Travelogue : LEAVING JUBA - BEFORE THE WAR (PART II)

LEAVING JUBA - BEFORE THE WAR (PART II)

By ISHMAEL ANNOBIL

Our Suzuki Jeep rides up the hillock to the rendezvous: the iron bridge. The White Nile churns its silver sinews in the morning sun. All very mythical, maybe because I am only half awake. Maybe I am yet to come to terms with the fact that my long awaited lift out of the political and economic squalor is finally here. My Sudan Air ticket has been as redundant here as it was six months ago in Kenya - one plane is rumoured to be floating up river, after a crash landing, while the other has no fuel to fly. The airline has been aptly nicknamed ‘Inshala’ (God willing).

But my gloating has to wait; we still have Customs and Immigration to see before crossing the Nile. My heart pounds in my mouth because I have some damning journalism on my person - my only hope for ready income in Kenya. The Sudanese authorities hate political criticism. The fear of being caught nearly paralyses me. To dispel suspicion, I caress the curves of the great yellow Mack truck which will be my chariot for the next five days. I nearly kiss it.

Enoch, my older bro and sponsor, looks on with his Ugandan girlfriend. There’s sadness in Enoch’s eyes. We have made some good adventure in this land. He hands me whatever money he has on him. He hates the surprise; and the banks are not open till eight. I land about 50 Sudanese Pounds and 400 Kenyan Shillings, enough for my food needs for the entire journey. The two currencies are mutually exclusive - neither is allowed out of its country of origin, though, for obvious reasons, the later reaches every heart in the region. I line the Kenyan ones with the Sudanese ones and fold them discretely into my pocket.

But Passport Control and Customs prove to be a light affair, afteral; especially because Robert, our kindly truck driver, made sure to stuff our documents with money before handing them over. The look on the officers’ faces are more of sheepish admiration for us, therefore, than the rapt cobra-like outrage you would expect. I shake hands with Enoch and his girlfriend. I fear for them in this looming civil war. As I approach the cab of the truck, I smell the true scent of Sudan: DOOM!

I shout a croaky bye-bye to Enoch and co. I enter my ‘cocoon’, shut my eyes for a quick prayer, and brace up for the odyssey. I can hear the music of the White Nile even more clearly now. Once in a while this symphony carries tiny Gypsy bells to my ears. Such exquisite senses just before one’s departure! As our truck’s engine revs up, I lean out to look back at Juba. She lies mournfully below us. I spot Enoch’s jeep working up red dust towards her rustic heart, his hand still held up in a wave. We are an emotional family, and we never hide it. I keep looking and waving till he drops his hand and disappears. Then I take a full sweep of the Juba. Her admixture of tukros (huts) and municipal buildings look back at me accusingly. From this elevation, the town seems sparsely populated.

The truck swings forward over the bridge. I withdraw my head from the window and wind it up for the air conditioning to spoil us. I look askance at the Nile and catch a glimpse of scantily clad Dinka ladies bathing their children and cattle in the sacred waters. I know I am leaving a rare dream. I will miss it forever. Though, for now I must smile at the landscape ahead. Robert must have noticed the welling in my eyes, for he offers me a timely can of beer. I finish it in two long gulps. He does the same, so does Juma, his driver’s mate and cook. I ask them if we are crossing Uganda. They say, no. I am happy to hear that. I cringe at the memory of the armed Ugandan child soldiers Enoch and I had encountered on our journey to the Sudan: apocalypse.

Funny, it dawns on me that although we have crossed the ‘rubicon’, we are still in the Sudan. Two days or so of it lies before us, with its uncharted lands, peoples, and psychologies. A palimpsest geographical reality, if ever there was one. The land has accepted its divides with dignity. Juba is the end of southern civilisation as we know it, and the rest is still moulting into our reckoning as moderns. But I prefer the latter and its surprises; the lack of machinery and the predominance, therefore, of philosophical power.

