Thursday, September 17, 2009

Letter from the Field: South Sudan

Instead of my usual babbling, I thought you would enjoy an actual letter from the field.

Mike is a friend and fellow water-sanitation engineer. He's been working on international development projects for about 5 years now, regularly traveling to some of the most volatile parts of the world for his work. This is a recent letter he sent while on duty in Juba, South Sudan. His letter is published here in its entirety with his permission.

Before there was Lisa, there were escapades in Central Asia and East Africa and South Asia and Melanesia.  Before that, Melbourne, city I love.  But before all those things there was Haroun, the embodiment of a place that had caught my heart.  Once upon a steamy summer evening in Atlanta, after I had helped Haroun’s family move into their new apartment, we went next door to join four other families.  The people inside, black as night with tribal markings sketched into their foreheads, stood silently in the corners of the room, in the way that refugees learn to do. We broke bread.  The room was filled with melodies of praise sung by voices seeped in red soil and baked by an African sun.  I stood transfixed.  “You will make it to southern Sudan someday,” Haroun leaned over and whispered to me.  Perhaps Haroun was a prophet. 


What’s it like to finally arrive in a place that you’ve been interested in for over a decade? 


Well for one, it’s being towered over by a tall soldier who’s ensuring that you are deleting the photo you just took as you walked across the tarmac from the plane. 


“I’m sorry.  It’s my first time in Sudan and I wanted to get a picture of arriving,” I say as I press the delete button at the bottom right of the camera.  The soldier stoically stares at the next photo that appears on the screen.  It’s a photo I took while Lisa and I were driving down the LA freeway to the airport.  “That’s from Los Angeles, not here,” I assure him.   He nods and motions me towards arrivals. 


Turns out that the airport isn’t the only place in Juba where uniformed men disapprove of cameras toted by foreigners.  The streets, the marketplaces, anywhere near the parliament building, and especially crossing the Juba Bridge, the only crossing of the Nile for over 500 kilometers to the north or south.  But if you want to photograph the Juba Bridge, you just go over to the fancy restaurant with its white polyester tablecloths situated on the bank of the river 250 meters downstream from the bridge.  Order and coke and take as many photos as you like. 


I’ve come to Juba to do an evaluation of the USAID funded Juba urban WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) project.  Before I left I was under the impression that I’d be walking around with groups of project staff doing household surveys and leading focus group discussions and inspecting construction quality of toilets.  Before I left I was also under the impression that I’d be evaluating the first ever piped water network in Juba’s history.  I was wrong, on both accounts.  Turns out that back in the 1920s when the British were still the colonial power, they installed over 50 kilometers of pipes in what was, at the time, quite a remote outpost town.  The water system hasn’t been upgraded or maintained during the past 60 or so years that Sudan has been embroiled in its particularly vicious civil war. 


As turns out, USAID also didn’t want me to lead teams of Sudanese staff traipsing around Juba interrogating people about their toilet use and handwashing practices.  I came to realize on my first afternoon in Juba that my job was to interview a lot of government officials, to examine the policy framework of the new-ish, quasi-autonomous government of South Sudan, and to provide strategic recommendations as to how USAID should further invest in urban WASH in South Sudan (and indirectly, about how to assist the quasi-autonomous nascent government).


Juba 2009 has whispers of Kabul 2003.  Bustling, hopeful.  On the streets craftsmen are making furniture, welders are fusing iron gates.  People are buying and selling.  Music emanates from bamboo-walled restaurant shacks.  Motorcycles zip about.  Mobile phones charging at wooden stands.  All in a city where there’s no electricity grid.  Juba’s booming. 


At newly opened restaurants where Kenyan and Ugandan wait staff serve cold drinks and imported food to the throngs of foreign businessmen and aid workers, the faces from Europe and North America sit at broad tables with their compatriots from East Africa.  They talk of low capacity in South Sudan, lower than anywhere else they’ve worked.  Of the restlessness of the population, since benefits from the peace dividend have turned out to be lower than what was expected.  The elephant in the corner of the room is the referendum that’s scheduled to occur in about 18 months.  According to the arrangements of the 2005 peace agreement, South Sudan gets 6 years of autonomous rule and then there’s a referendum where southerners get to vote on secession.  Everyone expects an overwhelming yes vote from the population.  No one expects the government in Khartoum to allow it to happen, this being the same regime that has waged a repressive war against the south for as long as anyone can remember and then a few years ago decided to shift war efforts to a once unheard of part of Sudan called Darfur.  And just in case you were wondering, the oil fields are in South Sudan. 


The lodge where I’m staying is at the edge of the rapidly sprawling city.  It’s really nice accommodation, especially for Juba standards.  A year and a half ago the population of Juba was around 250 thousand, there were 6 km of paved roads, and $100 a night would get you a canvas tent and a shared pit latrine.  Now there around 400 thousand in Juba, about 20 km of paved roads, and $150 a night gets you a private air conditioned hut inside a barbed wire fence containing one of the three pools in South Sudan.  In between the huts, the grounds are covered with portulacas.  In daytime the flowers open up, transforming the land into a carpet of purple.  As you walk around Juba, even in the areas where there isn’t any running water – much less swimming pools – you see that families have planted portulacas.  Patches of hopeful purple flowers in a sea of brown dust.  In Juba Arabic they’re called “sahb ahkeer,” which means “flower of sunrise.”  I hope it’s sunrise for Juba; for South Sudan.


“I hope your son is able to return to South Sudan someday,” I told Haroun a decade ago, when last I saw him. 


I’m still hoping. 


Love from South Sudan,


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