Fieldset
on the road.

our sites before the road was washed away. we set

off  early, with my field coordinator, along the red road that

stretches south.  we drove for miles, rocked up and down by

ripples in the clay, the din so loud in the landcruiser we couldn’t

our sites before the road was washed away. we set

off  early, with my field coordinator, along the red road that

stretches south.  we drove for miles, rocked up and down by

ripples in the clay, the din so loud in the landcruiser we couldn’t

speak.  no animals, few birds, only an occasional hut through the

trees.  the scenery was flat and austere.   after an

hour, a small dirt track appeared off the road, so faint that I would

have easily missed it.  our driver turned onto it, and we

disappeared into the bush.

the road was poor.  it was clear after a hundred metres with rain

it would be impassable.  the soil was loamy, the track dipped well

below the water table, and the trees were too thick to negotiate.

I recalled a day I spent in Cambodia throwing sticks on top of sticks,

trying to give purchase to my buried landcruiser.   once the

rains start, these people will be on an island.

we drove on for more than an hour, scattering troops of monkeys.

huts started to appear through the trees.  more.  a few

more.   roofs of grass held up by walls of grass and inside

them, beds of grass.    the families that built them

stood outside and watched us pass.

we arrived at the site of our mobile.  akur.  we found its

population last year while we were investigating a curious outbreak of

hepatitis.  several huts were scattered in an open area, and

underneath a large tree, sat a dozen men, community leaders.  we

had sent a message to the community to anticipate our arrival.

we introduced ourselves, and shook hands.  they offered us chairs, and sat down on plastic chairs, curious company.

they spoke in turn.  they thanked us for coming, thanked us for

giving medicines to people who had suffered so much during the

war.  they too were worried for the rainy season, not simply

because the water would choke their contact with the world, but because

it meant disease.  malaria, cholera.   they hoped that

we would continue to come.  and if not, that we would be able to

send them boxes of medicine.  people have no food, and as the

rains start, they begin to eat grass.  then they get sick.

diarrhea.

please bring us food.  please bring us a water pump.  please

build us a school.  please give us boxes of  medicines.

we told them we could do none of those things.  all we could do is

try to negotiate an increasingly sunken road until the day we could

not. our limitations seemed like refusals.

we asked about a road we had heard about, shorter than the one we just

traveled, one that lead to anet.  what was it like?

it was good.  it was shorter.   much better.  we

could use it during the rainy season.  they nodded.

yes.  definitely.   it is over there.  a car was on

it other day.

we stood up, roundly shook hands, and climbed into the land

cruiser.  nearby, women were gathered underneath a tree, balancing

babies on their hips.  they thought we were there to do a mobile

clinic.  we drove away.

it was not a road.  it was a path.   a bicycle

path.  it wound in fits and start.  it was blocked by trees

here and there, and more than once, it disappeared into a dozen

others.  we looked in vain for signs of a previous vehicle.

none.   for an hour, we pushed through the brush.

occasionally we would come onto a grass hut and a family standing

agape, children’s eyes peeking between cracks in the walls. “anet?”, we

would ask, and they would point east.

we remembered that we needed to call our base, and give them our

location. my field co picked up the transceiver, then set it back

down.  we didn’t know where we were.

the path started to widen.  underneath a tree, a four men leaned,

talking.  one of them was on a bicycle.  “anet?”, we

asked.  the man on the bicycle responded in English.  it was

just over there.  not far.  we asked about the road we were

on, what would it be like in the rainy season?  water, he

said.  all water.  you should build a proper road, he said.

we drove on.  more huts appeared.  their walls were clay, not

grass.  we were getting closer.  soon, the homes were thick,

and found ourselves we driving from yard to yard, and from there onto

the red road.

12 kilometres from akur to the red road at anet.  nearly two

hours.  nearly impassable now, in the rainy season, no

chance.   we turned in the direction of abyei, and started

our rattle home.  we passed a bus, a pickup with five passengers

jammed in the cabin and five more in the back, and a gravel truck

throwing up dust.

I thought of the suggestion of the young man on the bicycle that we

should build a road.  I used to misinterpret these requests, used

to think that they expected foreigners to do it all.  i understand

differently now.  they don’t believe that we should do everything,

they believe we are so powerful we can do anything.  if we can

rain tonnes of food from the sky, use strong medicines to make people

well, bring water where there is none, we can build a road.

of course, they are not wrong.  of all the ways the world has to

invest in its poorest places, in my estimation, roads are the

best.   like the dry riverbeds I saw from the plane, still

green with trees living on the memory of water, they mean

life.    energy spills from their sides. it can turn

grass into clay walls, even into food.

it was deep into the afternoon as we drove back to abyei, and the

clouds started to stack as they have in the past few weeks.  it

started to rain.  people in akur wondered how much time they had

left, and green buds of grass poked through the ground.