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Juba's Gala Nights

By John Oryem (S. Sudan)


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The previous weekend was really a dull one. Many returnees from exile
have been crowding our home; even our bedroom was not spared either.
Since we arrived here after peace accord, the compass to our home
remained restless, erect, pointing accurately to our small home, deep
into our house.

“Please, let us bear with the situation, one day things will change.” I
tried to convince my wife Nora.

“How long shall we go on like this Lokule?” she argued.

“God knows, at least we are at home here with relatives than being with
walls and dogs in exile.” I pleaded.

“Remember, my green card is still with me, I can leave
this city at anytime with my children.” Nora threatened.

“Woman, for me I have come for good. I will die here where my ancestors
are buried.” I warned.

When she is in good mood some days, Nora would be excited to share with
me her experiences at her organization’s office. At times she would just
behave as if I’m a stranger. Who am I, to chase away guests from our
home when they were told, I was their lost son who have just returned in
the country from the bush? Who did not experience the bitter taste of
the long war? Mama keeps on reminding me when new faces turned up at our
gate, “you are related. She is the sister of your father. And that one
is your nephew born in exile like you. Lokule, you forgot you were born
in the house of Gore your uncle? This is his elder daughter with the
third wife.” There are others who come and go. Others would stay for
days and months, expecting to stay even for years. The day we gathered our
strengths to tell them to fend for themselves or contribute to our
scanty resources, Mama will smell our secret plan with Nora and flatly
say “my son and daughter, life in exile has spoiled you, these are the
people who will bury you one day.” The villagers who cross the
Nile to purchase a few belongings to cope with modernity
after peace can not help as well. Well, our lives were likes theirs,
bush-exile-bush and finally home after peace.

Now I understand why Nora sometimes refers to our home as a displaced
camp. Our family tree is very big. Nora, the mother of my four kids has
to gather the birds that come to nest here.

“Are you aspiring to become a chief?” she inquired. Perhaps she had
waited for an answer for too long.

“No, this is where we were born Nora. Woman, we grew here together with
these people before the war.” I said.

“Live as you like but for me……” her eyes lingered across the plains.

We tied our knots in exile eight years ago. Is it time for our own past
to haunt us?

I like how Laku, my uncle’s son put it to me that afternoon, “every
house was overcrowded especially for those who remained in the city
here.” I was really consoled. I wished Nora was there!

When it is not raining sometimes, we shall sit with Nora behind our
house, moving now and then as we follow the only shade around at those hot hours in Juba; sitting on lower chairs sipping sweet Sudanese tea.

It was one of those afternoons. The day’s promise wasn’t too bad, I
looked at the sky and detested the noisy Kenya-bound Sky-jet, it defied
the thick clouds and stubbornly penetrated the horizon. “I fear
traveling in rainstorms.” I said to Nora. Clouds above became darker.
It has been long since we had special bonding. Rains gave us good cover
that night as our guests crowded themselves at the dining room like
petrified chickens; that rain gave us an opportunity to steal ourselves
and revisit our conjugal rights again.

Weekdays would scatter us like sowed seeds waiting fervently for rains.
Nora is deeply involved in her work, rehabilitating women who were
humiliated, abused and discarded like beer cans during the war. Nora had
since built a sanctuary for some. Just last Wednesday by coincidence, I
met Hon. Madame Kani at Nora’s office when I was returning after picking
Tombe and Keji from Gudele Academy. Madame Kani is the minister for
Women & Child Welfare in the new government. Her commendation was as if they were comrades in the liberation struggle. “You are our heroine and a role model; our situation requires such people who can stand for others. This is how a country is built.”

Lately Nora has become a celebrity with her weekly program, Women for
better Tomorrow
, aired on Freedom 92.5 FM at weekends. Last October, the
daily Observer published an interview with the First Lady, she cited
Women for better Tomorrow as her favourite show. Occasionally I
volunteer as a driver, dropping her at the station especially when it is a live phone-in presentation.

