Jim Blake on Getting Things Done in South Sudan

 SALVA AND JIM BLAKE IN SOUTH SUDAN.

SALVA AND JIM BLAKE IN SOUTH SUDAN.

The first time Jim Blake heard about Salva wanting to drill a well in his father’s village he thought it was great. Jim didn’t know Salva well, but he knew that the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church was behind the project. Jim recalled that everyone was enthusiastic. “I climbed on board blind,” said Jim, “I was doubtful, but I wanted to do everything to make it happen, I assumed it would happen.”

Scott Arrington and Nancy Frank were two crucial components, according to Jim. Scott knew how to build a business and Nancy knew how things worked in Africa. Jim got involved hoping to go and drill a well. “It was a deeply committed bunch of talented people, primarily from the same faith community and with a common background. We trusted and supported each other,” Jim stated, “We all knew we needed each other, we recognized and appreciated our different strengths and we all participated in decision making.”  

In 2004, Jim traveled to Africa with Salva. Scott had done all of the legal and political juggling to set-up the 501(c)(3) and, given that Sudan was still on the U.S. list of countries that supported terrorism, to get permission to go into Sudan. Jim’s job was to open doors for Salva to bankers, contractors, and other professionals in Kampala, Uganda. Salva was considered a boy because although he was 29 he was unmarried. In addition, Sudanese were discriminated against in Uganda.

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A Russian Company that had drilled wells in Sudan in the past was hired to go to Salva’s father’s village to drill the first well. Jim and Salva met in Kampala with representatives of the company to sign the papers. “I was the rich, white, fat American who everyone wanted to talk to,” said Jim. Once they got in the door, Jim would tell them “You have to talk to Salva, he’s the President.”   

“Every night Salva and I would make plans for the following day. The next day we would throw out the plans after about two hours and just do what we could. We laughed a lot,” Jim remembered.

Jim recounted the story of opening a bank account for WFSS. The bank official who had to sign the papers had a fountain pen, it was out of ink. Jim pulled a ball point pen from his pocket and was told that the documents could not be signed using that pen, it had to be the fountain pen. There was no ink in the entire bank. Salva and Jim were told to come back the next day. They returned the next day and it was a bank holiday. It took three days to open the bank account. “It was so ridiculous it was comical,” laughed Jim.

Another day Salva needed to visit the Commandant to get permission to drill wells in Sudan. Without his blessing they would not survive. Jim said that they just sat there for 20 minutes. Then Salva and the Commandant talked privately for a few minutes. Subsequently Jim and Salva left with the understanding that the Commandant would not oppose the project. It was enough.

Jim never expected WFSS to become what it is today. “We were going to hire a company to drill a few wells and possibly build some infrastructure. None of us could have imagined drilling our own wells, that was a pipe dream. The miracle was the fact that we didn’t drill one well and go home."