All text and photos by the author, 2007.
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For a map (pdf) of Eastern Equatoria, click here. Strangely, they've neglected to place Isoke; it lies just west of Ikotos.
I traveled to southern Sudan in May 2007 to help supervise a survey on human security in Eastern Equatoria state. ‘Human security’, for those not into INGO-lingo, is an attempt to develop a lens for assessing the impacts of conflict that looks beyond the battlefield and into how fighting affects people’s daily lives. Though admittedly jargon – what kind of security is there besides human security, many have asked? – it is nevertheless an effort to better address civilians’ priorities during and after violent conflict. We hired thirty locals from throughout the state and along the border with Kenya to carry out the questionnaires – important both to gain people’s trust, and also for the simple reason that people there speak so many mutually unintelligible languages. I still felt a bit lazy, though; theirs was the harder work. I was supervising surveyors in Lafon, Torit, Ikotos, and Imatong counties. Though not a huge geographic area, the deplorable state of the roads meant that I spent most of my time in the Landcruiser. Serious worries while underway about how my rear end would hold up under so much bumping luckily proved unfounded. And in the process I got to see a lot of spectacularly beautiful places, and hear a lot of stories.
This tank hides in the bushes along the road to Torit. You have no inkling it’s there until you’re directly in front of it. No longer in use, it remains as a reminder of the long war. Disused tanks are a fairly common sight here. In New Kenya, a village just outside Torit, the tanks have become the kids’ jungle gyms. The scars of the war impress even a casual glance at these towns’ horizons: the skeletons of bombed-out buildings lie everywhere. Churches appear particularly hard-hit, but then churches are often the only tall, permanent structures.
At times you see the war in people’s demeanor, too. They fought long and hard for what they’ve achieved. A straight back, or a fond greeting between former fighters, seem to indicate pride, a shared sense of accomplishment. Prior to taking up his post, the commissioner of Torit had worked for Norwegian Church Aid, beginning in 1970. Only now has he been able to take on a public role in governance, and he is full of plans and ideas for the services and priorities his office should implement. At the same time, walking into his office, I felt the shadow of governance regimes in the process of calcification, like broken bones knitting together, marked by the lush velvet drapes of dictator chic as they assume an ever more ensconced position against the grubby concrete walls. Officious self-importance, African style, remains a force to be reckoned with.
This is the courthouse in Torit at sunset. The courthouse serves as a source of entertainment. Officials carry out punishments publicly. One hundred lashes, counted out by the assembled crowd: “One, two, three, four, five…”
Charles Dickens Olihu makes a point during a discussion during the training we held for surveyors in Kapoeta. Dickens, as he is known, comes from Torit but just graduated from university in Entebbe, Uganda, with a degree in administration. He returned home to Sudan because southern Sudan is where all the jobs are – sought-after NGO jobs. He hasn’t found one yet, though. The way he speaks English, in a low, smooth voice, sounds almost American, an observation Dickens enjoys. He corresponds frequently with a Catholic priest from Kansas who has sponsored his education since he was young. Dickens is charming and bright, eager to work. But, like many in southern Sudan, he also enjoys beer. He remarked to me once that he can drink ten beers (and these are the bulbous African bottles – half a liter) without even feeling it. Having talked with him at about that stage, I can't say I agree. He drinks and drinks as much as possible, and then sleeps at least half the next day.
Alcohol sells. Very little else does, and so everyone sells alcohol. On the road by Ikotos, not so far from the Ugandan border, early one morning, we passed a column of twenty or thirty men and women balancing jerry cans of waragi (plantain liquor) on their heads to sell in the area.
When you go out, you’re expected to buy as much beer for your friends and acquaintances as possible. If you don’t, they might start to cause problems for you, whether by not helping you when you need help, or, if they hold some position of power, like being a soldier, implicating you in something more serious. My driver, a Kenyan, stopped drinking when he realized he had to support his family after his father abandoned his mother for another woman. He explained how in order to minimize hassles (like getting thrown in jail), he buys beer for people even though he himself hasn’t touched the stuff in years and sees it as socially corrosive.
