Remembering Juba

When I left Juba 8 days ago South Sudan was peaceful… now the scenario is incredibly, staggeringly different.

Fighting in Juba which started last Sunday quickly spread and by Wednesday the U.S. had decided to evacuate its citizens and the U.K. followed suit. My VSO colleagues were part of this evacuation, some leaving on Thursday and Friday. Some are staying in Uganda for Christmas and others are going on to their home countries since this is a home evacuation with no plan for when we return to the country. I’m not going to go into the political machinations all to say that that which has started as a political issue has escalated significantly. There are estimates over 500 people have been killed already and hundreds more injured. Thousands have sought refuge at UN bases across the country.

My work colleagues won’t have the opportunity or money to evacuate. They don’t have that privilege. I’ve heard that many people are fleeing to the bush and cars are lining up at the border to Uganda and I wonder if any of them are choosing this option. Maybe they are camped at one of the UN bases with all those thousands of others.

My routine of walking to work and spending the day with 20 or so colleagues in our rustic office or in our open-air-mango-tree-meeting-room or zooming between health facilities on the back of a boda boda seems like a year ago and not eight days ago. Or maybe that’s because I’ve been worrying and obsessively reading news online and giving in to jetlag rather than trying to beat it.

There’s growing global news coverage although its still incredible to me how paltry pieces of ‘news’ here take precedence over the decimation of a country.

I don’t want to get into politics – there’s lots of analysis out there – but I want to light a candle for South Sudan and her many citizens. I’m hoping beyond hope that the power brokers will choose peace this Christmas…

Good hash tags for uptodate info on twitter:







8 days difference

I wrote this blog post 8 days ago in Juba. What a difference a week makes…

I’m sitting at Juba airport. It’s been an adventure of sorts- a certain airline didn’t inform me that there was no flight out of Juba yesterday. I had arrived at the airport after a morning at work which included riding a boda into the bush to help facilitate a focus group on birth registration and sharing a packet of biscuits (or ‘biscwuits’ as they are called here) and laughing with my boss whilst we made plans for the new year. It was a lovely ending to this chapter in Juba. All was well with the world. When I waded through the chaos to the abandoned departures desk of my airline to be told ‘they don’t fly today’ I started to quietly panic as I marched across the road to their portacabin office. Following discussion with 2 rather unsympathetic staff: ‘Don’t you understand? I have a family dinner AND a party AND a breakfast with friends I’ll be missing!!’ I had what can only be described as a meltdown and cried for 2 hours waiting for the manager whilst a friend began researching how to change my onward flight to Belfast. The two male staff were clearly uncomfortable even when my sobs changed to silent rivers of tears. One even said out of desperation: ‘Do you want a cigarette? PLEASE stop crying.’ However the more the tears flowed the more my bargaining power increased and I managed to get a free change and upgrade on my return to Juba. Recovery of an expensive change to my connecting flight will begin in a day or two.

Pizza and sympathy and sleep and a run and reading in the sun and coffee with friends and here I am again.

As I look round the airport – and it’s quite the soap opera – very few of the faces are South Sudanese. There is a lovely VIP room (which I stumbled into by accident one time) which houses the South Sudanese dignitaries and many of the government officials have their families in Kenya and Uganda but apart from those very rich upper echelons foreign travel will come only via scholarship or sponsorship.

I am about to escape the relentless, unforgiving heat for 3 weeks. I won’t need to drink 2.5-3 litres of clean water a day – which I can afford to buy. I will be able to sleep properly for the first time in 7 months. Most importantly, I have the option and the means to leave. Aside from their history as refugees, my colleagues have neither. It doesn’t seem fair. I am ridiculously privileged because I happened to be born where I was. I’m feeling a mix of guilt and excitement as I sit here.

As I acclimatise to cold weather and see family and friends South Sudan will continue to be under my skin however many hot showers I have and however many hours it takes to scrub the dirt off my feet!

