A Blog: Our Journey to South Sudan

Please enjoy our blog recording our journey to South Sudan for the installation of the solar electric system for the Theou Village Freedom School. This blog is for anyone interest in our journey, the people we encountered, the installation process, the landscape and food, and more. I hope this blog will give some insight to our journey to engineer a brighter Sudan, or South Sudan now. My apologies if some things don’t quite make sense to you, it could be due to typos, bad grammar, or a poor attempt of humor on my part.

There and Back Again: An Engineer’s Tale to South Sudan

By Michael Rios

29 Dec 2012

After almost two full days of travel we finally arrived in Juba. The flight from DC to Addis Ababa was long but not too terrible since it was expected. We met a professional soccer player in the airport in Ethiopia named Vitus. He’s from the Igbo tribe in Nigeria (like in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart). He explained that Nigeria has three main tribes with the northern most being primarily Muslim. He said he finds it hard to believe the Christian God and the Muslim God are the same because Muslims were causing so much distress in the world, giving examples of Syria and the US.

We were met at the airport in Juba by Bol, a contact of Ron and Mou. Airport security was thoroughly unimpressed with our luggage, which was great. We immediately left to Hotel South Sudan, got settled in and ate dinner. Dinner was vegetable beef soup, chicken, rice and vegetables. I seemed to be the only one paranoid about eating it. Tomorrow we leave at 6 am for Wau by bus. It should be a two day trip, so we’re estimated to be in Theou on New Year’s Eve.

1 Jan 2013

The night at Hotel South Sudan in Juba was an extraordinarily loud night. There were two different bands playing on both sides of our room all night until 5:30 am, Ron said it’s probably because it was a Saturday night. Despite the noise, all three of us were pretty much out cold because we were so exhausted and jet-lagged. We woke up at 5am and got ready for Bol to pick us up at 6 am. Third-world schedules, however, are very much suggestions rather than deadlines. We had some breakfast before we left which consisted of some kind of pound cake, eggs (which were scrambled and looked like mashed potatoes), and beans. We arrived at a marketplace/transit center where our car was swarmed by kids trying to sell stuff or promote their car service, etc. We got in our car in the middle seat and waited for the other passengers to join and the luggage to be strapped to the roof. Little did we know the latter would take three and a half hours, a great way to prepare our butts for what lie ahead. Thankfully Bol took care of us so they didn’t rip us off, although they still charged us a lot for luggage, $230 extra South Sudan Pounds (SSP). The conversion is 4 SSP to 1 USD, so roughly $60 USD in this case.

We bought out the middle row (four seats) for the three of us, and it’s almost unfathomable that four people can fit there anyway. They tried to double-sell the fourth seat and squeeze someone in with us but Bol would have none of that and straightened them out. We finally left around 10:40 am and made our way toward Wau. It would be a two day drive and we would stop for the night in Rumbek, a little more than halfway to Wau.

Besides being squished in a car all day with bags between our legs and sore butts, the drive was kind of nice. The landscape, animals and various communities were amazing to see. The landscape changed many times before our eyes, especially with the presence of water. It appeared to get drier as we drove north. There were also many places where there were fires or recently had fires. Ron thought it was to clear the brush for the road but we later found out from Mou it was to clear out the tall grass so that the new grass would sprout. Apparently the goats and cows only like the shorter grass; it could be a predator issue too. We saw many goats and cattle with awesome horns. And some of the cows were giant, almost as tall as a horse! We also saw many birds (storks, vultures, pheasants, eagles, etc.), a group of baboons, some other monkey, but no lions, zebras, rhino, or hippos unfortunately. The vast and beautiful African savannah made up for it though.

We stopped about halfway to Rumbek for some food, drink, and a bathroom break. As always people just stared at us in awe. They like shaking hands here too and say, “How are you?” as their typical English greeting. I’ve heard, “How are you?” “Fine” “Welcome” many times at this point. Never “Good” just “Fine,” which I suppose is a pretty fair response in their case. They are all mostly very friendly people though, shocked by our funny clothes and white skin. At the stop Ron had some tea, which is always served sweetened it seems. But the only food available there was fish, which would have most certainly made us sick; it looked good though, minus the flies. Emmett and I went to pee there which involves walking a bit, turning away from people, and peeing. The name I.P. Freely comes to mind (Simpsons). At this point we had been on our asses for about seven and a half hours, three and a half waiting and four driving. “Surely Rumbek isn’t too much further” I thought, “A mere stone’s throw from where we are.”

