Friday, July 2, 2010
Aka hurtling along deeply pitted and potholed roads through herds of unconcerned cattle and curious goats. Speeding on narrow, eroding shoulders past overburdened trucks bearing loads of market goods all the way from Khartoum (800 miles to the north), hoping that the drivers see us (and care enough to make room for us to pass) through the clouds of orange dust that trail in their wake.
From what I have seen, our drivers are men of few words. Probably in part because there's more than enough on the road to occupy their attention. And also because their English is limited, and because, despite my efforts to be friendly, they likely don't feel the need, or desire, to strike up a conversation.
This is significant only because whichever expats happen to be riding in a car on a given day are officially responsible for making sure the driver proceeds with caution. And I'd like to build some rapport with a young, hotheaded Sudanese guy before politely suggesting that maybe 30 mph is a bit fast to be racing through a roadless village, or that he navigate the potholes with a bit more regard for the human passengers in the backseat. As one of my colleagues said last night, "We are humans; we are not a load of bricks."
I have joined my Food Security "Mentor" on three site visits over the past week, and the rainy season's mud has foiled us all three times. Twice, extracting ourselves was a fairly simple matter, as the passengers, along with hordes of farmers emerging from the scrub, cleared away the mud, gathered branches for traction and pushed us free. Once, our smiling rescuers piled into the back of our vehicle, jabbering away among themselves, and happily accepted a ride to the nearest town.
The third time, we were not so lucky. In the morning, our local program staff told me they didn't think we'd make it to our destination. The rains were too recent, our Land Cruiser too weak, the mud pits too extensive, the village in question too remote. But my mentor, an affable Italian expat attempting to stay on schedule, insisted that we try. We needed to visit this village to conduct a baseline assessment, and the roads would only become more impassable as the rainy season progressed.
But the locals were right. We succeeded in getting not only the two vehicles in our caravan impossibly lodged in a 500-yard mudflat, but also the "rescue car," which showed up about an hour before sunset, without headlights. Five of us, sensing the inadequacy of the proposed rescue effort, ditched the car mid-afternoon and slogged the 7 miles back to the compound. (A very welcome slog, mind you, at least on my part, since exercise has been hard to come by.)
Our driver yesterday started out at a comfortable, cautious pace, and I was pleasantly, though perhaps prematurely, content. For two-thirds of the day, all appeared fine. The we stopped for a final soda in a large market town on the way home, and the driver disappeared for a few minutes, returning with a mysterious package. My expat mentor approached him; apparently some drivers have created problems in the past by transporting goods that they intend to sell elsewhere in company vehicles, and he wanted to make sure that the driver wasn't abusing his privileges.
As soon as we rejoined the road, the driver became defensive and angry. The rest of the staff protested, and as the volume of the shouting match increased, so did the driver's speed and apparent disregard for the human and animal life on the road ahead. Finally, my Italian friend managed to shut everyone up. "Let him do his job," he insisted. "We can deal with this later." Our driver seemed to relax somewhat, but his good humor was clearly exhausted, and I reluctantly gave up hopes that this was at least one driver in South Sudan that I could trust.
This morning, we have yet another site visit planned, but as of 10 am, our driver has not yet made an appearance. Rumor has it he may be ill, or angry, but in any case, I for one am not entirely sorry for the delay.