Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Of Onions, Taxes and Christmas...

Written on 05/02/2011
Hi Everybody!
During the weeks while Christine was nursing me back to health from malaria and typhoid, I had some of our friends try to secure a place on a barge. They were turned down! In Africa, do not accept NO from a person who is not in a position to say YES in the first place! So off I went to see the big bosses and wrote a nice letter to the managing director of Nile River Transport Company. During our meeting, he asked me about a little town called Abu Hammad (the first town after our Wadi Halfa desert crossing). I told him the people were fantastic and we had even stayed there 4 days. “That is my home town” he says while authorizing me a ticket for the barge! If we had paid for our ticket by weight, ie. more than 1 tonne, it would have cost 1000sdg. We paid for 2 horses and 1 person (Christine was free) – only 320sdg! Sometimes people show you kindness when you least expect it.

The barge
We had practiced obstacle negotiation with palates, concrete blocks and slippery concrete and stone verges at the coca – cola warehouse in Rabak. Chami was the best and therefore had to lead Nali across a very narrow gangplank onto the barge. Chami navigated it sideways and Nali crept across it like a cat stalking a bird! The horses proved to be very brave during flooding, barge crashes, overcrowding, flapping tarpaulins, people falling under their feet and children feeding them onions!
We made friends with a group of guys who had clubbed together to share cooking. They invited us to join them for early morning tea, lunch and supper – all local dishes except when Christine cooked! We weren’t the only ones invited to join them. An Ethiopian Refugee who had snuck on board, who had no money or food was soon a favourite member of our group! We would either eat sorghum meal (stywe pap) with okra or soya beans cooked with peanut butter. Every time the barge stopped, people cast their fishing lines. Jambo, the leader of the group, was a master fisherman and always had a big catch. Then we would have fresh fish for lunch and supper – fried or in a stew. Extra fish was dried on the roof of the container. Not a great smell! And guess what, it tastes the same and directs you to the loo for 3 days!
Our group!
Taha - the Ethiopian Refugee!
Jambo - the expert fisherman!
In the beginning, we questioned our decision to sleep on top of a corrugated container roof, until all the southern returnees clambered onto the barge looking for a place to squat. Our rooftop tent kept us out of the filth and unhygienic conditions. Hygiene was quite good up until the port of Malakal when locals travelling to Bor got on. There is no road between the two towns and so the barge is the only form of transport. Urinating and defecating anywhere on the barge suddenly became standard practice, even though there were toilets on the pusher. (4 barges are tied together in a quadrangle with a pusher barge tied in the centre at the back.) These toilets became a nightmare because people didn’t know how to use them or flush them.  
Home sweet home!
Jambo greeted me one day as ‘Dr William’! Within minutes, I was asked to treat eyes, malaria, typhoid, a tooth abscess, a thumb abscess and complete a course of injectable antibiotics! It is true that all white people are assumed to be wealthy and carrying a pharmacy! Some people were offended that I wouldn’t give them a headache tablet or a course of anti–malarials. Trying to explain to someone who has land, cattle, 5 wives and 15 children that what he can see is all I own, ie. 2 horses and a tent! There might be an old landrover somewhere in Cape Town but I don’t know… It’s been 5 years!
Corruption is rife on the riverbank. The barge was stopped 46 times by villagers, SPLA and police to pay a toll. The barge engineer Nassr and the security officer Kir would negotiate the toll cost, which was thumb sucked by the AK toting “tax man”! Anything between 700 and 2000sdg (US$1 = 3sdg) had to be paid along with a jerry can of diesel and oil. Returnees were harassed for drinks and food etc. The 2 “white people” were threatened with prison or having their horses removed from the barge and shot, unless they paid between 10 and 200sdg. We had a great letter from Yasir Arman, head of SPLM northern sector. We met him through the Swiss Ambassador, Andrej Motyl. The letter is moderate until the last paragraph where Mr Arman states that, “it is the abiding duty and responsibility” of officials and citizens to afford us hospitality and support. There were still arguments after the letter came out but the wind had gone out of their sails! Then it was just a question of convincing me not to report them!

Kir and Billy
This wasn’t our first run in with security personnel on the barge. We nearly didn’t leave Kosti because counter intelligence confiscated our mobile phone, camera, passports and travel permits under the pretext of not having a certain veterinary certificate. This certificate, along with an anthrax vaccination, was obtained within an hour by Dawelbait’s (from ADRA) prompt response to our cry for help. I spent the next morning waiting and then being interrogated by northern Sudan’s counter intelligence, which delayed the barge for a whole day. With the help of my friend Abdel Khalid from Coke, we got all of our stuff back minus some great photographs.

