Nuer Building Techniques

August 11th, 2011 by Rupert

Tukul Building in the TB Village.

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!

Water Messiah 2

August 6th, 2011 by Rupert

When a Cholera outbreak happens, everybody turns into a ‘WatSan’ officer, even the medics. But even under everyday circumstances, 70% of all of my activity has a ‘WatSan’ agenda. Water supply is our biggest issue. The stuff we can do is all in hand (preparation of pit Latrines, soakaways, etc) is arranged around a bag of cement which we might or might not get on the next plane if we don’t need so much – say – polio vaccine, and go without potatoes in our diet. But cement is heavy. I want to show Ajoy, while he is visiting, the town Water Tower. I have been told that our remit at the moment is to provide support for Lankien’s water, but the town have abused this water-tower that MSF originally helped to set-up. Electricity is witchcraft here, but if it is available, why not take it? Whether you understand it or not… that is the way people have grown up here. Take it while it’s there. Tomorrow it will be gone.

Lankien Waste Disposal System

So the generator has been burnt-out, but people have had some good discos. Stereos, market-stall lighting, and other gear have brought folk temporary affluence and amusement. They are now sheepish about asking MSF to fix it so the town can survive the dry season. The valves are sticking – obviously bent, in the little Yanmar. This much I have seen. One solution would be to carry the cylinder-head on foot across to the Pathai Bridge swamp (70 miles), then truck it to Juba, then order parts, find a reliable (English-speaking) workshop in a country with no postal system; keep track of it; and expect it back? Ever? I think not.

I am very frustrated by this, as it means that the town are using all of our water. The dry season is upon us. Lankien itself always smells of defacation in certain parts, and we always have to step around it in our flip-flops. Human faeces lying around the village dries, and dissolves into the dust. The wind whips dust up into storms. We are breathing it all the time. 24/7. Water is scarce. But Ajoy, it seems, has the authority to OK Water Tower fixing. It will be a good result for his visit, so we start investigating.

It is great to have Ajoy’s authority to be able to fix long-term problems, but I am limited by my detailed supply-orientated schedules. Up to now I have been told to leave the Town Water Tower, but I reckon my years improvising electrical, plumbing, and mechanical tinkering could come in useful here. It is clear that no-one else within several hundred miles knows any more than me, at least. There is potential for high impact, with minimal reliance on supply. Ajoy sees it, too. In my naivete, I expect that Ajoy knows something of the spec of the borehole pump deep underground, of the complex control electronics, etc. Nothing. So it falls to me, and before I know it, I am in too deep to back out…

Thomas Chuol Weictuor cleaning the Water Tower

The Tower is a grand metal structure. Very out-of-place in the little bush village of Lankien, but a potential godsend to relieve our impending Water crisis in the clinic. It has not worked for many months. The water comes up from the submerged electric borehole pump 200 feet down, and by two and a half inch pipe which runs across the ground and some 40 feet up to the giant steel tank. There is a trap-door in the top of the tank, for access, and from there I can get inside with a ‘technician’ from the village who, reeking of Cong (the local sorghum wine), I set to work clearing the mountains of dust brought up into the tank by the borehole water. This is not a healthy borehole. But it will do for a while if we can fix it.

Deep subterranean Dust

I’m sure, though, that the pipes are OK. We have already undone the inspection cover on the pipe from the borehole. A stream of water came out, so I ascertained that there had been a head of water in the pipe, some way up to the Tower. When I sucked, there was an up-and-down wave detectable by draught, and clearly vacuum from the borehole end. Suction means presence of water, right?

Back in the shack on the ground, which houses the burnt old generator, there is a control-box. The locals look at it like it’s an alien ready to burst out of somebody’s chest. Inside is a series of relays and contact breakers. Complicated. But I’ve seen worse. Problem is, power to test it. Everything stops. No power. This is the way it is in Lankien. Slow. The day grinds to a halt. In the back of my mind are questions, too: ‘Is it three-phase or single?’, ‘Why this dizzying array of breaker switches?’.

