Thoughts of Boston in Juba, South Sudan
These past few days have been very surreal, starting off with the 117th Boston Marathon in which I and two of my children, Cara and Charles ran, full of hopes and excitement at Hopkinton only to be stopped at two miles and half a mile respectively from the finish line because of the bombings. What followed was a tragedy that was overwhelmed and overshadowed by countless heroic acts of courage, kindness, selflessness and love that bespeak the ever-present humanity that continues to assure us that in the end we will overcome evil with good.
Charles, Cara and I at the Start of the 117th Boston Marathon, fund-raising for MSF
Two days later on April 17th, I left for South Sudan for a three-week medical volunteering with Medical Teams International partnering with World Relief. I left leaving parts of me behind because of the unresolved issues of the bombings and also with my family whom I treasure a great deal, tragedy has its way of making one feel how precious your loved ones are.
My volunteer partner, Bonnie, a midwife from Oregon, and I spent a night in Entebbe, Uganda and boarded a plane the next day to Juba, South Sudan. We flew over vast stretches of stagnated marsh lands then forested areas which have been largely deforested. Before landing the ground was studded with glinting of galvanized zinc roofs. At the Juba International Airport, CNN brought live broadcast of news that one of the suspects of the bombings was killed and the other was at large and Watertown which is next to where I live was the epicenter. My thoughts went to all the millions of people who hunkered down in their homes including my family. It has been a blessing to have internet access at least in Juba that I could continue to follow some news from home. The arrest is good news indeed but it is also tainted with sad news of another life lost during the manhunt and the people who lost their lives, limbs and who were injured at the finish line.
Juba is a sprawling “big village city”. There are only a few tarmac roads with the rest of the red-earth types. During the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Treaty in 2005, it was said that South Sudan only had 62 kilometers of tarmac roads. There are no road names here. The big tarmac road, we were told, goes to Juba Town. Juba consisted of single-storey buildings and it is only recently that multi-storey constructions sprang up all over town. The multi-storey buildings do not inspire confidence, the columns look tenuous and flimsy and I dare say many of them look rather slanted. Juba is like a lot of African towns, stores lining the streets with haphazard sidewalks, appearing and disappearing at random, high fences topped with barbed wires guarding the buildings of government, NGOs, hotels and nice private dwellings, matatus attempting to run you down on non-existent sidewalks, dirt roads with muddy puddles (it rained the night before we arrived), tons of empty plastic bottles, cans and garbage strewn along the streets…The small tributaries of the White Nile are choked with these plastic bottles, largely ignored by the children wading in the river here but hungrily collected in Uganda to be re-sold. The White Nile flows through Juba northwards to join the Blue Nile in Khartoum.
Our briefing at World Relief informed us that we will fly out on Monday to Bentiu in Unity State in the northern part of South Sudan but our work will concentrate in Baow in Koch County, a one to three hour drive depending on the road conditions. Koch County has a population of 67,607 (2008) with a total of eight health facilities, four being supported by NGOs and the rest by the Ministry of Health of South Sudan.
As usual I learned my way around Juba through my morning runs, finding the big Konyokonyo Market and the car-park, live-stock market, charcoal…hopped on the matatu to Juba University which was closed on Sunday but viewing it through the brick fence, many buildings look run-down and one wonders whether it is functioning.
Amidst our wandering we saw a young man lying on the dirt-road right outside the market next to a row of women and children selling mangoes. He was breathing but barely, semi-dry blood on his palm and blood stains on his trousers, flies swarming on his lips and eyes, and beads of sweats on his forehead. Passers-by skirted around him seemingly unaware or chose to ignore that there was someone lying there. Eventually we were able to get some attention from a couple of young men and alerted the police a few blocks away. He did wake up and took big gulps of water. His family lived close by and we were told that the police would notify them. With the help of by-standers he pulled himself to the side of the road and slumped down in a drunken stupor. We saw four young girls eating chocolate and one of them offered Bonnie a one-pound note!
We had dinner with Tashian, the Country Director of World Relief in a restaurant and I overheard conversations in Malay. At the table next to us sat a group of my fellow Malaysian country men. Indeed like China, Petronas , the oil company of Malaysia, has long benefited from the oil wells here in South Sudan.
On our way home from dinner I saw the moon and thought about my family who would see the same moon connecting me to them.