Today is Referendum Day

Southern Sudan has fought on-and-off for the last century both amongst its own tribes and over issues of North and South division. Today is a very quiet day both in the Hospital, and in Lankien in general. There has been no drumming, singing, or dancing, none of the usual Sunday parades. It is a bit eery, thinking about it. Today, history of some sort is being made. Last night, we had our annual staff party, and the staff themselves organised it. It was complete with wonderful dancing and singing, and a cow was killed, but there were certain organisational elements which left me wondering, with so little ‘organisational culture’ embedded in the national identity, how will the new South Sudan be run? Certain basic things were overlooked, or ‘expected’ from the outside world (i.e. MSF), and one wonders how ready this country is for catch-all centralised self-governance.

‘As ready as any of the other African countries were at Independence’ – is, of course, the answer. And it is true.

Meanwhile, in the Hospital, we await the new world order, ready, and with open arms, and hope we are prepared enough to deal with the demands of this new era. We have stocks of medicines, and space for overflow. Our staff each have a day-off this week to vote, and I have tried my best to prime the staff which I supervise how to deal with changes and difference in workload and work-type.


There has been a change in the air, of course, for some time, and perhaps this is best expressed through changes in our working environment. Our print-server laptop ate one too many gusts of dry-season dust, and had to be put on a rotation back to Loki. To be overhauled. All of a sudden, my laptop became the print-server of sorts, as an independent machine upon which I was allowed to lodge a downloaded driver . So everybody was coming to my laptop by the printer and putting files on there to be printed. Everything office-wise is by hook or by crook, but the MSF protocol is that we must not interfere with MSF standards. So I am looking through my desktop, and it gives me some kind of a demographic. Files called things like ‘Dehydration’, ‘Guard Schedule’, ‘Outreach Worker Interview – A.N.C.’, and ‘Interview Announcement’ documents appear. But most prevalent of documents of topical concern right now are ‘Returnees’, and Returnees 2’.

I am already slightly relieved that there are often one or two more people every couple of weeks in my Monday-morning worker-pool who speak some English, or know how to mix cement, or how to impress a work-boss. Many people have now returned from the North. Every day has some kind of tale about some family member stranded halfway home. People are making their way back often generations later, to the homes (read: ‘Territories’ – they are herders) of their forefathers.

Music is everywhere, in multi-register singings undertaken by workmen, to sweet tunes of washerwomen at work, scrubbing fists together under the tree, and the dramatic voices of church singing through the compound fence. It isn’t a performance, though; it is a consciousness. ‘Rupert, did you hear the song of the Car?’ (when the first car turned-up in the village since last dry season, or ‘I think the machine (electric saw) is Kalas (broken), it’s song has changed’….

The first ‘stereo’appeared in the village some three weeks ago. I heard it, playing some old soft-rock and modern R ‘n’ B, and caught myself mildly appreciating that change from tribal tunes and drums, when the owner switched to some Jamaican soft Reggae mix. But this evening caught me wondering about the ‘Returnees’, who are bringing back this music, especially hearing a stereo go past tonight playing some more Eastern, almost Bollywood music.

I have been here for only two months, but that is long enough to take some solace in the mono-culture of the simple old herding drumming-tunes, the church songs blended from ‘bible musicals’ and tribal spirit songs, the words to which everybody – bar none – seems to know the words. The night entertainment here has, until very recently, been wholly organic.

I have noticed my Log Team’s diligence of late in taking the free English Language classes we offer in the compound at lunch. This has stepped up very noticeably. At the same time, soldiers and politically engaged people in the village will confront a Kuwai with their clear dislike of all things ‘Arab’. It must be mildly terrifying to start hearing these influences eclipsing the more usual sounds, with no real reason to feel afraid of them – a bit like growing up, as I did, with a background fear of Japanese or Russian product because of the cold war propaganda.

But to hear it here is more than just media study. Electrically-produced sound is happening in Lankien, is coming to this village, for the first time in history, ‘on my watch’. A strange acceleration of evolution, amongst many others. I can’t help worrying whether the days of strange tribal leaping-dances en-masse on the airstrip are somehow numbered. There is a strange loss of innocence in the air. And I know I am sounding ‘colonial’, but it is the only way I can find of describing it. And it is a very demonstrative transition.

New Years Eve saw us all gathered around the table here in the compound, waiting with a bottle of champagne which had been flown in as a gift from OCA (Operations Centre, Amsterdam). As we compared notes on different ways of wishing Happy New Year (Russian, Welsh, Italian, English, Dutch, German), Sheila the midwife was called away. Two minutes to midnight, saw us all heading towards ANC (Delivery Room) with the Moet under our arm, mugs in hand. When the shooting started, we all expected it, of course, as a celebration, but sometimes it was so close, through the frail grass perimeter fences of the compound, that we couldn’t help wondering about the odd stray bullet, with so many shots, and basic laws of probability, as well as Newton’s Law, that ‘What goes up – must come down’. Reluctantly, we snuck sheepishly through the dark back to the safe-room, and waited for Sheila to finish.

Men here are mainly named after their father, using the prefix ‘Gat’. My name, then, is ‘GatKuwai’ – Son of a the Kuwai (white man). All women here have a name prefixed with ‘Nya’. So NyaKuong would be the daughter of Kuong, and one of our National Staff has the beautiful name NyaKuoth – Daughter of God. All a bit ‘Handmaids Tale’ and patriarchal, but children here – like in many developing countries are often named topically, not just after their menfolk. Gatkuoor, my driver, has named his new baby boy ‘Reuben (easier to say than Rupert) Demarcation’, as he was born the day after Referendum, and came out right-hand first, as if voting! One of our expats has even met a child called ‘MSFCompound’.

To get back to the story, when Sheila came back from having delivered the New Year Baby amidst the torrent of gunfire, we all speculated that the little girl may well end-up being named ‘NyaPangPang’, after these particular birth conditions. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least, except for the fact that most little girls less than one year old and born in MSF Lankien are called ‘Sheila’!

The Nuer language is something which I am being forced to pick up by the multitude of requests and communications which are lost in translation, resulting in no water for delivering babies, shelves being built in wrong places, etc. It has many charms, and the idioms already fascinate me. ‘Maleh’ (‘How is it?’ is the standard greeting here, but it can be augmented, in response, to ‘Maleh Ma Gwah’(It is Good’), Maleh Ma Chum-Chum’(It is Tasty’), ‘Maleh Ma Lim-Lim’(‘delicious’) etc. ‘Gwah-Lun’ is ‘Very Good’. A lot of fun can be had with these additions. There is a lot of Arabic used, too; ‘Shukurum’ being reminiscent of the Turkish ‘Teshukur’ – no word in Nuer for ‘Thank You’, and I believe the word ‘Kapir’(‘Guard’) is Arabic, too. ‘Kawai’, as I mentioned, means white/foreign person – said of other black Africans as well as Europeans, equivalent to the Swahili ‘Mzungu’ across the rest of this part of Africa.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *