Thursday, July 12, 2012


About four each morning mid-way through my three weeks in Duk Payuel, South Sudan, I woke, restless, thinking about all I still hoped to do with the ASAH girls and staff before I left. It doesn't seem to matter how many days or weeks I've been there, I feel that there was more I could have done, investigated, learned, experienced. No matter the monotony of the diet, the insufferable heat, the mosquitos, porcupines, or bats, the time flies.

Perhaps because I'm a Libra, I'm torn between introversion and extroversion. Wishing for more time to sit or play with or teach our girls, to interact with staff, to chat with friends at the clinic or wander through the village, yet longing for the solitude to reflect, to write, to process photos, to plan, to figure expenses, prepare job descriptions, and work on policies and procedures, manage logistics, and to regroup.

Evenings, after the girls are ready for bed, I sometimes approach their tukuls - named Fargo and New York, and ask, "Girls, may I come in?" When they want to visit me, they say, "Mommy, may I come in?" When we first began, they simply barged in. Now they have learned manners. I would bring my laptop and play slideshows of the photos I'd taken over previous few days. Pictures of them leaping for the ball or falling while playing volleyball or netball elicited chortles, even when they'd watched it through several times.

The day before I left I initiated an informal game of catch, sashaying toward one girl or turning toward another, leaping to catch them as they dashed away--or made a show of dashing away. Most of them like the contact

Now I've been home for ten days, and I won't visit again until January 2013. This will be my longest absence since 2010--I've been visiting every three or four months since then--but this is a critical juncture in our development. More on that tomorrow!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Overcoming Obstacles

In this remote area, there are few things available to purchase. That includes food and materials or supplies of any kind. When goats are plentiful, it might be possible to purchase one to slaughter, but there are times when no one will part with a single goat. Chickens are not commonly available, though occasionally a single chicken can be had for a price. It's possible to buy onions at inflated prices, and sometimes you will see a child in the central village with a few recycled plastic water bottles filled with cooking oil for sale. The bottles standing on a small piece of square cloth, the eight or ten-year-old child, if lucky, is sitting on a plastic chair, and often holding a toddler. Occasionally you might find a man with a table set up in front of his tukul selling batteries and a pot or two, or some other random useful things. Perhaps some iron sheet left over from a finished or abandoned project, timbers, firewood. As the rainy season drags on, most of these entrepreneurs have closed shop, the inventory depleted.

We've had a problem getting firewood. We purchase it daily as it becomes available.There is no firewood shop with a large supply. The last two days there has been no morning tea until after the girls have left for school, and meals have been delayed because we haven't found anyone with firewood to sell. There's been a lot of water already this rainy season, and the water makes it more difficult to retrieve. It's collected in the bush by women and carried to the village by women. Only women do this job. The grasses are often knee high, but some are taller than a man. Recent flooding makes it hard to navigate, and has turned the mosquitos into a plague. The malaria-carrying mosquitos in this area are the tiniest of insects - almost as small as "no-see-ums." They don't make an audible buzzing sound, and you can't feel the bite, so they're treacherous. 

As we consider our building plans for our kitchen and dining complex, we are investigating alternative cooking methods that would reduce our reliance on the scarce supply of firewood, and which would give our cooks a way to cook without inhaling smoke all day long. The clinic has a new propane stove that they bought in Juba last February, but there was no propane in Juba, so the propane just arrived three days ago on an AIM Air flight from Nairobi.

We are growing some of our own vegetables and over time expect to grow more food on our compound and on land outside the compound - maize, groundnuts, kudra, kale, tomatoes, cabbage, onions and others. Our supplies, building materials, and bulk food - the rice, the maize and wheat flour, sugar, salt, cooking oil, beans, lentils, milk powder, powdered juices, tomato and chili sauce (believe me, chili sauce really improves a daily diet of beans and rice), and occasional pasta or other foods - all this comes from Bor, the capitol of Jonglei, which is a five-hour drive (about 90 miles) or from Juba, the capitol of South Sudan, which is a nine-hour drive from the village (about 125 miles). Prices are much cheaper in Juba, than in Bor, and much cheaper in Nairobi than in Juba, but we must pay the cost to transport in each of these cases - by air or by land.

