Dr. Geelhoed journal entry 22 Feb 2011

Series: 11-FEB-D-2


FEBRUARY 22, 2011

Good morning from the familiar and comfortable setting of MCH in Werkok! We slept out in the open in our bug tents, after going to the local Werkok pond, where the “Jesus Film” was shown. This is a two hour film on DVD that had been dubbed into lip synch in one thousand of the world’s seven thousand languages. This one was in Dinka of the Bor variety, and there are several other Dinka dialects in which the movie has been dubbed as well. I took a couple of pictures of the crowd watching the film, based in the book of Luke with direct “” from the Scriptures. The movie stopped with pixelated break up periodically, but no one left as they all watched patiently as they made an effort to go through the story again from the front and fast forwarded to the point of breakup.

We may have a bit more leisure than we would like for a slow morning start. The sat phone to CAR tells us the several people, including the British High Commissioner in the capital of Bangui are all working on our permit to land directly in Zemio, but the capital is two more time zones west and another number that counts is three thousand dollars more for our trip. It is going to be prohibitively expensive and time consuming to have to fly to Bangui to reverse to Zemio, which is what everyone else must do. Because of Wendy Atkins continued efforts, AIM Air is the one and only group to have permission to fly directly into Zemio, but that permit is good for only six months and needs renewing each six month interval. IT turns out that this was just a week ago, and now it is found out that the permit states what the CAR president has decreed—all incoming flights must come through the capital, and this “oversight” is the problem. So we have sent out a message which will have to go all the way to the CAR president this morning, and they are two hours later than we are. Conceivably, we could take off and start moving westward toward the Bangui capital, but divert to Zemio if the permission comes through. But, this would set a precedent for further AIM Air flights in which in the future all will be told—“See? You came through the capital as everyone else must! So from now on everyone will do just what everyone is required to do in the first instance!”

So, we are sipping coffee at too much leisure with the probability that we may have to go three thousand further dollars out of the way as flies are buzzing in our eyes. Meanwhile we are hearing stories of Chad and disasters. People in the “Swamp”, where Scott Downing lives at Am Timan, have been growing millet for generations–the staple of the food source. But, for four years the rains have failed. They then switched to corn and then the rains returned as normal and 100% of the corn crop was lost in a disaster of large financial and nutritional terms. I heard that the big park to the east of AM Timan is now given over to the South Africans for preservation of the wildlife and the minimal development of some accommodations. I am eager to get in there ever since Scott and Suze and family were the hosts for the NGS team which came into see “the largest and best kept isolated preserve of the original African wildlife left.” That had been formerly said of Ndoki in the CAR but is now likely to change since the poaching and predation by the LRA and other rebel groups who have camped out in the “preserve.”

We talked of the experience of Fred Mihm, the UCSF anesthesiologist who was going to accompany me into AM Timan last trip three years ago as Chad blew up when the rebels took over the capital. He found himself hiding under school desks as the bombs went off in the capital before he was evacuated by French paratroopers and brought to Gabon before leaving Africa. I believe that was enough excitement for him on his first trip to Africa to hold him through the suspended plans of his next trips.

Gastone has been sent up to Ahti after five years at AmTiman so his rotation by the government is up. They have had fewer problems with the “strikes” that had paralyzed all government activities including the hospitals when I was there last time. The rebel forces have been coopted by being brought into the army, and the other parts of the opposition are going to field a candidate for the presidential elections next April but no one knows their names, so Isidry is likely to stay in power, with the military expansion he has purchased with the new oil wealth coming into Chad.

We are waiting a long time with no news as we expect Ajak to return from Bor about now probably just to say goodbye, and we will have to make a decision before noon on when to leave if we are going to be able to arrive into CAR—even though the sun will set later as we move westward. It is the little items like this glitch that can idle whole teams on the ground at some expense and foregone opportunity. But this allowed us a chance to speak to Tim Williams, the all-volunteer PCC Sudan Board Member of a group of 70 year olds who are trying to seek out an “ownership” of the MCH mission that can keep it going after US support is phased out for it to be supportable into a self-sustaining future. That is the component piece that seems to be available up front for the PiBor and network concept of a net that might be owned and operated locally, so that we are not constructing “ruins” in a distant place with no control on what happens to the product of all the good will and efforts of the donors.

