Wednesday, December 21, 2011


As I was heading into our office compound in Juba a couple of weeks ago there was a young man sitting on the front porch. There's always people hanging around our office looking for jobs or information or to socialize. There are ladies who have a tea-station set-up under a large Neem tree where you can sit in the shade and sip the sweet spiced tea that is so common here. Sharing tea is one of those pleasures I always enjoy but don't partake of often enough. Somedays I look down from my second floor office and see men - and it's nearly always men - the same men sitting taking tea all day.
Anyway, I walked past this fellow but I had to do a double take and go back and look at him again. The guy was wearing a short-sleeved knit work shirt and over the left pocket was a patch for "MacLane Distribution." Now, MacLane Mid-Atlantic is a huge wholesale goods distributor located just outside Fredericksburg. The patch just said "MacLane" and not "MacLane Mid-Atlantic," so I don't know if it is from the same location. I told the guy anyway that the company on his shirt was from my town! Now, the name embroidered over the right pocket was "Earl," and I was pretty sure this guy's name was not Earl. Still, it was amazing to see a shirt possibly from so close to home.
They say the ultimate Holy Grail in Africa is to see someone wearing a shirt you donated to charity. Jacquelaine Novogoratz (sp) who founded Accumen Fund and wrote a book called "The Blue Sweater" related how she saw a boy in Rwanda(?) wearing a blue sweater she had donated right down to her name printed on the size-tag. I never expect to have that experience because like most men I wear my clothes, t-shirts especially, until they are practically disintegrated and not fit for donation. But observing the shirts that people wear here is a fascinating hobby.
I've never seen a Fredericksburg shirt, save the possible MacLane one mentioned above. But I have seen shirts for UVA, George Mason, Virginia Tech and the University of Richmond. I remember when the ferry I was riding from Zanzibar to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania was coming in to dock there was a young deckhand wearing a bright orange "Virginia" shirt. I was so happy to see it. A few days ago up in Wau I saw two young men wearing "We Are Marshall" t-shirts, donated left-overs from promotions for the movie of a couple of years ago.
Many of the shirts that find their way over here appear to be left-overs from various sporting or movie promotions. I remember when I worked for a couple of t-shirt manufacturers in the Carolinas in the 1980's how we would sell large quantities of shirts to screen-printers. The companies would print-up lots and lots of shirts advertising things like "Superbowl," or "NCAA Finals." Once those events are over and no one wants the shirts anymore they end-up getting dumped in places like Africa, sold by the pound.
I've probably seen t-shirts and hats for most of the major US sporting teams, certainly baseball and basketball teams. It always warms my heart when I see an Orioles hat. More popular than shirts for US sports teams are shirts for soccer teams, especially those from Europe. There are intense rivalries here between supporters of various UK soccer teams such as Manchester United or Arsenal.
The fact that most folks here cannot read, and even fewer have a grasp of English, makes for some humorous moments, for me at least. I enjoy a private chuckle when I see young men wearing t-shirts that have on them things like "Juicy Girl," or "Navy Mom." The absolute funniest was one of our theological school students who one day wore to class a florescent pink t-shirt emblazoned with the logo "Porn Star in Training." The principal's wife caught sight of it and asked the student quietly if he knew what the shirt meant, which he did not. The principal then tried to explain to him what his shirt meant after which the shirt quickly disappeared and has never been seen again.
Other funny shirts, at least funny when you see them here, are ones which advertise things like, "Kowalski Family Reunion, 2008" and you're pretty sure the person wearing it was not at the reunion. Two of the funniest locally oriented shirts which I have seen were one showing someone using a latrine - yes, USING a latrine - and encouraging people to be careful with their waste and always use a latrine, and another warning against the dangers of Guinea Worms with an image of one of the worms bursting out from a victim's leg. I would like so much to buy one of these shirts, but most are given away by aid agencies and never find their way to the market.
I've looked around the markets for locally oriented t-shirts but they are never there, only the donated ones from overseas which have been sold by the pound to middlemen. I understand the reason. I 've been given a couple of t-shirts during the course of my work and I would be loathe to sell them away, in spite of the many other shirts I am lucky to own. The poor folks here who are lucky to have a couple of decent shirts are hardly in a position to give away or sell articles of clothing.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Start of the Dry Season