A Dizzying Array of Spaghetti and Breaker Switches

But people are interested. Suddenly I am tapped on the shoulder through the crowd of pushing and pensive onlookers (all men…?) by a boy. I cannot understand what he is saying: ‘Machina, machina’, pointing to a tall youngish guy, coming through the crowd. Funnily enough, he is called Gai. He introduces me to the Lankien Electrical Corporation, in the form of a Jiang Deng Chinese diesel generator which, like all such things here, is dodgy beyond recognition. The alternator itself, a huge drum (powerful, hopefully), has what is left of a fusebox on top with wires sprouting-out, twisted together and wrappes in bits of old carrier-bag for insulation. This is standard Nyirol wiring. ‘Um, Danger: High Voltage’.

Malow, of course, is at my shoulder. I sent for him as soon as it got technical. Teaching has to be on the job, because of the language barrier. I send him to get our two long extension leads from the log store, and before we know it, things are connected the hundred metres or so across the market place.

But the voltage is too high. Gai’s mad machine is knocking-out 350 volts of power, wires hanging-off, not governed, sparking left, right and centre, and it’s just tripping the fuses. I can feel all 350 volts when I touch the metal control box. I earth it with a trigano tent-peg and some wire from the log store. Back to head-scratching and chin-stroking. I set up a chain of sign-language signalmen across to his generator, and tell him to keep coming down, down, down in speed until my tester reads 230v. Fuses are still jumping out. ‘Down, down, down’…

Finally, at 195 volts, the fuses stop tripping. I go out to check, as it seems there is a definite ‘load’ I can sense on the circuit. Ajoy has returned, joined by Mery, our acting PC. I run up the ladder, but already I can hear the rush of water. A few minutes later the market taps start running, and people rush to fill the buckets which have quietly accumulated.

But there are politics. As with so many things here, the taps only partially work. People want to drink the water, which is putrid and full of sand. We could now be held liable for providing this water, or at least have to treat the fallout in the hospital. It may be months before we can motivate the Commissioner’s men to clean the tank. As MSF, we have to try to pass-on responsibility pro-actively. We need to convince the community to hire a proper technician, not me, to set-up the system more permanently; to get a new generator; to know how Water, Electricity, and Mechanics works. These tribesmen, who did survive a childhood of war-time desert-wandering, malnutrition, refugee camps and orphanry, seldom have one of the above skillsets, let-alone all three. At this moment, I am the only person in Nyirol county with a hope of working this rig.

Lankien Electricity Corporation: Gai’s crazy generator

Gai is held in awe simply because of his generator. Like so many others, he does not trust the Commissioner’s word to pay him for the use of the generator to test, and much of the afternoon has been spent brokering a deal of payment which the Commissioner can respect, and that Gai can trust.

So a skilled man will need convincing, but if this show of possibility can be successful, the motivation and obvious need for water, coupled with the drive for the New South Sudan may create a new trust. Surely that’s not too much to ask?

Although my work here seemed only the beginning of a full-on social education project, walking home through the market, it is odd and a bit perverse to be greeted as if I am the Messiah who has brought Water. I was preoccupied with the transience of one-off fixes, but I did fell quite pleased with myself, nevertheless, and the Water-Tower was, afterall, a working demonstration.

 

Post Script:

As MSF, sometimes our only power in a country is to threaten to withdraw our services. In this situation, if we manage the withdrawal well, we can pass-on services to local people, supporting and training them as necessary. I had various encounters with the Commissioner, and passed on messages of how important it is to hire an engineer who we would support, but who would be here after we have gone. So when Wur turned up in the compound office, I was over the moon… HOORAY!!!