Ever since we came back here from exile, Nora became a workaholic,
a thing that puzzles me very much. Each working day, by 8:00, Nora would
take the kids to school and proceed to her Daughters of Light
International head office at the downtown. I can’t understand why my
relatives and old friends keep on referring to me as the power behind
DLI.
“To be under educated women is dangerous, they put men under their
feet.” Laku comments always if I complain about Nora’s uncooperative
attitude. It was Nora’s initiatives to establish DLI. She shared with me
great stories shared by other women who advocate with her on child’s and
women’s issues. Nora’s list of sponsorship keeps on growing.

“Lokule, there are many partners who take interest in what I do.
Rehabilitation of rejected people in a society like ours isn’t easy.”
She would repeatedly tell me when I appreciate her hard work.

“Nora you should also look for local resources, your cause is too big.”

“People here need time, more time to educate.”

“Make me an Executive Director Nora.” I jokingly proposed.

“You men have failed the world, war, laziness, polygamy, AIDS and
corruption. You cannot rule the world any longer.”

“We liberated this country for you.”

“Did you forget Women for Peace? We pinned you men in the bush and
forced you to negotiate with our foes!”

”Next time you be in the parliament and serious politics!”
“No” she protested. “I shall be when all you men in this country give us 50% representation
in the government; you cheated us last time with 25%.”

“Woman, wait for your time in the next century. Liberia should not
deceive you women of Africa.”

Ever since we arrived home from exile, Nora had learned things she hated
while in exile. It seems what we discuss would ease her tedious program
while home chores await her very hands that carry pens in her office.

It is Saturday again. Last weekend wasn’t memorable, despite my popping
by Rock City to break boredom and yearning for my Nora. If it were not
because of our overcrowded home that preoccupies her mind, she could be,
by now breastfeeding our fifth child. A limit she set long ago, “I will
bear you only five!”
Like most men in the city, nothing gave me more taste than being along
the Nile at the hours we considered odd when we were growing up. Nile
Paradise Inn has of late become the centre of attraction after hosting
successful performance by visiting Savannah Sharks band. Latest gossips
spinning around indicate that, it was Lucifer’s dwelling place. Servants
of God and other self-styled moralists strongly warn, “Death upon you
who go there!”

Despite Nora’s ubiquitous presence at home as usual after supper, I
quickly slipped like a python penetrating thick tropical grass; drove
forlornly towards River Nile side. It was already 9 pm. Like those
before me, I parked between two mango trees, a few meters away from
defying dust and heat of Nile Paradise Inn. There are no signs
indicating parking lots for VIP or ordinary clients like us. Security guards
with buttons moved between flashy cars with recently printed number
plates such as AAA, JS, SSEE, CE etcetera. Randomly parked were GXLs
that had government logo followed by numbers, boldly painted.

Nile Paradise Inn was a place to be, buzzing and drowned in loud music.
The Obsessions and Jose Chameleone’s Mambo-Bado were appetizers to pull
crowds for free feasts. Music played in Nile Paradise Inn was echoing
far behind the National Stadium. When the wind was on the other end, it
could invite you from your bed irresistibly. Most of the girls inside
loitered undisturbed in dimly lighted yard. They wore cloths next to
nakedness, exhibiting their flesh and curves as if
it was a Miss Malaika Pageant night. Nothing was actually missing,
except the red carpet and former celebrities commissioned as judges. All
who go there at certain moments must become hunters. It was one’s choice
to be hunted at Nile Paradise Inn. Eyes move to and fro, making it hard
for someone caught to justify the act. Answers were ready in case shame
comes your way. People here behave as if tomorrow will never come, as if
the sun was pronounced ‘dead’. Karaoke dancers on stage and their
line-up impersonators put the audience on their feet with Michael
Jackson’s moon walking. Disco lights, deceptive festive fumes rise from
behind the curtains on stage. Stillness of the Nile is inviting. A
young DJ seated behind his keyboard, dictating chosen dance style; like
a country bull heading home from pastures, all must obey his choice. His
black head microphone seems to be oversized.

Across the banks, are some lights, scattered with deep reflections in
the Nile, beyond it comes occasional ululations from village drunkards
returning from the city after selling vegetables and fruits.