The weather is changing here. Starting about two weeks ago we noticed we seem to be heading into the dry season. There are two seasons here in Southern Sudan: A wet season and a dry. Generally speaking, the wet season runs from March through October and is characterized by frequent rains - mostly late afternoon and late night thunderstorms - and moderate temperatures.
The dry season runs from the end of October through into March. I remember being out with friends at dinner last March 13th. It was a Sunday and we were out in downtown Juba. There had been a few threats of rain the previous days, but around 8pm the skies opened-up. A couple of my friends ran-out and stood in the downpour, so happy were they to be feeling rain again.
The other nice things about the rains is that they clear the skies of the dust. The dry season occurs because the weather pattern changes. Normally the weather is driven by warm, moist air heading east out of the Congo River basin towards South Sudan. But during the dry season the winds change bringing dry, dusty air south from the Sahara desert. As the dry season progresses the air becomes drier and drier and filled with a fine red dust that coats everything. You wipe your desk down when you arrive at work in the morning and by afternoon it's coated again. You cannot look across Juba and see the rocky hills on the southside of town, the disappear into a red-fog. But when the rains come the skies are suddenly cleansed of all the dust. I remember riding out to the airport shortly after the first rain and being so suprised and excited at being able to see the mountains again.
It's a very curious mix during the dry season. It's a little like winter because at night the temperatures get cold - by Juba standards, anyway. The last few nights it feels like it got down into the upper 60's, or downright chilly. But as the season progresses the temperatures during the day escalate. It gets up to around 100-farenheight every day, with clear, cloudless skies and an unforgiving sun. Last year I recall sitting at my desk, droplets of sweat dripping off me as I sat passively. Sitting at home on a Sunday afternoon last January or February, the temperature well over 100, the only relief from the overhead fans although my flatmate reckoned that these only made the room more like a convection over, until she finally said, "turn me over, I'm done on this side."
It's incredibly important during the dry season to keep drinking fluids. I find I need at least 2-liters of fluid a day and even consuming that, not to be crude folks, but I almost never peed, the fluid simply evaporated out of me. The process doesn't stop at night. You go to bed, temps still up near 100, and you sleep in a pool of sweat. Some of the first nights I would wake-up feeling hungover even though I could not recall having had a drink the night before (talk about being cheated!) and I realized it was because I sweated so severely during the night it was as if I had gotten severely drunk. I started having to take bottles of water to bed with me and waking-up during the night to drink.
The other noticable thing during the dry season, what is happening now, is how dry and brown all the plant-life becomes. The trees drop their leaves like autumn and so many plants turn brown and shrivel-up. Plants located along the roadways wear a crust of red-dust kicked-up by the passing cars. It's sort of sad, but then the reward is the great explosioin of plants and flowers that reappears in March when the rains returns. Surely we would never appreciate the Spring were it not for the winter.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

They fixed the WFP road!!

