I’m bouncing along a section of potholed road on my way to the UNHCR office in the Westlands area of Nairobi with my driver, Mumias. Jessica Wunderlich stayed behind at Mayfield Guest House to research people we hope to interview and places we hope to visit in Juba, South Sudan when we go there in a week. Westlands is the area where Westgate Mall, the biggest mall in Nairobi, was bombed in 2013. It’s closed and under construction. But I’m not here to shop.
The conflict in South Sudan has altered our travel plans. In fact, we’re figuring it out as we go along. A month ago, I thought I would cancel the trip altogether, and three of my five fellow travelers have cancelled their tickets, though all three hope to make the trip later, when the roads to Duk Payuel are safe enough to transport supplies, building materials, and our students who come from distant villages. Kevin Brooks, ASAH’s Vice President, a professor of English at NDSU in Fargo, plans to do teacher training for our staff, the local primary school teachers, and teachers from neighboring villages. Paul Fields, an engineer and member of the Lutheran Church of Peace in Platteville, Wisconsin, and a contractor, also from the church, planned to help pour concrete floors in the classroom buildings we built in 2013 and assist in constructing a new dormitory. Those projects and their trip will wait. We hope to travel to Duk in April.
As it is, there is work Jessica and I can accomplish in Kenya and in Juba. More about that in a future post.
There are two entrances for this building: one for refugees, one for everyone else; both are secured. Mumias parked near a tree, and I walked toward the refugee entrance which looked friendlier. A group of people sat on the ground.The two armed soldiers relaxing on a bench directed me to the other entrance. Through the guard at the gate, inside the door to the reception desk. I told them I was here to see Caroline Opile.
I met Caroline in 2007 when Kevin, Matt McGregor and I traveled to Kakuma with Joseph Akol Makeer, John Dau, and others. John was hosted by the UNHCR after the building of the Lost Boys Clinic in Duk Payuel. We traveled on his coat tails, working on our documentary, African Soul, American Heart, the story of Joseph’s desire to help orphans in Duk Payuel, the village he escaped as a ten-year-old in 1987. Caroline hosted us there, arranging for our lodging, our travel in and out of the camp, and our interviews with UN personnel. I kept Caroline’s contact information, and some time later emailed to ask if she wished to receive our email newsletter. She’s still on our list.
A few weeks ago, I emailed her from the US to ask if we could visit the camp again. In return, I got an “out of the office” autoreply with another contact name and email address, but I got no response. Since time was limited, I called Caroline’s cell phone and caught her walking down a street in Nairobi. When I reminded her who I was and asked if we would be approved to visit, she said, “Of course I remember you, Debra. It is no problem. I will approve your visit and arrange for a host to manage your accommodation and travel into the camp.”
Caroline told me about the UN flight which travels to and from the camp on Mondays and Fridays. Unfortunately, the Monday flight was fully booked, but she reserved seats on the Friday return flight. I’m here to pay the airfare – $200 each.
I left my drivers license at the reception desk in return for a clip-on visitor pass. I don’t have my passport. It’s at the embassy awaiting a Visa for travel to South Sudan. It takes three days, so we won’t get them back until our return from Kakuma. Jessica and I have copies, and we took pictures of them with our phones – just in case.
As it turned out, Caroline wasn’t in, so I met with another gentleman who gave me an application to fill out and took me to another station to pay for the flight. When the woman there read it, she said, “African Soul, American Heart! I know them, I was at Kakuma with Caroline and hosted them.” I said, “That was me.” Her name is Mercy.
Flexibility and Mercy have served us well thus far in our trip.