Boys should be boys.

It’s their eyes I notice first. Wary. And yearning. Older than they should be. Curious, cautious, and skeptical. Three boys, maybe brothers, at a pier on the Nile river, showed me what childhood looks like during a hunger crisis.

I joined some colleagues for a short Sunday drive to the Nile in Renk; a distraction from the six-day-a-week work of humanitarian aid. Down at the pier I was reminded that every aspect of life is in crisis here; this is life outside of the project sites that I generally visit.

Five cargo barges floated quietly, flying tattered flags for the World Food Programme. Their holds contained tones of food aid being brought to the next community. There is hunger in South Sudan.

Barges carrying food aid along the Nile in South Sudan, 21 July 2019.

We wandered around the nearly deserted dock area talking about what it was like in Renk in the past. There was a time when masses of people coming from the north travelled with all of their household goods; each chain of boats was four barges carrying personal possessions and one barge carrying people. During times of peace, commerce flowed freely and the pier area was clean and bustling, rather than filled with rusting boats and overgrown reeds as it is now.

Boats, abandoned when their owners fled, rust away while waiting for the return of peace and commerce.

Back to the boys.

I spotted the first one as he checked his fishing line. I asked my colleague to translate. The boy mumbled his replies in Arabic; barely glancing up and definitely not looking at me. No, he hadn’t caught anything yet today. Yes, he was catching fish to eat; not for selling in the market.

My encounter with these boys showed me the face of the food crisis in South Sudan.

As we wandered to the other end of the pier we saw two traps – quite inventive actually – with some seeds scattered beneath round nets that were propped up with sticks. Strings tied to the nets stretched about 10 metres to where two more boys hid behind a rock and waited for birds to land. Beside one of the traps lay a small sparrow – a decoy placed there to attract more of its kind.

Their trapping method reminded me of Canadian prairie kids trying to catch gophers.

As my colleagues and I stood talking and watching the Nile rush past, we heard whispering behind us. The boys were motioning for us to move. We were scaring the birds away.

I thought of kids back home in Western Canada making small nooses and placing them over gopher holes, ready to pull tight when one of the rodents poked his head out. This was done mostly for sport – sure, it was to rid a field of destructive pests – but something young boys did in their spare time to earn pocket money.

These boys don’t have spare time, I thought. This is not for sport or a hobby. This is for survival.

While we were there, two birds and one fish were added to their catch.
How many people are they providing for, I wondered.

I’ve been told that the first priority for people in South Sudan is food. Every day is a relentless rhythym – find something to eat; find a way to earn some small money; find a way to feed the children. Market prices in Renk have increased sharply – today, four small tomatoes cost 400 South Sudanese Pounds. Compare that to the 50 SSP ladies earn selling a cup of tea, and who must also pay for tea leaves, sugar, charcoal, kettles, cups, and a market stall. I’ve heard stories of mothers having to choose between working in the market to provide for the entire family, or taking the time to bring a sick child to be treated for malnutrition. Imagine having to make this decision.

He seemed like the eldest of the three; the most reluctant to smile.

As I watched the boys celebrate catching two small birds, I saw childhood spent under a tremendous amount of pressure. These boys know a desperation that my young friends catching gophers have never felt.

I made a short video of the boys and called them over to watch. For a moment their guard came down and they laughed, punching each other in the shoulder and pointing at the screen on my camera. Then it was over. The eldest one walked away without looking at me, and the other two followed. Back to work.

It’s nearly sunset. Dinner time. The boys have seven birds and one small fish.

Some days are hard. Don’t tell me to come home.

Someone drank my milk from the staff refrigerator, even though the carton had my initials on it.

The internet keeps cutting out and I’m trying to send an urgent email.

I just saw a photo of myself from a party where I thought I looked pretty cute, but in the picture I see that my hair is frizzy from the salty water and is weeks beyond ‘desperate need’ of a cut and colour.

I’m privileged to share stories of the commitment and compassion of my colleagues.

