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  • Writer's picturekwankew

Oil, Politics, the Nuer, its Chinese Connection and the Holy Cash Cows

A steamy night last night, the ceiling fans have not been working for a while and probably will not be fixed either. We wished we could sleep outside for there was a very nice breeze and there were some stars and a patch of the Milky Way could be seen if one were to wait patiently to allow the eyes to adjust to the lights. In the morning I ran down the main dirt road to the next village where a few people were setting up an early market. A couple of enterprising boys set up their shoe polishing business by the dusty road side, a few cans of Kiwi shoe polish lined up on a towel placed directly on the dirt road. It was baffling to have one’s shoes shined only to be quickly get dusty again in a few seconds unless one were to travel in a private vehicle. There are infrequent matatus and land cruisers belonging to various NGOs, people here probably are too poor to afford private vehicles. Johnson, our local medical coordinator said it is not unusual for the inhabitants here to walk 100 km a day carrying whatever on their heads to and from the markets. Their means of transportation is their own two feet. Each passing vehicle churned up clouds of dust for several meters behind it.

Breakfast which was called tea here, at least for me was just some sips of water with some cookies and half an orange I bought at Juba. There is no organized breakfast here and the kitchen staff came just when we were leaving.

Almost three hours of bone rattling, concussive brain jolting on bumpy dirt roads through parched countryside with scattered compounds of tukuls, cattle and goats grazing on brown dry grass or gathering around water holes and more profuse growth of short acacia trees brought us to Koch County. The Relief Rehabilitation Commissioner (RRC) is sick and is at Leer today, two hours from Koch so we could not see him. Colonel John Chuol Wang, the Koch Resident Commissioner met with us in his stifling airless closed spaced office with chairs and sofas worn through the imitation vinyl leather down to the bare fabric, on the three long coffee tables was placed a vase of shocking pink unattractive artificial flowers probably made in China. The droning voices of the Colonel, his secretary and Johnson put me in a soporific mood, I caught myself falling asleep several times with jet-lag lurking its alluring, tantalizing drowsy head at me. Just when I thought we were finally through, he had us wait for water. Here it is customary to serve guests some drinks and refusal is viewed as rude. Someone had gone off somewhere to get us bottled water and sodas, he must have made a behemoth effort to get them and they were deliciously cold. I ventured to ask the Colonel about his last name “Wang” and have noted many Chinese sounding names in this area: Kuong, Kuok, Puok, Tang, Deng Wei and Wang. It turned out that the Nuer tongue has similar Chinese sounds and he told us that he once met a Chinese man whose last name was “Wang” and the Colonel told him that he could be his father. Outside his office were some men and a woman waiting to see him but we jumped the queue, it made me feel bad.

Koch County Hospital was our next stop, barely functioning with some outpatient activities and a female ward with four beds all crowded in a single room. A nurse was caring for them. In the hallway and reception areas were stacked to the ceiling boxes of supplies from the government. Right beside the boxes was a bed with black mattress, I almost missed that it had a patient lying on it, she had a black dress that made her blend into the sheetless black mattress. People from functioning primary care units get their supplies from here but there is no system of inventory and the pharmacy is only meagerly stocked. There were old signs of voting for a new Sudan.

The hospital was fully functioning about fourteen months ago and stopped abruptly at the same time when the oil stopped flowing. Almost all the economy of South Sudan is dependent on the oil revenue. South Sudan has the oil and Sudan has the refineries and the pipelines to the Red Sea port. Khartoum of Sudan wanted 50% of the oil revenue but South Sudan was only willing to give a smaller percentage, thus when negotiation came to a halt, the oil stopped flowing. The personnel could not be paid and the hospital stopped functioning and the whole hospital plunged into disarray and finally ceased to open. This month the oil starts flowing again and the hospital now has a few hired personnel and limited services are being offered. It does need a lot of cleaning up and organization before it can fully function but most importantly South Sudan has to train more health care personnel. Right now 85% of the health care in South Sudan is being provided by the NGOs.

We plodded along to Baow through lunch time, there was no place here where one could stop to eat. This is indeed the bush. The soda from the Colonel tasted especially good now. A couple of young women with sacks of food on their heads with no water in hand walked through the dust our vehicle churned up; miles and miles ahead and behind them not a living soul could be seen. Johnson was trying to handle an eclamptic pregnant woman in Baow on the phone triaging her to Leer, three hours away by a land cruiser. There was no Magnesium sulfate where she was but there was diazepam.

On the way Johnson recounted his kidnapping about a year ago in the Upper Nile State while he was working with Tearfund. The militia kidnapped the Liberian country director, the driver and him, robbed them of the salary money that they brought along to pay the field workers, took their vehicle and forced them to walk for two weeks towards Khartoum with little offer of food or water. Once they threatened to kill the Liberian but the driver told them they had to kill him first (a Sudanese). Eventually the Red Cross was able to negotiate their release and they were brought to Khartoum and then to Nairobi. Now Johnson is back to working with another NGO.

Stretches of land have been deliberately burned to encourage new growth of grass for the grazing animals, many of the water holes are dried up. After about six hours of driving today, we arrived at the fenced compound filled with a number of shady Neem trees. Our sleeping quarters are in a galvanized tinned house, likely a hot oven tonight. The yard itself was breezy. There was no lunch waiting for us when we arrived shortly after three. Several free-ranging chickens were foraging in the yard, the cook let in a few neighboring children to come into the compound to catch one of them. The squawking protesting cries were difficult to listen to. One minute it was happy and free the next it lost its life, never to enjoy its freedom again. I am happy with rice and beans if they do cook beans.

Baow Camp
Our Abode
My bed
The Bathroom and the Latrine
Elizabeth, Our Cook

In Nuer and the Dinka countries, I was told that cows and girls are highly valued. Herders use spears but often AK-47 left over from the war to guard a few precious cows they own. While others use Pounds, Euros, USD, Yen, Yuan etc. they trade in “Cows”. For the Dinkas a girl brings in highly priced dowry of a hundred cows or so and the girl’s legs must not be seen from any direction while she is being surrounded by the cash cows, otherwise the dowry will be considered inadequate. The groom-to-be has to bring in more cows to cover the long legs. For the Nuers, thirty to forty cows will be enough. It is fortunate that this is not camel country, it will take many more camels to hide the long legs of a Dinka girl. A girl who can read brings in more cows then those who can’t. Because of the enormity of the burdensome dowry, cattle raids occur frequently especially in Jonglei. Only older men can afford to marry again and again and most often take young girls as young as thirteen for a wife. Young men without the requisite number of cows will just have to pine away or marry other tribes with much lower demand of the cash cows such as the tribes in the Equatorial states; they only require two cows, four goats, twenty-five chickens and two bags of termites. HOLY COWS!

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