Travel Essays

Crossing the White Nile

By some standards I was raised in humble circumstances, by others I was raised in stark privilege and opportunity. This duality is something I struggle to reconcile, but regardless of perspective, I’ve seen first-hand how education, a bit of ingenuity and shit-ton of hard work can take you to places you never dreamed possible. One odd job at a time, if that’s what it takes.

Places like riding shotgun on a questionably legal motorbike in the East Texas piney woods. Places like sleeping under a desk in architecture school to sleeping on a couch at the United Nations to putting my soul into hibernation while playing the advertising game. Places like the joyful vulnerability of motherhood and the immense sadness of losing a father too soon. Places like learning the art of negotiation in Geneva from a professor with wet, quivering lips to learning the art of traditional healing from a medicine man in a hut along Lake Bunyonyi. Places like atop 16,000 feet while looking into the eyes of my partner in this life, as a killer clot threatened to take him from us. Places like South Sudan in the midst of civil war to see something most say is impossible. Places like a twin-engine prop plane crossing the White Nile.

I spent only three short days on the ground in Yei, South Sudan, a spot of relative calm in a nascent nation taking two steps back. I had the unique opportunity to deposit a pint in a bankrupt blood bank, looked up at the stars from the floor of a teak forest, scrubbed in for hernia surgery on a teenage boy and sat under a mango tree with a ninety-three year old blind woman who has lived long enough to see peace in a land where most have only known war. There was black market fuel bought in recycled water bottles and dinner in an Ethiopian restaurant with no food. A mature male goat was exchanged in sincere appreciation for a well that now gives life-saving water, the sun rose over the Yei River and I held my ears as the man in the next guesthouse coughed up a lung for at least an hour each morning.

I did not, under any circumstances, eat termites.

I played sidekick to a dear friend who lives by “whatever it takes” and has drilled over 600 wells in his adopted land. He stops at nothing to embolden others and issued me a challenge, one I willingly accepted and I am undoubtedly stronger for.

A great man and his wife were my generous hosts. I saw how they uplift their community in the midst of desperate times and make the things happen that others say are impossible. They left me speechless.

When it was time to leave, we had to travel a few short miles on the “good side” of the road to Juba to get back to the airstrip. A few dozen miles ahead had recently become a path even the UN won’t travel, but we were still a fair distance away. Two uniformed soldiers motioned us over as we crossed the bridge on the outskirts of town. I held my breath as the truck edged to a stop. From the passenger seat, I looked briefly toward the soldiers out of the corner of my eye and saw a wild emptiness in the eyes of the taller one. This was the moment I had feared most. What did they want? I tried not to look directly at them as they uttered a few indecipherable words in Arabic. What they wanted I don’t truly understand, but after a few moments they let us pass. As we inched forward, I saw another soldier a few yards behind them with an automatic machine gun and full ammo belt aimed at the bridge.

Less than an hour later I was flying over the White Nile listening to a Western middle-aged-mother-of-two playlist on my tattered headphones. I asked myself the question, “How in the hell did I get here and what does it all mean?” How I got there was by invitation from a dear friend who told me to come see something miraculous for myself. So that’s what I did and I would do it again, for what I gained far outweighed one fearful moment.

The White Nile is one of the two rivers that come together form the main Nile, the longest waterway in the world. It is called the White Nile because of its milky waters created by the light-grey clay sediment it carries as it flows north. I now sit at a table in a guesthouse on the peaceful side of the White Nile, twenty-four hours after lifting off from a red-soil airstrip in South Sudan. I am swimming in the ex-pat bubble trying to separate and appreciate each and every experience I had on the ground there. I ask myself why I was given this place in the world and exactly what I’ve been put here to do. You see, I can simply lift off in a twin-engine prop plane and fly across the White Nile, because I won the latitude lottery. I have the privilege of spending a day across from a clay tennis court while drinking bottled water; pondering the places life takes me, making obscure references and posting pictures of a milky river in East Africa.

I wasn’t given the clarity of purpose many enjoy, but life is after all an iterative process. However, I do have clarity on one important fact – health, well being and prosperity are universal human rights worth fighting for. From this truth comes The Cassiopeia Project, a quest to uncover, invest in and bring forward innovative, locally-driven programs working to advance human potential.

Because…

We should be undeterred by things others consider impossible. We should be willing to wrestle with life instead of sitting on the bench. We should seek out and uplift great people and great ideas. We should make investments worth making. We should because we can fly over the White Nile.

I might just be crazy, but maybe, just maybe, I’m not.

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3 thoughts on “Crossing the White Nile

  1. Mark says:

    Beautiful, and perfectly conveyed. Been to Yei and couldn’t quite muster up the right words to explain feeling the same way. Thank you for your service on the ground and in words.

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