Let me try to set the scene. From 1983 to 1988 I taught in Sudan, both in the north and the south of the country. From 1984 until 1986 I had been in the south, for the last year in a town called Maridi. After a summer holiday in Britain it had proved impossible to return, due to the fact that the civil war made communications difficult, even though the area where I had been was relatively calm. So I had taught instead in Rosaries, a small town near the Ethiopian border. In April, at the end of the school year, I had travelled to the Central African Republic with my Swiss friend Hänse and some others. Our plan had been to continue on to Zaire (now Congo). But Hänse unexpectedly had to return to Zürich. I decided to change my plans. In Maridi, I had had a girlfriend, Mogiri, a member of the Zande tribe. I wondered what had happened to her…I’d promised to return to see her, but politics had got in the way… I had also had a fantastic time there, everything being different, the food, the clothes, the customs, the alcohol, the madness, the animals, the countryside…I wanted, suddenly, to return.
But there was a problem. I had a visa to re-enter which would expire in about 25 days, and Sudan lay 350 miles, 600 kilometres, away to the west, and after the Central African town of Bangassou, which was near the frontier with Zaire, there was very little transport, and no public services. From time to time, a four- wheel drive owned by some rich merchants would trundle along the road; there were some lucky people with small motorbikes, and quite a few bicycles. But the chances were that if I wanted to re-enter Sudan by this southern route I would have to walk most of the way, along paths which I knew to be in places pretty bad, waterlogged, blocked by streams and with the possibility, however faint, of coming across unfriendly people and even more unfriendly wild animals. The weather would be hot but at times stormy, and I didn’t know how good the road would be. I had no gun, no protection; I had a rucksack weighing 20 or more kilos, with some limited cooking equipment, clothes, the bare minimum but still weighing what seemed a ton.
In Bangassou, on June 6, my birthday, I stocked up on food from the Lebanese merchants – rice, paté. Coffee, sugar, corned beef, tomato purée, and started
the walk, telling no-one what I was doing, for both superstitious reasons and for fear that the local authorities might not allow me to go.
At first there were many small settlements to pass through. Some were lovely, set aside small streams, all with the traditional huts of Africa. A mixture of French and Sango was spoken. I told anyone who asked that I was heading for Rafai, 250 kilometres along the way, though even this intention caused some surprise.
I established a rhythm from the very beginning. A midday refreshment…today bread and cheese, and coffee. Always or nearly always near water…there was a river running not far from the path. Then I walked on. This was not very wild country; much was cultivated. That night I arrived at a small village, name unknown, after covering 27 kms, less than I needed for a good daily average, but I had started late…I was shown to the chief’s compound…every village of any size had one; it was usually a hereditary position. The chief dealt with local problems and presided over a small court. In this one, the compound was surrounded by mango and papaya trees. The man himself must have been in his late forties, though it was hard to tell people’s ages. He told a woman to bring me food. She returned with a bowl of bananas. They were sweet and filling. Then he showed me to a hut where a bed had been prepared for me. The bed was the only furniture in the place, and it had a mattress, a luxury in these parts.
I established the habit of leaving as early as possible each morning to take full
advantage of the coolness and peace. The beauty of the sun’s arrival, the rustling of
small animals, the delicate songs of the birds…all this was marvellous.
At a village called Lamone there was a market. Women sold vegetables from their
gardens, such as avocados, sweet potatoes, beans and aubergines. Chadians sold soap,
batteries, toothpaste. A long line of women sold various kinds of alcohol from large
containers rather like flowerpots. I tasted one brewed from pineapples and ate some
cassava porridge, sweetened with condensed milk. Then I left, passing on the way
through various small settlements. At the next big village a group of men smiled
unsteadily in the main square: palm wine had taken its effect. I was a bit worried, but
I needn’t have been; their hospitality was incredible. I was given a pineapple, then
maize, then peanuts. We spoke in broken French.
That night I slept in the home of a poor family, living in a cluster of grass huts at the
side of a dip in the road. There was no chief here: the place was too small. I gave the
children playing in the village a pack of English playing cards, and they were
delighted; to the woman of the household, I gave garlic, difficult to obtain in these
parts (I had carried it for this very purpose). They gave me food: cassava leaves mixed
with a little meat. It was delicious.
The road became worse. It was heavily rutted and filled with stones. I walked for a
while before stopping at a small lake. A woman and her young son shared the scene
with me, energetically washing their clothes. They acknowledged me, but no more;
yet they didn’t seem to resent my presence. Their rhythm of life would not be
disturbed by a mere stranger.
I saw my first and, surprisingly, last snake of the walk that afternoon. It was two feet
long, about 60 centimetres, and I spotted it in time to take avoiding action. I never
learned the difference between poisonous and non-poisonous varieties…so treated
them all with caution. I also saw, in the distance, a wild boar.
Which was a prediction of the meal I was given at lunchtime: wild boar and asida
(flour thickened with boiling water into a sort of dough used as a staple. The chief
arrived, a young man with a hoarse voice and a bristle of beard. Soon afterwards, a
man arrived pushing a small motorbike and breathing heavily. “I’ve been to
Bangassou”, he said. “My bike broke down there and I couldn’t find anyone to mend
- I know a mechanic in Rafai who can fix it for me.”
“In Rafai?”I put in. “That’s another 60 kilometres away!”
“I’ve already pushed the bike 90,” he replied, “and as I live in Rafai I’ve got no
That night I ended up at a village called Madabazunna, a mainly Zande settlement.
Mogiri was a Zande, of course, and seeing other members of her tribe reminded me of
her. I even knew some of the greetings in their language.
The walk the following morning to Selim was difficult. An early dollop of pineapple
seemed to stick in my throat and there was little water along the 12-km trail, much of
which was characterized by elephant grass and rocky ground unsuitable for
Rafai was a town spread out across the River Chinko, which in turn becomes the
Ubangui. I had to hammer on a huge gong which was tied to a pole, summoning a
man, who came from a small brick house nearby whose job it was to work the bac.
This was a ferry by which the river, about 100 metres wide, was crossed. It was flat,
wide and wooden, and was operated on a pulley system which slowly hauled the craft
to the other bank. In Rafai there were the usual Chadians, a pair of friendly
policemen…I found the remains of a fire where I could heat some timed food…The
village was picturesque, spoiled only by the tin roofs which Moslem merchants seem
to love. There were many trees and it was very quiet; the morning market had finished.
A woman carrying firewood. A Chadian asleep in front of his small shop, some of his
goods set out on a mat in front of him: locks, perfumes, biros, stuff to relieve insect
bites, cotton, soap…Wandering through the village, I found some women selling
duma (honey beer). I drank a few gourds of this and on returning to the merchant’s
shop, where I’d left my rucksack, found that lunch had been saved for me: chicken,
That night, I slept at a small village of grass huts, the land sloping away towards a
stream , a few log fires burning away the evening chill…a family gave me eggs and a
couple of pineapples, smiling sheepishly as they did so in case I wouldn’t be pleased.
