Feet are the main mode of transport in South Sudan. Taxis are scarce, personal vehicles rare, and motorbikes (boda bodas) costly. So, people walk. With or without shoes, they walk. The pathways are rough and the earth hard but the South Sudanese walk. If feet could talk, the stories they would tell, could fill hundreds of books. Each tells a tale; a tale of survival and struggle, a tale of toil and triumph, a tale of perseverance and power. These feet are tough! They do not give up. They are resilient and reliable; just like the people who own them. Dirty, cracked, and chipped, these feet carry on carrying on and keep South Sudan moving.
I stepped off the plane and scrunched my eyes to adjust to the glaring sun. The men on the plane had pushed themselves passed the women to disembark first and now stood waiting at the bottom of the stairs for their bags. The wind was hot. Even in this season, the cool season, the temperature is regularly in the mid-thirties. Partnered with the warm wind, it certainly felt like at least 35`C. Several 4×4 vehicles were randomly parked around the airstrip; a dusty and bumpy landing zone. We spotted the Medair truck and made our way over to it with our backpacks hanging off our shoulders. Aida, the programme support manager (PSM) from Uganda, was there to welcome us to Renk. This was my first field visit.
I travelled to Renk, a county in the far north of South Sudan near the border with Sudan, with communications officer Diana, and two videographers, Andres and Ninja. We are filming and conducting interviews to create several videos for Medair’s internal and external use. This was Diana’s last field trip and my first and it was a privilege and a relief to travel with her.
Renk is a broken town displaying signs of a once busy and bustling centre and an extroverted market. Between the war with Sudan and the civil war in South Sudan, Renk has been battered and hosts both South Sudanese internally displaced people (IDPs) and Sudanese refugees. There are few government services available, including health care, and many military checkpoints. The community is visibly poor and yet striving for peace and stability.
Medair provides health and nutrition, and water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services to the people of Renk county. We operate several clinics and manage mobile nutrition and health teams around the area who visit the remote villages sprinkled around the Nile River. A Medair clinic, located in the Abayok IDP camp, serves thousands of people. Abayok clinic has a 24-hour stabilization centre for children and a 24-hour reproductive facility for women. Other services include treatment for malaria, cholera, diarrhea, wounds, and respiratory and skin infections. The nurses and medical assistants are from South Sudan and graciously care for their own people.
The stabilization centre at Abayok clinic hosts 14 beds in three different areas. There is no electricity and no running water. You would be forgiven for not identifying it as a medical facility. The walls are constructed of mud and straw and the roof tin. The beds are surrounded by essential mosquito nets. The stabilization centre is designed for children and for the mothers who bring them and stay with them. The days are long and the silence only punctuated by the cries of hurting babies. In these difficult circumstances, the Medair team provides genuine compassion and vital care.
The children in the stabilization centre are there for a variety of sad and preventable reasons. Most have some form of malnutrition and then illnesses associated with the condition. The children are weighed daily and are required to gain an additional 20g per day for several days to be released. Some of the children were looking stronger and preparing for departure but others looked dreadfully unwell.
One little boy captured my attention. He was maybe 18 months old and had a severe skin infection. Much of his skin had naturally peeled from his little body revealing excruciatingly raw skin below. He lay naked next to his mother and slept most of the time. His breathing was heavy as if he was trying to control the pain. I stared at this child and internally wept for his suffering and felt the anger rise within me as I mulled over the fact that his illness was entirely caused by powerful men playing games with their people. The food insecurity in South Sudan is a result of the conflict and not the weather. The men managing the violence are to blame for the state of these children.
Next week I travel to Aweil where Medair is responding to a severe nutrition crisis. My heart is sore and my disdain for injustice acute but I will endevour to connect with the people and share their stories.
I am the new Communications Officer for Medair in South Sudan. I arrived in the capital city of Juba on Sunday, 18 June. These are my impressions so far.
As a coffee-lover, I was relieved to see an array of coffee making equipment prominently displayed on a shelf in the kitchen, AeroPress, Bialetti, French Press, and an equally impressive selection of coffee. Morning coffee routines are important in Juba and that first cup is usually savoured with a fresh bread roll.
Tip: The corner shop next to the compound is owned and operated by a man from Eritrea who will roast and grind coffee as required.
It’s hot, incredibly hot, even in the “cool” season. Fortunately the offices and bedrooms are equipped with air conditioners but when the generator is turned off the mandatory three times a day, be ready to sweat! This is the rainy season so when the rains do roll in the clouds are majestic, the lightening powerful, and the cool breeze welcome.
