So it has been a little while since I last uploaded my words here, although I assure you my absence is not through apathy or laziness, or the dreaded ‘bloggers block’. I continue to write daily, I make sure I get my 10 minutes down, and more often than not it is scratched into the dirty, tattered, scruffy notepad that has become such a permanent resident in my pocket that is almost a parasite, it sits there happily feeding throughout the day from my consciousness, eating dust, sweat and gorging on my frenetically scribed thoughts and ideas. I’m looking through the headings from today:
“clowns with leprosy”, “last of the summer wine”, “rabid dogs eating shit”, “life”, “emma’s war.”
It has been a while, because, well, I needed some time.
I am in South Sudan, the newest country on our planet. Declared an independent state on July 9th 2011, it is just over a year old. I’ve been here before; this place holds many memories for me. This was the place where I first saw the real world, where my eyes were first opened to what it is all about, and how fucking dreadful it can be, and often is, but also how amazing and wonderful it can be as well.
I’d lived in the world for many years before coming to South Sudan; I’d lived a few of those in Africa and I thought I knew it all. The first time I came here I was full of my own knowledge, of my experiences and opinions, having survived post-conflict Liberia I was pumped full of my own importance. I foolishly thought I had seen enough to understand how it all works. It was here that I realised I knew nothing, it was here that I realised that a lot of the work that I thought was amazing, was actually bullshit. And it was here that I realised that we, as western society have somehow almost forgotten and lost our ability to be human, that we have got it so horribly wrong, yet convinced ourselves we had got it so spectacularly right.
It was here I felt love, I found humanity in all its glory, and saw life in its most basic and brutal instincts. I experienced death and destruction and anger and hate and passion and desire all intertwined together. It was here where I realised that our time is limited, our hours precious, and our futile attempts to fill our lives with all that is banal, are wasted. It was here that amongst the dirt and the poverty I saw life, life in its most purest sense, life as a gift that we take for granted, life that we forget we are so lucky to receive, life that we squander and fritter away, the life that we are often too busy living, to fully appreciate.
South Sudan is pre-historic, and I mean that in the most respectful and genuine way, the people here live as they have done for thousands of years. They are survivors, and despite all that has been thrown at them they continue to survive. And they are fighting and farming, and making love, and raising families and laughing and celebrating and driving cattle and fishing and playing football and living. We arrive here with our western ideas and look to change all that, to improve it, we assume that something is wrong with this way of life, we try to force our ideas and our expectations of normality upon them and sometimes we fail. Though we are not always completely wrong in what we do, we do have some good ideas, and we are not wrong in trying, but we often look at it through the wrong eyes, eyes that are blinded, blinded by our history and blinded by our learning, blinded by our hypocrisy and maybe by our mistaken beliefs of our own superiority.
We only see poverty, when what we should be seeing is survival, when we see pain and suffering what we are often looking at hard work and resistance, and when we see passiveness and naivety it is really strength and pride. Of course the people of South Sudan see the things that we see; these are sometimes the things the world sees as well, things that the world cannot begin to comprehend. These are the things that when the time is right and the news is dull, fill our screens for an evening before being forgotten, these are the things that we easily forget. But the people of South Sudan see them, they live them, because this is their life, these images we portray as hideous, these are their lives, their history and their opportunities, and we idly pass well-educated and informed judgement on them. We only see what we can see though our western eyes; and because of this we often overlook the intricacies, misinterpret the stories, and too easily pass judgement on the history that shapes this country, and therefore the experiences that shapes their lives. We are often also too quick, or too forgetful to remember our own hideous bloody history.
And don’t get me wrong, this story is horrific. Millions have died both as soldiers and as civilians, in both Sudan and South Sudan, and millions have suffered through starvation, and almost continuous displacement. War and unbelievably bad governance has plagued this country for hundreds of years, and still unfortunately continues to do so. The separation from Khartoum has not yet provided the new beginning that was eagerly anticipated, but it has created a chance, a chance to correct some of the damage that has been done and to remove the xenophobia and hatred that has ruled for many years. But it has a long way to go, and it really hasn’t got off to the greatest start. Century’s old, intertribal conflict, huge numbers of dependant returnees, and continued fighting over the control of the boundaries of the new country involving the oil fields are preventing the country from moving forward. Corruption is rife, and the government, the new government, of the new country is letting its people down in the most despicable way. But it is a complicated story, and it is a complicated country, one that is unified in name yet a long way from formulating its identity, it is a collection of peoples brought together by their struggles, yet continually forced apart by their differences. It does not fit nicely in our models; it escapes the boundaries of our understanding, and occasionally violently breaks free of our carefully constructed theories of change. And as we continually look to hit the easy targets, we carefully avoid the bigger issues, it is easier to feed people than to influence their leaders, it is easier to dig wells than battle corruption, and it is easier to tick the boxes that our donors so generously provide for us, chipping away at the surface of the problems than it is to controversially rip away the scab, and address the decay that is beneath.
