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The Day my Brothers

Thought I Was their Father
 

A Short Story

By John Oryem  (Sudan)

Author Notes: I was born on 27th October 1969 Kampala, Uganda. After the Addis Ababa Agreement, which ended the first civil strife in my homeland Southern Sudan, I accompanied my parents back home from exile. I studied at Palotaka and St. Theresa’s Primary schools. My secondary studies were at St. Mary’s Torit-Juba and Comboni El-Obeid. At St. Paul’s Khartoum, I read philosophy, social sciences (Diploma) and theology (Bachelor Magna Cum Laude) till March 1998. I’m a Catholic priest. I work in Western Kordofan and Eastern Darfur.

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“Are they still searching for dollars from passengers?” I asked the taxi driver. “They don’t do these days my son.” He replied. Probably he might have suspected I was carrying thousands in my flashy handbag. I only had 200 of them. ‘For tea, weighing extra kilos of my bags and water on the way.’ At least they say so in Khartoum. My memory went back to the time when Sudanese were hung because of a few dollars. Those were the early days of the Revolutionary Command Council, immediately after the military coup.

 “A Southerner sewn a few dollars in his shoes trying to get away with them to Kenya.”

The message went on from mouth, to another mouth. Southerners and Northerners alike spoke of the same event. That was it all. Everywhere in Khartoum people discussed about the prohibition of foreign currencies circulation. There were no newspapers to report the tragic event, journalists were still at Kobar prison waiting their uncertain fate. The man’s body was handed to his relatives by unknown security men days later. It was a Holy Week of 1990.

“How can they hang him? His father is a militia leader in the south fighting for the Arab-north government.” Underground murmuring of jobless Southern intellectuals went on, they too, fled from war in the south. They sat all daylong under Araak Hotel shadowy verandahs. Office bags on their hands. Some were bald and former Regional Ministers in the overthrown civilian government. Most of them were seeking houses for rent around the city. Their several wives and numerous children were to be brought to the capital, away from SPLA bombardments of Regional Capitals in the south. Some of the former civil servants looked sickly and hungry. If you invited ten of them for a sandwich, they would shamelessly join you.

“Our oil is God-given.” I said to myself. The pipeline from the south of the country to Port Sudan is as long as the list of our poverty and lamentations. Life offered us much, 2004; we have dragged too far. On 30th August 1999, a crude oil tanker disappeared in the Red Sea waves off to Malaysia, there were on-looking ministers with sticks lifted high in the air. “Allah is Great, Allah is Great.” They shouted. It was our very first export. My country Sudan was in the headline that day for a good cause; economic emancipation.

My memory disappeared again in the scene of destruction that was going on along New Extensions, affluent area of our great city. The old, tall buildings must make way for multi-million dollar skyscrapers. Roads widen. The buildings are beautiful. But they must be pulled down. Oil money was bursting our national treasury. War was ceasing in the south. Another one was just beginning in the west, Greater Darfur. A kilo of meat remained at LS 8000. Government officials kept on telling us; “800 Dinars please.” Sudanese masses never wanted change since 1992 when Dinar currency was first introduced. The British had left since 1956; their Pounds stuck around. We liked their legacy; perhaps it was another bonus to our independence.

# # #

 Airport Road was quiet that morning. Young soldiers stood at roadblocks wielding their AK-47 guns, most of them were conscripts. I was silent with my recollection of life as the taxi sped faster. The taxi driver looked at the young soldiers and said abusively; “Their tails are cut these days,” he wanted to seduce me on Sudanese murky politics. We never trusted some of them who posted like good people, but were security agents of the revolutionary inner circle. They landed many innocent people in hot waters of Ghost Houses till the street corners of our towns.

“Sudanese masses are hungry, tired of war. Let the peace come quickly.” The taxi driver commented angrily while facing me, than his steering wheel. I pretended to be sleepy. I yawned once more before the final roundabout.

“I bought this car during Nimeiri’s time.” He said to me with a calm voice.

“It is strong eh?” I appreciated his old machine, whose years I equated slightly with my grandma’s.

“Yes. Things of the past are stronger than of today.” He said with assurance. His happiness was intensifying.

“Nimeiri?” I asked myself privately. My mind rushed to our ancestors’ saying; a cow is praised for its milk after it has died.  

We approached the main entrance. “International flight?” asked the taxi driver. I hesitated answering him.

“Yes, the section.” I responded with a distant interest after his long expectation. He dragged his attention thereafter on the traffic ahead.

“Diplomatic section?” he asked me for the second time at the interval of few seconds. I laughed at his question that appeared to be a mockery.

“Diplomats travel in taxi?” I put to him sarcastically. He exposed his decaying teeth to me without further questions.

On reaching the main entrance, porters were not only running towards our car, but every thing on four wheels captured their attention. We thought they came to help us. We mistook their action for Sudanese well-known charity. After showing our passports to the security men at the narrow gate, the porters were still beside us with our bags, they moved loosely. Our eyes met every minute. They assured us that all was fine with our precious suitcases. We looked suspiciously into their eyes expecting their assurance. The silence indicated; things have changed in the Sudan. I put my right hand in the back pocket of my jeans, to give the porter that last Dinar notes. Everyone with luggage and suitcase did like me.

“Thank you. Thank you.” The porters said before pushing their wheels back to the main airport gate where they wait for other domestic and international travelers. They were happy serving many passengers who come and go till daybreak, when they were changed, then they would go home with plastic bags to their children. “Woman, now make food for our children.” It seemed each one was uttering that statement after reaching back home, exhausted.

 

# # #

There were no searches. Not even at the airport entrance. In the past you would have met fierce-looking security men. Those were the days immediately after the revolution. But Salvation Government has just celebrated 15th years in office. The celebrations weren’t fabulous like those of the previous years. The man at the hot seat was in the east with the tally of achievements of those past bittersweet years. Nothing was unusual except for the expected peace promises. The crowd was ecstatic.  Each time the president spoke, they shouted; “Allah is great, Allah is great.” Certain diehard supporters intervened in-between president’s speeches. It was a common thing for stooges seeking government posts. The president was proud about what his government was about to achieve with its Southern Sudanese rebels, which fought the central governments for the past decades. He was burying his predecessors in a historical dustbin.

There were mixed feelings on the events after the coup. It was unusual Thursday night of 30th June 1989, when a military junta toppled the then democratically elected civilian government of Prime Minister Sadiq El Mahdi. Some Sudanese and others reflected on that day with sorrow. But for those who were benefiting from the civil war, especially in the south constantly cursed the peace talks that was going on in Kenya. Colin Powell, the US secretary of state and UN’s chief wit, Kofi Annan were due in the country that week. Still after fifteen years in power, everyone in the government was scared. Who could stop the two world’s most powerful men heading for Darfur in the west? That war, which burst from the western region of Sudan, was gaining international recognition, more than the previous one, which was dwindling in the south.

# # #

We entered inside the magnificent lounge of Khartoum International Airport. Thank God, Sudanese never named national assets after their mortals. Along the corridors, there were no portraits of heroes, martyrs, presidents, former or present. Only Koranic verses graced the white ceramic walls. Our bags and luggage disappeared smoothly through the huge, ugly electronic machine in front of us. If you were attentive, you would have seen them x-rayed next to you on the screen.

“Open that box,” said the Arab operator of that fearful machine. My attention was captured by the red signal, which was beaming while my small suitcase was swallowed; shortly it was trapped inside it. I never knew that, the red signal light was accusing me to the operator who refused to glance at me, despite my total presentation of my Nilotic physique to him. My heart beat faster than usual.

“Has someone put something mistakenly in my suitcase?” I thought to my self. “The taxi driver? Porters?” my inquiry when wild. 

After exposing the entrails of my box, the bearded operator told me:

“Remove the cells from your radio and camera please.” I obeyed his order hurriedly. Other passengers bypassed me. Kenya Airways jet heating on the disembarking lot. I met what I was required to do and continued following my other fellow passengers.

“Thank you sir.” I told the operator with confidence. I knew I had overcome one danger already. My whole fear was indeed my Toshiba laptop. I looked after it like my last born child, the final brake of a woman’s womb. It wasn’t opened. My fear was that, the security officers were going to snatch it away from me.

During the first days of the revolution, everyone going to East Africa was considered a rebel or a fifth columnist going to join the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement \Army. Of course the movement’s offices were in the neighboring countries bordering southern Sudan and far afield.

# # #

Everything was relaxed that morning. The former dreaded security men were smiling broadly to all passengers, both to those who were scared of flight uncertainties and confident ones. In the past, they pulled people, even innocent ones from the planes, only to be taken into torturing chambers named Ghost Houses, such houses where allover the country.

That particular day of our journey was a unique one for every one of us boarding that B767 weekly Kenya Airways, Khartoum-Nairobi-Entebbe. Our flight schedule was at 3:30 am Wednesday.

As we were being ushered to the waiting lounge, I said to myself; “Sudan has really changed these days.” Most of the passengers were busy reading either books or foreign magazines found in diplomatic mission premises. Diplomatic staff and aid workers were going to refresh in Kenya with what they lacked in Sudan. Other passengers were nodding in various corners within the lounge. As I leaned on adjacent plastic chair, it seemed a gram of pure sand was poured into my eyes. To relief the waiting fatigue, I went to refresh with a bottle of Pepsi from the airport cafeteria. There I met the same faces of the people who assessed our documents previously.

“Are they following me?” I asked myself again. I couldn’t avoid our faces from meeting. I put to them in our usual Sudanese way. In my pockets, there were still seven hundred Dinars notes I intended to show to my brothers once I was already in Uganda, the Pearl of Africa. Those Dinar notes were another appreciation of our motherland, not known by my siblings in exile.

“Fadal Bepsi.” Have Pepsi please, I said to the young security officials.

“Oo sukran ya brother.” Thank you brother. The tall and thin one responded to me. Most of the security officers were school dropouts who found exercising their English fascinating. It was their reminiscence of their old Intermediate schooling days before the military coup.

I was back among the passengers in the lounge again.

“May Allah reach you to your destination.” Wished the security man at the final gate. He was younger than I was. I buried myself in the orange plastic seat again. My back began to get wet. We were at that moment, waiting for the last announcement, “ladies and gentlemen…”

I stretched erect and checked my mobile voice credit. The receipt inside was enough for good number of text messages to my people around the world. From Utah to Kiryandongo Refugee Camp. I struggled with my short fingernails, polished for that overdue journey. The first number was Nathaniel’s. I pressed my mobile keyboard.

Hi u guys,

Gr8 d 2moro

We shall b @ Entbe b482moro

Ur all wit my oxoxoxoxo

Yyssw

Dnt b>(

Thx, tc

Luwamh.

William

For my illiterate mother in exile, the hi-tech message was read to her as:

Hi guys, great day tomorrow.

We shall be at Entebbe before 8am tomorrow.

You are all with my hug and kisses. Sure, don’t be sad.

Thanks. Take care.

Love you with all my heart.

William

The messages all went through. I became excited. The loud clock ticked noisily overhead from the marbled wall. The long awaited voice came out strong, conquering our emotions. We all rose up confused. “Here, here.” Said the man with a walkie-talkie.

“Safe journey. Ma’salaama.” Peace be with you. He wished to each one of us. We responded as we did in the Sudan. “Bon Voyage”

 

# # #

There were very young Kenyan hostesses welcoming us onboard their prestigious, award-winning airline. Lots of holidaymakers onboard, fresh from European landscape in search of tropical sunshine. Like us, Nairobi was our destination. B767 had all computerized systems that convinced us that; Africa wasn’t behind in technological highway. We were served by a tumultuous announcement by a sharp hostess voice:

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome onboard this B767 aircraft bound for Nairobi. It shall take us two hours to our destination. Our crew is headed by; Pilot Patrick Musyoka and Captain Kasuku Ochieng, plus other vibrant members you shall meet later on. We should be arriving Jomo Kenyatta International Airport by 0530hs.”