As for life on the barge, the blokes on the pusher were very kind and helpful to us, inviting Christine to play cards, giving us tea, sharing their dinner with us and charging our phones. The blokes were amazed at Christine’s love of animals. She would feed and water their sheep that were for slaughter! Everyone fends for himself on the barge… so all of a sudden a little shop appears where one could buy salt, sugar, soap and the all important hair extensions! A tea lady sold tea, turkish coffee, “doughnuts” (vetkoek) and shisha. One could also buy cold drinks from the pusher. Most people have a charcoal burner to cook on. First thing in the morning, the ladies go in search of someone who already has their burner going to ask for hot coals to start their own! People on the barge were poor and having waited in the returnee camps in the north for up to 3 months, now had no money left at all. They had run out of food and couldn’t fish while the barge was moving. So as soon as the barge docked in port, the men would make a bit of money by loading and unloading cargo and then spend the whole night fishing in the fished out waters. At least, while the barge was moving, they could go and join groups of card and domino players as a distraction. Life is tough for these people and it is going to get tougher going back to home villages that were destroyed during the war and have very little infrastructure and crucially, no wells. Understand that no one went hungry on the barge, as kind people would send food to those who needed it. It may have been dried fish but it was only our stomachs that couldn’t tolerate it!
The pusher.
Every now and then, there would be great excitement on the barge because a snake was swimming towards us! Most were killed but at least 2 made it on board and disappeared! Why they would want to hitch a ride, no one knows!

The barges were traveling upstream and because it was during the dry season, the water level was very low. The pusher would have to try to force individual barges over sandbanks. One day we only crossed from the eastern bank to the western bank, a distance of 400m! This was the same day the pusher had to release a barge, that was holding it on the sand bank. The current managed to loosen the barge first and it drifted off while the pusher was still stuck. It picked up speed and headed straight towards our 3 barges that were tied to a tree. We braced for the crash and the cable holding us snapped like a piece of string! Some people on shore stupidly tried to grab the cable but there we were, 4 loose barges on our way back to Kosti! The pusher, finally free, came steaming to the rescue and it was only by the grace of God that no one was injured. The sand banks also meant that we couldn’t travel at night anymore, which meant 2 things… fishing and mosquito invasion!

Imminent crash!
You can buy a sack of onions in the north for 60sdg. It will cost you another 60sdg to send that bag to Juba by barge, where you can sell it again for 320sdg! Why people in the south can’t plant onions, nobody knows. Unfortunately, these sacks on the barge are raided by little boys feeding horses, women who need to feed their families and men with a strong arm trading onions for mangoes with the people on shore! It doesn’t necessarily mean that because you threw the onion that the mango is yours when it lands on the barge… He who is closest to the mango, owns the mango! When an onion drops short in the river, villagers launch dugouts to recover them! One day, 2 well built blokes in a dugout started an intercept course with us. As they latched onto our barge, my adrenaline was pumping in anticipation of seeing the barrel of an AK-47, but no, shouts of “Cola” followed! 6 packs of drinks were loaded into their dugout and their faces were lit up by huge grins as they rowed back to shore. Goodness knows where they were taking it as there was absolutely nothing there except bush! This trading, with cool drinks and onions, was done mainly by the pusher staff.

We spent Christmas in Bor Port listening to lively parties and church services all over town. I spent the morning holding the horses away from the open manhole while they pumped out the flooded bilges. It seems we had a number of holes in the bottom of our barge! The water had flooded a family 2 nights before and they had pumped out 1 section of the bilges where the flooding was thought to be caused by waves. Christmas Day was a happy occasion for one particular young man and his family. He had fallen overboard the night before and hadn’t been missed for a couple of hours!  Fortunately, he was close enough to shore to doggy paddle out, spend the night with the mozzies and wave down a taxi boat in the morning. His father, a policeman in Juba, was claiming 30 000sdg, this being the value of human life! Had he not returned in good health, the barge and all its passengers, would have been held for 20 days and those in his group would have been put in prison. A celebration was held upon his return and strangely enough, he went home from Bor by bus!

NB: Christine cooked up a storm on Christmas Day… Potatoes, cheese, tomatoes, bully beef, cabbage, 2 minute noodles, tinned fruit and sweets!!

Bor Port...
We arrived in Juba Port, our destination, on New Year’s Eve and were moored 3 barges out from shore. We were going nowhere although I did manage to get into town to buy grilled beef, chips and salad… very expensive but well worth it! YUM! We listened to raucous parties all along the waterfront until 6.00am! Only 2 barges had been brought in as the river is very narrow and Jambo’s barge was a days travel out, moored in the middle of nowhere!

On 3rd January, after being in port for 2 days, they finally managed to get us near the bank so we could unload. The horses’ rubbery legs had to carry them down a steep, narrow, rickety gangplank and straight up a vertical bank into a crowd of onlookers, most of whom had never seen a horse before! Chami went down the gangplank like a charm and Nali was coming… and then he wasn’t! Christine had to tie a very wound Chami up to a truck that had fallen into the river and had been pulled out. It still had weeds on it – an ominous sign for Nali! Christine led Nali down the gangplank while I “coaxed” from behind! We pegged them on a grassy spot in port and they went ballistic! Galloping around on their ropes, bucking, rearing, fly leaping, pawing and trying to bite each other for at least an hour! Christine and I were a little bit more sedate, finding a spot under the mango trees to pitch our tent. Ripening mangoes proved to be very dangerous missiles but did supplement the diet of everybody in port! The horses loved the mangoes and yes, they did spit out the pips!

Finally back on land!
Yummy mangoes!
Kind Regards,
William and Christine

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