It’s Friday afternoon and Ajoy, visiting Water/Sanitation advisor, new to South Sudan, is shouting at Makuach, my right hand man, about ‘Behpar’. Ajoy is animated. He is an MSF ex-pat from India, with a strong West Bengali accent. I can’t understand him. He is in an authority position amongst my men. And he is shouting. For an organisation like MSF, the one over-riding and biggest part of our logistical activity on the ground here is Water and Sanitation. The dry season is starting to get its claws in, and Ajoy has taken a day or two to get his head around the lack of supplies here. We are now walking around the village and he’s seeing, finally, that you really can buy nothing from the market. NOTHING. There is no vehicle access to Lankien. The ramifications are difficult to compute. He has come from our neighbouring projects, which have some kind of vehicle access. You can buy things on the market there. Nails. Even wood…
But I am sure this animated discussion will only upset and confuse the men, whose consummate anxiety is to please the ‘Kuwai’ (white man, of which Ajoy is one). I keep hearing ‘Behpar’ being mentioned. I have listened carefully to Ajoy’s accent, and tried to decipher it. I know for a fact that, if I can’t, what hope is there of my guys getting it? I know they struggled to understand me, because my accent was hard, until I imitated a broad American accent (my predecessor, Tyler, was Canadian). At this point all became clear, and they dissolved into beaming smiles of understanding. ‘Now you are speaking English’, sighed Makuach in relief. The Cheek of it.
Suddenly, they are talking back to Ajoy about Behpar!! Is this some WatSan jargon I don’t know? What do they know that I don’t? Everybody here has worked for MSF longer than me. Is it another acronym for something? A standard or protocol from our Amsterdam HQ?, maybe a special tool I haven’t been told about… I love the archaic way the Nuer talk English, the ‘song of a machine’, ‘motor cars’, ‘disappointments’ and ‘mistakes’ instead of ‘betrayals’ and ‘lying’, but what is this word? Composure, composure… I should know this. People will question my authority and ability… ‘Behpar’. Is it Kipling?
Suddenly it dawns on me. ‘Spare Parts’!!! My qualifications are two English degrees (I am purely technically self-taught), and I like to think I can communicate. It is incredible that these guys, speaking English from two different continents, can understand each other without me in the picture. What a weird world. This is a cultural bridge I don’t need to build. We have had not had the easiest introduction to each other, but Ajoy is a very gentle soul, with an excited outlook on technical innovation.