Peering into a bar at nine in the morning, you’re likely to see someone sitting there in the ubiquitous white plastic chairs. A woman I met who is working to expand radio-based education (not so easy, as no one has a radio) related how some of the people who applied for the position of driver arrived to their early morning interview drunk. Car accidents, needless to say, occur frequently and often fatally.
Ah, Lafon. Above, in the early morning sunlight, you see the compound of the CPRD, a ‘community-based organization’, or CBO. INGOs like to channel their aid through these ‘local partners’, both for ease of project administration and to impart a patina of local ownership. (Founding a CBO has thus become a great business opportunity; as with all business founders, some are upstanding and others are not.) Lafon county is a particularly sad place. While designated a county in 2003, there remains confusion over the correct name of the area – Lafon or Lapo? – and so none of the administrative functions that the designation implies have been forthcoming.
Some INGOs and multilateral organizations have used the presence of mines to justify staying away from the area. I’d suggest, from my own experience, that another factor might be at work as well, perhaps subconsciously. Lafon’s location breeds a particular kind of isolation, and particular strategies for coping: at each village along the road, vehicles must pass through a roadblock. Some have an ostensibly official purpose, with a police officer or soldier standing guard somewhere in the vicinity. But mostly they serve to force you to stop and give any hopeful travelers a ride. Transport is not only expected, but demanded. “You WILL give me a ride to Torit!” one police officer yelled at me in Lafon. Though I had in theory no problem with giving him a lift, his tone irked me, and I realized that I'd wanted him to ‘ask nicely’. I realized that I was looking for a little bit of gratefulness.
Similarly, we gave a lift to a family en route to their village. When we reached the fork where they would turn right and we left, we bid them farewell. The road to their home was in all likelihood impassable due to rains – we barely made it up the much-more-trafficked main road. But the father in the family proceeded to get angry that we wouldn’t drive them the whole way and then demanded that we give him some of our reserves of water, which we did. Such encounters would cause Ernest to shake his head and say "These people..." sometimes followed by "I don't know
This is the closest I’ve come to observing the disconnect between the ‘neoliberal’ and the non-neoliberal, a contrast much commented upon in academic circles. The neoliberal order, as I define it (many don’t, preferring to bandy it about safe in the realm of abstraction), has to do with each person being independent and self-sufficient, operating on the free market toward the aim of entrepreneurialism. Here in Lafon, by contrast, successful entrepreneurs are those who milk whatever resources arrive as efficiently as possible. So I can’t help but think that aid organizations prefer not to work in places where their help goes so unappreciated, at least using the expressions of gratitude they recognize.
The CPRD compound, with the SPLM flag proudly flying.
I left Torit early one morning in order to make a round-trip to Lafon to pick up completed questionnaires, returning before dark. I had arranged to meet the surveyors at the CPRD compound. When I arrived, however, they were nowhere to be seen. An elderly woman (she told me her name, but I didn’t catch it) brought me a white plastic chair to sit and wait under the relative shade of a small-leafed, thorny tree. An old man was dispatched to bicycle to the next village (the track was impassable for vehicles due to rain, which turned it into a succession of swamps and lakes), where they lived, to bring them back. I had a tight schedule to collect the surveys from other towns, and I needed to keep moving. After a while the woman brought a Chinese-made thermos of tea and plastic cups. Later she showed me green pods on the tree’s branches are edible. I sat in the chair, slumped so as to create a little air space between my sweating thighs and the clammy plastic. And waited. And waited. Minutes turned into hours. I barely moved from the chair, as moving would entail a step into the hot sun. Ernest, my driver, got into the back of the Landcruiser, open except for a tarp roof, with padded bench seats running its length. He lay down to get some rest and propped his feet in the air against the roof supports. Some time passed. “GOD, this is SO BORING,” Ernest burst out finally. I broke into uncontrollable laughter. It was. There was no other word for it. Back in Nairobi some days later, my friend Susan pointed out that boredom is learned – you have to be used to a certain level of stimulation in order to be bored. I thought of the elderly woman. She told us how almost all her ten children have gone to Juba, the government and NGO hub, in search of jobs. You can make money there. But she prefers the village life. What would she do in Juba?