For as much as six months of the year, (June through December) the nearby roads that serve Duk Payuel are flooded and impassable by trucks and four-wheel drives. Sometimes a tractor can make it through. There are a couple of tractors in Duk, but currently no one available to drive them. 

Anything we don't have we must fly in from Nairobi through AIM Air, the mission group that flies into this remote area. The JDF Lost Boys Clinic is in the same situation, so we often share cargo and passenger space and cost on those flights.

The logistics of getting a plane here for ASAH whether for passengers or for cargo requires tremendous coordination and cooperation between several groups. First I start with Tim or Caroline, the AIM Air schedulers, and Josh Gwinn, the JDF Clinic Manager. The first question if our cargo is light is - are there any AIM planes in the area between this date and that date that ASAH can join? Sometimes there is another group going to Juba or to Bor or some place in the vicinity, and they can make a trip to Duk Payuel to drop off or pick up a passenger. In that case, we pay for the seat and the weight of the cargo. 

Now that the ASAH School for Orphan Girls is open with girls and staff living onsite, we have an increased need for regular service. Just now we are trying to lay in a basic supply of foodstuffs to last through December, but we will need to supplement with some fresh foods over the coming months.

Incoming on this trip ASAH chartered the AIM flight. We are generally allowed 1000 kg of passenger and cargo weights on the Caravan, and 400 kg on the C206. It turned out that JDF had some clinic staff that had been on leave who were ready to return, so ASAH hired the Caravan with JDF paying for their seats as we had to leave some cargo behind, though some of that cargo arrived on a JDF charter two weeks later.

I write this now from Lokichoggio, Kenya, at the Hotel California where our ASAH team stayed in 2007 on our stopover between Nairobi and Duk when we made the documentary. The AIM plane that picked me up was an ASAH charter filled with 1000 kg of cargo -- the things left behind on my first flight plus timbers, iron sheet, and beds and mattresses for the four new girls who will be joining us from Patuenoi in mid-July.

On the plane with me was Lillian, the clinic midwife, returning to Kenya, and our two Kenyan mason/maintenance crew who flew as far as Juba. They are going to visit their families in Kenya for a couple of weeks, and then returning to Duk. Our AIM pilot, Brian, a third-generation missionary pilot, will be returning with his family to Sioux Falls, SD, his wife's hometown in September for about four months to raise the money for his salary for the coming year.

Tomorrow morning we're on to Nairobi.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Word by Word

Why do the ASAH girls need our help? Because even though they range in age from 10 to 17, most of them can barely read. The national language in South Sudan is English (with a British accent and usage) and school is taught in the immersion method with all instruction in English.

For the younger kids and those who have not attended school regularly, I imagine it as Leek Sam, Manyok, and Dau have described their experience in refugee camp schools - learning outside, under the trees. The first couple years they hear so many unfamiliar sounds, it's gibberish, but eventually, they begin to understand. So it is here.

The ASAH girls can understand some English, but they have virtually no conversational skills. Comprehending comes first. Speaking is tough because they have little opportunity to practice - no memorized conversations such as I remember from French classes in junior high school and high school. No time in the "lab" to listen to native French speakers repeating conversations and reinforcement with the written word in a book.

The fact that our girls and many girls in the village have not attended school regularly, day after day, year after year has delayed their acquisition of skills. The school day is also much shorter than ours in the US, ending at noon or one so the children can return home for perhaps the only meal of the day. And once they return to their homes. there are no books, no workbooks, no educational programs on television, and no one speaking English in the home, and even if there were, many kids, especially girls, are busy cooking, cleaning, carrying water or firewood, or taking care of younger children.

