What could possibly go wrong?

So this was the plan:

  • fly to Wau
  • spend ~$50,000 on food and other relief items
  • load that stuff on truck
  • drive truck to Agok, where there are lots of internally displaced people fleeing violence in Abyei town to the north
  • distribute

Simple. Piece of cake. No problemo – right?


Logistics in sub-Saharan Africa – especially in a place like South Sudan and especially in a peripheral place of South Sudan like Wau – are not easy. Here are some of the problems – and this is by no means an exhaustive list – we ran into along the way.

Plane – Our team of four – for reasons that are too complicated to explain – took two different airlines to Wau. One plane had engine trouble and had to turn back to Juba, causing a delay of several hours.

Prices – The donor agencies require three price quotations for all the material we buy. Local church people in Wau had done this before we arrived. But it’s not like that’s a binding RFP. Prices fluctuate so we had to go around and re-confirm all the prices. Then, based on those prices, we had to recalculate the budget. Then, having recalculated the budget, we had to go back and buy the stuff. In those few hours, prices have continued to fluctuate. More recalculation. What did we ever do before cell phone calculators?

Quantity – We were buying 400 bags of maize flour. One merchant doesn’t have all that on hand so he has to go check with his neighbours to see if they can help him out. Same for the lentils, cooking oil, salt, mosquito nets, plastic tarps, etc.

Weight – Four hundred 50-kg bags of maize flour are not light. In fact, they weigh 20 metric tonnes. Add on the weight of the lentils, cooking oil, salt – more calculations, more cell phone use – and we had to find a truck capable of carrying approximately 27 tonnes.

Road – It’s the beginning of the wet season in South Sudan, which means the quality of the road has deteriorated substantially. As a result, truckers have raised their rates and are less willing to take a full load. In fact, the most we could get was someone willing to take 20 tonnes. So that means two trucks. That means more recalculation. Have you ever hired a truck before? Do you know how to pick the one that won’t break down half-way to Agok? Or the driver who has a license that is not expired? Do you know how big a truck you need to hold 400 50-kg bags on maize flour? Me neither.

MoneyI’ve already indicated that the money – because of financial sanctions on Sudan – took a long time to reach Juba. But getting it to Wau is another matter altogether. Banks in Juba only allow people to withdraw $5000 in cash per day because of currency shortages. Since this is for the church, they bump that up to $10,000. But that still means it takes a week to get the money, convert it to Sudanese pounds, and fly with it to Wau. That’s a lot of money to be carrying around. I’m glad I didn’t have responsibility for it.

Purchasing – Merchants in Wau, like everywhere else in Sudan, work on a cash-only basis. So when you buy 400 bags of maize flour (at a price of over $60/bag), you have to hand over more than 50,000 Sudanese pounds. This poses several problems. That much money weighs a lot so is a pain to carry around. But it also has to be counted – twice – by the merchant and his partner to make sure they’re not being ripped off. Oh, for the ease of a credit card to swipe!

Loading – It takes a while to load 400 bags of maize flour (and other stuff) on to the trucks we finally managed to procure. Even with a team of four hard-working young men we hired, it still took nearly two hours. Oh, for a forklift! Then there was another issue. We were loading the goods on Friday. Most of the merchants are Muslim and they want to close at noon so they can go pray. Quick, load faster!

Seats – There were six of us who needed to go to Agok to distribute the material – one bishop, three priests, one SUDRA representative, and me. But in the two trucks, there were only two empty seats. So that meant hiring another car, one good enough for the bad roads. Just head down to Avis Wau and find one right? Nope. More negotiation, more calculation. (It would be great if one of the dioceses around here had a car we could have used. But none of the dioceses in this part of the country – Wau or Aweil – are rich enough to own vehicles. The bishop of Wau had just returned from visiting a far-flung part of his gigantic diocese on public transport.)

Communication – Our team was beginning to scatter around Wau, renting vehicles, supervising loading, etc. But many of our cell phones had died. Their calculators had been used too much and there was no electricity at the diocesan office where we staying to charge them. Those of us that did have working phones confronted network issues – calls dropped, didn’t go through, etc. Wau is a far-flung town and we were buying goods from two markets. More delay, more hassle.

(I should say that though I’ve been using “we” throughout, my role was minimal. My presence and help is welcome but I don’t speak Arabic or Dinka so am kind of useless, beyond tracking the receipts for each of our purchases. I’m paying my own way on this trip and the impetus for it is entirely from the Sudanese church members.)

In this context, I found it almost incredible when we did finally pull out of Wau on Friday afternoon, only about seven hours later than we had intended. All these difficulties we encountered made me wonder if the church is really the right organization to be doing this kind of work. More on that in another post, however.

I write this in Agok, where the trucks have not yet arrived, and after a difficult, rough, and bouncy journey that showed us just how bad the roads were. More on that in another post, however

(This post was written on Saturday but is now being posted on Monday now that I am back in Wau with Internet access. More on the remarkable trip to Abyei is coming. Here’s a small taste.)



4 thoughts on “What could possibly go wrong?

  1. So sad you got a snarky comment (that is not even grammatically correct) so I will add in one that commends you for all you are doing (sounds a bit like negotiations in other countries). Blessings.

  2. Pingback: Speaking for oneself | Mission Minded

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s