Telecommunications in South Sudan
I've recently returned from perhaps my most rewarding role yet. I deployed through humanitarian agency, RedR Australia, as Telecommunications Specialist with World Food Programme (WFP) in Juba - soon to be the capital of the world's newest nation, South Sudan.
The well-established WFP Information and communications technology (ICT) Team comprising internationals and local staff had built the operation from the ground up since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and had things pretty well under control. With the advent of the referendum however, several members of the Sudanese team had elected to return to their traditional homes in the North, leaving positions for (Fast IT and Telecommunications Emergency and Support Team) FITTEST and Standby Partners to fill temporarily. While we were there our role was to support the operation, look for opportunities for improvement and document procedures for handover to newly recruited local staff.
One of the many things I love about emergency response work is the exposure to a diversity of hands-on work I wouldn't get in my usual corporate role. Building and racking servers, cabling network switches, troubleshooting and extending wireless internet and radio networks, virus busting, you name it. Every day is an opportunity to pick up new skills and you learn quickly how to do anything nerdy that needs to be done.
Climbing and rigging telecommunications towers is among my favourites. The towers always afford a great view of the flat dusty expanse - while Marabou Stork, one of the largest flying birds in the world, circle in silent menace overhead. At first I was surprised to learn the task of the ‘tower monkey’, whilst scenic, was not coveted amongst the staff. A few long days dangling up there for 5 hours in dry 40 degree wind soon helped me understand their reasoning. However, the link WFP's 100 staff rely on was soon back up and running.
After programming HF radios for a fleet of modern trucks WFP had purchased for delivering vital food and non-food items to beneficiaries in a radius of hundreds of kilometres, I was happy to be sent on a mission to the tiny traditional village of Kapoeta to repair HF radio installations in their fleet of 30 trucks. Long range radio communications are in many cases the only link to base for these convoys, travelling for 15 days at a time through places where the scarcity of food makes a laden convoy so attractive it has to be accompanied by 30 armed soldiers.
The punishing workload of these vehicles in very unforgiving conditions had not been kind to their radio installations. In some cases cables had simply melted and perished in the constant heat, other vehicles had crashed and broken antennas and mounts. Other radios had developed electrical problems causing vehicle batteries to run flat and been disconnected due to the difficulties of push starting trucks laden with tonnes of grain.
One radio worked just fine, until the truck's key was turned, at which point faulty earthing drew a large starting current through a tiny radio cable under a straw seat which caught fire! With the remote location making parts a near impossibility, I was pleased to get all but two radios working relying only on the tools I could carry and my limited experience. On completing my mission in Kapoeta I was extended an invitation to a local church where I got to meet very friendly local families - their children fascinated with handshakes and my hilarious legs!
South Sudan is alive with growth - a capital city has sprung from what was little more than a rutted dirt road five years ago. The situation seemed to improve even in the short time I was there with new roads under construction and markets seeming to expand weekly. I found it a quiet but somehow exciting place to be. Unanticipated highlights included the vibrant Juba social scene where I played with a great band performing around the place, and of course the unforgettable people you work and live with who become your close friends.
I thank RedR Australia and WFP for the privilege of being in South Sudan to share a tiny part of the UN's critical work there.
Witnessing the successful democratic process and the hope of the people at the birth of their new nation after 50 years of war has been by far the most rewarding experience of my career.
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