Water Messiah I

August 3rd, 2011 by Rupert

It’s Friday afternoon and Ajoy, visiting Water/Sanitation advisor, new to South Sudan, is shouting at Makuach, my right hand man, about ‘Behpar’. Ajoy is animated. He is an MSF ex-pat from India, with a strong West Bengali accent. I can’t understand him. He is in an authority position amongst my men. And he is shouting. For an organisation like MSF, the one over-riding and biggest part of our logistical activity on the ground here is Water and Sanitation. The dry season is starting to get its claws in, and Ajoy has taken a day or two to get his head around the lack of supplies here. We are now walking around the village and he’s seeing, finally, that you really can buy nothing from the market. NOTHING. There is no vehicle access to Lankien. The ramifications are difficult to compute. He has come from our neighbouring projects, which have some kind of vehicle access. You can buy things on the market there. Nails. Even wood…

But I am sure this animated discussion will only upset and confuse the men, whose consummate anxiety is to please the ‘Kuwai’ (white man, of which Ajoy is one). I keep hearing ‘Behpar’ being mentioned. I have listened carefully to Ajoy’s accent, and tried to decipher it. I know for a fact that, if I can’t, what hope is there of my guys getting it? I know they struggled to understand me, because my accent was hard, until I imitated a broad American accent (my predecessor, Tyler, was Canadian). At this point all became clear, and they dissolved into beaming smiles of understanding. ‘Now you are speaking English’, sighed Makuach in relief. The Cheek of it.

Suddenly, they are talking back to Ajoy about Behpar!! Is this some WatSan jargon I don’t know? What do they know that I don’t? Everybody here has worked for MSF longer than me. Is it another acronym for something? A standard or protocol from our Amsterdam HQ?, maybe a special tool I haven’t been told about… I love the archaic way the Nuer talk English, the ‘song of a machine’, ‘motor cars’, ‘disappointments’ and ‘mistakes’ instead of ‘betrayals’ and ‘lying’, but what is this word? Composure, composure… I should know this. People will question my authority and ability… ‘Behpar’. Is it Kipling?

Suddenly it dawns on me. ‘Spare Parts’!!! My qualifications are two English degrees (I am purely technically self-taught), and I like to think I can communicate. It is incredible that these guys, speaking English from two different continents, can understand each other without me in the picture. What a weird world. This is a cultural bridge I don’t need to build. We have had not had the easiest introduction to each other, but Ajoy is a very gentle soul, with an excited outlook on technical innovation.

Stars and the guards

May 31st, 2011 by Rupert

Who would have thought I’d be sitting around under the starry dome of South Sudan, learning the names and stories of the stars from Nuer Warriors in the quiet of the night? A more gentle and hapless bunch of guys you couldn’t invent, but in the ways of spear-fighting, bushlore, and cattle-defence, the MSF guards command the respect of all comers, be they Nuer and Dinka, or Murle.

Gatuak Thiey, Mut Rot, and Isaac (the fattest man in the village) in self-styled Colonial Pose

Obviously their names for stars, and the shapes cast in the night sky by the old Nuer imagination are different. The word for the pliades is ‘QuelYuk’ – ‘Thin Stars’. From what I can make out, the ‘wateriness’ of their appearance is associated with the rain that is missing when they are in the sky, and so when the Pliades Constellation drops over the horizon, is the time for the rainy season to come. Wanbel, at the other side of the sky, becomes more dominant when the rains will come, and is associated with the Sorghum growing season.

A cowboy sets off for cattle camp with his bay and his herd

For Orion, these cowboys only see the belt and the sword. The story is one of travel across the night sky of a lone cowboy, followed by his cow (the middle star on the belt), and guarded by his faithful dog behind him (the last star). The sword, outlying, is the Hyena, which is trying to pick-off the cow, but is prevented by the dog’s straight persistence. Simple, but effective.