One of the many things which I have had to become an expert on here in Sudan is the handling of flights for our personnel into, out of and around Sudan. Just as people who a century ago would have known the schedule of the railroads in their local town, think of the references to the coming and goings of trains in Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street, I have had to become expert on the schedules of planes arriving and departing Juba. If I hear of a visitor arriving, say, on Uganda Airways, I automatically think, “ok, arrive around 11am.”
One of the most important means of travel within Sudan are the flights operated by the World Food Program of the UN, or WFP. WFP operates flights all over Sudan, connecting many places which no commercial airline would ever consider serving and yet which often house sizable numbers of aid workers. WFP allows personnel with NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) to fly upon their planes allowing easy access to most parts of the country. For anyone who questions the value of the UN, please know that the UN does actually provide some very valuable services, believe it or not.
The WFP offices in Juba are located on what used to be a miserable road out near the airport. It’s actually much better than when their offices were located down near the Nile River. Oh! how I hated driving on that horrible road with its monumentally deep ruts and muddy lanes. The road to the new location was just awful, which means typical.
When you first turned onto the road where the new offices are there was a small lake you had to cross. This mud-bog began life as a simple depression which simply grew and grew during the rainy season until it spanned the road and was about 20-feet long. But, because I drove to the offices so often, sometimes several times in one day, I knew that there was actually a land bridge cutting across the lake at a 45-degree angle which if you were lucky enough to know about would allow you to cross without getting too far bogged down into the mud. This was actually a good thing to know since I discovered an earlier time when the front wheels of the Toyota pick-up truck I drive got stuck down in a ditch that the four-wheel drive function on my car doesn’t work.
Beyond that the WFP road, which like nearly all roads here is dirt, was just a maze of deep potholes and uncomfortable bumps. But after not having had to drive there for about a week, I had yesterday to drop-off a paper at the WFP offices and I was stunned when I turned the corner to find that the authorities, and I’m not really sure exactly who is doing road-work, had resurfaced the road with a fresh layer of stony-dirt and graded the whole thing nice and smooth. It was so wonderful to drive upon, I was giggling like a kid in a candy shop! It’s so great when something good like that happens, especially related to driving in Juba.
Driving in Juba takes special care and diligence. I do have a Sudanese driver’s license, the getting of which is a story of its own. About five or six years ago they say you could almost literally count the number of cars in Juba on your hand. Now the narrow streets are choked with cars, nearly all of which are driven by people convinced they need to go first. Add to the mix of regular cars and lorries (“trucks” for those of you not forced to live amongst British English speakers) are large numbers of motorcycles (nicknamed boda-bodas) and various assorted other wheeled vehicles which you may find crowding the streets.
Driving around town is a death-defying experience, literally. I read in one of the local newspapers that, on average, three people a day die in auto-accidents in Juba. I think that number must be low. Driving is a constant mix of trying to avoid the vehicle in front of you being driven in an unpredictable manner while at the same time not being rear-ended by either the car or boda-boda following about three inches off your rear bumper.
The other thing you need to watch for are cars deciding that the vehicle in front of them is simply not going fast enough (never mind if you are driving on a street crowded with school-children or other pedestrians) and taking the opportunity to pass anytime, anywhere. Most of the roads around town are only two lanes but this business of passing can turn two-lane roads into three and four lane roads. The same is true whenever traffic must slow down or come to a halt for some reason. Rather than remain in a single line, which would have the advantage of allowing all of the traffic to flow past the obstruction quickly, in Sudan all driver’s first instincts are to break ranks and try and cram their way towards the front of the line thereby creating a huge bottleneck. The situation can be likened to trying to pass fluid through a funnel: pour in just enough and the fluid flows freely, try and pour in too much and the funnel quickly backs-up and gets full. Sigh. On the other hand, I have also succumbed to the freedom of random passing so often that I am no one to write critically about it.
Of course, all the while you are trying to make your way through traffic the boda-bodas, who make their living carrying people and goods upon their backseats, are snaking through traffic often at a high rate of speed and with a complete seeming disregard to human life. Anyone who has driven here can recount horror stories of trying to make turns (with turn-signals engaged!) while bodas are approaching from the same side either oblivious or unconcerned with your maneuvers. I have myself ridden a few times on the backs of bodas. It’s one of those things I only do when the shock and horror of my last ride upon a boda wears-off. I actually considered purchasing a boda not long after I first arrived, until I was advised that there is an entire wing in the Juba Hospital full of boda accident victims.
Driving in Juba at night takes scariness to an entirely new level. Never mind the fact that there is little in the way of street lighting (though there are actually now a lot of solar-powered streetlights on some main roads which is a big help) or that there is a fine layer of dust which extends above the ground about thirty-feet making the act of driving like being in a rust colored fog, or the fact that about one third of the vehicles on the roads in the evening will not (or can not, because they don’t work) use their lights, for me the scariest part of driving at night are the people who simply pop-out from behind obstructions to walk across the road directly in-front of on-coming traffic. Not to be rude, but very dark black people who in-turn are dressed in dark clothing and who pop-out from behind parked cars or other such things about five feet in-front of you scare the heck out of me. I have almost hit so many pedestrians to the point that now I rarely drive after dark unless it cannot be avoided.
Driving in Juba is so scary that a visiting friend that was left gasping for breath after we nearly struck yet another darkly dressed pedestrian who had stepped out from behind a parked car directly in front of our vehicle suggested we develop a video-game called “Juba Town” where the object was to drive around a simulated version of Juba at night without hitting or killing anyone. We think we’ll make a bunch of money off that idea.

