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.