False. We arrived in Rumbek after another four hours of driving, the last bit was in the dark. We drove straight into the hotel and got our own room, which was basically a bed with a few walls around it. We bought some mango juice, one of those boxes, like Jumex, for each of us. We drank it and passed out. On a more positive note, the sunset on the way to Rumbek over the savannah was incredible. We also saw a cattle camp on the way to Rumbek in the wetlands, which was a huge amount of cows; a kind of Woodstock or Coachella for cattle. And, in this small town before Rumbek, we saw a white woman and she did a double-take when she saw us 3 white folk jammed in the SUV. Everyone in the car laughed at the reaction she had, basically the same reaction that everyone else has here when they see us, “Whoa! White people!”

We woke up fairly early in Rumbek and hit the road. We made two stops to drop some people off. The cold morning air felt great. At the first stop we met another Lost Boy from Calgary, the Great White North (Canada). H had come back to see his family and get married, but he had been here a while and was trying to make some money to go back. Ron said it’s not uncommon for Lost Boys to do that and then run out of money, unable to return to wherever they were resettled. Many people came up to us to shake our hand, stare, or ask for money. Meanwhile, the driver and other passengers were helping to rearrange the luggage on the roof so things don’t fly off.

On our way to the second stop, Tonj, we came across an overturned gas tank, a sight unlike any I’ve ever seen. Contrary to what you see in the movies, it did not spontaneously explode. Instead a small crowd of locals surrounded it collecting all the free gas they could in anything that could hold liquid. Our driver, being the economical man that he is, also decided to fill up. The gas tankers are placed on top of large flat beds, so with the bumpy roads there’s no surprise that it would fall off. The environmentalist would have had a fit at this scene knowing that what they were using to collect the gas was most likely what they drank out of. Not to mention the deforestation, frequent fires, leaving all trash on the ground, etc.

We stopped in Tonj to drop off a young man who was on school break and come back to visit his family. He studies law at a school in Tanzania. His father is one of the first lawyers in South Sudan, or something along those lines. The rest of the crew got tea or lunch. Emmett and Ron had tea; I refrained again. I found out one of the guys in the car, who I think was travelling with his father, was from Khartoum.  He spoke, in his words, “Full Arabic. No English.”

We were off again toward Wau, but were quickly stopped at a checkpoint and forced to get out and show our passports. We had encountered many checkpoints along the way but this was the first time we had to get out and show them our passports. Most other checkpoints waved us along or just checked ID in the car. It was a little concerning because I thought they would want to search our bags or charge us a fee but they were nice and let us go right away. The other checkpoint that gave us issues was right when we entered Wau, around 4 pm on New Year’s Eve, a mere twenty hour car ride from Juba. Again we got out of our car showed our passports, but this time we had a 10 pound fee for each of us for “registration” AKA the “being American fee.” Shortly after, our journey ended in the market place of Wau, where we finally were reunited with Mou!

3 Jan 2013

Mou was surprisingly easy to find among the small crowd of people as we pulled in the transit center in Wau. We limped out of the car after the twenty hour road trip and greeted Mou. We quickly made our way to another car and waited to load up our luggage and make yet another journey; hopefully this was the final leg of the trip. Mou got us some warm sodas while we watched them strap our luggage to the top of the SUV. As I drank the very refreshing Coca Cola (product placement) I stared at the group of about ten people sitting in the back. “Surely they are just sitting for shade” I thought “They couldn’t possibly expect to fit us four in there too.”

Wrong again. Back in the car for almost two hours and I was sure my legs would never function again. But the pain was eased with the African sunset and being able to catch up with our good friend Mou, who had, on almost that day exactly, been living in South Sudan for one year.