Saturday, October 29, 2011


Finding the time and the ability to update my blog has been so difficult lately. I'm sorry for that.
There hasn't been any town power in Juba for at least a month. Power is provided by large diesel generators and evidently the City of Juba has been unable to purchase fuel, for whatever reasons. You hear rumors that the minister in charge of electric power absconded with the money, or there are disagreements between the government and suppliers over the price and in typical African fashion no one does anything until the situation is totally resolved. South Sudan is a country blessed (or cursed?) with oil. But the crude flows north through a pipeline to Port Sudan where it is shipped off to China and India, mostly. Finished petroleum products like petrol and diesel fuel arrive from Kenya mostly, which requires hard currency.
I've been accosted several times now while buying diesel fuel for the car I drive at service stations around Juba. It's always some Somalian crack-head shouting about how awful American is and how much he hates America. The first time it happened the stupid kid kept asking all the other customers if they didn't hate America also? I told him I was suprised he hated America since we are pumping $600-million into Somalia to help its people (since raised to $700-million) in response to the drought and famine. He said he didn't care, he just hated America.
When this happened again at a different station the other day I asked the kid what is was about Somalians and petrol stations and he told me that Somalians own 15 service stations around Juba, or nearly all of them. This must be a huge windfall of cash that's flowing back to Somalia to (likely) support terrorist activities. All the Sudanese I know despise the Somalians and look forward to the day when they will be kicked ut of the country. All I know, is when I heard on the BBC yesterday that the US is operating drone planes out of Ethiopia against Somalia, I was very happy to hear it.
Anyway, lack of power has made internet access difficult. We have a solar back-up, but it too has been rather dodgy of late and there are many days we go without any power which means no internet system. We don't have internet at our house. There we have only four hours of power a night when the Guest House turns on the generator. We often have to start cooking dinner in the dark or just sit around waiting for the power to come on. Compared with ninety-percent of Sudanese we're lucky to have access to any electric power, but as a westerner more used to living with power the constant lack is wearing on the nerves.
So, having said all that, when I have access to the internet I try and limit myself first to work related materials. Today is Saturday and between having good solar and a little extra time I really wanted to update the blog.
Work has been insanely busy. I could not even begin to list all of the projects and activities I have been involved with. Every day here is simply a blur of constant activity. Fortunately, I love hectic and being kept busy, so I am thriving in this environment. The major problem, though, is that I am working so hard there is little time for reflection and serious thought, and little time for trying to organize things better so every day doesn't always have to be so rushed.
I was fortunate to be able to get to go to England for a week recently. It was my first time to go and I had a fantastic time! I will post a seperate blog entry about that, but suffice to say England was great and I cannot wait to go back.
The ECS is having it's once every five years Synod in mid-November. We have all been working so hard to make the event a reality. There are a thousand details to attend to and since organization is not one of our strongpoints it is making getting the event together that much harder. But it's all falling together, and I am sure it will be a great occasion once it actually arrives.
Apologies again for not posting anything lately. Between being to busy and lack of internet (or lack of computer!! don't even get me started. My new laptop died, my backup has also now died, and somone brought in a virus/worm into the office that wiped out my flash-drive where I had many of my files. I had my laptop hard-drive backed up to an external hard-drive, but I'm afraid the flash is gone. Very annoying) posting anything has been a challenge. Hopefully things will get easier.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Body of Christ

At the time of independence we had an English bishop visit Juba. We had so many visitors then, it was a bit crazy. I felt like I spent half the week at the airport. But when I met this bishop, whom I not only had never met before but, honestly, had never even heard of before, the bishop amazed me by saying how glad he was to meet me and how he had been praying for me by name for some time. The bishop had heard of me in England via the community of people with an interest in Sudan.
I remember being floored by the fact that someone who had never met me before, who knew me only as a name and by reputation (always questionable in my case) had been praying for my welfare and for my work. Since becoming a missionary I have become aware of this incredible body of people around the world, the amazing community of loving, caring people who are living their faith by working in places and in ways which are a living testimony of the power of faith. It probably sounds ridiculous, but in my previous life where I was so focused upon myself and my own work I was grossly ignorant of this worlwide community, ignorant of this incredible body of people. How could this be so? I suppose because I chose to focus upon myself and chose not to interact with others.
Anyway, I was talking with my friend Jesse, an American divinity school student who was also visiting Juba at the time, about my emerging awareness of this great worldwide loving community of faith and how incredibly grateful I have been to become a part of it. It is so exciting to have made friends with people from at least four continents with whom I can share my faith and my passion for helping others. Jesse smiled and said, "I think there's a name for the community, it's called 'The Body of Christ." I realized at that moment the depths of my ignorance in not being aware of this body, as well as my gratitude that I had finally become a part of the Body and the joy it has given me to be a part of it.

Saturday, August 27, 2011


This is a tray with aceta, the doughy paste made from sorghum grains that is boiled for a long time. There are also bowls of dried fish, and chunks of beef, both of which have been stewed in cut okra for a while until is makes a sort of gelatinous mess. You grab some aceta with your hand and then scoop up some of the fish or beef mixture and stuff it in your mouth. When I first came I could not handle it, but now I kinda like it!


When I first arrived in Juba in May, 2010, one US dollar was worth officially 2.3-Sudanese pounds, though you could get 2.5 in the marketplace. Later the rate crept up to 2.6, where it remained for some time. But since the referendum in January 2011, the rate started creeping up with the prospect of an independent South Sudan. 2.8 was reached and passed as was 3. I was just trading at 3.5, but now I've heard the bank rate (usually not very good)is officially 3.6, which means you should be able to get as much as 4 from the private exchange people in the marketplace.
The net effect of this is to make Juba an increasingly expensive place to live. Juba was already expensive, since there is no local production of anything, save some bottled water and White Nile beer, which means everything has to be trucked-in. Very little in the way of fruits and veggies is grown locally, which is a shame since the land is fertile. But folks here are discinclined to grow things, and production on a large scale is hard because transportation is practically non-existent or terribly expensive. You could grow the most lovely crops in the world but if you have no way to get them to market what good does it do you?
The impact is felt most, of course, on the poor who in Sudan already had a hard enough time of things. And while wages here are high, they are not high enough nor keeping pace with inflation, which makes living hard on folks. There are also problems of fuel shortages, especially vehicle fuel, and long lines at petrol stations are the norm. I was lucky last week to find a station way out at the edge of Juba (in Rejaf) which had fuel and no long line. Some places, especially those towns to the north that depended upon shipments from Khartoum for their foodstuffs, are suffering terribly because the northern Sudan government will not allow shipments to the south. Cities such as Malakal are simply without food, regardless of the cost. There is real hunger in a lot of places.
Anyway, hopefully the high prices will encourage local production which should, in time, reduce prices. But it will be very difficult for the time being, and it is very expensive to be here.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