Josh has improved and even ate a couple of pancakes for breakfast. We sat in the morning devotions and day planning session with the MCH team as they have all gone back to work and we are still sipping lemonade we have made from the powdered drink mix. We are burning up some productive time in what has been likely to be our highest surgical volume component of the trip so far, and it may cut in to our plans of over flight of Assa and any “flightseeing” we might have tried along the way—such as the White Eared Kob Dry Season range and the Jonglei Canal remnant’s and the world’s largest digger. We have possibly been able to send out a series of emails with attachments of the PiBor Mission, and the hopes and plans for the next steps. We are now over two thirds through the African component parts of our Circumnavigation mission and it seems that all aspects of both Asian and African missions have gone well beyond even the high expectations that preceded our arrival. We will now try to “hit two more out of the park” on the next sequence in CAR—when, and if, we are allowed to takeoff for the CAR.


The news is, we are here—in Werkok—in MCH—with bags packed and in the plane. This is Africa. There are in excess of eighty some cases listed for us to operate in Zemio and Obo in CAR. But a glitch involving a small phrase on a single sheet of pro forma letterhead renews the permit for AIM Air to land in CAR, but only through the entrepot of the capital Bangui, same as everyone else. There has been an exemption for AIM Air alone to go directly into Zemio after the good work Wendy Atkins has been doing there, and the twice annual renewal reverted to the prior boiler plate of the president’s liking to get all air arrivals to enter through the capital where he has better control of their comings and goings. We may actually have to do that ourselves if the meeting which is supposed to convene today to get our exemption from this ruling is not here by tomorrow morning (they have a much longer business day than we since they are two time zones further west. They are not only about two time zones, but about five hundred miles in each direction from where we need to be and that translates to over a three thousand dollar surcharge and a half a day of lost productivity—like this one here on the ground in Werkok. But it may be bad for AIM Air for us to accede to their SOP, since the net request to land in Zemio might be greeted by the response to this precedent—“Why, you always fly in through the Capital Bangui as you did with the group on the last visit.”

We had thought that since circumstances change dramatically in this area of the world, we are now in a position to call either Old Fangak where Jill was insistent that we NOT visit this year since she wanted to have all the boat space that she had held onto in Old Fangak to escape to the other side of the river in response to the expected referendum violence. We could also go to visit Akobo where Michael Puit was supposed to be here with us in Werkok, but first had said he was the only one who could cover the emergencies at Akobo and second that he was then trapped by the Nuer Murle violence that happened earlier in our stay at Werkok. As quickly as it comes, it goes, since Rev. Oruzu had told me yesterday that the full truck of people an supplies had gone into Akobo last week and had no trouble. That means everyone is on edge since it is an on-again/off-again sequence of violence that appears almost random, and that is the remarkable thing about the Murle foreswearing violence with the Dinka Bor since our last year’s visit.

The word now is that we will continue to wait here in Werkok until tomorrow morning, and if there is no word from either Akobo or old Fangak (each of which are out of our way and will entail many extra miles and charges) we will get prepared for takeoff tomorrow morning now after another overnight in Werkok. Besides the meeting at presidential level which is likely to happen later today –too late for us to act upon it and get a chance to take off and land in daylight—there should be a separate meeting on AIM Air’s part as to whether they want us – even at a surcharge we may be willing to pay – to fly to Bangui which may set a precedent for all future flights into Zemio being routed through the capital of Bangui. We will know all of these returns by tomorrow morning.

Meanwhile, I had a chance to see part of the email traffic, replying to very little of it, but also seeing the blog of posts that Brittany has been putting up along with about six photos per posting which means that there are over two hundred photos of us in action on the TR web site including a blog from my running reports at www.teamrubiconusa.org. So, if any postings were missed or scrambled in their transmission from somewhat dicey connections, they might be re-viewed on the TR blog site. It seems to be quite active, since as of this morning when a posting went up in thirteen minutes, there were eighteen responses that had contacted the blog site manager so apparently, our progress is being closely monitored.

I had got up early but not run since I did not want to miss the call to be ready to roll. Now it seems I might have been able to run and take the day off in many other activities as well other than standing by for an any minute call to move out. I should have been charged up and ready to roll as well as doing whatever would be useful here. We could be taking care of patients either here or anywhere along the “network” I had described as useful for the cause. But the parking of all this talent and assets on the ground including our own captive pilot and aircraft is too precious a resource to be left cooling its heels (or overheating its wings) on the duty baking of the airstrip, guarded by a patrol of small boys.

