Life in a war zone – Southern Sudan (part four)

I haven’t said much about what we were all doing yet! We were a team of about six, medics and logisticians. The project was focussed on training primary health care workers, midwives, hygiene promoters as well as providing primary health care and treatment for a terrible disease called Kala-azar (visceral leishmeniasis) which had a 95% mortality rate without treatment. We also dug latrines and distributed mosquito nets as well as targeted trachoma prevention in our work with the hygiene promoters. In case this makes me sound like some kind of hero, my job was very much coordinating and facilitating rather than doing!


The relationship with the rebel army and the King of Shilluk were both very key to the success of our work. The King sent me (for the team) a prize young bull, I gave him a pen…! We didn’t look after the bull very well and in the end it served us for an end of year feast for all our primary health care workers and team!


Every 4 to 6 weeks I would head off to Kenya for R&R, we were given one day for every week we were in the field. I found the beautiful Woburn Residence Club in Malindi on the coast of Kenya. It is still run by an Ely and Franco who trained their chef in Italian cookery. It so happens that most of the times I went there, I was one of a hand full of guests so I often got ‘taylor made’ meals from the chef. I loved being there, it was always refreshing and resting, Ely and Franco have a real gift in hospitality and welcomed me into their lives.

If you get a chance to visit, I highly recommend it!


In the end, the harsh climate and stress from the potential insecurity in the area took its toll on my body and although my contract was for a year and Tearfund were hatching plans for even more work for me down the line, I had to leave. I spent a month in Nairobi seeing doctors, having treatment and running tests, but I didn’t improve and it was decided that I needed to come home. To be in the field in Sudan one had to be fit enough to go on the run in the bush for 24 hours at least, and I was no where near that! It eventually emerged that the giardia, UTI’s, chronic tonsillitis and dehydration had left their mark and I was left with chronic fatigue. I was off sick for a year in which I wrote the book “letters to Kate”, but that’s another story for another time…





Life in a war zone – Southern Sudan (part three)

During the rains it was a different story. We had black cotton soil in the area which meant that with the first rains great chasms formed spontaneously in the ground making walking at dusk or dawn treacherous. It also meant that fox holes were not a suitable safety measure in the event of a bomb raid! So we set about building a bomb shelter from WHO food bags filled with earth. It looked magnificent, until a few weeks after the temperatures began to climb when I realised that the sun was melting the sacks!!!


The black cotton soil had other implications for our safety. Each morning and evening we had to radio back into Loki to give a security update, part of this was an update on the weather and the condition of the airstrip. (Back in Loki, there would be daily briefings for all coordinators giving an overview of what was happening in the field.) As a general rule the twin otters were the only air craft trusted to land in our area unless it was the midst of the dry season when the strip was solid. Sometimes in the rainy season planes would only land in an emergency, which could mean no contact with the outside world (apart from radio contact) for a week or two. It was always a highlight when they came, sometimes it would be team they brought but most often it was supplies, mail parcels, a newspaper, and a brief but friendly chat with news from the rest of the area. The planes were flown by MAF and the UN.  There was a sizable fleet of planes involved in the work in Sudan. The Herculeses aircraft used for food drops, twin otters and caravans for routine and emergency team movements, Buffalo used for transport of heavy goods – we had our Toyota 4×4 delivered in one of these.


Communicating with people back home was a slow process, emails and letters were collected in Nairobi, flown in a mail parcel to Loki and then on to the field, just this process could take up to 14 days in the rainy season… and then back again! I remember my birthday though, despite the delays, the timing was perfect and all my mail arrived the day before, it was a very special thing to sit and open up cards and letters from loved ones, feeling so far away and yet deeply connected. So I celebrated my thirtieth birthday not with a big party in Oxford as I had been planning earlier in the year, but in a mud hut in the south of Sudan!


To be continued in a few days….

Life in a War Zone – Southern Sudan (part two)

Our camp was in the Shilluk Kingdom, a region unique in Sudan for having a kind of peace treaty with the warring parties. Having said that there were a couple of times when, standing in our camp, we heard shelling from barges coming down the White Nile about 2Km away from us, the range of the shells was just 1Km thank fully. Thanks to the peace in the area I never witnessed an antonov attack or helicopter gun ships coming in. The antonovs would fly high and circle over a given area then beer barrels of explosives and metal scraps would be kicked out of the back to fall indiscriminately causing devastating harm. In the areas frequently subject to these attacks the first sign of the coming bombs would be the children and animals running for cover – they would be the first to hear the high pitched aircraft engines. I am so grateful that this wasn’t part of my experience, a month after I left however, our security level deteriorated and the team was evacuated by the Sierras.


The camp was simple, made up of ‘mud huts’ – wooden frames with wattle and daub walls and thatch roofs, a mixture of round and rectangular ones. A small round hut was my “room” to start off with, until I was welcomed by a snake in the doorway, devouring a mouse that it had found in my roof. I requested a tent be flown in from Loki, which though stifling in the soaring afternoon temperatures, was snake free due to the rubber ground covering and the absence of mice! Each hut and my tent was supplied with an electric light powered by two solar panels, we were able to run a fan and two computers in the “office”. We even had a fridge that was powered by kerosene.


By December temperatures had risen to the mid forties and were steadily climbing. In the mid day sun chickens would take shelter in the shade of the low reaching thatched roofs, wings spread out and beaks open, panting to keep cool. The silence at that time of day was stunning, not even the insects were able to move in the heat. A few weeks after I left temperatures were to reach 50 degrees C.


To be continued in a few days….


Life in a war zone – Southern Sudan


I was so impacted by my two trips to Mozambique in 2000 that I set about exploring ways in which I could be more involved with aid work overseas. My search ended up with me being accepted onto Tearfund’s Disaster Response Register (now called Disaster Management Team if I recall rightly). And within a month or two I was asked to consider a placement in South Sudan as the team leader for one of their four projects in the war torn and drought ravaged country. Following a series of orientation days, training weekends and various other meetings and preparations (including writing my will and signing my agreement to the policy that no ransom would be paid in the event of my being taken as a hostage) I found my self heading to East Africa in June 2002.


The first stop on the way to Sudan was always Nairobi where the regional headquarters for Tearfund was located. I didn’t really enjoy city life so I spent as little time there as I could! Next stop was Lokichoggio in the north of Kenya, at the edge of the town was the NGO camp which had developed into its own little community. Many NGO’s providing aid and relief to South Sudan had their operational base in the camp, there was designated office space and staff accommodation, buffet restaurants and every thing you need for the surreal life of an aid worker!


One of the features of life in Loki was the Sierras, a unique group of good looking ex military personnel with an overdose of testosterone. Taking their name from their call sign in the NATO phonetic alphabet, they were the security team responsible for our safety in the field, and when needs must they would search and rescue teams who had had to evacuate their camps. Before heading out to the field I had two or three days training with them learning how to survive in the Sudanese bush, on the run from warring factions and what to do if I was taken hostage. Nice welcome!


The camp that would be my home for the next 6 months was on the edge of a dirt air strip. Next to us was the Vets Sin Frontier camp and further down at the other end of the strip was the rebel army’s camp who held the area, just opposite them was the water pump that the camps and surrounding community used. I enjoyed walking out onto the airstrip at the end of a long, hot day and watching the people walk up from the pump with water jars balanced on their heads, silhouetted by the setting sun that cast long, long shadows in front of them. The downside to this idyllic African scene was that our only drinking water was from this pump which happened to be salty to the taste – I never got used to it and so was chronically dehydrated!


To be continued in a few days time…


(check out Tearfund’s website: