south sudan

Ben Fell Down a Latrine

by Spencer

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.

the holeLuckily 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.

Bicycling into South Sudan’s Independence

by Spencer

It was an epic week. A nation born. The people had a palpable joy – flags fluttering from tree tops, mountains, pickups and people, celebratory honking, singing, fireworks and gunfire. It was a beautiful.

And yet, everywhere was the evidence that South Sudan isn’t truly a nation. It’s landlocked with barely a paved road. Less than 5% graduate from primary school. Tribalism rules, many do not speak a common language. The central government is weak.

There was an air of violence. It’s hard to articulate. You just felt it. I’d look at a guy and he’d look back without expression, stone cold. And then you wonder, where does that go?

In South Sudan, you see how far we’ve come. You see what it means to be a nation. And how very important that struggle is, to do the necessary maintenance, to remain one, indivisible.

Here’s photos of South Sudan’s Independence, of Nimule and the first national soccer game in Juba. An incredible experience, from being threatened by bandits, to the nonexistent infrastructure contrasted to the mass joy of the people.

edited 1/1/2015

This Is Our Everest

by Spencer

The alarm is set for 5am. Ahead is the most challenging road of our journey. We leave Juba, tracking east into Kenya. The road will be rough and hot. Water will be scarce. It may rain turning road to river. Eastern South Sudan and northern Kenya are no man’s lands where the nation state is more an idea than something put into practice. Cattle raiding is common. Primary education isn’t.

The pavement resumes in Lodwar, capital of Kenya’s Rift Valley province, about 370 miles from Juba. We hope to be there in six days, but the desert sun and terrible road conditions may force us to shorten days. We may have to bush camp. We will be forced to be self sufficient. Everyday we will start with 20 liters, about 50 pounds, of water and enough food for two days. It’s going to be a challenge.

Luckily, the past couple days have been energizing. We came into Juba encrusted in sweat and starving. We found fellowship with Ryan and Kristen who work in South Sudan with Mission Aviation Fellowship, who help people by flying over the rotted roads. (Much more sensible than bicycling…) Though they have a ten month old son, Caleb, and we were disheveled dirty strangers, they took us in and gave us food and internet and showers. Much can be said how South Sudan lacks comfort and security and yet here in Juba there is a family that can only be described as loving.


We have been surprised how similar so much of Africa seems. A photo of a roadside store in Zimbabwe would be indistinguishable from one of South Sudan. Ahead of us lie the peoples of Lake Turkana. We’re excited to see how the tribal societies compare. We’re also intimidated by reports from last month warning of banditry. I’m curious to see how well I can maintain my health in such adverse conditions. My feet and knee are covered in umpteen dozen red spots. (Bug bites???) By the time we’re back on a road proper, we’ll find ourselves in the Great Rift Valley, the birthplace of mankind.

For more photos of our travels through South Sudan, check out our Google+ Album.
(Though we may be in one of the world’s  least developed lands, we do embrace the most developed photo viewing techniques.)

New Nation, New Football Team

by Spencer

I told the security guard we had bicycled up from South Africa. Ah! South Africa! You must have faced many challenges. Yes, we have faced many challenges. I then congratulated him on his nation’s independence. Yes today is a great day. We were up in those hills when the Sudanese army came. It was a big battle. Oh. You have faced many challenges too. Yes we have faced many challenges.

Welcome to South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, where the soldiers at check points have not only assault rifles and cammo but also decorative scars. There is a palpable excitement. More waving flags per square car than anywhere else. Here’s a couple quick photos of South Sudan’s first national football game, South Sudan vs Kenya. Unfortunately South Sudan lost, 1-3, but it was yet a good showing.

Slept Here: All Saints Cathedral

by Spencer

In Juba, South Sudan, the pastor kindly let us stay in this classroom. But we had to be up early – it was in use by 8am for Sunday School! The Church plays a big role in developing nations. In large towns the compound may contain a small seminary, guest house, kitchen and conference facilities. Many schools and clinics are also run through churches.
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A Fork in the Road: To South Sudan

by Spencer

We are creatures of habit. Most often our decisions are less than tremendous – they’re exercises in functional efficiency, habituated patterns. I face an actual decision. A literal fork in the road. It’s unsettling.

Last week we discovered that Ethiopia has changed its immigration policy. They no longer issue tourist visas, except at the airport in Addis Ababa and to residents in their home country. Online, people reported month long turnarounds from the Ethiopian embassy in Washington. The only way for us to make it into Addis would be to fly in. Difficult and expensive as we have bicycles.

We’re cornered. We came from the south. To the west, the Congo is struggling after decades of war and a continuing insurgency. And they don’t speak English. To go east is to enter Kenya and end our journey early in Nairobi. That’s an option. Maybe the wisest. But there’s another option, to go north.