Back in 3 weeks, with a caseload of presents…

How much would you pay for a pineapple?

My radio silence has been due to polio campaigns continuing (25,000 children vaccinated in the payam I was working in) another workshop (that’s right, and the energisers were even MORE energetic this time) spending time with a lovely group from home, helping to train the new batch of VSO volunteers, attending a film festival and attending to my commitment to return home at Christmas slightly less pasty than I arrived. It’s also been because my colleagues are spending a lot of time shaking the mango tree, climbing the mango tree and using tall poles to coax ripe mangoes onto the ground for us to nibble on. It’s been more fun than computer work, if rather dangerous.

One particularly perturbing thing (even more than the weekly Security Briefing Emails) has been the recent hike in fruit prices. South Sudan is in Africa. Thus you’d imagine fruit prices to be bargain barrel low- bananas for 5p, apples for 7p etc etc. however since virtually everything is imported here (except for the gift of mangoes) floods at the Uganda border meant that our crazy expensive fruit got even more expensive.

An apple usually costs about 50p. They rose to £1. Bananas are usually 4 for a £1… They were 3 for a £1 or else absent from the streets. The absolute worst thing was that pineapples rose from £2 (10 SSP) to £4 or 18 SSP. With work colleagues who earn 200 SSP a month, this would make a pineapple nearly a 10th of their monthly salary. Is it any wonder people are malnourished or eat so many leaves which women carry in to sell at Juba Town or Konyo Konyo markets in large baskets which they balance on their heads?

I have absolutely nothing to complain about – nothing – but I did hold back from buying what little fruit I could find for those couple of weeks and now a pineapple is back to £2 my housemates and I enjoy our evening fruit salad, a luxury many others can’t afford. And thus I understand why when I came into work this morning the watchman was already on the roof shaking the branches of the mango tree. As I squealed and dodged a few falling mangoes I realised what a treasure they are.

The New Deal

I don’t often post links to articles but if you’re at all interested in what’s happening in South Sudan at the moment read this. This is like the tipping point at which a country begins the slow road to self management and sustainability and I’m desperately hoping it will come to fruition, and make a real difference to the citizens of South Sudan.

10 points about workshops in South Sudan

Anyone working anywhere in healthcare in South Sudan is likely to have extensive experience of workshops. These often duplicate content with other workshops, and more than more senior person has observed that we need to have less workshops and more action. My observations from those many workshops is as follows:

1. There will be at least 3 dignitaries who will open the workshop. They will start by saying ‘all protocols observed’. They will talk about how this workshop is crucial to the continuance of the human race. There is often an opening prayer.
2. The workshop will start late; very late in fact. The dignitaries will make it run later.
3. After an hour one of the cleaners will walk in with a crate of cold water bottles. She’ll walk round the room distributing them. Then she’ll do the same with cans of soda. No matter who is talking it will be entirely appropriate to rifle through the crate to find the soda of your choice. I’ve also seen speakers send her out in search of diet Pepsi. I’ve wished I was brave enough to do this.
4. There may then be sweets passed round. If you’re lucky enough to have a tea break there may be sausages. I advise stashing a few in your bag for dinner.
5. After each speaker there will be contributions from the floor. These may be
A) helpful questions or requests for clarification
B) gentle ribbing or critique of the subject matter
C) strong disagreement and dissension regarding the subject matter
D) tangential monologues vaguely related to the subject matter.
In my observation D) is a very popular option. The dignitaries are likely to be significant contributors to the discussion.
6. Per diems (payments) are often paid to participants. I’m not permitted to receive per diems (per dia?!) and thus don’t get involved in this but it’s an intriguing phenomenon and I wonder how long it will be sustained.
7. Lunch will be carbohydrate heavy which makes focusing during the afternoon session particularly challenging.
8. To counter the potential for the entire room to slip into a communal nap there are always energiser activities after lunch which usually involve the whole room being told to stand up and touch various parts of their body, or to spell a word with their body or to do some form of the song with actions such as ‘heads and shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes.’ This never ceases to make everyone laugh and it is mandatory to participate enthusiastically.
9. All participants are given a notebook. I now have seven identical notebooks at home and when I next run a workshop I’ll give them out. I like to think I’m enterprising.
10. The workshop will be closed by the same dignitaries who opened it, again usually with long speeches and responses. I find this is a good time to check on progress against my Christmas shopping list or decide on what route to walk home to work off calories consumed in points 3, 4 and 7…