Pensive Cowboy at Lankien Auction

Pensive Cowboy at the Cattle Auction

The prettiest Constellation name is for Venus. I forget the Nuer name now, but, she being the morning star, towards which the moon comes across the sky (the world is split by the milky way), is called something-like ‘…who waits patiently for the moon to come home’.

Last night, I had the guards in stitches as they taught me what I found out were the pejorative terms for ‘Hunchback’ and ‘One-eye’. I religiously repeated the expressions, until they told me I’d better not use them on people unless I wanted to get in quite a lot of trouble. Not very appropriate for an MSF worker!

This evening saw all the guards rallying to control the crowds in the compound. Arrival of a gunshot wound, combined with ‘Water Collection Time’ for staff wives, and ‘visiting time’ for IPD (in-patient department) all happened at once, and there was near mayhem.

A Lankien ambulance brings a wounded man in on a bush-stretcher

Luckily the guards were changing-over, so we had at least seven available. We needed every one of them, although I had to disarm one of them who had, it seemed, brought a spear to work. Gunshot wounds always involve an entourage, which has to be managed. The wound was from a fight with the Murle tribe. These fights are always over cattle, and the Murle are not disarmed -unlike your average Nuer, who only has a spear. I have never seen these Murle people, who still live so much in the old nomadic way, and with whom the Nuer seem to have a lifelong feud. Children are abducted by both sides, as well as lifestock, to swell tribal numbers, and when asked whether a strange-looking man might be a Murle, I was laughed-at. ‘You will know when you see a Murle’, came the reply. They rarely wear more than a loincloth, and are, like Nuer, tall and foreboding. As MSF, we treat everybody equally, so Murle have no quarrel with us. Luckily.

Eric’s Firkin Chicken

May 9th, 2011 by Rupert

As I have mentioned before, our cargo plane days are quite a pleasure. There is always lots to do, but the Dornier planes that come are crazy old buses, and the pilots always old-school mavericks who have been on the Central/East Africa circuit for years. They have many stories to tell, but they don’t volunteer them.

Me at the airstrip

Me at the airstrip

Sometimes I help them fix stuff like broken fuel tank filler-caps which threaten to fy off the wings mid-flight, and either spew the fuel mid-air and strand them, or allow it to flood off and into the red-hot turbojet unit. But it is the pilots’ eccentricity which entertains me the most. One guy, ‘French Eric’, as I call him, has a withered arm, and taxis to a stop with a Marlboro Red in his mouth, lighter at the ready. Last time I saw him, one hot January day, he brought us a ton and a half of PlumpyNut for the malnourished kids/patients.

‘Geev me some Plumpynut for my Chicken, just two sachets’ were the first words that came out from his ever-disgruntled mouth, and I had to cock my ear over the noise of the engines coming to a halt. I smiled weakly, and tried to change the subject to one I could understand.

‘What are we going to do about that puncture on the front undercarriage wheel?’, I offered hopefully.

‘Yez, just three sachets’ came his reply.

‘Do you have a spare wheel?’ I started looking in his open hold for something to repair the flat tyre of the plane.

‘Sheet!! Ziss must be from your airstrip! When deed you see that?’

Eric hadn’t even noticed the plane’s steering as it taxied to a halt in a tight circle in front of me, grinding the flat tyre, and rolling over on its overloaded twin.

‘Please, geev the Thuraya’, came throught the teeth, tightly clenched around the cigarette, ‘ah need to call Nairobi’.

After half an hour, during which I got the boys to fetch the stirrup pump from our MSF Landcruiser, and unload the plumpynut load into wheelbarrows and onto heads, Eric came off the phone with his bosses.

Before I had the chance to ask what he was going to do to get him out of the ‘no undercarriage take-off’ situation, he was back onto the PlumpyNut subject again.

‘Ah need it for my Chiggen.’, he said resolutely.

‘But it’s for our patients, Eric’. Luckily one of the medics was there, and I could defer the request to him. We both asked at once: ‘What Chicken?’

