What did I learn from the coalface?

When working in a country where tribal loyalties are so important to people, it seems sensible to try to bring issues of identity and loyalty to the fore in discussions with local staff, rather than subsume them as being something foreigners cannot understand and should not try. It may be difficult, but it has to be attempted.

Extra effort needs to be made to communicate with the local population when there is no indigenous community — simply a mixed group of people living beside each other, often with vivid recent memories of violence. And help them communicate with their neighbours.

When a parallel economy is created by the aid trade, particularly in a post-conflict situation, it is important to decide the extent to which you will enter that economy. It is possible that your organisation will lose staff to the flashier organisations, but it is more important to have staff who are committed to the mission and who feel fulfilled in their work.

If you have a plan to help people, it is very important to talk through with them what they might do with the help they will receive from you, to make sure your plans for assistance are pragmatic and realistic in the context they know best. I did not do this enough.

As a backdrop to the development work that we undertook were the logistical and personal issues of living and working in South Sudan. In theory we could buy supplies from Khartoum and have them shipped upstream on the Nile on the antiquated ferry, but Nairobi was easier and more efficient. I and my Ugandan driver would drive our ten-ton truck to Nairobi on 18-hour non-stop trips, spelling each other because stopping off in Uganda was tricky and neither of us wanted to do that. Idi Amin’s ill-disciplined army controlled the roads, and the country, and all we wanted was to get through as quickly and as safely as possible. I was hugely helped by my driver, who could speak many Ugandan dialects and jolly the army personnel along. We loaded up in Nairobi and drove back the same way.

South Sudan was a disease-ridden country. Not only malaria — which was pretty debilitating the first time you got it — but also bacillary and amoebic dysentery, bilharzia (schistosomiasis) and, if you had a local girlfriend, probably gonorrhoea. I also developed a rather unique complaint from bathing in the Nile — “otitis media”, an infection of the inner ear.

The organisation I worked for stipulated that we had to go to Nairobi every six months for a full medical check-up and R&R, for which I was very glad, because they discovered bilharzia before it had really got stuck into my body. The medicine, however, was pretty gruesome. It was called metronidazole and was psychotropic, producing visions and nightmares. The UN doctor told me that he hospitalised people before giving them that drug in case they tried to commit suicide!

In Nairobi I had an operation on my ear where they cut open the eardrum, removed the gunk from inside and allowed it to heal by itself — warning me not to go swimming as I could drown through my ear!

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