Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Each Friday, the Food Security team is supposed to submit a "movement plan" for the following week, which helps the logistics managers to allocate the proper number of cars and drivers for the appropriate days. I involuntarily chuckle inwardly at the term "movement plan," probably because it makes me think of bowel movements. Anyone who can plan theirs accurately, in rural southern Sudan, a week in advance, is accomplished indeed.

This week's movement plan had me returning north, to Twic County, to join my mentor in launching vegetable seed distribution and horticultural training. I was here once before, during my second week in the Sudan, but am noticing new and different things this time around. Twic (say "twitch") lies at the northern limit of southern Sudan; during the war, violence was especially concentrated in the north-south border regions, and many people from this area were displaced to other parts of South Sudan. According to our local staff, this explains why returnees in Twic (who have been trickling back slowly during the past five years of relative peace) are more tolerant, more receptive to new ideas than are their neighbors in Gogrial West, the county to the south, where most people stayed more or less in place during the war. The conservative local leaders in Alek, for example, forbid Arab presence in the market, which therefore carries only the extremely limited selection of locally made products, whereas Wunrok's market is thriving, full of Arab traders from the North. The experience of moving, of being exposed to different cultures, places, livelihoods, apparently helped the Twic Dinka accept diversity.

The travel writer Bruce Chatwin describes movement with almost religious intensity. It is man's natural state to wander, he claims. The New England biologist and ultramarathoner Bernd Heinrich concurs. "Movement," he writes, "is almost synonymous with life."

Until Monday, I had been "stuck" in Alek for almost a month, gradually getting more familiar with the staff and their peculiarities, coaching the garden towards bounty, developing daily and weekly routines. Definitely struggling to adjust to a life behind compound walls that, though modest by most definitions, remains quite removed from that of the villagers on the other side. Coming to terms with my expat colleagues, all very likable, who nonetheless spend most of their off hours glued to the TV or internet and who can't be bothered to walk ten minutes down the road to buy their own sodas and so command the local watchmen to do it on their behalf. But there is much comfort in familiarity, as well as the danger of complacency, and I was actually somewhat sorry when told that I'd be moving northwards.

Deep as we are into the rainy season, Twic is mostly swamp. The croaking of frogs is drowning out the burbling of the TV as I type. The seasonal floods mean that much of the land, though fertile, is uninhabited, and many of our target villages are over two hours away, along an absurdly rutted "highway," surrounded most of the time by an endless swath of green--scrubby forest and marshland dotted with a huge variety of bird life. Occasionally, the thatched roof of a tukul hovers above a field of nearly mature maize. The cattle have all returned from their dry season grazing land, and when we pass the Twic cattle camps, hundreds, if not thousands, of cows fill the picture, and we advance through several dozen of them, picking their way across the road unconcernedly. And we pass people--young men wearing military fatigues and AK-47s, slung over their shoulders, who grin broadly when I wave; naked boys wading through thigh-deep water, hunting fish with spears; overaged primary schoolers clad in the requisite blue and white uniforms, toting weathered notebooks and, sometimes, plastic chairs; and sinewy, imperial women heading home, bundles of firewood on their heads. Most of them stop when we pass and waggle their hands at us, asking for a lift.

We have our own mission for the day, and jolt our way forward through the dust.

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