As for me, the sun was going to rise with another experience in life. Things were new for me again. The ABC of seatbelts, emergency gadgets, toilets etc. etc. took me aback.  For those who had spent hours and hours flying, they only twisted their necks at the precocious announcement that was made and clearly demonstrated by the young beautiful hostess. I strictly avoided being noticed as an African boarding an aircraft for the first time ever. The plane lifted its weight in the air. I crashed my teeth. My guts disappeared at my narrow throat. I closed my eyes. Ten minutes later, I glanced at Khartoum bellow, it was only in dots of lights.

“How would I see Mama, Baba, brothers and sisters for the first time ever in nineteen years?” My weary mind went with thoughts I couldn’t control. I ignored the engaging “School of Rock” which was running on the screen slightly above me. Next to me was a white young lady, probably in her 20s. Her presence never bothered me. When she knew I was captured by the movie, she sent her sweet voice to me: “May I see your book?” Her long face revealed she was coming from far away. I met her request;

“Oh take it.”

“It is a nice book eh.” She praised.

“O yes.” I said.

My attention was fully with School of Rock after presenting her with the soft cover book. Shortly after, I saw her jotting down the publisher’s address from John Briley’s Cry Freedom I was reading before the movie, exactly twenty minutes after overcoming my flying fear. She ignored the other book, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, despite its top position on Oprah’s Book Club that year.

The white girl stretched herself and sat straight. She never gazed at the “School of Rock.” Almost everyone onboard laughed at the funniest moments of the film. Jack Black made it!

“You are going to Kenya?”

“No, to Uganda.” I replied.

Tired passengers were already waking from the reality of their long journey, Cairo, Khartoum, Nairobi, Entebbe, Cape Town etc. Africa is big. For few of us, we prayed to reach safely. We tastelessly accepted the drinks and food given to us by the Kenyan hostesses. The girls were so brown that we would have called them Arabs back home in Sudan. And they would have been happier to be called so. Sudan was a perfect country for racial flattery.

While the movie was ending, my white lady friend turned to me and said;

“My name is Paula.”

“Are you French?” I asked.

“No, Italian.”

“We have many Italians in Sudan.” I replied.

“What are they doing?”

“Comboni schools, Sisters, Brothers and Fathers.”

“Ah I see.” Said Paula.

“What is your name?”

“Oh I’m William.”

“A Christian?”

“Oh yes.”

“You live hard life in the Sudan.”

“Yeah, it is our way. What can we do?” It took Paula some moments before she began to talk to me again.

“I’m a UN staff in Cairo. Many Sudanese friends of mine are there.”

“That’s great. You still take them for resettlements?” I asked.

“Oh yes. Not many at the moment.” She answered.

“Uhhh”

“What about the peace process?” She inquired.

“Well, the Sudanese vice president, Osman Taha and Dr. John Garang of the SPLA\M are in Naivasha, Kenya, for the final touches. We hope for the best.” I wished proudly.

“Yes, yaa William.”

Paula shook her head with approval.

Both of us resumed what we were doing before our beautiful exchange of hidden knowledge inside us.

“Ladies and gentlemen, in ten minutes we shall be landing at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.” Our soft elusive celebrity’s voice came out in person from behind the scene. Her voice was blaring with pride well earned. How we yearned to see the face behind the voice! She chewed Swahili and English with ease. She gave us that final dose of her Kilimanjaro’s romantic voice:

“For those proceeding to Malindi, gate no. 8. Those to Cape Town, gate no. 5. Entebbe must go through no. 9. Gate no. 3 is for Kinshasa only. Good luck and safe journeys with our prestigious Kenyan Airways. Your rightful choice.”

My gorgeous Italian seat sharer turned to me with a face rejecting abrupt separation. And unwillingly bid me her last smile.  

 “Safe journey to your mum William.”

“Thank you very much Paula.” I too, wished her best stay in Kenya.

“I hope your mum will be happy today after nineteen years of pain?”

“Oh, she will dance if she possesses the strength.”

“Is it?”

“Yes, we Africans demonstrate our pain and sorrows. Our way of life.”

“I see-e-e-e.”

We were at the tail of the long queue descending through the plane’s steps.

Fog over Nairobi. Everyone at Kenyatta Airport was busy as if someone was blowing a whistle from behind. The not so slender hostess looked at us as though we consumed her precious hours for nothing.

“Karibu Kenya!” Welcome to Kenya.

# # #

In the waiting lounge after finding our gate no. 9, I saw many old and young tall Sudanese. I understood their Jieng. They spoke Jieng-Bor dialect that sounded not sweet like my familiar Jieng-Malual. “These people are spoiling Jieng language.” I condemned them deep in my heart. I was scared to approach them in a strange country. They were refugees in Kenya. I could have just simply greeted them; “Koch panda cibak?” People from my land how are you? I guessed, probably they were joining other relatives in the west. For resettlement program I supposed. Back home we would have talked ill about them as: “people who weren’t coming back to Sudan anymore, lost clan’s members we must forget about.”

There were Somalis, Indians, Norwegians, Arabs and Congolese in various waiting sections of the airport. Most were busy peeping at the incoming and outgoing flights.

“The whole world is here.” I said to myself. Most of the whites at the lounge were aid workers going to, or coming out of war torn Southern Sudan. From time to time, I heard some were questioning themselves;

“When will you be back Jack?”

“Oh next week Kevin.”

Our ears finally accepted what we were waiting for: “Those traveling to Entebbe report at the exit no. 6 please?”

The low voice over our heads disappeared in the ceiling. I gathered courage to go and say goodbye to my fellow countrymen in Jieng language before I boarded my plane. They were waiting for their British Airways. When I reached in front of them, I felt shy. Nonetheless, I bid them farewell from my heart. As someone who had remained in his or her motherland for the last twenty-one years of our civil war, I felt obliged with my silent action. Courageously I raised my head and said to them silently from my heart; “Wabiyok. Lak kek door Nhialic.” We shall meet. Go in peace of your God.

# # #

Forty fives minutes later, we landed at Entebbe International Airport. Kampala was normal, modern and truly African. Shortly after my arrival, I was issued an MTN Sim-card. It was chilly. I missed again for the second time both Network Africa and Focus on Africa programs. My cell phone rang. Nathaniel picked it for me. “He is very tired. Call him tomorrow.”

Waking up with red eyes, I discovered my siblings were eagerly waiting for me.

“Why haven’t you carried on with your programs?” I protested to them. All of them disagreed with my false protest.

“Is nineteen years short for us William?” asked Nathaniel, my third brother after me. I responded to his melancholic question. 

“Ah no.”

Nathaniel’s phone cracked with sharp tone from time to time.

“I don’t like Nokia very much.” I said without intention.

“We use it here in Uganda.” Answered my uncle. Each holding his phone tightly. 8pm approached faster. My uncle’s wife brought in rice, beef and avocado for our supper.

“Eat William.”

“I’m OK. I shouldn’t even eat. Today is a great day.” I said.

“Indeed my nephew, you are right.” Responded my uncle.

“Eat,” urged his wife. I picked the fleshy fruit and submerged my desert teeth inside one of them.

“Or you’re still tired?” She asked me with half smile.

“No, I’m fine. If you were in Southern Sudan Mummy, you would have known today what an uncle’s wife should have cooked for a person like me.”  All laughed loudly at my statement.

Another age-mate who was also a refugee had left the house before the meal. He timely entered when we were picking pieces of meat from our teeth. Green nylon was on his left hand. He was holding a torch in the other hand. Before he could greet us again, he was accused by what he was carrying. Bottles rambled. We all smiled.

“What are you drinking?” My uncle’s wife asked. Lit opener in her hand. I was startled. And my brains were to coin an answer. Before I could say a word, my age-mate began the debate.

“Let him drink Bell. It is only 4.75.”

“No, no, no, Club is good for him.” Said Nathaniel my brother.

“Let him try Chairman.” Another female guest said calmly.

“These people don’t drink in Sudan. Sharia.” My uncle’s wife intervened. I had to end the debate.

“Let me try that one. Where is the one 4.75?” I demanded. Bell was handed to me instantly. I keenly read the colorful wrapped label. The debate ended amicably. Before we could retire somewhere at midnight, I had done away with four Bells. It seemed I wasn’t a learner. Somewhere in between our boozing, I was hooked to a talk show on an FM radio station.

“That is Capital FM. DJ Columbus Olanya is hosting the show.” Said my uncle’s wife. Beer was penetrating my mind, bit by bit. I missed certain questions on Sudanese issues I was asked throughout our feasting hours.

“You have FMs stations here?” I asked no body. But they all heard my question.

“Ah, everywhere.” My ignorance got an answer.

“We don’t have even one station in Sudan.” I told them. They were surprised again at my exaggerations. It was true for the south of the country.

# # #

Kampala was foggy. The sun was delaying over Lake Victoria. Big thermos was put in front of us early that morning. Huge bread, 400-600grams? I guessed. I ignored reading the ingredients on the package. The mugs were abnormal in their sizes. Very athletic in designs. I got scared deep in my skin with their contents that must go down my throat. My uncle’s wife put three small spoonful of sugar in my mug. That spoon resembled that of the nurses at health centers across the Sudan. All five picked their mugs except mine. Steam was coming out of it faster. We used tiny glasses for tea in the motherland.

“Take tea, take tea William.” They said uniformly.

I pretended to pick yesterday’s Monitor from the table next to me.

“Add him more sugar Madame.” Urged my impatient uncle.

“Oh sorry. I forgot, you Sudanese drink sugar with tea, not tea with sugar.” Said my uncle’s wife jokingly. A reality whose secret, was only known among the Sudanese. My heart rested at last. Yes back home in Sudan we took a lot of it.

“You see all of you must go home after peace, because our sugar is the best in the world.” Proudly I said to them.

“Yes, things from Sudan are always stronger and durable.” Said my brother.

“There are good gold in Sudan.” My uncle’s wife was waiting for me to confirm her statement. I only nodded like a lizard, with their thick bread blocking my mouth.

“This guys are all homesick.” I said quietly. Their tea in a mug and the huge loaf would have made a complete breakfast for over nine men in Sudan.

“Kampala is very cold, you have to eat well.” They quickly defended their gluttony to deter my assault.

# # #

There were thousands of hills rising with beautiful brick houses dotted everywhere. Back home no one would risk building houses on top of such hills. But we were in the heart of Pearl of Africa. Sunlight, Lake Victoria and fresh fruits I couldn’t memorize their names. One of those gigantic fruits, Ugandans called it Mapenesi. We Sudanese however, never found proper name found for it, finally our ancestors settled for “Elephant’s swollen testicles.” The name stuck like super glue. The Italians first planted them in Lerwa in 1930s in mission compounds. When the Italians left southern Sudan, the fruits were entirely enjoyed by monkeys around Lotti Mountains. Ugandans sold the fruits in the city center. A piece was fetching 4000 shillings at downtown Kampala.    

Nathaniel invited me for a walk I couldn’t resist. I thought the walk was going to be near Mengo’s Square, however, my boots were ready for any physical combat with the hills ahead of us. After several laps, I sweated profusely. Hills after hills. I trailed behind like an old man.

“He came yesterday from Sudan.” I got introduced to other refugees we met around Mukwano Complex. Good number of them in the city center. Arua Part was their cruising spot. It offered services of their interests. Restaurants, bookings, news; political, immigration, scholarships, etc.

They had mixed feelings for someone like me fresh from the jaws of motherland.

“Welcome to Uganda. How is Sudan?” constantly they asked me. From some, I read their unexpressed negative feelings; “why have you remained there until now. These are the types who cooperate with Arabs. Traitors of southern Sudan are many, even in form?”

When I got withdrawn from their common talks, known only to them and Nathaniel, I heard them questioning themselves.

