The Sudan’s Kachipo, a picture frozen in time

By Godfrey Nderitu

The rugged Toyota pick-up heaved and sighed as a group of men wrestled with it in a vain attempt to get it out of a trench into which it had slipped.

The men, 15 in number, had been walking alongside the vehicle for 15 hours, its deck laden heavily with essentials like medical supplies, as the driver battled to navigate through narrow footpaths made slippery by three days of non-stop rain, heading into the interior of one of the most remote parts of Southern Sudan.

Now the vehicle, bought in Kenya but with Sudanese registration plates, had come to the brow of a hill in the vast jungle and skid into a trench. By all indication, the journey was over and the men would have to carry the heavy luggage for the next 30 kilometres to their destination.

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This scene of hardship was re-enacted a few weeks ago. The group of men, stranded deep in southern Sudanese jungle, as they delivered essential supplies to isolated villages, comprised five Kenyan missionaries working under Kenyan-based churches and an NGO — International Aid Service (IAS).

The team, including the writer, has been working for some years among the Kachipo people who live in one of the most inaccessible areas in the vast region of southern Sudan.

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Volunteer teachers speak to school children in Kachipo, southern Sudan. [PHOTOS: GODFREY NDERITU]

Missionaries describe the region as ‘unreached’ but the facts on the ground, as outlined in proposals seeking assistance for the Kachipo, sound like the description of a community living on nature’s most basic facilities.

From where the missionary vehicle broke down, the group, made up mainly of hired couriers, would walk for the remaining hours of daylight, from 11am, in difficult mountainous terrain, to arrive at destination well past 11pm.

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Harsh realities

The story of living among the Kachipo is a heart-rending adventure marked with harsh realities of a people who exist close to modern civilisation, yet so far.

The Kachipo numbering about 30,000 — enough to fill Nyayo National Stadium — mainly live in the Mewun Payam area of Pibor County of Jonglei State in southern Sudan.

Apart from IAS, among groups that make the Kachipo mission possible include the Nairobi Lighthouse Church and other mission groups.

The area lies about 250 kilometres from the Kenya-Sudan border from Lokichoggio but no road leads there. The easiest access is to go round through Ethiopia and drive for 60 kilometres from the border town of Boma through uncharted bush tracks. In dry weather and with a sturdy four-wheel-drive, the journey can take 12 hours, up and down steep hills and across riverbeds. In wet weather, the scenario often ends as described above.

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Arriving at night in any of the four villages that comprise Kachipoland, one may not know they are already in an inhabited area.

The Kachipo make their grass-thatched huts under huge trees to conceal them from raiders, who often strike from neighbouring Toposa and Murule tribes. The two communities also often raid the Kenyan side of the border in Turkana.

Dawn unfurls the sights and sounds of unspoilt African jungle where the people who keep close to nature live.

Grown men and children walk stark naked, save for elders who wear scanty loin clothes. Women wrap some decency around the middle of their bodies but are bare-chested.

The Kachipo are a generally tall and friendly and regard strangers with suspicion at first then trust them easily when they establish they mean no harm.

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There are no schools, no hospitals, no shops in any of the four villages of Kasaa, Mathii, Njugoro and Boro where the Kachipo live.

The only sign of public service is a compound where the Kenyan and Sudanese missionaries have built a makeshift school — up to Standard Two — a first aid banda and huts to sleep in. Apart from evangelism, the missionaries offer medical services and distribute essential goods they are able to ferry in.

Box of matches

Fire is still made using the stone-age method of rubbing wood-against-wood and so a gift like a box of matches causes considerable excitement.

The first time some children in the villages wear any clothes is when the missionaries give them out. Half the population in school of about 50 pupils are naked.

Mortality rate for mother and child is high. A basic survey shows six out of ten children die at or after birth. Other preventable and curable diseases ravage the community.

A report compiled by IAS states: "Due to lack of drugs for treatment and immunisation, deaths are very common among them especially from common preventable and curable diseases. New born babies and mothers die from simple complications. in a family of ten only four might survive to adulthood. The most common ailments are Tuberculosis, common colds, fever, pneumonia, chest infections, scabies, ring worms, malaria fever, wounds, trachoma, conjunctiva, burns, amoeba, diarrhea, typhoid, STIs and worms."

Law and order

There is no presence of government in Kachipo. Traditional chiefs who have no touch with the government in Juba, the southern capital, maintain law and order.

Due to a history of attacks, the Kachipo have heavily armed themselves with guns bought from Ethiopia.

People carry guns everywhere. Boys and men coming to the missionary camp to watch projected movies or going to shamba carry AK47 rifles.

There was a scary incident once when a boy who had never seen a motion picture cocked his gun when he saw movie actors ‘aim at him’. It took a lot of convincing to calm him down.

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