The Engineering Newsletter

Walking around Wudier

  Steve Dennis

By Steve Dennis (CivE 9T9)
Background: I worked for a year in a remote location in South Sudan. This letter home I wrote after a couple of months there. (Note: A tukel is a mud-walled grass-roofed hut.) Hope you enjoy. -Steve

November 10, 2003

Hello Mom and Dad,

It is Monday afternoon, and I think I found a dull moment in South Sudan. I will write quickly, and hopefully finish before this little dull moment is over.

We just had a pretty big storm yesterday and last night. By 1500hrs we needed candles to see the playing cards. The sky opened and really dumped on us. At one point I looked outside and couldn't see anything holding my tent out of the water. When I walked ('swam') over there, and checked inside, it was afloat. I am very happy about the quality of equipment MSF provides - nothing was wet inside, the bottom was holding tight.

The roofs on the tukels here are not as good as the ones in Lankien (different type of grass), and these ones leak a little. Leaks here and there aren't so bad... back in Canada. Here, sections of the mud walls fall off with a little water, and once again I fully appreciate the wonderful building materials we have back home (like concrete, steel, and termite-free wood).

This morning was filled with some repairs to the compound and clinic, and planning for more repairs for tomorrow once things have dried a little more. Lunchtime brought a slowdown to activities, and everyone had personal things to dry or repair, and now I have some time to tell you about a walking trip we had on Saturday.

Part of our role in this outreach location is to observe the health conditions in the greater Wudier area (and surrounding as far as we can walk, or as far as patients can get to us), and note any risks to the population. It is easy to get bogged down in the clinic just handling the cases at hand, and ignoring the people that cannot come in to the clinic. Many stories are around of people concentrating on a couple of people and missing the dozens dying just five minutes away. So on Saturday the four of us, and three guides walked for the day, around Wudier to observe things, and survey the health conditions.

Here are a few comments from my journal about that trip.

We packed mostly water, but also some food, and our 'run-away' hip-packs, and that's all. What a day to remember. We left shortly after 0730, heading off on a small footpath out the back of a family clearing around 50 m from our compound. Two steps more and we were out of Wudier, swallowed into the bush. After only 30 minutes, we came up to a small river. Other people were crossing and showing us the depth, so we stripped down to our modesty, put our packs on our heads and crossed. We (the ‘Kawagas’, silly white people), must have been a sorry sight. After crossing and getting dressed, an old lady (her age shown by her wrinkled body) stripped, threw her belongings on her head, and commanded herself across that river as if she was walking across dry concrete in hiking boots instead of slippery muddy river banks and water 1.5m deep in bare feet. I wanted to help an old lady cross a river, but I think my 'silly white guy' coordination would have killed us both.

We continued on our walk another 45 minutes and came up to a small settlement of about 20 tukel, all abandoned. It was a little eerie, no kids playing, no cooking fire smoke, no dogs barking. Our guides told us that this group had gone to another area to fish since there was no food here. I wondered, ‘how bad does it have to be for a village to empty out in search of food?’ On we walked.

As we walked, we talked to people and saw different medical anomalies (and referred them to the clinic). We saw cattle camps where 20-30 cows were grouped together, surrounded by piles of burning cow dung (to ward off the flies). We saw families where there was more farming (maize and sorghum) and some goats too. We met people on migrations, to look for more food, or to return to families after finding food; some were merchants from Ethiopia bringing their wares here to sell. People asked us which migration we were on. ("They must be on a migration, look at how much they are carrying.") Our paths were joined by many family clearings.

Something I have observed more and more here is that many things are held common among people. For instance we walked through people's clearings because that is where the path led. I asked, "Should we walk around people's property?" Our guide questioned back, "property?". I guess when there is so much land, no one owns any of it. The only problem with coming so close to the people's dwellings is that some of the children ran away (from the funny-looking people who forgot to put their skin on).

So there we were, popping out of the bush and viewing a snapshot of life in South Sudan. Some of the snapshots I saw were families sitting under a tree grinding sorghum, old men lying down in the shade as young ones played nearby, old ladies smoking big pipes. One time we came out of the bush and saw the sorghum refinery tree (a few fires under large pots distilling the spirit out of the sorghum while others lounged under the tree sampling much of the drink). And sometimes we would see objects that really didn't fit the scene like a metal bed or chair that must have been carried for a few days from the nearest interpretation of a road. Usually people were working on things, grinding maize or sorghum, repairing tukels, caring for cows, etc.