“Not yet?”

“Not yet.”

Some of the refugees were ending their inquiries with familiar signals.  Sponsorships, vacancies, and immigration chances in their minds.

# # #

We crossed Bishop Luwum’s Street. Countless Boda-Boda cyclists to dodge. I was still very fascinated by rainbow Africans of the equator. There were half-naked young women all around.

“They are Baganda girls.” Said my brother after discovering how surprised I was, seeing the young beautiful girls in those mini skirts. Some were really walking freely with sleeping garments our women used in Sudan.

“You are good here ah.” I remarked.

“What?” asked my brother surprisingly.

“I mean in Khartoum, these girls could be stoned to death with such cloths. How can they move naked like these? The fundamentalists in Sudan are…” I said. I made it hard for Nathaniel to digest what I had said. I wanted to refrain my tongue anyway.

“These ones are good William. In Kenya the dress code is different. It is worse there.”

After crossing the Post Office, I had completely known that the generation of refugees in Uganda was culturally finished!

“Will it cross to Sudan once peace was attained?” I silently hid my monologue activity from my brother. He was exactly of their age, the youth in bras and vests we saw along Kampala Road.

# # #

At downtown Kampala, I began to see everyone was pressing on to herself or himself with all individualistic concern under the sun. My mind flashed back home. And to it, I understood why most, if not all non-Sudanese who visited my homeland continue to talk of its generosity and warmness nostalgically.

Music continued booming unceasingly around. Its rhythm consoled me downward my toes. It conquered all the airwaves and the green landscape. I got attracted to a familiar tune I heard over BBC months back in Sudan.

“That is Jose Chameleon. But George Okudi got best awards in South Africa.” I was informed.

Of course Chameleon and Okudi were household names, the two hot young upcoming East African musicians were in every heart, young and old. But for older generation, it was an East African musical renaissance.

“Is that song Dorothea?” I asked my brother.

“You know Dorothea?” he asked me surprisingly.

“I heard Chameleon’s songs in the Sudan.”

After that surprising question from my brother, I understood how unwise was he by considering me as an outdated thing.

We strolled further into Owino Market. I was taken aback by the type of the people we got there.

Indeed Nathaniel my brother saw me for the last time when he was only four in 1986. Dr. John Garang had captured the whole of Eastern Equatoria. Strings of insignificant villages were under his belt. His enthusiasm-ridden Tingili Battalion army was putting their feet to every inch in other parts of Equatoria, Bahr El Ghazal and Upper Nile.

My brother couldn’t recall such violent moments in the history of our motherland. He led me everywhere. I bent to read headlines from magazines and newspapers banned in the Sudan by state-controlled press regulations. Focus on Africa, New Africa caught my eyes. I was hooked by Sudan Mirror. Oil-rich Abyei was in the headline.

“They are available William.” Nathaniel rebuked me with my sluggish movement. If I were to be younger than he was, I would have received several knocks at my head, or he would have ordered me; “move quickly you fool.”

“I want to see bookshops with Sudanese published books.” I calmly inquired from my brother.

“Plenty of them here.” Replied Nathaniel. We entered one. Inside were Catholic nuns. From counter to shelves.

“What section sir?” one of them asked Nathaniel. I was confused, my brother remained bold at their question. East African business people, style with their customers.

“You have something on Sudan?” I insisted.

“Please come here.” I obeyed and followed her.

“This one, this one, this one, this one.”

“OK, OK, we shall look for them.” I pleaded. We walked away with only three. They were not expensive ones. Poetry of Abe Enosa, Another Song captured me most, not of its literary output, but sheer madness for lost nationalism I have come to seek among the refugees.

We sweated on our way somewhere behind Jinja road. We bumped on few familiar houses of fortunate Sudanese refugees. Nathaniel knew them well. Almost all of them we met never enjoyed their state of living in Kampala. But they couldn’t reduce themselves to staying in the camps like the other millions. It would be a humiliation. A reference they would hate to hear; “so and so who were rich in Sudan are also living in the camps today.” Such statement would kill their children.

As soon as we began to make gestures of leaving those houses, they asked us immediately; “why can’t you stay for lunch?” We were left to decide. Back in Sudan, we knew when it wasn’t 1pm yet, one was asked a different question; “have you taken your breakfast?”

# # #

Our mobiles refused to die down. “When are you arriving? Have you not taken off yet? What is delaying you?” Questions we avoided. Kampala was offering me more. I was graphically told about MM Pub, Sax Pub and Ange Noir. My expectation of visiting such gorgeous places rose wild.

 I looked at my cell phone screen. Nathaniel was to be blamed by my impatient mother dying of seeing me. I was the guest of two decades.

At 2pm we were already cruising Kampala-Gulu Highway northward. Caution mongers insisted, even my brother, it was the last hour of the day for the buses travelling to the north to take off from Kampala’s New Taxi Park. War was intensifying in the north, extending to Southern Sudan.

In Uganda, UPDF and LRA kept fighting each other. At the top were Yoweri Museveni and Joseph Kony in the ring. Across the borders to the Sudan, SPLA and the Sudanese army were pointing guns fiercely at one another. Omer El Beshir and Dr. John Garang were front-runners. Non of the four men was showing sign of tiredness. They all satisfied the bill of our ancestors; “he who leads takes the blame,” atrocities went unabated in the two countries. Tribes across both countries spread themselves without boundaries created by the British.

The 200km to the north of Uganda weren’t far enough. Most of the folks in the bus were snoring. Busses in Uganda fly in their rat-paths, right away from Entebbe airport till somewhere in Lord Resistant Army’s infested northern Uganda.

Our speeding old TATA bus turned corners and slopes faster than a young man’s arrow.

“Kiryandongo is very far.” My brother complained about the long journey. I laughed at heart.

“In Sudan we drive 12-18 hours with few intervals.” I whispered back to him.

“Sudan is very big like that?” he put it to me.

“The largest in Africa of course.” I assured him.