Finally we arrived to our final destination, an NGO compound in a town near Theou. The compound housed a couple different NGOs but I think was primarily for Veterinarian Without Borders, but the German version VSF. Mou’s good friend works there and for a small price they put us up there. We each had our own rooms with a nice bed (bigger than mine at home) and a plastic table and chair. The compound also had a couple latrines and showers. They even had showerheads but they weren’t working for the time we were there so we had to use the bucket method. They also had intermittent electricity from a small solar array and a few batteries. It was even arranged to have breakfast, lunch, and dinner made for us! It was way more than I thought we would have. Mou got us the 5-star package, although I know many that would disagree with me there. Since we arrived late at night we were just shown to our rooms. Then the four of us gathered in my room and shared what food we had, not a bad way to spend New Year’s Eve in my opinion. Much like the rest of the world on that particular night, I promptly passed out and woke up feeling like I hadn’t moved my legs in the past five days…oh right.

We all slowly made our way to the breakfast table to have tea and some amazing fresh baked bread. We showed Mou all the neat toys we brought him (laptop, kindle, books, movies, tools, etc.) and then packed our bags and headed toward the Theou Village Freedom School! We left the compound and made our way down the dirt paths toward the market. The paths seemed to crisscross on each other and I’m certain I would have been wondering in circles if it wasn’t for Mou. We then passed through the Lounyakeer market place, that’s the name of the town that is at the intersection of the main road to Wau and another main road that passes by Theou. The marketplace was kind of your standard group of stalls, a few with diesel generators for electricity. We continued on the main road and turned off onto some windy single track that would apparently get us to the school. The surrounding area had a bunch of medium trees, a few groups of huts, bunches, a few goats and cows, and fences that were made out of thorn branches laying on the ground to mark property and to keep our cattle. We arrived at the school after about one hour and twenty minutes of walking, which I estimate about two and half miles from the compound. The school was a simple four classroom brick building with a sheet metal roof and our shipping container was adjacent to it near a tree, which they used to pull the container off the truck that delivered it.

4 Jan 2013

After we arrived at the school we took a quick tour then met some of Mou’s relatives. The school had a cement plastering on the outside but the walls and floors inside were still unfinished. Mou had mostly wired the school with two lights in each room and some outlets. He also had a nice brick and metal structure built to house our 36 panel array. It was about 200 feet from the nearest classroom, which would prove to be an issue later. We sat with his cousins for a while, saw Mou’s house then headed back to the school to start working. The houses are typically grouped together, about four to a group, and sit elevated a few feet up. The elevated base is used during the harvest to dry various things. The houses probably have around a 12 ft radius, on average. An adobe type wall acts as the base, about 4 or 5 ft high, and a cone shaped roof covers the rest, constructed by a wooden frame with layered straw as covering.

6 Jan 2013

The first day working at the school Ron and I focused on placing the solar panels on the structure while Emmett and Mou worked on connecting the charge controller and straightening out the mess of equipment. The structure was welded together so that each panel had its own space. Even though the given dimensions were probably accurate the work quality here is often very poor and many of the spaces for the panels were too small for the panels to lie down flat. I took all the panels out of the boxes and to the structure to lay them out, with the help of several young boys from the village. The villagers who showed up watched in awe as we worked on the system and they were eager to help whenever possible. I spent a lot of time hammering in some of the crooked welding to try to make more panels fit. After a short time some of the villagers started to do the same to help out, and continued to do so after we left. When we got back to the compound we ate some rice and beans, which were meant to be our lunch. Then we cleaned up and had dinner shortly after that. The dinner was some kind of corn flour mixture type thing that looked like mashed potatoes and had the consistency of masa. Then there was a broth to pour over it with a little onion chopped in it. There was also chicken but the chickens here were meager in comparison to the hormone pumped Franken-chicken we eat at home.

While we were eating we met a guy, around my age, in the dining area from the UK who had been working in this area, Lounyakeer, for about three months. His name was Chris and he was from South London. He studied Biology for undergrad and international development for his masters. He had just worked in Uganda for the past two years doing various water projects but wanted to come up to South Sudan, so he did. He is working with the Carter Foundation to eradicate Guinea Worm, an awful parasite that burrows itself into your body and can grow to be several feet long. To remove it they cut where the head is, wrap it around a stick, and slowly roll it up until the full worm is out. He said some could take several days to completely remove and it can be really painful. I cringed at the details he told us and wished I could go back to a time when I didn’t know these bugs existed.

