Life in South Sudan

A blog about working and living in South Sudan.

Clean water is a relative term

Before Christmas I was sick for a month. It started with amoebas, continued with typhoid and ended with worms and stomach bugs. Now I’m dewormed and debugged but a bit paranoid about what to eat and what to avoid.

At work they use water from the water tank for coffee and tea. Before they used borehole water but for some reason the water is only dripping from that tap. My colleagues claim the water tank water is very clean but I’ve seen that water almost brown some times. Also, their stomachs might be used to it, but I’m a bit worried about my slightly damaged intestine. As a precaution I decided to start using bottled water to make my coffee from now on.

On my way to the shop to buy water I passed a tea stand under a big tree where some of my colleagues have their breakfast. One of them invited me to join. Swedish as I am, I like to sit down and have a coffee and a chat. In Sweden we normally have coffee breaks every day with colleagues. Feeling a bit like home and happy to be invited I sat down on one of the plastic chairs and my colleague ordered tea for me.

While enjoying my much too sweet tea I realized that this water was probably not very clean. My concern was confirmed when I saw a man sitting next to me having a glass of cold water. The water in his glass was not clear. It was yellow. Too late I realized my stupid mistake. I just hope the water had been boiled enough time to kill all parasites.

However, what is considered dirty for me may be considered clean for others. It depends on what you compare it to. As another colleague once told me; “During the war there were dead bodies in the river. We just wiped away the blood from the surface and drank the water. That water was not clean, but the water in our office… It’s clean.”


This week’s animal encounters

“It’s like a big rat and they want to eat it!”

My neighbor was shouting this to me when I came home after dinner Thursday night. Our guards had trapped an animal by throwing a mosquito net over it and now they were holding it down to keep it still. Curious and confused I approached them to see what was going on.

“It’s not a rat”, they explained. “It’s a leopard! No eating. We want to sell!”

Even more confused I looked closely at the animal under the mosquito net. It was hard to tell in the dark what it was, but I could see its tail. It was definitely not a rat. It looked more like a cat’s tail. It actually had spots, but the size of the animal was too small to be a leopard.

The guards built a cage and managed to get the leopard-rat into it. Now we could finally see it clearly. It was a cat-like animal with leopard spots. I had never seen anything like it before and no one knew the name of it. The next day I searched for it on the internet. The leopard-rat is called African Palm Civet.

The story ended luckily for the palm civet. It was neither sold nor eaten. It managed to escape the night after.

Last Sunday I saw a large lizard at UNMISS. It was more than one meter long and I saw it as it was crawling in under a container. Monday evening I had a mouse in my room. Two guards and one dog chased it around my apartment until one of the guards managed to kill it with a stick. At today’s lunch there was a monkey running around the tables. That was this week’s animal encounters. Fortunately no snakes this time. (knock on wood…)

UNMISS – Juba’s Central Park

My new home is within walking distance of United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). When talking to my mom about my new place I very enthusiastically I described UNMISS as a big park. It is true that you can go for a run or a walk or play Ultimate Frisbee or football, but calling UNMISS a park is an overstatement. It is better described as a military base.

The first time I went to UNMISS I had only been in South Sudan for two weeks. A new friend took me there to play Frisbee on a Sunday. The first impression was overwhelming and exciting. UN cars, UN tanks, UN military… And it seemed absurd to go there to play Frisbee on a muddy plot surrounded by UN containers.

After eight months in Juba the excitement has worn off. I went there this Thursday, and as I walked towards the field where we play Frisbee I realized why my first association was a park. UNMISS is one of few places in Juba where I feel completely safe and relaxed. You play games in an open area, where you can’t see walls or barbed wire. While running in the sunset you can for once feel free.

My sister asked me yesterday if I’m ever scared in Juba. I’m scared quite often. While we were talking I could hear shootings outside. I’m not as scared as I was when I arrived in April last year, but I will never be comfortable with guns and shootings.

A friend told me that he had read that South Sudan is the third most dangerous country for aid workers, with 15 incidents last year. The statement is of course a bit misleading as the number of aid workers is  probably larger here than in other countries. Still it says something about the environment we live in.

It’s funny how you adapt to things that would not be considered normal back home. Shootings become part of the nightly sounds. Fear is a normal feeling to have. In this environment it’s no wonder a dusty military base can turn into a green and relaxing park.


Puddle Dirt Road, gate 1

In a town without addresses you have to use landmarks to explain where you live. When directing people to my old place I used to tell them to turn left after Save the Children on the road to MSF, “I live opposite a construction site, and my gate is the pink one between a pile of dirt and a pile of garbage”.

I recently moved and today a friend picked me up to go to our guitar lesson. He called me when he was outside to confirm that he was in the right place.

“Is your gate the one before the big puddle?”

Yes, that’s my new home. It’s the black gate before the big puddle. I guess that’s my new address.

Resurrected on the third day

Three days in bed with my typhoid and I’ve impatiently been waiting for that feeling of resurrection that happens when the drugs finally kick in. Today, at 5 pm, it happened. It was as if I had woken up from the dead. And the first sign of better health – I  was craving a pizza.

Luckily you can go for take-away pizza around the corner from my house. I got dressed and walked out of my room for the first time since Saturday. Staying inside my room for so long I had almost forgotten what Juba is like. Three days with A/C had made me forget the heat and I realized, as soon as I got out, that my long-sleaved sweater was too much. I made it outside my gate when the next surprise came. A naked old man. Oh yes, I had forgotten he usually takes an afternoon bath in the flooded and abandoned construction site across from my home.  Some kids were playing with bicycle wheels next to the naked man. I stumbled in the the sand and laughed to myself at the absurd fact that I was going for a take-away pizza in this environment.