We arrived in a small village, and started doing some Middle Upper Arm Circumference (MUAC) testing on children. This is a test to get a rough idea of the malnourishment of children six months- to five-years old. It is a simple test that entails wrapping a plastic tape around the arm of a child and measuring the circumference. (For those with kids back home, less than 136mm length is where we define children being at risk of malnourishment, and an arm of a circumference of 110mm or less belongs to a child that is severely malnourished. My thumb is 75mm). We tested about 30 children and almost all of them were very healthy and fat (for kids here. I have yet to see a fat person, as fat as I am at least).

We finished the MUAC testing, had some lunch and headed back. It was just a two-hour walk (at the most, one guide said), but nothing is as it seems here (I am learning). As we started walking, a tremendous storm started up behind us. Here, as in times I've been sailing in open waters, I am humbled by the size of the weather. The darkness was creeping up behind us as lighting and thunder shot out ahead like the first shots of a battle to be had. The wind too was kicking up our feet ahead of us, but there were still a couple hours to go.

As we passed people's dwellings, makeshift repairs were being done, and people were huddling inside their tukels. Dust was rising up quite high as it whipped around, headed down-wind and disappeared out of sight.

Then the rain came. At first it was light (but together with the wind it shot across pretty hard to sting the sun-burned backs of our necks). We talked of taking shelter and everyone agreed we had the time to wait it out a little. One of our guides walked up to a random large tukel and pulled aside the wood from the opening and walked in. I started a familiar thought, "In Canada..." then put my unique finish to the phrase, "I would knock first to be invited into a stranger's shelter." The second guide paused at the entrance and indicated for me to let go of my foreigner-hesitations and follow; then he disappeared in the dark tukel. I was confused how they knew we were welcomed in to this stranger’s tukel without words being spoken. The rain started heavier, I let go of my inhibitions, stooped low and charged in. I fumbled around a little, knowing there may be people I'd have to walk across and not step on, but the darkness of the tukel didn't allow for more guidance than just feeling around. I felt a clearing and squatted, hoping my sight would come to me soon.

Slowly, I began to make out where I was. The smell should have given it away first, but my optimism prevented me from premature judgments. As my eyes adjusted, I slowly made out the shapes of about 20 goats, three calves, one very large cow, and a 12- year-old boy, all standing there in complete silence. I think that was the first time any of them had seen white people too, and they were politely quiet about the alien’s arrival into their sanctuary. Everyone else came in and we all had a nice silent moment to take in that we were holding out the storm in this quite unique situation.

The silence was broken when the cow urinated about two litres and everyone couldn't hold back the laughter. All of the sudden, we were fellow humans laughing about something universally funny.

The storm dumped pretty hard, but then was over. As we were planning to go, the mother of the boy came in, and in mid-sentence she paused. I think she too had never seen white people, and definitely not ones hanging out with the animals. "Son, I told you not to invite strangers, stranger than most, into our animals home!" I could imagine her wanting to say.

When we were leaving, our guides took off their shoes, and two steps into the walk back, I knew why. This damn black cotton soil is cohesive as glue! Within two steps, one could put 10kgs on the bottom of each shoe. Bare feet are easier to get around on. Fortunately, there are no stones here, so the soil is actually quite soft and almost enjoyable to walk through. After passing one river on the return and sinking up to my knees in mud, I removed my shoes and thought "This would be fun, in a different setting". The first time was great, the second time fun too. After a couple hours (on our 2-hour walk home) of walking through mud, the magic wears out.

We crossed another river, a little more sloppy than the first time 10 hours before, then within 30 minutes we were back in the compound. We crashed.

What a day. Sightseeing in sunny, slippery and stormy South Sudan. I think I have traveled off the track once or twice before, but nothing like this. Also, to travel off the track here, and bump into people living their everyday lives as they always have and as they always will, was a real privilege. I think that all I give when I am here is humbled by all I get by being able to live here, and live with these people.

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