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I racconti del Premio Energheia Africa Teller

Sojourn in the South Sudan_Fred Otieno

foglia_Africa Teller 2007.

 

After going through many escapades both self made and natural the last

one which befell me this time round only confirmed that I was brought

into this world to be an example to others. You see, this whole issue started

as a very noble act to a point that I thought my fate had changed for

the better and for once I was giving back to the society which had otherwise

turned its back on me for along time. I son of Nyapodo was getting

into serious humanitarian work, not my normal paper shuffling duties.

You see, my boss was supposed to go for this quarterly filed trip to

South Sudan where we happen to run some funny humanitarian programs

which at the end of the day put bread on my table. For reasons beyond

my knowledge this otherwise very difficult fellow decided that he was

too busy in Nairobi and dispatched his paper shuffler to clear messes in

the land of Garang.

Well, I need not complain because when this fellow came to me with

the directive, I was secretly elated. In a way, this was a blessing for that

‘exit stamp’ starved passport of mine for I got it five years ago after paying

a fortune but had only been lucky to get it stamped once at the Malaba

border. I was therefore secretly in cloud nine because the passport was

going to be stamped once more before it expires sometimes later in the

year. As soon as I confirmed this trip I embarked on what any lakeside

son would naturally do. That is call all friends and relatives who cared

to lend me an ear and tell them that I’m going abroad and would not be

reached for the next two weeks. Don’t care how I do this because my

phone is always credit starved and on receive mode always, the nearest

it gets to a call mode is flashing.

The boss sensing that I seemed to be OK with the trip and knowing my

bias for fun and generally free things decided to tighten a few screws

for me here and there as usual. I’m even surprised why this fellow has

not sacked me because beside his cold tusker I seem to be the only other

thing that tickles him especially when I’m wearing along face. I’m not

sure, maybe I make grand sight with a long face, you see I’m not exactly

handsome. So for one week he got me doing some tedious report, which

this woman colleague had left undone for the last two months. I always

get this funny feeling that the two of them are having a ball.

After laboring for seven days I was good and ready to see the land of

the Dinkas. Armed with my tools of trade a calculator, my stamped staved

passport and feeling quite important, I breezed into JKIA and on to

Lokichokio. You should see how tough I looked on the flight wearing

that face that says “I’m used to these things”. Early next morning found

me hurtling away all over South Sudan in some rickety World Food Program

airplane. Six hours and six stops later, just when my bravado was

dying off and I was starting to contemplate what my clansmen would

do if this contraption of a plane crashed in the rugged South Sudan countryside,

the pilot announced that we were soon landing in Mabior which

happened to be my destination.

The plane made its first attempt to land but just over flew the runaway

into the air once more. I later overheard passenger saying that the runway

was flooded hence hampering our landing. After several aborted

attempts the pilot must have decided that he was going nowhere with

an excess baggage like me and got the plane down leaving me with a

queasy stomach. I was the only one getting off at that stop and they must

have been mighty glad to get rid of me because the plane thereafter took

off without a hitch.

I thought I was one the tallest fellow among my clansmen but what I

saw got me thinking again. As for colour you don’t mention that because

though once a classmate said I was, as dark as three midnights combined

but I think the young chap had not come across any Dinka therefore

did not know what he was yapping about. They must have thought I

was an albino! I then became aware of the heavy air, rolling plain-land,

humidity and the overpowering marshy smell. With it came the first mosquito

bite.

“Welcome to Mabior, my name is Ajang Ayiang Thong’, you must be

Dan”. I wheeled around to confront the tallest and darkest human being

I have ever come across. “Yes I’m Dan. Are you from the Oxfam office?”.

I asked and replied in affirmative adding he was there to pick me up. I

heaved a sigh of relief at least my sadist of a boss had courtesy to send

someone to pick me up. I said a silent prayer to the almighty to bless

him as Mr. Thong’ led me to the vehicle which was to take me to the

office. As we neared the car I noted a kid of about twelve years but with

a height of my tallest relative with a missing arm. Noting my curiosity

Thong’ said: “He got that from a snake bite, so many snakes around here

but no drugs, they had to amputate him to save his life”.

I swallowed and grunted something of a reply but nothing came out. You

know such talk does not raise morale of someone who is planning to

stay there for about a week. I must have passed the message clearly to

Thong’ for he did not depress me further with that kind of talk and rather

preferred to ask me how our Nairobi office was. Yes I was in Mabior

and as we drove through the swampy land the mosquitoes decided

to sample my new blood in masses and I was soon slapping away any

part of my uncovered body. Seeing my discomfort Thong’ told me I will

get used to them. Himself he seemed quite at ease and the suckers were

not even bothering him. Somebody tell me how you get used to

bloodsuckers. Please.

The first day was sheer torture, apart from mosquitoes my quarters was

some roughly built muddy, grass hut with the roof so low that entering

them seem like a stunt out of Hollywood. In the hut there seem to be

whole clan of lizards and geckos. Creeping things could be heard all over

its grass-thatched roof. As if to make me appreciate the place’s diversity

of nature my camp manager told me that spotlight is one of the valuable

thing you must own in the area. He told me I had to be extra vigilant.