And we keep filling this country with money, money from our western world that is trying to change all of this, applying sticking plasters where necessary. And we do keep trying to change it, trying to make it fit our parameters, meet our standards, fit our globalized dream of harmony, and we keep trying, because we feel it is our duty to keep trying. But we are often wrong; often for what we perceive to be the right reasons we are wrong, and often we find ourselves spending our money in the wrong ways, artificially sustaining something that will perhaps crumble on our departure.
Through our intelligence and knowledge we encourage people to build their houses in the higher lands to escape the annual flooding of the lowlands, but we don’t realise that during those months of flooding, those months of difficulties, the people in the lowlands can fish, and collect food, food that when dried and preserved can sustain them long after the water has subsided. When they move to the higher lands they can no longer fish. We encourage the children to stay in the villages to go to school, because it is important to go to school, but when they do, they miss out on the education that comes with travelling with the cattle to the watering holes in the dry season, the lessons they learn in animal husbandry, the ancient rituals, the traditions and life skills. We continue to introduce our western ideals without enough consideration of the consequences. And we try to force change and rush the things that it took us in the west, centuries of war and bloodshed to achieve, expecting them to happen almost overnight. But we try, we get it wrong and also we get it right. We are learning, and for as much as we do wrong, we do as much right, but often we don’t hit the target, the bullseye, often we are hitting the sides, counting our scores and clapping ourselves on the back for a job well done, knowing full well that we should be aiming smarter and truer.
And I try, oh fucking hell to I try to make sure that the work I do here is not wrong.
But I’m here again, and I earn money to be here. For a month I eat rice and beans and goat, and I am privileged that I eat one meal every day. For a month I sleep under this mosquito net and I am privileged to twist and toss and turn in my own sweat, sleep failing me but for a few hours in the cool of the early morning. I shit into a small stinking hole in the ground and I shower using a small plastic cup, though I cannot bring myself to feel privileged about it, I know I am. I walk in the dark without a torch, for fear of drawing attention to myself, and I carry stones to use in case the packs of rabid dogs decide to investigate me. During the day I flake under the sun, finding the shade of mango trees to meet with groups of students and then groups of teachers to discuss and discover their opinions and their feelings, to listen patiently to their tales. Or I stand sweltering beneath a tin roof, trying to teach a collection of drowsy sweating education administrators. In the evenings I return to my compound, behind the safety of barbed wire to drink whiskey and relive their lives in my mind, the stories of my colleagues and their experiences of survival and hardship and unbelievable bravery during the war times chase any sleep I imagined away, as I lie awake in my sweat, waiting for the morning.
It feels a bit strange returning to Malualkon, I have butterfly’s in my stomach as the tiny airplane circles over the landing strip, a rough, dark brown dirt scar in in the dirt brown landscape. From here the whole village is visible. I can see the market, a hodgepodge of cobbled together stalls and traders sat on the floor with their wares displayed on sacks in front of them. I try to see my favourite coffee spot, Mary’s, where I have enjoyed sweet ginger spiced coffee, and passed the time of day with anyone who happened to stop by. I can see the big tree that doubles as a bar selling warm Kenyan beer. And like a bright blue alien ship the new secondary school built by the governor of the county, and the minute bright blue children who attend, stands out. As far as the eye can see are clusters of small round compounds of thatched round mud huts, fenced in with upright branches and thorns to keep the cattle away from the small vegetable plots. I can see goats, lots of goats, and a single solitary donkey, stood motionless in the approximate region of the centre circle on a dirt football field, only recognisable due to the four thick branches planted into the ground, two at each end. I try to trace my old running routes, the well-worn footpaths cutting through the trees, where I laboured nightly, just me on my own, and a hundred small children in chase. I can see my accommodation, my old tent, the one they gave the visitors, the one with the door that didn’t close allowing a menagerie of animals, bats, frogs and insects and who knows what else to join me in my sweaty slumber.
In a steep arching curve the pilot pulls back around levels off straight and drops from the sky, hitting the dirt heavily, a cloud spewing and announcing our safe arrival. The plane is small, but the runway is short and we decelerate quickly, veering and bouncing on the uneven ground, every stone and small hole magnified. We stop, and as the propeller slows a small collection of people emerge from the tree to meet the new arrivals. We shake hands, I am not here to see these men, or work with them, they are merely here out of interest, and take pleasure in welcoming me to their village.
My shoes are dusty and grey within seconds of leaving the plane, the floor bone dry and brittle comes alive with every step, a ghost of each foot left behind hanging momentarily. The sun is harsh, no moisture in the air, the heat immediately covering my body in a tight blanket.
But I am here in Northern Bahr el Ghazal, I am happy, I am alive.