Before I left for South Sudan, I decided, for several reasons, that I would write a blog. Engineers tend to get very little opportunity to write. Most of our communication is done through mathematics, computer programmes, and on the odd, wonderful, occasion, the spoken word, so given the opportunity to write, I felt I should take it up.
I wanted also to convey what life is like in South Sudan to the many people that will never get the opportunity to visit or work here. I thought this would be easy; triumphant stories of saving lives and battling the odd tarantula in tough living conditions, I was sure, would make for a thrilling read. In reality, communicating what life is like here is far trickier than I had anticipated. I have now been here for twelve weeks, have yet to see a single tarantula and only now have begun to verbalise what it is like to work here.
I realise that, in fact, many people aren’t even quite sure what South Sudan is. Within a geopolitical framework, South Sudan’s proudest claim is that it is the world’s ‘newest’ country. That is to say, that South Sudan was only given the status of an independent nation in 2011, after years of civil war with its now neighbour, Sudan. Unfortunately, since the hopeful birth of a new nation in 2011, internal conflict has continued, leaving the country in a state of almost constant turmoil with little opportunity to evolve.
To say it is the least developed country I have ever worked in would be obvious, but conveying just how little infrastructure and service there is available to the people here is no easy feat.
I arrived in Lankien on a Thursday in mid-April. One of MSF’s biggest hospitals has been running for 15 years and has grown to have approximately 30 international and 200 national staff. The hospital runs an outpatient and inpatient department treating malaria, malnourishment, TB and Kala Azar, one of the neglected tropical diseases.
I work as a watsan (water and sanitation) specialist. In a nutshell, I make sure that the hospital is supplied with clean; running water, and that the sanitation facilities and hygiene practices are up to scratch.
My job is part technical, part managerial. There are 30 national staff under the umbrella of watsan. I manage the cleaners, waste disposal team, water provision team and hygiene promoters.
I could write about the technical side of things, but far more fun is to let you know about the fabulous interactions I’ve had with the national staff over the last few weeks. In the three months I have been here, I feel that as a team, the watsan department has made some real progress in so many ways. This progress has been very satisfying, but the friendships, conversations and developments I have had with people from a very different world from the one I grew up in, has been the most rewarding part of my life here.
I like to get involved with lots of the manual labour, but the all-male construction team I manage still finds it hilarious when I pick up a shovel. I’m slowly working on adapting gender stereotypes…
One of the best moments yet happened a few weeks ago when I was trying to construct flood defences for the maternity ward here. The concept was to build a series of drains that would gravity-feed water into a 4m deep soakaway. The bulk of the project was spent convincing the team to build a gradient into the drains so the water wouldn’t stagnate. It’s funny because things we believe to be intuitive, such as flow of water due to gravity, are in fact, not. They feel intuitive because we learnt them so long ago but lots of basic education here just isn’t available, it’s a real shame.
We finally completed the drain, and in order to show everyone the purpose of the gradient, I collected the team together and I poured a bucket of water at the top of the drain and waited for the water to come out at the other end of the pipe to demonstrate that water was flowing through the drain. I made sure everyone was watching and I poured a cup at the top and then waited a little bit for the water to come out of the end of the drain.
Entirely unplanned, a litter of kittens had nestled in the drain over-night, and when I poured the water, it must have disturbed them. Four or five kittens came shooting out of the drain.
All of the staff clapped enthusiastically and looked at me in surprise!
Who knew if you built a drain properly you could turn water into wildlife!