Randy Erickson, the American, was so moved by the experience that, if he had learned that the only reason he was meant to travel to South Sudan was to meet the boy, he would have gone home satisfied.
But on a practical side, Erickson, chief mechanic for the Kodiak Electrical Association, was there on a mission for the National Rural Electrical Cooperative Association, to diagnose mechanical problems with generators in the villages of Yei and Maridi. Erickson was joined by Robert Ellinger of the NRECA.
Since 2005, NRECA officials and volunteers have trained the nationals in South Sudan and other parts of the world to maintain village generators.
When Erickson’s boss asked him if he was interested in going to South Sudan, he thought he was pulling his leg.
Once he knew it wasn’t a joke, he decided to go. “When something like this comes your way, it’s for a reason,” said Erickson.
His friends thought he was crazy to go to a place that was deprived of the comfortable American amenities and riddled by internal unrest and threatened by militant Islamic forces in the north.
South Sudan struggles to survive tribal clashes, major battles and small skirmishes, raiding by cattle rustlers, attacks by armed robbers as well as political upheaval.
“Once you go over there and step in the middle of it, you see it, you feel the tension. That place is like a tinder box. You can see it in people’s eyes. You can see it in the military personnel that walk in town.”
There were signs of war and impending war all over.
Shortly after they left the airport, they passed a blown-up tank.
Many of the non- government workers, religious organizations, missionaries and other groups had been told to leave the country because of internal unrest.
“When we went in, we were told we were pretty much on our own,” Erickson said.
Erickson and Ellinger were so busy doing diagnostic tests and taking care of other matters, that they didn’t have time to reflect on the turmoil.
“We discussed how (Yei and Maridi) could forward,” Erickson said.
The people of Sudan are slowly working on their infrastructure, Erickson said. They get some assistance from the USA. Through the money the utility collects, it tries to stand alone on that. “The cost of electricity is $0.25 a kilowatt hour. We’re paying $0.12 to $0.13 here.”
The people have to be frugal in order to preserve electricity.
In Yei the generators go off at midnight and are cranked up in the morning.
Workers are paid by the electrical cooperatives in their villages. “They’re just a small KEA. They own a utility, sell a service and try to collect from consumers,” Erickson said.
Erickson said fuel and electricity in South Sudan are very expensive. Diesel fuel costs $6 a gallon. It has to be trucked from Uganda on a wilderness road, which Randy compares to the road to Saltery Cove “on a bad rainy day.”
The people Erickson met in South Sudan are “wonderful and hard-working,” he said.
“They’re not looking for a hand-out. They’re not sitting there like they’re entitled to something.” They took the initiative to improve the problems in their municipalities. When it was determined that one of the generators would have to be replaced, they made a deal with the manufacturer to set up a payment program to pay for a new generator.
“They had some troubles, but they worked their way through it. They need help, and they need some assistance, but they’re not expecting it. They’re fighting to stand on their own two feet.”
One of the people Erickson met in South Sudan had nothing to do with electricity or generators. He was a crippled boy who approached him in a parking lot after Erickson had left a crowded church to make room for one of the locals.
In a letter Erickson composed about his encounter, he said that the boy “was filthy, smelly and his body was twisted. He had crooked legs, no shoes and mud-packed and torn trousers. He was wearing his crucifix and I think that was the cleanest thing on him.”
The boy, who couldn't speak, gripped Erickson’s hand, sitting down in the middle of the parking lot. He pulled Erickson down with him. They spent two hours in the hot sun, humming hymns “because I didn't know them and he couldn't sing them,” Erickson reflected.
“Who the young boy is and what will become of him or who looks after him, I don't know and I will always wonder,” said Erickson, tearfully.
Erickson was recognized on the House of Representatives floor and he received a commendation and a plaque from Rep. Don Young.
“I don’t feel that I did that much and deserve all of that recognition,” he said.
Erickson went to South Sudan as a representative of KEA and Kodiak.
Tools were donated to the Sudanese by Sutliffs, NAPA and Andy Crawley, who owned Island Hydraulics at the time. “Brechans wanted to donate, but I had enough tools by then,” Erickson said.
Erickson said the trip softened and hardened him at the same time. He was touched by the poverty and determination of the people. “They’re doing the best they can. On other hand, it hardened me when I came back. When I hear about entitlement, it angers me. If the poorest person in the US could see how these people live, they’d be astonished.”
The people in South Sudan “get up every morning. They brush their teeth. They put on their pants. They go to work. They’re trying to do better for themselves every day. They’re not waiting for a hand-out.
“I’m going to miss that place,” he said. “I’d go back in a heartbeat.”