Saturday, December 10, 2011

Juba Nights Part Two: Ordinary Juba Nights

This will be the last installment describing what a typical 24 hours is like for me in Juba.

Work day ends around 5:30 pm usually and, upon return to my room in the company guesthouse, I get ready for football, which I now play almost every night. I put in contact lenses and toss two bottles of water into my backpack, along with an extra tee-shirt, some South Sudanese Pounds (money), my work ID and my cell phone. I have a little pre-football work-out routine in my room, too, during which I imagine myself in solitary confinement doing pushups and sit-ups to maintain fitness in case of attack from other inmates. Then I grab my backpack and scoot downstairs.

The guards at the gate seem enthralled whenever I go outside in my football garb, even though it's a nightly occurence. I suppose it is unusual here to see any middle-aged white man heading out for football, but clearly, this is a first for someone from my outfit, and the young guards are full of surprised smiles and approving nods for me when I walk out, no matter how many times they've seen me do it previously. “You are going for football again?” they ask while sliding open the heavy iron gate for me. “Ahh, it is good!” they say, or “You are very fit!’’

I hustle out to the main road to catch a boda (motorbike taxi) to UNMISS (United Nations Mission in South Sudan) compound just down the road. Twice a week on weeknights, I meet up with members of my expatriate football club, Juba Unathletic, at a nice little dirt field in the compound belonging to BanBat, a battalion of Bangladeshi UN peacekeepers who allow us to train there. Near the BanBat field, I look for my favorite cow, a rhinoceros-sized bull named “Ban Ki-Moo,” rumored to be owned by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. This all-white bull has a camel-sized hump behind its head and enormous gray horns like scimitars, one of which droops downward like a mammoth tusk. The horns are so heavy that the bull’s head is dragged low, and as it lumbers slowly around the UN compound, always alone, you can see its gigantic neck straining. The animal is as big as the white UN pickup trucks whose drivers unfailingly give it the right of way. The bull goes where it pleases.

On nights when my team does not have training, I leave my backpack at home and jog down to a rocky, slanted pitch across from the airport near UNMISS to play with a team of tall, athletic South Sudanese men called the Juba Airport All-Stars. Though I've never seen another white person there, the All-Stars always invite me to jump in with them, and there is no fuss, just a perfunctory nod or two, maybe a handshake. They see and share my love of the game, enough said - pass the ball. I have arranged a few matches between the All-Stars and Juba Unathletic. In fact my expat team, which is quite competitive, has matches somewhere in Juba against different South Sudanese teams almost every Saturday afternoon, often attended by a hundred or more local spectators. Recently, we borrowed the All-Stars’ pitch to play a game against a club called Konyo-Konyo, but the match ended abruptly when players on the other team began yelling and criticizing the referee, who in response pulled a semi-automatic handgun out his sweatpants. My boys and I quietly exited the field, climbed into our trucks and drove away, though from what I heard, no shots were fired and everyone is friends again. When I informed my boss of my adventures at the airport field she was nonplussed. “Has it been de-mined, I hope?” she asked.

After football each night I return to the guesthouse, where I find 10 or 12 people from my company gathered for dinner, catered by a hotel called Logali. The food is brought in trucks and set up by hotel kitchen staff in warmed chafing dishes. There is usually plenty of it – chicken, beef, rice, maize porridge, sautéed local greens. I shovel down a plate and go upstairs to shower, then look for Tahra and the kids on Skype. Video chat and get caught up with the girls, a little email, then climb into bed. Sometimes I read or watch a downloaded movie on my laptop. Recently I saw the painfully funny “Borat,’’ recommended by my brother, and enjoyed a documentary called “Bill Cunningham New York’’ about an unusual photo journalist in Manhattan. If you never caught it, a low-profile Denzel Washington movie called ‘’The Great Debaters’’ is outstanding, and “Man on Wire,’’ about a French tight-rope artist, is brilliant.

I pull up my fuzzy bedspread and wish my family a good night in a westerly direction, leaving only my nose exposed in case any malarial mosquitoes have penetrated the defences.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Third Rotation

Above: View from the patio at the Ole-Sereni Hotel, Nairobi. I've seen real giraffes from this porch, as well as zebras and ostrich Ole-Sereni Hotel, Nairobi

I now feel like an expert traveler. Seven months after first flying into terra incognita, gone is the bowel-twisting sweaty anxiety before hopping on and off planes in places like Wau, Aweil, Rumbek, Juba, Nairobi, Amsterdam. These days, trip preparation is fuss-free. Packing lists I once pored over and revised are now brief afterthoughts scribbled on the backs of envelopes in between doing other things. Yawn. Another trip across the continent.

It's my third rotation, my third company-approved trip for R&R outside of Juba. The company pays for a round-trip ticket from Juba to Nairobi every eight weeks. I pay for the ticket home to Key West and back, a steep $2,500 with four connections and 36 hours of travel, but worth it to see the girls and Tahra even briefly.

Inside the Juba Airport, waiting for my flight out, the chaos now seems normal to me. Surly six-foot soldier in camos and machine gun demanding suddenly to see my visa? I wordlessly whip it out with a bored and unintimidated expression. When he flicks his eyes toward the right I know he is ordering me into another queue, to sign a passenger list. My motions in transit are now mechanical, designed to ensure maximum comfort and minimal expenditure of energy. In the crowded, hot and smelly waiting room all the seats are taken. I spot a stack of brown plastic chairs in a corner and help myself, grab one swiftly, hold it over my head and place it on the end of a row directly in front of the door out to the planes, because there will be a breeze from the door and also because I can jump instantly into the line for my plane when the barely audible call is made. I wedge my pack firmly between my legs and dive into my Kindle, flaring my arms out to ventillate damp armpits while losing myself in another Jeff Lindsay Miami murder mystery.

On the one-hour Kenya Airways flight to Nairobi I skip the in-flight meal of chicken whatever. The sodium-laden airline food, with its infused cardboard and plastic, upsets my stomach, I have realized. In Nairobi I turbo-walk past slow passengers and speed down the tunnel to the visas area. My connection to Amsterdam doesn't leave until 11 p.m. and it's only 4:30 pm or so now - no way I'm sitting in the dank and dark Nairobi airport, which reminds me a little of the old Rolling Valley Mall, for seven hours. So I take the trouble to fill out the forms and find the shortest line possible to purchase a transit visa. I produce a crisp U.S. $20 bill with no marks or writing on it (they won’t accept any other kind of US money at the visa counter, I now know), get my visa stamp and skip downstairs to get my suitcase. I find the baggage belt for my flight, even though it’s incorrectly marked as a flight from Dar es Salaam, because I’ve asked a bright-looking baggage guy and I know the belts are usually mislabeled here. Miraculously, my suitcase is one of the first around the bend. I grab it, whiz by the airport cop telling her I have nothing to declare, and exit into the sea of drivers – maybe 100 or more -- waiting behind the fences holding signs with people’s names. The drivers hush down a bit and look at me expectantly – each one of them hoping I’m their guy so they can get out of there and hit the road. As I stroll by looking for a sign with my name on it, a short Kenyan woman who works for the Universal Car Company pops out of the crowd.


I am astonished to be greeted by name.

“You remembered me from last time?”

“How could I forget?” she said.

I ponder the meaning of this. Of all the travelers passing through, she would remember ME? Is it because, the very first time I arrived in Nairobi, I got in the wrong car? Is it because I tipped one of the drivers $20, once, after drinking two double bourbons at the Ole-Sereni, and he told me he had no money to eat? Is it because I’m a freak?

In any case, she handed me off to the Universal driver who took my bag and led me to the parking lot. Twenty minutes later I was seated in the luxurious Big Five restaurant inside the gorgeous Ole-Sereni Hotel, deposited by my driver, whom I asked to return at 9 p.m. to take me back to the airport. I like this hotel because it is close to the airport and you don’t have to pass through any of the murderous roundabouts or get stuck in the notorious Nairobi traffic in order to get to it. In addition, there is a very good restaurant with a balcony overlooking a game preserve, with scrubby acacia trees and tall blonde grass, and great sunset views. However, the only animals I’ve ever seen at the hotel so far are bronze sculptures.

This evening, I have parked myself on the balcony at a table for four looking east over the preserve. When my waitress comes I order my customary double bourbon (I feel really cool saying “Make that a double!”) and an aloo tikka appetizer (shallow fried potatoes with crushed pea paste and hot peppers), and then a pan-fried leg of duck.

I drink my first bourbon while watching the sun set over Nairobi, and think about what I’m going to do when I get home again.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Juba Nights Part One: Tim's DYN-O-MITE Juba Night

I finished my can of Heineken in the back seat of Nadir’s SUV on the way to the party. Just like in high school, only now I’m in South Sudan, 43 and married with two children. Nadir by contrast is a young stud. He is Lebanese but grew up in Sierra Leone. He plays striker, of course, on my football team, often scoring fantastic goals. He runs a contracting business, has friends in high places, a full head of lush movie star hair and a young American girlfriend, the one who gave me the Heinekin from her insulated “goody bag,” which Nadir gallantly wore strapped over his shoulder as we entered the big bash at Oxfam, so as to have a supply of chilled Heinies handy at all times.

I should preface all this by saying I don’t really go out, in the serious sense, “to party,” very often any more. After all, my beard is gray, my hearing is going, probably from listening to Iron Maiden at high decibels in the eighties with mom’s big earphones strapped on, and I have a few stiff joints. But here in Juba there is a cadre of young, post-university relief and development professionals from various Western and African countries, with degrees from the Kennedy School and Johns Hopkins and Georgetown, not to mention the hundreds of young United Nations soldiers and advisors, and European Union and World Food Programme and World Health Organization people. And on weekends in Juba, they like to party – especially if they’ve experienced the deprivations of the field any time recently. In addition, the lads on my football team, most of them much younger and much less married than I am, are more than a little fond of tossing back a pint or two on Saturday night, especially after we’ve played a game, and especially if we’ve won, as we did this afternoon.

