A Poetic Argument
Setting the literary agenda in South Sudan.
“If you were going to be in the country another day I’d have arranged a press conference,” said the Information Minister. We were to depart the next morning — anyone not from Sudan was advised to leave by then. “After that,” an Australian minesweeper told us, “you are on your own.” Perhaps he was trying to scare me, but I had noticed that our hotel, full of drunken ex-pats only the night before, was steadily clearing out.
We sat side-by-side on leather couches in the VIP room of the Juba Airport, as Riek Machar, vice president of the government of South Sudan, confessed that translating Nuer poetry into English had been a dream of his. Now he was accepting a book of Nuer poetry given to him by my companion, the American poet and novelist Terese Svoboda. She had translated the poems in the 1970s when she lived among the Nuer, the people E.E. Evans-Pritchard studied as part of his work establishing social anthropology in the 1930s. Poets ourselves, we had no problem regarding poetry as a government priority, but to find that recognition in the government of South Sudan’s vice president blew our minds. We had been in the country only two days when a South Sudanese friend arranged a meeting for us with Machar, the highest-ranking Nuer in the country.
Ever the charismatic military commander that Deborah Scroggins describes in her book Emma’s War, Machar had wooed and wed British aid worker Emma McCune “in the swamps of hell.” Even more controversial, Machar had helped lead a breakaway faction of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which resulted in the Bor Massacre, a fact I recalled for Terese only moments before we found ourselves in his presence.
I had been attending Summer Literary Seminars and Kwani LitFest in Nairobi, where I was sequestered in a hotel compound for three weeks. I naively believed I could research the novel I was writing set in South Sudan from a safe distance. I needed to see the country for myself. The only problem was obtaining a visa and flight to Juba.
At the Sudanese embassy — backed by Khartoum, the seat of the Northern government — officials flatly refused to grant visas to Americans such as ourselves. As if waiting for just this opportunity, a returning South Sudanese standing near us overheard and offered to direct our cab to the embassy of the South Sudanese government, a place we would have never found on our own, for it was not a free-standing building with gates and guards, but an office secreted up on one of the top floors of a bank building. Now that we’d be dealing with the South Sudanese government, I began to relax. As a Jew, I was mindful that Israel had helped arm the South Sudanese rebels during the civil war between the North and the South. “It’s Palestinians who are getting turned away, not Jews,” an aid worker also applying for a visa told me. “Jews are welcome in South Sudan.”
Getting a flight was another hurdle. Every reputable journalist on the planet was bidding for a ticket to Juba to witness the fervor mounting as January 9 drew near. That was the day the South Sudanese would begin voting on whether to secede from the North and form a separate country. To complicate matters, South Sudanese who had been living abroad, some for nearly 25 years — the length of Sudan’s Civil War, which ended in 2005 as Africa’s longest lasting civil battle — were finally returning home to cast their vote and become part of the new country. All of the advertised Kenya Air “Two Flights a Day” were booked. Days passed until our booking agent finally called to say that if we were willing to transfer in Uganda, we could procure a ticket. (“Entebbe? You mean we’re going to fly through Entebbe?” I fretted, recalling the Jewish hostage crisis of 1976.) Sure, we could have stopped trying, but we would have also been giving up any prospect of viewing first-hand the preparations for a new country. The euphoria we felt just shaking hands with the returning South Sudanese in the embassy had transported us past the point of no return; without a moment’s hesitation, we agreed.
If getting to South Sudan had been a challenge, getting around was hardly any easier. The cracked windshield of the SUV sent to collect us from the airport held little promise. It looked as if AK-47s had opened fire on it during the internecine tribal wars that regularly made the pages of Sudan Today. In a country without taxi service, or even roads, any car was welcome. The driver — a Kenyan who had come to the boomtown of pre-secession South Sudan along with food purveyors, oil company men, construction workers, and minesweepers. I wondered if the cracked windshield indicated the challenge. “With Only Seventeen Days To Go,” as the bold black letters of one street banner read, most ventures were on halt until after the vote on January 9, when it would begin to become clear how the North would react.
The impending vote had inspired Svoboda to come to Sudan to deliver her Nuer poetry translations to the highest-ranking Nuer in the South Sudanese government. For me, the looming promise of the new country meant that a Sudanese friend of mine would finally fulfill the dream of Sudanese People’s Liberation Army leader John Garang. In 2000, Garang had negotiated with the U.S. for 3,600 unaccompanied minors (known as the “Lost Boys”) who had escaped the war and were living in refugee camps in Kenya to immigrate to the States. Anxious to fulfill Garang’s larger purpose of bringing these refugees (many of them now citizens) back to Sudan after they had been educated in the U.S., some having earned Ph.D.s, I had helped my friend buy a one-way ticket back to Sudan only two months earlier.
Out on the unpaved streets, the lack of infrastructure rose untethered into dust clouds. Dust floated everywhere, entering people’s lungs turning breathing into a coughing ritual. White UN Range Rovers, corrugated tin storefronts, abandoned Japanese cement trucks, and the thatched roofs of makeshift villages lined the streets. Although the machine-gun toting soldiers dressed in camouflage and red berets who guarded John Garang’s tomb did not allow us to take pictures — picture taking was rebuked wherever we went, except by the sweet village tribesman who asked us to take their photos, wanting to see what they looked like on camera — the soldiers shook our hands and smiled, inviting us inside a small room to sign their guest book. Other than these troops and a soldier-filled transport I had seen driving through the airport parking lot, Terese and I did not see any soldiers in the airport’s VIP room or on the streets; we interpreted this as a hopeful sign. There had been no official war in the South since the two sides in 2005 signed a peace accord, which gave South Sudanese the option to vote for their independence from Khartoum. The North is rallying for unity instead of secession. It is predicted that 96 percent of South Sudanese will vote for secession. If they do, no one can predict how the North will react.
