Shuttle Diplomacy: #16

Published June 9, 2011

I left Bor this morning realizing that most people in Jalle were expecting me to come today and build a school. The foundation had arrived yesterday afternoon. Everyone was very excited. I was filled with dread. Even though Michael had already handled much of the politics with community leaders last night in Bor and it was they who would be doing most of the talking, I still felt a terrible weight of responsibility. I was bracing myself for how I’d answer the inevitable question, “When do we start building.” My answer was going to be, “We’re having a meeting.”

I got a lucky break upon arrival. For a moment, the entire situation seem O.K. We pulled into the Grace Chapel compound and saw the truck that had hauled the parked near the entrance. I saw many familiar faces, but tried not to make eye contact. I crawled out of the Landcuiser and the next thing I know someone is offering me coffee. This was something new. I’d never seen this person before. “Are you the driver?” I asked. “Yes. Do you like sugar in your coffee, or do you prefer tea?” This guy, who had just traveled days on some of the worst roads in the world, had endured no end of pestering at “check points”, and who was as out of place as I was, just made my morning. “Coffee with sugar,” I answered. It was cowboy coffee, complete with grounds you filter through your teeth. I don’t really even drink coffee. One of the best cups I’ve ever had.

It’s fascinating to watch the politics of another culture. There are very clear diplomatic procedures to follow. Even when unloading a truck. Honestly, I really don’t know what the conversation was about, but in my imagination it took a good 60 minutes to decide how and where to unload the truck. When it was finally decided to store the foundation material in one of the tukuls on the compound, work commenced. The foundation components included 104 lengths of heavy steel shaft, 156 steel base plates, various clips and bolts, and the very heavy turnbuckle used to hand install the whole system. To get it off the truck, we had to break apart the crates and carry all the components piece by piece across the compound. I caught most of it on video, though I did my share of lifting as well. There were about 12 men making the round trip between truck and tukul, 4 or 5 guys in the truck, and another couple in the tukul stacking. We were almost done when I realized we had just work abou
t 20 times harder than we needed to. I approached my new friend, the driver, and asked him to back the truck right up to the door of the tukul. This sent everyone into fits of laughter. The remaining pieces were offloaded in record time!

This, however, was only phase one of a multilateral mission. We had not yet been to the school site, about 6 miles north, to explain to community members there that we would be delaying until November. The only problem was, everybody in Jalle Central apparently also needed to attend the meeting in Jalle North. Me being the only driver with the only vehicle, I was quickly dispatched as the shuttle driver. Three round trips and some 2 hours later (should have been two trips, but apparently we had forgotten someone important so I made a third) and the meeting commenced.

I’m mostly at a loss, as the meeting was once again held in Dinka. But after speeches and questions, we had delivered our message. There was obviously supposed to be more speeches and questions, but people started getting up and going outside. This was very interesting to me, as I didn’t have a framework for how this meeting seemed to be randomly dissolving without ceremony. The answer came quick enough with a fierce gust of wind. In the course of less than an hour, the rain was moving in fast. Since I had at least two round trips to make to get everyone back, there was no time to lose.

For me, the sudden change in weather was proof enough that we had made the right decision to postpone. Not sure anyone else took it as a sign, but it worked for me. The last shuttle run, the mud hole that was getting soupier with each pass nearly got the best of the Landruiser. Not by getting us stuck, but by throwing up so much mud and water that it covered all the windows with cement-like clay. Driving mostly blind, I delivered my passengers safely. Allegory anyone?


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