I only managed three slices of pizza and it didn’t taste as well as it usually does. But it feels great to be back to life.

Next week – malaria!

Over the last few weeks I’ve used my spare time and some working hours to try out some local tropical diseases.

Last week I had amoebas.  It wasn’t too bad. I got treatment and after a few days the amoebas were declared dead by the doctor.

This week my stomach problems got worse so I decided to go back to the clinic. Typhoid fever this time. That actually surprised me. I wasn’t feeling that bad. I even questioned the doctor when she told me the results. I didn’t even have a fever. And I’ve been vaccinated. She assured me the lab was reliable, explained that vaccination is not a guarantee, it’s a serious disease and I really need to take my antibiotics. Today I believe her. Typhoid is painful. So far, I prefer amoebas to typhoid.

So, what to try next week… Any recommendations? How about malaria?

Statistics Oyee!

In Norway, World Statistics Day was acknowledged through an article on the intranet. (I might remember this wrongly but it obviously didn’t make an impact or leave a memory). In South Sudan we don’t have a working intranet, but they do know how to celebrate statistics. Today we celebrated African Statistics Day to create awareness about the importance of statistics.

Dressed in matching t-shirts and caps, accompanied by a marching band and reinforced in number of people by a class of school children, the staff of NBS marched from the office to Nyakuron Culture Center. We marched for about an hour. We sang, shouted, waved our hands to people we met and caused a traffic jam on the few, already congested roads of Juba. What a good way to start the week!

The message from the speakers at Nyakuron was simple and straight, but oh so great. Without the right information the policy makers can not make the right decisions. And without NBS there wouldn’t have been a census. Without a census there wouldn’t have been an election. Without the election South Sudan wouldn’t have become independent.

Statistics Oyee!

Busy weekends with no plans

Half a year in Africa and I haven’t planned one weekend since I got here. In the middle of the week I always think to myself that it might be nice with a quiet weekend at home, but somehow I end up being very busy. The same thing happened this weekend.

As late as Friday morning I still had no plans. On Friday evening I had dinner with colleagues from Statistics Norway who are visiting. Saturday morning I went to yoga class and ended up participating in a two day yoga detox workshop. After the work shop I joined two friends I met at the workshop to go grocery shopping. Saturday evening I went to Miss Malaika South Sudan, a beauty contest where the winner gets to represent South Sudan in the Miss World competition. Today I continued the yoga workshop and had lunch with friends afterwards.

This might be one of the biggest changes in my behavior since moving. Back home I used to plan for everything. The future is more unpredictable here, which makes it difficult to plan for. Rain might ruin you plans, the car might brake down, suddenly there is a curfew and police check points and you’re not allowed to be out in the streets. It is also interesting to think about all the things I would have missed out on if I had made other plans. I would not want to be without the yoga workshop or the beauty contest. I think I will continue the same way the rest of my stay in Juba, no plans and just embrace the wonderful things that happen to cross my path.

Into the wild

My friend Maria and I are city girls. We are not really the outdoor type. We’ve been living in Oslo for four years, but haven’t really been out enjoying the beautiful nature of Norway. We have done some exploring, like all the coffee shops in the part of town called Grünerløkka and Oslo nightlife.

When I moved to South Sudan (which is not a very city girl thing to do by the way) Maria immediately said she wanted to come and visit. It had been her dream for many years to see wild gorillas. I’m of the opinion that dreams are meant to come true, so we booked a trip – a 14 days camping tour to Kenya and Uganda. Maria had only slept in a tent once before and my camping experience was limited to school trips, the latest one in ninth grade. African wildlife is very far from Oslo nightlife, but in order to see gorillas and other animals at a reasonable price we were willing to go through some discomfort and inconvenience.

It started well. We had the right equipment. We had hand sanitizer, sun lotion and head lights. Besides, the tour guides took extra care of the hopeless Swedish girls, who also complicated things by being vegetarians. Despite all this, for some reason nature had decided to work against us.

A baboon stole Maria’s snack pack. We got bat droppings all over our tent and ourselves. Heavy rain leaked in to our tent from underneath (the other tents were dry). When we put up our tent in Uganda a big frog scared Maria by jumping out of the tent when she unfolded it. The poor frog must have traveled with us all the way from Kenya. A dog peed on our tent door. That same dog nearly scared me to death when I woke up the next morning. He had fallen asleep right outside our tent door, which he might have considered his territory after peeing on it, and he refused to move even though I poked him angrily through the tent canvas. In Kampala we managed to put up our tent on an ant trail and the ants continued their trail on the wall inside our tent.

In the end it was all worth it. We had a wonderful trip. We got to see the mountain gorillas. We also earned some camping experience that might be useful the next time we go traveling in beautiful Africa. Next time we just have to look out for bats, ants, frogs, dogs and especially baboons and all will be fine.

Field trip to Rumbek

I’ve finally been on my first field trip.  NBS is doing a high frequency survey together with the World Bank and I went to Rumbek to see how the field work was going. Rumbek is a state capital but it felt very rural. No paved roads. A mud runway at the airport. The people we interviewed lived in tukuls. There were plenty of cows and I saw a big monkey crossing the road!

I’ve been wishing to get out of Juba and into the field for a while now, and my only concern before going was that I would be bored when spending a whole weekend on my own. It turned out that a quiet weekend at a nice hotel was just what I needed. It was actually a nicer place to stay than my room back in Juba. It had a hot shower, good food, power all day and better internet. And as I had a glass of red wine and pizza in the pink and orange African sunset on Saturday evening I didn’t miss the chaos in Juba at all.