Students from Woodland Middle School in Duluth, Minnesota learned about our program and decided they wanted to write letters to our ASAH girls, with the hope that the girls would write back. I arrived here with a packet of close to 30 letters, some addressed to individual ASAH girls by name, and some written to the group. 

We broke the girls into three groups, and read a few of the letters to the girls. They were excited to receive them, the first letters of their lives. (Although some of our sponsors have also written to the girls). Though the girls have learned the rudiments of letter writing in school, their writing skills are hindered by their limited English vocabulary, and their inability to spell.

Since we have only twelve girls, we had them each write to a group of students. The process began with the teachers writing the names of all the children in the group for our girls to copy. The real labor began as three of our ASAH teachers and myself hovered over the groups to assist them with vocabulary and spelling. Word by word, letter by letter. When they finished, each girl recopied her letter so that I would have a nice, neat copy to bring back to their pen pals in Duluth.

What did they write about? They wrote about the games they like to play here at ASAH - netball and volleyball. They wrote about the local foods they like to eat. They wrote their names, their ages and their classes. Each letter was individually composed. It took about three hours for each of them to complete a few paragraphs.

That's how it begins. Word by word.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Will the Dog have Kittens for Lunch?

Did that get your attention? A recent blog on nonprofits related that animal shelters and the like have tremendous social networking success and a resulting increase in donations. There is something about the big eyes of a cute baby animal. . . .

In the evening, I often visit New York or Fargo (our two dorm tukuls) and share slideshows of the photos I've taken here with the girls. When I ran out of photos, I searched my hard drive and found a few saved videos and photo PowerPoints.

The first was of a pregnant shelter dog whose pups were adopted out. she was left bereft about the same time a litter of motherless kittens arrived.The news piece was captioned: Will this Dog have Kittens for Lunch? You get the idea. Just as it would delight you to see this lab pull a kitten out of the water dish it had fallen into, carry it to the dog bed and lick it, then curl up to feed the purring group, the ASAH girls were also delighted with the video.

I'd like you to shift your thoughts from the helpless kittens and their adoptive doggy mom to our girls here, who are also orphans, and the new girls from Patuenoi, a neighboring village, who will join them in July.

They all have stories that would bring tears to your eyes. They have all experienced serious malnutrition. One girl survived when her family was murdered by another tribe. Some lost a parent to war, disease, snakebite, or childbirth. Most orphan girls no say over when or who they marry. A girl might be sold off as a second or third or fourth wife of a man decades her senior in exchange for cattle dowry. The ASAH girls are looking forward to a future of education and marriage of their choice. They will be in a position to change things for their children.

Last week one of our girls, Daruka Ayen, lost her uncle - her guardian, the only fully adult family member. She has a younger brother, and she has an older brother and older sister. Daruka Ayen will be the hope for her family in the future.

Please consider helping these lovely girls with their big eyes, minus the whiskers and floppy ears. ASAH provides all their food, clothing, supplies, educational materials, bed, and bedding, and dedicated teachers, and a matron to look out for them on our secure site.

We need sponsors for the new girls You can find out more on our website, or email us for for information. Or call me when I return to the US after July 4.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Local Fare

It wasn't enough to bring me my own carafe for hot milk tea. Afraid I won't like the local fare, the staff asked the cooks to offer me other choices at dinner until I insisted I would eat what everyone else is eating. I've sampled all food I've been offered, and the only thing I draw the line at is the slimy rotten mudfish, which I experienced at the clinic. I've eaten fresh roasted mudfish which is crispy and palatable, but the stench of that stew-like dish would make the eyes of a lutefisk-lover water.

Two new dishes for me this go-round. Rushuck, a pale green soupy food made with crushed ground nuts (we call them peanuts) and okra from our garden. It's quite tasty. The cooks serve it with ugali, a pasty dish made from maize flour, a little like polenta, but white in color and pastier in texture. I can do without ugali, though I'll eat it if it's the only starch. 

