One time in February 2011, the air conditioner in my office in Juba, South Sudan, blew an invoice off my desk and it landed on the floor on its side. It totally made my day.
Back in October and November, as the rainy season was drawing to a close, there was a sudden onslaught of Nairobi flies here in Juba, South Sudan. They were everywhere I looked! The skin burns they inflicted on people were easy to spot on people all around town.
The much-feared and widely misunderstood Nairobi fly is not a fly at all; it’s a poorly named beetle that, to my eye, looks somewhat like an earwig from a distance. It does not bite or sting people. What it does is BURN people. Yes, burn:
In the haemolymph (what these guys have inside, instead of blood) of these little beetles, is a substance called pederin, which is a vesicant (blister agent). If a Nairobi fly lands on your neck, and you mistake it for a mosquito and try to kill it, you may end up crushing it. The same might happen if a Nairobi fly gets into your bedsheets and you roll over onto it. When the beetle’s body is crushed, the pederin comes into contact with your skin and after a few hours blisters begin to form like the ones on my neck in the photo above, from November 6, 2010.
This is what the Nairobi fly looks like on the fridge:
…and on a laptop:
…and in a very dangerous place, the juice carton from which I was drinking directly:
A week after I took the first photo above, the burn was actually worse than before, as shown in this photo from November 13:
Two weeks later, the skin blisters were gone, and by December I couldn’t see a Nairobi fly anywhere in Juba. They’ll be back, though, I’m sure of that.
This morning I sent one of my logistics assistants to the Ministry of Finance to see if some tax exemptions were ready for medical supplies we’re bringing in to South Sudan. As a medical charity, we don’t pay import duties, but we need an official exemption letter from the Ministry of Finance for each consignment of goods we bring in. So, at around 10am, I gave him some cash to catch a boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) to and from the complex where most of the Government of Southern Sudan ministries are located, and I went off to a meeting with a colleague.
After my meeting, I returned back to the office, and a short while later my assistant came in to see me. “Success?” I asked him, as I do every time he goes on a mission for me. “Failure” he replies, as he does about 30% of the time, which is actually a very good rate of success considering the difficulties of getting things done in South Sudan.
“Just joking!” he laughs, with a huge grin, and pulls out from behind his back the three tax exemptions.
“Was it difficult to get them?” I ask. “Very difficult, sir. I went through thick and thin, because people were gathered many by the door, no way I can enter, people were just pushing like ‘go away, you go there, you go there’ but me, I stood there and I say ‘My friend, I don’t have much there, I just only have my document tax exemptions’ but they say ‘no, no, no no, you wait there, you stand in line!’ and I just for me, stand there just waiting, moving slowly. Then they are pushing some people out, even nobody’s entering in the house, whereby then there was the sound for a gun — pow! pow! — like this, all the security, everybody was opening door, and then running toward the gunshot, everyone was making gun like this [he cocks an imaginary gun] and then I just run there, I enter inside, and they locked the inner door, and the gate as well, and then I just jump — chop-chop! — to the second floor up.”
“I just come like this, I say ‘Yes, madam,’ she says ‘Oh Mr Merlin, you are lost nowadays.’ I say ‘No, I’m there, I’m available,’ they say ‘OK,’ I say ‘I come to check,’ they say ‘no no no OK it’s OK,’ they check my document, they gave me three of them, then somebody just, from behind me, comes like this [pretend that someone grabs him from behind] ‘oh people you are here, oh they shot minister there, people are fighting over there!’ Then all of those people, all at their desks here, they just wake up I said ‘OK bye I’m going.’ We went with them together when I took already my document. I passed just through people [in the street outside] who were making there noise, what-what, just pass through, I’m trying to listen what they’re saying so that I will also try to tell here when I reach here. Then they said ‘They shot uzir there.’ I say ‘Minister for what?’ they say ‘Minister for Cooperation’ kind of thing like that.”
To read the same story as reported by Reuters, about the assassination this morning of South Sudan’s Minister of Rural Development and Cooperatives, head over to http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/02/09/us-sudan-south-minister-idUSTRE7181TE20110209
Working in a coordination office for a humanitarian organisation, rather than in a field site, has its drawbacks. Away from the action, it can be difficult to understand the needs of the field sites, to feel connected to the actual work being done by the organisation. This is true of coordination offices in Europe and North America, where most international NGOs have their head offices, and of in-country coordination offices. The latter can be found in cities like Goma, Juba, Bangui, Kabul, Port-au-Prince, and others, where the streets are rivers flowing white with the Toyota LandCruisers and Nissan Patrols of dozens, if not hundreds, of NGOs and UN agencies. Noise, traffic, high cost of living, and pollution are among some of the negative things encountered in many of these cities.
