Malakal, South Sudan
It was after 17:00 when the tractor rolled up. Brown and red rusted, small wheels in front of massive ones, it was an awkward, ugly, hulking brut and it was a damned welcomed sight. She jerked to a halt and two boys in soiled blue overalls slipped effortlessly from her flanks. They looked over the defeated Land Cruiser that was sunk axle-deep in the mire. They knew immediately that what was needed could be done and that it would be easy in the doing. So then the negotiation began.
Six hours earlier on that sunny Saturday morning I took the Land Cruiser for a ride. I had to pick up some documents at the South Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (SSRRC) so I went north on Bravo Road then west towards the river on the UNICEF road. It was late May and it would be another month before the rainy season got underway. Still, it had rained a few days before and the waters, which at first had collected in puddles, had, through sheer persistence, penetrated and muddied the hard ground.
Passing UNICEF and continuing a few meters I encountered a bog that stretched the width of the road. It was sludge in the middle and swampy on the sides but it was only a few meters to push through. I sat pondering behind the steering wheel of the Land Cruiser. I knew it would be easy to double back and go around. It would take no time at all and i had all the time in the world. But my evil version appeared - he was dressed in a ten gallon hat and the spurs glistened at his heels, whooping, whistling, and guns blazing. I shifted into gear and pressed the accelerator.
Now, whenever there is a decision to make, it is best that, having considered on it and having made it, you throw yourself fully into the doing of it. If you come slowly into a brick wall, you will certainly be thrown back by it. But, if you gather resolve and transform that resolve into momentum, then you might just punch through.
But, me, I approached slowly, cautiously, irresolutely. The soft ground gave way on the right and the vehicle sank until the axles were buried and the left side tires were in the air. Children gathered, men paused in their conversations. I stepped down from the Land Cruiser, observed the scene - she was grounded and her weather-beaten flag dangled limply from the mast-like Codan antenna.
I looked for a lorry but the lorry drivers were either unwilling or scandalous in the fees they attempted to exact. With few other options, I called my counterpart at Malaria Consortium.
‘Hey, Chris, I’m at the corner by UNICEF and SSRRC. Does your Land Cruiser have a winch?’
He knew the place and understood the situation. When he arrived, his driver and I went to work on the rigging. Meanwhile, he observed the scene and ushered the gathering children away from the activity. Then he considered.
‘I have to call some people,’ Chris said.
Soon Richard from IRD arrived and Emmanuel from Medair, Robert and David from UNICEF, and others who I did not pay attention to or don’t now remember. When Francis from OCHA came, he displayed that tact that had facilitated a thousand Humanitarian Coordination Meetings: ‘I mean who’s the idiot that…’
We fastened the winch to the grounded vehicle. Malaria Consortium put in reverse and pulled as furiously as she could. This was the wrong way to use a winch and we knew it, and this winch was poorly maintained, so after a few stern pulls the cable splintered. I cursed, Chris shook his head, and the crowd of onlookers cackled.
We sent the driver to find a tractor and the crowd dissolved. Chris bought us cold drinks and he went for lunch and we waited.
It was 17:00 when a tractor was located and fueled and dispatched on its lumbering journey to our location. I was tired, dehydrated, and bright red from a full day’s dose of sun while taking doxycycline. The boys in the soiled, blue overalls assessed the conditions and then made an offer at 200 pounds. I said it was too much. They shrugged and ascended and began to drive away. They have me by the balls and they know it, I thought. I jogged ahead, stopped the tractor, and we settled at a still abusively high 150 pounds (USD 50).
Then the boys in the soiled blue overalls extracted a braided steel cable from the tractor. The cable was splintered and the end folded into an enormous knot. They do this every fucking day during the rainy season and they don’t think to buy a new winch, I thought. My humor had held through most of the day but now it had left me.
It was half an hour hunched and bended and reaching and wedging and twisting with a crowbar to fasten the steel cable to a willing part of the Land Cruiser. The tractor was fired up; it lurched; the vehicle was freed. Then another half an hour to unknot the cable where it had tightened in the pulling.
Now the vehicle was free and I paid the boys in the soiled blue overalls and lumbered off on their tractor. I drove back to the compound thinking about what a damned ridiculous day it had been. Thinking about it then, I supposed the two boys in the soiled blue overalls had well earned the 150 pounds just for the knotting and unknotting a steel cable.