No Spit in the Soup

First thing the man did before announcing lunch was to spit at my feet.  Of course I am exaggerating.  How else to keep your attention?  However, it is true that he did manage to expel a big yellow tinged piece of slime from the recesses of his mouth with enough force to fall just a few feet shy of my feet.  He then announced in broken English: ‘lunch is ready’.  He was the cook and as a grey haired Sudanese in charge of the kitchen the only polite thing I could do after such a colorful invitation was to follow him to the dining area.  The food was actually pretty good, or I was very hungry.  Either way, I took second helpings of the beans and rice and the other visitors with me did likewise.  The dirt floor and plywood walls gave the semblance of rustic décor made surreal by the flowers on the plastic bowls.  The spoons and the fresh bread rolls made it clear that we were eating at one of Bor Sudan’s finest establishments.

This was midday of our first day in Sudan.  It was the ‘meeting point’ for us and the driver to take us to the hospital.  The night before was spent in Lokichogio Kenya.  Lokichogio is known for being one of the busiest airports in East Africa as it serves a host of international relief and aid agencies.  It is also known for its insecurity as related to me by the cook at the ‘Hotel California’  which is where we stayed that first night.  He told me that it was common practice in Lokichogio for boys as young as ten years of age to carry AK47 rifles to defend their cattle and that the purpose of the police in the area was to write down reports of who was most recently killed, not necessarily by whom.

Hotel California had all of the charm of…, well it had no charm.  It was really a series of tents with firm mattresses on the beds and electric bulbs and an outside shower and toilet connected via the back of the tent.  I chose not to shower under the stars that night as I knew that God had seen all of me already and others would be shocked to see the rest.  The water was just above ambient evening temperature of 80 degrees at 7 pm and the soap was new with the picture of the Lux woman on it.

At 6 a.m. that morning two crazy white girls and two crazy black guys got in the car and drove back to the Lokichogio airport.  I say the girls are crazy because I can’t for the life of me figure out how they get the daring and guts to do what I shiver doing.  I don’t get in little cabs in Philadelphia with two black guys.  Here we are in a cab the size of a motorcycle, with potholes, better yet sinkholes filled with water coming one third way up the car doors.  When the motor died out I was sure I was going to have to climb through the window to help pull us out.  Well, the driver was used to this and after the carburetor rested a few seconds we were on our way to the Lokichogio airport bound for Bor Sudan just two hours on the other side of the southern Sudanese border.

Lokichogio airport is more like a conglomeration of shipping containers, brick buildings and straw huts in various stages of decay and renovation.  It is hard to tell which is undergoing which process.  It has its share of crashed airplanes on the side of the runways, against fences and in pieces on the ground.  I am not sure why they never remove this stuff, except that maybe it serves as guideposts for take-off and landing.

We had arrived in Lokichogio on a flight called ALS which I understands means Airplane Leasing Service, but has since lost this acronym.  I dubbed it Always Lands Someplace.  The plane we boarded was as wide as a small van, with about the same amount of headroom.  You had to bend yourself in half to walk down the aisle to get to your seat.  If you were over 5 feet 9 like me, you would probably have to crawl.

We got on an African Inland Mission plane which had two of the seats removed so that we could carry the medical supplies and our personal belongings.  It was a good flight as we were not near as high and at times it seemed like we were gliding and not flying.  We could see the roads below where trucks were stranded in mud and small villages and vast swaths of green covered earth.  It was pretty.

We landed in Bor Sudan at around 9 a.m.  We were met as expected by our driver who was to take us to the planned meeting point for heading to Werekok hospital.
We stopped at a guesthouse to have tea and meet a few important people.  I assume they were important as they were well dressed, arrived in motorized vehicles and spoke perfect English.  If it were not for the nearby pond filled with dirty water, drinking cattle, car and motorcycles being washed, laundered clothing and bathing and playing children, the atmosphere could have been considered less than an experiment in public health challenges.  This was no mere Petri-dish of growing microorganisms.  This was an experiment of how far one could allow parasitic infestation proceed left unchecked without any significant intervention.

We left the fine establishment just briefly before lunch to tour the town of Bor.  It you add an ‘e’ to the name it describes it more accurately.  This was once the seat of rebellion against the northern Sudanese government and now serves as a hot seat of political and tribal rivalry.  The only peace that exists now is the result of the multiple international oil companies that have come to de-mine the roads, fill in the larger craters on the streets and of course the ever present UN ‘peacekeepers’.  The World Food Program has massive trucks, planes and storage facilities here which serve to keep the people in a watching and waiting position rather than a planning and moving posture.  Such is development in Sudan.  If we wait long enough, maybe another 50 years, someone will stop the Arab north from decimating the indigenous African south.  Until then, we need the UN peacekeepers to keep a body count and the World Food Program to delay starvation of the entire populace.