At the same time, the cities that host humanitarian coordination offices also tend to have restaurants that serve pizza, burgers, steak, and other tasty but not-at-all local cuisine. A BLT by the pool? An espresso on the veranda? A dinner by candlelight on the banks of the Nile? A cold Leffe on the shore of Lake Kivu? All these and more can be yours, if you’re a humanitarian aid worker “stuck” in a coordination office. While I personally would much prefer to spend most of my time in the field, it’s not exactly easy to complain about working in a coordination office when the living conditions are so cushy.
So, let’s have a look at a (Sun)day in the life of a humanitarian aid worker (me!) in Juba, South Sudan, a city teeming with expat aid workers:
0641: Wake up on the sofa of a friend, after a big party at one organisation’s residence.
0652: Get up from the sofa, groggy and mosquito-bitten all over, clothes reeking of other people’s cigarette smoke from the party.
0705: In the car and out the compound gates with two other friends.
0715: Arrive at an agency’s guesthouse to pick up two more people. Notice one of the car’s tires is low on air.
0740: Leave the guesthouse with everyone on board, and one nearly flat tire.
0749: Arrive at my house to change into shorts and pick up my dSLR.
0802: Leave my house, still searching for a place to put air in the tire.
0814: Pull over at a gas station. No air for the tire. Pull back onto the dirt road.
0818: Successfully re-inflate the tire and continue on our way, five people crammed into a tiny little two door car.
0840: Arrive at Jebel Lodge to meet our friend, but can’t find her anywhere.
0842: Head toward another agency’s residence nearby to find her. Can’t find the way in, drive back and forth for 5 minutes to the amusement of the children living nearby.
0855: Find the house where our friend reportedly lives, knock on the door. Girl with same name but different face answers the door, says the girl we’re looking for is in House 16.
0857: Drive away in search of House 16. Locate House 16, drive up the sidewalk toward the front door.
0900: Knock on the door, hear the grunt of a hibernating bear. Fear for lives, return to car, reverse car down the sidewalk back to the road.
0904: Head back to Jebel Lodge to park the car, having given up on finding our friend.
0925: Begin the walk up Jebel Kujur, the mountain rising out of the plains to the west of Juba.
1022: Reach the top of the mountain. Take three photos, one of which is half-decent:
1025: Lie down to sleep. Allow others to take photos with my dSLR.
1047: While sleeping, camera is put back in hand. Refuse to get up to take photos. Aim randomly backward over head, push shutter button many times while eyes remain closed and face remains covered by hat to aid in sleeping. One somewhat usable shot thanks to the wide-angle lens:
1049: Put camera on timer mode, take portrait of the whole group:
1050: Start the hike back down the mountain.
1112: Walk past a dozen very heavily armed special forces soldiers, accompanied by a khawaja of some assumed importance and another khawaja with a news camera, who apparently felt it a good idea to climb up a mountain at midday in 40+ heat.
1130: Arrive back at Jebel Lodge. Order a soft drink, down it quickly, then order another.
1133: Sit down under a shade umbrella by the pool. Order a BLT with fries. Drink first coffee of the day.
1153: Eat BLT sandwich, order another soft drink.
1358: Leave Jebel Lodge in the tiny little two door car, windows open to beat the heat.
1423: The inevitable finally happens, on a main street near Dr John Garang Mausoleum: the problem tire suddenly goes completely flat. There are no tools in the car to put the spare tire on.
1439: While waiting for a friend to arrive with tools to change the tire, a huge flatbed truck rolls past with a tank on board. Atop the tank sit a bunch of young SPLA soldiers, chanting and fist-pumping in the air. Random.
1450: Tire changed, back in the car.
1304: Arrive home, take a nap.
1738: Leave home toward a friend’s compound for volleyball.
1844: While having a quiet beer at the bar between volleyball games, discover that the morning’s hibernating bear grunt from House 16 originated from the vocal box of a large Serbian man who does not like mornings, but is very friendly in the evenings (which is when we’re accustomed to seeing him at the bar).
2040: Return home after many games of volleyball and some good conversations with friends.
2355: Set alarm for what is guaranteed to be a tough Monday in the office. Get under mosquito net. Go to sleep.