South Sudan: of Rats and Snakes, Goats and Sheep

Every night I had heard the rats scuttling above the ceiling boards. There were cracks in the boarding, and I knew they could squeeze through if they decided to come down to explore. But I felt protected by the mosquito net

The net was one of those shaped like a cone; it was suspended from the ceiling and tucked underneath the mattress. The bed was small, so my head and my toes were rubbing against the net. The adventurous rat must have come through a crack where the net was fastened to the ceiling. It had slid down and settled between the headboard and my head. When I lashed out with my arm, he made off.

My colleague in the neighbouring hut had it worse. He found a snake in his room. It was brown, he said, as thick as his thumb and it was half way out of a hole in the wall. After staring each other out for a while, the snake crawled back. The local staff poured kerosene into the hole. My colleague didn’t see the snake again, but for the rest of our stay he had to endure the smell of the kerosene.

We were in the state of South Sudan that was until recently called Upper Nile. And we were in a compound of an NGO in a small settlement in Maiwut County.

South Sudan is a divided country now. And we were in what they call Sudan People’s Liberation Movement In Opposition – or IO for short.

The story of South Sudan since Independence has been like the story of the goat and the sheep that someone had tied together in our compound. I watched them carefully for some time. I wondered if they were mirroring what had happened to Salva Kiir and Riek Marchar – tied together for a time in the political structure as President and Vice President.

A goat is a browser and a sheep is grazer. Would one of them force his tastes on the other, or would they take turns at their different pastures? It was the goat, it seemed, which dragged the sheep after him as he fed on the shrubs in the compound.

Otherwise, it was peaceful up there. Except for some seemingly deranged drummer in the neighbouring compound, who started his staccato pounding every morning about five o’clock. They told us there were soldiers in that compound. If the idea was to wake his fellows, then the drummer could have done it with a more pleasant rhythm and for less than 15 minutes.

We certainly felt cut off. There is only one regular flight a week – provided by UNHAS. Though we could access the internet, no phone signals were available. The government has cut off all services to IO areas. They don’t pay salaries for civil servants; they provide no learning materials for schools; and school leavers have no access to exams.

The value of the South Sudanese Pound has spiraled down, and communities living near the Ethiopian border use the Birr instead. I noticed when the staff went shopping for supplies they crossed to the town of Gambela. They came back with fruits and vegetables they can’t get on the South Sudan side of the border.

The land is so fertile up there: rich soils, plenty of water, and lush vegetation. But the Nuer people are pastoralists and, like pastoralists anywhere, they prefer to watch and admire their cows – their prized source of wealth – rather than dig in the fields. Mind you, pastoralists or not, the sun gets so hot and harsh that it can’t be much fun wielding a jembe in these parts.

When we flew back to Juba we found it a city of rumours. There were rumours that the President was sick and was about to leave the country for treatment. There were rumours that he was dead. What were not rumours were reports of sporadic shootings in different parts of the country. And people were killed along roads leaving the city.

The first day back our meetings were cancelled because staff members of the UN agencies and international NGOs were advised to stay at home. But the President scotched some of the rumours by having himself driven along city streets.

Anyway, I felt very safe in my container. Yes, I was staying in a container. But don’t get me wrong – it was a very neat and smart container. As you enter there is a desk and chair. Along the wall the bed has a domed and zipped mosquito net. At the foot of the bed is a tall wardrobe. At the far end there’s a separated space for a toilet, hand basin and shower. There are electric lights and power sockets. Oh yes, I almost forgot the air conditioner – without that you would die.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation