Then the Rains Came

Malakal, South Sudan

When the prop jet descended out of the clouds, a broad, flat, barren land spread out in every direction as far as the eye could see. Only dirt roads and round tukols and brown river channels gave distinction to the endless scrubland.

Later we drove along the pitted road that diverges from the airport towards the United Nations base where we attended a meeting with the refugee agency. During the jolting ride, I gazed out the Land Cruiser's window and I thought, ‘Fuck - it looks like Iraq.’

Then the rains came. The barren skies became full and stiff gusts broke, rushing through the trees and rattling the window panes. At first a few drops came and then the sunshine returned. Some days later a few more came and again the threat passed. Then, finally and late in the season, the first downpour arrived.

The skies emptied in slanting sheets while the greedy earth drank until it was sick from the gorging. Where it could seep it seeped and where it could not seep it saturated and where it could not saturate it became a swampland. Weeds and tall grasses sprouted from the sides of the newly deepened trenches and from the spreading pools and the dead fields. Frogs, rats, flies, and mosquitos grew into a pestilence. At night after a rain, ten thousand nameless flying things would come out and swarm around a light source. The next morning, the light burned out, ten thousand nameless things lay dead on the ground.

UN vehicle fallen into ditch

Here they call rubber boots ‘gum boots’ and if you don't wear them then you walk barefoot. After a rain there is nowhere that is dry and everywhere is sticky or slippery or somehow both simultaneously. The black cotton soil - chewing gum-like after a rain - will tear a rubber sole from an old boot or snap the strap of a leather sandal, or thoroughly disfigure a fine new sneaker.

The roads muddy and then wash out. Along those stretches where there is broken tarmac, giant pools collect. You drive carefully through the soup and you keep to first gear but at the slightest acceleration the tire treads kick up a splatter that soils the pedestrians that walk single file in bare feet and rolled trousers.

Mud after the rain in Malakal

Where the ground is elevated and the water cannot pool, the road becomes slick and takes the character of an ice sheet. More than occasionally you encounter a vehicle that has slid into trench or skidded until grounding itself axle-deep in a mud patch.

These, the stuck ones, always make a tragic scene. A bewildered driver, one hand on his hip and another scratching his head. He ponders over his fine machine - a champion among all-terrain vehicles. How could she be defeated by so modest a ditch or so shallow a morass? And for these, the sadly defeated ones, often there is only the tractor.

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