Thursday, December 1, 2011

Our trip to Nzara was truly an adventure! The country we passed through on our six day journey (by road it would have been about a 750 mile one long day trip in the U.S., but more of that later) was green and beautiful. There were lots of palm, banana, teak, mango mahogany and other trees and various bushes and grasses that came right up to the edge of the road. There are square (4x4 meters) or round one room homes made of mud brick or woven sticks plastered with mud. Occasionally there is a “burnt brick” house. Sometimes the walls are plastered with mud or cement and sometimes they are painted. They are typically roofed with thatch made of various grasses. Occasionally one can spot a tin or zinc roof. One family will have three or four of these structures called “tukals” in their compounds. One will be for the parents to sleep in, one for the children, one for cooking and storage and one for guests to gather in when they visit. As we traveled we saw some typical scenes that reminded me of sights I saw in 2006 and in 1963. Numerous young men and women holding hands as they walked down the roads and women balancing impossibly huge baskets of bananas or heavy water containers on their heads. There are bikes everywhere carrying passengers or with cargos of bags of charcoal, water containers, live goats etc. on their back fender carrier. There are smiling, talking and laughing children and adults walking along every road in great numbers and at all times of night and day. Since most of the clothes that are worn are second hand or overstock items shipped from the U.S or Europe one sees Cub and Green Bay Packers shirts, Hawkeye logos on sweat shirts and, of course, shirts with the images of various pop or sports figures. Some shirts are produced locally and advertize a particular local political party or candidate. Omni present are various types of Obama shirts. Yesterday I saw three shirts that boldly proclaimed “I know my HIV status, do you?” People pay very little attention or can’t read what is printed on their shirts. The bishop told me of a young man with a shirt that said “LESBIAN AND PROUD OF IT.” The Sudanese towns we passed through, with the exception of Juba the capital of Southern Sudan, were typically no more that a few government offices, a school, churches, numerous tukals and a variety of very small wood shacks or cement arcades in which three or four small shops were located.

Let me now try and describe our overland trip. Let me begin by saying I am so happy that we opted to go by land rather than the far quicker and easier 1 and 1/2 hour flight. In our six days on the road we were able to catch the merest of glimpses of the overall character of southern Sudan as well as experience on a first hand basis the incredible frustrations that ordinary Sudanese have to face every day. We spent the morning of the Wednesday we left packing all the things we had purchased in Kampala onto a freight truck we hired and then getting the bishops car and the 4 ton used Isuzu dump truck we had bought all ready to go. Because the Isuzu was in effect being exported to Sudan it had to, for reasons only a Ugandan bureaucrat would understand, go to the border empty of all goods. Once that was done we drove for seven hours over good roads and stayed overnight in a town 60 kilometers from the Sudan border.

We arrived on our second day of travel in the late morning at the Sudan border, paid various fees, cleared emigration control, changed our money from Ugandan shillings to Sudanese Pounds, unloaded the hired “Lorry” truck and reloaded everything into our Isuzu truck and finally got permission to travel to the regional capital where we could pay the customs duty on the truck. It was at this point that we got our introduction to Sudanese roads. We ended up traveling at night over roads full of ruts and huge potholes. It took about 6 hours to go 80 miles. Having personally driven with the help of one other guy over 3000 miles in E. Africa, some 45 years ago, I was not at all surprised at the condition of the roads. I had no idea, however, of what was yet to come!

The morning of our third day we spent in the customs compound waiting for officials to appear, arguing over fees to pay, getting Sudanese money to pay those fees, paying all kinds of extra fees and then finally being able to get on our way. We were thrilled that it ONLY took half a day. We had met a bishop in Kampala who had all the necessary documents exempting a car he had purchased for his diocese from all fees and taxes. He had spent 6 full days to clear the border customs. That afternoon we headed down a road that the bishop warned us would be the most difficult road we had to use. It was truly unbelievable. The first thing I noticed was that there were no other cars on the road such as we were driving in and very very few trucks of any sort. The ruts and potholes were often deeper than the height of our car. At one point we all got out of the truck and car and walked a couple of blocks on a path through the jungle-like terrain. We stopped to see the bishop and the truck driver dive into a succession of about six very deep water filled holes. It was like watching a car on a roller coaster. We all cheered wildly as the two vehicles emerged in muddy triumph. A kilometer or two away from that spot was where the car got bogged down in mud up to the axels. We were prepared in that we had brought along a very thick chain to help us out of such spots. It was at that moment that a pickup truck full of SPLM (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement) workers came by and pulled us out of the hole we were in with some difficulty. Then we all sat back and watched the truck try and get through this same spot. It also failed to make it. The six younger men in our party of eleven (the Bishop, Bishop’s Chaplain, Diocesan Secretary, Diocesan Development Dir., truck driver, two helpers, one mother and her infant baby, and the two of us) spent about 45 minutes getting us out of the mud. We continued down this road at the rate of about ten miles an hour through various mud holes until we reached a spot about 24 miles down this 49 mile stretch of really horrible road where we found the road completely blocked by a very large truck with 18 tires that was hauling a second trailer behind it hopelessly bogged down in a hole filled with mud and water that rose above its wheels. Beside it was a large petrol truck. On either side of this road blockage were long lines of large trucks preparing to get stuck in exactly the same spot if and when the first two ever got out. We turned back and by late evening reached the point where we had begun the day of travel.