On Migrant Journeys – Part 1

“The seas around us have turned into a cemetery.” (Maltese Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat)

In the past few weeks we’ve had stories of boats sinking going from Indonesia to Australia and Syria bound for Sweden and on the 3rd October a boat carrying migrants from Libya (mostly Eritrean or Somalian) to Italy sank off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa, killing over 300 people.

On 11th October a second shipwreck approximately 120 km from the island claimed the lives of at least another 30 migrants. There are reports of another boat which has capsized this week carrying yet more people trying to find a better life elsewhere, and were willing to risk their lives, and pay incredible amounts of money to do so.

“More than 6,450 people have died trying to cross from Libya to Malta and Italy since 1994, Italian charities say. People also perish trying to reach Spain or the Greek islands. Thousands more suffer daily hardship on their quests across Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.” Says this article.

Most of the coverage I’ve seen has been about patrolling the waters and working up how to tighten immigration, with most European countries battening down the hatchets against immigrants. There are stories I could tell from people I’ve met in South Sudan where there is sheer, heart-wrenching, and life-risking determination to flee from hardship, dictatorship, poverty and live here (whether or not this country is quite as celestial and brilliant as they anticipated once they arrive is another matter entirely).

Yes we need to look at out borders, but where are the voices calling for action to bring regime change in Somalia and Eritrea (just for starters). That would require bravery. It may not yield oil and thus it’s not high on the agenda. I have written to my EU representatives- if you need a reminder of who to write to check out the to ask for their lobby on this issue in the European council on the issue on 24th October. Why not join me?


I’ve been thinking a lot about helping whilst I’ve been here. Along with Adam Philips I strongly believe in Side Effects (the name of one of his books – a great read). He talks of unintended consequences or conversational tangents being more significant than those originally intended. For those of in the business of Capacity Building (if I had a South Sudanese pound for every time I heard that phrase… I could probably do a lot of damage) there is a sense of what ‘capacity’ looks like and more often than not the belief that sending people to workshops will help. Workshops notwithstanding what I’ve observed is that often the days and ways in which I think I’m being helpful are not, and the times I feel ready to run screaming in search of water, a clean toilet and the sacred gift of air conditioning are the times I wind up with an interesting conversation or finally getting agreement that someone will work with me on X, Y and Z. I was talking with a colleague about how task oriented we are at home. We often say that it’s all about relationships but the context here takes this to the nth degree. I get told off if I don’t physically shake hands with all 20 people I’m working with every morning.

Helping is a million times more complex than I ever thought it could be. It’s quicker for me to do many things myself but that doesn’t build capacity. If the person I’m working with (slowly) is also reluctant to take on responsibility for doing something and thus it looks like it won’t get done… is it helpful for me to do it? This is where the relationship comes in… for it’s on thr basis of this that I have to apply either tough love or a humble decision to get on with a piece of work that isn’t mine. There are no easy answers and for every tiny step of progress there are a couple taken back, but we are moving forward even if the steps are ‘small small’- enshallah.


This is a thought for the day I wrote, with a few adjustments.