We reached Luwero, fruits and palatable smell of nyamuchomo, roasted meat, banana, pineapples and all the wild fruits of Uganda paralyzed my senses. The system was; you buy whatever and put in your mouth. I never ate. I was hungrier instead amidst ubiquitous food around. I couldn’t take courage to eat while other passengers looked on. It was their way. In Sudan, all passengers onboard equally shared whatever was bought on roadside. I was mistaken that afternoon in Uganda. Our old bus jerked, small dying hills multiplied ahead of us.

Knowing I was not showing any signs of sleep, an elderly man to whom I revealed my self earlier asked me:

“Didn’t you see Kampala, how does looked, compare to Khartoum?” He was a refugee himself. The question was obvious for the refugees who escaped the 21-year old civil war in Sudan.

“Kampala is just like one of the state’s headquarters in the Sudan. Entebbe airport is like any regional airports there.” I assured him. He thought I was belittling Uganda too far.

“Ah, is it true?”

“Yes.”

 “Many people talk to us like you, those who come from there.”

It was clear at least for me. I didn’t come to promote my country’s image to the millions of refugees around neighboring countries.

Our newly found oil revenue kicked in their hearts. They became thirsty for motherland.

“Is the oil really found in the South?” they asked.

“Yes.”

They doubt me without expressions. I knew I narrowly missed being among them some nineteen years ago. I could have been another Thomas of their color in East Africa.

5:45pm, I looked at my plastic Casio watch. We were heading towards Bweyale. My brother advanced from the rear.

“Here please.” Said my brother to the conductor. He whistled to the driver.

The bus jolted with coughing sound. I laughed and remembered our modern buses in Sudan with meals, Pepsi, Stim, 7 UP and sweets inside.

# # #

Boda-Boda bike came to speed away with us in the bush. Real home of the Sudanese refugees. I stood silent while my brother argued with the short owner of the Boda-Boda. We were away from Kampala-Gulu Highway. At last Nathaniel settled for a taxi. In Sudan we called it Hafila. For the Japanese who made it, Toyota-Nissan, mini-bus was theirs. My brother and the car’s owner negotiated unendingly. It was unkind to argue in front of a guess like me; no matter how much the favor being done was going to cost. I avoided at all cost eavesdropping. Nonetheless, my eyes couldn’t resist seeing the gray Uganda shilling notes my brother was pulling from his pockets. They were like animal’s ears. I never knew how many of those notes could fill one’s pocket.

“That is our home!” My brother pointed to me. My eyes were fixed at the blue horizon across.

“The one we are coming to, is our grandma’s. She is still very strong.” Insisted my brother. I was still silent.

Ululation ahead. “Stop, stop Sebo.” Said my brother to the driver.

Some elderly women accompanied my grandmother, all assembled in front of the taxi. Confusions.

“Let him come out,” they demanded loudly.

“No, no, no.” Some disagreed.

Finally they agreed among themselves.

I was dethroned and pulled by my hands. I almost laughed when my grandma threw away her walking stick she had carried along from Sudan.

“Cawura, Cawura are you the one?” She called me sharply with my childhood name I had forgotten. I was told that she gave me that name after my birth in exile some thirty odd years ago. When my grandma repeatedly called me, I began sobbing seriously. My eyes were lowered to the ground. I remained in front of her house where I was surrounded.

“Put your legs on these eggs.” She ordered. The tip of my Chinese boots was shy. I made other trials. I settled after fourth one. I got sprinkled up, half-bath. Grandma sang my praise poem alone. I had forgotten it. I last heard it nineteen years ago before the exile. By the time I embraced my grandma, my tears dropped. We sailed the memory boat alone, two of us.

“He can now go to the house of Akwongo.” Said my grandma.

# # #

 Mama was still at the well when I was escorted to her house. Guests assembled hours before my arrival. Some were sitting on chairs and logs scattered allover the place. Other visitors simply placed their buttocks on bare ground.

Mama entered with a jerrican of water on her head. Her hair, not Afro like the time I last saw her way back in April 1986, the year war engulfed Southern Sudan. From a distant, sadness refused to depart from our faces. I hugged her in front of other on-lookers. Mama disappeared in my large chest. I cried, wanting to extend it loudly if we were only two. I wanted her to hear that childhood voice now eroded with suffering and yearning.

“Should we cry William?” Mama asked me. I was still crying. 

“Should we all cry?” I was now silent. I was already an old man in front of Mama.

“If we are all to cry, this home will become a funeral place today.” Mama murmured with tears wetting my ears. She was still hugging me. I too, last heard that faint, sorrowful voice exactly nineteen years ago.

An elder separated us.

“Sit down. Let him sit down Akwongo.” He called to Mama annoyingly.

Mama marched inside her house. My eyes fixed behind her as if we should rewind the yesteryears without interruption.

Beer, other strong drinks followed, ululation began to make way. Someone pulled me from my chair. Even elders refused to sympathize with my lack of Luo dancing knowledge.

“Let him rest people.” Auntie Anna pitied me at last.

“He should dance.” They shouted.

Persuasions. My brother Nathaniel put words to my ears:

“Try a little. Try a bit.”

I twisted and moved my legs differently from their rhythm.

“The boy is lost. The boy is lost indeed.” My paternal uncle was mocking me before that sunset.

I tried to answer them in Luo. They pretended to have understood it. They turned their attentions somewhere.

“Cawura, even the language you forgot? Your mother tongue?” asked again my uncle. I smiled. Not meaning it really.

“You have spoiled our name, our tribe, Luo nation.” My uncle continued assaulting me. My silence intensified.

# # #

Dave and Garang other brothers entered and greeted me. I lovingly touched their hairless heads. They said it was the style there. All of them were taller than me. Children in war grew faster. I was tired again for the third day in Uganda. Many hurdles to cover with my memories.

In my dream that night for the first time ever in Mama’s house, I remembered her way back in April 1986, the year war swept across our homeland like fire. We had fled the war to the border town of Pajok. SPLM\A forces were advancing towards it. They wanted to grab it from Sadig El Mahdi. His military Commander in Juba sent Major Clement Wani to rescue it.