On our fourth day of travel we headed down a fairly decent but longer road that avoided the truly monstrous road conditions we had encountered the previous day. Three hours into our journey we ran into a road block of logs placed across the road. It seems that one tribe was angry at another tribe who they accused of poisoning their parliamentary member who was elderly and had been in a critical care unit in Juba for some time. They would not let anyone pass and told Karen that she was not to get out of the car when she tried to do so in order to stretch her weary limbs. They told us that we would have to go to the Southern Sudan capital of Juba which was the only other way at that point to get to Nzara. So it was that we traveled over bad roads and at a very slow rate to Juba which was about the last place we wanted to go. At the end of the day we ended up further from our destination by a good two hundred miles than when we began that day. At the entrance to Juba we were stopped by the police and told that we had to pay a very large tax. We spent at least two hours arguing with the police. We called the Juba newspaper, the archbishop, and finally two different national government cabinet ministers who Bishop Samuel knew personally. Finally the police let us pass through on the condition that we return on the morrow to pay the tax. We went to the Anglican Cathedral in Juba and stayed in their Guest House (very expensive) because in the duy , nighttime, construction blocked streets we could not find Bishop Samuels cousin’s home where we were invited to stay. Two hours after arriving at the Cathedral the cabinet minister’s personal bodyguard arrived with our permission papers to proceed out of Juba without paying the fee that was earlier demanded of us.

On our fifth day (actually fourth and one half on the road) we headed out of Juba

very early and traveled to the town of Yei. The roads were not very good once again but at least they were passable. At one point we were stopped for about 20 minutes because the UN was clearing land mines from the sides of the roads. There were big signs everywhere to stay on the road which we at first did not understand. NOW we did. We arrived in Yei and stayed in the best Diocesan Guest House we ran into on our journey. It was the filled with UN personnel. The sixth very long day of travel brought us to Meridi. The last portion of this day’s trip occurred in the middle of a pitch dark night. We traveled for about an hour and one half during a torrential rain storm on a very narrow lane through a tropical forest. From the point that we left that road we had good roads from there on thanks to a USAID program to improve southern Sudan roads.

From Meridi to Nzara is a relatively short distance of about 150 kilometers over relatively good roads. So it was that we finally reached Nzara about 1:00 PM in the afternoon. As we turned down the road towards the Cathedral and our new home I saw some people blocking the road just ahead of us. As we drew closer I realized it was our welcoming party. There were two hundred people waving palms above their heads and singing in English “We are so happy to greet you Fr. Bob (then Mama Karen) and then on the second verse ”Nzara receives you in Jesus’ Name.” Floral wreathes were placed over both our heads. We just stood there on the open road unable to speak and with tears running down Karen’s cheeks as the welcomer’s parted and formed an arch of palm leaves over our heads as we walked through it to the cathedral. When we got near the cathedral many of the palm leaves were placed on the ground for us to walk over. Once inside the cathedral there were several songs and speeches of welcome. All the travails of our long journey were forgotten.

The trip had given us a chance to see a very broad swath of Southern Sudan that we had never expected to have seen. Our difficulties gave us the experience of having to confront and live with the difficulties that Southern Sudanese deal with every day of their lives; bad roads, bloated underpaid government officials who often have their hands out asking for fees (we ran into no less than three road blocks each day and each one had someone wanting money to let us pass (the Bishop always refused), misunderstandings fostered by tribalism, the lingering effects of two civil wars lasting almost 30 years in which the northern Islamic government tried to crush the largely Christian South and extreme poverty. We are deeply grateful to God for granting us a safe journey and a warm welcome!

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