Neville Kelly: An Aussie Mechanic In South Sudan

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Updated: January 6, 2020

Neville Kelly is a motor mechanic from Victoria who recently spent nine months working with Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Agok, South Sudan, as fleet manager.

Faced with challenges including rough dirt roads and horrendous weather conditions, Neville worked hard to support the team technically and to ensure the vehicles were in the right shape for the medical staff supporting patients.

What Were Your Responsibilities During This Assignment?

“My team and I were responsible for making sure that MSF’s medical and humanitarian activities could provide support to people in need in the region. This meant ensuring our cars and motorbikes were functioning, and ensuring the generators were constantly supplying electricity to our offices, houses and medical facilities.

The team mainly used vehicles to travel from base and the main hospital in Agok to the primary healthcare centre in Mayom – around 60km away – but a three-hour drive in the dry season.

During the rainy season, we had to take a second road of about 100km, and the journey would take all day.

We maintained a fleet of 16 fourwheel drive vehicles including Toyota LandCruisers, three Mercedes Unimog trucks and two caterpillar-type track vehicles, Hagglunds. We also had 11 motorbikes and 10 generators.

The motorbikes were essential for our outreach team to be able to access remote villages, where they tested people for malaria before providing treatment.

The bikes also enabled our community health workers to reach distant locations quickly and easily. We trained them in bike riding and maintenance, as well as troubleshooting basic problems.”

What Were The Main Constraints You Had To Face?

“I arrived in South Sudan during the wet season and stayed throughout the dry season, so I experienced all the difficulties imaginable. The road conditions were horrendous: rough dirt tracks with deep potholes. The weather had a huge impact on the nature of the soil. In this region of South Sudan called Sudd, where Agok and Mayom are located, the soil has a high percentage of clay. It’s a very thick and sticky mud during the rainy season, from April to September, and during the dry season it turns to an extremely fine dust. It’s like outback Australia, but worse!

Our local drivers were very experienced in this environment but lacked formal training and the know-how to manage such bad conditions in a safe and efficient manner. As South Sudan is a very young country and under-resourced in terms of repair capacities, we also lacked qualified and trained workshop staff and equipment to deal with the volume of physical work and manage things like spare parts and workshop supervision.

The dry season was bad news for our generators: they were constantly overheating, with lots of dust going in. We had a high turn-over of equipment like fan belts or rubber hoses. These parts were just deteriorating on the shelves in the warehouse because of the dust, and the changes in weather from the dry heat to the extreme wet!

All these factors combined meant that we had an incredibly high turn-over of vehicles, to the point that their body would sometimes break and crack. With the Hagglund track vehicles, which we could only use during the rainy season, the sprocket wheels had to be checked and changed every dry season, instead of lasting several years like they would in normal conditions.”

How Did You Cope With All These Challenges?

“Firstly, I was lucky to have a great team of four South Sudanese workshop staff. They had already done a short training course locally before and we completed it with a more in-depth focus on mechanics to develop their skills. We also had a team of 11 experienced drivers. And one thing is sure – I learnt a lot from them.

MSF In South Sudan

Civilians in South Sudan have borne the brunt of over five years of conflict. Two million people have fled into neighbouring countries, and another two million are displaced within its borders. Exposed to extreme violence and living in fear for their lives, hundreds of thousands of people in South Sudan are unable to access basic necessities such as food, water and healthcare. MSF works in hospitals and clinics providing basic and specialised healthcare and responding to emergencies and outbreaks affecting isolated communities, internally displaced people and refugees from Sudan

We also had a fully covered workshop with a pit and a fairly good level of equipment Together with the team, we identified the key issues and how to try and remedy some of them.

To deal with the cracking of the bodies of the vehicles, we identified the key breaks and how to prevent them by improving the driving skills of our drivers to use correct speed in difficult situations and avoid jarring and unnecessary twisting of the vehicles. We also worked on using high lift jacks for recovery, held awareness sessions on the cost and other effects of poor driving, and systematised daily and weekly checks to prevent break down.

During my time we also procured a welding machine and trained the workshop staff to make repairs on the vehicles using this – for example, to pull apart the Toyota Landcruiser’s body panels to strengthen them and weld them back together.

Previously, vehicles had to be sent to Juba (more than 800km away) for repair, meaning it could take weeks to have them available.

Doing repairs in the field will now save money, reduce vehicle repair time and length of service and provide valuable upskilling for the local workshop team. It means more availability for our medical teams to provide care to the people in need. And this is what our work is all about.”

Médecins Sans Frontières is recruiting non-medical profiles essential for the efficient and effective running of all projects. Roles include specialist logistician roles focusing on construction, electricity, supply, water and sanitation, and fleet management. French language is an asset.

For more information visit www.msf.org.au
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