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Memories of my travels between 1972 and 1982

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

March 15th: Rumbek

On March 15th 1981 I was in Rumbek.  Teaching had ground to a stop and I was getting ready to leave.  The season of tribal fighting had passed, but other concerns were more pressing.

I heard in the morning that they were dismantling the Dinka souk, which we called Dinka Alley.  This was an atmospheric area to one side of the double row of proper shops run by Arabs, centred on the store owned by John Mikis, the Greek trader.  The plan was supposed to be to move the Dinka souk to a new area on the other side of town and build modern shops in this area.  There had been a funky little circle of ad hoc stalls which did tea and coffee or African doughnuts.  Behind there was  a line of stalls which sold cheap household goods, and the ornaments and swimming shorts from China that the men liked to wear, but with African traders.  Behind there was an area where Dinka blacksmiths sold huge ornamental pipes and others sold tobacco, the one crop some Dinka grew.  Old men would sit here and smoke and pass the time of day; young men would come into town, check their decoration and hang out; then they would make occasional forays to the tailor shops where the unmarried girls would be trying out the little yellow skirts they wore, knowing the young men would be around.  In the afternoon I saw the desolation of the souk for myself: it reminded me of the worst stories of urban development in Africa and India, where the squatters are physically moved out to make way for development.  All the town behind the Arab souk was being destroyed, all the tea-shops and restaurants, all the small shops over a wide area, leaving nothing but the shells of the houses.  The Arab traders all had happy faces, but the poorer people, the locals seemed confused, not knowing what was going to happen.   It seemed like the end of an era, and I couldn't imagine Rumbek having the same atmosphere again.  I knew it was time to leave.

This was against the background of the news that the official map of Sudan had been rewritten.  A new map had been published by the Nimeiri government which had changed the arrangement of provinces, but it had also moved the straight line between the North and the South some distance towards the north in the area around Bentiu where the oil exploration was taking place.  This had made people uneasy and very pessimistic for the future, rightly as it turned out.  In some ways this was the act which started the ball rolling for the resumption of civil war.  It did not come as a complete surprise, as there had been political action in Juba, including a demonstration, back in December.

As the dry season set in, the school well dried up, and the students had to search for water among the other drying wells of the town.  The wind began to move the dust and brought a new peril, meningitis,
which had left 80 dead in Rumbek alone it was said in the past week.  There was also anthrax around, as well as the usual problems of TB (the skin sort) and cerebral malaria, which killed the little boy of our neighbour.  People would come round to the house seeking advice and medication as they did not trust the hospital.  A UN doctor arrived to diagnose the meningitis and supply some drugs.  I saw a student being rushed to the hospital with cerebral malaria, but they got him there on time and he was saved.

The house had been full of people coming and going.   Our Dinka friend Mayen had been in town awaiting a court hearing and was not allowed to leave town.  He spent the nights with a number of other young warriors, laid out like spoons on our veranda.  Feeding this lot used up our rations quickly and tried our patience considerably.

Teaching seemed to have finished: all that was left was the final exams for the third year and it was made clear that the foreign teachers were not going to get in the way of good results by invigilating and not giving the students the right answers.  Mary from the BBC crew had returned to visit me and we planned to travel back to England together.  The headmaster had been away for some time, but I eventually got the deputy to sign my release form.  In the end I was pleased to get away: the frustrations and hardships had outweighed the benefits of living in such a remote place.  I was wondering about returning, as I wanted to teach more, but in a school that worked, or at least worked better.  Andy did return for a third year at Rumbek.  He told me later that the year had started pretty much on time, but that more and more closures led to the whole year petering out with very little teaching taking place.  

Mary and I left to Juba with an aid worker in a Land-Rover.  We stopped off to look at some "oxplough showgrounds", where there were attempts to persuade the Dinka to use their precious cattle for menial agriculture work.  We looked at one field which had a minimal shelter built in the middle and a tether for oxen, but no animals.  Mary asked how long the project had been going, thinking it would be weeks or months:  the answer was that they had been there for several years.

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