Time here seems to be moving so fast and somehow it has been a few months since I last wrote anything. A wise friend commented recently about how quickly you can adapt to any setting and the totally abnormal can become a new normal. As I have settled in here, events that in most other places would be highly unusual and disturbing simply form the back drop to “ordinary” life. As things seemed more commonplace, so the impetus to write about them seemed to have diminished for a while.
However, coming back from a holiday and being thrown into the biggest spike of malaria and malnutrition cases ever seen in Aweil has reminded me that the reality here for ordinary people is far from “normal” as we would see it. As the fragile peace process in the country flounders, the situation for the average family becomes unimaginably tougher week by week. Fighting in the capital Juba last month and elsewhere in the country has resulted in thousands of people being displaced from their homes and living in the bush or in UN protected sites. South Sudan currently has the highest level of inflation in the world and prices for the little amount of food there is in the market are unaffordable to many.
Having a holiday and a break from the field, gave me some time away from the day to day immediacy of these issues and allowed for some reflection. I was lucky enough that my first break coincided with an Australian nurse who also works here and so we went to Ethiopia together.
First stop on any trip out of here is a flight from Aweil to Juba. The small UN World Food Programme plane is often delayed, but was even more so on this occasion. The head of the army was also flying out of Aweil, with a distinct lack of military-precision time-keeping. His helicopter was waiting at the airstrip as we arrived but evidently he was not. Over an hour later, scores of military trucks laden with armed young men sped up to the airstrip. Then some time later, a second convoy with an armoured car and the army chief had arrived. A large military presence always make for an uneasy time in a country where tensions remain high and violence can flare quickly, but the helicopter left without incident and the many trucks of armed men sped away from the airstrip as quickly as they had arrived.
The refreshment/ duty free options at Aweil airstrip are limited, but we did manage to get a cup of hibiscus tea to drink whilst sitting doing crossword puzzles and waiting for all the commotion to die down. Our plane arrived around 5 hours late and we were off on holiday.
We spent an evening in Juba, catching up with some friends working elsewhere in the country who were also passing through, over passable gin cocktails and almost pizzas. Then a trip back to the utter chaos of Juba airport in the morning. A new attempt at a queuing system quickly descended into a farce and it was elbows out and push again. Who knew that many hours spent trying to get nearer to the front of tightly packed crowds at Glastonbury would come in so useful? An added twist to the general discomfort was the addition of gastroenteritis in an airport with only one terrible toilet. No lock, no light, no water, no paper. Fabulous.
Flying into Addis Ababa was like arriving in a different would. Compared to Juba, it is an incredibly developed city. A short trip to our hotel and we had arrived in luxury. Never have I been so excited to have a duvet, an on-suite flush toilet and warm shower! As a result of tiredness and illness our first Ethiopian meal consisted of chips and a cup of tea. A rock-and-roll evening watching BBC news 24 in bed followed. This all proved to be the perfect medicine and we were both feeling much better and ready to explore the next day.
A visit to a friend who works in the British Embassy provided a glance at how the other half live. The embassy compound is extremely luxurious, with beautiful gardens, tennis courts, a golf course, stables and a club house with a swimming pool. A swim in the pool was extremely welcome. Unfortunately, I did not run into James Bond as had been the hope of my colleagues in Aweil.
Rock church in Lalibela
After Addis, we visited several other parts of the country. In Lalibela, there are stunning churches carved into the rock face plus a surprisingly excellent Ethiopian-Scottish fusion restaurant. The biggest highlight was walking for 3 days and camping in the Simian Mountains National Park. With very limited options to walk around in Aweil, to be out in the fresh air and surround by space and beautiful scenery was wonderful. A traditional coffee ceremony in a hut in a small mountain village finished off a great three days.
Gelada monkey in the Simian Mountains National Park
Back in Addis for one more day on our way out meant we just had time to stock up on all of the essential to take back to the field (Pringles, jelly, chocolate, shampoo). Then one final holiday treat with breakfast and a swim at the Sheraton Hotel. Words cannot do justice to how incredible the breakfast buffet was – an eye watering array of food from around the world including a waffle station, omelette station, juice station, Ethiopian, Asian, Middle Eastern, European food, pastries, cold meats, fruits, yoghuts etc etc.
Three hours and 7 courses later we finally left. An incredible and indulgent morning, but as we headed back to the airport, the irony was hard to ignore. This breakfast was far more food than the average family will have to eat for a week back in South Sudan.
Even going away for a short time meant that I saw a difference in poverty levels when I returned. The hair of malnourished children can take on an unusual orange tinge and the prevalence of this in the town has been far more noticeable. Prices of basic food items have more than quadrupled in the same time. Walking through the market this week, I saw a street boy steal an onion from a wheel barrow and eat it raw, straight away like an apple. None of this is normal.
And the mosquitos are here. Very much so. We are seeing an unprecedented rise in the number of admissions to our hospital with severe malaria. The reasons we are working here have never been clearer. However busy we are, there is an immense amount of job satisfaction and so much still to learn and to do.
But for now a poker night awaits ……