The Journey

09 December 2010

Arriving at Jomo Kenyatta was a proper re-introduction to Africa. Plywood-painted booths on a little concours, which sell mainly mobile phone credit, which was handy, as I had instructions to get a local SIM card. Subsequently a call to 'Vincent', the MSF-contracted taxi-driver, and then meeting with his deputy, Danson, who took me to a small shopping centre and Massai market. I didn't really want to buy spears and beads, and the wireless wasn't happening, so I called, and asked to go early to my noon destination at 'Wilson International'.  I had an amazing flight in the mid-day sun in a little twelve-seater turbo-prop plane, which we had to virtually crawl into, with our individual packs of 'in-flight snacks' in paper-bags. Like a lear-jet, but miniature. Take-off and flight were rougher than the later flight in the smaller plane, and I was really tired from the over-nighter from London to Nairobi. These swathes of Kenyan desert drifted under the wings of the plane, and a million capilliaries of dried-out streams rooted to tributaries of the eventual Nile, and meanwhile I drifted in and out of a rocky consciousness.

Loki is an airstrip running along the Sudan-Kenya border, with the border town of Loki on one side. 'A lot hotter than Kenya' was the immediate impression, as I walked across the tarmac. I wasn't sure where to go, but saw a small kiosk with 'Immigration' written on it. I had a briefing paper, and as I was coming off the phone with a contact from the sheet, a Kenyan came up to me and introduced himself: Gabriel, the mechanic.

We drove down the dusty on-horse tarmac, onto a dirt road, and another, following a sign 'Hotel California'. I was reminded of the lyric: 'you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave', but when we got to the MSF compound, it was tranquil and luxuriously laid-out, with even a sky deck. We had driven along what seemed like half a mile of warehouse wall, and I was deeply preoccupied with my lack of knowledge of the MSF logistics system, of which this was the storage area. Shahid, who I had talked to on the phone at the 'Airport' quickly reassured me in the compound of whose roles were whose, what I would be expected and not expected to do straight away, and gave me a great introduction to the South Sudan scene.

Three days later saw me back on the Airstrip, checking-in and ready to fly to Lankien, about which, by now, I had heard so much.

'You have a Kenyan visa for twenty-four hours, but you have been here for three days. Why?'. The customs man was distinguished and friendly, but it was true; I had not known which country Loki was in, had done what I was told, but had forgotten, getting over my arrival fatigue, to tie-in my new knowledge of where I was with how I had got here, and what had come before.

He let me off, and we flew, this time more awake, and after prayers in the cockpit with the pilot, out again, and into Southern Sudan.

Lankien appeared through the windscreen, and immediately I realised it was bigger than I had expected. Scores of people were there to meet the little plane as it taxied to a rocky standstill; amongst them Laraine, who I had corresponded with, and Tyler, who I was to replace. It quickly became apparent that people were open and laid-back, but as I was given the grand tour, I was completely bewildered by the amount of work that had been done and was on-going.

It was a huge information overload, especially given the seeming inscrutible nature of the tall, Nuer tribespeople who, despite tremendous friendliness, seemed more poised and noble in demeanour than other African folk I have lived with before. Tyler obviously had cultivated a loyal and hard-working workforce here, but their abilities, aptitudes, preferences, payscale, language, even names, seemd totally unfathomable to me that first day. As I was walked around the mud buildings of the surprisingly extensive health centre, I was also made repeatedly aware of the fact that I was to cover for Laraine in supply and human resource logistics too, within three weeks from now.

I gradually realised that Tyler's workforce were more self-sufficient than I had feared, that things would, to an extent, run themselves if I were to make mistakes, and most importantly, that I was to be here for nine months, and that I was not expected to 'run with it' immediately, as I would be in the world of Film Production on location. I was greeted at the airstrip by Shiela, an american midwife who gave me a big hug, and immediately made me feel welcome with her care over what I needed immediately to know; where to go with my bag, etc.

I wanted to help unload the plane, and tried a bit, but was equally aware of not knowing how things were, and where they went. After going around the compound, trying to take in what was solar-powered, which water system was linked to which, what drains went to what cesspits, how the latrine pits worked, and a million other things, I had a very calming meeting with Sammi, the Project Coordinator. He gave me the necessary security briefings, and then we went to pick my Tukul (mud hut) in the compound. Buildings here are made from upright posts, set in the ground, with woven wattle sticks in-between, which are then 'daubed' with the fine clay-mud three times , and they are topped with a round, thick-thatched cone-shaped pointed roof. They are relatively cool, and, although the thatch can house a lot of the (rather large) African bats, I have slept very well in mine every night so far.

I knew that an important first task when I arrived was to look at the second generator, which had been out-of order for the last two months. In the confusion and bewilderment of the first forty-eight hours, I thought it might be therapeutic for me to focus on this, despite worrying about the time being needed to learn the broader job. Luckily for me, I finally managed to have a moment of inspiration about re-polarising a relay magnet, thereby re-polarising the Alternator magnet, which seems to have made the thing work well again.

At the end of the first day, there was wine-drinking around the table at the expat compound entrance - the nerve-centre of life here - but it was commented how seldom this happened, so I decided to save the bottle of Penderyn I had brought along for my first saturday night 'on the job', and we had a great evening of talking and drinking. The DVDs I had brought are going down well, too, and it is great to feel so welcome in an environment of such like-minded, gentle, and hard-working folk.

I still am looking around me now, sat at the table, and looking at the compound fence, behind which the cattle are roaring and snorting, waiting to be driven to their 'camps' which will follow the receding water-source away from the drying plains of Nyirol. The fence is made of Sorgum, the main - possibly only - local crop, a tall thick grass reed, and is bulging in need of reinforcement. Everywhere, there is work to do, and at some point very soon, it will be in my hands to see to it. But today is a day off, and we took the frisbee to the airstrip, and taught the crowd of kids how to throw, making a spectacle of ourselves to the cattle-drovers, and constant stream of pedestrian traffic over the well-used communal area. Last night we all 'went to town' - to the market, and had a can of the local brew opposite a Chai seller's stall. Some of the locals are unfeasibly tall - six foot ten sometimes, and often dressed in traditional loose robes.

Today we cook for ourselves, and I hope to knock something together later from the supplies that we keep in the storeroom next to the office. Last night I killed a scorpion which was wandering around by our feet, but the excitement reassured me that the advent of scorpions is relatively rare. Hundreds of frogs are around at the moment, but there is no overload of mosquitoes, and the lizzards and frogs seem to keep many other insects at bay. Snakes are also one to watch, but, as a medical organisation, we keep all the necessary serums to treat any eventuality. Karate kid is playing on the DVD, and I am preparing to sign off and enjoy the rest of my well-earned day off.