One of the most interesting things I saw on the Friday night before Independence, while we were driving around Juba in the midst of a great street celebration, was a man waving an Israeli flag from atop a vehicle. While it was under control of the northern government anyone in Sudan having anything to do with Israel was forbidden. A citizen of Sudan could not even have an Israeli passport stamp in their passport. While a seeminly simple thing to do, to wave a flag, it was really amazingly revolutionary, a dramatic symbol of the newfound freedom of the people of the South.

Also, I have not yet figured out how to get the settings correct on my new laptop computer to where I can share photos. I apologize for this as I had wanted to share photos from the Independence celebrations with everyone. I'll keep trying.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

There was just a monkey in my office. The little red verver (sp) monkey that hangs around our office compound. This doesn't happen often back in the fact, never.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Afterglow

If you recall after 9/11 in the US, how people were so nice to each other for a few weeks afterwards. It was strange to me how courteous people were to one another, people seemed a bit nicer for a while after the tragedy.
It is the same in Juba, in South Sudan now, though I believe people's attitudes derive out of a sense of joy and relief rather than pain. Wherever I go around Juba everyone is so happy and I find myself being greeted more warmly, and I myself greeting people more eagerly, than before the independence celebrations last Saturday.
It is a wonderful thing to experience.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Juba in Jubiullent!

What an incredible time to be in Juba!! There is so much excitement everywhere. There are groups and groups of people marching in the streets waving banners, playing local instruments and singing. I have run down from my second floor office enough times to either take pictures or join in the celebrations to lose count! Everyone is so welcoming and happy. All of the people I work with are so appreciative that I have returned to Sudan to witness the independence celebrations. The independence is a special, miraculous event. I am meeting people from all over the world who are here to enjoy the creation of the world's newest nation!! I am so looking forward to the independence celebrations tomorrow!! I have been fortunate to obtain one of the special passes so I can attend the actual ceremonies and witness the events first hand. This is so great!! (and yes, I know I cannot spell "jubiullent!)

