I did my first real exploratory mission in a Place called Pul-deng. It’s the kiss point for movements and halfway point between Gambella and Mattar. It was just our doctor and myself. We met the local leader and discussed the medical needs of his community. For starters the only hand pump contains “dead water” and they are all using the 1.5x10x10meter stagnant pond for drinking, washing, bathing and cooking.
There are 13 stations in Pul-deng, ranging from 33 to 300 tukuls in each. The average tukul houses eight people, some more, some less. Anyway, we set out on a tour and assessment with the chief. Thinking we were going to do it in the nearest station, one kilometer up the road, I headed off in thongs and without water bottle as I assumed we were close to the car and would be back shortly. Well lesson number one is NEVER ASSUME ANYTHING!!!
We headed off up the garden path, not stopping until we hit a swampy river. Well it was off with the dacks [Aussie for trousers or pants] as both the boys started to wade through knee-deep mud and slush covered in water lilies. Me in thongs [flip-flops] and with two wounds nicely dressed in gauze and tape said “errr are you sure this is a good idea?”
“Yes come” was the reply.
Knee deep in mud I asked “ uuummm is there any crocodiles in this swamp?”
"No" was the reply.
“OK, how about Buffalo-eating pythons?”
"Not yet, they’re coming” was the answer!
Terrific, I hope we don’t run into any early bloomers! So I trudged and squelched and slipped and slid until I reached the other side, thankfully without incident. We then spent the next 30 minutes trudging through a thin and winding path meandering its way through thick eight-foot high grass. It was just like an animal track! It probably WAS an animal track! The air was stiflingly dense. The suffocating heat radiating from the dank soil and luscious grass, unable to see where I was walking, and at a fairly rapid pace, the clearing spattered with grass tukuls and coconut palms was a welcome relief.
'Kiwai Kiwai' was the familiar greeting, followed by a rush of little black hands, tentative at the first touch but quickly progressing to stroking, pinching, prodding and patting the exposed skin on my hands arms and legs! Delicately plucking at the fine blonde hairs on my arms. We were introduced and spoke to the elders, asked our set questions and listened to both their appreciation and concerns, before moving on through the camp, counting tukuls, assessing the water and the kids nutritional status.
Quite a few elders sat in the shade beneath the trees and coconut palms. Many were smoking tobacco from a bong-like device made out of the orange, teardrop-shaped gourds. Sweet smoke, bubbly drawn first through the grey swamp water in the bottom chamber, before filling their lungs and exhaling in a lingering cloud of acrid smoke.
I of course had to stop and join them, much to their delight to be sharing a peaceful smoke digitally captured in a “todo.”
stopping for a smoke ©Kate Chapman
We again set off at a rapid pace, winding through tunnel like tracks, unable to see earth or at times sky. The grass became higher and denser, turning from the bamboo like grass to thicker, denser razor reeds. After around 25 minutes of tripping, stumbling and struggling for air, I said that we needed to go back to the car now, as I really needed water. Five minutes later the grass lessened, maize commenced and we emerged in another station. Here we again assessed the water and the kids, asked our questions and watched hungrily as their leader gulped mouthfuls of cool, wet swamp water! I again insisted we needed to go back now, the heat and lack of water taking its toll, but not before assessing a sick patient, another malaria case, dehydrated and delirious, lying on the floor of their tukul.
Finally we started to leave when again stopped and presented with some maize. A precious golden gift! Eventually after much thanks and “todo” we again weaved our way through 10-foot high razor grass, vines and thorn bush. After another 30 minutes that seemed like at least five hours, we emerged, hot, sun burnt, bleeding and very thirsty! It really was a stupid mistake to go off without water. Unfortunately, when you don’t speak the language, you really can’t leave anything to chance or assume a single thing. Another lesson learnt!
On the way home we saw two leopards, first a small one, I only got a photo of its rump in the bush, but a little further up the road there was sleek and slender spotted cat with bob like tail, possibly a civet. Then a leopard the size of a Labrador crossed the road and entered the scrub. It was my lucky day!!! We also saw two huge warthogs and a variety of smaller wildlife such as monkeys, baboons and mongoose.
The Gambella National Park runs between Gambella and Ninenyang. According to our driver, there are several lions that they frequently come across on this stretch of road, so with the clinic going once a week, we will be bound to see them! He says they are not scared of the car and will sit on the road for a few minutes before leaving! COOL!!!!
When we got back to Ninenyang, we stopped at the Health center to transfer a patient back to Mattar. She was a post-partum hemorrhage case [bleeding after childbirth] and barely conscious by the time we arrived. We popped a line in giving her our last bag of fluid. While we were loading her into the back of the car, a woman came to ask if I would see a “very sick nine month old” Of course.
A few minutes later she returned with a tiny bundle wrapped in a tiger print shawl, and a young girl. I was shocked when I opened the shawl, two deer-like eyes peered out of a hollowed out, old man’s face. Every bone prominent, sunken fontanel, the skin hanging in folds around his arms and legs. At nine months old he was not much bigger than the newborn I just put in the car.
I nursed him back to Mattar, his tiny hand gripping the protection amulet around my neck. My new little friend never let go of my necklace until I handed him over at the health center. Poor little bugger weighed in at 3.4 kg. Too anorexic to eat or drink. The therapeutic milk had to be given via nasal gastric tube.