MSF asked me to write a Christmas peice. Here it is:

Christmas in Lankien, South Sudan Mission, Eastern Upper Nile Region, Medecins Sans Frontieres-Holland.

Rupert Allan is currently working in South Sudan during a very interesting time in its history. The coming referendum is expected to create the birth of a new nation. His job, as a Logistician, involves the running of a Field Hospital from the technical, staffing, and supply point of view.  Lankien is a small isolated village in the middle of the bush, hundreds of miles from a paved road, and dependent on a baked-mud airstrip for supplies of medicine, food, and equipment. He has worked before in isolated places on relief projects, but for the last thirteen years has been more concerned with installing illusions on sets and locations in the Film and Television industry. The Art Directing he is used to has not differed so much in variety, scope, and bizarreness, as one might expect, but he is enjoying the extreme reality of being ‘back on the ground’ with MSF.

Rupert lives in Ysbyty Ystwyth, where he has ‘period restored’ the tiny house where he lives, using recycled materials. Having a godfather who was one of the founders of CAT, and with an interest in marine self-sufficiency, he now finds himself on the receiving end of supply chains which start in places like Dulas workshops, Machynlleth, (e.g Solar Vaccine Fridges which pass through Amsterdam Operation Centre on the way to Africa).

Welsh-Nuer dictionary:

Bore-Da= Shaba-ka-Mahl

Prynhawn-Da= Shaboot-ka-Mahl

Da-Iawn= Mahleh-magua

Sit wyt ti?= Gin-nasin?

Mae ‘n iawn ‘da fi.= Ah- nasin

Crikey, this is an inhospitable and unlikely place for people to have a settlement. The only water here has to be pumped up from boreholes nearly 500 feet deep in the earth’s crust. Holes used to get dug by hand, apparently, desperate nomadic cattle-herders frienziedly chasing the receeding river-flood, grubbing for dampness in the blinding dust. Indeed, Christmas this year in Lankien, South Sudan, will be a dusty affair. One of the great bonuses of the build-up for me here though, is the complete unawareness of its immanence. Religion here is, officially Christian, but with the absence of a market goes the absence of marketing. Fantastic!

That is not to say that anybody here is remotely ‘Bah-Humbug’, and I am informed that New Year will be ‘off-the-chain’. Continuous drumming and singing thud into the walls of the Tukuls (Mud Huts) of the clinics, wards and accommodation of the MSF compound here all through the night, and over the weekend. Weekend dances continue regardless of any other longer-term agendae, and every Sunday the imposingly tall and thin males of the Nuer tribe do a circular dance, wielding their wooden staffs on our hard dusty airstrip. The staff, a sturdy, carved, worn, and sometimes battle-scarred stick is a part of the adult male’s self-presentation. Along with the six wrinkle-like scars across the forehead. The dancers take giant steps in a circle, bouncing up and down above the heads of the crowd, every other step being a giant leap into the air, their sticks brandished. Tall thin giants, leaping giant steps, and singing, like a rugby team, in unison. Energetic? I think so.

I’m sure that Christmas will be a monster helping of this, the church singing and drumming added, which is beautiful. The Nuer sing in everything they do, and it is normal for me to wander off into the dark to switch-off the generator, and locate the whereabouts of our unarmed guards in the compound by their soft but note-perfect solo singing. Most of them are respected warriors, and are not afraid of many things, including bullets or any insecurity we might feel here. They have seen it all before.

I caught one of my carpenters singing a Sudanese carol whilst cleaning the workshop yesterday. He has promised to teach it to me. Christmas, as I’m sure everyone back home is acutely aware, falls this year on a weekend. It will be characterised by both Saturday and Sunday off here in the hospital, instead of just Sunday, but of course we shall all be on-call. A goat was brought into the compound as a Christmas present for our midwife  ‘Miss Sheila’. But that will probably get slaughtered tonight for the weekend, probably by me(!), as happened last weekend when we had a little leaving party for my predecessor.

I am determined to get the Frisbee out, and continue to teach the village boys what moves I know on the airstrip, but personally Christmas will be stressful for me, as I will be covering both Technical and Supply Logistics. Any mistakes will have a direct impact on hundreds of patients and all of our ‘in-pat’ and ‘ex-pat’ staff. Time here is measured-out in the long-term in flight-rotations. If there was not a flight on Christmas Eve, it seems quite possible that Christmas would get ignored in favour of that magical flight date. Everything arrives here by small plane, onto our hardened-mud runway, which I have to check at 6am/dawn on flight days, and report back via Sat-Phone or sometimes High-Frequency Radio, to Mission HQ five hundred miles away.

Cattle, goats, stray equipment from other emergency helicopter-drops, kids, rain(unlikely). All of these things could stop us from having the Christmas parcel on the 24th flight. It will mainly consist of treats, I have heard BACON, and some whiskey and wine. If I was asked what I most wanted for Christmas, it would be an elusive item; too heavy to be included on the plane-full of medicine, impossible to obtain here, in the middle of this dustbowl. A large; very large…cold… BEER.

2 thoughts on “Christmas

  1. Markus

    Dear Rupert, thank you for keeping us updated. We will be thinking of you as we find storage space for 2 cubic meters of Christmas presents in the house!

  2. mr matt robson

    I have felt that thirst too on several occassions in certain parts of beer free India.

    Our fridge is well stocked now, hope there will be a time when I can serve you as many as you wish on our terrace.


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