So it was that I found myself loosening up with my third beer of the evening in the back of Nadir’s truck as we jounced down a dirt lane around the corner from the colossal walled, fortified, razor-wired, heavily surveilled U.S. Embassy compound. In fact I was in a convoy of approximately seven SUVs, all packed with expat NGO type people, all of whom had decamped simultaneously from a kind of pre-party party at PACT Sudan, another NGO where the captain of my football team, Edd, a really cool young Welsh guy, works. I’d say it was about 10:30 pm and I could hear the pulsating music coming from Oxfam, a place I’d never been, over the top of the 10-foot-tall iron gates. I’m unsure exactly what Oxfam does in South Sudan but I’m guessing it’s in the hunger department.

As soon as we walked in, I could tell this wasn’t a sit around in chairs kind of party. It was a DANCE party, as in, nobody was doing anything BUT dancing inside, under a giant grass-topped tikki hut. They even had a laser machine shooting purple and red and green lasers everywhere. Hmm, what does a married guy do without his wife at a LASER DANCE party? For starters, I did the same thing I’ve done for the past 30 years at dance parties: I stood on the fringes looking in at all the exuberant bopping and hopping and spinning and shaking, while tapping my foot meekly to the beat and shouting in my buddies’ ears in vain attempts at conversation. For example:


Dave: (shouting back in my ear) WHAT?

Me: (back in his ear, as close as I can get without putting my lips actually on his ear) THE GAME TOMORROW, THE MANCHESTER UNITED GAME, WHERE ARE YOU AND NIAL GOING TO WATCH IT?



Dave: COOL. SEE YOU THERE. (Nods and sips beer.)

But at a certain point, maybe Beer Number Five, I reached my tipping point, and I actually gave in and began to try to dance, using Edd’s girlfriend as my foil, so as not to appear to be actively dancing directly with any of my group of nearby men friends, some of whom were also tentatively beginning to dance, while studiously avoiding making either eye or physical contact with another male. I guess it would be more accurate to say I was dancing alone while pretending that Edd’s girlfriend, who was actually dancing with Edd, was part of my dance group.

Me, dancing, involves a lot of upward finger jabbing and karate-style arm movements with my hands balled into fists. As if practicing a faux form of martial arts might somehow make the dancing seem more masculine, to anyone watching. Also, I do some squatting while finger jabbing and martial arting with my arms. Possibly to create a lower profile – not sure why the squatting but it has become one of my standard dance floor moves. An occasional squat and slow rise takes me out of the line of sight of people looking out across the landscape of bopping heads.

So then this song came on which I’m sure all of you have heard, it seems to be very popular. I hesitate to say it’s a new song, because it could turn out to be three years old, but it’s definitely a popular and modern dance song and if I had to recreate it here, here is what seem to be the only actual coherent lyrics from it, repeated over and over:


It’s like a DYNO-MITE, It’s like a DYNO-MITE

(then more)

AAAY-O I’m saying AAY-O

It’s like a DYNO-MITE, It’s like a DYNOMITE

I realize that it’s actually spelled dynamite but this singer is really saying it DINE-OH-MITE. The young sweaty people seemed to go crazy when this song came on, waving their arms to the “AAAY-O” parts and shouting out DINE-O-MITE at the top of their lungs, and there was even more energetic jumping, Bouncy House type jumping. When my friend Simon grabbed me and twisted my nipple, and Edd and his girlfriend began passing around a bottle of Johnny Walker for people in the dance circle to take turns swigging from, I knew it was time to leave, and I drifted away unnoticed and took the short walk home, passing unseen through the Juba night like a rustle in the wind, and thinking up words that rhyme with dynamite (gonna have me a PLEB-I-SCITE, gonna get me a PAR-A-SITE, gonna do the WALK-ON-WHITE, wow it’s a SCAR-Y-NIGHT) to give the catchy song pulsing in my head a little extra pizzaz . When I got home, the guards let me in and I went to bed.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Juba Afternoons

After catered lunch in the office compound, I head back to my pod to work on my company-issued Toshiba laptop. Lately I am writing a lot of narrative reports, Power Points, and program overviews and updates for our teams in the field, who’ve been doing presentations for the new fiscal year with the governors in the four states where we work.

At about 2 p.m. I go for “tea,’’ which for me means a mug of hot Nescafe with sugar and milk. In the kitchen, there are usually some cleaning ladies doing dishes. They wear plain blue frocks reminiscent of prison garb, but in the evening are transformed into glamorous beings with beautiful dresses and done-up hair before leaving the compound. I tip-toe around them, trying not to make a nuisance of myself while getting my hot water ready. I am conscious that they know a lot about me, because they make my bed and replace my towels. They know I’ve been looking at New York real estate and reading a Paris Review book called “Writers at Work’’ because they wipe down my nightstand daily. They know I like Toblerone and pistachios because they empty my trash. They know I like to let the morning light in because my drapes are unfailingly half drawn when I leave the room each day. They even know I keep my toothbrush next to my razor on the right side of the sink, and the floss and soap on the other side, because each implement is carefully returned to its rightful spot after the sink is cleaned.

I’ve tried to start conversations with them a few times but get the vague sense from their whispered replies and abrupt departures that they would rather not talk to me. I should know their names, but I don’t, which bothers me. So for now there are just a lot of nods and smiles between us, and that seems to be ok with them.

Back in my pod with my Nescafe, one of my office mates, a contracts manager from Madagascar, begins his daily shtick.

"Tim." He says, without looking up from his paperwork.


"We go now?"

"Not yet. Soon." I say, whilst pecking my keyboard.

Really we don't leave until 5 pm or later but for some reason, this silly exchange has become part of the afternoon repartee and everyone in the office (about six of us, all guys, I am the only non-African) seems to get a small chuckle out of it.

Between five and six we cram into a company Land Cruiser and one of the drivers (we usually have two and sometimes three on duty) takes a load of us on the short drive from the office back to the guest house, where approximately 12 of us live. One of my colleagues consistently claims the comfy passenger seat up front due to her self-proclaimed "wide diameter."

At home, I trudge upstairs to my room, a nice corner room overlooking our dusty street and from which I can see over a tall cinderblock wall into the property across from us, which includes a modest house that reportedly belongs to the son of the Vice President. I sit down in my padded swivel chair and commence one of my favorite activities of the day: freeing my feet from sweaty socks and wiggling my toes while watching school kids and tired workers walking home from behind my tinted glass window.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

To Yei and Back

I’m back in South Sudan after a too-short trip to the Keys, where I ate great food, caught up with old friends, and soaked in as much of the girls and Tahra as possible in 10 days. Happily wrestled with weeds and dead banana branches in the yard. Swam at Fort Zack in wind-smacked chop one day, then floated atop water like glass the next, half-submerged ears muffling the happy squeals of kids up the beach. Tahra’s blessed cooking and my own sheets; the smell and feel of my family’s skin, the pleasant mustiness of the old apartment; Gryffyn and Ursula’s bellies, and laughter; tears over missing tutus, hair brushing and shoes. Home.

A few days after returning to Juba I invited myself on a working trip down south, where I’ve not yet been, with a colleague who oversees my company’s education programs. The place is called Yei, and there seemed a good deal of envy and interest from my co-workers when they found out I was going. “You must try the honey!” “You will like Yei, the weather is nicer!” “It is greener and cooler than Juba, and there is much rain!” Someone even said Yei is known as “Little London” though no one could say why. Our mission: to check on the status of four young school teachers from states in the north, for whom my company is providing full scholarships at the Yei Teacher’s Training College. And some higher-ups asked me to do a little outreach on the company’s behalf at the Yei Crop Training Center and the Women’s Empowerment Program, two big projects we have supported.

We drove southwest out of Juba in a direction I had never been, skirting some low hills on the edge of town. There, the asphalt ends, and white signs stick out of the bushes marking the future sites of big new national ministries – immigration, social welfare, water resources and irrigation – they will all be out here on the edge of town in new buildings, miles away from the crowds and bustle in downtown Juba where everything is currently located. Now, though, the area is used for dumping; every 20-30 yards or so, I can see a two-wheeled track beaten through the grass and acacia shrubs and little forest enclaves strewn with thousands of flimsy empty and flattened plastic water bottles – some of them could have been mine. I admit that I don’t know where my trash goes, though there definitely is not any recycling program here. Why not? Everything is expensive here. Taking care of trash is very low on the country’s priorities list at the moment. I do, however, see a future for a recycling-based NGO.

It will be a four hour ride on very bumpy dirt roads to Yei, which is not far from the border with Uganda and the dreaded Lord’s Resistance Army rebels, possibly the most insanely inhuman rebels on earth. We are transporting the wife of the principal of the Teaching College, who has clearly done some shopping while in Juba. We load up her stuff in the back of the green Land Cruiser Prado, cushy inside but with an unwholesome smell emanating from the dashboard, apparently, on my side of the car. The further south we drive, the more jungle-like the landscape becomes. The northern areas I’ve seen have lots of savannah, but down here it is hillier, some low mountains and escarpments, and the landscape is lush, and green, and suddenly a new type of tree pops up – teak trees. There are groves and groves of them, mostly immature – harvested for buildings and furniture and flooring, certainly. I’ve not seen these trees in Juba or in the north. Other highlights of the drive: my first wild monkeys. I had not before seen monkeys in South Sudan though they are here. These are just little guys, three of them, reddish-brown, loping along like monkeys on all fours across the road, scampering into the green. And a monitor lizard, big and brown, crossed the road in front of us. My colleague says he has seen cobras out here too.

We arrive in Yei, which bears no immediately discernible resemblance to London, and interview the young teachers at the college, in a computer lab. They are tired at the end of the day and a little wary of two inquisitive guys asking a lot of questions about how they are doing. Emotionally they are fine, they say, but academically they are struggling. The college is rigorous, classes are taught in English and these young women spoke other tribal languages and Arabic mostly when they arrived. So they had language challenges in addition to adapting to a new environment far from home (they are all from the northern parts of South Sudan, culturally and ethnically distinct from the south part of South Sudan.) But they are relishing their time at college, in particular, the on-the-job training which involves teaching actual classes in Yei-area primary schools, under the observation of college instructors.

We next stopped by the Yei Crop Training Center, without an appointment, at about 6 pm. We got through the gates and drove past well-ordered plots of maize, sorghum, okra, pineapples, sesame, peanuts, eggplant and hot peppers, interspersed with papaya trees. Food is growing here, and not just staple crops, I was happy to see. Yei is known as a self-sufficient agricultural zone where small-holder famers grow a lot of food, I found out. Melons and pumpkins were growing in abundance. We found David Bala, the principal, who graciously showed us around his home on the center – he is a farmer, and he leapt at the opportunity to give us a private tour. Next to his house, I saw a papaya tree growing fruit the size and shape of nuclear missiles. His goal when he retires from teaching is to launch a pineapple farm with 4,000 pineapple plants, and to add 600 beehives for honey. I commented about his beautiful passion fruit and voila, his wife Mary, whom he calls Madame, brought out a glass pitcher of cold, bright orange passion fruit juice, squeezed from his own fruit, and cookies she baked herself. I tried some of his avocado juice, too, which was delicious and rejuvenating, and he wouldn’t let us go without taking a half-dozen ears of freshly harvested maize.

Our night in Yei was spent in the New Tokyo Hotel, billed as the nicest hotel in Yei. It was almost clean – Spartan, with no discernible Japanese influence or connection, other than the name. No internet and one channel only on the TV (reggae music videos); no AC and no hot water. But the twin-sized bed was ok and there was a working fan. I slept under a mosquito net and awoke sweaty at 1 a.m. to find the power had gone off. It came back on at 6 a.m. in the morning. I ate a boiled egg on a dry bun for breakfast with my Nescafe, and at another ag training center we picked up some honey, which indeed was good. Said a quick hello at the Women’s Empowerment Center, where war widows were running a nice micro-enterprise project (a guesthouse) on the green banks of the Yei River, and then embarked on our four-hour bump back to Juba. On the way, we successfully avoided a crazy-eyed, drunken soldier (allegiance unknown) who flagged us down for a ride that we declined to provide, without rolling down the windows, after determining he was unarmed.

Busy market, Yei (aka "Little London")

Boda guys with Man U jersey and stickers, Yei

David Bala in his eggplants, behind his house at the Yei Crop Training Center.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Field Journal: Guns, Goats and Gospel in Kuajok

I am back in Kuajok for a couple of days, still in the field on my seven-day tour. On a beautiful cool evening as the sun sets and a big moon begins to rise, I listen to the sounds of village life drifting into the compound from the mud-and-stick tukuls on the other side of the tall fence that surrounds us. I smell dung and smoke from charcoal fires. People talking in relaxed tones in Dinka and Arabic, kids laughing, goats bleating and cows lowing, pans clattering as the women get dinner together out in the open air. By comparison, the compound is a dull place to be. Twin generators hum in the background and pump out diesel fumes round the clock; fluorescent pipes strapped to trees throw unnatural light into the shadows. As the sun sets, the program people usually retire to undecorated, air-conditioned prefabs and fire up their laptops to Skype or surf or watch downloaded movies, and the guards at the gate are the only ones left outside.

Earlier I had jokingly suggested to the team leader that we should have a barbeque, and though she seemed receptive, and I had given the compound manager money to buy some beer, it was about dinner time and I didn’t see any signs of a party in the making. So I decided to go for a walk and grabbed a South Sudanese colleague who lives full-time on the compound to go with me. Within minutes I was rewarded by an only-in-Africa scene, as I came up on two boys sitting in grass weaving palm fronds together to make toy machine guns. I snapped a few pictures as they giggled and made gun-fighter poses for me. Down the road a bit, I saw a grizzled woman using a long wooden pole to stir something steamy in a large rusty barrel. My colleague told me she was making an alcoholic sorghum-based homebrew, and I went over to investigate. As I approached, a dozen men drinking the brew and watching a football game under a thatched roof nearby walked over to see what I was up to. They invited me in for a drink but the mop-water color of the liquid, and the bits of matter floating on top, combined with the fact that the brew master was using a dirty branch to stir the stuff in a rusted barrel, prompted me to politely beg off. My colleague, whose hometown is in the far south, close to Uganda, said he has never tried the home brew, either – he wrinkles his nose and says it doesn’t look like something that would be good to drink.

Back in the compound after our walk, I was surprised to find the barbeque getting started, under a full moon. The compound manager had set up tables and chairs, and buckets filled with iced Heinekens, and was grilling a large he-goat, which he had purchased for a few hundred pounds while I was out walking, and then slaughtered, right on the compound grounds. “I saw them bringing the meat in while you were out,’’ said my roommate, a lanky consultant from South Africa who dines exclusively on his own dried meat, called biltong, made of oryx, kudu and springbok that he shoots in Namibia during annual family hunting trips. He brings his wife, daughters, deep-freezers and generators with him in trucks up to Namibia, shoots the game, skins and butchers it in hunting camps, and then returns to South Africa with a few hundred pounds of frozen meat, much of which he then sun-cures on special racks using fans and netting. He saves it for eating while on his consultancy trips to South Sudan, supplemented by a little granola and dried fruit.

I felt a little guilty for suggesting, on a whim, a barbeque that apparently resulted in the immediate death-by-throat-slitting of what had probably been a happy-go-lucky, grass-chewing father goat earlier in the day, but truth be told, the meat was without question the freshest, tastiest I’d ever had in my life. I ate more than my share, and later asked the grill master what he did with the parts he didn't cook. He said he gave the goat skin to the compound cooks, who will use it to make belts, shoes and bags. He gave them the head, also, which they will boil and eat. "The head is the best part," he said. "But I didn't think you would want any."

On Sunday morning I was up early. I’d been asked urgently to draft a lengthy letter on behalf of someone I’ve never met on a matter of some importance. It was my first ever ghost writing commission, aside from several retail-related emails and other correspondence I’ve written on behalf of Tahra (who doesn’t type), and I was nervous about it. As I sat alone in an office pre-fab in front of my laptop at 9 a.m., swatting at a pair of giant, orange-black wasps dive-bombing me and waiting for inspiration, it arrived through my open window in the form of the most amazing live singing I’ve heard since going to JazzFest more than a decade ago. It turns out there is a church behind the compound, and, it being Sunday morning, a choir of what sounded like professional African acapella gospel recording artists was just getting going. I didn’t recognize the songs or the language in which they were singing, but it was magical and I went outside to peer over the top of the fence at them and listen. I could see them, all women, all dressed to the nines in green and orange and lavender and gold, swaying and singing in perfect harmony in front of a huge outdoor congregation, their voices bouncing off the broken brick walls around them.

I listened for a while, went back inside, banged out a kickass two-page letter, and went to lunch.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Field Journal: A Night at the Bahr el Ghazal Hotel, Aweil

On my first night in Aweil, way up north from Juba in the hinterlands in Northern Bahr el Ghazal State, there wasn’t enough room for me in the company compound, so I lodged at a six-month-old hotel called the Bahr el Ghazal. The team leader dropped me there shortly before sundown, and I was on my own – no colleagues or short-term consultants for comraderie, no plans for dinner. Just me and my laptop and Kindle. I had moderately high hopes of having a comfortable stay there, because from the outside the Bahr el Ghazal is a very impressive edifice. At four stories tall, there is no building like it in the entire state. (Incidentally, “Bahr’’ means “river’’ and “el Ghazal’’ can be loosely translated to mean “of poetry.”)

Most of the architecture in Aweil comprises mud-and-stick built tukuls with grass roofs, and bamboo shacks with corrugated tin tops, with a sprinkling of simple brick or concrete buildings here and there. By comparison, the Bahr el Ghazal is a palace. Tinted glass windows on every floor, slate-colored façade, three huge chrome-faced pillars holding up a semi-circular portico in the front. It is located in a gigantic walled and guarded compound, and behind the big hotel are two other new buildings – a large restaurant and conference center made of concrete with marble, glass and tile finishings. I was even told there would be hot water for my morning shower, which put a little perk in my step, though in the morning I would find out it wasn’t true. At the time I arrived, there was no electricity.

I was taken to Room 307 by a porter who carried my backpack, and while walking up three flights of stairs in the semi-dark with him, I noticed a few blemishes. Windows without glass. Cracked, chipped and punctured wall tiles. Small piles of debris in corners. Random smears of spackle, grout and paint on walls, doors and floors. Room numbers were drawn with magic markers in an uneven hand, in different spots on doors. On the floor in front of Room 307 was a dirty tea cup, which made me wonder if it was still occupied, though I hadn’t seen any other customers in the building. The only sound was the slap of our shoes on the floor. It felt like the setting for a scary Scooby-Doo cartoon.

“Like, let’s get out of here, Scoob!”

The porter put my bag down, unlocked the door and showed me around. In the bathroom, which had a rat-sized hole in the wall, the porter vigorously pumped the toilet handle four or five times in rapid succession, to dispose of someone else’s leavings. He demonstrated how to turn on the shower, around which there was no curtain or door to keep spray from raining over the nearby toilet. There was a used loofa mitten (hairs sticking out of it) on a hook -- very convenient for mixing someone else’s dead skin cells with my own. The toilet was missing its seat, and there was a clinical-looking hose with a large metal spray nozzle next to it that gave me shivers. Despite a little roughness around the edges, the room was generally clean and would do for one night.