In Mabior you don’t go touching anything without looking. Scorpions

are their life companions and sting from one could send you in

great paroxysm of pain for days on the end. Painkillers are unheard of

and you just have to rely on your vigilance. To wind off the orientation

he asked me to be careful and check my bed before I sleep lest I sleep

on a snake. “Plenty of them around here, they come from the swamps

looking for high ground”, he added.

Needless to say, after fighting the mosquitoes, watching out every move

I made and generally acting tough, I was dead scared. In between I

managed force cassava leaves and some meat into my timid throat to

take care of my growling stomach. And then the toughest part came. Going

to bed. After being brought up in the tough Nairobi’s Eastland’s environment,

I thought I was as tough as they came but I think this was just

too much for any Eastlands upbringing. At least there were streetlights

when we were clobbering each other silly in Eastlands. Not knowing

what to expect in muddy, grass-thatched hut in a foreign land I timidly

shone my spotlight towards my bed. I checked, rechecked, checked and

rechecked before lying on the bed and switching off the light. I started

battling with the sleep to come in vain. Then I started cursing my boss.

I retracted my earlier prayers and cursed him some more. I closed my

eyes and saw his face smiling smugly swigging away a cold Tusker with

knowing eyes. I opened my eyes fast preferring to stare back at the unseen

scorpions and snakes lurking somewhere the dark hut than giving

him the fun of laughing at me.

Then I got up with a start. There is no way I could miss that. That was

burst from a rifle, at least my Eastland upbringing could help me distinguish

a rifle shot from the monotonous croaks from the neighbouring

swamps. Then it came again and my heart started racing towards the finish

line. And I cursed my boss once more. A voice called my name from

outside but my throat was too dry respond. I recognized it as Thong’s.

“Don’t worry Dan those are just drunk soldiers on patrol”, sensing my

fear he must have come to warn me, I must have grunted some sort of

reply but his re assurance made little difference. It got me wondering

whether I’ll get out of this alive. This was truly South Sudan, if snakes

and scorpion spared you, you need not worry, the Government of Sudan

bombing campaigns will finish you off. And sleep refused to come

till wee hours of the morning when I fell into a troubled slumber.

I woke up red eyed and got out of the hut as soon as I could, preferring

to face the unknown in some open space and not confined in the hut. “I

hope you had restful sleep”, the camp manager greeted me and I felt telling

him what I think of him and everything in his cursed land but

thought better of it. “Great night” I replied, “where are the showers?”.

He directed me to some makeshift shower room fenced off with long

hardy grass. After breakfast of local sweet potatoes and lukewarm tea,

I started my working day in Mabior but my heart had literally gone back

to Nairobi. I cursed my Boss again.

For four days I went through a routine of working and pretending to getting

used to the situation but in the real sense I was counting every second

I was still required to be in that land. The only communication I

had with Nairobi was through VHF Radio and was required to give my

boss sitrep at least once daily. On my first sitrep the fellow had audacity

to ask me how I’m enjoying my stay. I was almost calling him names

before it crossed my mind that I had promised some Eve’s descendant

that I was planning to make her mother of my kids and these fellows

happen to be very choosy on jobless lads so I reserved the harsh words

for another day. He went ahead tell me how impressed he was with me

and gave me pep talk on dedication to duty. How I wish Bosses knew

what workers think of them.

And then my day of leaving came at last. I got quite elated and was promising

myself the coldest beers ever brewed. Even Thong, noticed that

I was whistling some old dirty tune I take to when wee hours of the morning

catch up with me in Nairobi pubs. The plane was planned to pick

me up 1pm and I raised the Loki booking office on the radio to confirm

this. For the first time since I came to this dreary land I enjoyed my breakfast

and was generally taking it easy waiting for my pickup time. I even

got interested in the history of Dinka and Thong’ was took me through

their marriage rituals and describing to me the Dinka beauties. “A taller

girls with gap in her upper teeth and dark gums fetches more bride

price and their short plump counterparts”, he was saying.

That’s when the inevitable happened, the clouds that had long been gathering

quietly opened up and it started to rain. Entranced Thong’ who

had been giving me a tour of Dinka rituals abruptly shut up and his black

hands went to his mouth. “I hope it stops soon otherwise you will not

be leaving”, he muttered. “I don’t care if it rains cats and dogs I’m heading

home”. “Unless they drop you a rope”, he explained innocently,

“no plane dares to land when it rains here”. The airstrip becomes flooded

just with a few millimeters of rain and even this is enough to stop

the plane from landing. So it rained for another hour and glum settled

back on me like a cloak. Come one o’clock and the rain stopped. The

plane came a few moments later circled the airstrip thrice and decided

that I was not worth crash landing for. It circled the fourth time got its

tangents right and headed the general direction of where I perceived Loki

to be.

“So what happens Thong, when is the next flight?”, I asked desperately.

He looked at me sadly and replied: “Same day next week”.