“Go and take the guns left there by UNLA defeated army in Pajok.” He was told. The young brave Major assembled few armed men and headed for Pajok. His Nilotic eyes were in the skies across, history was repeating itself. Yoweri Museveni’s Kadogos were pursuing Tito Okello’s weeping Kadogos. Yoweri put his nose into Sudanese territory. The decision had to be taken over Limur River. Southern bank was Uganda. Northern side was Sudanese land by right. The British decided so since 1956.

Yoweri Museveni was scared by the presence of Major Kilama and Brigadier Odong Latek who were posing threats to his new government in Kampala that he had occupied on 26th January 1986. Defeated Acholi and Langi military officers moved freely in Pajok and they drank in the open air. They were very nostalgic about their luxurious hotels back in Kampala. Former Ugandan soldiers greeted their Sudanese folks; “Jotwa wapwoya ba.” Our kinsmen how are you?  Looted cars scattered like rains.

Major Clement Wani entered Pajok at broad day. He became small a god. Fellow Majors; Angelo Butis and Charles Ogeno briefed him on frontline situation with the presence of the Ugandan refugees around. SPLA advancing rapidly with thousands of recruits just back from Ethiopia.

Five days later, hundreds of people joined Major Clement’s convoy to Juba via Nimule. We were scared to death. We headed for the capital city of Southern Sudan.

“Don’t let my son go.” Mama urged my father that day, it was 4th April 1986, night had befallen on the besieged town of Pajok.

“He is a man. Let him go to study like the rest in Juba.” My father told Mama boldly. She stood her ground.

“These Anyanya are killing people, don’t you know?” Mama was firm to Baba with her syllogism.

We made it to Juba after twelve sunny and rainy days. On our arrival, rumors had spread through VHF that we were all massacred by the fierce SPLA soldiers somewhere between Pageri and Moli in Madi land. There were many Ugandan refugees in the convoy. We enjoyed Nubi Arabic that was mixed with other languages.

I wanted long sleep, naked and free for the first time in Mama’s hut. I was in her house with lost shadows. There, I was a man with all modesty, defeats and shame of this world before her.  

As soon as I was out of Mama’s hut the morning after my long dream, she held me by my hand. I had seen some graves in front of her hut the day I arrived. I knew those siblings died. Some recent, others were archaic. She walked me around the graaves that dotted her compound.

“That is your nephew Patrick. Omac your grandfather is there. Here is his wife Gemma, your grandma. Taban of your sister is here.”

I reserved my Hail Mary for each of them, another time. My brothers knew what Mama was doing to me.

# # #

Different mobile tones rang. Dave ran to pick them. “He arrived.” I heard him saying. I was still in my long dreams of nineteen years. Kizito from Utah persisted he must hear my voice from Mama’s compound for the first time in two decades. He too, was a child when war started back in Sudan. It was the same, as we never saw each other before. Our childhood eyes and memories deleted completely. He pestered us with his call.

 “I’m fine brother.” I answered with my rough voice that I was trying to smoothen while speaking.

“Many people came to see you?”

“Yes they came.”

“Who are they?”

“Opiyo, Omondi, Monica…”

“You can remember these people?”

“O yes, I was fifteen when I left Pajok.” I assured my brother that; I was not as young as he was when war broke out. I went back to Mama’s hut and tuned my highly sensitive Sony radio. It was my normal frequency of the BBC. It failed me again and again. Mistakenly I touched the green FM button on my radio.

“This is Radio Kitara on FM 101.8”

I got attracted to the presenters mixing Swahili, Luo and Nyoro. I was interrupted by serious laughter, which was coming from Mama’s hut unceasingly. I buried my head in a soft blanket. The laughter did not want to die down. They were my brothers and sisters of course, in company of Mama. I rushed out of Mama’s hut, my eyes cloudy. There was laughter still. I stood before them with my large pajamas.

“What is it?” I asked. All laughed again.

“What is it?” I pressurized them. At last Mama answered me with a smile:

“Dave and Garang thought you were their father who came from Lokichokio yesterday.”

I went and sat among my younger brothers and inquired why they thought I was their father, our father.

Garang continued laughing. Dave, our last born knew how we would have been playing together as one family if it weren’t of the war back in Sudan. When lost brothers meet again, there should be heavier celebrations.

“You see William, when you came in, I first thought it was Baba who was coming home.” Said Dave with broad smile. I turned to Dave and simply said;

“But Baba’s hairs in the last photograph he sent me were like Mandela’s.”

“We thought he had dyed them there in Kenya.” Said Garang.

Between our discussions, Mama intervened;

“Boys, don’t you know what war can bring?” We were silent. She knew she had stopped our traumatic healing process.

“Go and catch that cock Dave.” Ordered Mama.

The sun chased us under the mango trees in front of Mama’s hut. Four of our cell phones rang from the drying wire bisecting the houses.

“Uganda’s MTN mobile company is really the best in Africa.” Said Dave, my philosophical brother trying to convince me. “MobiTel Company in Sudan offers the best services in the world.”  I convinced them with my Sim card from Sudan. 

# # #

Ten days had lapsed. I was still a stranger, an Arab to my brothers in Mama’s house. My brothers’ thoughts were strange to me. Freedom, laziness and individualism were their way. At one moment I told them with their suspicions on me; “do you think New Sudan shall need people like you?” They were astonished. “You see, he is thinking exactly like them.” One of them mocked me. I constantly reminded them that; “building a new country requires a lot, like the Eritreans do to their country.”

“What are they doing?”

“They are hard working. Less wasteful spending.” I said to them. They began to avoid me. I sought consolations at different levels.

“Mama, these people have become Ugandans, criminal.” I too, mocked my disobedient brothers at their absence. They were travelling to Bweyale for school. Refugees are without choices in Africa.

“Bring me Vision and Monitor. Not Red Pepper.” I would say to Dave who was becoming my friend lately. He was already fourteen. Jokingly I told him one time as he was getting familiar to me;

“What is the name of your girlfriend?” He laughed at the top of his voice. I went on.