I settled in and, because it was rapidly becoming dark in the room and there was still no electricity, I took my laptop for company and decided to head down to the restaurant to see about dinner. Inside the cavernous restaurant out back, I could not locate any staff. Though it was definitely dinner time (about 7 pm) I did not see any other customers, nor could I smell food cooking. I seated myself at a table under a large tree to wait for activity. As the sun set, I spotted the manager of the hotel, jumped out of my seat and asked if the restaurant would be open this evening. It was now about 8 pm and I was pretty hungry.

What do you want? he said.

What do you have?

Chicken or beef. With chips? (fried potatoes)

Chicken and chips.

It will be grilled. Unfortunately we still don’t have electricity.

The manager then sat down at my table and we had a brief chat. He acknowledged having difficulty keeping things in order around the hotel, and asked me if I would like to dine upstairs on the restaurant’s balcony. So I walked up with him. A pair of South Sudanese men in business suits were having a drink at another table, but no one else was around. I could see and hear hundreds of small white egrets settling into nearby trees for the night, and hear women singing somewhere. Soon I could hear and smell cooking, too. I looked over a back wall and saw a pair of ladies grilling my chicken over an open fire and frying my potatoes in a pot of oil. Soon, it was completely dark. When a man brought my food up, I asked if he had a candle or lantern for the table, but he just said “No” and walked away.

So I flipped open my laptop and ate by its light, listening to the pulsing chorus of birds, crickets and frogs in the night.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Field Journal: Friday Aug. 12 – The Secretary General

My field trip has been productive so far. In Warrap on Wednesday afternoon, I interviewed a county water/hygiene/sanitation coordinator and got some scoop on a new water source GPS mapping project we're doing with local governments, and how it’s helping improve/expand safe water supplies for people in that state. On Thursday I took a truck drive four hours north to another state, Northern Bahr el Ghazal (NBG), to catch up with a couple of consultants my company has hired to help the state’s Council of Ministers streamline operations, and to assist the Labor Ministry in its overhaul of statewide human resources systems.

On Friday morning, my company’s team leader in NBG grabs me as he’s heading out the gates. “I am going to the Governor’s office,’’ he says. “Come with me. You need to meet the Secretary General.”

Garang Kuot Kuot is the highest ranking civil servant in NBG. He’s also a very important man in state government, with an office right across the hall from the Governor’s. I am told he is a young rising star -- smart, visionary, and respected by the Governor, and that many people have entrusted him with their hope for a corruption-free state that can gradually become capable of delivering public services to the people – clinics, schools, physical infrastructure, agriculture development. Kuot is also a former Lost Boy, one of the thousands of South Sudanese child refugees who fled the killing fields in South Sudan in the late 90s and walked hundreds of miles without food or adults to guide them, to camps in Ethiopia, then Kenya. The Lost Boys airlift landed him in British Columbia, where he graduated high school and then college.

The guards at the Governor’s compound recognize our vehicle and wave us through. We park under a big tree and walk inside a sprawling new, one-story building framed in front with modest flower gardens and carefully trimmed grass yards. Outside there are water tanks, a radio tower, a big satellite dish. We enter the building and turn left toward the SG’s office. In an anteroom, there is a woman sitting at a large desk, a couple of armed soldiers posted near an interior office door, and a group of five to six men in suits standing and apparently waiting to see Kuot. My colleague and I approach the door and ask to see the Secretary General.

“He is very busy today,’’ someone clucks at us, shaking his head.

“We just need to give him some papers.’’

More head shaking. “He is very busy. You will have to come back.”

The door opens and, by luck, the SG himself is there, escorting a pair of men in business suits out of his office. He is built like a linebacker, over six feet tall, perfect teeth, handsome and well dressed in a black tailored suit. He greets my colleague and I warmly and quickly ushers us into his large office. He sits down behind a massive desk cluttered with stacks of paper, two laptops, three cell phones, pads and pens.

I realize I will only have a few minutes with him and have come with some prepared questions, but get only half-way through my first when his door opens to admit people who are much more important than we are. In the course of 20 minutes, we are interrupted approximately four times by people who absolutely have to see the Secretary General immediately, including the Minister of Finance. Kuot’s three cell phones chime in various ring tones throughout the stop-start conversation, and in between answering my questions, he gives serious-sounding instructions in different languages to a range of needy information seekers.

My final question for him is a softball: Are we helping in NBG?

He cleared his throat and clasped his hands in a thoughtful steeple under his chin.

“Teach me to use a net, I catch my own fish. Give me the fish, I come to you for another,” he said, modifying the Chinese parable to illustrate that our company’s collaborative, learn-by-doing approach is helping build his government’s capacity instead of feeding into the dependency cycle.

Boom. It was a grand slam of a sound bite. Time to get out. Look for this guy on CNN soon. As my ex reporter’s goose bumps subsided, I slapped my notebook shut and Kuot walked us to the door while charismatically greeting four new suits walking in.

Apparently he gets a lot of work done on weekends.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Field Journal: Thursday Aug. 11 - Kuajok to Aweil

1030 a.m.

I have just had my first of what will be seven cold morning showers. There are no functional hot water heaters in the prefabs in the field. So I gingerly soap selected parts and contort my body into awkward poses while conducting surgical-strike rinses, punctuated by sharp intakes of breath and exhaled expletives. I’m out of the shower in 90 seconds and feel marginally cleaner. I spent the night in a one-room prefab with a buddy from Madagascar who is also in the field for a while, working on contracts stuff. We had our own beds, and the generators were working so we had the AC on. Interestingly, I realized in the morning that the fuzzy blanket I snuggled under all night under has a giant green marijuana leaf design on it. I am guessing the procurement people did not realize this.

My roommate and I are both heading to the same place today – up to Aweil, in Northern Bahr el Ghazal, which is about a four hour drive north on bad dirt roads. We load up some materials needed by people in the compound up there, which include chains and a couple of boxes of “pangas’’ – curved knives made by local blacksmiths out of scrap metal, which are used for cutting down crops like sorghum and maize. My company does a lot of work with crop and vegetable farmers.

We strike out on the road in a mud-splattered white Land Cruiser. I notice how much greener everything is compared to when I was up in May, when the landscape was brown and brittle looking. I understand now why many people say South Sudan has the capacity to become the breadbasket of Africa. There is tall green grass as far as the eye can see, in every direction, and stretches of wetlands from daily rains where, in April, there was just brown dust and dirt, and thirsty-looking, thorny acacia trees. Mostly absent previously, birds are ubiquitous now, too - ibis, storks, tiny scarlet, blue, orange and black birds that look like finches, water fowl. The crows in Sudan have white shawls splashed across their backs and wings, and the starlings here have orange beaks.

Everywhere, small clusters of crops have been planted in close around the tukols, whose thatched roofs poke up out of the fields like wizard hats. It’s mostly tall maize and sorghum, both staple grains that are used to make a kind of porridge that is taken with almost every meal. But there also are ground nuts, okra and sesame growing out here. And there are tall palm trees with leaves that look like saw palmetto and small coconut-like fruits that have bright orange meat inside; I saw some kids munching on the palm fruit while walking to school along the road. I see melon and squash plants, too.

It’s a bumpy and long but mostly uneventful drive. We pass thousands of small herds of cows and goats, many tended by small children. The one exciting moment comes when, in the middle of nowhere, we see a crowd of spear and stick-waving people running fast, en masse, up the center of the dirt road, in the same direction as us. We can hear the women ululating “ay-yay-yay-yay-yay-yay-AAAY!’’ and some singing, and laughing and dancing.

I get out to snap a few pics and the mob stops to oblige me, shaking their spears and sticks and smiling.

I ask our driver what that was all about.

“They are campaigning for a leader,” he said.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Field Journal: Wednesday Aug. 10 - Juba Airport

8:00 a.m.

I am sent to the field for seven days to observe some of our programs and to collect string for the upcoming annual report, which I have been tasked with drafting. I have one backpack and a laptop bag for luggage. You are allowed to take very little on World Food Programme flights. It’ll take about an hour to fly north to a town called Wau, in Western Bahr el Ghazal, where I’ll be picked up in a truck and then driven north two hours on horrid dirt roads to our compound, in a town called Kuajok, in Warrap State.

My flight is delayed by 1.5 hours - who knows why. Delays and cancellations of flights on the humanitarian airline are common. The time goes fast, though. I've found a comfortable, cushiony seat to settle in with a copy of one of the local Juba dailies, called The Citizen, just like my hometown paper in the Keys. The Juba Citizen is a bit different though. It’s a tabloid, not a broadsheet, for starters. And the dots for the i’s in “Citizen’’ are little red, inverted rhinos. The front page top-of-the-fold story is about the swearing in of South Sudan’s first Members of Parliament (MPs); I am astonished to learn there are 332 MPs in all – it seems an awful lot for a country of nine million people, and this edition of the paper includes a long editorial criticizing the seemingly excessive number of new legislators. I read the paper cover to cover, hand it to the South Sudanese man sitting next to me, and start the latest “Dexter’’ novel on my Kindle. The serial killing story set in South Florida, which features cannibals, makes me wistful and long for home.

Between chapters I glance up at the Arabic news broadcast on the corner TV and check out my fellow travelers. The waiting room is cramped, warm and damp from humidity and human breathing. There is a smell of jet fuel, diesel, body odor and cologne. Mostly African men in business suits, some tall and beautiful women draped in dazzlingly colorful dresses and scarves, but some scruffy Western relief/development types, too -- young women in baggy clothes with nose rings and frizzy hair, guys with beards, cargo pants and ball caps. And me.

My plane is called and I get in line for the shuttle out to the little white-and-blue WFP jet. I haven’t been out to the field since before Independence, since we pulled most of our staff out due to fears of militia incursions and related insecurity challenges, including skyrocketing fuel and food prices resulting from the north's invasion of Abyei and the border closure. It’s supposed to be safe now. I’ll know soon enough.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

My First Boda Ride

I was running late for football practice with my team, F.C. Babel. (F.C. = “Football Club” and “Babel” because so many languages are spoken – we have Brits, a Canadian, a Welsh guy, Lebanese, Italian, Americans, South Sudanese, Kenyans, Ivory Coast etc..). Practice starts at 630 pm at the UN peacekeepers’ base, less than a mile away. Sometimes I’d run there, but it’s awkward jogging with a backpack, and on this evening, I didn't have enough time. So I worked up my courage and decided to take my first boda-boda motorcycle taxi ride.