Tip: Drink lots of water. Enjoy the cold showers.
- Phonetic Alphabet
Mingled with relief work protocols comes a need to know and memorise the NATO Phonetic Alphabet: alpha, bravo, charlie, etc. Each team member is assigned a call sign which is referred to using this system and phone calls often require this knowledge.
Tip: Write it down somewhere accessible and memorise it if possible.
- Names, Faces, and Roles
The South Sudan team is large and there are so many names, faces, and roles to remember. Trying to keep it all straight is overwhelming. There is also a lot of people movement on base so there is constant in and out between Juba, the field locations, and Nairobi.
Tip: Keep your contact list with you. Don’t shy away from asking someone’s name more than once, or twice, or even three times!
An immense amount of information is provided by Medair at the headquarters in Switzerland and the team in South Sudan. Documents, articles, briefings, books – there is so much to take in and so much to remember. I am new to relief work so this has been somewhat daunting.
Tip: Take it one day at a time. It is impossible to know everything at once and no one expects you to. But keep asking questions and learning.
Humanitarian work and workers deeply rely on acronyms. Everything from a position, a location, a project, an illness, and an intervention boasts a shorthand code. It can be daunting but Google can help most of the time. But beware; for a few days I thought GAM represented Global Asset Management before realising it actually means Global Acute Malnutrition.
Tip: Keep a list of common acronyms. Don’t be afraid to ask if you don’t know what the acronym stands for.
It is lovely to have two meals prepared and served every day and even though the menu repeats itself weekly it is better than having to source and cook food oneself. The Medair cooks are diligent and the food consistent. Be ready to enjoy cold food and practice using just a fork.
Tip: Try everything. Make sure you get to meals on time or you may miss out. Keep a stash of your favourite snacks available.
- Team Life
At any given time, approximately 32 people are living in the Medair base in Juba. That’s a lot of people to have in the same building living and working together. Despite the potential for irritation and frustration, the team life is dynamic and easy-going. People are kind and considerate and have made me feel welcome.
Tip: Make an effort to get to know everyone. Individual stories are fascinating and people have so much to share.
Juba is an intriguing city; a combination of incomplete buildings, shipping container offices, dirt roads, random restaurants, NGO vehicles, and reckless bodo bodo motorbike taxis. The city is not as chaotic as other African cities I have experienced but nevertheless has a definite African feel to it.
Tip: Make the most of trips outside the base to take in the surroundings and soak up the city buzz.
I arrived the week of the Quarterly Management Meetings (QMMs) which provided an invaluable opportunity to learn about Medair’s programmes in depth and, just as importantly, the incredible successes the teams have accomplished in the last three months. This organisation is really saving lives in South Sudan.
Tip: Ask questions and take advantage of staff visiting from the field. They have inspiring stories to share and experience to dispense.
If you had asked me in January if I would be interested in moving to and working in South Sudan I probably would have said no. I had a general understanding of the country and its problems but had no real desire to get involved. My heart was in the Middle East and that is where I thought, or rather hoped, I was headed. That has changed. On Saturday, 10 June, I leave South Africa to begin a new career with Medair in South Sudan. Not something I expected to happen just five months ago.
In October 2016, Haiti was battered by Hurricane Matthew causing widespread destruction and devastation. My mom sent me a video clip of the daughter of a friend of hers from Bible School who was reporting on behalf of Medair and detailing the organisation’s response to the disaster. The following month, while browsing a job alert website in search of an opportunity in the Middle East, I saw a post from Medair advertising a communications role in Amman, Jordan. I skimmed the organisation’s website and sent in my application. Since 2014 I have applied for over 120 jobs in the Middle East with no success so I was not particularly hopeful that this application would be any different. In December, I received an email from Medair requesting I complete a further application as part of the hiring process. Again, I was not especially hopeful but sent off the required documents. In January 2017, I was informed that the position in Amman had been filled and asked if I would be interested in working in other areas of the world. I expressed my willingness to go elsewhere and spent more time investigating Medair and their projects. Later in the month I had a Skype interview with the headquarters in Switzerland and I was invited to attend the Relief and Recovery Orientation Course (ROC) during the first week of February in the town of Vallorbe outside Geneva. The ROC was an intense and exhausting week in beautiful snow consisting of training sessions, a simulation, briefings, and two interviews which resulted in much gained knowledge, a greater understanding of the organisation, and incredible friendships. I returned to South Africa with excitement that Medair may be my new home. It was then communicated that I had passed the ROC and could now apply for vacancies which I began immediately. I had applied and interviewed for positions in communications which at the time were not available. I applied for several project management roles and was unsuccessful. At the end of April, a communications role in South Sudan became available and I had a Skype interview with the Country Director and Deputy Country Director. Two weeks later I received an email welcoming me to the Medair family. The preparation has been hectic but today, less than a week away from departure, I am ready to go.