Lafon does have one claim to fame. Residents tell you that the Khartoum government, whose forces held the town from 1993 to 2005 (when the peace agreement was signed), hid Osama bin Laden in the caves at the foot of the mountain. Why else would they have planted the 7,000 mines known to ring the base of the hill, an uninhabited hump? People related how soldiers forced them all out of the area, holding them away while they watched, from this distance, one of the president’s personal planes land. The same scene played out some three months later. Who knows whether it’s true. But it’s the first story many people in Lafon tell an outsider. I’ve occasionally wondered what it means for someone to be hidden in a cave somewhere – can’t they just look and find them? Now I think I understand.
Isoke (pronounced like a slurred “It’s okay”) is the most beautiful town in Eastern Equatoria. It sits nestled up between the black-rock faces of tall mountains. Lush and green, you can grow anything here. As you approach the town, you pass down an allée lined by tall trees, the immediately recognizable sign of a long-term Comboni presence. The Comboni missionaries have played a big role throughout the region over more than a hundred years. In my experience, their presence augurs three things, all of them wonderful: these shady, restful allées; good schools, both for girls and boys; and grafted mangoes. Local mango trees produce yellow, egg-sized fruit so stringy that less ends up in your stomach than between your teeth. But grafted, they produce giant, meaty, green mangoes of rhapsody-inducing sweetness.
The road between Isoke and Ikotos is a particularly difficult one. Just outside of Isoke, a river/lake (pictured above) swallows the road. You can drive through if you’re careful, but best to send one of the children invariably hanging out there to wade for depth, indicating with a stick the best route. After that, it’s a series of hilly, slippery black cotton marshes, often with deep water on both sides if you’re so unfortunate as to be unable to correct after careening.
This part of the world surely holds some kind of a record for traffic jam creation: total gridlock can ensue from only one or two vehicles that have slid themselves stuck across the passable parts of the road. (In this instance, Ernest managed to drive around to the far right.)
Even in a state with a strikingly high level of armament, this stretch stands out. Women digging in their fields had two Kalashnikov-carrying young men lolling about and standing watch over them. Three ten or twelve year old boys walking through a field, and one has an automatic weapon. A young man guarding cows or goats or sheep? Of course he’s armed. Arriving in Ikotos, I saw a woman carrying a heavy, cloth-wrapped bundle on her head, on her way to the market. Over her shoulder, a Kalashnikov, on which she rested her arm familiarly. That day, the SPLM was holding a rally in Ikotos. Hundreds of people stood in a square formation while officials stood on a slightly-raised platform and gave speeches. Among the crowd, perhaps a third carried a weapon.
A few weeks earlier, the town saw an even more spectacular crime: a gang of about five young men, known inhabitants and armed with Kalashnikovs and RPGs, stormed the local prison. They demanded that the guard release the prisoners, some of whom were their friends and acquaintances. The guard, faced with such an onslaught, quickly acquiesced. All the prisoners ran to freedom. One, however, was from a town some tens of kilometers away and didn’t speak the local language. Unsure of what was happening, he held back. By the time he realized what was going on and tried to run, police back-ups had arrived, and they deposited him back in his cell.
Isoke side, too, has its share of crime. A few days before I traversed the stretch leading to the town, armed men had killed a lone traveler, beheaded him, and left the head on a post for all followers to see. Thankfully it had been removed by the time I arrived. During the daytime, the roads are generally safe. All these incidents occur under the cover of darkness.
Stories like these may leave the impression that this is a scary place. But the people I met in Eastern Equatoria are among the friendliest and most welcoming one could hope to have the good fortune of crossing paths with. I don’t want to fall into the trap of the ‘happy poor African’ cliché, but I really enjoyed working with our surveyors and getting to know them a bit, and I’d be remiss not to thank them for that.