I’d wanted to try a boda for a while but wasn’t sure how it worked – i.e., I didn’t know if the fee is negotiated first, or would they tell me how much after arriving at the destination? Are the drivers ethical, or would they see me as a wealthy expat and charge exorbitantly? Also, over the past couple of months, I hadn’t seen any expats taking the bodas, just locals – what’s up with that? Would they even accept me as a fare? And how do I choose which boda to go with – typically they line themselves up, 5-10 of them together, and seem to wait to be chosen, possibly based on the shininess and/or bling of their rides. (When parked, the boda guys are almost always washing/polishing and detailing their colorful, tricked-out motorbikes.) And then, for me, there was also this: Did I really wish to perch myself on the rear of a small, cheaply-made, fast-moving machine and sit in intimate proximity to a strange young man clamped between my legs? And what to do with my hands - grip the driver’s shoulders? Wrap my arms around his chest or waist? NOT BLOODY LIKELY.

But I had to get to practice in 10 minutes, so it was time to man up. If I acted like I knew what I was doing, I thought, maybe it would work out. So here’s what I did.

I strode rapidly from my residential compound, jumping over mud puddles, out to the main tarmac road. Head down to avoid saying a ludicrous number of hellos. (Though I’ve never felt threatened or intimidated here, I draw a lot of stares when I’m out on foot, and I find myself over-greeting.) At the tarmac road, I spotted some bodas 25 yards up the hill, my side of the road. I stopped and looked at them and raised one arm in an impatient wave. I also put on a slightly annoyed-looking face, as if to say – “Why am I waiting so long for you boda guys – can’t you see I’m in a rush?”

It worked. One of them quickly fired up his ride and zipped down to me. When he stopped I said “I need to go to UNMIS. Five pounds, yeah?” (About $1.75) The guy nodded. He was shorter than I, and skinny, and wore a black knit ski cap. Somewhere, he had rigged up a radio – I could hear music coming from his little orange and green, Chinese-made motorbike. I put one hand in a manly grip on his right shoulder to steady myself while I saddled up behind him with an awkward hop and step onto a foothold. Then I put my hands behind me, tightly gripping the chrome handle on the back of the padded seat. We wobbled a little as we took off, waiting for some Land Cruisers and trucks to careen past us down the hill, and I squeezed the seat with my thighs and leaned forward a little to keep my balance.

Why are the motorbikes called bodas? Apparently, bicycle taxis in East African border regions between Kenya and Uganda were the original bodas. The bikes were used to ferry people across the no-man’s land between border posts without the paperwork required when using motor vehicles to cross the international border. It seems to have started in the town of Busia, on the Kenya/Uganda border, where there is about a half-mile between gates - bicycle taxis would shout out “boda-boda!” (“border to border!”) to potential customers. Gradually, cheap Chinese and Indian-made motorbikes became more commonly used as inexpensive taxies in big cities like Kampala, Uganda and Nairobi, in Kenya, and spread to southern Sudan. Now there are boda motorbikes all over the place in Juba.

Ahhhh. We were in the flow of traffic, going downhill, the pleasant buzz of the motor mostly drowning out the African music on the driver’s hidden transistor radio. Everything was going great, my driver was cautious, not going too fast and staying in the right lane, slowing down at the slightest hint of trouble. I was feeling pleased with myself riding to football practice on the back of a boda, when I spotted a large herd of bulls coming towards us.

Yes. A herd of cattle -- some of them with very large horns -- was just a little ways ahead, in the road, on our side of the road, walking toward us and filling up both of the lanes. Cows used to be able to cross the road easily, but around independence, a few weeks ago, the city installed barbed wire in the median separating the uphill and downhill lanes – and now the cows can’t cross, so they were walking up the road looking for a way to get across. My driver slowed, wove in between some other cars backed up by the herd, and then, continued driving – weaving his way around the large animals, most of which moved out of our way, though at one point I had to lean precariously far to my left to avoid being impaled by the saber-like horns of a big white bull. After a couple of tense minutes, we were free of the herd, sans flesh wounds, and buzzed down the bumpy dirt road to the entrance of UNMIS. I hopped off, pulled a five-pound note out of my sock, said thanks, and arrived at training precisely on time.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Inside the New Republic of South Sudan

The first change I noticed upon returning to Juba after the country's triumphant independence on July 9th was the giant new luggage X-ray machine inside the chaotic old baggage room at the airport. It used to be that upon disembarking, people would crowd around a hole in a side wall and wait for the bags to be handed from a pickup truck. Then you would take your suitcase to a soldier with a machine gun and watch as he disinterestedly shoved your clothing around before dismissing you. Now, however, there is a giant metal box through which all incoming baggage is screened. A tall woman seated at a small table sits next to the box watching a video monitor. A couple of airport guys then hand the suitcases up to an L-shaped, high wooden counter, crowded three-to-four deep with mostly very large men in suits waiting to grab their bags. I successfully retrieved mine by wrestling my way up front and wedging myself sideways within reaching distance of the counter. One of the other passengers, much taller, eyeballed me suspiciously as I lunged and yanked my second heavy suitcase off the counter, making a ripple in the pool of waiting people. The tall man asked loudly "He has TWO?!" but no one else seemed to care, and I left my quizzical fellow traveler in the dust and rolled for the exit.

Outside I got a close-up view of the new airport terminal under construction next door. Arching metal roofs, steel buttresses flying this way and that, a lot of tall, tinted glass windows facing out on the city. It looks like a real airport terminal. There is also a large new outdoor waiting area under a newly built pavilion with benches and a proper roof. And across the street are vast new parking lots with properly graded and smoothed grounds, still under construction. Up the main tarmac road to my company’s guesthouse, I was astonished to see that tall metal, solar-powered street lights have been installed in the medians, traffic lines have been painted on the roads, and thousands of tiny colored flowers (along with some garish large plastic roses) have sprouted up. They have even strung wire between the new lamp posts in the curbed medians to prevent humans, trucks and motorbikes from randomly slashing across them to make dangerous U-turns. What’s more, the city has been cleaned! Where are the water bottles, the blown-out flip-flops, deflated tires, broken billboards, floating scraps of plastic bags and smoldering heaps of trash? They are gone – at least on the main roads. Even the watery ditches on the side of the roads are cleared of debris – what have they done with my Juba?

My driver that afternoon is now a proud new citizen of the new Republic of South Sudan. He seems happy and relaxed. He told me the celebrations were wonderful, people filled the streets draped in their new national flag, soldiers hugged civilians. There was no trouble in the capital and, aside from the PA system breaking down temporarily at the start of the big formal ceremony in the stadium, everything went smoothly.

As I rode up the road on the second Sunday after independence, Juba looked quiet, calm and restful. I saw people sitting with their backs to their shacks and storefronts, children playing in earth swept clean. It was done. After centuries of oppression, 21 years of the most brutal conflict in the history of modern warfare, the loss of more than two million South Sudanese lives – somehow, these strong people not only survived – they prevailed. They kept their oil. They will grow their own food. They will open embassies and consulates around the globe. They will have a seat in the UN in New York. They will compete in the Olympics.

On Monday, in my office, I asked about the national anthem and a colleague in the cubicle next to me, a South Sudanese man with a specialty in livelihoods, stopped typing, turned to face me and sang it loudly from memory in a deep, rolling, pitch-perfect voice full of reverence. “My favorite is the part about the martyrs,” he said when he was done.

I didn’t even know he could sing.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Juba-Nairobi-Amsterdam-Atlanta-Key West-Atlanta-White Plains-Chatham-New Paltz-Woodstock-Manhattan-Albany-Detroit-Amsterdam-Nairobi-Juba

I am back in Juba after a good long trip home to see Tahra and the girls. When I had to leave, Gryffyn’s tear-riddled cheeks in the airport caused a huge lump to materialize in my chest. She knows I’ll be back, though she doesn’t understand clearly why I’m leaving again, and while mom wins in most departments, I tickle better.

The stone in my gorge accompanied me through security undetected and dropped into my gut when I sat down at my gate, alone. I didn’t know it then but another extra burden would be the source of some anxiety for me in Nairobi. I had a good many kilos of other people’s stuff with me in my checked baggage, necessitating an extra (second) full-size suitcase, and though I remembered something about weight limitations on Juba flights, I chose not to dwell on it when packing. Whilst in the States, an Ethiopian colleague who works in remote Northern Bahr el Ghazal desperately requested that I pick up an iPad for him. (I wouldn’t have done it for just anyone but he is a trustworthy friend and I may be crashing at his apartment in Addis Ababa sometime soon.) Also, a Juba co-worker had her mom mail me a box of noodles and granola bars from somewhere in the mid-west. (Couldn’t say no, she cc’s me on email whenever something fun is going on.) And headquarters asked me to carry back a sack of mail that included serious correspondence along with a book about how to make cocktails. All the extras went into my luggage, along with work equipment, clothes, toiletries and fancy food items for me including bags of dried papaya and mango, tamari-soaked almonds, and salted cashews and pumpkin seeds. My Juba larder is larger thanks to all that good stuff, which I got at the Chatham Real Food Market Co-Op, an awesome local-food supporting establishment that Tahra’s step-dad Seth Rockmuller helped start in Chatham, NY.

Despite the misery of parting, what a great trip, and what a relief to squeeze and smell my two daughters when I arrived. Words cannot describe the feeling when I heard their high-pitched squeals and saw them sprint at me like hungry little cheetahs in the baggage room, and then saw my beautiful wife smiling and sparkle-eyed, hands in pockets and long hair whooshing around her as she strode fast through the sliding glass doors to me. The world was whole again.