I had so little to give in return: garlic, a few cards, sometimes a little soap.
The fifth day was hard but fabulous. I felt many early-morning aches and pains, and the drizzle spoiled my fire-making efforts. I cold breakfasted on sardines, onions and sweetcorn. Only later, in a very lonely and isolated spot, did I manage to boil enough water for coffee, at a time when I was feeling very tired and drudging my feet.
I walked 39 kilometres on this day. There was land which had been cultivated with maize, peanuts and cassava, and which bordered straight, flat roads. There was also we grasslands, many puddles seeping onto the track, without people, villages…very bleak and barren…and this thrilled me! Finally, there was thicker jungle, and it was here that in the distance I saw two cat-like animals, very big ones, inspecting the lower branches of a tree. I never found out what they were, but I was pretty apprehensive; all kinds of nauseating wild animal stories went through my head…But I had to keep moving.
Such days were, however, beautiful. I loved the loneliness of the road and wished that this walk could last for ever. I slept that night in Umberli, in a converted grain store, a sort of hut on stilts, with entry through an enlarged trapdoor.
The next day I was caught in a sudden storm. Everything was soaked. The suddeness of rain in the tropics is always surprising: one minute the sky is clear, the next it’s hard to see more than a few yards in front of you as the rain lashes into your face. I was worried that my feet would become wet, and that this would lead to blisters and chafing. I felt much fitter than when I’d started , but my feet were especially important…
I sheltered with an old man in his small hut, an old man who didn’t speak any language I knew and who steadily smoked home-rolled cigarettes, the tobacco carefully dried near the fire. His home was on the outskirts of a village called Ginikumba. When the rain eased I moved into the village proper and found Jean, a local teacher, who found me a place to stay. He advised me not to move until the following day, saying the track ahead would be waterlogged and very difficult to manoeuvre…I took his advice…
And the next day managed to walk 30 kilometres before lunchtime, fortified by coffee sold by a young woman outside her hut in the village before I left. Later, passing through the village of Bangassou-Issa, I was beckoned by a man with wiry greying hair and a toothy smile. He invited me to palm wine and then to one of his two wives, a young woman in a bright orange traditional dress who served up a delicious meal – something I understood as “pecard”, a kind of wild fowl , with asida. I was provided with a comfortable bed…we spoke in broken English and French…
More walking, more invitations…more meals and palm wine…on the radio I listened to news of Bokassa’s trial. he’d been acquitted of cannabalism, but convicted on charges of misuse of government funds and corruption…he was eventually sentenced to death, but the current president commuted the sentence to hard labour for life…I don’t know if this was carried out.
On some sections there were countless numbers of rotting mangoes which half-obliterated the track. There were multi-coloured butterflies which flitted in and out of the cobwebs hanging on the bushes, There were comical black centipedes inching their way in long straggly lines.
In Zemio I bought some fruit . It was a Sunday, and I heard singing coming from a church service. In every village of any size in these parts, there was a church, usually a brick building, oblong in shape, with wooden pews and a simple altar. There were both Catholic and Protestant churches as in southern Sudan: the battle of the missionaries among themselves was one of the more interesting episodes in colonial history.
Every day I was given pineapples, always of course by complete strangers: the kindness was incredible. I had mild diarrhoea; this could be difficult in the open bush, but usually there were enough leaves to clean up with. I bought a wild fowl from a man on a bicycle. Later, I stopped at a village and almost at once met the chief. He handed me over to Marcelle, a neighbour of his.
His wife cooked the bird I’d bought. Marcelle wanted to learn some English. He was mainly interested in nouns. I gave him a written list of words which he proceeded to mispronounce into entirely different words. He taught me some Zande and my attempt at this, judging by his laughter, was as funny as his at English. But no matter; we laughed, and the meal was enjoyable.
This was lonely country. The villages were far apart and much smaller than they had been . At the village of Kitessa I rested for a while, waiting outside the chief’s compound waiting for his arrival. Looking around at the vegetation, I thought you couldn’t have fitted in any more mango trees, palms and bushes into the area: it was superbly green and lush and rich. The chief and came, wearing a pair of torn shorts. He was drunk, carrying with him a glass of mboko (a local spirit which he swopped for my half-smoked cigarette. we talked about the situation in Sudan (there was fighting, but not in the area where I was heading) .
Unfortunately that night, sleeping outside under a shelter, I suffered the worst mosquitoes in all the country. Bumps, bites and bruised covered my face the next day, and it was a rather sleepless night.
walked 20 kilometres to Kerre the next morning. I had been led to believe that this was a big, bustling village, but it was almost deserted, only a few men sitting idly outside their huts. “Where are the people?” I asked one of them. “The women,” he replied, “have gone to Mboki. They are working in the fields.”
It seemed the departure of the women had caused a torpor among the remaining males, with no-one to cook for them while their wives harvested cassava in what must have been better land in around Mboki.
While I made my way out of this semi-ghost village, a man came bounding out of a small house. He had short, badly-cut hair and walked with something close to a swagger. He smelled of cigarettes. “Hello, bonjour, salaam alekum, ” he called. “Where are you going?” I told him. “Moi aussi”, he said. “I too go to Sudan. Like cowboy. I ride my bicycle to Wau and do my business there.”
Wau? Had he been there? It was the capital of trouble-stricken Bahr-el-Ghazal province in southern Sudan. But he had been there, he told me, which is how he had learned Arabic.
“What will you sell there?” I asked.
He showed me a small ripped corner of the brown sack on his bicycle. He squeezed the sack and out spilled some kemba, a dark spice, the size of a whole ginger, used to flavour meat dishes and even tea. Good prices were paid in Wau for kemba.
This man’s name was Musa and was by origin from Zaire. But by business he was a cosmopolitan African, having traded in Zaire, Camerron, Nigeria and other west African nations. He was something of a linguist: English, French, Arabic, Zande, Swahili, Lingala, a Cameroon dialect and a couple of others…
He went back inside to prepare for his trip and I crossed a shallow river. The next village on the route was Mboki, 25 kilometres away. I had been told that this section was waterless and unpeopled. It was a hot day, so I lingered by the river, not wanting to leave until the heat had diminished. While I was relaxing, the chief of Kerre arrived. He’d cycled from Mboki and told me that I should start moving as soon as possible before it got too dark, because, ” I have seen the elephants today on the route.”
It seemed prudent to brave the heat as to come across a herd of elephants in the dark could be dangerous.
On the way to Mboki, I came across a small wooden sign, “Ici la village Mobi. 10 km. de Mboki.” But there was no village, only a small grave. Presumably there had one been water here, long-since dried up.
The bush was thick and obscured most views. The track was winding and rough. The only noise was wind. I had half a mind on elephants. It would be fantastic to see them, but…
In the end, no elephants crossed my path. I arrived, tired and hungry, at the outskirts of Mboki. A woman in front of a hut was just about to serve a meal and I was invited to eat. I had a sort of spicy local macaroni with asida. I thanked the family, then continued into Mboki proper. Here I had a surprise, for there was a police station here. Someone told me no-one was manning it, so I continued past . But a man suddenly appeared from inside the grey stone building and ran after me, calling me to return.
