My body is not mine here in South Sudan. Everything about this land tries to get under my skin. When I go to the bush, thorns as big as my fingers reach out from trees to scratch my arms. Dried grass like daggers push up from the ground so hard that it pierces through soft soles. There’s no escaping it. When I leave the cover of brush and thorns, the sun burns my light skin; and each day I am here in February, it will only get hotter. In the evening, when it’s finally cool and we’re sitting out under the stars, ants seek out fresh skin to bite. Mosquitoes plump with malaria inject their poisons. Hyenas laugh out in the distance. My body is not made for this land so I have to arm myself with malaria prescriptions, and sun block, and hard soled boots. Yet I am here.
Lion and I decided to spend my first week here with the drilling crew before we go off on our own to evaluate wells drilled over the last ten years. This gave me the opportunity to watch the drilling of Water for South Sudan’s 10th and 11th wells this year. When I first arrived in the camp, I was greeted by the local leader, a man named Kiir, who sits in the state’s parliament. He presented me with a goat as a sign of his appreciation. Then he apologized for its size, but promised there would be another before we left. I shook his hand and said thank you in Dinka, Inchalac. The next morning I watched two members of our crew, Hakim and Malik, knife in hand, walk the goat behind the trees. Hakim held the goat down on the ground to expose his neck, as Malik got prepared. I forced myself to watch through the trees. The goat’s cries were eerily like a child’s, and I felt this sound, like a hand, forcing its way into my throat and squeezing my heart. I expected the slaughter to be quick, but it wasn’t. The goat screamed louder until I heard the knife cut through his esophagus when the screams turned to gurgles. The goat was choking on its own blood. I looked through the trees and saw bright red on brown as Malik sawed at its neck. I squeezed my hands into fists and willed the lump in my throat back down into the center.
One morning, Lion and AJ, the crew leaders, went out to scout the site for the next well. I was left in the camp with the women, Agum and Achol, the two cooks: Adau, the crew’s medical staff, and Ajak, one of the hygiene trainers. None of the women could speak much English so I spent my time taking pictures and watching Achol and Adau give each other injections for malaria. Achol had gotten sick with malaria and typhoid before I arrived. AJ had taken her to the small clinic in the village of Luanyaker nearby. The doctor there gave her fluids and inserted a needle into her vein held by tape. There it would stay for seven days so that she could take the injectable malaria medicine back with her to the field. Then Adau passed out the night before. We checked her pulse and tried to wake her but no response, so AJ and Matthew carried her to the Land Cruiser and brought her to the same doctor in Luanyaker. Now both girls had the needles stuck in their veins held by tape. The injection is supposed to be given slowly to minimize the pain, but Achol still cried as Adau pushed the medicine through her veins. So we began to talk to pass the time.
“Anchipol meit means I am happy,” Achol told me as she wiped her tears and mimicked a huge smile. They both laughed when I tried to pronounce it. They explained that when someone greets me, they say embuol, to ask “how are you?” I can either respond achinkaroc, which means everything is ok, or I can say Anchipol Meit. We talked about what makes each other happy. Adau said she wanted to get married and go to the United States, Achol wants to be a lawyer but needs money to go to University. “You my friend in America when I come?” Adau asked me. “Yes madea, Adau.” They laugh because I remembered the Dinka word for friend. “Inyar apay, Angelique,” Achol repeats as she laughs. I ask her what it means. She tells me inyar means, “I love you” and the word apay means “so much.” It can be used to heighten something, like the word “very.”
“Inyar apay, Angelique. Means I luff you vedy much Angelique,” her English heavily accented.
I respond, “Anchipol miet apay,” I am very happy, then we all break out in laughter and they shake their heads yes, because I am learning.
On my final day in the camp with the crew, we went to the next village over, Aker Abuok, to get the final pictures of well number 11 and talk to the villagers. After the little ceremony we had with the well, one young girl told Matthew, who had been translating for me, that she wanted to speak to me in secret. I went with her behind the drilling rig. She had spent two days in our camp taking the hygiene training from Matthew and his hygiene team. She was chosen by her village because she was responsible enough to teach others what she learned in the class. She said, “I have no brothers in my house, but I want to go to school to become educated like you and I can’t because my family cannot afford it. Please, can you tell your people I need help.” I asked her how much it costs, she told me 500 South Sudanese pounds each semester, which is about $100 US dollars. I swallowed hard and squeezed my fists tight. Then I put one hand on her shoulder and told her I would.
As I walked away, I tried to ignore the villagers staring at me, asking me, emboul. I have not learned the word yet for “sad”.
Before we leave the village, Adinani, our driver ties the second goat from Kiir on top of our Land Cruiser. I ask Lion why the goat is there.
He says, “We are bringing it back to the compound.”
“Alive? On top of the roof? How does it travel on those bumpy roads?” I asked, wanting to put it inside the car with us.
“It will be fine. We have done it many times.” Lion reassures me.
I take a deep breath and turn back to finish packing my things. There is a distinct iron smell here that pervades everything, sun-baked clay, dust, centuries old struggles pouring out of sweaty skin—life commingled with nature. When I first arrived, I smelled it pungent on people fresh from the bush. I didn’t know how to respond or how to act when someone got close to me. Now it soaks into my clothes and my gear no matter how hard I scrub them in the wash basin. The sun bakes it onto my skin when I bathe. Sometimes I feel it forcing its way through my pores deep into my veins. My blood carries it through my body changing me.
Now, I hear myself saying, anchihpol meit apay, as I say goodbye to the girls in the camp and face the Land Cruiser to head back to the compound.