Yes, I have mixed emotions about the road ahead, but happiness and anticipation are winning the war for me. Except, I know I am going to be quietly niggled by my forbidden journalism and notebooks. All the same, I need a camera for this land. I have none. It isn’t welcome here, anyway. I drink more German beer and unwind slowly into a chatty beast, full of humour and mirth. Suddenly, a small articulated truck pulls abreast us. Its Portuguese driver curses us good humouredly in broken English.

There’s alacrity on both sides. I am told we are to be a convoy. Then our sister truck pulls away like lightening. We are engulfed in its terracotta cloud. Roberts chuckles, as if to say: ‘Easy, driver, these roads are mean’. We slow down to let the cloud settle. More beer. More cigarettes. Robert puts on some music. It’s T-Connection. Funk. We pick up speed again. This is a road movie. The soundtrack settles me into a sense of invincibility. I even reckon our truck is impenetrable to bullets and assegai. I am in a space capsule, travelling through forgotten time and place. I may choose to consort or not consort with the outside world. Only a cockpit fire can dislodge me from this luxury.

But nature, the sort Sudan possesses, is too strong for such cowardly indifference. It begins to draw me out to it; and what I once called grey vegetation starts to unfurl its tantalising soul, whose grammar I have learned to understand, but yet to master. I have called it ‘the all-feeling that embraces you in the limitless plains’. So I gladly give up on my touristic need to enjoy landscape and game. Presently, my mind reverts to the familiar territory I am now leaving, as if to make up for my momentary lapse of humility: I recall the neglected lepers huddled up in the refuse dump, wailing to God for manna; the tuberculars selling baskets no one will buy, the petrol sniffing youth, the smell of hopelessness. But, somehow, I also recall that elusive territory of human dignity, and the latent sense of the Deity. In my six months here, this same all-feeling has turned me into surrealist poet. I swear to publish my journalism and be damned. These great people need a voice outside.

Soon we pass the spot where Enoch’s and I had knocked down a hawk on our momentuous inward journey, six months ago. I remember the bird’s proud throes, how we awkwardly put it out of it misery, its bloodshot eyes. The memory haunts me briefly. Ghanaian sages would say it sacrificed its life for our safety in the Sudan. Well, it must have, for recently I escaped being shot by an idiotic soldier for questioning his right to ask to see my passport. I drink more beer to clear my head. I fall quiet again. I nap. I dream. It’s all about Kenya. I want her like mad. At least, I now know I am actually on my way there. Yet I regret not having read my poetry to a Sudanese audience, given my newfound love for Sudanese poetry. I vow to come back after the war. For I am sure there will be war. There can only be war, wherever Arabs attempt to suppress Africans; wherever Arabs attempt to fold great African history into their own gallery of fantasies, as they’ve done in Egypt.

The despicable, ungainly, burlesque and primitive Arab statesmanship I have witnessed here makes my heart livid. That such a mediaeval bunch should wish to feel superior to the African is a matter only decipherable by fools. If only they knew what the Africans think of them! If only they knew of the African intellect! They are dealing with the descendants of the founders of classical architecture, to name but one. I feel shamelessly partisan. I am leaving because I have seen the desecration of an old culture by a new culture, and I am tired of feeling helpless. But perhaps my true reason for leaving is to avoid the temptation of joining a liberation struggle and losing my life.

I wake up in Torit. Carlo, the Portuguese driver, has managed to flatten a tyre, otherwise we would still be beating tracks. Robert’s eyes seem to say: ‘I told you so’. But we can’t avoid the task. Torit is a town, but it isn’t. Yet it is the ‘oasis’ hereabouts. Luckily, the plucky Carlo has managed to crawl into a truckers’ joint. After thirty minutes, a vulcaniser, as tyre fitters are still called in most of Africa, emerges from the gloom, all festive with tools, gasoline powered compressor, jack, beams of wood, a burner from Gulliver’s Travels, and a retinue of apprentices. He tells us we have to pay him and the apprentices separately. We bow to his every need. Then he sets to work as if this were his first job in years. Only, the last nut on the wheel decides to defy him. It bends every spanner, and then loses its head. All the jiggling has bruised it into a slippery round knob. All hands fall onto the devilish thing, but without grip we can do no more than posture like soldiers in the face of an earthquake. Penetration oil is called for. From where I do not know.