As many of you know, I have been searching for a career change for several years but my attempts were fruitless. My journey with Medair began six months ago and the timing has been perfect. In October 2016, I began experiencing severe neck pain. I had physiotherapy, acupuncture, and x-rays and took a variety of pain medication. The day I was due to fly to Switzerland for the ROC, my physiotherapist recommended a start wearing a neck brace. On my way home to pack for the trip I stopped to say goodbye to my parents. They saw me uncomfortably squeezed into the neck brace and prayed that my neck pain would subside for my trip. I got home, packed my bags, and decided to leave the brace at home. I felt I could not show up at the ROC broken. I landed in Cairo, disembarked, and felt no pain. For the seven days I was in Switzerland I had absolutely no pain and required no pain medication. It was incredible. It was a miracle. Within a day of getting home the pain returned. I saw my neurosurgeon in March, he admitted me to hospital for three days of traction, and conducted a MRI. The scan indicated a disc in my neck had bulged and broken which was causing the pain in my neck, shoulders, and arms. At the end of March, I had neck surgery to replace the damaged disc with a titanium and ceramic disc. I was in recovery for two weeks, had several more uncomfortable weeks, but am now pain-free and strong. The timing surrounding this communications role in South Sudan has worked perfectly with my neck problems and my work at Bean There Coffee Company. I have had several weeks to prepare and handover my tasks and responsibilities and am in the right space at the right time to make this move.
Established in 1988, Medair helps people who are suffering in remote and devastated communities around the world survive crisis, recover with dignity, and develop skills to build a better future. Medair is a relief and recovery organisation responding to natural disasters and conflicts currently operating in 12 countries. Medair specialises in three sectors: water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), shelter and infrastructure, and health and nutrition. Medair is a Christian organisation and states: “At Medair our highest goal is to honour God through who we are and what we do – shown by our desire to do high quality humanitarian work – on an individual and corporate basis. We want to bring our professional, practical, and management skills as an expression of God’s love to the world’s most vulnerable.”
Medair has operated in South Sudan since 1992 and is the organisation’s largest program. Currently Medair employs 50 international staff and 500 local staff in South Sudan. The country is a collision of natural and man-made disaster. Formed in 2011, South Sudan is the world’s youngest country and it set off with much hope and optimism. In late 2013, due to bold political power plays, civil war exploded and has engulfed the country ever since. Hundreds of thousands of people have been pushed from their homes and rendered as refugees. In 2016, a famine was pronounced and the country is also plagued with cholera and malaria illnesses. The problems and the pain are immense and Medair is on the frontline aiding the people of South Sudan. In February, Medair administered 30,772 cholera vaccinations in just two days!
Several of the Medair staff members in attendance at the ROC had served in South Sudan and their stories nudged my interest in the troubled land. Since then, I have read about the country, watched documentaries, and attempted to know as much as possible prior to departure.
I have been hired as the communications officer in South Sudan. I will be responsible for providing communications and fundraising resources to the headquarters in Switzerland, dealing with media and public relations, managing social media, connecting with institutional and private donors, monitoring branding and co-branding coordination, and overseeing internal communication. I will be based in the capital city of Juba and will spend approximately 35% of my time in field locations including projects in Leer, Renk, and Maban. It is my privilege to share the stories of South Sudan.
The Next Steps
My last day at Bean There will be Friday, 9 June, and I leave South Africa on Saturday, 10 June. I am going to the Medair headquarters in Switzerland for a week of induction and briefing and am scheduled to arrive in South Sudan on Sunday, 18 June. It is a time of joy and sadness as I wrap up my blessed and full life in South Africa.
Entwined with the excitement of this new adventure this is a fair degree of anxiety. This is a big change! Please pray that my adjustment will be swift and smooth. Please pray that my good health is maintained. Please pray for my safety. Please pray for the relationships I will make with my new colleagues. Please pray for the people of South Sudan and the effectiveness of Medair’s projects. Please pray for my family.
You can register online to become part of the Medair prayer network:
God’s hand has clearly and deliberately led me to this point. Thank you for your care and support. Thank you especially to my family. You can follow my journey on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and blog.