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Night Train to Mombasa

I visited Nairobi, Kenya in December, 2010. I was nervous about visiting Nairobi, nicknamed “Night-robbery,” because of its terrible reputation for being a dangerous city. In the end, however, my curiosity overruled any concerns I had for my safety and I simply had to see East Africa's largest and most dynamic city.
I arrived in Nairobi on a Tuesday afternoon from Juba. I spent the night at the Flora Guest House near the main hospital and close to downtown. The Flora had been recommended to me by a friend of a friend who had lived in Kenya for several years. The Guest House was great! Clean, quiet and set within a Roman Catholic religious community, it was populated by guests who were seeking the same quiet evening's rest as was I. Also, coming from Sudan, I was beside myself with pleasure at being able to have running hot water in the shower! Such luxuries are rare in Sudan. I was like a kid playing with the hot water dial, turning it up and down and giggling – literally giggling – at being able to enjoy a hot shower.
Contrary to what I expected, I found Nairobi to be a welcoming, fascinating city and not at all the Hell on Earth I expected from the descriptions of other writers (especially Paul Theroux, my favorite author but something of a curmudgeon. I read Theroux to find out how bad a place might be and then expect my actual experience to be somewhat better.) During my day I visited Isak Dineson's home, a high priority and something which I enjoyed greatly. At the insistence of my driver, Jacob – a very good fellow and the ideal way to visit Nairobi. If anyone needs a great driver, contact me! - I also visited a couple of wildlife sanctuaries, one for baby elephants and one for giraffes. These places were fine, but my main interests during my one day in Nairobi were experiencing enough of the city to make a judgment about it and visiting the Kenyan Railway Museum. I finally got to the latter sometime in the afternoon.
The Kenyan Railway Museum is located near the main train station in the heart of downtown. Like most train stations located in large cities the area around the train station had seen better days and at first glance seemed a little on the rough side. But I experienced no trouble during my visit. The Museum is housed in a large former railway shed and contains a first rate collection of artifacts covering all aspects of the development of railways in East Africa. This is not the place to discuss in detail the Museum, but suffice it to say that it is definitely worth a visit if you are interested in trains and how they effected the development of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
I had made my reservation for a berth on the night train from Nairobi to Mombasa earlier via email with a Kenyan travel agent through a link from the Kenyan Railways' web site. I booked a first class ticket which entitled me to a berth in a two-berth room complete with a wash basin. Also, by booking first class I received dinner and breakfast the next morning. My ticket cost around $70-US dollars, a bargain considering that an air flight covering the same distance cost around $400. Instead, I got a nice bed, two great meals and the time and leisure of seeing eastern Kenyan at ground level.
At the the ticket office at the main Nairobi station I picket-up my ticket and was told to wait for about an hour until the train was ready to board. This was around 5-o'clock in the evening and the station was absolutely packed with locals cramming onto trains after a day's work in the city. I waited in a corner of the waiting room enjoying the ever pleasant pastime of people watching. It didn't take much imagination to figure out whom my traveling companions would be: safari-clothed Europeans or scroungy, jeans and t-shirt wearing Americans and euro-trash.
The train was due to leave around 7:05pm, but by 6:30 I had not yet heard any announcement, so I went out and walked up and down the platform by the long train which was positioned on the first track. I walked up and down a portion of the train looking for anyone I could ask but saw no one who looked like they knew anything. In fact, just the opposite occurred – I was approached by a young American who was traveling with his mother and who asked if I knew what was going on. I said no but as it was getting close to when we should be leaving we needed to figure things out quickly. Walking back towards the heart of the length of train cars (there must have been two-dozen cars at least making-up the train) we found a porter waiting by one of the car-doors who told us that this indeed was the overnight train to Mombasa and welcomed us aboard.
I had a minor panic – I'd been carrying my ticket in the same pocket inside my suit jacket where I always carry my papers but just before this moment when the young fellow asked me about the train I'd taken my ticket out to look at it and absentmindedly put it back in a different pocket. The porter asked me for my ticket and suddenly crap!, “where's my freeking ticket??” In a panic I rummaged through all my pockets and in the last pocket finally found my ticket and was able to board! Disaster averted!
My berth was cozy and I was lucky to be the only passenger to enjoy it, being spared the misery of getting an awful roommate (although, as this was a voyage of discovery I also missed-out on the opportunity to have someone with whom to compare notes which could have been great.) I was on car 2015, berth C. The equipment was British-built, circa 1960's and ran upon the British built meter-gauge rail line from Nairobi to Mombasa overnight. Returning westwards the train travels more during the day so you get to see more of Kenya, including through some of the animal preserves near Nairobi.
Our train left Nairobi five minutes late. Nairobi is at elevation 5453-feet above sea level (which made for quite a chilly morning when I awoke that day, the first cold I had felt in more than half a year.) The ride was smooth and comfortable upon the jointed rail. It was interesting to see that Kenyan Railways still used semaphore signals, something the US had mostly phased out a half-century ago. Still, no sense replacing what works and everything seemed to run perfectly well upon my journey.
I'd hoped to have the choice of which seating I would have for dinner, wanting to go to the second so I didn't feel rushed to vacate my seat, but unfortunately I was automatically assigned to the first seating. Dinner was served in a proper dining car with linen table cloths, heavy cutlery and courses served by waiters sporting jackets and ties. I sat with two young scruffy Danish guys. One was living in Dar es Salaam and seemed to be a professional student, the other was his buddy who was visiting Africa for a month.
Dinner was a really good Spanish-style dish, chicken cooked in lots of vegetables and herbs and served with rice. Before that we'd had soup and a salad (what a treat to eat salad since I normally have to avoid fresh veggies unless we prepare them), and after the main course we had cake. The food was well prepared and expertly served.
I was reading Nadine Gordimer's novel Burger's Daughter at the time and after dinner, after writing-up my trip notes I enjoyed the quiet and the gentle swaying of the train to read. I found the novel well written even if the story wasn't terribly engaging. Difficult as it is to find English language books where I live, next time I'm in a big city I'll have to try and find more Gordimer to see if I can continue to admire her skill as a writer but with a different story.
As happens when you are sitting in a lighted space and peering out into the darkness the night is a void, a shapeless, detail-less space. But when I turned out the light around 10pm to go to bed the outside world became alive thanks to the three-quarters full moon which shone brightly upon the Kenyan landscape. I dropped the screen covering the window and pressed my face to the edge of the darkness, standing a full hour watching Kenya pass by. I could see mountains and wilderness, and every now and then a light demarcating a small hamlet.
Occasionally we would stop, apparently just waiting for a clear signal because the waits were never long, more inconvenience, really. But evidently the locals know of these places where the train stops because in every seemingly desolate place where the train would stop I could see in the moonlit darkness people, children mainly, standing looking expectantly towards the train. As I would witness the next morning, it's quite customary for passengers to throw sweets to the local children along the line and the fact that it was nearing mid-night was no exception! Sorry for these children but I had no sweets with me, not even any biscuits to offer.
Sleep that night was good, a little difficult but that's mainly due to my own idiosyncrasies of having difficulty always of sleeping in a new place. I sometimes find travel tiring because I'm always uncomfortable sleeping in strange places, which is basically what traveling entails, doesn't it? But I managed to sleep until dawn the next morning when I awoke eager to again spend hours watching Kenya pass by my window.
Waking, I immediately went to look out the window and caught a glimpse of dawn breaking over eastern Kenya, the sky orangery-red near the horizon while as yet dark above. The landscape out my window when I awoke was fairly flat and had the feel, to me, of being near the ocean. I knew we were heading towards Mombasa which is on the Indian Ocean and so thought that we were near the coast and that our ride would too soon be over. But actually we were little more than half-way to Mombasa, it's just that eastern Kenya is a land of great variation in its topography: flat and sandy one moment, steep and hilly the next.
I prepared myself and enjoyed a proper English breakfast: a fried egg, sausages, bacon and thick sliced toast with butter and jam. My only deviation was in preferring fresh brewed coffee over tea. What joy to enjoy real milk in my coffee as opposed to powdered milk like in Sudan! I sat with a Kenyan lady named Valentine who actually lived in the US and was home visiting. With her were two of her young cousins while her elderly mother remained in their berth. Valentine had been living in the US for many years on a “student” visa. I think she occasionally took a course but mainly just worked. It hardly seemed the time or place to mention that people that live and work in our country while supposedly students infuriates many Americans. Still, Valentine was charming and we enjoyed a nice meal together.
Returning to my berth I dropped the window-screen and poked my head-out (in total violation of the rules.) I wasn't the only one, all along the length of the train I could see people doing likewise as we enjoyed seeing Kenya pass by. The landscape was gently rolling lightly green hills dotted with small scale farms and mud tukels, the look of east Africa. All along, everywhere, no matter how remote, would be waving children hoping for a sweet to be tossed to them. The train passes by about once a day, and it was sad to see children from a distance running for all they were worth knowing they would never reach the tracks in time to even hope to beg for a sweet. Oh well, better luck tomorrow. It actually made me uncomfortable watching the children begging and then scrambling like animals for whatever was tossed their way. The psychology of giving and begging becomes complicated and confusing in these situations. I had nothing to give and so just watched the spectacle in silence.
There were still a number of old stations along the line complete with adjacent signal towers. The controls for switches and signals were controlled manually by a station agent. Large levers were connected to signals via thin metal wires using pulleys where necessary. A station agent could sit in his signal tower and control the aspect of signals a tenth of a mile away or more.
The Railway still used paper train orders which were handed up to the crews of of passing trains using train order hoops. I'd only read about such operations in history books – what a treat to still see a railway being run using such methods! I was experiencing railroading from a generation or two before my time. How wonderful it is to step out of our one's own world-frame and see the world through different eyes and experience how others live.
Onwards we continued and although we were nearing Mombasa the topography belied the fact that the ocean was not far away. We passed through steep hills and I could see a deep river gorge a distance away. We even traversed one loop around a mountain-top wherein we passed over and then under ourselves as the train lost elevation on our rush to the sea.
Closer we came to Mombasa and when we got about 20-miles out suddenly signs of urbanization appeared as we began to pass industrial areas and many homes and people. Near Mombasa there is a small private rail line which serves a chemical plant and we saw an engine and some tank cars from this operation – wonderful for a train spotter like me.
The amount of urbanization became complete and soon there were people and houses and buildings everywhere. The city center loomed ahead at one point as we descended downwards and I could see the skyscrapers. By this point I was feeling rather sad that my trip would soon end, so pleasant had been the journey. Some friends that had taken the trip before said they'd been left sitting a long time owing to equipment failures, something to which I wouldn't have entirely objected. But my trip was almost perfect, we would arrive only a short time late, not enough to even bother about.
Mombasa station is at elevation 18-meters, around 58-feet. We'd dropped around 5400-feet elevation coming from Nairobi to Mombasa and you could feel it. Mombasa was hot and humid, and upon entering the city it seemed chaotic, noisier and dirtier than Nairobi. I decided rather quickly that I preferred Nairobi. Mombasa also has a strong Muslim population and this was evident in the architecture and character of the city. I saw many women dressed in bhurkas, only their eyes being revealed. Down by the waterfront was a warren of narrow alleyways and interesting buildings with elaborately carved doorways and shops selling African junk to tourists. Away from the water the city just seemed like a hustling, bustling center of commerce, an Atlanta or Omaha in a different setting.
I had a day to kill in Mombasa before traveling on to Zanzibar via cruise ship. When you are alone and visiting a place lacking in charm or attractions a day can seem like an eternity. But the night train from Nairobi to Mombasa is an excellent adventure, well worth the modest cost. Next time I'll have to bring bags of candies for the children.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


