Getting to Kulu

30 11 2008

As promised, here’s the first of several in-depth blog entries about our time in Sudan.  We left the States on Saturday, November 1 and travelled through Amsterdam and Nairobi to Kampala, Uganda, where all of Aid Sudan’s mission teams stage from the house of Aid Sudan missionaries Kerry and Nelta Henderson.  After aThe Team day in Uganda to help our bodies become acclimated to the nine-hour time difference, we left on the morning of Tuesday, November 4 to begin our trek to Kulu.

Kulu is a village of just over 600 people in southern Sudan, and Peter Swann – Aid Sudan’s Executive Director and our team leader on the trip – had served there as a missionary for two years with his wife Shauna.  In 2006, after Peter and Shauna had returned to the United States, the village was attacked by a raiding band of the  Dinka tribe who were seeking food.  Much of the village was burned and all of the food stores were taken, resulting in a serious famine.  Fortunately, in his new position at Aid Sudan, Peter was able to return twice to Kulu to bring famine relief.  No one else would have ever heard of their plight.  This would be his third time back in Kulu since leaving in 2005.

"Air Sudan" In a country with almost nonexistent infrastructure, the only viable transportation is by charter flight, a service offered by several missionary organizations in the area.  We flew into Sudan with Samaritan’s Purse in a DC-3, the same kind of airplane seen in the recent Indiana Jones movie.  Manufactured in 1949, it’s safe to say that the plane has logged quite a few flights!

We had intended to land in the nearest large village, a town called Mvolo, but knew that the DC-3 was a bigger plane than any that had previously landed at the airstrip.  After buzzing the airstrip twice the pilots determined that it was not wide enough to safely land the plane, so we headed off to a village about 40 kilometers away called Akot.

We landed in Akot with no idea how we were going to get first to Mvolo and then to Kulu.  To compound the problem we were carrying a mill for grinding grain to be delivered to the village, supplies for the week like food, tents, and mattresses, and all our bags.  But God’s provision is amazing.  Shortly after we landed we were met by two Westerners working with local organizations, John Maxwell, a missionary with Mustard Seed International overseeing a new clinic in the village, and Billy White, a legendary missionary doing literacy and evangelism work with the SPLA, the southern Sudanese army.  Billy, a 72 year-old former Green Beret who served three tours of duty in Vietnam, was quick to offer to drive us to Mvolo, a 28-mile trip that would take over three hours on the miserable African roads.  John offered to accompany us and bring our cargo in his Land Cruiser pickup, which we promptly piled high with all our gear.

Pickup TruckThe trip to Mvolo was unlike any we had ever experienced.  Seven team members rode with Billy in the Land Cruiser while two others climbed into the cab of the pickup.  Chris, another Westerner working in the area with Samaritan’s Purse, rode atop our pile of cargo in the bed of the pickup.  The road was pitted with enormous potholes, most filled with stagnant, green water that often came up over our headlights.  The dusk quickly faded to night and Billy pushed the Land Cruiser as fast as he could, anxious to return before morning.  In the back of the Land Cruiser we bounced around hopelessly, praying that we wouldn’t get stuck in the next mud pit.  All the while Billy’s one cassette tape, a Twila Paris compilation, played in the background.  At one particularly memorable moment we paused before a daunting, scum-water-filled pothole as Twila belted “God Is In Control” for the third or fourth time.  Billy looked back at us, shook his head and muttered, “Here we go, Lord!” before gunning the engine and launching us into yet another morass.  Needless to say, the appropriateness of the musical selection was not lost on any of us.  Miraculously, without ever getting stuck or losing a single bag – or Chris – we made it to Mvolo late in the evening.

Mvolo Youth LodgeWe stayed the night at the Mvolo Youth Lodge, a typical compound for southern Sudan, consisting of a collection of mud huts around an open dirt area.  The only thing atypical was the rectangular construction of the huts, a sign of Western influence in a land where all the indigenous buildings are round.  The next morning we toured the village which consists of a market encircled by a collection of official buildings and traders’ compounds with a population of about 30,000 in the surrounding area.  We saw the church, a clinic being built by the UN, and the school before ending up in the County Commissioner’s office.  Like most places in Africa, Sudan is a hierarchical society, so it was necessary for us to get the blessing of the proper officials before continuing with our work.  This we were able to do after a bit of haranguing from the County Commissioner who would have been happy for us to stay in Mvolo instead of continuing to Kulu.  Nevertheless, with his blessing we made plans to travel the 15 miles to Kulu later that afternoon.

The TipperWith the help of a few Sudanese we loaded up a small dump truck, affectionately termed “The Tipper” by the locals, and prepared for another bumpy ride.  There was only space for three in the cab so the rest of us rode on top of the luggage in the back.  It’s difficult to explain the feeling of such incredible isolation as we turned onto the narrow dirt track that led into the African wilderness and eventually to Kulu.  To say it was a remote location would be quite an understatement.  The sounds of the town quickly dissolved leaving only the chirping of a multitude of crickets and the calls of birds.  All signs of life disappeared and the gathering dusk cast long shadows over the beautiful African plain. It was as far from Houston as we could possibly get.

Remnants of the RaidWe drove into Kulu at sundown after a (thankfully) more uneventful ride than the night before.  Though the market had been expanded by a few stalls the village was a shell of its former self.  So much had been lost in the raid two years prior!  We made our way to the compound that had housed Peter and Shauna during their time in Kulu.  Many of the huts had been destroyed, another had been turned into a temporary clinic, and on the site of Peter’s old house a new clinic was being built with a zinc roof and cinderblock walls.  After being greeted by the chief, known as “Sultan,” which is the Arabic word for his station, we pitched our tents under the roof of the unfinished clinic by the light of a half moon.  A dozen or so of the local men watched us with amusement, strange Westerners living in even stranger houses.  When their curiosity had been satisfied they drifted off, leaving us to enjoy a well-earned rest, having finally arrived at our final destination.



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