Day One in Duk Payuel, Southern Sudan

November 10, 2010

It’s about 6:30 pm in Duk Payuel, and I’m watching the sunset from my hammock on the veranda (concrete extended foundation) of the green canvas army tent I’m sharing with Tom Dannon, the 26-year-old Duk Lost Boys Clinic Executive Director. I could hear my husband shrugging his shoulders about it when I asked if he was okay with it. It was the only real option. Tom didn’t want to displace the only staff member who has her own tent. She’s a nutrition consultant from Kenya who is here through December. The clinic compound has been taken over by uninvited guests in the past and it causes a lot of stress, even when they are here to do good work. I intend to make myself as useful as possible, in addition to easing the financial burden by contributing to food costs and so on. The flooding has diminished food supplies, and Tom is trying to arrange for AIM Air to fly some in when they are coming this direction—soon.

I just took a shower, and I’m already sweating again. I was hoping to use a low wattage hair dryer while here to preserve the “do” but it won’t do me much good in this heat and humidity. The only positive thing for a vain woman like myself is there are absolutely no mirrors. I did bring a makeup mirror, but it only shows magnified portions of my face—I can’t get the full view, so I don’t know how bad I look and can’t see how my hair is responding.

Shortly after my arrival, the cook fed me some delicious spaghetti—cooked with some lovely carmelized onions. I was the only one eating, but the same meal was served for dinner. This time, Bibiera, the Kenyan woman was serving herself, and she offered to pour some tomato sauce on the spaghetti. Big mistake. It’s a giant plastic container of sauce they use like ketchup. It’s always on the table and it’s NOT Ragu.

So how did I get here?

I arrived at Wilson airport in Nairobi at the terminal used by little airlines like AIM Air. AIM stands for Africa Inland Missions. They are costly compared to commercial flights, but they fly places commercial airlines don’t go. There are some competitors—who may be more or less expensive, but a bit less safety conscious, perhaps. A lot of rogue pilots. AIM’s pilots are all volunteers—they raise the money to pay their own salaries—so the cost of the flight is the equipment and fuel, not the pilot. The pilot prays with the passengers before takeoff.

At the terminal, I went through customs—a tiny room with a window. I passed my passport through the window to a woman. Behind her a man in a business suit slept in his chair, his arms folded across his wide chest. Most of my cargo had already gone through security—so I only had two bags to put through the screener. Outside I waited with two small groups of Americans, each flying to different locations in Sudan on missions of one sort or another. A group of four flew with me in the caravan—an eight-seater that accommodated my 400 kg and their cargo as well. Good conversation and learned a few things that might be useful for our work in Duk. The Moringa plant–also called Olipheri–native to Southern Sudan (but not grown purposely many places). Highly nutritious fruit (or nut), leaves make tea that is anti-bacterial–the roots and bark have other healthful properties.

They dropped me and my cargo in Lokichoggio, and then the new pilot and airline folks performed a miracle—they said they do it every day—fitting my load into a tiny two-seater like puzzle pieces. I don’t know the type of aircraft—I’m sure Ron Saeger, our board member/pilot knows. This is the type of plane where you wear headphones so the pilot can talk to you and you can avoid the noise. The air vents are little tubes that bring the outside air inside. We had a lively conversation about mission air service and the politics and development issues in Southern Sudan. If you talk to lots of people and read lots of articles about Southern Sudan—you’ll find lots of differing opinions, little consensus. The reality is no one really knows what will happening after the referendum.

Aside: I was cocooned inside the mosquito net in this hammock but it became remarkably stuffy. So I opened it up—cool air, not many mosquitos yet—but the tsetse flies are nasty biters. They don’t carry sleeping sickness, here, so that’s a plus. Tom advised me later to lay diagonally—better air circulation.

I should have asked pilot Jerry to fly me around the village so I could more fully appreciate the flood effect. I’m kicking myself because he offered just as we approached the airstrip, and I thought I was imposing. Once on the ground, it isn’t as easy to access. It’s wet–really wet–or it’s dry.

The airstrip was diked with sandbags and mud. After each rain villagers bail it out! But the end of the runway was really muddy and I felt the plane slide—I thought he might get bogged down in the mud and THAT would be a problem. Oh—BTW—Jerry has a year of flight experience. He grew up in a missionary family, as did his wife. He used to be an engineer and gave it up for this. He is also an airplane mechanic.

It was a good thing I brought yellow rain boots. The walk to the village is about a half a mile. When we were here in 2007, the walk was nice and dry. Today the entire path was flooded—from ankle to knee deep. My mid-calf high boots were under water much of the time, so my feet sloshed around inside. But they protected me from stepping on the plum-sized snails and other unknowns in the murky water. In front, in back, and alongside me, walked barefoot children and adults. Villagers and clinic staff carried my cargo through the water to the clinic compound on their heads and backs.


I had a shower before dinner. They have a couple of them—concrete floors, gravel-like—enough room to hang your clothes on a nail, and a shower head attached to the ceiling. It’s only cold water, but it doesn’t feel so bad since the air is so hot. I started to sweat again as soon as I toweled off.

After dinner the clinic gang gathered in the dining hall to watch a movie. The dining hall was built after our 2007 visit–but the cooks still cook outside. The movie was”Jonah Hex’ with Josh Brolin—I don’t think it’s one of his better films. There was a tame sex scene that got the mostly male audience roaring. I can remember as a kid that television programs showed married couples sleeping in twin beds. Things have certainly changed—but this crowd hasn’t had much exposure to television, let alone the subject matter that’s common in America today. Tom Dannon tells me the staff really loves American Westerns–the cattle rustling and gun “play” are familiar.

I went to sleep about ten and slept well until about 3:30. I haven’t adjusted to the time change—nine hours later than Fargo. I got up to use the latrine—thank goodness for the headlamp I brought along. There are a few latrines, but the one I’m using has a combination lock. It’s a pit flusher. You carry a jug of water in with you to flush it. It works pretty slick, but the old knees aren’t happy squatting.

Starting about 4 am there were babies crying in nearby tents. People talking. There were some groups walking in the pitch dark with flashlights, sloshing through deep water nearby. I later learned some of these are the cooks who come to work at that time! Sometimes it’s patients. There is no way to get to the clinic without walking through deep water.

My tent is on the outer side of the compound—only a few feet from the mud dike. The sun rises on my side of the tent, the silhouetted trees reflecting in the still flood waters, the gorgeous colors bursting into the sky.

For breakfast there were several thermoses. Of what? I asked the female staff person (I don’t know her name) if it was tea. She said no. I asked what it was. She said a Sudanese word I didn’t recognize. I poured it into my cup. It was warm milk. Very tasty. As I was leaving the dining room, the cook came in with a box of tiny square biscuits. I took two. Literally the worst biscuits I have ever eaten. Like soggy animal crackers but not as sweet. Tom later told me he hasn’t really figured out the morning routine. Sometimes there are tea bags and a strainer—you pour the milk through it. Sometimes the Nescafe. And he’s lived here for months!

I’ve been asked to take the staff photo for their Christmas card. The photos they took before apparently weren’t acceptable to the graphic design person. So I have parameters to follow. I’m not really THAT KIND OF photographer—but thank goodness Norm made me take a tripod.

This is Africa.

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