South Sudan: The finishing line is the starting line

As the new year begins, Jonathan finds himself on the brink of another new start, as he prepares to join the team at an MSF project in between Sudan and South Sudan

January 1, 2021.

Sitting on the terrace nestled on the top floor of Médecins Sans Frontières HQ in Juba, I realise that 2020, this famous year, is behind us.

Some people have waiting for this, and rightly so. They’ve been waiting to be able to move on, driven by the hope of vaccines that will eventually bring each of us back to that much talked about normalcy.

Personally, even if it is complicated to hide the cause that made this year such a special time for me, I do not have the same resentment about 2020. In large part for personal events that I don’t need to describe here, given the primary purpose of this blog, but also because it is the moment when, after several years of procrastination, I made the decision to apply for MSF.

A new normal

After my release from quarantine, I will leave for Agok, a relatively isolated region just over two hours by plane from Juba. That will be the real start of this six-month assignment.

This quarantine is also greatly facilitated by the kindness of MSF colleagues here in Juba, who I talk to from a distance from this terrace. The other thing that helps is the excellent meals prepared by our local cook, brought twice a day to the door of my room!

I am sure that I will discover a “normal” there that has been completely unknown to me until now. A normality from which the inhabitants of this region have hardly been eradicated during the previous year, but which some perhaps would like to escape in order to start at a new starting line.

Even before I really get started on this project, I fear I’m just a drop in the ocean. Nevertheless, I will do my best to be as large a drop as possible

My own preparatory phase took shape on the eve of the Christmas holidays, when I said goodbye to my colleagues in the offices of the banking establishment I had been with for five years.

I had the luxury of choosing a new path, when my comfort zone was pleasant enough that a purely rational individual would not make such a decision. But this is where the emotional part of me took over. I am aware that many do not have that luxury, here or elsewhere, and I will do my best to honor this opportunity!

A starting line

In front of our building, I watch with curiosity several young men tackle the reconstruction of some walls of a building that seems to have been abandoned for some time.

Where do they come from? Why and how did they get to this street, mainly occupied by NGOs and a hotel, apart from the two floors of this ruined building?

It’s impossible for me to know the exact answers to these questions. I see these few young men from our terrace, every day, cleaning the cars in front of a hotel in the morning, and then spending the second part of the day arranging, as much as possible, what will be their accommodation from now on. Watching them, I tell myself that they too have, more or less recently, set off across a new starting line. The stage of life they are leaving will certainly have been different from mine. Their life experiences will certainly have been light years away from my Swiss problems.

Under a blazing sun, they tirelessly salvage the old bricks partially buried under piles of earth and sand. I wonder if the bricks were originally intended to restore this building to a semblance of integrity. Through their labour, it is perhaps also their own lives that they seek to rebuild. So close to me geographically, but so far apart in our respective daily realities.

I can’t influence the fate of these young men, and perhaps not that of the patients in Agok either. Even before I really get started on this project, I fear I’m just a drop in the ocean. Nevertheless, I will do my best to be as large a drop as possible.

As large a drop as possible

Twilight slowly settles in. The proximity to the equator, even though we are in the northern hemisphere, makes the days predictable.

Around 7 a.m. the sun rises. A dozen hours later he goes to bed. This is one thing about this country which I am certain. About all the others, I don't know very much. But this is also one of my wishes during this posting: to understand the culture as well as possible – or I should say – to understand the cultures because they must be numerous, as the region seems vast.

All these differences compared to my country of origin exacerbate my desire to be there, on the ground. I still have several days of mandatory quarantine before I can - finally - touch this reality, which I have been imagining for many weeks now, but which I’m sure will be quite different from my imagination.

In the meantime, I continue to contemplate this street where living by your wits mingles with other ways of life. Where many starting lines are drawn and undrawn, depending on the opportunities, which are not legion here.

See you in Agok.


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