February 2017: No Strings reports from our workshop in South Sudan, where Rosie Waller tells of an extraordinary meeting between two men from different worlds whose lives first crossed two decades ago (story originally appeared in the Newcastle Chronicle, UK)
No Strings director Johnie McGlade and South Sudanese BBC logistician Chan Dau share an extraordinary past, they suddenly realise.
We’re sitting at a bar on the banks of the Nile after a busy day’s training with an hour to go before the 7pm curfew. It’s extraordinarily peaceful and beautiful. There’s a half sunken passenger boat out in front and eagles in the trees and children washing themselves in the river. You wouldn’t think you were in a capital city.
It turns out that Chan, introduced to us by a mutual friend at the BBC, was a child fleeing war in the camps where Johnie was working back in 1994, he himself a logistician back then, more coincidences, but with the Irish charity GOAL. They didn’t meet as far as they recall, but Johnie supported thousands of children just like Chan.
“There were a number of camps near the Ugandan border near towns beginning with ‘A’ – they were known as the Triple A Camps. People were malnourished and so if they developed diarrhoea or malaria it was critical,” Johnie recalls.
“They arrived having walked for weeks through conflict-ravaged region after region to get here. The kids were like little skeletons with huge bulging eyes they didn’t even have the strength to wipe flies from. Quite often, we’d have mothers who would literally get to the camp line and drop down dead. They’d used everything they had to get their families to safety. It was just unbelievable.”
Chan was one of those kids. Of the Dinka tribe, he was born in a tukul (traditional rounded hut) village in Jonglei State which borders the Nile further north. “I was 13,” he says. “There was a massacre and our village was burnt to the ground. My sister and I got separated from our family and we managed to flee together. We walked for many weeks to get to the camps through many horrors. I didn’t see my mother again until 2006. She was still alive – still is.”
Johnie himself was about 26. This, his first posting as an aid worker, was a baptism of fire. He landed in what was then Sudan on a tiny plane with two nuns wearing crash helmets, into one of the worst humanitarian disasters of its day – much as this very region we’re talking about, Equatoria, has become once again with hundreds of thousands fleeing into neighbouring Uganda.
“I’d done lots of fundraising, that’s how I got the job – to tell the truth I didn’t even know what a logistician was to start with, but strangely there was this big overlap with all my hectic chef work in the Cayman Islands. I was in charge of working with about 100 local staff overseeing food orders and distributions from the World Food Program, and it was something I just took to,” Johnie says.
“Inside days you would see a huge turnaround in the people we were supporting with therapeutic and supplementary feeding. They had literally had no other access to food, and now, suddenly, they were on the road to recovery.”
The camps were regularly bombed and aid workers frequently evacuated for periods of time; the doctors, nurses and other aid staff Johnie worked with over this two-year period formed a huge bond.
Chan spent several years there before eventually becoming a refugee in Phoenix, Arizona, in 2001.
Before his village was burnt to the ground, he passed what sounds an idyllic childhood. From about the age of five he would herd goats his friends, and then from seven or eight look after cows.
“We never wore clothes,” Chan says. “There was a river where we took our cattle to drink each day and we would play there, about 20 of us, all day long.”
Two years ago, Chan came home to marry Mary, a beautiful local girl who is expecting their baby next month. He gave her family 18 cows and several thousand dollars, and is happy to live according to custom and allow his wife to return to her family for the first two years of their child’s life. It’s the time, he says, when young men rebuild their wealth having used it all up on their dowries.
“I am very grateful for everything the US did for me but I missed home. My mother is old now and it’s my turn to look after her. No matter how rich I might have become in the USA, I could never have what I have here, my family, and the life I love. Children are not locked in here. They belong to the community and they are free.
“Except that here we have conflict. Some children are traumatised.”
Was Chan? “It depends. I saw dead people when I was little, but I’m still normal. And I for one feel positive for the future,” he says.