The next day Ron and I were back at the panels. I did a final run through to get as many panels to fit as possibly then we bolted down what we could with the help of some of the young boys again. I was amazed that these boys didn’t fight over who got to help or that it was their turn; they were just glad to help and shared the responsibility among themselves.  For the next task Ron and I were to find a spot to mount the combiner box and run the 2 AWG (read gauge) wire to the school. We laid out the roll of 2 AWG wire that we had to find out that it wasn’t even enough for one length, let alone the four lengths that we needed. If the panel array was closer to the classroom where the equipment was this wouldn’t be an issue, but alas it was too far and that was out of our hands. This is where the engineering comes into play I suppose. So we considered our options and determined that Ron and Mou would go to Wau tomorrow and try to get more 2 AWG wire if possible and 14 AWG if not. They also needed to go to Wau to reserve a spot on a plane from Wau to Juba for our return flight. Emmett and Mou finished the DC and AC wiring of the FlexPower unit and we made our way back to the compound.

We stopped at the market to get a coke and a case of water, which came out to be $25 USD, unbelievably expensive for four cokes and a case of water. You would think in such a poor area things would be less expensive than at home, certainly not MORE expensive. But as Mou explained, pretty much everything there is imported, mostly from China or neighboring countries like Uganda and Kenya. And as I found out first hand, transportation is no easy task. South Sudan has tremendous potential for oil, obviously, and agriculture. They have some high percentage of Africa’s most fertile soil, I’ve been told. They also have a pretty large supply of natural Mahogany trees. And the people are willing to work, I imagine, but there are internal tribal conflicts and conflict with the North and probably a whole lot of other problems that I’m unaware of. But if things start to fall into place for South Sudan, they could easily be one of the wealthiest countries. But the wealth would bring a new set of issues, they would just take on another form. C’est la vie.

7 Jan 2013

The following day, work day number 3, I woke up with a sore/dry throat that would ease a bit as the day progressed. We had breakfast together then went our separate ways. Emmett and I, with the help of Mou’s cousin, made our way back to the school to work and Ron and Mou went off to Wau. Daniel, Mou’s cousin and our guide, was such a nice guy and his English was pretty good. He said he had studied in Kampala for a few years. He worked for VSF doing various tasks like vaccinating cows, helping with farming or irrigation, etc.  There were certainly a lot of times where we all had to wrestle with the pronunciation of certain words.

Emmett and I first started by wiring the panel connectors, which would be used to group together the different sets of panels to the combiner box. The villagers watched anxious to help in some way but we didn’t have any extra panel connectors so we couldn’t afford any mistakes. So shortly thereafter we put them to work again and they helped us organize the classroom that housed our equipment. We moved the inverter in the corner and laid out the batteries nicely next to it so Emmett and I could wire them up. After the batteries were all set we organized things a bit more then headed back to hopefully meet with Mou and Ron again to see what happened in Wau. Would we have a flight back from Wau to Juba or would we have to endure another lovely two day road trip crammed in a car with ten others? Did they find the extra wire we needed to connect the solar panels to the rest of the system equipment? These are the questions I asked myself repeatedly through the day, as we half expected them to show up at the school that afternoon with the equipment. But the later it got I started to think maybe they wouldn’t eve make it back today.

Sure enough, shortly after we arrived at the compound, we were told that Mou, “No come today.” So Emmett and I ate dinner, took bucket showers, and went to bed.

9 Jan 2013

Day 4 of working at the school and it seems the dust got the best of me. My throat felt a little better but now my nose was stuffy and runny. But the show must go on, so Emmett and I had tea and bread and hit the road with Daniel. Daniel had to carry my bag this time because my crippling stuffy nose wouldn’t allow me to keep up with his lightning speed walking pace. The work that day was pretty limited since I was so lethargic but we did manage to run an extra set of wires through the conduit so we can have two rooms per breaker instead of four rooms on one breaker. We also connected a diagnostic tool to the DC side of the inverter, which could be helpful for monitoring the health and other such relevant things. It would be particularly useful if I get the chance to develop the LabView software a bit more. A slightly intelligent system could prove to be very useful for the system lifetime, especially when there is such limited technical knowledge in the area, and country for that matter. The wiring was somewhat tedious and took a while. Also I had to take frequent breaks to clear my nose. Needless to say that handkerchief deserves a thorough washing when I get home.