And the answer came:

‘So I am carrying aload of eggz, and I hear ziss sound, so I open the box, and zis chicken is zere. In ze box. So ze first sing ze chiggen sees is me. Eet sinks I am ze firkin father!! Now it is ze Altimeter. When I go too high, ze chiggen faints. Zen I know I must come down. (It is not unheard-of for these pilots to fly minus an instrument battery, so…)
Now eet is wiz me everywhere, and eet loves PlumpyNut’.

We managed, finally, to deny him his pet-food,and anyway this ‘Chiggin’ was with his girlfriend in Loki that day, roaming the house, and pining after French Eric by all accounts.

Disgruntled again, as usual, Eric promptly hopped back into the pilots seat and started the takeoff procedures.
‘But what about your wheel?’ I shouted, over the roar of the turbines.

‘Pleez, here is za number. You will call Loki and ask them to clear the runway for us. Zey will not send us anozer plane with a wheel. Too expenseev. ‘Ere we go. Tell zem I will keep ze nose up, and radio me eef I ‘ave popped ze ozzer one. Ah cannot know from inside.’

Eric did not ‘pop’ the other tyre when he took off, and although I have not seen him since, there was no crash-landing when he got back to Loki.

Gawd bless him and his ‘firkin chiggin’.

Eric touches down, seconds before the blowout...

John Both and the IPD door

May 3rd, 2011 by Rupert

One of my Carpenters, John Both, couldn’t be a keener or more friendly guy, but as I tried to explain how frustrating it was to try and get him to do what I wanted to a Lankien outsider, it became clear to me how much I am up against here.

It has not been unknown for me to literally start a cut of a length of wood for him, saw until half-way through, and then turn my back, only to find he has decided to cut the timber in two at completely the other end, leaving my guiding cut half-sawn, and a whole piece of precious Ethiopian timber completely ruined. A lot of it, I used to think, was lost in translation, but it is this guy particularly who frustrates me so much that I am learning to laugh at his unique skill in ineptitude. I was breaking a doorway through the wall in the busy IPD procedure room, and I wanted to let John Both be in charge. I marked the door carefully, then got him to dig two holes outside to receive pillars, which would make it almost impossible to mistake where I wanted the door. Coming back from leave, I found a great big door-sized hole through the wall, in exactly the wrong place, with the pillars carefully installed NEXT to the entrance. He must have literally smashed through the wall where the pillars didn’t obstruct his demolition. Priceless.

I returned to the workshop, head in hands, where Gatkor, hearing my exasperated indignation, simply tapped his temple knowingly. ‘Typhoid’ was the only explanation he could offer. I don’t really know what Typhoid does, but I presume that it has a lobotomizing effect on the individual…! I could talk forever, when in better spirits, about these kinds of frustrations. Sometimes, though, it is difficult to laugh.

Quarter Mile High Birthday

April 18th, 2011 by Rupert

I have just had my first support visit from our operational centre in Amsterdam, in the form of two Field Support Supervisors. After an amazing first leave, I came back to analysis and discussion of efficiency and effectiveness. This was followed by a short training at our Field HQ in Loki, where all the Logisticians in the field met for the first time. At first I thought that a day on a bumpy plane would be a rubbish way to spend what was, as it happened, my birthday. All the logisticians know each others’ voices from the daily radio contact, but it is coded, and so strangely we had never actually spoken to each other in English, let-alone met face to face!

My birthday, one which I will never forget, was spent in a rather unusual way. The plane picked us up from Lankien first, and my skepticism about spending all day on a bumpy plane was quickly usurped by high excitement as we landed at first one, then another MSF project, picking up people on the way. Andy and Ken, the Kenyan pilots shared their packed lunch with us as we took a long and unique tour all around South Sudan by air. It was amazing to get a sense of where we were in the grand scheme of things, and it made me very proud to be carving-out some sense of order in Lankien, where we are easily the most isolated MSF mission here. It was really something to see these places and meet these people who were just voices talking code on the radio for so many months.