Madita, a sweetened porridge made with ground maize and milk, is a delicious treat. Here, they serve it in a cup and we drink the thick breakfast-type treat. We've only had it once. I would definitely have it again.

Several times, we've had kudra, a dark leafy plant we grow on our site. It's cooked with oil, dark green in color and slimy in texture--cooked until it's almost a liquid. Because they thought I might not like it, they made me chicken and rice, but I was happy for the green vegetation in spite of the texture. At home I love kale, chard, spinach, and we have seeds for these plants here, so one day, when our garden is producing year-round, we will have these important nutritional foods here regularly.

Chickens here are the epitome of free range and very flavorful, though I've eaten an old rooster whose meat was as tough as he was in life, ruling his roost. 

Though much of our staple food supply comes from Juba or Bor in South Sudan, or Kenya when the roads are flooded, we reserve part of the food budget to buy local meat a couple times a week: antelope or goat. In spite of all the cattle in the village, beef is rare because it's available only when slaughtered for a special occasion. And though villagers who own cattle drink and cook with the fresh milk, at ASAH we serve full fat powdered milk to our girls, served hot with tea and sugar.

Generally meat here is served in a stew. If we had Ugandans or Kenyans cooking, we'd have it roasted, which makes even goat a treat for me.

There's fun food, even here in South Sudan. Ayot, paper bread, is a favorite of our ASAH girls. It's nearly paper-thin, with a spongy texture. Folded many times over into a pocket shape, Ayot is used like similar foods in other African countries to dip into soupy food, sauces, or even to pick up bits of meat. 

We have silverware here at ASAH, but Sudanese are accustomed to eating with their fingers, so ayot makes for an enjoyable way to feed themselves. Still, our girls and staff are generally using spoons and forks.

I enjoy nyiny, a dish made with whole beans and whole maize, something like githeri (spelling?) served in Kenya, though the dish here in the village is somewhat plainer. Still, it's a break from plain old beans. 

I've ordered fruits and vegetables, biscuits and powdered juices that will arrive on our AIM Air cargo flight the 28th. I won't get a taste as I fly out on that plane to return to Kenya, but I'll be back in a city where these types of I-take-it-for-granted foods will once again be available, and a few days later, I'll be home in the US.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Thunder and Lightning - Oh My!

June 24, 2012

It's the rainy season here in Duk Payuel, so it isn't surprising that it's rained during the night a couple times since my arrival June 11. I left the rug on my doorstep the first time, and it was soaked. We had rain once when I was at the JDF Lost Boys Clinic using Internet to communicate with all of you, delaying my return to the ASAH School until it let let up. One other time, I walked back and enjoyed the sprinkle of cool drops.

Just after we finished our lunch, cracks of thunder chased us all into our respective tukuls, except for Toy, who is gathering up the deserted plastic chairs in the yard. Toy works with Zablon, our skilled and personable Kenyan builder/mason/maintenance man. They put up our beautiful and straight fence, built our toilets and showers and our new office/housing building,  

The thunder has been roiling and breaking without a drop, then suddenly, as if it had cracked the cloud, the downpour began. I'm assuming there's lighting, but I can't see the sky from inside my tukul, and it would likely not be visible even through our canopied trees during the day. Perhaps at night it lights the sky.

My first week here was beastly hot - not Saudi Arabia hot, but it can reach 100 and was sometimes 90 or more as I willed myself to sleep (my will is not very effective in this respect). This past week has been delightfully cool in the mornings and evenings. The midwesterners reading this will find it funny that Manyok wears a winter coat when I'm comfortable in a t-shirt.

It looks as though I'll be holed up in my Tukul here for awhile.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Awakening, Nourishment, Privilege, Humilty

At home, my morning routine is up at six, release the cats from the laundry room and traipse downstairs to the fridge for the canned food which they eat in the morning - two different special diets. The canned food is easier on Sniff, the cat with the sensitive tummy, though she tolerates moistened dry food later in the day. 

