October Days in Southern Sudan

Juba, Southern Sudan
Juba, Southern Sudan

Tomorrow is October 9th. October 9th is my brother’s 25th birthday (Happy Birthday, Jaron!). October 9th also marks the 3-month countdown until the results of the referendum voting are scheduled to be announced. The referendum vote will decide whether Southern Sudan will become it’s own independent country – A new country declared over night. Beginning in August,the Government of Southern Sudan announced that every 9th of the month will be observed as a public holiday until the 9th of January. After Saturday, there will only be 2 “9ths” left… And no one feels ready for that.

As I type this, a demonstration is walking by our office. A male and female voice take turns yelling through a loud speaker. I can make out enough of the Juba Arabic to know that they are talking about a New Sudan – a separated South Sudan.

Things are tense, there is no doubt. Every organization is in the middle of “contingency planning” including the one I work for. A major part of my job is overseeing staff plans over this period of time. I have drafted policies for when our Sudanese staff should travel to register for the referendum and for voting. I have also been tasked with developing our key messages as an organization during this sensitive period of time. I am highlighting our neutrality, impartiality and our consistent dedication to serving and helping the most vulnerable in Sudan, regardless of the outcome of the referendum. I have to encourage Sudanese staff to avoid wearing our organization’s t-shirts while they are participating in political rallies, registering and voting. We could never ask our Sudanese coworkers to hold back their opinions, but we do ask that they try not to confuse our mandate with their own opinions… tricky sometimes. As for the rest of our staff – Kenyan, British, German, Dutch, Danish, Australian, Irish, and American – all of us have opinions and theories. But we have to careful to remain supportively neutral and impartial. Again, tricky at times.

I have been thriving in this role. I love it… and it seems to suit me really well. Our staff are exhausted (as Brian and I are as well), but I love that it is a part of my job description to support the staff. The challenge is to find ways to feel motivated and inspired during really difficult days.

I have been lucky to have housemates and neighbors who enjoy jogging, so I have been running almost every morning since I got here. I wear my Vikings t-shirt (Favre AND Moss!… pigs will be flying any day now) and run down the quiet streets, past tukuls where women are starting fires for tea and men sit sleepily chewing on wood to brush their teeth. Every morning we run by one man who is clearly homeless. He sits in the same place outside a pharmacy across the road from the hospital. He must have TB. At exactly 6:45 am every morning we jog past him and he is coughing… coughing up a lot of fluid. He hits himself on the back of the head as he hunches over and coughs. Later, as I drive past him at 8 am, he is sitting, back against a bundle of all of his belongings, wrapped in a faded green blanket, watching what was a quiet street only 1 hour earlier, now bustle and surge with all sorts of life.  Students in bright uniforms walk to school, women draped in vibrant, printed cloth dash across the street with large bundles of food on their head to cook for their loved ones in the hospital (meals are provided by families if someone is in the hospital… so you can imagine how that effects a family when someone is in the hospital), and mutatus (taxi vans), bodas (motorbike taxis) clog traffic as vehicles filled with government employees, NGO workers and military try to squeeze through the chaotic congestion.  I am in one of those vehicles. I wave to him when we make eye contact… “See you this evening”, I think to myself, “and again tomorrow morning”.

He is my mile marker. When I reach him in the mornings during my run, I know exactly how much distance I have left – past the petrol station, over the stream, and home. He is my inspiration. When I pass him, I run harder for two reasons. Firstly, because I think that if he could, he would join us. I can see the hate he has for his disease and how it cripples him. But I am not crippled. I can run. I can feel the air coming into my lungs and going out again. So I run harder… because he can’t. Secondly, I run harder to become stronger. I sit at a desk every day, behind this laptop. A majority of my job happens remotely, and almost none of it involves me interacting with people like him – people in need. But I know that what I do helps people like him. I support a staff that consists of doctors, nurses and engineers who provide emergency and primary health care, nutrition and clean water projects to people all across Southern Sudan. I know that when I am encouraging managers to do staff appraisals, that means that those doctors are getting a chance to hear about what they need to improve on – how they can help people like my mile marker better. I know that when I meet with a staff person and ask them what they need in order to do their job better, I can encourage, build up and spur on those who are on the front lines. Every morning I want to stop, and go put my arm around my mile marker. I want to pick him up, and bring him home and figure out a way to improve his life. But instead I run harder. I run hard to stay healthy for him, so that maybe some day, one of the doctors or nurses I support will take care of him and his life will be improved.

The scariest thing is not knowing how long we can be here… how long we can do this. Brian and I both signed two-year contracts, meaning on paper we are here through 2012. But we could all be pulled back to Nairobi in January… or even before.

But until then we will keep going, looking for our mile markers when we are tired, taking the inspiration to make us run harder while we can.

The Economist recently posted an excellent article on the current situation here: http://www.economist.com/node/17103885 Very accurate to what we are seeing and experiencing.

– Bethany