Andy and Ken enjoying the tarmac.

Andy and Ken enjoying the tarmac.

First stop was Nassir, where we picked-up Katherine from the riverside airstrip. I was in awe of the Sobat river, only THREE HOURS from Ethiopia and the outside world!!! Nassir is a thriving place, full of NGOs and business, it seems. Then, on we went to Malakal, like a city and again by the river, and including a TARMAC RUNWAY! Leer was next, where the hospital is build of CEMENT and BRICKS, then Bentiu, again a very civilized and well-serviced runway, with many other planes visible and organisations in evidence. I had a fantastic day, partly because until three weeks ago, I had not set foot outside the very limited environs of our compound for nearly four months.

Up we go - out of Malakal...

Up we go - out of Malakal...

It was a good meeting. I realised how much I had learnt from being ‘thrown in at the deep end’ and I also realised how much I had, indeed, been ‘thrown in at the deep end’.

Cow Blowing

April 15th, 2011 by Rupert

There is a very strange phenomenon which happens in this part of the world. Everything in the Nuer culture relates to a certain investment. Love, Land, Water, Food, Sex, Mythology. It all comes back to the only certainty in life. The Cow.

The Cow is everything. It is what buys you wives, gets you out of jail, buys you land and gives you milk and meat. In the milk and meat are the vitamins and protein you need. The cow processes any and all nutrients from the harsh and barren land and filters them into a format that is edible and palatable. The Nuer people live, for the most part, on Sorghum (a cardboard-tasting porridge) and Cow-Meat. The word ‘Beef’ does not do it justice, for some reason. Maybe because of the element of Hyperbole contained within the word ‘Cow’. The most common boys names here are to do with cows and death. ‘Chuol’ means ‘He who Replaces his dead Sibling’, and ‘Tut’ means, simply, ‘Bull’. It is a kingly name.

In our hospital, one of the nastier and more commonplace conditions we deal with is Brucelosis. Brucelosis comes from contact with bad milk, bad meat, and, generally, bad cow. It brings severe joint pain, headaches, slow liver and spleen destruction.

Some time ago a severe case came to the attention of MSF, and nobody could understand how it had come-on so quickly and to such an advanced degree. After consistent denial that there had been anything unusual in their activity, the afflicted patient finally happened to mention to the exasperated medics, that, at certain times of the month, they had to ‘Blow the Cow’.

Since then, as any MSFer from South Sudan Mission 1 will tell you, the subject of ‘Cow Blowing’ is as good as any after-dinner conversation to the uninitiated visitor. In fact, any opener into conversing about cow is a good opener into the culture as a whole. When the cow is not producing milk, for reasons known only to agriculturalists, I presume, the milkers seem to get good results by blowing into the cow’s vagina. It is a quick way to get a lot of milk, and has been discussed around the table where I sit for many candle-lit hours

Calm(er)

April 12th, 2011 by Rupert

For anyone reading, my Blog entries may appear to have been thinning-out a bit recently. Computer access here has become severely restricted, and my own computer has now, quite literally, ‘bitten the dust’ of South Sudan. Nevertheless, there is an occasional opportunity to get to a ‘shared machine’, and so I write on tenterhooks. It is Sunday afternoon, and I can hear the sound of the village kids playing volleyball outside the compound fence.

Things are easier here after a tense few weeks, and you can feel it in the air. The other day I was even called to examine what was thought to be a landmine in the T.B. village. I had my doubts, as it was in the doorway to a tukul, which would have been built over the top of it, which would have been impossible. Nevertheless, it did look a bit weird, this dull wire sticking out of the ground, and if anybody knows what a landmine would look like, it would be these folk. In fact, it turned-out to be just the end of a bit of brass, but it had even our people, who have grown up in the war-zone, jumpy. People come and go with various uniforms on in Lankien, and we keep a sharp eye on atmosphere, word on the street, and gunshots and other cases we treat, but we are still here, albeit understaffed.

