What a week! An update from Sue in South Sudan

What a week!  On Monday I visited the field project in Agok – if you recall, in May of 2008 I went when the village of Abyei was burned down, team evacuated, and restarted mobile clinics for the 30,000 displaced south of the River Kiir.  Agok is now a real town and our project is a 160+ bed hospital including ER, lab, OR, TB/HIV, maternity, etc.

It’s incredibly hot – 120, and at best the fans blow around the hot air but don’t cool things down.  Fingernails and hair are brittle (I put Lubriderm in my hair!), eyes can’t make enough tears, nosebleeds from the dryness.  Even drinking 10+ liters of water a day, I only peed twice a day (over a squat latrine).  Food has to be flown in from Juba, otherwise there are no fruits, greens or staples like peanut butter and milk.

The airstrip is still dirt and the NGO vehicles (white Toyota Land Cruisers, the official car of the humanitarian world) have to drive up and down to clear the cattle, dogs and people prior to a plane landing.  Most flights are still done by WFP (World Food Programme, UN) – either small planes or helicopters.

The team was in shambles. One American ICU doctor was past the point of burnout and it was my decision to remove her.  Not a pleasant task.  Her S.O. blew up and stormed off as well.  As you can imagine, this entailed much coordination with Juba, Geneva, flights, medical help.  But once the dust settled (literally and figuratively), it was the best decision and the project could begin to move forward again.

Also made a quick visit to the other project – an outpatient program with stabilization unit, lab, nutrition program, maternity.  3 hours of kidney jarring on the dirt road that becomes impassable during the rainy season May – Sept.  This is the ambulance used to transfer patients to Agok hospital:

Scenes have not changed and are interchangeable in almost every country I’ve worked: Stoic women carrying heavy loads on their heads and babies on their backs, dejected little donkeys braying their complaints all night long, dog packs plotting their next attacks (we are seeing a high number of dog-bites and rabies cases), military checkpoints, herds of hundreds of thin cows with their twisted hollow horns eventually pointing skyward, hawks and buzzards circling in anticipation.  My once white MSF Tshirt now pinkish from the dirt, sweaty and stuck to my back, jeans soaked from the vinyl seat, my right arm slowly burning in the sun, water bottle room temperature (120), the stink of burning garbage, plastic water bottles littering roads and ditches, not so controlled chaos everywhere.

Friday had me on two hour-long flights and 4 hours of waiting under a straw roof to get back to the relative luxury of Juba.  Once again to experience the miracle of air conditioning and a toilet!

Today I’ve invited two of the guys from the project to lunch on the Nile with a group from MSF Spain who were evacuated a couple days ago due to fighting between the tribes in their area – you might have read about this – two of the national staff were killed. South Sudan is a harsh place.  Tribal warfare rages and politics are tribal.  The president is being forced to include the opposition tribe into the government, so Juba may just heat up again in the coming weeks.  The economy is in shambles.  South Sudanese Pounds are nearly worthless.  I’m sure oil revenues have dried up with the market crashing. And until peace becomes the norm, I don’t hold out much hope for progress.

Yet, people are kind to me. Greeting is with a handshake, then pat on the front of the shoulder.  “Good Morning!”. “Fine fine” I’d forgotten an “F” is pronounced “P” and vice versa – so “pone” for “phone” and “fen” for “pen”.

My only regret is I wasn’t able to get a pic of the hedgehog in the dining tukul in Agok.  Darling, although at first I thought it was a rat.  The hawks in the compound attacking our food plates scared me, but when they left the goat entrails for the buzzards, I avoided the area entirely.

I’ll leave you with a final smile for the day.  Thanks to everyone for the love and support – I feel it every day and appreciate it more than you can imagine.