I did my fair share of hunger relief.  I saw a woman boiling dough like doughnuts in hot oil and I thought I would be nice and purchase some from her to ‘improve her income’ for the day.  I thought to myself these are boiled in oil so they can’t harm me if I eat them.  I asked for one, only to be informed by sign language they only sold them by the dozen or so.  I promptly paid for my dozen or so which were then hand-picked (who knows what else those hands had picked) and placed in a torn piece of local newspaper that was made easier to tear by adding a little spittle to the crease in the corner.  Well the two crazy white girls I was walking with decided they would eat.  One was a community health nurse and the other a trained laboratory technician whom I assumed both believed in the germ theory.  So I ate one after seeing they did not drop dead.  Later down the road, I did as most Americans do, give away what I don’t want to some snotty nosed kid who happened to wave at me with a smile.  I was glad to give a gift, even if it was not tax season.

We were delayed in Bor because somehow the details of our arrival and departure were not specific enough given the 6 week transmission of precise communications.  Hence rather than depart at 10 a.m. as planned, we left right on time at 3 p.m.  I always say you can set your watch in Africa.., you just have to re-set it later.

Our trip from Bor to Werekok was a challenge both coming and going.  The 30 kilometer or 20 mile trip takes about 90 minutes if you don’t get stuck in mud.  We were assured there were no mines as I could see several men walking along the road with one leg and two crutches.  I am sure they could point out the bad spots!

I had my sunglasses on as I sat in the back of the pick-up truck with anywhere from 4 to 11 people.  The sunglasses served two purposes.  The first was to keep the swinging thorn filled branches from eviscerating my eye from its socket.  I have kind of grown attached to my eyes.  The second was to keep the mud from my eyes.  I had no such protection from my mouth as the tires which had the tread of a Rolaids spun in the mud and dug the car deeper, flinging the dark slush everywhere.  Of course the mud did not have the minty taste of Rolaids, but more like that of the frogs, insects, snakes and animals who had traversed this path before us.  I was glad I had my glasses.  We were able to dig, push and pray our way out of many muddy holes.  I have had a taste of Sudan literally.

The hospital was a site to behold.  It needs a lot of work, but the progress thus far provides great hope and shows great vision and commitment on behalf of the locals and missionaries who have begun the work.  Imagine men who have only recently lain down their AK 47 rifles and have taken up shovels, hammers and nails to build rather than kill or be killed.  After 20-30 plus years of killing, inspiring people to dream of life is more than just a matter of memorizing a Bible verse.

At present the staff sees at least thirty to fifty people per day.  It is the only facility within several snake filled, mosquito infested, swampy land of over 2 hours walk on a sunny day (110-127 degrees in the shade).  So this hospital is not only needed for saving lives, but offering hope.

As I sat on the veranda after our brief tour of the facility I wondered again to myself just why God has been so good to me.  The hospital staff prepared us a nice meal of beans and some meat.  We slept in their quarters, free of scorpions, or snakes.  I was assured by one woman that I only needed to worry about snakes in the rainy season.  I thought to myself, ‘this is the rainy season’.  Africans hate to tell you bad news.

We four visitors talked with the clinical staff that evening about buildings, food, water, medical supplies, community involvement, and oh yes…, how we would get out of there the next morning if it rained heavily.  The pilot and I made a brief tour of the alternate landing strip should we be stranded by car and he would have to go into Bor to bring the plane to us in Werekok.  This ‘brief tour’ by the two of us required us to wear ‘gum-boots’ or galoshes as I use to know them, that covered our lower legs.  I was sure it would keep the snakes out and of course, my one pair of socks that I had brought with me clean.  I did not plan well, I admit.

The landing strip was about 700 meters in length (less than half a mile) and was full of thorns and tall grass.  I was reminded of the old poem ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ as I thought if 30 men with thirty grass slashers could cut this grass, fill in the holes and chase off the goats and keep they hyenas away, we could possibly land here in the morning.  Oh well.  Back to plan A.

It was an uneventful night.  We ate well, slapping lots of mosquitoes in spite of the OFF, DEET and other repellants.  We took our antimalaria medicines, put down our mosquito nets and I stuck my musty but dry socks inside of my sneakers to keep out the scorpions. I did plan well after all!  I hate surprises like that in the morning.

We awakened had banana bread and coffee and retoured the hospital seeing one consult.  It was a woman in severe congestive heart failure and I know for sure that if this facility were not here, she would die.  I helped examine her, and advise on how we could make the diagnosis without the need for spending thousands of dollars on x-rays.  Something I learned a long time ago in medical school was, listen, look, touch, feel, then treat.  It still works.

We advised on where clinic offices should be placed, how the operating rooms should be organized and where the medical supplies should be stored.  Triaging patients and advising where the waiting room should be placed were just as important.  The Sudanese staff was enthusiastic and appreciative.

We made our way back to Bor to discover our small plane was still in place.  One fear was the watchman on the dirt air strip might try to escape the rain that night by hiding under the wing and building a fire to keep himself warm.  A hole in the wing that carries half the fuel of a small plane could have presented some real problems.  Nonetheless, our fears were unfounded and we paid the going rate of $75 for this man to sit and make sure that no one touched our only sure means out of the area that would take fewer than a several days by land.

So he spat on the ground and not in the soup.  Maybe it was just a way to say welcome.  We took off from Bor, leaving behind many new friends and old wrecked aircraft on the ground.  Thankful for the friends and curious about the wrecked aircraft.  God has been good to allow us the privilege of seeing and being involved in delivering hope.  Thank you for your prayers.