We are in a good place to be waiting, if any place is good to wait, and I am able to suck up about four liters of water each day without felling light headed as almost all of us are peeing little and once a day at most. It is really hot, and it is the kind of heat that has a humidity of about ten percent or less. I stepped into the shower, carrying my shirt to use as a towel, but never used it. The “sublimation” of any water happens about as fast as it did at PiBor following the “Waymool” which brought Saharan sand updrafting into the atmosphere to precipitate as an improbable roaring thunderstorm making an awesome tattoo on the pan roof of SALT at PiBor. John Sutter had posted a brief blurb after reading mine giving his impressions of the weather phenomenon that had so freaked out the team on that hot miserable dry night. Brittany had prayed for a breeze—and she reaped the whirlwind!

I am sitting now in the stupor of afternoon heat after having swapped stories with Jon Hildebrandt and with Tim Williams (like any good Dinka Bor around here) and he has checked after the Calvin J-Series Lecture and is quite sure that we are related since one of his relatives, –his grandfather–Horton Mills–, and it was his sister that married a Geelhoed and subsequently lived in the Detroit side of Michigan. We have just reviewed addresses and I told him I lived in a tukul at 492 Hall Street and 1324 Fuller Ave SE before I moved to N Shiawassee Dr. SE. As a retired GR Police officer he knows each of the streets and houses, so it is exactly like comparing tukuls among the Dinka Bor. He learned all that from an aunt who furnished him this genealogic link after the Calvin J-Series Lecture raised the name to some prominence for connections to be made. Then I have caught up with Scott and current events in Chad. He is also seeking to get an MRI and had looked into getting one done in Entebbe while he was on the election weekend layover. He might have got it done. For an MRI which had been arranged by phone to check in and follow-up on his cervical disc resection from the time he was trying to toss a spare tire on top of the Toyota Land Cruiser subsequently stolen by the rebels when they sacked Am Timan. HE had carried cash but needed to get an ATM to furnish him with the $300 for the MRI and there were red flags all over the use of his card signaling that suspicious activity was being watched on attempts to access his account in Uganda!

It may be frustrating to have the team idled here for a single clause on a renewal letter, but it is a better place than most to be stranded, and it was a good thing that we had stopped for a day for Josh to take a day off after being our first casualty to GI Distress which has laid him low. Now he will be up to full strength when we get this bus in the air and start up for real. Also, I learned that the Covidien (the renamed Valley Surgical Labs) electrosurgery unit I had secured for AmTiman along with the Microscope was not being used since it was missing a grounding pad. That is tens of thousands of dollars of unusable great technology going begging for a few dollars in disposable but infinitely reusable grounding pads which are present in our container of supplies. We will try to find a few and send them back with Scott along with the presents that Scott carried ‘Round the Globe’ to be on their way to Chad. He will be going back home to Chad and then after a week going to a cultural training program that was scheduled formerly in Turkey and now is re-sited in Budapest. So, we are all in an unusual interlude of leisure here with a lot of heavy forward progress on either side. We will get out some Chicken Soup for Josh’s gut and for the Souls of the rest of us, and turn in early to prepare to fly in the morning—to a destination as yet unknown, by a route as yet to be determined. That is the beauty of a chartered aircraft at our disposal—“Now just where is it you folks would like to go?”

One of the interesting things that happened on the runway yesterday on takeoff from PiBor was a man coming on the runway as we were taxiing. He flagged us down in a long flowing robe and was that only obese man we have seen in this part of South Sudan and specifically the ONLY one in PiBor. We thought he might be some kind of government official announcing a new set of clearance pares we might need to file. He announced to us as we slowed down in an Arabic flavored accent “I want to go to Juba!” “We are not going to Juba” responded Jon and with our load already obviously quite at max, we started our takeoff roll.

On arrival in Bor on the good airstrip improved by the UN there, I saw a blur from one side of the runway on final touchdown, and a dik dik ran across in front of us clearing us by a safe margin. A pygmy antelope had cleared the bush on one side of the runway and had made it to the other faster than the final approach of a caravan Cessna 208. I am very glad he made it!

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