27 November 2009

picture pages, picture pages....

...time to get your pen or your pencil....

Fangak International Airport

they're called "Tukuls"

my digs...the mosquito net/cot to the left is my preferred sleeping arrangement, the better to take advantage of those cool night breezes....cooking and what-not is done inside the main building.....but I don't think "MTV Cribs is going to be knocking on my door anytime soon....

the current medical center

Old Fangak at evening

Fangak Drillers Local #237 working on "Big Mojo #1" (membership clockwise: Bret, Mike, Rob, Stephen "the Man" Gatkose, DK)

moments before my good-hearted Bull Connor impression....

kids will be kids.....anywhere the sun shines

letting the days go by...

so…..our story begins in the AK, last February….

actually, our story begins with a long-time dream of mine – to wake up one New Year’s Day morning on Easter Island, lying on the beach with those great stone heads looking out at the ocean with me…..

but back to the the facts…..

a local doctor, name of Jack, had snow-machined out to the lodge on Valentine’s Day weekend with his fiancĂ©e, Josie, for a few quiet days of skiing and snuggling….mutual friends had tipped them off that EagleSong was a good place for that sort of thing, so a few weeks prior he had called up & booked a cabin….

none of us had actually met before, and there is always some trepidation when having people you don’t know come out, even friends of a friend – will they be annoying, will they be uncomfortable, etc, etc……but they arrived with smiles, and it became apparent that they were “good peoples”, as they might say in South Philly….

over dinner that first night, amidst conversating about life & what-not, Jack began discussing a project he was involved with in Africa – about a doctor named Jill Seaman….who had for the past 20 years been splitting her time between Bethel, AK and southern Sudan, mostly in a village called Old Fangak.

Jack had lived & worked in Africa previously, and upon visiting the good Dr. Seaman in the village a couple of years ago, he saw the conditions, the poverty, and the overwhelming needs Jill was dealing with, and told her, “…we’ve got to get you some help….”

Old Fangak proper is a village of a couple thousand people – but within a 50 mile radius there are various homesteads, smaller & larger villages….a total population for the area over 50,000 people…..and the only doctor is a woman from Alaska working out of a 70 year old stone building …. treating people who might have walked for 4 or 5 days to reach the village, or sold a cow for the money to get a seat on a trading boat going down the river (the boats here are another 10K word post in their own right – mind-blowin’, I’m telling ya….)

Medicines Sans Frontiers/Doctors Without Borders (a fantastic organization, let there be no doubt) wouldn’t go there, as it was too remote of an area for their logistics & operations to support….MedAir wasn’t there for much the same reasons, along with a host of other NGO’s that for various political and natural realities couldn’t/wouldn’t work in the area…..

only a crazy doctor from the AK, and whatever local staff she could cobble together and train….

Jill’s a pretty amazing chick, obviously.

The MacArthur Foundation agreed with that sentiment earlier this year – you can chek theirs and others thoughts on the matter here, here and here

so Jack returned to the AK, and with a couple of other people started the Alaska Sudan Medical Project (you can check out the main website here), whose main goal is building a new medical facility for Jill and Old Fangak, as well as drilling wells and bringing clean water to an area that is absolutely desperate for it…..and along with those, the possibility of some hope for the future….

so….as you might imagine, I was intrigued by the story & his passion for it, and ended up spending a couple of hours talking with him about the project & the scene in Africa….on that night, it was 20 degrees below zero and there was 12 feet of snow outside my window….90+ degrees and sunshine sounded awfully nice, and I nonchalantly mentioned that if they were going over next winter to give me a call, see what my plans were…..

and the next morning they went out skiing, and then we had another pleasant evening…..and the next day they were snow-machining back to Anchorage….

and that’s where the prologue ends….I went about my spring & summer, as y’all know….and Sudan might have been in the back of my mind, but it was pretty far back….I set up plans to spend autumn in Oregon, winter working on a project in Austin and traveling….

until the last weekend in September, when Josie ran into my sister at the Anchorage Weekend Market….

they chatted, and my sis asked her about the Africa project…to which Josie replied that they were setting up to send a team over at the end of October, but were still looking for people – in particular, she mentioned that they needed someone who could go over & stay for a few months to manage the project on the ground…more than the two weeks or so commitments that they could get from most of the doctors, well-drillers, etc that they were working with….

her words were, “we need someone with bush experience – someone willing to live in primitive conditions…..no running water, only well – no electricity except what we’d get from gas powered generators & batteries….sleeping w/mosquito nets….someone with construction experience who could deal with having limited tools, resources, & fuel… someone who could handle the travel & stress of the scene…do you know anyone?”

basically, she said everything EXCEPT the sentence, “We need your brother, and is he actually crazy enough to say yes?”

so my sister, who was thinking, “they need Dave, and he’s crazy enough to say yes…” told her she would talk to me and have me get in touch with Jack…

which I did, after quite a few chuckles as she replayed the conversation to me….I’ve seen enough of my karmic signposts to recognize one smacking me in the face….

so….I called Jack, told him I was flying into Anchor-town on the 10th of October (plans I had already made, so as to avoid freeze-up and being locked in once the lake started icing over), and that we should meet-up then and discuss the project….

we met, and discussed the harsh realities I’d be facing, the plethora of inoculations I needed to get, the details of the construction, as well as the amazing nature of the whole scene….the tipping point for me was when he mentioned that if I took the job, it would be necessary for me to take a boat up the rivers once or twice a month for supplies, fuel, pick up team members flying in, etc….

the image of a sunrise on a continent I’ve never seen, and me plunging into the middle of the Nile River on Jan 1, 2010 materialized into my head, and I told him, “I’m your man, Jack, let’s go build a hospital in Africa…”