This was the only policeman actually present in the village. His colleagues had gone to Obo. Inside the building, he brought out a wooden table and an aliens’ registration book, with the air of a man who hasn’t had a lot of work to do for a long time, wanting to appear confident and official.
I managed to steal a glance at the book and saw that it listed mainly Zaireans and other Africans. I asked if there had been any other Europeans passing through recently.
“Yes, I think…a man from Japan. four years ago, travelling on a motorbike, but the opposite direction to you.”
Of course I doubt I was the first since then. Others must have slipped the net. But if you are ever in Mboki, please ask to see the aliens’ registration book, dated June, 1987.
I had to pay a bribe to him, one thousand CFA (about four dollars). Then he let me stay in the police station, on a mattress in one of the rooms.
Mboki itself was a fairly unexceptional town with fewer trees than other places I’d passed through. There was a small river, the water of which was brown. I lingered in the market in the morning and there met Musa, who had spent the night with a friend. Together we drank coffee and nibbled palm oil savouries. There were a few small shops and I bought some sardines, rice, coffee, sugar and onions. (On the route I was usually able to find sweetcorn and sweet potatoes).
I walked slowly that day, and stopped in mid-afternoon in a village called Kadjamah. I was met by Joseph, the chief, a young handsome man. He was immediately hospitable and brought me a bowl of mangoes and allowed me to rest my now-blistered feet, while he went off to attend to some business or other. I succumbed to a glass of something alcoholic, some kind of spirit. More came. We were joined by gaggles of drunken women. One of them was introduced to me as Mary. She was a Zande, but unlike others in her tribe, she was anything but attractive and she had no social graces whatsoever. She began running her sweaty hands across my knee, and giggling inanely. I don’t know whether this woman had been “found” for me as a little relaxation after my walk…but I didn’t want her. The drink was foul and smelled bad and wasn’t helping matters. And I didn’t want to show too many of my feelings in fear of offending the chief. Mary kept repeating my name and scrawling her fingers, like a signature, across my legs.
Luckily, it turned out that Mary had nothing to do with Joseph and when he returned she was immediately dispatched. We ate: a wonderful meal: asida with succulent fish. I was given the guest hut to sleep in. The bed was covered by a mosquito net, a sight of considerable joy to me. I slept like the proverbial log and happily did not dream of Mary.
It was day 13 of my walk; it hadn’t rained for five days which made the going easier on foot. However, the sun was hotter than before and so early starts – I’m talking between 5 and 6 in the morning- were essential. I was fitter than when I’d begun but my diarrhoea still bothered me and my feet were beginning to show the bruises and cuts to be expected. I thought of Mogiri but in a way she was so distant…I couldn’t believe that I’d see her again; I’d had no news and so expected her anyway to be with a different man.
Sometimes I saw monkeys, but more often only heard them, leaping from tree to tree in the secret darkness of the jungle. Some were the black and while colobus monkey I had known in Sudan, but others were larger, browner and less scared of me, though none lingered long when I approached.
(A little about monkeys and animals in general. In a market in the no-man’s land between Zaire and Sudan I had once seen them hanging up for sale, as meat is hung in butchers. They were one of the few things that I didn’t try while in Africa, as far as I know…In Sudan, children had thrown stones at the monkeys while I delighted in them. There was little sentimentality towards animals in general: No-one kept them as pets. Once, I had seen an Arab, incensed by a cat which had had the temerity to steal some dinner off his plate, take a large stick and proceeded to beat it to his death. No-one thought that this was a cruel or unnatural thing to do. People took care of animals to make them fatter for eating or stronger for working, and that was all.)
I’d been walking for 15 kilometres when I heard a bicycle coming up behind me. It was Musa. He had a radio tied to his bike which was tuned to the Voice of America. He dismounted and we greeted one another.
“There is very little water on this part of the road, ” he said. “Have you got some with you?”
I had, but not much, I feared.
“It doesn’t matter. I have a pineapple here.” He gave me a good two-thirds of it. How sweet it tasted!
We walked together for a while. I asked him if he had a visa to enter Sudan.
“Not at all, ” he replied. “I move by the secret paths.”
“You know that Wau can be a dangerous place,” I warned him, probably unnecessarily.
“Pas de problem, ” he replied.
“See you at Obo,” I said, as he was about to start peddling away. “Where will you stay when you get there?”
He turned and smiled. “I am cowboy,” he said. “Anywhere is my home, ” spreading his arms out wide to emphasize the point. And away he rode.
In Obo I paid my second bribe of the trip, another thousand CFA to the local commissioner. This village was by far the biggest place I’d come across since leaving Bangassou. There was a small market which had just finished and a number of shops, still open, from which I bought the usual tinned provisions.
I found some Sudanese merchants, and they told me about the latest events in the country. One told me that he had been four weeks before in Maridi, to where I eventually wanted to return, and that a landmine had exploded killing thirteen policemen. This was bad news: the was had never been so close. There were many outlaw groups in Sudan, taking advantage of the deteriorating security situation, but this attack had the methods of the SPLA, the main rebel army, stamped all over it.
(Later I found out the whole story. 17 were killed in a small village near Maridi. Afterwards, a sizeable minority of Maridi residents went on a witch hunt, looking for members of the Dinka tribe, the mainstay of the SPLA, and they were looking for blood. One 17-year-old Dinka was surrounded by 30 people, all armed with bows and arrows, until others intervened and persuaded the crowd to disperse. Other Dinkas were given refuge in local churches. )
But there was also some better news. The road was clear from Tambura to Maridi, and vehicles were moving; it would be possible to get a lift once in Sudan. The route to Kenya was also open. The Ugandan refugees around Maridi and Yei had maintained their settlements despite recent raids on them. I felt mildly optimistic.
While I was sitting with the Sudanese merchants, a young man on a bicycle arrived. He was selling soap.
“Mr Martin!” he exclaimed. “How is it? You have come to Obo!”
I didn’t recognise him. “Hello,” I began, “Yes, I’ve…”
“You have forgotten me,” he said. “I am William, your former student from Tambura.”
Then I placed him. It was remarkable, two years’ absence, Tambura miles to the east, and yet William took it in his stride. So should I have done: such chance encounters had happened to me before. When Stanley met Livingstone nobody should have been surprised: they were bound to bump into one another sooner or later.
William told me what he had been doing since leaving school. He’d passed the School Certificate, excelling in French, and had been selected for a three-year course in Paris. “But this trouble,” he shrugged, “It has prevented me from going. These people (he meant the SPLA) are causing so many problems. Now the regional government in Juba have stopped paying for courses abroad and I will have to wait.”
“So what are you doing now? Are you still in Tambura?”
“I am still there. I do my magendo (by which I understood business combined through smuggling). Now I will buy cotton in Obo and sell it in Sudan.”
So back and forth he went, as Musa did, crossing the border on bush tracks away from the grasping hands of customs officials. Others traded beer, second-hand clothes, coffee beans, medicines and spices.
The afternoon walk was tiring. I went through a town called Ligwa to Bugwa, covering about 15 kilometres, at about 4 to 5 km. an hour, but it seemed longer. The road was terrible, resembling an assault course, rocky, steep and with fallen trees blocking the way. To the side there was thick bush, the sound of birds and the rustling of monkeys in the trees. I wondered how the few vehicles passing this way ever got through.
I’d heard, over the past few days, a lot of talk about lions. They weren’t common in the country, but they did exist. I received three differing pieces of advice on what to do if confronted by one. First, remain perfectly still. Second, keep walking as if nothing had happened. Third, talk to the lion.
I’m happy that I didn’t need to try out any of these suggestions.
I imposed myself – tiredness had made me rather rude – on a youngish couple in Bugwa. The man’s name was André; he didn’t seem to mind my presence. In fact, we had a long talk. Speaking in French. he told me, “I grow groundnuts, cassava, sweetcorn and rice. There isn’t a local market here so I sell my produce at people’s houses. In this way I get money to buy other things, such as the elephant meat my wife is cooking now.”
That wife was Angelica, who was fifteen. She was small and pretty, with her hair tied up into a ball.
“I’ve been married for a year, ” André told me, “though we have no children yet. I would like some soon.”
He had never been to Bangui, the capital of the CAR. His house was small. It was a hut showing signs of age with holes in the grass roof. Nearby there was a cooking shelter above which there was a grain store sloping untidily into a pyramid. A big pile of as yet unwashed groundnuts lay drying in the sun. A few chickens squawked and ran everywhere. There was a tall papaya tree and some other bushes I couldn’t identify. A half-grown pineapple fought for sunshine. The ground looked rocky in places and I could imagine that cultivating it was hard work.
Angelica served the elephant meat. It was tough, as this meat tends to be, but the peanut butter sauce made an excellent accompaniment.
A friend of Andrés arrived, just as we were finishing the meal. His name was Angelo. He was a Zande from Sudan. He spoke English. I asked him what he was doing in Bugwa.
“I have a problem to solve. A court case in Yambio. I am a bookkeeper in government employment. Some time ago ten thousand Sudanese pounds went missing from our department. They accused me of taking it. It came to a court case.”
“And where had the money been?”
“It was entrusted to me.”
“And what happened in court?”
“They gave me time to replace it and suspended me on half pay. So I’ve come here to try to raise the money.”
“By hunting elephants. I go out with friends who have powerful guns. We hunted 34 miles south of here. We have already killed two elephants. I want to sell the ivory in Sudan.”
“And the money?” I persisted. “What actually happened to it? Did you take it?”
He smiled, engagingly. But he said nothing more than, “I like money too much, and good food, nice clothes, what what.”
I was beginning to sense the journey’s end. (On average, I walked about 40 kilometres a day. ) There wouldn’t be any problem with the visa expiring, that was one good thing. With the Michelin map open in front of me I would try to calculate how much longer I had to go. Some towns were named exactly as they appeared on the map. Others seemed to have a different name, yet more didn’t seem to exist, or had ceased to exist. On the whole the map was pretty good, though a single black line for the road couldn’t begin to explain the different terrain through which it passed.
From Bugwa to Baziberi, 20 kilometres, the path resembled rally-driving country: very rocky, full of puddles-cum-streams. There were many animals. I saw a wild boar: it suddenly appeared from the bushes lining the track, saw me, watched a second, then scuttled away. Some monkeys watched me for longer.
Baziberi was a long village lined with orange trees. I stopped at the Catholic Mission – the biggest building I’d seen for a few days, white and with a high roof, outside a thick mess of mango trees stood majestically in the sun – to rest and eat fruit. There was an elderly priest at the Mission form Italy who was driving a Land Rover to Obo…he was busy turning down requests for lifts; his vehicle was full. I wasn’t disappointed that he wasn’t going my way. I didn’t want a vehicle now; my journey had to be completed on foot.
Sudan, in fact, was a mere 50 kilometres away. So I didn’t linger in Baziberi. In fact, I grew impatient with the way the village straggled on over a good hour hour’s steady walk. I wanted to be out in the countryside again, where the countryside was a perfect foil to my buzzing thoughts.
I continued until nearly dusk – around six o’clock – and asked for shelter at a tiny, unnamed settlement. It was my last night in the CAR. The couple who put me up provided me with a bed under their grain store. I couldn’t begin to imagine living in such isolation as they did. The nearest neighbour was at least half a mile away and the arc of the night sky seemed to accuentuate the vastness of the landscape. There was a river at the foot of a hill; unusually, it was the old man who fetched the water. He and his wife, a bent, thin figure, smoked home-grown tobacco. I had some with them. we ate a simple meal of asida, leaves of some variety, sweet potatoes. I gave them the last of my garlic. The quiet was almost unearthly.
Waking early, I made tea on the still-smouldering log fire and began the final trek towards Sudan. For ten kilometres or so there were no settlements at all, so I’d been lucky stopping when I did the previous night, but from then on the countryside became increasingly settled. Today was Sunday – some locals were on their way to church, others to work on the land. Women were cooking the midday meal. The huts here were set further back from the rod compared with those further west – maybe the Zande here had more need of privacy than their kinsmen towards Bangassou.
At Bamboutti gendarmerie I had no problems. Only one man was in attendance, and made only half-hearted attempts for a bribe. Then I entered the no-man’s land between the CAR and Sudan – but this description is a misnomer; there were plenty of people living here, between Bambouti and Souceyubu. It was a celebratory walk, as I knew arrival was imminent. I had jettisoned all unwanted cooking utensils – old burned pots – and torn clothes; my rucksack was the lightest it had been for a fortnight. My feet bled, but I had forgotten about the pains in them. The day was sunny, and so was I.
I had been to Sourceyubu before, five times, passing through on lorries (a common way of travelling in Sudan) from Yambio or Tambura. I could its old-fashioned and imposing colonial-style buildings loom up before me. One of these buildings, like a folly with its mock fort facade, was the police station.
I couldn’t see any activity inside, But a group of men were sitting outside under a mango tree playing dominoes, slamming each one down on the table with great force, as is the custom. These were the police, who also dealt with immigration and customs.
“Salaam alekum.” Greetings and handshakes all around. And then they simply continued the dominoes game. It was only gradually, over the next thirty minutes, that the discussion of where I’d come from and where I was going was completed.
“Well,” one of them said, “We’d better write in your passport. But …I’m very sorry, I haven’t got a pen. Could you…?”
I lent him mine.
There was still some distance to go before I would be able to set foot in Maridi again and see Mogiri. But I would be able to do the journey by lorry, though I would also have to wait. This was how it always was in the more remote areas of Africa: a lot of waiting, much time for contemplation, idle talk, relaxation, the experience of being rather than the hassle of existing. In the next episode I’ll tell you how I reached Maridi and one or two interesting conversations I had en route.
It took me a while to remember the layout of Sourceyubu. But, pleasingly, within an hour about four people had greeted me. All former residents of Tambura. This pleased me greatly; I felt at home.
I met a man called Michael who followed me through the souq until he finally trapped me in a tea shack.
“You must come and have breakfast with me,” he insisted, and eventually I relented, hoping he didn’t live too far way because the blisters on the feet were worsening.
Michael was an Intermediate School English teacher. He had a dark, earnest face and walked, unfortunately for me, very quickly. We went to his hut, which was near his school, and ate a simple meal. I looked at some of his photos and his school textbooks which were piled neatly on the sideboard, and then he delivered his conversational coup d’etat, his burning ambition.
“I want to study in Canada. It is my very deepest desire. I have already been studying and have my certificate. Here it is!”
He showed me a framed document. It was a Bible correspondence course (Part One) at some religious institution the like of which presumably thrives across North America. Put your love and trust (and money) in Jesus and you shall be rewarded with a splendid certificate (only 50,000 printed) in a combination of block and italics.
A woman came in with a bowl of pineapple chunks. This was followed by a bottle of araqi, the cassava variety, but distilled twice to give it a purer, cleaner taste. A student called to require Michael’s presence in class, but Michael declared, “I am busy. I have a guest. I will see you tomorrow.”
He continued on his pet topic. “When I hear from Canada I will travel there to study. Every month I save ten pounds to help me with the travelling. Now I have over two hundred pounds.” he showed me the money which he kept in a metal box under his photos.
“And,” he went on, a note of triumph in his voice, “I have my passport. It can take me anywhere. No-one can stop me crossing a border. I can reach Canada with it!”
He showed me this passport. It was an application form for an American Express card, printed in German. Not for the first time in Sudan, I was speechless. Declining an offer to stay the night, I left him to his dreams, choosing instead to sleep at the Rest House. Here the bed was old and lumpy, but I slept for hours and hours.
Though Michael may have been unbalanced, his wish to leave was common. For me, for other westerners, we saw romance in the country. For us, everything could be beautiful…the animals, the flora, the strange and exotic customs, the language, the very oddity and otherness of it all. For the people living there, suffering lack of employment, paid late if paid at all, worrying about the civil war which might one day affect them, in a land with few hospitals and few schools, one could understand if they looked towards America, Britain et al with a certain longing. I would always be able to leave if things became too difficult. This option would not be open to them.
I went by lorry to Yambio. This was a town of many happy memories for me. I went to Mogiri’s sister’s house. Her name was Hawa – wind or air in Arabic. I was worried that she wouldn’t remember me. But of course she did. I barely dared asked her how Mogiri was. But Hawa had good news – “Yes, she is still in Maridi. She’s doing the final year of her nursing course now. She misses you so much, Martin. She thought you were never coming back. She will be very happy now you have returned.” It was all that I could do to keep myself from blushing.
Hawa invited me to stay. Her husband, John with whom she had gone through many marital crises, had been absent in Tambura for a long time, and she was short of money. I helped her as best I could. I was interested in eating well and with me providing the food and Hawa doing the cooking, we lived it up for a few days.
I received news regarding the school in Maridi, where I hoped to return. Mbembe was no longer the headmaster. Martin Jumi, a wonderful man who suffered from a drinking problem (he too taught English) had been transferred to Juba after an altercation with the students (he loved insulting people when he was drunk; he didn’t know what he was saying, and he was never violent…). Other teachers had changed as well. Jacob – religious, steady, pokerfaced Jacob – had been missing in the Yei area since February, though he was still on the payroll. All of this was perfectly normal in southern Sudan.
The night before I left for Maridi ( I wasn’t delaying; I was taking the first available lorry) I stayed with a merchant friend of mine, Ahmed, whose shop I used to sit in for hours at a time, watching the customers come and go). Ahmed and I had the two single beds and his Zande-Balanda half caste girlfriend, 19 years old, was relegated to a mat on the floor.
Before bed, I sat with some of Ahmed’s friends from the north of the country. One of them, a smartly-dressed young man in his mid-twenties, had a story to tell.
“I used to own a lorry. By trading, I collected one hundred and twenty-five thousand pounds, which I wanted to send to my relatives in Khartoum. So I sent the lorry up through Wau from where it would go to Babanusa, El Obeid, and finally the capital. But on the road to Wau the SPLA (the rebel group in the south) stopped the lorry. I lost all my money, all of it. They also took the lorry and all the goods. They took the passengers hostage. There were forty-five of them. They held them all for two months, except for an Arab girl from Khartoum. She was pregnant. They didn’t release her until she was near her time.”
The story became confused, and I lost the drift of his Arabic. But I had the gist of it. The innocent passengers, the girl from Khartowum, the loss of everything the merchant had worked for. It was sad. But there was also a certain poetic justice to the story. For too long, the south had been regarded by northerners as a money-producing paradise. The merchants stashed away huge amounts of cash in their private safes before transporting the accumulated thousands to their families in northern Sudan. The south benefited very little; there was a lot of resentment, but at the same time people depended on these same traders for their coffee, sugar, other basic goods.
But there were fewer complaints than you might have expected. And an odd thing happened when the merchants bought goods from the locals: the prices were uncommonly low. A chicken worth 15 pounds went for 10; a sack of charcoal costing 14 pounds was sold for 8. Why? Was the legendary bargaining power of the Arab such a potent force? I asked a successful African farmer for his opinion.
“The Africans feel inferior, as though they were still in the age of slavery. The Moslems, the Arabs have power and they respect this power, even if they don’t agree with it. In the same way they obey their own chiefs. But also, they feel helpless; and when they come into contact with a northerner, they become very humble, ready to do anything to please him.”
This was Manoah, a Zande from Maridi, talking about but distancing himself from his fellow Africans. And what he had to say both intrigued and disturbed me…and when his people did begin to feel true pain and resentment, then the bloodbath would indeed be considerable.
I caught the lorry to Maridi.
It was a cool, quiet afternoon when the lorry set me down in Maridi. That I was scared was in no doubt. My stomach was heavy with fear. And when I arrived at her old hut Mogiri was nowhere to be seen. Another family told me she had moved. She was living nearby. A woman showed me to her new hut. The door was closed and I thought I would have to wait. But as I stood outside Mogiri arrived home, looking better than ever – it was as if she had somehow known that I had come. her face went blank for a moment – not with lack of recognition, but with utter astonishment.
“So it is true. Someone told me they saw a Westerner in Yambio who looked like you but I couldn’t believe it.”
“Well, you can believe it now, ” I said. “I’m here.” We embraced, kissed, held hands.
“It is like a miracle.”
“Did you receive any of the letters I sent?”
“Two. They were brought to me from Juba. I knew you were in Rosaries. ”
“But you never wrote to me.”
“I did. I wrote three letters.”
The Sudanese Postal Service is not to be relied on.
“You’ve lost weight. You are very thin. I can see your veins.”
The walk and a previous illness in the CAR must have taken more out of me than I’d thought.
“At least we are together again.”
“Yes, ” I smiled.
The nights in Africa, far from home, can be cold and long…
And the days which followed were very pleasant. I was home again. Mogiri supervised my veins daily, and with the help of some big meals, they became less visible. My feet cured. I was in love again: it was magic.
I wanted to work in Maridi again. I was happy enough now to want to stay. I went to the school to see the new headmaster. Mulai was a nice man. He was delighted to see me. Teachers were at a premium in the south of Sudan. He didn’t even need to see my references.
“I need to go to Juba,” I told him. “I need a new passport.”
“That’s all right, ” Mulai said. “You’ll need to reaffirm your reappointment with the Ministry of Education. I’ll write you a letter to take to them.”
Nothing much had changed in Maridi. Surprisingly, there was another man from Britain already at the school, Craig, who had come with his wife and two young children. He worked under the auspices of ACROSS (African committee for the Rehabilitation of Southern Sudan), a quasi-religious organisation based in Nairobi. He taught Science. He was a pleasant. laconic man of about 30, but we had little in common. He was family-orientated, I preferred a more independent style of existence. I smoked and drank; he didn’t. But professionally there were no problems between us.
But he wasn’t around for long. A couple of weeks later three foreigners working at Bishop Gwynne College (a seminary and religious institution ) at Mundri, not far from Maridi, were taken hostage by the SPLA (they were released seven weeks later at the Kenyan border). All ACROSS personnel were withdrawn from the area.
Travelling had become more difficult. You needed the permission of more people and the signatures of virtually everyone involved with security. Random SPLA activity meant the authorities were reluctant to allow traffic to move freely. So in Maridi lorry park a potential convoy of vehicles of vehicles built up, private cars, lorries owned by merchants, and countless passengers trying to reach Yei, Juba, their own villages. Eventually, the security police gave permission to move. I travelled on a huge, crowded lorry carrying students from Bishop Gwynne College (now closed due to the insecurity in the area) to Yei. many of these students were Uganda. From time to time, they burst into song, especially during departure and then again on arrival, a kind of thanksgiving that the journey had passed without incident. For we had learned en route that Tore, a refugee village through which we had to pass, had been attacked again the previous evening. If the police had known, we wouldn’t have been allowed to travel. There was obviously a lot of tension in the air. The bush was perfect for rebel attacks. But we were lucky and arrived safely in Yei.
In part, the war had helped make Yei something of a boom town. It lies on good trade routes – Western Equitoria Province in Sudan, Congo (Zaire), Kenya and Uganda. Access to the town was relatively easy. It has a favourable climate, and certainly in 1987 there was a vitality about the place. The restaurants were the best in southern Sudan and the souq was the cleanest. “Keep Yei Clean” signs were displayed and the people did their best to obey the exhortation. The Mundari had cattle here…these were people who had so far been untouched by the troubles. There were also lots of small bars and discos (with their attendant prostitutes) with the cheapest beer in the area. It was a cosmopolitan town: Congolese, Ugandans, Kenyans, Sudanese, U.N. organisations.
From here there was a bus to Juba. Juba was a shithole, and it was the same shithole as I remembered from a year before, except now it was a bigger one, groaning under the weight of yet another influx of internal refugees who were seeking refuge from rebel attacks. There was a mini-drought, and food prices had rocketed. Fruit and fresh vegetables were almost unobtainable..
I was advised to send my old, used passport to Khartoum, and given emergency papers to enable me to return to Maridi. This took time: I had to trudge, as did everyone else on bureaucratic missions, from one government office to another. In every office files lay like great unread tomes on dusty shelves and in the dark interiors of long-unopened cupboards. It is a wonder that anything ever got done, and indeed if a file needed to be looked for, it was easier on the nerves to sit down with a book for half an hour and smoke a cigarette. The one thing which it was fatal to do was to leave an office, because in your absence nothing would be done. You had to stay around to remind people that you were still, as the Southerners said, “following-up your case”.
I wanted to leave, but I had to wait until the road was open to Yei again; there’d been more trouble while I was in Juba.
I went to find Martin Jumi. It was a delight to see him. “Martin Peters!” he roared when he saw me. He was still thin, but not as skeletal as before. He was enjoying his life; there were more members of his own tribe in Juba. “I can live my own way and nobody cares what I do.”
But there was sadness too. On arrival in Juba he’d found that his family had been “completely dispersed”. The rebels had come to where they’d lived and taken everything – clothing, bedding, cooking equipment – everything. “I had to help them as best as I could.”
We went to drink tea together. We talked of our times in Maridi. “We used to have a good time there, didn’t we?” he said, and he was of course referring to drinking. “Sometimes we do the same here in Juba. But after ten days of each month we’re dead – the money’s all gone. It’s very expensive here.”
Despite the problems, Jumi seemed happy and I made plans to visit him again. But it was not to be. Two months later, he contracted jaundice. He had remained in his hut and no-one suspected that anything was wrong. His thin frame had succumbed with tragic speed to the disease. The news shook everyone, though distance made it unreal. As the truth was confirmed, the loss began to filter home. Jumi, who annoyed and infuriated everyone, whose salary had to be hidden in case he spent it all at once on alcohol, who had abnegated his responsibilities at school, who broke many an evening’s calm with his drunken rantings, but who could discuss life with the sensibility of a poet, had gone, and everyone would miss him.
Two years before in Maridi we had been robbed on five separate occasions by a young man called Khamis. He had stolen food…three times while we were cooking on an outside fire, and twice some dried food from the larder. We had reported it to the police; the headmaster told us we had to defend our property and one teacher offered to lend us a bow and arrow, saying that, “Khamis is looking to commit suicide but wants someone to do it for him”…eventually he was cornered in a cupboard in an abandoned house and taken away to the local prison, from where he escaped.
Khamis was the son of the ex-headmaster. The father’s name was William Fodo, and he had since been defeated as parliamentary candidate for the Maridi area, losing to a man with more financial clout. I could imagine him after his defeat, walking slowly up the hill from the river, stick in hand, greeting and greeted by everyone, smiling with an inner sadness, like a clown with a secret to hide.
But how the fallen became mighty again! Because here was William Fodo holding the executive Minister of Administration. I went to visit him in his office. Like Jumi, he’d been a thin man, but now he was robust, even a little chubby; there was a sheen to his face which I’d never seen before. He had acquired some of the habits of the lazy administrator: when he wanted water, which was in a cool water-bucket a pace or two away from his desk, he rang for his secretary, in an ante-room outside, to come and pour it for him. But despite this new-found tendency to delegate even the simplest task, William was as polite and gentlemanly as ever. I was pleased that he had found some success.
He told me about Khamis. After escaping from prison, he’d gone to Juba. Here he’d returned to his old habits, all revolving around crime. One night, in the district of the town known as “Rujjal maa fii” – “No Men” – (a souq intended for women only) Khamis was found murdered , with two nails driven through his neck. The suggestion was that he was found in the act of theft and that a crude, summary punishment had been carried out.
