There are a lot of things I don’t understand. I don’t even understand myself. I’m building a health care clinic in Southern Sudan, in Jesus name, and wondering if I’ll ever play golf again. Is that OK? There’s a guy welding a wheel barrel over there with no eye protection. Is he lazy or ignorant, or doesn’t he have a mask?
Simon, my interpreter and guide, is the nephew of the Chief in Duk County. He was running for his life at 9 years of age with thousands of other boys. The U.N. says the war took 2 million lives. Simon thinks that estimate is low. I take another malaria pill.
We chartered a plane to fly 2 ½ hours north from the border of Kenya to meet the chief and survey the building site. It’s rainy season and Simon tells me to buy some boots. If the roads are wet, we will have to walk….mud everywhere. I miss my wife.
The white South African maintenance man at Loki, the jumping off airport for aid workers and gun runners going to Sudan, says the Dinka don’t want to learn about anything but guns. If they hear shots fired, they grab their guns and head for the sound. He says they like to fight and I shouldn’t incite them because they’re looking for reasons to throw us out. I hadn’t noticed. Simon says the Dinka love to learn, much more than the Somalis. Somalis just want to make money. There are 86,000 people in the refugee camp where his mother is. I drink another glass of water.
The maintenance man says I can make a lot of money in Juba, a town north of Loki with an actual air strip. “Just think of any business you can imagine,” he says, “You can make a killing.” He makes money on the side by producing ice. 4000 shillings a day. “How about dry ice?” I suggest. He looks like a light bulb just went off in his head. “Even better!” he exclaims and walks off to talk to his partner.
I need to brush my teeth. I’ll bet I have the only electric toothbrush in 100 sq. miles. Shouldn't have used the water though. Oh well. If I get sick I can take comfort in knowing that my teeth are clean.
Sometimes I get the feeling I’m being played for a chump. And other times I think this is important work. Which is it? Probably both. Hope we can get water in Poktap, Sudan. We can’t get fuel in Poktap so we carry enough for a round trip. This cuts into our payload so no water. We are allowed only 256 kilos. Just enough. Give us this day our daily bread.
The Cessna 206 is a very loud plane. Next time I’ll have ear protection. I think the flies and mosquitoes are having a contest to see who can kill us first. I don’t think I’m a very good missionary. I hate flies and mosquitoes. The bathrooms are a public health nightmare. “Just one can of Raid…that’s all I ask.” I have several cans under the kitchen sink at home.
These people all need dental work. An orthodontist can make a career in this one village. It’s about 100 degrees, 80% humidity as I take another sip of the piping hot tea offered to me when I got here. The flies seem to enjoy it more than I do. What would MacGyver do?
Tonight there will be a dance. Every Monday they play. Every Monday I watch football. I can’t wait. We’ve been talking politics. Dinka hate Arabs. They will fight to the last man. They say “NEVER AGAIN.” We sit under the Tao tree and talk about how the Muslims are taking Somalia and speculate where they will go next.
Dinka think white men are weak. The chief’s wife wonders if I can walk the 2 1/2 hours to the building site. I tell her I’ll try not to let her down. They all laugh. There is no clinic here for 400 kilometers in any direction. What day is this? First day. They don’t care where the clinic comes from. “From heaven, from man, from the devil, it doesn’t matter,” they say with a dismissive wave of the hand. “Just bring the clinic. Let the foreigners come and build it and go.”
“Do you want to slaughter the goat?” “No, I do not want to slaughter the goat. You really don’t have to slaughter a goat for me. I’m not that important.”
“Yes, we must.”
Went to the big dance and wrestling match. Great fun. Then we went footing up by the canal. That means walking. The French started digging a canal in 1982 to straighten out the Nile River. It was a really ambitious project. The idea was to use barges to transport the oil to the coast. They dug a very large ditch 250 kilometers long. They had 100 kilometers to go when the fighting started. Apparently, they left in a hurry. The massive machinery they left behind bears witness to their haste. Simon says they are bitter. Really? Now the area does not drain properly and is a giant swamp. Women use the big machines to hang laundry and small boys use them to climb on and play.
Everyone wants to shake hands. It’s very important. Back at the hut after the dance and the "footing," I look at my hand with suspicion. I forgot the disinfectant wipes. Shucks. “What day is this? I’m going to crack open a book.”
Two days before in Nairobi, Karen and I spent half a day in a hot office and another tense day waiting to get a Sudanese Peoples Liberation Movement travel permit so that I could get into Sudan. No one asks to see it.
“Can you walk in the mud?” the old man asks. “I can try.” It's 2 ½ hours through the mud to Duk Payuel. How hard can it be? Anybody can walk in the mud. Let’s go! Everyone is in shorts and barefoot, but me. I have jeans and rubber boots halfway up my shins. There is a little path through the elephant grass with knee deep water covering 6 inches of mud. My boots fill up with water on the third and fourth step. There are occasional waist deep holes so I move my camera to my shirt pocket. Just imagine a forced march through the everglades in August. After an hour, I think my heart is going to pound out of my chest and I stop. This is crazy. I take some water and reconsider the journey. I’m going to see a field with an empty spot where the clinic will be.
As my breathing slows down, I think it’s not worth the effort and hand Simon my camera. “Take lots of pictures, please. I’m going back to tell the Chief’s wife she was right. White men are weak.” Like Clint Eastwood said, “A man has to know his limitations.”
Why would anyone want to live here? I ask myself as I trudge back. It’s like walking on suction cups in a sauna. Later I’m consoled by the fact that it took them 6 hours to get to the village.
There is at least one AK47 in every hut. “We keep them for the hyenas and the Arabs.” they say matter of factly. “Do you know how to shoot a gun?” I’m asked. “Yes, I do. I was in the U.S. Marine Corps. They all fall silent and look at me differently now. Maybe I should have kept that last little bit of information to myself. “What kind of missionary is this?” I hear them thinking. There is murmuring and shuffling of feet. The chief says something and the mood changes and more people come to shake my hand. There is no more laughing behind my back and the little kids imitate my walk as we go through the market. Semper Fi. A guy comes up and asks if I fought in WW II. I know there’s some gray in my beard, but come on now.