….as I mentioned, it’s nice to recognize your karma as it happens every once in a while…and are we not our brother’s keeper?

or, as I relayed to a friend later that night as it began to sink in….“I’m going to build a f**king hospital in f**king Africa….”

so….three weeks later, on Halloween, I was on a plane to Nairobi….and three days later, standing on a dirt airstrip about a ¼ mile from Old Fangak, with three other cats from the AK, and about twenty boxes of tools, equipment, and mosquito nets….

and here we are….

so DK, what’s the rumpus?

more on that next time, but a few quick notes:

the moon: I wasn’t crazy, the phases are at a right angle from “normal”….quite cool to watch from night to night….

the birds: probably only thousands, but it seems like millions…ibises, kites, cranes, red-cheeked cordon bleu’s….simply stunning, and a constant daily entertainment for me…

the temperature:…it’s equator hot, man…96 degrees in the shade, literally…mid-day siestas are a must, but my tan’s already reaching George Hamilton levels….it cools off at night, and by midnight is down to 65-70, quite pleasant…

the cuisine: I’ve represented myself well, and been the polite honored guest who tries and eats everything….my mama raised me right…but let’s just say this ain’t Paris, and I’m cooking for myself as much as possible…

the work: tough, mainly due to conditions….AK rules apply: it takes twice as long, is twice as hard, & is at least twice as expensive as expected….but nothing I can’t handle….

….and last Monday, I was spraying 20 squealing village kids out of a hose from the new well we had successfully got up and running after 10 days of constant set-backs…..there was no FatBurger, but it was indeed a good day…

23 November 2009

these are the days of miracle & wonder....

……….this is the long distance call…..
so…..I am in deepest, darkest Africa.

as I write this, I am in Malakal, Sudan.

Malakal is a city along the Nile River, just about in the middle of Sudan – consider it the Chicago of the country….

….if the South side of Chicago, or Pittsburgh, or the Italian Market in Philly had been bombed out for 10 years and people had decided F**k it, we’re going to have a city anyway.

add in that three blocks from DeVito’s, let's have mud huts and thatched roofs for 10 miles to form the suburbia and that’s about the scene I’m in…..

…yesterday, I was in a village called Pom.

I spent that morning in Old Fangak, the village I’m working in, rehabilitating the carburetor of a 75 hp boat motor to get us (myself and Bret, technically my boss, though he would hate the term), up the river ( the Zeraf, which then flows into the Nile) to accomplish this weekend’s journey – first, to Pom, where we spent the night, then on to Malakal.

about an hour before we started tearing the boat’s carburetor apart, we were cutting and welding together a makeshift auger to drill out a half-finished well in Fangak.

we handed the rest of that job off to a couple of other cats from the AK, Rob & Mike (a geologist and dentist, respectively), as time was of the essence….

….apparently, you don’t want to make the river journey at night, as you may run into “Apocalapyse Now”….people shooting at you situations…..so it behooves one to make good use of the sunlight.

we were traveling to Pom to meet the new commissioner of Jonglie state, an area in Sudan that includes Pom and Old Fangak, to discuss putting in wells, water filtration, and sanitation systems.....Sudan, like most of Africa, has been racked by corruption over the decades, but this Commish seems to be a good man, educated in Nebraska, of all places, and pretty intent on helping the people...

as we pulled up to the river bank in Pom, in a shitty little boat, with a re-habbed motor, two cowboys from Alaska (along with a local man, Stephen Gatkose, my guide, my right hand man, who I cannot say enough good things about – except to maybe say that in my best hours I would hope to show Stephen the same brotherhood and assistance if we dropped him at 15th and Broad that he has shown me) there were about a couple hundred people there - flags waving, drums beating, the entire National Geographic scene.

we proceeded on to the village centre, a marble and stone building from the British Empire days , where the festivities continued – an additional thousand people….school children singing welcome, followed by male warriors dancing, followed by a female contingent performing a dance that can only be described as “shake your tail feather”………..it’s a scene, man…..

what the hell?

this ain’t me….I signed on to throw up a very simple building to be used for a medical center, drill a few wells…….

Pom is a village of at least 25k people (census numbers in Sudan are dicey, go figure)……and they have no clean water source.

the people have a choice between the river water, which they may have to walk a mile (or two, or three) to get, or bottled water brought in by boat from Malakal (no real roads, only dirt paths)…..which costs money….which most don’t have…..thus, the need for a well or twenty.

and you’ve got the only drilling rig within a couple hundred miles…..and it’s not much to write home about. ...

no pressure, DK…..

…and you may ask yourself…..well……how did I get here?

….and that’s a loooooong story, better saved for next time.

some other quick notes….

….the stars….they sure are beautiful, and quite different configurations & angles than I’m used to, constellations I’ve never seen….my current favorite is Scorpio….it pops out and you think….yep, cavemen 10,000 years ago looked up at that and said “nasty insect that stings you”….I’ve seen a few of the real deal scurrying about as well….

….the moon…..the phases are at almost a right angle compared to the AK, so that a crescent is bottom to top, not left to right….either that, or there was a lunar eclipse last night…..

….my health….all good so far, not a whiff of dysentery or other assorted maladies….taking my meds religiously, and trying real hard not to cut myself….if you know me, you know the concentration that task requires…..

…the bugs….not nearly what I expected, maybe 1/20th of what I’m used to dealing with in a typical AK summer…..an awesomely pleasant surprise….

….tunez….quite a bit of local music in the air, both live (drumming, singing every night), as well as issuing forth from boom-boxes in the popular cassette format, digital technology not having reached most of Sudan thus far…..

…..Sudanese Fish Stew…..take any & all steps necessary to avoid it…….