“I see you are going to marry a foreigner?” I pulled his legs.

“How can I William?” He asked me. When I was trying to find out more, he quickly disappeared into cassava fields being devastated by dry season pigs roaming around. Garang, who was our second last, became a stubborn bull in the house. Theresa our youngest sister, was the only perfect logician around. All events had to satisfy all logical principles to qualify it to her ears.

Refugees poured in each morning after hard labor in their fields. They wanted to learn about the new things they heard about in Sudan. They wanted confirmation from every visitor from the motherland.

“They are erecting big buildings, roads and hospitals, flashy cars all over.”

 I told them about our newfound oil wealth back in Sudan. They remained attentive.

“The Arabs will finish the oil.” They began to comment as soon as I introduced the topic.

“Building with the petrol money?”

“Yes, petrol and…” I answered them.

“Are they also building the South?”

“Well, for the south no, not yet. They are trying also…”

“What about the oil problem?” One of them asked me.

“The pipelines and some oilfields near Abyei are all being drilled.” I told them.

We politicized together on our other economic boom. A thorny issue came up.

 “What about Abyei, the disputed area?” They asked me with concern.

“Yes, it’s our land.” I assured them.

“How big is it?” I declined to answer that question.

Visiting the area frequently for the last eight years would have given me enough time to lecture on Abyei to my refugee-guests. Squarely they knew only East African history and geography mixed with other truths. Back in Mama’s hut, I thought to myself; “What could they gain on my vast knowledge of Abyei and neighboring oil-rich areas? Wasn’t discovering oil in Abyei enough for them?

   When the day was set for the great feast of our reunion, guests came from as far as Nimule in Sudan. We danced on rains for three days. Lastly, shocking news arrived from Nathaniel who had earlier gone to Kampala to arrange for booking prerequisites. When he called me, I was twisting myself among the crowds with Luo dance. I was no more a learner to be laughed at.

“There is no problem. Your visa is out.” Nathaniel insisted.

“Was it not difficult?” I inquired.

“No, no.”

“You will travel on Monday at 3:30pm.”

“Fine we are still…”

We roasted goats’ head like when we did in childhood, back home in Southern Sudan. Our bodies smelled smoke and lazily we strolled to the beer market to change the stench.

“Sudan again?” I said thinking while at the beer market. Everyone was welcoming us for drinks; “bil, taste it Wily.”

We walked to Mama’s house late. She was gloomy because we stayed away for too long.

# # #

I made a calculated guess as soon as we entered Sudanese airspace. While the beautiful but a no nonsense hostess was carrying tray to the crew cabin, I hurriedly called her. She bent her soft back towards my head. I leaned backward. She put her ears near my mouth. It gave me fresh scent of East African cream.

“Yes sir?” she begged.

“Excuse me, can I have a full bottle of whisky?” I demanded. She simply laughed and swayed away with her kingly tray. At that moment I was already wondering what would I do incase we reached late at Khartoum International Airport. The taxi drivers would chew me up, mistaking me for one of the peace negotiators coming from Naivasha-Kenya. As I was deep into my world back in the country, thinking about survival of years ahead of me, I was patted at the back by a soft hand.

“Have your whisky sir.” I couldn’t believe my eyes.

“Thank you.”

I engulfed the purified liquid as if a policeman was watching me from below. The huge plane was encircling Khartoum. Other passengers were guessing why I was gluttonous with the whisky. Some of them knew earlier on, I was calm. From the corner some French speaking youth were moving inside the plane as if Joseph Kabila was the owner of that B767 aircraft. Of course they were Congolese travelling to Cairo for qualification games. They were staring at me awkwardly.

“I have to make myself clear.” I said to myself. One of their girls in the team kept on looking at me still. Whether it was admiration or pity I couldn’t say. I held the bottle of my whisky close to my chest.

“I will never see or taste this thing again.” I announced to the onlookers.

“Sudanese, Sudanese.” One of them shouted.

“Yes Sudanese.” I shot back.

“Sharia?”

“Yaa, Sharia.”

When the plane touched the runway, we carried our green passports on our hands. Our heads high as we pierced the blazing heat of Khartoum that night. It was getting on late.

“Welcome back, welcome back.” Said the immigration officers. One man who carried pineapples from Nairobi had their green heads removed violently.

“What is here in the bottle?” asked the custom officer. He tore the lit and smelled the content. It broke his sense.

“Hi William, this thing is forbidden in the country.”

“Oh my God!” I exclaimed silently. It was not my whisky but a hair dye. We left the airport without being followed by any security agents. Abruptly we poor ones advanced to the parking lot.

“Fifty thousand Sudanese pounds.”  Said the middle aged taxi driver.

“You mean five hundred Dinars?” I asked.

“Ah, who works with your new things?”

“Fifty thousands to Kalakla my boy.” He said with assurance.

“OK I want to reach.”

“You must be tired?”

“Definitely.”

I never wanted to speak much. My breath was still evaporating whisky. If he could want to harm me, he could just park his taxi at a nearby police post and put charges on me. Everyone slept. They had promised to stay awake till my arrival. Even the sound of the rusty Mercedes couldn’t help. Noisy endless knocks for six minutes. At last I managed. I went straight to my bed. Before I could put any brushing stick on my badly smelling mouth the following morning, I called Mama with the remaining credit card.

“Hallo Mama. How are you?”

“Wu, wu, wu William i ok mabe?” have you reached well?

“Yes Maa, I arrived safely in Khartoum.”

“My son, I hope it will not take us another nineteen years to meet.” She said sadly.

“Ahh no. We shall meet soon. Peace is almost Maa.”

“When? When my son?”

“It will come. It will come Mama.”

There was perfect silence as if Mama was affected by my words. The silence persisted.

“Mama, Mama, Mama?” More silence.

The dial tone on my cell phone indicated that, the long distance call had consumed all my voice credit card.

 

END


 

 

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