When was the last time you were really hungry? I imagine more than one of you are rolling your eyes and saying ‘Right now!!’ as you sprint to the kitchen, Olympic style, to grab the crunchy nut cornflake box off your spouse before they pour the last flakes into their bowl. I’ve been spending a lot more time around hungry people this past few months. During Ramadam my Muslim brothers and sisters fast from dawn to dusk. Shops close whilst they break their fast in the evening sitting cross legged, sharing food and drink together. My Coptic Christian brothers and sisters fast over 250 days per year. Think of a reason, lent, advent etc and they have an appointed fast. They don’t eat until 3.30 or 4 and then it’s only vegetables. Here in south Sudan my work colleagues fast at lunchtime…. Not because of religious reasons necessarily, but because they can’t afford it. It’s difficult to keep food fresh with a fridge on for only a few hours a day and because fruit and veg are only sold at night so I spend most lunchtimes fasting, partly because of embarrassment that I can afford to eat when no one else is and partly because of laziness to remember to buy a banana and apple the night before when the fruit sellers appear. (I’ve recently discovered a lady who saunters onto our work compound at around 8.30am with a bucket of beans on her head and these have latterly been incorporated into my work diet.) I have been reflecting on the feeling of hunger since I have experienced it more than I ever have over the past few months. The good book reminds us not to worry about what we will eat and drink which is a luxury for many of us but it also says food for the body not the body for food. I’ve thought more about nutrients and eating healthily and fuelling my body than ever before. These bodies we are given aren’t garbage bins but temples.

Nb this does not mean I have lost my penchant for chocolate or cheese (and know where to find both for a rare treat in Juba) but it’s helped me to be thankful for food, to appreciate hunger as a rare but helpful insight into the experience of many and to choose to refuel slightly more wisely and responsibly…

The Polio campaign, or my week of feeling like Princess Diana

The last few weeks, as well as the discovery of bird watching in Murchison National Park (worthy of an entire blog nevermind blog post) I have been engaged in the business of polio vaccination. I was asked by a colleague to help supervise a payam (district) with 17,000 children under 5. This is just one of the 16 payams in the County I’m working in. I was totally overwhelmed by the task. I set off to find maps from UNOHCR but this country is changing so quickly that we will need to help with the map writing, and in fact they asked if I could help update the information on which health facilities are functional and which are non functional.

We had training of payam supervisors, training of vaccinators on the Saturday and Sunday before the campaign and then on the morning of the campaign the cold boxes arrived from the EPI unit at the teaching hospital where two of my colleagues were stationed, to a growing group of waiting vaccinators- we had budget for 130 in our area. We filled the small grey boxes with ice blocks and vaccines and the team leaders explained to teams which areas they should cover that day since polio vaccination is done house-to-house. My role during training had been to reinforce the style of house markings, done in chalk on the side of mud tukuls, or on tin walls of houses. I handed out little leaflet reminders of the markings which I’d pulled together with the payam supervisor. The next four days, in between showers and biscuit breaks and with a bright yellow team leader’s cap, I inspected my payam, on foot, in a car, and my particular favourite, standing on the back of a truck. Children are marked on the smallest finger of their left hand to indicate they’ve been vaccinated. I would frequently jump off the truck to check the little fingers of a group of children which was usually enjoyable, depending on whether they were screaming and jumping up and down with excitement to see the kwhaja (white lady) or screaming and running under their mother’s skirts in fear at this white monster who was grinning at them and tentatively reaching out to inspect their hand. I remembered the TV images of Princess Diana on her African trips and de-mining publicity campaigns and had to smile. I looked at house markings, took notes, tried to be encouraging to vaccinators who were being paid a paltry amount for long hours in the relentless Juba heat.

It was a difficult week, even with the luxury of being driven around in a car once or twice. It’s very tiring work, tiring to do, tiring to lead teams, tiring to supervise. Keeping people motivated was difficult. Planning and communicating with dodgy phone networks was difficult. It was difficult to walk in searing heat through areas of Juba with kids who are not going to school and to watch how this city has just exploded- a search on google shows how difficult it is to grasp the size of this city. So many live in semi-temporary structures, and I wonder how things will ever change. The surprise for me was that this door-to-door campaign is a rolling programme and so the next one is November… I am promising myself I’ll be fitter by then…