Once, when I was fly fishing in the rockies, walking through brush and over rocks, hoping my luck at the next spot would be better than the last, a mallard started following me. It wasn’t easy work for either of us, all thick trees, all upstream, but he stayed with me the entire afternoon. I would turn to look for him every so often, and he would be there, treading water, pretending to mind his own business, waiting until I moved. At the end of the day, as I started back downstream, he flew off.
I ran yesterday morning. As I left town, a soldier ran from between two tukuls, and kept pace two steps behind. I looked over, and he looked straight ahead, minding his own business. We ran together, me carrying my heavy handset and him with army boots and jangling pockets. We reached the tree in the middle of the flat landscape outside abyei, and I stopped and turned around. He slowed to a walk and continued on.
The team is changing. Gilbert, the logistician, left today. He is returning to Khartoum, and from there to London. Our new field coordinator, Maurizzio, is arriving. He is Italian. This means with the Italian nurse and midwife, Reto (our swiss administrator) and I, are surrounded. The food has improved. Each team, particularly if a small one, has its own personality, and it changes with each iteration. If one is lucky, enthusiasm and camaraderie are in large supply, and at the end of his mission he finds himself saying goodbye to friends. If not, then he counts days, and leaves with few words. I am curious as to what this next iteration will be. Today we said goodbye to a friend. Someone will arrive to take his place. MSF is a treadmill.
The nights in Abyei afford little distraction. There are no restaurants, nor movie theatres. We are not allowed to travel by foot after dark, which proves little problem as there is nowhere to go. We sit on our veranda, smoke, and talk.
We try our best to not talk about the project, or sudan, but little else seems real. None of us has seen a new movie in months, nor know the latest headlines. After a few merciful minutes of respite, work edges its way into the conversation.
The one I just left hanging outside was an important one. Reto and I were wondering what we were doing here. Not simply as two men the same age, with friends behind and a future on hold (treadmill), but as humanitarians. As MSF. There was no conflict, and though perhaps we are too immersed to notice small signs, things seem peaceful. There are no refugees. The returning population is not huddled together under plastic sheets and sharing latrines with 19 others. The hospital needs attention, so much attention, but isn’t that true of nearly everywhere? We "offer assistance to populations in distress, victims of natural or man-made disasters, and victims of armed conflict". Development is not our strong suit.
We both agreed that if MSF left the hospital, and took with us all of our resources, our oxygen machines, and our pills, our nurses and our feeding centre scales, what would remain is a house of cards that wouldn’t survive the next stiff wind. And we agreed that for the people we passed in the market, as for the ones building tukuls on the outskirts of town, the war was still fresh. And here, on the border between north and south, it would be years, maybe generations, before anyone will believe it is far away.
The memory of the precise chemistry behind supersaturated solutions sits fragmented in my hippocampus, like too much of my premedicine studies. I believe the founding principle is one of entropy, that as one adds energy to a system it increases its randomness. What it allows is for one to add much more of a salt, like potassium permangranate, to a heated quantity of water than it would bear otherwise. It requires a completely new and clean beaker full of pure distilled water. As one adds heat, and chaos, he also adds salt. It dissolves, and he adds more. And more heat. And then more salt. The salt dissolves into its constituents, and the heat makes sure that the molecules ricochet faster and faster, knocking other ones loose. Soon, all the salt has been added, and it is all in parts. Parts that are flinging themselves against the glass borders of the beaker. If one removes the heat, and allows the beaker to cool, the disorder lessens. The ions slow down. They spend less energy bouncing off of one another, and in fact, would form crystals again if they could. But they can’t. There is no solid substrate. You are left with a beaker of clear water sitting on your lab bench, full of molecules waiting to precipitate, but none of them have anything to hang onto.
Now, take a glass rod, and just touch the inside lip of the beaker. A small piece of glass dust flakes off, so small you can’t see it, and falls into the water. In an instant, a second of a second, the water becomes a crystal. Completely solid. The molecules are at rest.
I think, for me, that is part of the reason why we are here. To try and be that piece of glass. To help build a place in a community that is not a community, for everyone. It doesn’t matter if you are from the north, or the south, or a Christian, or a muslim, or a civilian, or dinka, or misseria, or soldier, or civilian. We deliberately don’t care. Our intention is to build something lasting for the people in abyei with the people of abyei. Not just a place to treat the dinka infant with meningitis or the little misseria girl with malaria, but a place where their fathers can reach for the water barrel at the same time and say to the other, after you, no after you. and maybe, two weeks later, when they pass in the market, they will nod. and perhaps, two years from now, they might stop and talk.
I am sure there are tiny pieces of glass like this in abyei, and all over sudan, and all over the world. But, this is ours, and it is one of the reasons we are here, and I would do well not to forget it.