Sue is in South Sudan

Wise man once said, “Don’t stumble around barefoot in the dark.”

Eight years ago South Sudan left me a burned out, sad, exhausted mess.  I’m back for two months in the same role:  Medical Coordinator.  The situation in the country is no less dire:  epidemics, tropical diseases not known in the Western world, inexperienced field staff, not enough resources to meet the demands of the population, ongoing civil war (wasn’t independence from Sudan supposed to cure all ills?), collapsing economy … the list is endless.

But this time I come with eyes wide open.  Except in the middle of the night with a door stop to welcome my foot.

All of the five MSF sections are working in South Sudan.  Our Swiss team has two projects – a very remote primary care program in Mayom and a relatively accessible 160 bed hospital in Agok.  My job is Medical Coordinator – to support and guide the field teams in their work.  The rainy season and malaria epidemic have ended, and the dry season with expected meningitis outbreaks has begun.  There is lingering fear of Viral Hemorrhagic Fevers – but the WHO and government labs are incredibly slow (weeks) in returning blood sample results.

My living and working conditions are amazing – air conditioning, room with kitchenette and small fridge, even a TV with one English language news channel.  Internet is good, so I can email and Skype both at home and work.  But this is the first time I’ve lived/worked where the gates and walls are topped with strands of razor wire.  MSF does not use armed guards in any project, and security is of utmost importance.  Nowadays with the South Sudanese Pound plunging in value (from 3 to the US Dollar 6 months ago to 27 yesterday) robbery and armed attacks are on the rise.

We have good nearby restaurants (yesterday was a steak sandwich with fries, salad and bottle of water for $4).  We are able to walk in the nearby zones until 7 pm, but won’t do much until I get the lay of the land.  It’s always safer to take a car and driver.

Walking into the office for the first time, I was greeted by Abu who drove into the hornet’s nest with me 8 years ago and is now Asst HR.  At that time, our hospital in Abyei (disputed zone between Sudan and S Sudan) was razed, staff shot while fleeing.  Manut was the Keeper of the Keys, and we found him shell-shocked a few days later.  He’s now the Asst Finance.  Our previous cook, Florence, is now a cleaner in the office.  Each greeted me with bit grins, hugs, handshakes and back pats.  There are a couple expats I know from other MSF missions as well.

I’ll be doing handover for the next week and then … well, we’ll see how things unfold.  So far I have no replacement, so my thought is to try to organize everything so things can run on auto pilot for awhile.

Stay tuned …