Destiny, my tiny, deaf, aged Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, is usually up by now, and I feed her as well. She's on several medications for a failing heart. Her arthritis meds have diminished her appetite so she's slow to eat. 

I make myself a cup of coffee and retrieve the newspaper. I walk the dog. Outside is down six flights from our third-floor condo. I generally carry her (I prefer the stairs to the elevator) because of her creaky joints and labored breath, though sometimes she sets off on her own. 

Here in South Sudan, there's less urgency in awakening. No dependent pets, (my husband has that duty alone when I am gone) no early morning appointments. I've showered the night before. My hair is usually a wreck, but my vanity has learned to lower its expectations here.

Now lying on my foam mattress under the pale green mosquito net, I listen to the tweets, buzzes, croaks, bleats and bellows. I do the bed exercises suggested to me after my disc surgery. My husband isn't here, so I won't disturb his slumber. Waking up my spine in the early morning helps me feel stronger and more flexible, and it allows more time with my eyes closed to wake slowly, something to which I am unaccustomed.

What I miss most about my early mornings inhum Fargo is the coffee and a small square or two of dark chocolate and the newspaper. Here tea isn't served until around eight. When school started back up last week, after my horror that first day when the girls left for school without tea, the cooks prepared the hot water in a thermos the night before (as they have done in the past, they just forgot!) and place it in our pink geodesic dome. In the morning the girls prepare their sweetened milk tea or drinking chocolate before school. We have no biscuits left, so the milk tea is all they have in their stomachs, which is more than for many children at the school. I expect biscuits will arrive on the next AIM flight.

I'm spoiled by the ease which has marked my life. The two-hour wait for me is an eternity. On previous trips I've brought protein bars and treats to supplement the beans and rice two-meals-a-day diet here, but I honestly forgot, and the few foods I did bring are in the bags that were left behind in Nairobi. I'd like to say my whining for earlier tea was on behalf of all the staff, but it seems they don't feel the deprivation the way I do. I can skip dinner with no problem, but my coffee and oatmeal are sacrosanct. And LUNCH. By noon. Here lunch is at 1:30, or sometimes two.

There's an issue with getting firewood timely and an issue with the length of time it takes to cook beans and rice and other foods from scratch to feed 20 people. 

Two nights ago, just before bed, Martha Achol appeared with a tray. On it was a thermos, a cup and spoon, a cup of sugar, tea bags, a can of powdered milk, and a jar of drinking chocolate. I thanked her but told her no, that I was about to go to bed. She insisted and was so sweet, that so as not to disappoint her, I prepared a small cup of hot milk and said she could take the tray. With hesitation, she picked it up, but then gestured to Manyok, our program director. Laughing,  he explained, that the tray was for my own tea in the morning and throughout the day, and they will bring it to me each evening.

Heavens. Now I feel as though I'm a complainer. I don't really want special treatment, but I must admit, the last two mornings, it has been a real joy to make myself a cup of tea shortly after six a.m. And then a second. Today (the 23rd) I had a third which wasn't enough to keep me from getting cranky when our first meal was served at two.

Sometimes they make special food for me as well--chicken or rice instead of ugali. I share the extra and tell Manyok that I can eat what they are eating. I don't love ugali, but I can eat it. It's bland but not horrible. Mudfish is where I dry the line.

Like most Americans reading this, I was raised with more food available than was required, more frequently than I was hungry. Uncountable varieties of many different types of food - meats, legumes, vegetables, starches, seasonings and sweets. And flavors - sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami, the sense of --- on the tongue.

Our staff and our girls have experienced malnutrition, and some have nearly starved. Some have developed ulcers from the abuse their digestive systems have suffered. They are happy and grateful for any meal that comes their way and eat thankfully and heartily whether it is one meal put in front of them or three (which would be very unusual). 

It makes me feel a little small, but I'm glad I haven't had to cope with actual hunger. I'm embarrassed that my lowered blood sugar makes me lethargic and cranky. 

Humbled here in Duk Payuel.