Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Sting Operation

Yes, it's a scorpion. The kind whose sting can kill a child, or make an adult writhe in pain for 3 days. The kind that thrive in hot, dry, gritty deserts--just the very sort of place that is Narus, South Sudan.

My close encounter occurred when I was looking for a rag to wipe the dust off my laptop.  I reached out to grab a washcloth hanging from a rack on the wall.  Living in constant fear of spiders, I had the good sense to lift the rag very gingerly and shake it a bit to dislodge any unwanted critters. As I pulled it carefully off the rack, I saw the scorpion, larger than my thumb, on the wall just behind it. 

I suppressed a scream and instead squeaked, "Sister Edvine!  In here, please!"  Edvine-the-Brave came running (she just earned a raise from MBB), took one look at the scorpion, uttered a respectful "Ooooh," and summarily thwacked it with her sandal, resulting in one fewer scorpion in South Sudan and one very relieved Executive Director.

Thursday, March 24, 2016


I had invited the Principal of St Bakhita High School over to “my place” in South Sudan (a corrugated iron shipping container long since converted into a guest dwelling). There I was, sitting casually on a flimsy plastic chair across the small round table from him, chatting about the challenges of running a boarding school where there are never enough trained teachers.  Beyond the meshed wire windows I could hear birds trilling and see the garden thick with trees growing ‘round the bomb shelter.  Then I heard a scampering. Tiny feet skittering across mesh. An unmistakable sound. And a long naked tail trailing behind. Hard to ignore. 

Yes, a sizeable rat was dashing along the mesh several inches behind the head of my guest. Dashing, that is, until our eyes met: then Mr. Rat froze in place, pretending to blend into the general scenery. Ha!  If it could have grinned at me, it probably would have: “This is my house, too, you know!”  I conceded the point: I am only a visitor here for a few weeks. We wordlessly agreed to share the space: “I’ll take the ground floor, please; you can have the rafters.”

Postscript: two days after writing the above paragraph, I cornered a large plump rat in the shower stall. Again, a brave MBB colleague dispatched it to the netherworld. But all night long we heard the running of many, many tiny feet in the rafters. Perhaps they were gathering for the funeral?

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Firewood Woman

The firewood woman—I did not learn her name--looks old and weary and worn, yet she has a toddler with her so she must be young. She once had a husband who helped her with the work, cutting and bundling the wood. He died. She is now a widow stripped of all possessions (according to the Levirate custom); even the wedding necklaces she once proudly wore were reclaimed by the dead man’s brothers. 

Reduced to near starvation, this Firewood Woman has walked four miles to reach here. She steps slowly, deliberately into the Narus compound beneath her heavy load, then bends to topple its weight onto the ground. She sits on the dirt and turns her head upward, hoping that the compound manager will purchase the wood so that she and her child can eat. But no, she has come too late: the compound bought its supply of wood yesterday from another woman. 

This firewood woman sits motionless on the ground for another hour, absorbing the news the way the earth absorbs the punishing heat, without complaint; then she hoists her burden onto her head, stands upright, and walks back through the gate.

Thursday, March 10, 2016


Some people say they are unlucky in life; others unlucky in love. Myself, I am unlucky in phones. 

Both my mother and my mother’s mother had careers as telephone operators --long before cell phones, when Ma Bell was still a monopoly, back when phone numbers had quaint names like “Klondike 3477” and a switchboard actually involved switching a wild tangle of lines manually from one plug to another on a huge board.  

Despite the fact that I must have inherited some of those clever genes, I hate phones. And they know it. They snicker when they see me coming. Several months ago I purchased a basic phone in Haiti specifically for travel. I used it while visiting MBB projects there.  When I reached Nairobi en route to South Sudan recently I confidently produced the cell phone and exchanged the Haitian sim card for a Kenyan sim card. Nothing happened. No lights, rings, or whistles. It didn’t work. The technician who had just sold the sim card to me said, “Your phone, Madam, it is locked. This will function only in Haiti.” Perhaps you heard the slow grinding of teeth.  There is no way around it. I am unlucky with phones. I accept my fate.

PS: The above paragraph was written upon my arrival to Kenya in February. While going through security screening at Nairobi’s main airport this past weekend prior to my flight home, my smart phone was stolen.  Need I say it again? Definitely unlucky with phones. Sigh.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Coping with Malaria

Thanks to the generosity of Dignity Health System in San Francisco, Mercy Beyond Borders has been able to bring Sr Edvine Tumuheirwe, an experienced RN, to live and work at St Bakhita Girls' Primary School for a year.  Given that there are over 700 girls in the school (half of them boarding), she does not lack for patients.  In her first 2 months on campus, she treated 82 cases of malaria, plus girls with pneumonia, skin rashes, parasites, and more. Here you see her comforting a feverish girl while others lie in the shade of a classroom behind her.