“Is there anything better than a bath under the moonlit sky,” Zack thought to himself, the gentle breeze brushing against his skin in the dissipating heat of the sub-saharan evenings. A feeling of nostalgia swept over him as the lyrics of a Lauryn hill song crowded his brain, “killing me softly with his song”, reminiscing that wondrous afternoon in Khartoum. It was the first time he’d ever been in Sudan, back then the CPA had was in its forth year and he was going to a party with his brother and a couple of friends. Teasingly they’d asked the only girl in the group to sing any song she could, a fitting choice she’d made considering how beautiful that rendition was, now etched in his memory.
Zack dressed and went to prepare tea; it was almost customary in these tumultuous days to end the day sipping and chatting away about better days. His father waited patiently under the darkening sky, cars and motorcycles rushing by outside the high stonewall separating them from the road. “Back in the day when we were in the SPLA we had a case,” the old man begins, “one of the soldiers had committed adultery in Chukudum with one of the villagers wife, the husband had found out and started a case with the local chief. As a military Justice I was put in charge of the case, I was to decide on a way to amicably decide the case to suit both side. Since the soldier came from far away, he could not be told to pay the settlement of 10 cows as was customary in their traditions, I managed to convince the chief to reduce the number to about four cows and 6 goats paid by the army officers and to transfer of the soldier to another station so that he could not continue the affair. How do you think you would have handled this case?”
He listened attentively as his father narrated war stories, feigning agitation at the suggestion of being conscripted into military service himself. The old man reminisced of the old SPLA he was a part of, complaining that their ranks had been decimated since the signing of the CPA. “ When the war started in ’83 we lost a lot of young men crossing through unity state to go to Ethiopia where the SPLA was training. The SPLA had to send a battalion to secure the route; they went all the way fighting to where the young recruits were stranded and back. The soldiers were mostly from Bahr el Ghazal, nobody knows how many died there. After the CPA was signed a lot of the people I was with went into business and the militias were incorporated into the SPLA, now look at how bad things are.”
The subtle ironies of Juba life seemed to be lost in the gloom, in the news government officials laboured to reassure everyone that the situation was “normal” after an outbreak of violence. “What’s normal about all this?” he thought. It was only months ago he was in Kenya missing Juba, it seemed like a distant past. Still bitter about losing his phone, Zack thought back to the thrill of the open road travelling from Juba to Nimule, through Uganda and finally to Kenya. The trip had been stalled for a day when the car he was travelling in got mechanical issues, having overheated on the deserted road. Walking with Deng down the road, they convinced one of the villagers to let them use the water she collected from the borehole. The water was too dirty to pour into the radiator, but helped cool off the steaming engine, eventually the car was returned to the garage. On Sunday, thankful for the car’s mechanical failure had been fixed, the long journey started.
It was barely a week after Zack’s arrival in Kenya when the reports of road ambushes along Nimule- Juba highway started. The tribal tensions escalating with every report, rumours spread like wildfire on the Internet about targeted killings. All the way in Nairobi, Zack felt the rising tensions slowly engulfing the already tense climate. The July violence had left a scar in his memory; sleepless nights spent pondering the endless war that seemed to be inflamed while he was away. The days before violence broke out in Juba were tense, the palpitating fear and anxiety rising with every report of clashes within Juba, first it was assassinations then road ambushes and days before the independence day there was an attack on a checkpoint. The escalation was quick and on Independence Day Eve gunships ruled the air, gunshots could be heard for miles and everybody waited with bated breaths to know what was happening.
“We’ll be trading war stories with our children if things keep going this way,” joked Zack to his friends. Having briefly met for casual drinks, it became evident from the curious gazes from his colleagues that they wanted to know what was going on. Trying to summarise the political situation and the events leading up to the violence in July, he watched the shocked expressions on his friends’ faces. “Be happy you don’t have to worry about such happening in your country,” he said, trailing off into thought about what he had missed most in Kenya. “I’ve still not gotten used to the matatus hooting at 4 am,” he muttered, “ they shock me awake everyday and deny me a chance to rest my tired eyes. It’s the only time I think about Juba and miss the silent nights, before I fall asleep I listen for at least three gunshots and I know we are far from the poor soul in its crosshairs.”
“I’ll be going back to Juba soon, it’s been fun seeing you guys and catching up,” he begun, “it’ll be a while before I come back now that I’ve collected all my documents.” Exchanging promises to visit once things settle down, he looks back to admire the optimism he’d lost, hoping one day it would be rewarded. The journey back to Juba seemed shorter than he remembered, reading novels on the plane to take his mind off from what awaited, he got out of the stuffy airport hoping to catch a ride straight home. The first time he got off the plane at Juba International Airport, he had to be ushered to the small terminal building from where he’d collect the luggage, now it was routine getting past the unruly crowd without any hassle, ignoring the black market dealers with money in hand, each touting for attention for anyone passing in their midst with a luggage in tow, “this is the Juba I know!”
The ride out of the airport took him back to those of a united Sudan, when Juba was just another town barely developed; without any sky scrappers. In hindsight, there was barely anything notable on airport road except for the UN compound a couple of kilometres up the road surrounded by trees and shrubs, the stench of fresh faeces stewed in the midday heat had made him want to gag. The green spaces were used as open air toilets, every morning someone ducked behind a shrub to take a load off and late in the evening, as the shadows started creeping in you could hear chattering behind the same bushes. Zack’s father said that with the gradual development in Juba, the old residents complained that their traditions had become eroded, “now they were expected to defecate in the vicinity of their wives. The wives casually passed near the fields where their husbands went, the size of the stool showed who was being well fed.”
A cloud of dust clings to the hot Juba air, the humidity traps sweat on the skin, the heat simmering on the car seat could give a sun burn all on their own. The sweet aroma of indigenous dishes being cooked in the clustered restaurants is wafted by a passing breeze, trailing behind the hazardous smoke of an honey sucker struggling to pick up pace before the traffic officer again halts the lane. Chatting away with the driver, Zack asks how much it would cost to get home and back to town. Shocked by the estimate, he decides to take a rest for the evening. There was a heavy traffic as they crossed the last round about driving slowly towards the sunset whose glow was dulled by the rising dust.
The petrol stations on the side of the road had become graveyards for broken down cars. A dusty water tankers branching off into the feeder road without indicating infuriates the driver to curse under his breath, “biliit!” The traffic slowed as they reached a queue to the only petrol station, the chaotic scene of motorcycles, rakshas and vehicles jostling for positions on the line, a soldier and a policeman clutching their guns close as they watch the protesting motorcyclist demanding to be let through with their jericans to fill up. Nostalgic about being on the queue, he recalled the numerous mechanical failures he had to endure with his father’s Pajero.
The evening talk with his father had long since ended as he stared blankly into the starlit sky, he could glimpse at more stars in the Juba sky than in Nairobi, as the generators’ distant hums died down and darkness fell. There were no more cars passing by their fence, from the numerous times he had gone to the clubs in town, Zack knew that the Security checkpoints had started. Getting into his room, he reads a chapter from a new novel in his collection, briefly pausing to listen to the car driving hastily through the neighbourhood. For the first time in a while, he dozed off with the lights on, waking up an hour later to switch off the light. A distant gunshot rings out in the distance, “that’s a pistol”, followed by two in rapid succession, AK47’s. Learning how each gun sounded had become a sport in his bout with insomnia, stuck between lying still and trying to fall asleep or taking his laptop to try watch a movie. He was overcome with sleep before he could make up his mind.