Much travel in southern Sudan was only possible by means of army-organised convoy. Back in Yei again, I had to wait nine days before permission was given. In the meantime, the merchants of Yei had an unwilling temporary population of hundreds forced to buy their wares. It seemed as if half the population of the town was on its way to Maridi or Yambio, Zandeland as it was commonly known. Impatience grew and people ran out of money. Everyone had heard rumours that tomorrow would be the day, no, the day after, no, the army had gone to check the road, we might be here another week. Speculation, half-truth and hope dominated thoughts and conversations, but only a handful ever knew what was really happening.
I nearly missed the convoy when permission was finally given and only caught up with it at the first police checkpoint. The convoy was headed by an armoured car and another army truck. Many of the vehicles were exclusively military and lots of rifle-carrying soldiers, many newly-arrived from northern Sudan, were dispersed among the others. They were going to the army barracks in Maridi. I was on one of these trucks, perched rather precariously on a bar at the back, but happy to be there at all.
Progress was slow. The armoured car and soldiers with handheld minesweepers were often sent on ahead to look for trouble. But he road was clear. Tore, the Ugandan refugee settlement, bore few visible scars except some burnt-out huts, but there’d been some obvious and heavy depopulation, and the atmosphere was glum.
Just after we had passed the village of Rasolo, travelling at about 15 miles an hour, the lorry I was on hit a bump on the road and lurched slightly. The bar over which my legs were carelessly dangling snapped. I had nothing to grip. I tried to clutch the broken metal; the road moved below me; I let go; I hit the gravel and rolled over; and from the lorry came shouts of “Khawaja waga!” – the foreigner’s fallen…I tumbled again briefly, and came to a halt.
Mercifully, I was okay, receiving only a few superficial injuries. I can walk! I can walk! I thought to myself as I picked myself up and tottered back in the direction of the lorry, which had stopped. Rather dramatically, I raised a clenched fist to confirm my survival, then tenderly reboarded the lorry, taking up a safer position nearer the front. From then on, I was some kind of a hero, a tough man…I had experienced a potentially dangerous fall, and survived.
Our arrival in Maridi was also memorable. Deprived of transport from Yei for two weeks, cheering people lined the streets to welcome us. The soldiers waved their rifles and whooped in return. Was it the army itself that the citizens of Maridi were cheering for – a salvation force to protect them from the SPLA? Were they showing their happiness that the road was once again passable? Or was it an excuse for some high-spirited fun? It was hard to say. But I did feel a little disappointed in myself that I had waved along with the soldiers. I felt I had pandered to the worst militaristic instincts, and that I had been wrong to indulge myself in such scenes.
I moved into a house near the school. It was a brick structure, with a sloping roof (many were not). There were three bedrooms, a long hall, a bathroom, toilet and kitchen. I had running water, which was fairly unusual in Sudan: a barrel on the outside of the house collected rainwater from the gutter and the water was then fed by a pipe into the kitchen. There was a charcoal oven which I never used because it needed too much fuel and too much time: I preferred to cook on the “canoon” – a small barbecue-like portable oven. There was a garden in which the previous owners had planted sweet potatoes and maize, which I later harvested. There were also a few stray tomatoes growing in a flower bed. One advantage of the house was that there were no mosquitoes, and so I was able to sleep without a net or sheet.
I didn’t have much furniture – I had returned from Juba with barely any money and so I was eagerly looking forward to the next salary. In the meantime, Mogiri lent me a wooden bed and a chair.
But I was tired; something had gone from me, a spark, a motor, and my health began to suffer. I can’t put my finger on all the reasons; it was probably a combination of factors. But one of the prime ones was my relationship with Mogiri.
I don’t know what I’d expected. The desire to arrive had not been fully translated into the satisfaction of a desire achieved. Things began to stutter. Our greeting, the second time, was muted and restrained, as if we were merely friends and no more than this. I remember making several irritable remarks about my coffee having been used up while I was away (completely unreasonable of me given the hospitality I’d been used to receiving myself). I became verbally more aggressive towards Mogiri. I began accusing her of things, looking with suspicion upon conversations she had in her own Zande language with other me. “What did you say? What were you talking about?” It was a constant refrain.
Yet a part of me wanted her to secretly liase with someone else. It would have made breaking-up easier. The edges wouldn’t be blurred. I could blame, lash out with words, and then withdraw. In retrospect this sounds terribly self-indulgent, but it’s an honest reflection of how I felt at the time.
Our cultures began, I think, to clash. Mogiri said, “I will take myself off to live in Yei. I don’t want to live in Yambio near my relatives. They just want to grab my money.” There was never a word about me in these statements: did I wish to live in Yei as well? But it wasn’t in her upbringing, or in her custom to make such a suggestion. It was for the man to offer, dominate, plan ahead. Even the most liberated Sudanese woman could be unbearably submissive. Mogiri spoke of her plans in the abstract…it was for me to make more concrete moves. but I could see a world in which I met her in bed only, living otherwise a separate life, as most other men here did, eating alone, socialising only with other men, existing in a world filled with male concerns.
Mogiri didn’t visit me often in my house. Tradition demanded a specific invitation. But I wanted her to turn up unannounced, spontaneously. Once she did, but it was for the purpose of questioning me about rumours she’d heard, namely, that I’d been seen with another woman. “Please tell me the truth”, she said, and I could see pain in her eyes as I sought to reassure her.
You can’t explain everything. Not every sadness has a clearcut beginning. I can’t talk for Mogiri, but it must have been difficult for her. I had after all disappeared for more than a year and turned up again, out of the blue, expecting to start from where I’d left off – but in myself the former love was fading, dissolving into memories. I think also that I was realising that however much I loved southern Sudan I could never settle there with ease.
I had sometimes daydreamed of living in my own compound of huts, with a piece of land which I would cultivate, building my niche in Zande society. But I came to see that I would become restless and bored. And to take Mogiri away from here would be the worst crime of all; she was too steeped in her own culture. She wasn’t content to roam as I’d always done. She wanted a permanent home, with possessions, children, some standing in the community. I wasn’t able or willing to offer this, and I don’t think a long relationship would have worked. It wouldn’t have been fair on either of us.
So I was in a brooding, irritable mood. And to make matters worse, we were all facing money problems. For one, two, three months, the salaries didn’t arrive. None of the bookkeepers would go to Juba to collect them. The thought of convoys, delays, the remote but tangible risk of being held up by rebels, put them off. Some money was supposedly transferred by bank, but something went suspiciously wrong with the telexing of a secret code number. We took loans from the school and from Arab merchants, but the cash was inadequate and living on credit depressed us all. We did have some supplies of dried food at the school, from the World Food Programme. Rice, fish, beans, sugar. It was mostly pretty tasteless. Others grew maize, peanuts, mangoes, so at least we had some fresh food to share.
