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.
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.