Loads of fun in Key West. Dinner out with the Hamiltons and their kids at Salute on the beach, where all four Mays slurped our favorite buttery mussels, and another supper out at Geiger Key Marina with Randy, Ellen and our quintet of little humans. One afternoon, Narceline and Michel took the girls (who are in love with baby Julien) while Tahra and I biked to the Tropic to see Midnight in Paris. Then up to Chatham, NY by way of Atlanta and White Plains for a stay in Tahra’s old hometown in the Hudson Valley, a locavore’s paradise where Seth and Tahra’s mom Katharine live, along with grandma. Visits ensued to Seth’s side of the family in New Paltz for the SIXTY-FIFTH wedding anniversary of close relatives, and then to Woodstock to see old friends Liv, Will and Liam. Liv’s mom and sister, a former Norwegian supermodel, were both visiting too. It was a reunion for the girls and Liam, whom they regard as half brother, half action hero.

We squeezed in a weekend in Manhattan, too, at the West Side apartment of Seth's sister Ellen and her husband Joel. Their place looks over Broadway and has views across the Hudson straight over to my old stomping grounds, Edgewater and Cliffside Park, in New Jersey. We had hotdogs and pretzels in Central Park, took the kids to their first ever marionette show, road the subway, took cabs, and had a Japanese barbeque dinner out with Tahra's brother Ben, who later showed us the view from the top of his skyscraping Midtown apartment, from which you can see the Hudson AND East rivers. You could also practically touch the gargoyles on the Chrysler Building from his rooftop. Tahra's cousins David, Anna and Tavi, all young city dwellers, stopped by to play with the girls. It was my first time back to Manhattan in a decade, and Tahra's aunt and uncle were perfect hosts, gracious and loving.

While in Chatham we got to see Emily Houk, Tahra’s recently matriculated sister and the girls’ favorite aunt. Emily is a crafter of fine things, including the stuffed Totoro and sprite sitting on our couch in Key West. Like her mother, she could make a fortune with her fingers if she wanted. And I finally got to meet Emily’s boyfriend, Jedediah Berry. I am reading Jed’s critically acclaimed first novel The Manual of Detection on my Kindle right now. I’m only a quarter of the way through but it’s a fantastic read - ominous and sly -- and puts me in mind of Magritte and Ray Bradbury. (Jed if you read this I swear I came up with that before I saw the reviews.) When your first book is fawned over by The New Yorker, and your writing is compared to Kafka and Paul Auster, you know you’re doing ok. Not only that, but Jed, who turns out to be a great guy, beat all of us at Balderdash one night after the kids went to sleep. I came in last, unable to bamboozle anyone with my made-up definitions except Tahra, once, and I think it was actually a sympathy vote.

To get back to Juba I had to go Albany to Detroit, then Amsterdam to Nairobi, where I discovered that I was 20 kilos overweight with my luggage for the last leg of my trip, the Juba flight. A friendly Kenyan baggage man at the airport spotted me before I checked in, and whispered that I should ask the guy sitting next to me, who only had a carry-on, if he would agree to check my second suitcase as his own. I furtively inquired, and the other passenger gave me a good look while he thought about it. We were both wondering if this was ok to do and whether either of us could get arrested. I played it cool, like it was no big deal either way, and the guy shrugged - he was game for a little luggage caper. Later, as I walked toward Customs with both of my big suitcases successfully checked, the helpful baggage man materialized again.

“I just saved you one hundred dollars in fees,” he said quietly and expectantly, which may have been true. I thanked him, gave him my last 200 Kenyan shillings and got on the plane, wondering what changes I would find upon landing in a country just seven days old - the infant Republic of South Sudan.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Road Warrior

Musa is a young Maasai warrior-in-training from a village about 450 kms outside Nairobi. Today though, he has put aside his spear to make a few bucks as my driver, translator and shopping wingman while I’m in Nairobi on a 10-hour layover. I am embarking on the first of three scheduled “post rotation” trips home. In the middle of preparations to leave, I receive an unexpected bonus – my boss tells me to take an extra few weeks in the States due to mounting security problems in Sudan. It seems a relief worker recently was shot at during a drunken attempt to carjack her vehicle; also the northern army last week opened a new front on the border, invading and bombing Southern Kordofan in an attempt to push southern-aligned people out in advance of partition on July 9th. My company has cautiously decided to thin out the staff a bit during the buildup to independence, just in case.

A Kenyan colleague who works in our Nairobi office suggests I hire Musa to take me around. I meet him in the afternoon on Friday, after my flight gets in from Juba. Musa is about my height with a round face, short hair and a day’s worth of stubble. He is dressed for city work in jeans and a white polo and drives a silver four-door compact. My plan for the afternoon is to shop a couple hours, then have dinner at what is supposed to be a good Indian place, and get to the airport around 7 pm, about 3.5 hours ahead of my flight. Musa is affable and easy to talk to, and says it’s no problem. He knows I want to look for locally-made items and takes me to a store where crafts are hand-made by disabled Kenyans, who benefit from the shop’s sales. I had wanted to pick up presents in Sudan before leaving but could not find a gift-oriented market or any place selling arts/crafts of any kind, anywhere in Southern Sudan, except for one tiny shop in Juba called The Roots Project. The only toys I ever saw kids playing with were used rubber bike tires (rolled by stick-wielding boys up and down dirt roads), and once I saw two kids pulling small cars made from milk boxes with bottle cap wheels.

In Nairobi, though, at the store for disabled people, I find good stuff, including a bracelet made out of safety pins and green electrical wire and little animal pendants made out of scraps of Orange Fanta soda cans, for the kids. Musa next says he’ll take me to “Maasai Markets,” a big open-air crafts market that sets up in different parts of town on different days of the week. On the way there he apologizes for not wearing his traditional Maasai garb, which he sometimes does when driving Westerners around. He mutters a reason but I don’t catch it and tell him not to worry about it. We reach our next destination, which has the look and feel of an upscale mall in New Jersey. Big food court with stone fountains, tile flooring, recessed lighting, potted plants and flowers, plate glass store windows filled with expensive jewelry, watches, ceramics. Well-heeled Western, African and Asian clientele walking around sipping lattes and smoothies.

“This is the Maasai Market?” I ask, thinking maybe Musa decided I looked too much like a mall guy to take to a real market.

“It’s in the back,” he says.

There, behind the mall, an area about the size of a football field is packed with 500 vendors lined up in rows under a giant canvass roof, selling hand-made goods ranging from blankets and quilts, wood carvings and paintings, pottery and painted gourds, to jewelry, toys, bags, clothes, drums and wooden instruments – you name it. I go about two steps before a vendor reaches out to physically stop me, inviting me to look at his stuff. I politely demur but am pawed at gently and hopefully, again and again, by many merchants, and even followed around for a while by a guy who really wants to sell me a string of old magenta glass beads. He is tailing me and scribbling down figures on a tiny pad, scratching them out and then scribbling lower figures, tugging my forearm to get me to look at his pad but I keep walking. Musa is taking his cues from me. If someone gives me a price, I go through a process of asking them for “best price?” and they pretend to reflect seriously for a few seconds before citing a lesser amount; then Musa pretends to be staggered and asks in Swahili for the real best price and gets a couple hundred shillings knocked off, and then it’s my turn again. In the middle of our excursion the rain comes pouring down, and the tent leaks in many places, causing the vendors to whip out plastic sheets to cover their wares. Musa tells me the rain is not good for traffic.

I can only stand so much shopping even under the best of circumstances, so I’m done in less than an hour, after picking up two large pieces of brightly patterned fabric; a green antique glass bead necklace with a silver metal pendant; a toy helicopter made out of metal wire and yellow Tusker beer bottle caps and a toy snake made out of multi-colored soda bottle caps and painted wood. We boogie for the exit and the guy with the magenta beads is on me again with his pad for one last try. “Next time!” I tell him without making eye contact.

My flight out isn’t until 1030 and it’s too early to eat dinner, so I ask Musa just to take me to the airport, figuring I can grab a bite there with plenty of time to spare. Musa approves. “People panic when it rains, the roads are no good, it’s good to start early.”

It is 430 p.m. and only 15 kilometers to the airport, I remind myself repeatedly – NO WAY I CAN’T MAKE IT to the airport in the next five hours, right? But we are entering a traffic jam of biblical proportions. At one point, out of sheer desperation after inching forward about a quarter of a mile in three hours, I roll down my window to ask a driver on the left: “Would you mind backing up a few kilometers so we can get over to the left lane?” To which the driver responds: “Kilometers?” Eliciting an apology from me and the correct unit of distance, accompanied by my explanation: “I have to get to the airport,” to which the other driver would politely reply: “What time is your flight?” and amazingly back up a few meters, allowing us to complete a 20-point turn in bumper-to-bumper so we can eke sideways in front of him and around the tail of a giant bus belching diesel fumes straight into our non-air-conditioned car. At one point, we would briefly join a motorcade of diplomats in black Mercedes Benzes with bodyguards who jump out to threaten other drivers to move out of the way. The motorcade helps us move about 100 feet up a hill, but then the Mercedeses start going the wrong way up the highway on the opposite side from us, and we decide not to follow any more. Maybe we should have.

Steering one-handed through traffic that follows no actual pattern or regulation of any kind, and which seems to be actually worsened by the few police officials willing to stand in the rain to do anything, Musa explains that the source of the problem is the rain, which has caused apparently all of Nairobi’s six million inhabitants to leave work early, at once – combined with the horribly designed road system which involves a series of unregulated roundabouts, or traffic circles, which suck vehicles into a vortex from which there is no return. There is no way to get to the airport without going through the roundabouts, and there are six of them between us and the airport, Musa says.

