Monday, August 07, 2006

Field Trip

It is early on a Wednesday morning and we are going to El Fadous. After the events of the previous week, someone with enough foresight (that I’ll never admit to the wisdom of) decided that it might be good for me to get out of the office. And so, in the early morning haze, I am packing water, and toilet paper, and a couple of snacks into a quick run bag while the drivers stand around chattering about the latest market gossip and checking tire pressure and fuel levels.

At 9am we are out of the compound and by 9:30 we are out of the town – driving through vigourously guarded SLA territory on a road that is little more than a sand track through ankle-deep shrub that stretches off the end of the earth in every direction as far as you can see. South Darfur is green, at the moment, golf-course green from all the pounding rain of the wet season. We drive through Dinka villages populated by those who fled one civil war right into the next one. We drive past farmers out planting their fields without any tools, past herds of goats being shephered by children, passed small groups of thatched tukels. The track becomes muddy and impassable in some places and the first in our convoy gets stuck in the deep tracks that has been carved by the few heavy lorries that passed this way earlier. Our driver stops a teenage boy who’s hoeing a field with a bamboo pole to ask for directions. The boy looks us over with large, brown eyes and beautiful, long eyelashes and points us across his field to another track that will hopefully take us where we want to go. The drivers squabble in Arabic over the radios and then head off in the direction the boy pointed.

Driving into El Fadous the first thing you notice is what is missing and that mainly is noise - the whir and buzzing to which we’ve become accustomed. There is no electricity, no phones ringing, no sound of aircraft overhead, no cars – except our own. Only the sounds of people in the market. It is remarkably peaceful.

When we arrive at the clinic there area already seven staff there weighing and measuring children who cry and wail as they are placed on the scales. This is the only time they make noise. There are about 50 children in the tent between the ages of six and 59 months being held quietly by their mothers - malnourished children are eerily subdued and inactive. Most are being fed plumpy nut to fend off starvation. The malnutrition rates here are not good. In fact, they are 10% past the threshold of what constitutes an ‘emergency.’ Some children are here because their families simply don’t have enough food; some are here because cholera and malaria have accentuated the problems – whatever the case they are all part of a suplemental feeding programme for all children under five in the region to hopefully keep the problem from worsening.

After the clinic finishes we have lunch in the center of town under a broken down looking stable where we watch police and GoS emerge periodically from the bush with AK47’s slung lazily over one shoulder. We eat beans and meat with our hands as water occassionally drips from the roof onto our chairs and table. The food is delicious but I know I will pay for it later in one form or another.

I spend most of my time with Joseph, one of our health promotion workers. A gregarious man from Southern Sudan with an irrepresible wide grin that lights up his face and more energy in his small finger than I think I’ve had in my entire life. His exuberance for the work is genuine – and exhausting.

We spend the afternoon visiting health clubs for women and children in IDP camps. In club after club I play the part of the ambassador’s wife introducing myself and telling them how wonderful it is that they are there and how delighted I am to get to meet them. Despite feeling completely useless, it is wonderful to be there and I am truly delighted to meet them. It is a glimpse of how the work we are doing is somehow contributing some goodness to a place desperately lacking in goodness.

After visiting dozens of these clubs we have to head home in order to make it back before dark and the curfew. We stop by the clinic to pick up one mother and child who is so malnourished that we have to take them to the closest hospital – over two hours away. Joseph happily chats away with the woman who is bewildered, has never been in a car, and is putting her child’s life in the hands of some foreigners who turn up every now again with food and medicine. I hold the baby, who is lethargic and literally skin and bone, in the front seat while he reassures the mother that now that a ‘khwaje’ is holding the baby surely everything will turn out right. I smile and wish I believed it. After a mile or two Joseph decides that my name is too hard too hard for the Sudanese to pronounce and need a new one. We bounce over the muddy road while he carries on a monologoue of Sudanese names before arriving on one. ‘I think Amani suits you,’ he finally decides and asks the mother if she agrees. ‘It means hope. From now on we will call you Amani.’ And from then on, he does.

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