I know I keep referring to the new Sudan and the new age of independence, but it is a subject found in everything we do here. There is such a need for people to understand the basic rudiments of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ way of working, a concept of blueprint or template. With a culture so steeped in displacement, improvisation and survival for the majority of living memory, the idea of ‘principle’ or ‘concept’ is, in itself sometimes impossible to express. From observations, it seems so important to support ideas of accountability and consequence. I am not a hands-down believer in Centralised Government in Africa, but even regional independence is dictated by a common sense of the principles of community and enterprise.

Although we are an emergency organisation, the way we practice can be an example for development of an independence of spirit that has to do with humanity, not anarchy. There is tremendous potential here, and the fact that MSF have been working here so effectively and saved so many each week from Kala-Azar, Malaria, Tuberculosis and all the other diseases, puts us in a unique and influential position.

Guard Photo opportunity: Isaac's departure shift. Mut and Gatuak - his accomplices. Isaac: the only fat man in the village.

Guard Photo opportunity: Isaac's departure shift. Mut and Gatuak - his accomplices. Isaac: the only fat man in the village.

We will try to honour it, as it is clear that the little village is important. And the way we run our hospital will be a direct example for people looking to build the infrastructure of this ‘brand-new’ country. Already, the guards, who I am in charge of, are part of our public image. We have to restrict the amount of water taken by the able-bodied villagers (who are well-enough to work the village pump MSF has give them), in order to keep the piped tap water system for the patients. Guards have to be firm but fair, and in dealing with any soldiers coming-in, make sure they are disarmed and, ideally, stripped of uniform This is quite a tricky job, when all you have to protect you is MSF’s reputation of impartiality and honour. I am very proud of how our guys have risen to the challenge in these times of insecurity, and I firmly believe that the military actors around can, and will, take their example.

Honeycomb Heaven

March 16th, 2011 by Rupert

The end of today came about with, quite literally, a “buzz” of excitement. It was quite an event: a fire up a tree, with children and patients milling about, fascinated, whilst my Log guys got rid of the pest. Destroying the African bees nest had to be done once it was dark or, as Gatkoor said so eloquently, “You will face the consequences.”

Bees in the compound.

Bees in the compound.

I had received a radio call in the afternoon, telling me that there was a swarm of bees which were increasingly threatening the patients of the Therapeutic Feeding and Intensive Care Unit. The bees were lodged high in a tree, and had indeed built a nest up there. I called Tut Lual, the most senior warrior, reliable and level-headed, of my Logistics team. He came hobbling over to have a look (no toes – shot off by a soldier). A plan was hatched that, at night, we would all return, once the bees “could not fly”, and would be sleeping.

The ensuing adventure was both slapstick and frighteningly serious (which, of course, made it even more difficult to keep a straight face). Patients were closed into their wards – which was a disaster to start with: put a Kuwai in charge of a Logistics team, outside a Nuer hospital ward, up a tree with fire, in the night and you see what happens!

I had given Passiel (one of my daily workers) long latex gauntlets and a mosquito-net hat. The guys got the Logistics ladder up the tree, and, in the darkness, started to hack away branches with a machete. Slowly bits of nest, then wax honeycomb, then honey started falling to the ground. The fire was passed up – flaming sticks –to torch the remainder of the nest and drive away the bees. I had asked if there was any MSF protocol, and told not, so we were all pretty much making it up as we went along, but with that Neanderthal incentive of honey at the end.

Shards of burning wax, sticks, sparks and bees rained down into the dust from on high, but Passiel had managed to save some of the precious honey. We managed to round-up all the bees and burn them, and, considering the potential for swarming, patients and panic, the whole exercise went remarkably smoothly.

Every morning since, I have sucked on a lovely piece of the freshest African MSF-Lankien honeycomb!