As we inch forward over the next five hours, Musa receives upwards of 200 calls on his cell and successfully closes a rental deal involving a Somali friend and a landlord he knows in town. He uses his phone to wire some money to his dad, who lives in a house made of cow dung, soothes an angry client named Linda who requested a driver hours ago that Musa could not provide, and calls a cousin on the police force to find out a traffic captain is two roundabouts ahead, which means things should be flowing better up there, don’t worry. As I watch hours one, two, and three tick away on the dashboard clock, I go through various psychological stages. “Hey we’re moving again,” I observe joyfully after we move 10 feet during a good hour. I find some newspapers in the back of Musa’s car and Musa looks over my shoulder for a while, reading along with me as we sit in traffic. We converse about Bin Laden’s demise and Musa shares a story about a terrible cow-eating lion back home named Osama.

Musa entertains me by finding radio stations that conduct “gotcha” phone call setups with men cheating or willing to cheat on their wives and then by outlining what it takes to become a Maasai warrior (he makes it sound easy, noting he’ll have to spend time surviving alone in the mountains, demonstrate to elders that he’s never turned his back to run from someone wielding a weapon, and a few other things) and regales me with stories of wildlife encounters involving water buffaloes, hippos and lions (once, when stuck in a stand-off with a lioness with cubs at night, Musa built a statue out of stones and left his torch burning beside it so the lion would think he was still there and not follow him home.) I don’t have stories to match his -- he also teased hippos with sticks to get them to chase him on the riverbanks -- but I share my Smoky Mountains bear story anyway.

Somehow, by cutting through badly clogged streets in downtown Nairobi, Musa is able to get me past the six impossibly plugged roundabouts and to the airport by 930, after a nearly five-hour battle with the traffic. Musa and I congratulate each other. “You are calm,” he says appreciatively, as we near the airport. “You will make your flight.” I have pre-printed my boarding passes so it doesn’t take me long to check in. I am exhausted but ecstatic to be on my way home. It has been nine weeks and the anticipation of seeing my girls and Tahra has me standing in line to board the plane with a fat smile that won’t go away.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Confident Children

It's a sunny Saturday morning and I head out to interview Cathy Groenendijk, a woman who helps street kids in Juba. I met her at a Hash race when she was raising money to pay school fees for some of the children.

The driver is busy and I’m running late. It takes five or six phone calls with Cathy to coordinate the meeting time and place. Finally I am dropped in front of a travel agency. Soon I receive another phone call.

“Tim where are you?”

“I’m in front of Muthaiga Travel agency.”

“I’m down by Quality Hotel near the boda-boda (motorcycle) guys. Can you walk toward the hotel?”

I find Cathy soon and she greets me warmly. She is short with braided hair and glasses and has a friendly, warm smile. She is from Uganda originally and came to South Sudan five years ago with a Dutch NGO called War Child. On a five-minute walk down a shady dirt road toward a house she is building for homeless street girls, she tells me how she became frustrated by the slow pace and indirectness of the intervention on behalf of damaged children by the bigger NGOs. She thought a smaller organization unencumbered by layers of bureaucracy could move faster and help more children. She spoke to some friends and contacts and launched her own NGO, Confident Children Out of Conflict ( An official in one of the new ministries of the Government of South Sudan liked her approach and awarded her a small grant to get started. She picked up donations and cultivated a cadre of volunteers.

Then she went into the markets to find the children she was previously unable to help. The little children are there, begging, picking through trash and digging through drains and ditches looking for food scraps thrown out by vendors and restaurants. At night they sleep in the dirt on the side of the road; children as young as four, five, six.

Homeless, here, doesn't mean that kids live in a shelter. It means THEY HAVE NO PLACE TO SLEEP AND NO ONE TO CARE FOR THEM. When she finds them they are filthy, sick and starving. They do not go to school because there is no one to pay the fees. Confident Children runs a day “drop in” center on Hai Malakal, across from the Mine Advisory Group’s main offices, where homeless children can eat, bathe, wash their clothes and rest in the shade during the day. Cathy and volunteers serve three meals a day there, seven days a week to the poorest and most vulnerable children. Without this food the children would probably starve; spoiled scraps from the market’s trash cans and drains are not enough to live on.

As we talk we walk by a large house on a hill. Cathy says it is the home of an Episcopalian Bishop by the name of Enok Tombe. The Bishop donated about an acre of gently sloping, grassy hillside surrounded by an iron fence topped with razor wire. Cathy is building a house here that will eventually house 25-30 street girls. “We were lucky to get this land," she says.

Here I meet some of the homeless girls. They are playing with balloons in the shade under a jacaranda tree, about ten of them; the oldest looks to be maybe 15 and the youngest, possibly five. They are happy to see Cathy. The younger kids are playful but the teens seem weary and sad. More so than the younger girls, they know that tomorrow is not likely to be much better than today.

The girls are so young and thin. I ask again – ok so where are they going tonight, where will they go? I cannot wrap my head around the fact that girls younger than my own daughters are literally taking care of themselves in one of the poorest and most dangerous countries in the world. I am looking at a girl of about five, covered in dust with a bandage around an ankle playing with a blue balloon.

“They sleep in different places, outside, usually near the market. If it is raining they might go on someone’s veranda until the morning.”

A young British man and a Western woman with a pained expression on her face are just leaving – volunteers perhaps. The British man tells me he works in the rural states, and is just visiting Juba. He seems dazed and subdued. “You see hungry children out there too but the level of squalor here….it just seems inhuman.” Apparently Cathy had taken them to see where the kids sleep and where they scavenge for food.

I take some pictures and draw a crowd of kids with my camera as Cathy gives me a tour of the cinderblock house, which has an attractive red and silver metal roof. It feels solid, with good light, and has cinderblock bathrooms, detached. It was started with money from the government grant, and a group of Canadian contractors are donating their labor at no cost, working on it as they have time, around their regular day jobs. Cathy has finagled most of the building materials as in-kind contributions and estimates about $80,000 more is needed to finish it. The money will go to put in a solar electric system with a backup generator and to dig a borehole (well) for water. She also needs to put in toilets, plumbing, a gas tank and an oven for cooking. An NGO has promised beds already. Cathy tells me the girls often beg her to move into the house right now, and as we are speaking, three of them sweep away some dirt and lie down on the cool tile floor in the unfinished bedroom. Cathy can’t say how long it will take to finish; it depends on funding.

The plan eventually is to plant a large vegetable garden to include maize, corn, cucumbers, lettuce and spinach, along with a huge field of coriander to sell to markets and vendors. She also wants to teach the girls to bake cakes for sale. The children will go to school and learn how to make a living and/or grow food to eat. Right now, they have no way to earn money other than to sell themselves. Some of the girls are already involved in the sex trade.

As we walk out of the property, one of the younger girls, Margaret Dokia, who looks about five, tells Cathy she needs to get a car so she can drive everyone around.

“I will be your car,” Cathy says, slinging the little girl onto her back and walking up the dusty road.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Jebel Mountain

I've wanted to get into the wild on foot ever since arriving six weeks ago, but opportunities have been limited. On Sunday I am finally able to get in a good hike, to a place on the outskirts of town called Jebel Mountain. It’s actually three distinct, rock-covered hills, and you can easily hike to the top of one of the peaks in about an hour. A colleague and I plan to meet up with some other expats at an outdoor restaurant called Home and Away at 8 a.m. It's a little early for me on a Sunday, especially after staying up late last night while watching Barcelona tear apart Man U in the Champions League Final. However I bite the bullet and get up early, head fuzzier than usual. On our way out, our guard, James, shows us that one of the rabbits had babies recently. He is smiling as he squats over the tiny nursing bunnies in the driveway. “I love animals,” he says, grinning from ear to ear. "Only one did not live.”

We walk to the restaurant, where I'm surprised to find a good sized group of people - about ten altogether -- who are also going on the hike. We order coffee but it never comes, so we decide to leave, it’s getting warmer as the morning unfolds and we don’t want to start too late. A rugged Australian named Phil, who has a spunky puppy with him and a large carabiner strapped to his day pack, offers to transport us all in his Land Cruiser.

“Can we all fit?” someone asks.

“Sure,” says Phil. “It’s a troop transporter!”

All ten of us climb in an especially large Land Cruiser. This one has two long, comfortable benches that face each other in the back and we squeeze eight in the back, two in the front, and the driver. We are just pulling out when Phil’s fiancé asks him if he has the puppy.

He does not. Truck stops abruptly while someone runs into the restaurant to retrieve the puppy, which climbs in the back with us, happily clambering and wriggling over 16 feet, eight laps and sets of shoulders. "She has all the grace of a baby giraffe," says Phil, who found the pup during a Hash race in town. She is narrow, brown and short-haired with a pointy nose, which she lay on my lap during a rare break from her antics.

Phil has hiked Jebel countless times and is a natural guide and leader, so he takes over when we arrive at the base of the hills. He makes sure we are all carrying water and reminds us to be respectful and careful when taking photos. If we don’t stay with the group, we need to pair up – no one walks by themselves. He tells us that we also need to be cautious about which rocks we step on, because local villagers are quarrying them, and some of the larger boulders are in the process of being dislodged and readied for rolling down the mountain. Rock busting is the big business in this area, which is called Rock Village. Villagers climb into the hills and haul down bucket after bucket of rocks. Women sit under home-made shelters at the base of the mountain and use hammers to splinter the rocks into gravel, which is sold and used in roads and construction. It is hard work and as we look up the boulder-strewn hill sides, we can see about a dozen sweating shirtless men of varying ages working at the rocks. There is some smoke as well, and Phil explains that villagers sometimes bring tires up the mountain and set them afire at the base of large boulders to help clear the brush underneath and loosen them.

As we start up, Phil reminds us that these hills were the site of some major battles between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (southern rebels) and the Sudanese military (Sudanese Armed Forces) from the north, and that there is still some unexploded ordnance and/or mines in the area. For that reason, he strongly recommends staying on established paths. A French hiker in our group would later find a large bullet casing.

