Much of southern Sudan is a wasteland. There is no working economy, no public transport, almost no schools or hospitals. Last year, a devastating famine killed tens of thousands of people. Hunger on a less lethal scale is ever-present. In most areas, there is no electricity; drinking water is in short supply. With a low-level war that has continued for years, ordinary civilian life scarcely exists. Poverty is total.
And then, like a UFO from a distant planet, into this universe arrives a strange manifestation of otherness. Out of the sky can be heard the distant drone of a plane. Villagers gather to meet the metal machine, or just to watch.
Down the steps come the representatives of the Other World. They wear floppy hats and summer dresses, almost-crisp white T-shirts and jeans or baggy fatigues. They are mostly Europeans, plus a few locals whose education has allowed them to somersault seemingly insurmountable barriers.
There are hugs and hellos from the little band of arrivals - aid workers, human rights researchers, doctors, nurses, the odd reporter.
The plane's cargo is unloaded; flour, rice, tea, medical supplies. Some of those who greeted the arrivals take their seats in the departing plane, to return to the world of restaurants, apartments and clean water; others take their passengers or cargo into four-wheel-drive vehicles and melt into the bush.
This scene repeats itself day after day, month after month, all over southern Sudan. At the otherwise unremarkable little town of Lokichokio in northern Kenya, a huge airport has grown up - the busiest in the region, apart from the international hub in Nairobi. But there are no scheduled passenger flights, just Red Cross, the United Nations, the World Food Programme... all the aircraft are carrying aid; the majority of it goes to Sudan.
Taking trips on these planes is comfortable, in a strange kind of way. You can chat to the American or Russian pilot; sit in the passenger seats or huddle on sacks of cargo in the rear. Veteran aid workers calmly tell stories of pilots getting lost, and of aircraft that run out of fuel (with no working radio to organise a rescue). Such occasional dramas apart, however, the three-hour journey is strangely routine, like a commuter's flight from Heathrow to Aberdeen.
On arrival, the visitor remains cocooned. The aid workers' encampment is a place where you can enjoy a full fry-up breakfast - sausage, bacon, eggs, the works - with unlimited supplies of coffee, tea and drinking water.
The contrast between the two worlds is no less disconcerting for the sense that there is no way around it. The visitor can drop something tiny into this ocean of poverty - giving away a T-shirt here, a pair of shoes there. Aid workers who live there give their skills, every day. But beyond that, the gap remains unbridgeable.
Occasionally, arguments explode between aid organisations about the extent to which they could usefully blend in more with their habitat. Christian Aid, one of the agencies most active in southern Sudan, prides itself on being involved with projects that are locally driven and organised. But other agencies, including the UN World Food Programme, have become involved in disputes about how aid should be organised. Some complain that institutional conservatism means the devastating famine last year was recognised too late. Others complain that arrogance and ignorance meant that some goods, including building materials for an agency compound, were flown in at enormous expense when they were available locally. There have been complaints, too, that expatriates are employed where locals are equally qualified.
Even if these arguments are resolved, what one aid worker calls the "weird feeling" of two worlds remains. By default, the aid agencies here have become a kind of alternative government. There is no civilian leadership in southern Sudan. The Islamic government in Khartoum has no control over anything but a few pockets of the breakaway Christian south (it bombs the south and sponsors bandit violence, but not much else); the southern rebels, the Sudan People's Liberation Army, are more interested in fighting the north than in making civilian structures work. Into this vacuum come the aid agencies, attempting to make sense out of the anarchy.
The task is daunting. According to some analysts, famine may again be on the way this year; either "food shortages" or "famine" are forecast, depending on who you talk to. Either way, there will be no shortage of suffering - at least unless Khartoum is forced to end this long and bitter war. All over southern Sudan, well-dressed passengers will continue to disembark on a daily basis, and to disappear again into an unforgiving blue sky.Reuse content