Despite this, the school was running smoothly. Mulai was a hardworking headmaster, always at his desk. He was a newcomer to Maridi and hid his loneliness by burying himself in work. I liked him. He wasn’t a false optimist, as many Sudanese were, but told the truth as he saw it. He never said the salaries would come “bukra” – tomorrow – the usual fobbing-off word, but admitted that he didn’t know. I respected him for this.
I was teaching the third years, the top classes. They gave me no discipline problems and we made good progress. The standard was remarkably high. Many spoke better English than Arabic. People listened to the BBC World Service, masses were in English, many government and civil service workers were fluent in the language. Others had been refugees and had taken refuge in Kenya and Uganda, where English is widespread.
Some of the names of the students had always given me pleasure. At Maridi we had Repent Tuesday and Archangelo Tomorrow. But a teacher at Loa, on the east bank of the Nile, told me the most extraordinary name of all. Parents there often used English dictionaries to name their children. Having an English name was considered fashionable. That the results were sometimes very odd they didn’t seem to realise. Thus the name of one poor student: Haemoglobin Hitler.
I was feeling lost and lethargic. I was troubled by a series of mysterious ailments which often left me in bed all day without the desire to eat or read or do anything. Then radio messages began arriving for me. They were sent via the Ministry of Education in Juba to the local police. The first read:
“ODA office and British Consulate representative in Juba are concerned and alarmed at your presence in the South and Equitoria Province without their knowledge. Please confirm whether British Embassy knows of your presence in the South.”
I thought that there could be problems with my new passport. I sent a reply asking for more information. A week later, another message came. It read:
“You have no legitimate paper to stay. Please respond and report to Khartoum as advised by the Consulate.”
No legitimate paper.: But the Security in Juba had given more emergency papers. How could I go to Juba before the salaries came? How could I survive there? I went to see the head of police in Maridi and explained the situation to him. he told me not to worry. But two weeks later another message arrived. A copy was given to me, but it was addressed to the Maridi Chief of Police:
“We have called him in vain to come to Juba and proceed to Khartoum to arrange his documents with the British Embassy. He has obstinately refused to comply even with directives from the British Embassy. Kindly make necessary arrangement to send him to Juba.”
Now I was a little scared. the spectre of the police coming to my door and dragging me on to a Juba-bound lorry was upsetting. Didn’t they understand that I couldn’t go to Juba without money? Of course I would go, as soon as I could.
It would have been nice to go to Mogiri for some sympathy and consolation, but my heart was no longer in this.
It had always been a possibility that I could return to Rosaries, where I had spent a year after the last time I had been in the south. The idea stirred again: regular salaries, old friends, somewhere safe. However, even here (not far from the Ethiopian border) there had been trouble: riots in the nearby town of Damazin, leading to two deaths – one a schoolgirl’s – a dusk to dawn curfew and the indefinite closure of all schools. The reasons for the disturbances seemed vague, but protests at rising food prices was one cause. But the news didn’t disturb me. Small-scale riots were nothing compared to a civil war.
One day while teaching we heard two bombs being dropped, maybe 20 miles north of Maridi. It was an army raid on suspected SPLA camps. We all rushed out of the classroom to look. Mulai tried to get the students back inside again. But he was fighting the beginning of a losing battle. It was obvious that life in the region was rapidly beginning to deteriorate. Vaunted peace moves between the government and the rebels had stalled, and the situation all over the south was turning into a bloodbath. Many schools had closed, communications were very difficult, nobody was being paid.
The school had some money, and I asked for a loan, to be paid back when I arrived in Juba. The request was granted. I went to tell Mogiri that I had to leave for a while.
“People say, ” she told me, “that you will have to go to Khartoum and that you won’t come back.”
“People say all kinds of things. What happens is what’s important.”
“I think you will not come back, ” she said with a sad, hoarse laugh.
“I will try,” I answered. “But you know the situation here. It’s bad and getting worse. I doubt they would give me permission to return in any case.”
There was silence between us. I found it hard to look into her eyes for fear of the distress I might find there. Eventually, she said,
“I can’t wait for ever. It’s not possible. ”
“I know. I’m not asking you to. I don’t blame you for thinking this way.”
I was less than honest here. I wasn’t as sorry as I would have been a year before. A lot of the passion had gone some time ago. I think Mogiri may have been thinking in the same way. We hadn’t been communicating as we had once done.
“But I will write, ” I said, “when I know what’s happening. Please write back when you can. Maybe this time the letters will reach me.”
It was an uneasy, shy, rather strained scene of dying love and difficult farewells. And we never saw one another again.
A few days later, I managed to leave. I left without saying goodbye to many people…it was a way of deluding myself that I would soon be back. From Maridi to Yei was easy. In Yei there was another convoy. Traffic there had been held up for over two weeks, and about one hundred cars and lorries were waiting for permission to move to Juba. My vehicle belonged to the Housing Department. it was loaded with planks of teak and a heaving mass of passengers.
I never saw the front or back of the convoy. The road was terrible: recent rains had turned it into a mudheap through which many lorries had difficulty in moving. At least four toppled over – no-one was hurt but vehicles were damaged and loads shed. We often had to get off and help to push. We moved at snail’s pace on a road untouched by maintenance for several years. If the SPLA had chosen to strike, we would have been sitting targets. And we never received any reliable information from the army about what was happening.
At night we stopped. People lit roadside fires to cook sweet potatoes and to warm themselves. Nobody slept. We started again at six o’clock in the morning, and mercifully the pace of the convoy increased, and we reached Juba without any problems. For the first time in several days I wondered what I had left behind.
There were a few days to spend in Juba. The Director-General of Education told me that he regretted the tone of the messages I had been sent, but “We had to cover ourselves.” I received my money, several months back pay. A large chunk of this went on a flight to Khartoum, a cargo plane which also accepted passengers.
In the meantime I stayed at the Africa Hotel, the only real travellers’ hotel in Juba. But there were no tourists staying here now. There were some refugees here. Two were from the CAR. They had written a letter to President Kolingba suggesting he should resign. The advice wasn’t well received an they decided it was better to flee. There was a Ugandan businessman with his son, who had been badly scarred in a fire. They were waiting to go to Germany where the son would receive plastic surgery.
The hotel made its profits now from these relatively wealthy refugees. George, the manager, was seen making improvements to the facilities. He watered the garden with muddy Nile water and sprayed the rooms with insecticide. He spent his evenings in the Greek Club (beer now double the price of a couple of a few months before), where old Gerry, a Greek who had lived in Juba for more than 50 years with only one trip abroad in all that time ,was raving about the place: “Juba is paradise…beer, whisky, everything is fine here…” At least someone was happy.
At the airport the twelve passengers me among them, were checked very carefully for bombs and drugs. It was half-past six in the morning when we took off. I was still bleary-eyed. So there was nothing too momentous about my final farewell to southern Sudan – nothing but a view of runway tarmac, the roar of the engines and the beginning of a ninety-minute flight to Khartoum.
And I have never returned to southern Sudan since, though I have often dreamed of doing so. I have no idea what has become of the people I knew, because there is no way of finding out. And though I would dearly love to know more, I would be scared at what I might hear.