At length, Robert, Juma and I decide to leave it to the expert. We wind our way into the heart of the oasis. Food leers at us from all corners, especially smoked rodents. We settle for a shed adorned with an arabesque painting of a fitful feast. The crude art wakes wicked hunger in us. We fall upon the heavenly mutton and lentil dish, while we seek the hand that serves the warege (hooch) beseechingly. When it hits home, it burns a hole in my chest, and my eyes feel dissected as if by a swift blade. In my tipsy state, I suddenly observe that the rest of Africa might never see this town, till the end of time; that we are a rare breed of travellers; that Africans don’t tour Africa, nor trade with Africa. Europe is the happy middleman. Robert laughs till his eyes go red. I bet he is amused by my hooch driven radicalism. He presses his hand on my shoulder and just chuckles, saying nothing. But I like these silent African codes. They flatter you, in that they seem to point you to the answer within you. No lectures.

When we get back to the task, it has already been done. Carlo is munching a fat sandwich with his mates, pointing his chin at us as though we were prodigals. He makes up well for his lack of English (and our lack of Portuguese) His mates laugh. We reach for our water cans. Carlo tells me he used to work in Ghana. He has a soft-spot for our women, blah-blah-blah. I am too tipsy to be coherent, so I just laugh a lot at his tales. We pull off towards dusk. We are as resigned to the delay as mid-term students. It will be a casual drive. It gives Robert the chance to engages me in his knowledge of the Sudanese people. He predicts that if anyone is to have a face-off with this culture, it would be Carlo because of his unschooled vigour and hyperactivity. He decides therefore to stay as close to his tail as possible, in case he has to intervene somewhere. I chain-smoke my Kenyan cigarettes. The music is good. The scenery is good and surprising. I take it all in because I know I will never see the same again. Here and there, we come across a lone Nilotic walker in full sartorial grandeur (minimalism, that is). We give a lift when we can.

After eternity, we reach halfway between Torit and Kapoeta. The night has embraced us like a blanked. Our headlights do not disturb it much, apart from the excitable insects we draw from its arms. Carlo’s truck has outstripped us into the night. Last time we saw him, he had extra local passengers; which means he’ll be okay. The darkness makes us all very quiet. Temperature drops slightly, accentuating the silence. Robert lowers the volume of the stereo. On second thoughts, he decides to play a Zairois tape instead - closer to home. I feel spooked. It’s darker than black velvet. But trust Robert to keep his chin up.

Finally, we see lights. A constellation of oil lamps, that is. I sigh loudly with relief. Roberts smiles with Juma, at my expense. I chuckle. We pull up in the middle of a night market. Carlo’s truck is nowhere to be seen; he must be braving the night, thewild cat. We are mobbed by shiny faces. I crave a camera again. Robert reaches behind our seats, automatically, and pulls out bags upon bags of Unga (corn meal) and dishes them out to all takers. Some hip guy, probably Shilluk, with a mohican hairdo and a vicious looking assegai stays well back from the melee, though his proud eyes implore us to notice him. I respect his dignity. I pull out my volley kit (sports shorts are the craze here), and signal him to come for it. He reaches out like a chieftain,over the jostling heads, and takes my gift with a triumphant smile, then withdraws into the darkness like a phantom. Such is the traveller’s life. Your friendships are transient. But they can govern a huge part of your psyche forever. You may even fight for a foreign nation on account of such transient communion, and feel justified. Alms delivered, we withdraw to a clearing. Hawkers bring their fare to us and we eat heartily, then Robert catches a deserved nap. Juma smokes something treacherous, making him smile a lot. One hour later, we set off again.

We get to Kapoeta around midnight. As expected, the town is agog with lights and trucks and sneaky, lascivious movements in the shadows. Giggles. Guffaws. This must be a giant seraglio for truckers. One wonders how many fatherless children there are. Robert and Juma decide to sleep outside our truck. I sit with them for a while around Juma’s cowboy fire, drinking tea and chatting and dreaming, then climb into the cockpit bunk and sleep. I suspect they plan to merge with the nightlife after I am asleep. I dream of Dinka damsels.

We rise early the next day. Kapoeta looks dead. This is said to be the home of gold, yet the town is in tatters. Classic Sudanese scenario. Juma sets to his culinary duties early. He buys a goat and slaughters it, then cooks the best pilau dish I have ever had. His technique is amazing: just before the rice swells he places the saucepan in a hole in the ground, sweeps the glowing embers onto the cover, then seals the hole with the hot sand from his temporary hearth. A subterranean oven! The outcome cannot be described in English.

Meanwhile, a town Toposa dude in his twenties stands by, about five meters away, watching us in silence. He declines our food, but he grooves subtly to the African-America funk from the truck’s stereo. An ardent dancer myself, I am amazed how contemporary his moves are. I am even more convinced now that modern music is truly an African legacy. I do what good dancers do to each other. I nod at him. He nods back snappily, as if to say: ‘What did you expect?’ I can smell his ambition to be part of the bigger world. He will make a damned good sailor. Fate has denied him. But he has made his statement. I won’t forget it.

We pull away into the sun, after midday. Our watcher pulls away too, without looking back. We have a full day’s drive ahead. Our tummies are full. We drink more beer. We chat. Robert adopts a serious approach to the drive. I need a bath but I can’t have any. I keep looking around for a brook or something for a cool bath. Meanwhile I am enjoying the landscape. I am told we can make Lokichochio, the border town, tonight. I have always liked that name, Lokichochio. But, in the meantime, we are in Toposa territory. One is very aware of the two things they are noted for - their belief that God gave them all the cattle in the world; and their being armed with machine guns (bought from Somali and Eritrean army deserters) with which to execute that 'birthright'. The guns are their only concession to modernity. What’s more, they do not speak your language and no one dares to be an interpreter. So then, you drive through their patch by sufferance only, with your heart in your mouth.

An hour into this dread and we spot Carlo’s truck crawling ahead. Another tyre problem! We pull into a nondescript town. It takes ages to change the tyre. Then we sit about for a chat and tea. There is more banter than before, with Carlo telling us of his exploits the night before.

So he was in Kapoeta, after all! Sneaky devil. Well rested, he pulls away again at his usual breakneck speed. We choose to crawl, not to anger the Toposa. Robert shakes his head anxiously at Carlo’s dust trail. An hour later, we spot Carlo’s truck crawling again. This time he has passengers, in the form of armed Toposa! Robert shows his first signs of anxiety. We know immediately that Carlo’s truck had been commandeered at gunpoint. Robert is right again.

We have to play it cool. No sudden movements, please, he seems to say with his twitching cheeks. Luckily, the ordeal soon ends, smack at the mouth of a village path. VIP service. The ungrateful pirates make off with Carlo’s belongings and his only shirt. Never saw him look so helpless. But I cannot help noticing how beautiful the Toposa women are. Such smooth skin.

For his part, Carlo bites his lips and races off again. We follow. We lose him. I scan the half hidden Toposa hamlets. They have a knack for hoisting green and red flags. Quite a feature. A cinematographical dream. Once in a while, we see Toposa relaxing by shaded brooks and streams; the taupe of the sands and coats of their zebu cattle is picture book quality. How I wish I can alight and mingle. In such scene, any speck of the colour red resonnates like a star. And brass helices grace all their hands and necks.

Night meets us like a forsaken lover; very sudden and raw. A dazed giant mamba manages to run under our tyres. Our great truck bucks over its back! It feels mystical all of a sudden. African superstition is always more potent at night. The incident makes us fall into palpable silence for a while. Then Robert remembers that Kenyan Customs won’t take kindly to his ghetto blaster. He would have to pay too much duty. So we stop in the pitch darkness to hide it in a sack of charcoal. My feet on the ground, I start to hallucinate like mad, every blade of grass feeling like the a mamba’s fangs.

Deed done, we lurch forward to the border. But I nurse a private fear. If my writings are to be found anywhere, it will be here, at the eleventh hour. In which case, I will be charged or shot for subversive activity, bearded and thin as I am. I fold my arms and lean back to hide my anxiety. After an hour’s drive, we roll across the border. To my amazement, the Sudanese side is unstaffed. No Man’s Land therefore feels eerie. There is dreadful silence in our truck. Robert’s cheeks quiver slightly. He is obviously worried about being caught for the ghetto blaster.

We make it to a smiling reception from the Kenyan border guards. I notice their good education immediately. I smell a different air. We are in Turkana territory. I can’t wait till daybreak. Our truck is searched cursorily. We escape detection. But my notebooks and yellow manuscripts are found. The officer shines his light on them and breezes through a paragraph or two and smiles at me. He shakes my hand. I feel awkward. I stray off casually into the dark to take a pee. Suddenly, the whole world screams at me to turn back! I panic. Silence.

"Walk back slowly!" charges a Kenyan border guard. I walk backwards to the truck. "You are lucky, bwana. Those Sudanese border guards have the right to shoot you, man. You crossed into high security territory, and there are mines as well!" he says alarmedly.

I freeze. My bladder freezes. I crawl into the back of the truck to sleep, watching the skies. My tummy rumbles with hunger but I refuse to step down. Sleep takes me in the end. Next day, the rising sun and birdsong wake me before anyone else. I make my way to passport control to make small talk. I have tea with the officers from last night, all the while scanning the so called security territory for movement. No such luck; perfect camouflage, I should have thought.

One of the friendly border guards turns out to know the Omolo family, my hosts in Kenya. He is a Luo like them. At length, I hear soft children’s chatter. I clear my chai and look through the window. I see Turkana children milling around the trucks. I respond to their mystique. I walk up to them and make silly faces at them. They laugh shyly, and thrust their palms out at me. They want gifts. Robert wakes in time to save me. He signals that they should wait. They drop their hands like soldiers, but sidle up slyly for close marking. Soon a fresh faced immigration officer approaches to take our passports. He pauses to look me up and down, and says:

“Man, you look bad. Are you unwell?" He turns to Robert. “Make sure this man eats well, we don’t like our guests to look so unwell."

I smile tragically. Fact is, I am totally dehydrated (too much beer, too little water), and I am very hungry. Above all, I need to have a shower. Juma attempts feebly to respond to the task, looking guilty for no apparent reason. I offer to make the breakfast this time. He obliges me sleepily. I buy some fresh Kenyan milk, eggs, bread, butter and Jumbo lard from a small shop, which has been grafted into the tense landscape like an arctic hut. I borrow a Turkana stool (that fine art masterpiece) from a child, and set to work. I brew the tea in milk, like a Kenyan.

Breakfast ready, I pull out a bag of granulated sugar from the truck. As I walk back to my stool, the Turkana children dive down behind me. I turn to see why, and realise that the bag of sugar has a gash in it. They fight over the spilled sugar, scooping it into their capes, sand and all. It’s all over in three seconds. They stand up stoicly to study my face, then scuttle away laughing. Robert chuckles. I ask him what they intend to do with sanded sugar.

"They will dissolve it in water and sieve it. Then they will wait for the water to evaporate. This guys are smarter than you and I, my friend," he says, smiling triumphantly from the corner of his mouth.

This reminds me again of the harrowing story the former Ugandan Airforce pilot told me in Juba: "People visiting us think we are industrious yam farmers, but in fact, all those mounds of earth are our children’s graves."

But what about the Turkana? Isn’t Kenya their own country, surely? To think they live in one of the most prosperous nations in Africa! They can see the honeycomb but cannot touch it. Where did Africa go wrong? I think I am going to have an ulcer attack.

Image:

1. Toposa Village © Wikipedia

2. Southern Sudanese woman © Wikipedia

3. Young Toposa man © Wikipedia

Graphic Design by Ishmael Annobil/  Web Development by Ruzanna Hovasapyan