So in my mind I go home. No, not just daydreaming and imagining being at home, I picture every detail of pulling my backpack out from under my bed, packing the few clothes I have that are appropriate outside of the humanitarian field, throwing in some books and my toothbrush, and jumping on a plane. It’s an epic exit, complete with the settling of dust as I spin on my haughty heel.

Then the facts mess up my plan. I remember that I’m not allowed to drive so I’d need a ride to the airport, and I’ve already missed today’s flight to Nairobi. I’d hate to leave without saying goodbye to my roommate who is on leave, and there’s a party next week for some people I really like.

And I know that the problem isn’t the milk, or the internet, or my hair.

“You can’t quit on a bad day.”

– Me, to every colleague who has a bad day

The problem is the baby I met on Tuesday; so malnourished his skin hangs from his bones. Measles has caused open sores on and in his mouth so it is painful to suck on his momma’s tired breast.

I hesitated to take this photo. My colleague, a South Sudanese health professional, said ‘You need to show what it looks like when there is no vaccination for malnourished children.’

The problem is knowing that the young boys being examined by the doctor have measles. They live in the market. They’ll receive treatment, but then where will they go?

Three young homeless boys came to the hospital, feverish and showing a bumpy rash and sores in their mouths. They sat outside on the ground until someone showed them the doctor’s office.

It’s the mothers and their naked children sitting in the open hospital courtyard because the isolation tent for measles patients is way too crowded and hot. When these women and their children are discharged they’ll walk hours back to their homes.

This mother brought three of her children to be treated for measles. She sits with them all day and sleeps here with them at night. She worries about the children she left at home.

It’s the family who lost two boys in the same day because of a disease that can be prevented for about USD$1 per child.

It’s the smell of sickness, urine, dust, and hopelessness that I can’t get out of my clothes.

This woman lost two grandsons due to complications from measles. “Sometimes I forget; I wonder why I don’t hear them talking; why they’re not playing with me,” she said.

My friends, some days are hard. I don’t call you on those days because you’ll remind me what it’s like to be around people who share my memories and get my jokes. You’ll share your latest news, and tell me that the trees we planted last fall are getting new leaves. I’ll imagine the fresh, clean, spring days and the freedom of driving in the Canadian countryside; windows open and music blasting. I’ll see myself surrounded by people who have access to health care, food, and clean water; people who aren’t suffering.

I’m afraid that if I call you on a bad day you’ll tell me to come home.

I look at my hair and think ‘Ugh.’ But then I look at my face and know I’m where I belong.

You see, I know this will pass. I’ll remember that this is the life I prayed for. That when I started this work I knew God was opening doors I never even knocked on. I’ll remember how often I am in awe of the knowledge and commitment of my colleagues and how privileged I feel to serve beside people so dedicated to common goals.

Eventually I’ll come around to gratitude for this life and the work I get to do; the people I’m fortunate to meet.

Yes there is tremendous suffering. But there’s strength in knowing I’m a small part of a solution.

And mentally I’ll put away my toothbrush and my books. I’ll hang up my clothes and I’ll shove my backpack under my bed until my next field visit. I’ll probably put on some music, have a nap, watch a movie or ‘debrief’ with a colleague. Maybe I’ll have a cry or write a blog.

But I probably won’t call. Because if the timing isn’t just right and you tell me to come home, I’m afraid I would come. I’d pull off that dramatic departure and arrive on your doorstep demanding a haircut.

I’m afraid I would come, and I’d regret it for the rest of my life.

There are more good days than bad days, like when you celebrate that 180,000 children have yellow vaccination cards to show they are protected against measles.

Back at it…

A few years ago I took a stab at writing a blog and found it very therapeutic – helping me to process my experiences living in a foreign country. I didn’t write many, but now I read those entries and such clear memories come flooding back.

So, here I am in Nairobi, Kenya, preparing for a new phase of life in South Sudan. I’ve been in Iraq these past 27 months and I wish I’d kept a blog of those times.

But, before I turn the page, I wanted to save something that will remind me of my time in this complicated country and all the people I had the privilege to meet.

Click to view the video – just something simple made with Adobe Spark 🙂