The world is a crazy, convoluted place. So many sights and sounds to take in. Too many realities to crash up against. Never enough time to sort out the wreckage. Opinions and truths hide out at every corner, diverging and converging and at once paying too much attention- and not enough. It’s all quite confusing. In the cosmic dance between order and disorder, amongst the chaos all around, there is one statement I can utter in full confidence: I don’t want to die of ebola.
Let me repeat and re-emphasize: I really don’t want to die of ebola.
Since reading Kenneth Preston’s ‘The Hot Zone’ in middle school, ebola has never given up its spot at the top of my ‘don’t want to die this way’ ranking. The possibility of my organs liquifying and the viscous viscera fleeing from every orifice is a contingency I will avoid at all costs. Which is why it was pretty dumb of me to come to South Sudan.
In neighboring Uganda, a recent ebola outbreak had already killed a dozen or so people by the time I landed in Juba. FoxNews is still stoking the flames of paranoia by suggesti-claiming the dreaded retrovirus might touch down in America. South Sudanese hospitals are on notice for an outbreak, and travelers warned to report any suspicious symptoms. All while I am training hundreds of people proper hygiene. People who do not regularly wash their hands, use soap, or otherwise practice the type of behaviors that can mitigate the transmission of ebola. I can already hear my intestines getting down on its (their?) knees to pray.
Realistically, ebola shouldn’t be too much of a concern. Insha’allah. A report from the team we replaced noted that of all the infectious diseases that should rank on our list of concerns, ebola wouldn’t even make it on the podium. It’s a country away, and with a 70% mortality rate kills people before they can spread the disease very far. Spiders, heights, and commitment have nothing on ebola, but we are at a far greater risk of a cholera outbreak. Which is kind of our South Sudanese raison d’etre.
Our mission here is to support an NGO’s medical operations and build out their cholera treatment unit, public health center, and base camp. On a given day I might be walking an hour to the nearest market, giving out vaccinations, building wooden huts, picking apart diesel engines, or overseeing day laborers digging latrines. My expertise has been in pricing everything from bundles of grass to bundles of sticks to bundles of poles. I live in a world of bundles, a world in which it took me a day to realize that when the team leader joked that we were making radios out of coconuts, she wasn’t joking.
Each of us received confirmation from our headquarters that we were Sudan-bound a week before we took off. In that time, things slowly flowed into place. First, our team gained structure: team leader, alternate, engineer, medic. A roster of names came along the tubes as packing lists were sent out and paperwork signed. Among reams of forms and releases, one paragraph in particular struck my eye. Too rarely do I read the fine print, and this time I am certainly glad I did, for it enjoyably indemnified the NGO against just about everything imaginable. I signed that I “understand and acknowledge that I may be required to work in areas or countries where hostile guerrilla and other armed forces and groups operate, where civil or military control and authority may be contested or substantially diminished and where I may be exposed to chemical, biological, bacterial, viral, or radiation-related diseases, injuries, or illness resulting from warfare or attacks.” It sounded like my idea of a great Friday night (unless ebola falls under their viral umbrella).
With reckless abandon, I signed away all liability. And some caution too.
We left New York the evening of June 10th. We arrived at the New York Hotel in Juba the morning of June 12th. There’s some nice symmetry in that travel azimuth, an iconic throughline stretching from the world’s metropolis to the most forgotten capital on the forgotten continent. Juba’s pretty far from New York. Or not very. It depends how you look at it. People blatantly walking in traffic? Cars weaving every which way without regard for lanes? A naked guy splashing in a puddle like he owns it? Could go either way.
That was my first impression of Juba. I came to learn that the naked guy in the puddle was a local fixture of sorts, a reference point for directions and an endless topic of conversation. It’s important to have something to talk about, because the life out here – yep, that’s automatic gunfire in the distance here in Maban – is pretty slow. Like any other third world locale, it’s quiet until it isn’t. Everything is peaceful until you’re driving by the flag at the monument to the deceased president, your driver doesn’t notice that all other cars have stopped out of respect, and a gang of soldiers riddles you and your car with automatic weapons fire (happened to a Kenyan lady last month). Or when you’re taking photos in the market place, not paying attention, and a mob descends on you and nearly beats you to death (two UN aid workers last week). Or when you hear bombs dropping in the distance, the roar of reconnaissance planes probing the border at night, and the aforementioned automatic weapons fire in the distance.
I don’t know how to feel that I miss hearing the familiar peal of an AK-47 on burst.