Before leaving Kenya my brother, Enoch, told us to expect the two-day transit through Uganda to be very terrifying. This grave expectation is aggravated by our self-knowledge – we have a persona non grata in our midst. She is a former Ugandan minister’s daughter, passing through in a variously Ghanaian disguise and sporting a ‘muteness’ so convincing, it’s almost comical.
And God knows, I will never forget my brother’s make-up skills. He has thrown a Ghanaian gent’s smock (batakari) onto her slight frame, transformed her headkerchief into something reminiscent of our mum’s, and conjured a few goatskin bangles to hide her Sudanese wrist helix. She is his girlfriend.
Our minibus trudges through to the Ugandan checkpoint, past excitable black-market traders in no-man’s land. Enoch and I feign a hilarious conversation in Ga to fog the guards, while his girlfriend accentuates her muteness with occasional hand signals. Our German guest traveller, a forester on his way to field studies in Southern Sudan, has grown pretty quiet, too, as his exciting foresters’ supplies draw a few covetous peeks from soldiers. But Enoch pulls it off with a mixture camaraderie and alacrity.
For security reasons, we plan to camp down at the border town, Malaba, but we soon abandon the idea and check into a seedy hotel instead. In retrospect, we realise our camp had been a fragile cocoon in a town whose populace are spaced out on the expectation of war; where boy soldiers, uneasy in their enforced roles, look you up and down, fingering the catches of their semi-automatics nervously. My being a bearded Ghanaian doesn’t help, Ghana is in a state of armed revolution.
Next day, we dash across the spectacular greenscape, with Konni (the German) snatching enviable shots with his miniature Leica. Uganda is truly the Pearl of Africa, we hear ourselves enthuse. We stop for the night in Gulu, in a park overlooking the gutted remains of the town’s main commercial bank. The rocket must have been launched from within its vaults, because its metal roof has erupted up into a giant flower with gnarled petals. A few crows and vultures here and there, keeping wake.
Being the most northern of Uganda’s major gowns, Gulu had borne the last trenches of Amin’s soldiers during their retreat from the liberating Tanzanian troops. Word is, they abused and abducted what women they liked, looted the banks, emptied their deadly rounds into the town’s folks, then made off into Sudan with dreams of a wondrous exile city in Sudan, serviced by their bounty and the virtues of the displaced women. Next day, liberated Uganda changed her currency! Gulu is also the home of the Acholi, alleged suppliers of Amin’s inner circle of sycophants. This place smells of death and in the night you shiver silently at every rustle.
Daylight brings smiles to our chapped lips, every one of us displaying solid bonding instincts, in the face of danger. We review photographs and take some, help fold each other’s blankets, and Konni cooks breakfast. We have come to enjoy our little population of four a great deal since entering Uganda. In the short time we have been here, we have also been privy to disturbing levels of human degradation: beautiful, educated women approach you and offer their bodies in exchange for food. You offer them the latter and turn down the first politely, in your grand hope that you are helping restore a lost dignity. But, how long can a can of corned beef and a bag of unga (corn meal) sustain dignity? You can easily become a moral crusader here. No wonder Uganda has more than its share of Saints and Cardinals.
We finally head for Sudan, after a warm-hearted customs formality with the Gulu Police Commissioner, whose offices hold the only keys to the past glory of what was once a genteel town. But even he forgets to issue us the indispensable ‘customs certificate’ (yes, I still believe it was an oversight). The fatal implications of this oversight dawn on us at the last border town of Attiak: “We are empowered to shoot those without it…we can assume that they are rebels with a stolen vehicle,” says the commander of the border unit, after accepting our mandatory ‘gifts’ of food items. But fate determines that the commander has some business to attend to across the border and would like a lift from us.
So we are soon being chaperoned into the Sudan by our empowered executioner, who insists on riding in the open doorway of our mini-bus in order to ward off attack. His sub-machine gun is comforting but threatening. He has a disciplined air about him which points to his proper education, maybe from Makarere University or officer training depot. I wonder quietly how he ended up here.
All that fuss has stolen Enoch and I away from the memory of that smiling, destitute man on crutches in a hamlet between Guru and Attiack, who said he had known our father in the Second World War (Burma): “Annobil…Accra man, brave man,” he did say, poignantly, his squinted eyes peering through Enoch (Enoch looks like our dad). I think we gave him some dollars, as if that could really pay for what he stood for.
We presently open upon a boundless expanse of topographical barrenness and heat, which, coupled with the rugged dirt roads, kill the excitement of entering a strange country. We drop our sentinel in the border town of Nimule. We then encounter a businessman-cum-immigration officer who checks our German guest’s visa upside down then raises a storm about its unsuitability, to cover up for his ignorance of his own country’s standards in Europe – he is too used to the smudgy visas from the Sudanese High Commission in Kenya. But providence, in the form of our armed escort, intervenes again. We water our hacking throats with beer and pull off slowly with relief towards Juba, stopping only momentarily to observe some elephants in search of the Nile, too.
The little vegetation there is this side of Sudan is greyish brown, intercut with burning tracts initiated by the hands of the traditional agricolae. Hawks and lesser birds hover gracefully above the hot smoke, waiting patiently for frightened rodents and grasshoppers to break out. If grace obtains in expansive visibility, then Southern Sudan may win all contests. But what is the use of drought and locusts? Such are the questions attempting to sink one’s heart. Photography is quite illegal here, and needlessly so.
The monotony is suddenly broken by a surprising hint of modernity: a suspension bridge of good proportions spanning the vigorous White Nile into Juba. The formalities are minimal, more of a traffic routine. Euphoria descends upon us, as Juba presents all the makings of a giant oasis. From the elevated bridge, my romantic’s eye sees an unspoilt landscape of rings and files of Tukros (thatched adobe huts). A vista that disillusions me all the same, maybe because although Juba is supposed to be the capital city of the Equatorial Province, it bears the modest aura of a hamlet.
I have been in Juba for six months, and I am dying to get out. Southern Sudan is a classic, almost archaeological, ‘exploitation-story’ – a giant still licking its wounds from the protracted post-independence, Anya-nya civil war (1955-1972). And it shows all the signs of an uneasy compromise between the indigenous Christian African southerners and the Arab rulers to the north of the country. A quasi-federation operates here, whose boundaries are based loosely on graduation of melanin or language, Arabic being the precious password, Islam the omnipresent arbiter. Strangely, though, many of the so-called Arabs are of the same complexion as the southerners, except they are physically the shorter relatives.
It seems with them the word Moslem has conveniently mutated to mean Arab, as if that matters to anyone. Like all such pretenders, however, these people live (and will obviously die) for their ‘Arabness’. So they forcibly refer to the others as “blacks” – a very surreal thing to hear from the lips of very dark skinned people. For sure, the southerner has the superior intellect, and the most sophisticated mastery of the English language I have ever encountered anywhere in Africa.
Juba is the seat of the vice-President of the nation, who is, essentially, President of the South, with his own local cabinet (a traditionally imperative system of government, though it exerts an extra strain on a flagging local economy, and smacks of window-dressing). Worse still, an undercurrent of war hate prevails here.
The so-called Arabs have been known to be socially disrespectful toward the true owners of this land, thus worsening an already taut situation. But one-nationhood leaves no room for overt retribution. Facing the brunt of the angst therefore are the Foreign Aid workers here, who have to be careful with their social affectations and tongues lest they are deported by an irate southern immigration officer.
But this is, after all, a transitional nation moulting from a post-war quagmire and having difficulty shedding its thick layer of bitterness. In Southern Sudanese psyche today, every woe, every fault and every pain naturally points back to pre-independence mistakes. Of course, the root of the problem is unforgivable, but that is nothing, compared to the nasty racialist canker underpinning political aspiration here today. The ideal of “local jobs for local boys”, which once fanned up Anya-nya liberation propaganda, is sharply contradicted by the latest one: Local jobs for racial kin. Nepotism and graft are therefore rife in government offices.
But one would be asking too much to expect mass amnesia overnight. And, fairly speaking, any society with the diversity of peoples Southern Sudan has will struggle to make the centre hold. The Sudan has the Azande, Acholi, Latuka, Turkana, Annuak, Dinka, Toposa, and many more, all with age-long quarrels to settle with one another. Not to mention the fact that most of these peoples spill over the artificial international borders, along with their loyalties. You’d need a Kwame Nkrumah here to solve the conundrum!
Ironically, the Sudan was one of the first to respond to the “the winds of change”, and those winds stirred up lots of dust down south. But it was ill-accommodated by the British, who unwisely excluded the south from all independence negotiations between the Sudan and the Anglo-Egyptian condominium. Hence war. Then emigration, famine, stress and all of doom.
The war ended long ago, but its dangerous legacies are not budging an inch. They can only be tempered with dribs and drabs from UN organisations such as UNICEF, UNDP, WHO and their affiliates. And these bodies seem to possess a blinding amount of shameless discretion here. They have come with an overload of social workers as a last ditch attempt to make their presence felt – square pegs in a deep round hold. They have Herculean jobs on their hands but they are short of technicians and doctors, and one cannot be sure of their strategy either. Their clients cannot be optimistic.
Electricity is supplied solely be generators with overall consumption capacity of 44 drums of diesel fuel a day for a small patch of each province, while the vigorous White Nile laps away annoyingly intact and virgin, and the sun shouts out to be harnessed. The crackling local radio station manages to squeeze out an hour or so of Arabic airs and news items, per day, while the television manages a couple of old Egyptian films per night. The broadcasting house’s highly trained audio-engineers are reduced to repairmen for the UN workers. Water is supplied by the Water Works, which manages somehow to pump out water that is no lighter in colour than the Nile’s. Extra work is always indispensable, if one values his or her health. Taps in the compounds of the international organisations are duly straddled with mandatory water filters.
The students in Juba are politically restive, and rightly so. They are dubious about President Nimiery’s avowed “Neutrality”, or his protestations of non-partisanship. However, when the president decided to come down south to conduct Juba University’s graduation day, he brought two fighter planes with him. Wretched though those fighters looked, their presence was surely a diplomatic gaffe, confirming his suspected hawkishness. Sadly for him, one of his planes was grounded by technical difficulties, and a student (one suspects) duly daubed it with the words: “Supposed Neutrality”.
Nimiery is also guilty of medical neglect. In fact, the medical sector is almost extinct. A heart-rending spectacle of tuberculars clustering together like beings from a forgotten doomsday, weaving baskets for a living in the grounds of the Juba Hospital (the main one in the south) is, sadly, the most vivid symbol of the state of this country. An even less fortunate fraternity of lepers hugs a crater in a rubbish tip in front of the bedbug infested African Hotel. From their tattered tent, they wail hauntingly into the night, begging God for manna. Theirs is a subhuman existence, and manna is refuse, delivered solemnly by equally destitute souls. Around Ramadan, however, their lot improves briefly, wooed as they are by the forcible philanthropy of superstitious Arab businessmen.
Further down the road from Juba, just past Kapoeta, to the Kenya-Sudan border at Lokichochio, are the notorious Toposa. They have contracted a serious case of trachoma, and flies line their inflamed eyelids unabashed. But medical attention for them is certainly not a feasible endeavour; at least not according to the Police, who recently got a good hiding from Toposa in a classic textbook skirmish. The Toposa are cattle rustlers par-excellence who believe that God gave them exclusive dominion over all the cattle in the world, and they possess sophisticated sub-machine guns with which to enforce that birthright. The guns come from fleeing Eritrean and Somali fighters from across the border.
But Southern Sudan is also a paradox. Despite its troubles, it is the greatest welcomer of refugees. This may be partly due to its geography, but with each human tide comes the proverbial opportunists: pimps, moneylenders and quarks. Market trading here is in the hands of Arabs, while a handful of crooked (some say, phoney) Greeks monopolise the tourism industry, gagging their cronies in the Ministry of Tourism with money. Indians and Kenyans take care of long distance transport and the importation of fresh vegetables, respectively. Amidst all that, credit is brokered freely, then retrieved at the gates of workplaces or refugee camps. Alcohol has become the escape for many. Warege, the volatile local brew, renders men semi-comatose by the roadside, and often sets fire to the brewers’ huts. For their part, teenagers drink the petrol from parked cars.
In such a scenario, GAME HUNTING laws, of all things, are naturally liberal. The visitor can pick up a hunting licence for a mere 20 Sudanese Pounds and casually mutilate any rare animal they fancy. Tusks are therefore not smuggled, as we say, but exported by unscrupulous businessmen, via Port Sudan, with fully endorsed bills-of-laden. The finger points again to the northern government, who are suspected of a deliberate policy to denude the south of its rare fauna – indeed anything that can attract foreigners to the south.
Juba’s intelligentsia (of which there is a great number), have a logbook of irregularities to show those who care to know. They foresee strife; the kind of thing that kills. Meantime, rumour is rife about a man called Garang with a battalion and a score to settle with Khartoum. Everyone, anyone with a well-balanced sense of fear is becoming restless.
It does not really take an ace’s nose to want to book a flight out of town. Social and economic neglect of the kind perpetrated here will always stir up something fatal and spontaneous, and it is surely here, if only around the fringes for now. One can only hope that commonsense intervenes to make reparation before these proud people are lumbered with yet another debacle. However, there is talk of the imposition of Sharia law here, upon a predominantly Christian people! There will be war.
So, after six long months, I have decided to leave town. I wish Enoch could come too, but his commitments are real. He runs an engineering training workshop, which is indispensable both to the locals and the UN rehabilitation programme. His role is multi-faceted, and it includes maintaining the UN’s electricity generators, which huddle under a hut like yellow spaceships. In any case, he tells me the UN has a foolproof evacuation plan for its staff.
I have made many good friends here. I have even trounced the best UNDP volley players and won near celebrity status for it. I have played my part in the whom-you-know game by asking Enoch to slip my friends’ letters into the UN mailbags for them. I have been privy to mind-blowing gossip. I have tagged along often when Enoch has had to take food and money to cash-strapped or ill families of his trainees. I have known and pined for my fellow Africans, though I have also been nearly shot for standing up for my rights over irregular passport formalities (a soldier asked to inspect my passport, and I apparently insulted him by declaring my passport a no-go area to soldiers!)
Despite that, I have grown to love this country in a strange way; it has inspired my poetry; I have admired its pride; its rich culture; its daunting soul that confronts you on its many moonlit nights. The majesty and style of the Dink; their prophetic eyes, their minimalistic sartorial genius, their awe-inspiring rhythms that contrast puzzlingly with their subtle choreography; their silent, overwhelming intelligence; and the all-feeling that embraces you in the limitless plains; the ever-present sense of the Deity. Sur-realism.
But I must leave today. It is early dawn, and I have a rendezvous with a kindly Kenyan truck driver, Robert, who has offered me a ride back to Kenya. I have been packed for weeks. Yes, I am torn between savouring a bit more of my love-hate relationship with Southern Sudan and bowing to the magnetism of Kenya. But I must leave today.
Enoch jumps out of bed to drive to the bridge. Passing by Unity Gardens, our regular watering hole, I feel an urge to bid it bye-bye, my centre orbiting its arabesque sculpture of an Arab and African shaking hands warmly – the ideal. I sigh. Then I recall a harrowing story that a former Ugandan Airforce pilot told me of his life in a refugee camp some few miles from Juba: “People visiting us think we are industrious yam farmers, but, in fact, all those mounds of earth our are children’s graves.” Any optimism left in me fritters away in the dust. May someone come to the aid of a people in throes!
(This segment of Leaving Juba:Before the War was first published in the Kenya Business Spotlight in 1983 under the title: ‘Sudan – A Case of Moulting Identity’, and in Circa21 in 1995; Updated in August 2004. The second part was published as a single segment in Hydra in 2000.)