I toured the whole green auditorium undisturbed, but here, do not step
on someone’s foot. You will not fight a war you provoked alone, nor can
you control a commotion once it has begun. Young and older people rub
shoulders unceremoniously. Older generation are there not for music,
beer or like the young, hunting for sex. My wandering came to an end
when a teenage girl offered a chair where I sat next to some light
skinned ladies. Six of them on that table. I looked here and there.
Strayed smile by one of the girls seated landed on me. After I posted
an invitatory glace on her face, she finally turned her eyes on
stage, fixing it for a long time.

“How can these exile-bred be convinced that, the days of Tabu Ley
Rochereau and François Luambo Makiadi were better than their R&B, dance
hall, pop, hip-hop and Karaoke?” Thoughts moved unanswered in my heart.
A respectable gentleman who seemed to have been waiting for his spouse
or companion was next to the girls from the other side. His seat is half
a meter away from theirs. The man and the girls all leaned on the
plastic table with pitiful legs. The man kept on looking at his watch
while live performance was on. When our eyes met, he
said “hi”, I responded to him with corresponding “hi”.

“What do you take sir?” a young lady with bottle opener came forward and
asked me.

“What do you have?”

“Bell, Nile Special, Amarula, White Bull…..Coke.”

“Coke please, cold one.”

As we were getting lost in the heated dance fever on stage, I bent and
whispered something to the lady who sat near me.

“What do you take?”

“Who? Me? Oh I take Guinness.” The same waitress that served me coke was
crossing by; I waved to her to fetch for us the new order. The man had
already left when his phone rang. At his absence, I quickly changed my
position, and assumed dominating role in the round, unnecessarily
enlarging my arms to acquire large space on the table. Some of the girls
who went on stage for thump-up praise never came back to our table.
Three of us were the only occupants after the girls left.

As dancers warmed up at the theatre, we disorganized our chairs, moving
backward or forward. Dried mango leaves dropped on our cloths, ripened
mangoes kept on falling violently between us and tables next to ours. No
one picked them up even if they were fresh and the smell tempting.
In exile, we ate and hid boxes of rotten mangoes in our freezers.
The man came back from the direction of the bar, some fruits and leaves
were in his seat.

“These falling mangoes reminded me of bombs dropping on us during those
days.” said the man

“O yes, things were bad!” I replied. “This could be one of those from
exile.” I said to myself.

“Man, we saw a lot here.” He made another comment. His accent was
similar to those guys crowding the ministries since peace returned
to this city.

“I was under this very tree, studying for my secondary school
certificate a few years before war intensified!”

“So you are from here?” I inquired.

“Yeah, those roots were my pillows while I was studying man! We used to
swim and watch hippos here.” He stressed as he pointed at the
over-protruding roots curving into the Nile. I looked around and
wondered why a stranger was taking me for a ride on memory lane.

“You work here with the government?” I asked.

“In the government here.” He replied.

“I’m Lokule.”

“I’m Legge.” He said.

There are ministries and commissions in our city, too many NGOs that
operate in our city, too many aid agencies that carry strange logos.

“But why did you sell all these plots to foreigners?” I accusingly asked
Legge. He smiled amidst the deafening noise, a big sound system rooted
behind us.

“This is investment man. When we came in here, nothing was here. No
accommodation. Nothing, graves only.” He argued.

“But where are roads, infrastructures, I mean real development?”

“You do not appreciate things in the city man?” he said, raising his
voice louder.

“No, I think you will be trounced in the next elections.”

“Unless the people we liberated are blind.”

Disrupting us was a young female musician who stormed the arena with
rage and applause from the audience. She fused her song in Kokogi,
Arabic, Swahili and English.

“She is one of the Lost Boys & Girls of this land.” I heard some people
commenting behind us.

“How long do you think you will fool the population here?” I put it to
Legge when the noise died down.

“We shall do more soon, great things are coming. We liberated you people
from the enemies.”

“You liberated us?” Another man who could not hold his eavesdropping
asked Legge in a loud voice.

“This place has become another Kabalagala brother! This place is our
hell. Many will die here. Peace has spoiled us; prostitutes are
everywhere, some come from as far as South Africa.” The man told Legge
boldly.

“Prostitution is all over the world.” Legge said.

