The Story So Far

Before I came to South Sudan, I knew it was not going to be a walk in the park. I read a lot about the place and was intimidated enough to at first name this blog “Surviving Southern Sudan”, but got rid of that when it struck me how negative a title it was.
And what can I say of my first weeks here? Am I surviving, or is this the experience that will forever change my life, make me into a Lara Croft without the guns? 
Without guns? There seems to be guns everywhere. Reminds me of the Wild West films, where he who owns a gun rules the land. One night while we were in Juba, while driving back to our base camp—after a meal in a rather overrated and extortionist Indian/Chinese restaurant brimming with aid workers from every international NGO you can think of—-with my new colleagues, we ran into a shooting incident. It had been a long day, my second night in Juba. And when we heard the loud pop of a Kalashnikov, our country director, who was driving the car, calmly said, “Oh, another random shooting again. That’s the reason, Reiza, you have to be in the compound before 10:00 PM, the curfew.”
I nodded enthusiastically in a vain effort to hide my fear. I couldn’t show them I was afraid, when no one else was acting scared. Also, I didn’t want my boss to think I’m a sissy. Sudan doesn’t have a place for petite Asian girls who would jump at the sound of a bomb exploding. It also doesn’t help much that I’m the only woman on the team. So I guess I have to perfect my oh-I’m-so-used-to-gunfire-I-can’t-be-bothered act until I can convince myself that I’m really brave, as most people back home believe.
Apparently, the place is awash with SPLA, or former rebels turned soldiers after the referendum, and there are so many guns lying about. There have to be guns, given the decades of conflict that have laid this beautiful country to waste. It is very easy for arguments, over anything, even over a soccer match, to turn into a shooting argument.
Early this week, my first trip to the field was disrupted when a wrestling match turned into an inter-clan clash. I was feeling good to be here, amid these wrestlers who tower above me like giants from Jack and the Beanstalk. By the way, I’m the size of a small child here, and when I run into children, they don’t know whether to treat me as an adult or as a peer. Everyone is so tall here. My workmates keep asking for my age, and no amount of telling can make them believe that I’m not a teenager pretending to be a twenty-something—okay, thirty-something.
Well, so we were going to this field trip, and we ran into a wrestling match. I had the chance to take pictures with the wrestlers, but what trouble it was trying to take a photo of a giant! I had to ask someone else to take a proper picture; otherwise, all I could photograph were his legs. He wasn’t the machoest (forgive the term) of all wrestlers, had “love handles,”and not so muscular as some I’ve seen in other photos, but he was still of an impressive height and build. If he walks in the Philippines, huge crowds would follow him wondering where his spaceship is.
That’s the wrestling hero in the middle, flocked by his collection of women. 🙂
The local fighting had something to do with the wrestling. And here wrestling is a matter of pride. When you watch football, and see Manchester United fighting with Chelsea, it’s all a matter of money. Here, wrestling is a matter of honor, and pride, and the reputation of a whole tribe can rest on a single wrestler. So when one wrestler won, the supporters of the fallen hero started taking out sticks and spears out of nowhere, which soon erupted into a tribal clash.
At that time, I was talking to some leaders of the “war heroes” in their barracks. Our meeting was cut short by gunfire and bloodied men with sticks and spears running towards us. And this time, I didn’t have to act I was scared because I wasn’t. I felt safe with all these giants around me. Of course, I had to take cover inside one of the tukuls( huts). Luckily, the police were able to contain the clash before it spilled into an all-out war.
But that is the kind of life I’m leading here. One minute, the security level is at 2. The next, it rockets to 5. I have to carry a radio (walkie-talkie) with me at all times—the last time I used it was 20 years ago when cellphones didn’t exist—and have to call in to say I’m okay. Every night, I have to answer the security check for if I don’t, the UN will report me missing and will deploy helicopters and stuff like that to find me. I can’t walk on foot outside my camp (and what a camp it is, more about that later). We have to go with a driver wherever, even when just buying salt from a local shop. When the security level is 5, you have to be escorted to the bathroom! (Okay, that’s a little joke of my own.) But the kind of tension in this place is a life changer.
When it’s not guns giving you sleepless nights, it’s snakes, and bats, and lions (though I’ve not seen them yet). While growing up, I had never dreamed of living in a place where I’d wake up every morning to the roar of a lion. I’m living in a game park, as an expertourist—you know, a combination of expatriate and tourist—but this is an experience that no tourist can ever get! The average rural person will wake up to a cockcrow, and you can tell it’s dawn when you start to hear the cocks crowing. Here, we know it’s dawn when we hear the hyenas doing their morning laughing session, and what a sound it is. I will try to capture it on my phone one morning, for you unfortunate folks to have a listen.
Though I’m not so sure just how big a threat the snakes and bats pose. I know it’s very unlikely that a lion will walk into the camp to eat me. Someone will see it from a long way off and get it before it reaches our camp. But the snakes?
The base camp, kept immaculately clean to discourage uninvited guests.
Well, in every village, there is a big mouth. An alarmist. The boy who cries wolf. But the person I’m talking about here is actually a friendly colleague who took a lot of trouble to help me settle in, to make me feel welcome. And I wouldn’t want to call him a big mouth, or an alarmist, because he isn’t that. He is just a very talkative, period. Only that he keeps telling me all these scary stories about black mambas. How they can swim under your bed during the floods! They did see a black mamba inside one of the huts and fortunately the guys killed it before it could make one of us history. We do have an anti-venom, which is being kept by UNAMIS, because there they have 24/7 generator. Ours is only 16/7. Now the UNAMIS compound is about 10-15 minutes drive from our compound, maybe 30 during the rainy season. Now Wikipedia says black mamba bites can potentially kill a human within 20 minutes. You do the math.
But the bats are a real menace. One night, I woke up at about 4 AM, to the sound of wings flapping in my hut. It’s a hut, with mud walls and grass roof covered with iron sheets. I at first couldn’t tell what was making all the noise in the room, until I saw this face on my mosquito net. It looked like a miniature dog, and the first thought that struck me was Dracula. I however realized that we were very far away from Europe, and Africa doesn’t really have vampires (I’ve never seen them mentioned in any film or book as existing in Africa)  though they have their own version of evil folk that fly in the night. And I’m not keen on meeting them either.
It was just a little bat, maybe a baby who lost its way home. But I failed to go back to sleep that night. I have to fumigate the hut, to get rid of all these pests.
So now I’m wondering whether I should call the blog “Surviving South Sudan” after all, but it’s not all survival here. It’s actually a lot of fun and a great experience living among giants.

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