South Sudan diary

Diary from South Sudan: Part one

This is the first in a three part series of articles about the crisss in South Sudan from Nick Radin, our water, sanitation and hygiene co-ordinator.

By Action Against Hunger

Nov 5 2014

Day 1

I arrived in South Sudan after an overnight flight from London to Nairobi, and a connecting flight from Nairobi to Juba. The first stop upon disembarking was a visit to the Ebola tent, where I had to fill out a form stating the countries I’ve visited in the last three weeks, and my temperature was taken. 

Like many other African countries, South Sudan is petrified of Ebola crossing into its borders and has taken as many precautions as possible. 

Having passed the Ebola screening, Jack Odengo, Action Against Hunger’s water, sanitation and hygiene coordinator was there to greet me, and we drove to the organisation’s base, where I had a security briefing from the country director. 

Despite it being Saturday, Jack was keen for us to get straight to work and I was taken to see our cholera response projects. Sporadic cholera cases started in Juba in April 2014, an outbreak was declared in May, and at its peak the outbreak was counting more than 100 new cases per week.  

Since May, Action Against Hunger has been carrying out hygiene promotion to ensure people understand how to avoid cholera, as well as providing hygiene kits and clean water to help reduce cholera transmission risks. 

I visited some slum communities where many cholera cases had been recorded. It was clear why cholera had thrived here. Sanitation conditions were poor and tiny shacks that served as houses were located on any available plot of land. 

There was no piped water, very few latrines, and people did not have the means to purchase basic hygiene items. Under such circumstances, cholera will spread easily.

Action Against Hunger had distributed a water treatment product called PUR, which both clarifies and disinfects dirty water. A woman who we spoke to was extremely appreciative of the PUR and other distributed items, such as buckets for storing water and soap. 

Her name was Alloya Kismalle and, as well as having four children of her home, her tiny household was home to up to 15 other relatives. 

She was able to perfectly demonstrate how to use PUR and even specified the need to wait 10 minutes before drinking the water, in order to give the product time to react. 

This was extremely pleasing as it showed that our team had not only done the easy part, by distributing the product, but had also undertaken the much slower task of teaching people how to use the product.  

Alloya went on to explain other changes in people’s behaviour that had taken place since Action Against Hunger’s cholera prevention campaigns started. She described how people systematically now wash their hands after defecation, and although most people use latrines already, infant children do not, but now they clean up child faeces by shoveling it into the latrine. We parted with her reassuring us that if people maintained these improved hygiene practices, and if God was with them, then cholera would not return.

We also met a hygiene worker who had been trained by Action Against Hunger to share cholera prevention messages with the wider community. He showed a range of related images he uses to help his message to be better understood – a picture paints a thousand words. 

He was passionate about his role, which he saw as constituting the frontline barrier between the population and the spread of cholera. He explains how he moves from house to house talking with families, usually mothers, to ensure they are putting into practice cholera prevention advice. 

We also saw posters that had been put up in public areas to again remind people about the risks of cholera, how to prevent it, and what to do if you suspect someone has cholera.

Finally, we visited three boreholes that had been repaired by Action Against Hunger. These provide clean water from deep aquifers to ensure people are collecting water that is safe to drink. As well as the repair work, the organisation had also trained local committees to ensure that the water point will be maintained for years to come. If we had had more time then we would have visited more, but it was late in the day, so we headed back to the base.

Day 2

It was Sunday, so a very quiet day. I worked the morning through to the early afternoon, and then went out for some refreshments with the team. 

Driving through Juba, I was astounded by how the place has changed since I last visited in 2010. There are so many multistorey buildings now, and major construction projects remain ongoing. 

This rapid development is linked to independence, as well as foreign companies and states seeing opportunities to invest and forge ties with the world’s newest nation. We ended up watching the sunset over the town on a hotel roof.

Security concerns due to criminality, as well as the widespread military presence in the town, meant there was a 9pm curfew, by which time we had to be back at the guesthouse. We made it back with a few minutes to spare.

Day 3

Jack and I arrived at the airport at 8am to check onto a UN humanitarian flight. Juba airport is frantically trying to construct a new terminal, but for now the airport remains woefully undersized for all the commercial and humanitarian flights that pass through it. 

After being pushed and shoved, and seeing a fight break out close by as frustrations boiled over at the lack of queue etiquette, we finally made it onto a 50-seat propeller aircraft that flew us in 1hr 40mins to the town of Aweil in Northern Bahr el Gazal state. From there we were met by an Action Against Hunger land cruiser for a six-hour journey to the Alek base in the adjacent state of Warrap. 

Being the tail end of the rainy season, the place looked much greener than during my previous visit, and in some places we saw the rains had bought localized flooding, affecting both fields and homes. 

We passed through a major storm as driving sheets of rain lashed against the windscreen, the road became slippery, and in some places water had pooled, turning areas of the dirt road into a mud pit. The driver coped admirably and was able to avoid getting stuck. 

Although not being in a conflict zone, we passed numerous police and military checkpoints, but each time we were let through without any hesitation as the work of NGOs in the area remains welcomed and appreciated. 

At one point a huge herd of at least 300 head of cattle crossed the road, including spectacular long-horned cattle. The numerous cow keepers minding the cattle were each armed with semi-automatic rifles - a reminder that despite the focus on recent hostilities in South Sudan, the area has actually known localized conflict for many generations. 

There is a tradition of tribal cattle raiding which leads to escalating efforts from cattle owners and cattle raiders to arm themselves, and of course results in frequent outbreaks of deadly violence.

Upon arrival at the Alek base we were shattered. Following the requisite security briefings, I had a quick Skype chat home with my wife and daughter, updated the blog, and then settled in for the night.

Read more blogs from Nick Radin

Photo credits:  © Jason Seagle