It has been nearly a year since I first came to Sudan. I think somewhere around the 10th of May will mark my actually anniversary date. It would be almost impossible to convey into words all of the amazing experiences I have had since being here, though I will try my best to do so. The Sudan has been unlike anything I have ever imagined, for both good and bad. I thought that I had stepped back in times years ago when I visited Cuba, but that was nothing like arriving in Sudan. It's actually quite weird: In many ways people are living here much like they probably have for centuries - maybe loner - especially when you venture out into the countryside. I remember standing looking over the Nile River in Malakal recently, looking at the peasant farmers tending their small plots along the fertile riverbank thinking that little had probably changed there in several thousand years. And yet nearly everyone here has a cell-phone and lusts for a car and a big-screen television! It's like living in a half stone-age/half space-age world.
I came to Sudan because I felt called by God to share my gifts of education and experience with people that needed help in the areas of finance and administration. There is no question that I have been able to call upon every bit of knowledge and experience I have ever had since being here, the demands upon my time and energy have been enormous. But so, too, have been the satisfactions of seeing people learn and acquire new skills and abilities knowing that I helped them to accomplish these things. It is truly wonderful.
Anyway, I do not believe my work here is done. Partly that's because I have found myself so busy most of the time that I am not always able to focus upon the longer range tasks which I should be doing: there is simply not enough time in the day. So, I have prayed about it and decided that I should remain here one more year, that that will allow me the time to accomplish more of what I think God wants me to do.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Gleaners

Amidst the general chaos that exists in Juba right now owing to all of the building and construction projects, one of the roads that I use almost daily to walk to and from the office has been completely rebuilt and the other day was finally tarmaced. This is remarkable for many reasons, the least of which is that this quarter-mile long stretch of asphalt measurably increases the amount of tarmaced road in all of south Sudan. I used to enjoy walking on this road when it was just a dirt path and you had to cross a small stream by straddling an old truck chassis that someone had thoughtfully laid across the water. I was a little sad when the road was widened and scraped and the neem trees which grew-up in the middle of the right-of-way were cut down. This used to be a quiet pathway but once it was widened and gravelled it became a busy, dusty thoroughfare. But that's progress. Finally last week the construction crew came in and laid down the last layer of gravel and paved the road. No sooner had the road-crew left, I think actually before they left, a small group of women showed-up and started retrieving the excess gravel which had been left on the edges of the road. All this week the women have been there, from first light in the morning until evening. Bent over all day, exposed to the sun and the terrible heat that we are currently experiencing (close to or over 100-degrees every day), digging with their hands through the gray dirt to sift out the precious gravel which they collect in large pails. When their pails are overflowing the women then lift them with practiced dexterity and a strength that would shame most men and pour the gravel into large sacks. When full the sacks are tied closed and left to be sold to whomever it is that comes around and buys sacks of recycled gravel. It is hideous, brutal work. At first I felt sorry for the women having to do this work, working so hard for probably very little. There is an entire industry here of gravel making that is conducted by women. On the south side of town there is a camp of women, like outcasts, who toil all day with hammers to break down boulders into gravels of various sizes. There is so much construction going on in Juba, such a demand for gravel, that the women are always busy and fill an valuable role. This is one of those cases where an unthinking, kind hearted person might be tempted to bring in a large mechanical gravel making machine so these women didn't have to do such hard work. But the net result of that action would be to put a large number of women out of work and to saddle the local economy with another machine which would spend more time broken down. In Africa, labor is cheap and plentiful and in need to occupation. The western desire to provide people here with great pieces of machinery usually result in disaster, putting people out of work and leaving them dealing with equipment which frequently breaks and for which parts are difficult if not impossible to find. Anyway, getting back to the rock ladies, at first I felt bad seeing these women digging through the dirt all day for bucketsfull of gravel. But a friend pointed out how entreprenurial these women were, taking advantage of an opportunity and that if they weren't getting the gravel someone else would. Far from being pitiable, I have began to see these women as smart and strong and remarkable and wishing them the best of luck. It's funny how things are not always how they seem at first.