We headed back around 5 pm hoping to finally hear from Ron and Mou in person. We told Daniel we had to take a thirteen hour plane ride to get there and that planes had toilets on them. He was so unbelievably amazed by that! It was so great to see his reaction. We saw Ron and Mou just as they arrived in the marketplace of Lounyakeer. They came bearing bad news; well I suppose unfortunate news, not detrimental per se. Mou was able to find extra wiring but it was definitely not the same 14 AWG wire we had, it was more like a cord you see from a lamp to the wall but with two parallel wires running through an insulating sheath. Mou told me when he showed the shopkeepers a sample of the 2 AWG wire we needed they just kind of stared in wonder. In hindsight, it was silly to think there was a chance of us finding such thick copper wire in Wau. The other bad news was that the earliest they could get Emmett and me a flight back to Juba was one day late. So Ron contacted the travel agency to try to find a later flight for us so we could avoid another two day road trip. Over dinner Ron and Mou told us a little bit about their trip to Wau. Basically the first day was wasted just travelling to Wau. By the time they got there everything was closed. The airport, in particular, opens at about 11 am and closes at 3 pm, not bad work hours for the employees.

10 Jan 2013

The following morning I still felt a little under the weather. More congested this time, less of a runny nose. Again my handkerchief would be saturated by day’s end. We sent out a couple more emails to the traveling agency to make flight adjustments then quickly headed back to the school to see if we could finish up that day. Fortunately for us emailing was an option even at our compound because Ron had a satellite internet device. If it wasn’t for that we would have no cell phone or internet access in the area at all. In fact, Wau was the closest place for either of those. We were told, however, that a cell phone tower is planned to be built in the area. It might have been the only thing keeping my mom together too. My mom, being the good mother that she is, loves to worry and the occasional email from South Sudan helped to alleviate some of her worries.

Feeling somewhat lethargic again I decided to finish up the wiring inside the school while Emmett and Mou worked outside in the heat to try to get the panels wired to the classroom, where the combiner box is mounted. We worked until about 5 pm or so again and didn’t quite finish up but decided to head back to the compound to see if we got a response from the travelling agency. More than fourteen hours after our request for a later flight and we still hadn’t heard back. It was starting to look like we would have no choice but to take the road again back to Juba. This meant we had to be prepared to leave tomorrow, consequently meaning we wouldn’t have the system quite one hundred percent ready and we certainly wouldn’t have any down-time to relax in Theou at all. We would even miss Mou’s sister’s wedding! Coincidently his sister was getting married that week. From what I was told it usually lasts about three days. We would even miss the bachelor party…just kidding. But we were all really hoping to have the chance to experience a traditional Dinka wedding, especially since it’s Mou’s sister. I even offered to give a toast.

We were all brainstorming on possible ways we could buy some more time in Theou. Maybe George Clooney could fly us back in his private jet. One must always think outside the box. That night, after dinner, the four of us sat outside with the myriad of stars above our heads, and just casually chatted. We didn’t talk about anything profound or serious, mostly frivolous joking between friends. If this was to be our last night at least it would end on a good note.

We woke up early to find word from the travel agency, finally. January 16th was the next available date, apparently, that we could make it back. Unfortunately that would not do. Emmett and I were both expected back at school by that time. Plus other in-country travel issues arose from that date change making it nearly impossible. So we quickly came to the reality of the situation and Mou left to arrange for a car later that day to Wau, pick up a couple things we left at the school, and tell his family he would have to miss his sister’s wedding to escort us back to Juba. What a shame, I thought, that we would be such a burden to Mou on this adventure of ours. But in South Sudan you play by their rules. It is what it is. So Ron, Emmett, and I sat there a sulked disappointed by the recent turn of events. Mou left around 11 am and said he would be back in a few hours, so we had to be packed and ready. So Emmett and I made a pile of all the toys we brought for Mou and then finished packing our now much lighter bags. It was a late Christmas for Mou, but quality and quantity would more than make up for that.

