Kapoeta, South Sudan. Never mind that half the building was blown out and the walls were peppered with bullet holes, we were lounging in the restaurant to the town’s finest hotel and we were going to enjoy ourselves. A couple more beers, then we would camp in a local businessman’s backyard. Before we could leave though, a man wearing a yellow Hawaiian shirt announced, “I am from the government. These two are my responsibility. Nothing bad will happen to them.” It was arranged that we would stay in the hotel. Awkward, but okay. Not okay, and way more awkward, two hours later Ben was at the bottom of a twenty foot hole screaming for help.
Keep in mind, this was the day we witnessed a truck shot out by bandits. This was the day we were guarded by soldiers wearing pouches full of banana clips. We were in deep, in South Sudan, the world’s newest and probably poorest country. There is no Flight for Life, there isn’t barely a hospital. If something goes really wrong, to put it bluntly, you’re just screwed, left adrift in a land devastated by fifty years of civil war.
Luckily for Ben, things hadn’t gone really wrong, only fairly wrong. He had accidently fallen to the bottom of a 20ft hole, which, by the way, was a latrine. Meanwhile, Spencer was naked, taking a sponge bath in a tin shack, probably only 30ft away, as the worm crawls. Between Ben and Spencer was an overflowing latrine; the poo slush sloshed out, it smelled so much like poo, the whole situation just really really sh*ty, like it’s hard to imagine a situation to which the word could be more appropriate
Anyways, so Ben was yelling for help. Spencer was like, huh? But, regardless, snapped on some shorts and ran out, through the poo slush, barefoot, wondering how many AK wielding bandits he was up against. Ben? Ben?! Down here! Oh. He was so small. Slash, oh holy sh*t wow you’re at the bottom of a 20ft hole in Kapoeta, South Sudan.
Spencer didn’t know what to do. Get help. Run to a hotel attendant to say, “so my friend is at the bottom of a hole…” He didn’t get it. English comprehension too low. Try the restaurant. Be more frantic. Yellow Hawaiian floral print government dude is here. Let’s work this. Attention received, run back to Ben. He looks down the hole. Oh holy Jesus. Yuppers, oh holy Jesus.
The attendant swung into action and climbed down the hole to join Ben in the latrine. “What are you doing? Why are you coming down here! Don’t you have a rope?!” No, Ben didn’t want company in the latrine, he wanted to get out. As the hotel owner frantically apologized, the whole hotel gathered round to watch the white man get pulled out of the latrine . Eventually they found a rope. They got Ben out. Miraculously, he wasn’t hurt. Everything was okay. The government man even said so, “it is okay.” No one is going to get taken out back and beaten because they let the American walk into a 20ft hole. It’s okay. Everything’s okay. Everything’s okay.
It almost wasn’t. Ben fell 20ft and was unharmed. He was so lucky. If someone had left a shovel down there, if he had landed differently, it’s scary just to think about. How far away was appropriate medical care? How long before a serious infection would have consumed a limb? We put ourselves in that situation. Were we crazy?
At least a little. After I got them to Ben, after it was clear he was going to be okay, I ran to grab my camera. They were appalled. “You cannot be serious.” Nah, I wasn’t serious. I was practically giggling. This was too funny. Don’t get me wrong – I also was still shaking in terror from Ben’s screaming, the guns, the violent ambience that hung in that air. But deep within it’s like I wasn’t capable of grasping the seriousness of our situation. Ben would be okay. Bad things don’t happen.
I have never seen someone die. Not even a chicken. Death is so far removed from my life that even when it comes right up next to me I barely recognize it. If Ben had landed to bleed out, a cracked bone protruding, how scary it would have been. A frantic rush to find phone numbers we had lost, to make calls to the embassy in Kampala on a mobile phone that didn’t have service, to wait for a medvac to Nairobi at ten at night, with airstrips that have no capacity for night landings, when the road back to Juba was blocked by bandits.
“You cannot be serious,” they said again as I held up the camera. To all the people who told me I couldn’t, to the South African who said I’d end up a pile of bones, to all their seriousness, I reply simply, “yes I can.” That is who I am. I can do anything I want. Let me take out my phone, I have the facebook slideshow to prove it. That is the reality I know. I wonder how different I would be if Ben had landed just a bit different. I wonder in all of history how many have been so lucky to remain as blind, crazy and ignorant as me.