We were able to meet with the vice president so easily because my Sudanese friend had the cell phone number of the South Sudanese minister of information and was willing to risk decorum and call him early on a Sunday morning when everyone else in the country was getting ready for church. I had been in Poland in the early days of Solidarność and recognized the signs. Church spread political intent. More than praying was going on behind closed doors.
The information minister greeted us outside his cabin at the Oasis Hotel, one of several hotel compounds flanking the Nile. It consisted of 20 or so air-conditioned bungalows radiating from an open-air restaurant and bar. Terese and I were staying in one called the Bedouin. The information minister said he had been building a house for the past two years and when finished he was planning to relocate his family there, including five children now living in Southern California.
Though sympathetic to our mission of delivering poetry books to the country’s highest-ranking Nuer, the information minister said that without a driver he couldn’t help us. His driver, he said, “was home sick with malaria,” the scourge of East Africa. Every other billboard in Kenya had advertised remedies or posted addresses of clinics. But if a malaria-infested mosquito is going to bite you, East Africa is the place to have it happen. Just as northern U.S. cities are more adept at snow removal than southern ones, malaria medicine is more available and effective in East Africa than in the U.S. Despite this, the information minister hadn’t heard from his driver all week and told us with a worried expression that “he could have died. “
“Couldn’t you drive?” I asked him. Registering his reaction, I immediately swallowed the words. Apparently, men in high places didn’t drive themselves around.
"No," he said. "I need a driver."
The longer we talked about the importance of Svoboda’s work to the burgeoning Sudanese culture, the more we convinced the minister of the value of our mission. He, Terese, my friend, and I came to the conclusion that documenting the oral literature of vanishing cultures such as the Nuer was essential, and that if he didn’t arrange a visit with the vice president for us, he would be missing a huge opportunity to contribute to the new country. He agreed that we needed to find a way to visit the vice president, who was currently at the airport waiting to receive the president of the South Sudanese government on a return trip from Khartoum. My Sudanese friend stepped in and asked the information minister if he had a car, which my Sudanese friend volunteered to drive. He did, and we set off in clouds of red dust as my Sudanese friend jerked the stick shift into gear and navigated the foot-deep ruts in the road.
That evening, too excited to sleep and recounting the vice president’s parting words to the information minister that he should get working on starting literary “groups or clubs” in the new state, we became more and more aware of the drumming outside. Although our hotel was situated on a river bank, a 20-foot-high wall made of sticks sheathed in bamboo also fenced us in. Similar to my experience in Nairobi, I was once again seeing East Africa from behind the walls of a hotel. I had walked it both mornings at sunrise trying to find an opening through to see the sun color the sky over the Nile. We had heard the drumming the night before, too, but for some reason didn’t then realize it was live music. But this night it got through to us, blatant and insistent: we were missing the world on the other side of that fence. We jumped out of bed and into our clothes lest the drumming stop. We rushed to the guardhouse at the compound entrance to inquire about the source of the music. At once, several security guards gathered, anxious to escort us.
“You better let us take you,” one of them said.
“Yes,” we said, even though the “security guards” were teenagers who hardly looked capable of protecting us. Back in Nairobi we had been warned against walking alone at night; judging by the reaction of these teenage boys, it didn’t seem like a bad idea for them to take us.
They led us back into the compound and through the hotel restaurant to a bolted door. They opened it and before our eyes spread a dusty field filled with several hundred villagers — the men bare-chested and the women beaded and robed — jumping up and down, beating drums, and dancing amid open carrels filled with cattle. There, on the night of a lunar eclipse lay the legendary life of cattle and dancing that so captivated E.E. Evans-Pritchard. Jammed in between one another and jumping a foot into the air, the women grabbed us by the arm and pulled us along. Refusal was not an option as they bombarded us with smiles and stroked our skin and hair. Although the setting was different, the dancing itself reminded me of the mosh pits of the 1980s, when even then, as a black-clad punk, I had watched from the sidelines. But now I stayed with the dance, jumping as the women laughed and clamped their hands around my wrists.
The next morning our driver took us to the crowded airport, where my Sudanese friend rushed us right up to the counter. There, his “cousin” processed our passports before “that which will happen happens” a reference to either statehood or war. Armed with the vice president’s email address, and satisfied that we had in some small way contributed to the literary future of the new country, we flew home to await word of Sudan’s future. • 14 January 2011
Harriet Levin Millan is the author of two books of poetry: The Christmas Show (Beacon Press) winner of a Barnard New Women Poets Prize and the Poetry Society of America's Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award, and Girl in Cap and Gown, (Mammoth Books), a 2009 National Poetry Series Finalist. Her story "Yalla!" set in South Sudan, appears in the Winter 2011 issue of the Kenyon Review. She is co-director of the Program in Writing and Publishing in the English and Philosophy Department at Drexel University.
Article photo via United Nations Photo / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0