatively uncommon in this region, but they are evil horseflies with pointed abdomens, and their aggression makes you incredulous. The 8 foot by 4 foot table is the centre of life for us all here, where all things - official and unofficial - get discussed. Work starts at 8am after breakfast round the table. Then it stops at 1pm, and resumes at 3.30pm until six. Each of us has ongoing work before, after, and in-between, some of us on-call, me on duty to switch things like water supply and generators On Saturdays, in the afternoon, we do not work, but have a meeting, where everybody talks about their week. It is chaired by our Kenyan Project Co-ordinator, Sammi.

Indeed, it seems to be MSF policy and tradition everywhere to have this over-table-exchange. Last night, at Tyler’s leaving party, it was an unspoken expectation that we would all address him with our thoughts, congratulations, and individual expressions of love and respect. Then a response would be voiced by him to whoever’s speech, declaring his positive observations, respect, and appreciation. It is a bit daunting as an exercise in ‘public’ speaking, but wonderful to revive that very under-rated practice of eulogy.

Friendship here comes fast, when work, professional respect, and constant society all bundle into one, cemented by that superglue bond of adversity. After we had been to the market and bought some small comedy presents for him, we all showered and cooked some food. Midwife Sheila even managed to cook a cake in an improvised steam-oven! While this was going on, and after I had penned a rather lame attempt at a comedy reference, I got a call from the compound gate. Riek, again, was at the gate with a small billy-goat that he said Sammi had ordered. My slight disbelief manifested itself more because I knew food was already being cooked, and nevertheless, I would expect the slaughter, preparation, and cooking of a whole goat to take at least an afternoon.

I was slightly dumbfounded when Sammy led the goat away, kicking and baulking, and returned less than an hour later with several pieces of still-warm butchered cuts. I helped him wrap them in seasoning and foil, and we put them into the oil-drum oven grill which rusts next to the compound entrance-gate. Needless to say, the meat was delicious, and prepared in this Kenyan way by Sammi.

Every morning, I have been running on the hardened clay airstrip. Getting up at dawn is a lovely procedure when you have had enough sleep, with the African sunrise through the receding bush, and the early-morning people giggling and staring and the playful gang of dogs wanting to join in on the running game . This morning, I gave my aching legs a rest, and took the duty to check and report the airstrip landing conditions to our Logistic HQ in Loki via satellite phone. No running for me today, after a 1am bedtime, after Tyler’s leaving party.

The market is a vast and dusty affair of straw-built stands and mud Tukuls (huts), and stalls selling Darfurian and Somalian-traded bits and bobs. Matches with elephants on, old-style tin torches, soap bars, cheap short-wave ‘world service’ radios, goats; all this is covered in dust, and packaged in that unique fifties colonial packaging seen everywhere in Africa. It is so charming and indescribable to be amongst this ‘product’ again; it’s effect on the minutiae of your everywhere-everyday activity would be very difficult to recapture in a film, yet it is the thing, maybe above all others, that lets you know you are in Africa. Children play in dust-bowls full of billowing rubbish, and the open defacation is politely ignored by all protagonists in the trading.

An ancient and broken-down monument to British imperialism haunts the wide entrance to the market, with its collapsed suspension. A drop-side flat-bed Commer lorry, made in Coventry, I believe, in the nineteen fifties, starting to be slowly buried in the drifting dust, emits a grey-painted, Golgotha-esque presence, and, like a clocktower, marks the centre of the village of Lankien.

Just now I heard my first motorised vehicle since being here – apart, that is, from the regular planes and occasional helicopter, landing right outside the sorgum (reed-grass) walls of the MSF compound. A donkey is currently eyor-ing in the road, but dry season is here, and before long we hope for a truck to make the two week trip from the capital with heavy supplies like cement, timber, and batteries for our ailing solar-bank. The oxygen machines are the biggest concern, as they need to run through the night, and it is a huge waste of resources to have to run the generator all night for this life-preserving service. Our current batteries seem to be struggling with this load, and although voltages remain high, and we don’t have the equipment to test them properly, they are getting old now, and do not hold a charge during empirical testing.

Generator fuel supply is balanced against immediate health-care, and indeed, it is in these fine balances that our jobs, as logisticians, lie. South Sudan is one of the more difficult locations in terms of supply, and I shall be taking charge of this for the project in ten days-time while Laraine goes on leave for nearly three weeks. My coming week will be filled with learning again, of the way that procurement is done, with the strict and organised protocols stamped into the age-old field practices of MSF.