Rope and Boreholes

In Lankien, life is very very busy. Being TechLog means that one can rarely leave the confines of the Clinic Compound, as generators, water pumps, and everything else depends on constant attention. None of us ex-pats get out more than once a week, except to go to the airstrip and receive a plane, or for the morning jog up and down the runway. This is quite different from the kinds of project work I am used to, where I tend to explore and liaise under my own steam, research and co-ordinate within the community itself. We probably walk miles and miles every day within a radius of about two hundred metres, but because of the various security issues, and the fact that we are ‘in the community’ every minute in the workplace, the inclination is to withdraw from it in downtime, and seek peace and solitude.

We have to hold back the kids as they pelt onto the runway to dance in the slipstream of the plane when it takes off.

I’m sure medics will tell you the same story of ‘voluntary incarceration’ in hospitals the world-over, but it was a great treat when WatSan advisor Matt came from Amsterdam HQ, to walk around the outside of Lankien ‘Payam’ (district), touring the twelve water boreholes. It’s amazing how much you can know a place from within a compound, and vicariously through the hundreds of people coming to the Clinic.

Part of me was reluctant to take the time to go with Matt. I was so caught-up running supply and Admin as well as Technical Logistics for this project and our two Outreach Projects, but I’m so glad I did. Matt and I got on like a house on fire, and I really enjoyed having somebody to bounce technical ideas around with, and also a fellow British person to have a beer with. The provision of Water and Sanitation to a population is at the very heart of all services provided by MSF. Although the technical intricacies of the methods of this provision, i.e., how to fix a generator which powers a pump, which provides water to a plumbing system, which supplies water to an Operating Room might seem ‘Logistical’, it says a lot that WatSan has recently been handed over entirely to be managed by the medical side of MSF in each project. Functionally, of course, it relies on TechLogs on the ground, as most doctors don’t do mechanics, but Medical Service without Sanitation is like a bath without a plug. And a great deal of preventative care in our mission countries is simply the provision of Hygiene. It is a strange situation in many ways, and a field in which, like no other, Logistics and medicine are completely interdependent.

Walking around the different boreholes in each different hamlet around Lankien gave a great demographic overview. There was a borehole by the huge abandoned WFP tents, one in the area used as barracks, one called ‘Church’, lying next to the catholic church, one in the market, a few in rural farm, or as they say ‘garden’ locations.

Duba Tropic, MkII handpump and borehole. The village municipal capital!

Duba Tropic, MkII handpump and borehole. The village municipal capital!

At each place, a gaggle of girls and children were crowded round the ailing pumps, squeezing-out the cup-fulls of ground water from (way-too) deep in the ground, frenetically pumping, the water trickling into stained, faded and battered vegetable oil drums and jerry-cans. It is sparse bruchland here, and the dry season can be seen physically advancing every day.

The mechanics of boreholes and the pumps used as standard were, until recently, pure theory to me. Sure, I have built a sewage treatment system in my house where there was none, and the same goes for the very effective plumbing system, but I have never taken apart a deep borehole handpump. This week just gone, I have ended up following on from Matt’s work, supervising the strip-down and rebuild of one of these pumps, and getting the submersible electric pump in the Market Borehole, fitted by some long-departed NGO, working again. It was a classic bit of cobbling-together for the test-run. A very rough-looking Chinese generator, coupled to a very dodgy control panel which emitted electric shocks, which was then connected to an unknown electric borehole pump, positioned about 180 feet underground, and intent on pumping shovelfuls of the earth’s core up with every load of water. But it worked, after I had figure-out why the panel kept tripping. The ropey old borrowed generator, with its bare wires, was knocking-out about 330 volts, way more than the 230 volts it was designed for. A few words with the alcohol-soaked owner to ‘turn down the volume’, and we had it ticking-over nicely.

Shame, of course, that it was only a test which revealed several issues. I have had it before, where a whole load of people think that you have solved their problems when really the solution is a long way-off, so I tried to slope-off quietly after pumping a few gallons of water, amidst excited congratulations from villagers. But one day soon it will really be working, and then the ‘Water Messiah’ attitude of these friendly folk will not leave such a bad taste in my mouth…

These people come from a culture steeped in herding. Everything from the songs sung by moonlight to the large staffs carried makes one think ‘Cowboy’. Many times I have gone away, leaving instructions for something to be built, and come back to inactivity, confusion, or something completely wrong. But it is simply the concept of permanence which is alien, not only because of recent years of unrest, but deep in the culture of the nomad. There is a lovely expression used by Riek a few times when he beams as he at last understands something I have asked him to build. ‘You have a big mind’, the first times, and then: ‘I understand you; my mind is joined with yours. Our minds are joined in these (shelves, latrine design, etc.)’.

But generally it seems a Nuer from Lankien would as soon understand the idea of a tradition of construction standards, or a fixed workshop, complete with tools which are permanently there, as a Londoner might understand washing-up after eating in MacDonalds. But when it comes to halters, harnesses, goods for herding, there is a magical door opened into the Nuer world.

One of our old Kapirs, tirelessly friendly, and determined to teach me Nuer through sign language and his not one word of English, can be seen all day at his post, with his big toes through a carefully splices loop in a polythene rope he weaves from ruined woven food aid sacks. His work is beautiful and intricate, and when he has finished weaving, he has made a noose-tether for a goat. The other day, as I have decided to sure-up our fences around the compound ready for any ‘events’ that might occur in the near future, I paid-out several hundred Sudanese Pounds to my Log Assistant, Moses Makuach. Moses is one of those super-lean local Nuer, who, to fit with his current position in the MSF team, will often turn-up for work in a three-piece suit. He knows everyone, and is known around the area, and seems to foster many a waif and stray in his down-time out of hours. I trust him, and he brings in supplies for building, and helps me to run the jobs in-hand.

So I was closing-up the workshop for Christmas, and last thing before closing the door, my eye was caught by what looked like a figure, huddled in the corner. A flash of the torch revealed not a person leaning into the wall, but the most gigantic hank of rope I have ever seen. Makuach would have purchased it with the construction money I gave him. But it was not so much the size of the hank, but the fact that it had been custom made, woven from Savannah Grass. A six –foot bale, beautifully wrapped around itself, like some kind of exquisite exhibit, or an improbably crafted part of a classic yacht.

Beautiful handmade cowboy rope Beautiful handmade cowboy rope against a wall

It put me in mind of that D.H. Lawrence quote about ‘Things Men Have Made’, which I love so much:

“Things men have made with wakened hands, and put soft life into ?are awake through years with transferred touch, and go on glowing ?for long years. ?And for this reason, some old things are lovely ?warm still with the life of forgotten men who made them.”

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