We decided to relax and enjoy our remaining time at the compound instead of feel sorry for ourselves. I tried some of the sugar cane Mou brought back from Wau. Emmett and Mou had some the previous night but I wasn’t quite up for it then. But this time around I was feeling particularly adventurous; we all have our wild sides I suppose. Eating sugar cane is quite an experience. It basically looks like a stick of bamboo and you peel back the outer part with your teeth, very panda-like, so you get to the sweet center. Then you bite off the sugary center, a celery-like consistency, and drink the sugar water then spit out the pulp. I wouldn’t recommend it for a first date or anything though. Even Ron joined in on the fun, that is, before the ants took over. Ants like sugar, who knew.

11 am had passed and Mou still wasn’t back, but what could we do. Mou was just planning to keep us there indefinitely, which I don’t think I would mind. Then Emmett and I played Frisbee which managed to catch the attention of a couple people at the compound. We had one of the guys try to throw it but beginner’s luck was not on his side. He seemed more interested in watching than trying to figure out this strange flying disc thing.

Close to 3 pm and still no Mou. But shortly after he came with a car to drive us to Wau. He got caught up with a flat bike tire and his family didn’t take kindly to the news of him missing his sister’s wedding. Especially since he, as the older brother, would have some significant role in the whole thing. We bought out the car that took us to Wau so it was actually one person per car seat!  A comfort we would only have once on this trip.

17 Jan 2013

We arrived at the River Lodge Hotel in Wau, a surprisingly nice place to stay, much nicer than the hotel in Juba. We had a nice dinner, cleaned up, and went to bed. The next morning we woke up early so we were ready to leave at any moment. Mou had to hustle in morning and go hire a car for Ron to get to Aweil and another car for the three of us to get back to Juba. Ron, Emmett and I had a few minutes to sit together that morning for the last time. Ron was great to have on the trip with us. I learned so much from him and it was comforting travelling with someone that had been there several times before. He has done a lot of good with Village Help for South Sudan and there is still much to be done. I’m hoping the four of us will continue to work together and I’m excited to see the results. We quickly said our goodbyes and then Emmett and I waited for Mou to come back.

Shortly after, we walked to the transit center with Mou. While the car was being loaded some guys were talking to us, one called himself Black Jesus. I didn’t think I would meet him in South Sudan, but I guess it truly is when you least expect it. So we headed back to Juba, another two day bumpy ride. Emmett and I shared the front seat and Mou was in the back with the other twelve or so people; one woman even had a baby with her. This time no dropping people off and no overturned gas tank. We spent another night in Rumbek in the same hotel coincidentally. I tried to go straight to bed because I had a bit of a headache and I was tired of the road. I managed to fall asleep for a couple hours but woke up close to midnight with a TV blasting outside my room and the extremely loud diesel generator nearby. My headache had multiplied and I wanted the noise to end immediately, not to mention the heat. I walked out of my room and it seemed to startle the people outside watching TV. Maybe they sensed my frustration because right after everything was shut off and it was finally quiet.

The next morning we quickly got in the car and right before we left guess who I saw, Black Jesus! He goes where he is needed. Another full day of driving and we finally made it back to Hotel South Sudan. We got cleaned up, read some emails, and ate our last supper together. The following morning after breakfast the three of us were able to relax at the hotel and wait for our flight. Even more, at the airport we spent our last hours together waiting to board.

Our journey was over, we started two and a half years ago with the idea of bringing electricity to a school in South Sudan; a school that our Mou fundraised to build as tribute to his true home. A home he was forced to flee as a young boy, under the threat of the North, and live in refugee camp for six years before being brought to the US. Now Mou looks further than the Theou Village Freedom School and works to bring solar energy to South Sudan. Emmett and I stand by and help in whatever way possible. It’s an exciting time for Mou and I can’t wait to see where his new company, SunGate Solar, goes and the impact it has.


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