We start up and a local rock worker tells us we should climb to the right. “They are bringing down a very large rock,” from the direction we are heading, he says. So we switch around to the right. We walk up narrow paths over gray and black rock, and through sometimes waist-high green grass. With the onset of the rains, the landscape is transforming from dry brown to lush green. “By August this grass will be over our heads,” someone says.

We do some mildly tricky climbing in places, up and down a few crevices and broad smooth rock faces, hanging onto tree branches, rock edges and outcroppings, whatever we can find for a hand-hold, but everybody makes it. At one point we rock climb past a dark cave full of small bats but they are sleeping so we don’t disturb them. When they are awakened, they fly out in bunches and bang into you but don’t bite, Phil says; we decide to let them alone. Near the top of the middle peak someone sees a decent-sized black snake slither into a crack in the rocks, but I missed it. Pythons and monkeys once lived up here but they apparently are now gone – probably eaten during the war. Locals like to say a French NGO (non-governmental organization) took all the pythons from Jebel back to France but Phil says he finds that unlikely.

Some fantastic views out over Juba from the peak on a beautiful clear morning, and we can see the Nile from up here. Phil points out where the new U.S. Embassy will be built, on a huge green field not too far from the mountain base. Construction is in the very early stages. Building it will cost in the neighborhood of half a billion dollars, but South Sudan is viewed by the U.S. government as a very important partner in East Africa, not only for its oil but also for strategic/security reasons.

On the trail down we pass a man under a tree butchering something, probably a goat, with a big knife. He smiles and holds up his knife and some glistening entrails as we walk by.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Abyei Situation

The northern army last Saturday invaded a town in South Sudan and commenced an ethnic cleansing campaign that apparently involves encouraging Arab militias to burn and loot the homes of Dinka tribes peoples, pillaging United Nations food warehouses, and driving 70,000 people from their homes at the onset of annual torrential downpours and floods. It’s the start of the rainy season here, and when it rains, it doesn’t sprinkle, each storm is a violent atmospheric eruption. It feels like the house is being assaulted by fire hoses when it starts up. It storms cataclysmically now frequently, often around dusk, turning the streets to mud and mush. I can’t imagine wandering around outside in these rains with no food, no shelter, no place to go.

Some have said that General Bashir, the repressive dictator in Khartoum who has been indicted for genocide in Darfur by the U.N.’s International Criminal Court, seems intent on derailing South Sudan’s independence, which is now less than six weeks away. The town in question is Abyei, and both north and south have accused each other of transgressions there in the six years since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed, ending 21 years of civil war. There are a couple of ebbing oil fields and some good pastures in and around Abyei, and the town has some strategic importance as a cross-roads to Darfur out west and to a number of important commercial hubs in the upper parts of South Sudan.

I’ve been interested in the reactions of South Sudanese people to the resurgent conflict in Abyei. Down here in Juba, there is resignation and weary head shaking, but no one I’ve spoken to wants to go to war again, even though thousands of people are being displaced – northern-allied militias are moving in and taking over people’s land and homes in Abyei, apparently, for good. Bashir seems to be viewed as a delusional northern relation who is tilting at windmills. The attitude in Juba is that Bashir and his militias can have Abyei – the South will soon have independence, and will exert control over 80% of all the oil produced in Sudan. Some South Sudanese have pointed out that men of Bashir’s ilk are falling like dominoes. Genocidal heads of state who (allegedly) pilfer billions in national revenue are currently in disfavor.

“Let him have it,” said one South Sudanese colleague of mine, in reference to Abyei. “After independence, Bashir will be removed from his office.”

“People here are done with wars,” said another colleague of mine over lunch. “He thinks he can bring us into war, but there is no interest. People want to have business, go to school. No one wants to go backwards.”

Today the president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, addressed the nation about Abyei. “We will not return to the war again,” he said. “This is our policy and we will not waive it.”

He is hoping the United Nations can help. In the meantime, he’s preparing for independence on July 9, when South Sudan will become the world’s newest nation. Trash is starting to disappear from the side of the larger roads in town, and flowers and trees are being planted. The new airport terminals and parking lots are under construction, and new businesses are opening. Things are moving forward, though Abyei looms like a distant thunderhead.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Lost Boy's Dream

I am as far north in Southern Sudan as I've yet been. The place is called Aweil, the capital of Northern Bahr el Ghazal. The edge of Southern Darfur is not too far away, a little more to the north and west. Abyei, a disputed border town where army trucks were ambushed yesterday, is about seven hours up the road. I have been bumping around in a Land Cruiser meeting with harvesters and traders of gum acacia, also called gum arabic.

My organization is helping subsistence-level rural harvesters form collectives to pool their product and negotiate better prices with traders. Gum acacia is valuable and useful. It's an edible binder. You can find it in stamps, envelopes, Coca-Cola, M&Ms, gummy bears, edible cake sparkles, makeup, medicine, inks and paints, for starters. Sudan exports more gum acacia than any other country in the world. You can throw a rock in almost any direction here and hit an acacia tree.

It is the end of the day when I return to one of the office units in the compound to boot up my laptop, check email and write up notes. The only other occupant in the air-conditioned room is a quiet young Sudanese man named Santino Madut Akot, also working on a laptop. I met him earlier but didn't have a chance to speak with him. As the windows darkened we put work aside and he sketched a piece of the story of his life, speaking in impeccable English. He does not seem surprised that I am interested in interviewing him. By rights, he should be dead. Santino is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, and he has returned.

The Lost Boys are famous in movies, books and magazines as the most severely war-traumatized children of our generation. Thousands of South Sudanese children were stolen, sold, enslaved, starved, shot, burned, tortured and raped during the atrocities that accompanied the Second Sudanese Civil War that broke out in the early 1980s. Those who escaped, like Santino, left their families and villages behind on foot, hiding in the bushes, driven out by Arab militias on horseback. Santino's village is about 75 km from our office. Arabs came to Marial Bai on horses in the dry seasons in 1985 and 1986, burning houses and crops, and taking cattle and children. In those two years, Santino and his family fled, returning in the rainy seasons when flooding prevented the militias from raiding. 1987 was worse, though. The Misseriya showed up in greater numbers, shooting, burning and destroying everything in their path.

"They took the boys as slaves to tend the cattle, and the girls were taken as concubines," Santino says. Remarkably (to me) there is no anger or emotion in his voice. It happened, there is no questioning or changing it. Still I ask him if, when he was a young child, he wondered why people from the north were killing people from the south. He does not remember thinking about it.

"They wanted to take over the land."

He ran into the bush in 1987, learning later that one of his half-sisters was put inside a tukol and burned to death. Another sister and an older brother were taken north as slaves. Santino joined a large group of children and a handful of adults walking away from the conflict areas. He walked east for three months, drinking water from muddy puddles, eating anything he could find. Sick, starving, around nine years old, he walked all the way to Ethiopia, where after a time, the U.N. helped establish a camp and brought food.

I've always wondered about the Lost Girls. The scanty references I've found online indicate that girls who were not stolen, enslaved or killed during the conflict were assimilated into other families in South Sudan and Ethiopia, whereas the boys were generally expected to fend for themselves or were forcibly conscripted.

Santino spent a couple of years in rough conditions at the refugee camp in Ethiopia until civil war broke out there, too. He walked back west to the border with Sudan, where Sudanese troops refused passage and shot at them. So they walked south to Kenya. Another refugee camp, Kakuma. Nearly 60,000 refugees lived there, including Ethiopians and Somalis. Not much to eat except what the UN handed out. He received a ration of flour to mix with water, some beans, oil and salt, and lived mostly on that for more than a decade, until he heard about the Lost Boys program, organized by the U.S. and the U.N., with help from big NGOs, and applied for it. It was his shot to get out of the camps and start a new life. The best thing about the camp at Kakuma was that the children were required to go to school, where he learned English. His application was selected and he was one of approximately 4,000 Lost Boys eventually airlifted to host communities in the U.S. By then he was in his 20s. He was given a new name, Santino, which he uses now.

Catholic Charities paid four months of rent for him at an apartment in Lincoln, Nebraska, and helped him get Food Stamps. He quickly found a factory job packaging chicken parts for Cook's Chickens in a refrigerated warehouse and began supporting himself. He applied to a community college and was accepted. He worked the graveyard shift wrapping chickens and got home at 4 a.m. to do homework. He heard about a good four-year college called Doane, applied and got in, quit the chicken job and worked part-time as a Dinka-language translator for the courts and social services department while earning a degree in public administration. (There is a large Sudanese diaspora community in Nebraska.) He applied for a job working in South Sudan for the World Food Programme in 2010 and then accepted a position at my company as a projects officer specializing in human resource development. Now he is helping the new Government of South Sudan establish protocols to build a foundation of professional government administrators. He conducts Power Point presentations, works with international consultants to convey best practices in human resources development and capacity building. He deals with computers, the internet and email, spreadsheets, pdf files, flip charts.

Santino says it feels good to be back, working to help his soon-to-be-independent country get a fresh start. "When I left, I left with nothing. And when I came back, I had something." He is married now, supporting a wife in Uganda. He is paying the school fees of the children of several family members whose parents don't have enough money. He is living in a tukol again, with friends.

His stolen sister and brother were recovered with help from a group called Christian Solidarity International, who tracked them down four years after they were taken, and paid ransoms for them. His mother is still alive, living in his home village. Of his six primary siblings, only one died - of an unknown disease, untreatable due to lack of medicine during the war.

His dream now is to start an orphanage. In Aweil, there are many street children - the sons and daughters of the thousands of returnees who have come back to South Sudan from Khartoum and other places in advance of the country's official independence. They get off buses with bundled foam bedding and sheets, furniture and bags of clothes, and park their belongings next to the train tracks waiting for opportunity to arrive.

Santino's voice gets even softer when he talks about the returnee kids he sees running around the dusty town.

"I want them to have a chance, as I had a chance," he said. "It would be a place to live. Attend school. Eat."

He is working on his plan.