A group of women from Tomagi and Bowish crossing the Yabus river with 250 mosquito nets, 3 Mabaan language Bibles and 70 Mabaan written language learning books bound for the community in Bowish, Upper Nile State, South Sudan.
On Saturday morning I headed out towards the village of Gasmala with Neil, a nurse from Scotland working as a missionary with SIM Sudan. He had invited me to join him as he accompanied a Donkey cart carrying mosquito nets and books to the village, where they would be handed over to a group of women from Bowish, who would then transport the load over the Yabus river back to their own village, stopping at Tomagi along the way.
Neil’s invitation was based on his (correct) assumption that the sight of the women crossing the river, each carrying their respective loads above their heads, would be very photogenic. My only concern was that as I was to sit on the near bank taking pictures, the women would be moving away from me, most likely resulting in uninteresting images of the backs of their heads. This concern was allayed however, after a serendipitous encounter on the road to Gasmala.
As we walked behind the Donkey cart, we came upon Paster Daniel of Tomagi coming the other way en-route to Doro. Neil had originally planned to visit Tomagi later that afternoon after delivering the nets to the women, as they would be stopping off in the village after crossing the river on their way back to Bowish. Due to the tragic death of a man in Tomagi following a fight (and rumours of escalating violence making their way around Doro), Neil had decided not to risk a visit until the situation was calmer. However, Daniel informed us that the rumours were just that and that it was perfectly safe to visit Tomagi.
As usual with life in South Sudan, our plans immediately changed as we decided to cross the Yabus River with the women and travel with them to Tomagi.
After we reached Gasmala, Neil divided the load between several women - one of whom insisted on carrying a whole sack of one hundred mosquito nets herself. Both me and Neil assumed she was deluded as to her own strength, as it had taken two men and a boy to load each sack onto the cart in Doro. However, it transpired that we had greatly underestimated the strength of Mabaan women (who unlike almost all South Sudanese men, do pretty much all of the heavy lifting and carrying in their communities).
Before we departed for the river, we removed our footwear and rolled up our trousers to wade through a swamp, intending to walk the rest of the way through the bush barefoot in order to keep up with the women, who were already well in front of us, despite their heavy loads.
As we reached the flood plain, the sand that had been under the hot sun all morning scorched our unprotected feet, encouraging us to quicken our pace to the river.
After arriving on the river bank, I had the (belatedly obvious) idea of solving my photographic problem by crossing the river first so that I could photograph the women from the far bank as they came towards me.
My equipment would be carried across safely in a plastic container (rather graciously) by a Mabaan man from Bowish. The only snag to overcome now was my fear of drowning, which was only heightened at the sight of the rapid flowing current in the river.
It’s not that I can’t swim, I’m just not very good at it. In my last swimming lesson at primary school, I managed to achieve my 25 Metre swimming certificate more through sheer determination than any skill in the pool. Therefore I was understandably doubtful as to my ability to cross the river safely.
Thankfully, out Mabaan comrade led the way, wading two thirds of way before the water became too deep for the final stretch. With only 5 metres of actual swimming necessary, despite the strong current, I was soon up the opposite bank and ready to take the pictures above (albeit in my underwear and dripping wet).
Following our surprisingly uneventful river crossing, me and Neil were soon on our way to Tomagi to spend the night, but that is a different story all together…