Fine dust sprays up around my feet as I run down the dirt path through the ‘camp’, weaving my way around collections of mosquito nets strung from trees and sheets of plastic stretched around bamboo sticks. It isn’t light enough yet for me to make out details other than shapes around me, but the young kids are still able to see my glowing white legs moving through the darkness.
I smile and wave at the direction of the excited voices, not exactly sure who is shouting, but I know they are shouting at me. Kawadja means ‘white person’ in Dinka, the local language. Although there are a few white-skinned humanitarian workers here in Mingkamman, it isn’t common to see the Kawadja on foot in the area, especially not at that time of day. And especially not running. I feel like I am part celebrity, part freakshow, but all novelty. The adults usually stare at me with a confused look, trying to figure out why on earth anyone – let alone a Kawadja – would be unnecessarily expending so much energy in 35-40C heat. But as soon as I smile at them, I always get a bemused double eyebrow raise or a chuckle in return. Some take immense pleasure in mimicking my strange running motion, making fun of my movements as if I’m performing an exotic dance. I don’t blame them – with my neon gear, shiny watch, camelback and fancy shoes, I must look pretty odd. Kids will run up to me at full speed and then stop about ten feet away as if there is a forcefield around me. I might as well be wearing a sign that says Please don’t feed the Kawadja! The reaction is always friendly and curious… unless we are talking about anyone under the age of about 2 or 3. They simply burst into tears at the sight of my fluorescent skin.
It is amazing how peaceful it feels here. There are somewhere between 60000 and 80000 people displaced by the conflict in Bor who have fled here to Mingkamman and camped out in temporary locations along the Nile. Humanitarian actors are here assisting with access to shelter (aka plastic sheeting), water, food and services such as education and medical care, but it isn’t enough to meet the needs of the population. Sanitation is poor, to say the least. And with the rainy season looming, it will only get worse. We are all temporarily stationed on low-lying areas, which will likely flood in the coming few weeks, requiring at least 50,000 people to move a few kilometers inland to a new site that is currently being developed. It is a race against the weather gods and we aren’t yet sure if they will be kind.
I’ve been getting up at sunrise (exactly 1 hour and 8 minutes after the first rooster crows) for a run every morning since I arrived here. It is hot and I’m tired already, but clinging to some sort of routine will be key here to maintaining my sanity. I run through the ‘camp’ for 2.2 km, past the water points and the Medecins Sans Frontiers tent, past the cows and the burning pile of garbage, until I reach the main dirt road that leads to Juba. I started off turning left down the road towards the sun, but the wild dogs in the area found me and have resolved to block my way. So I now turn right and run with the rising sun on my back towards the market area, where trucks unload goods from Juba for sale at the stalls. At the end of the market is when I finally get some peace and quiet, away from the stares and the Kawadja cheers. I can’t go far as I need to be back in time to line up for bucket showers at my compound before work, but I can always squeeze in about five minutes on this quiet stretch of road. By the time I get back home aka tent city, I will have only done about 7km. It is not much, but it is enough… for now.
I have been referring to this site as a ‘camp’ because it isn’t really that – it is just a place where people have settled temporarily. There has been much resistance to formally setting up a camp because of how close we are located to the fighting in Bor, from where people have fled. To establish a camp is to imply that some kind of safety and security can be provided… and we simply can’t do that here. No one wants to set up something semi-permanent because those who have been displaced would like to return home or go on to Juba if they can. However, reality says that returning back to Bor is not going to be possible any time soon and it is unclear what will happen in Juba. And when the rains come, the roads will be impassable and we will be cut off from the capital. New sites are being built and while ‘camp’ remains a forbidden word, that is what they will be for all intents and purposes…
The displaced population here is entirely Dinka, which is the same ethnic group as the government, so we are vulnerable to attack from the rebels. It is not uncommon to see members of the army (SPLA) here in the area (along with the occasional civilian armed with an AK47…sigh). This morning on my run, I saw a group of men being loaded into an army truck – apparently former SPLA members who had left, but are now returning and had stopped for the night on their way from Warrap State to Juba.
I have electricity a few hours a day when the generator is turned on, and internet (occasionally) from the humanitarian hub, which is about a 5 minute walk away… It is extremely basic living conditions, it is hot, and it is very buggy. But I’m surviving and I’m running. And the sunsets are spectacular. Life isn’t so bad! Then again, it is only day five…