“Look at that Land Cruiser, it is carrying those girls for people in
powers, they cannot come here, they will be too shameful. Even Dobi
girls are here! Who could imagine one day Dobi girls will be useless
like today? Go to Isolation Ward at the City Teaching Hospital and see
for yourself.” The man went on telling Legge, his voice became rougher
as he stressed “go and see.”

When it began to drizzle, we began to scatter but the girl remained near
me. We held our hands briefly but when her phone rang she dropped my
hand. It is wet again and humid. I looked at other innocent faces
searching for potential customers at the showground.

“That one could have been my granddaughter if we were not to remain in
the bush fighting.” My heart ached. Lost in a sea of thoughts, I
questioned myself, “do these people here really use condoms?” My mind
quickly raced back to Lujang’s story when we were still in the
bush. “One day if God is to let the sky loose so that the whole humanity
must be destroyed because of sinfulness, all people of Momele will not
die because every single minute of the day, all women and men of Momele
are on top of each other. When the sky will be collapsing, they will
prevent the falling skies with their legs that they always raise while
making commercial love.” It seemed Lujang was really prophesying our
future. I wished Lujang was here to see what is now happening. The city
that survived by drips from humanitarian aid. Sometimes most of us are
funny because at the peak of our merriment we want to mix our past and
present. Whenever we remember such fallen comrades with their stories,
we cast off tears and silently say “Rest in peace comrade.” If Sgt.
Beppo was not to mislead us through that snare, my childhood friends
could have been drinking beer with me now.

“Excuse me I’m going outside, just for nature’s call.” During the war,
easing one’s self must be at secured places, your comrades are to keep
guard while you do your thing, heavy or light. Outside Nile Paradise
Inn, a different world of its own was blossoming. Boda-Boda cyclists
kept on penetrating every empty space in front of the Inn, competing for
few pocket coins from clients who reached golden deals and are quickly
whisked away. As I was fixing my buttons, two half-dressed girls trailed
behind three well dressed tall men, they drove away in their GXL Prado,
speeding like a gazelle toward Konyo-Konyo market.

The drizzle died down faster. Soon we were back at our table.
This time we were at different positions. A perennially smiling waitress
brought us a menu again, interrupting our talks. Breeze continued to
ooze from the Nile. Mango fruits and leaves compete in their journeys
according to Newton’s law; it was as if Supiri’s gods were warning us
not to disturb them. Night matured unnoticed. Teenagers danced along the
Nile as if their fathers were not dumped into the Nile, in bags like
charcoal; as if deaths never took place here recently. It was as if
there were no elders to remind them, that the ground below was sacred.
As if we were questioning those who passed on, “why did you die before
peace agreement to miss this bonanza, these gala nights?”

On stage, an artist who sang in a Bantu tongue got the attention of
everyone with her soft voice. At that moment, I turned to my companion;
I was still shy to know her name. She had hooked herself next to me
easily after my second invitation. Her hair braid was long and heavily
scented. Her jeans were tighter than the ones worn by Niggers in the
city. The girl first gazed at my eyes without words. I took her to an
unoccupied remote table. As I was preparing myself to launch further
questions, she shook her head approvingly then whispered back, “OK we
go.”

Holding our hands, we drifted far away from prying eyes of
some men whose stern eyes reminded me of the public security operatives
here during wartime. The girl wetted her skin and hair with
heavy cream. I really do not know how much she might have spent to treat
her skin. But her makeup drawers might be full and expensive.

“How are you?”

“Good.”

“Can you go with me please?” I made another demand. The girl looked
straight into my eyes, uttering nothing. Her eyelids heavy, her lips
firm and swollen with night expectations.

“Where we go?”

“We can decide outside there.” I responded.

“We go to a hotel?”

“No I have a place. We shall go to downtown.”

“Good”

“Never worry, that’s easy.” I assured her.

“You want it…..all night ….till morning?”

“Yes” I confirmed.

I led her through the narrow gate, avoiding exposure to bright lights
and glaring eyes of the boys and girls who cannot afford entrance fee at
Nile Paradise Inn and yet remain playing games and drinking sachet
whisky till daytime. We stood unmatched under a distant mango tree.
Silence descended upon us like August’s rains battering green landscape
at the foot of Lotti Mountains. Few minutes elapsed between us while we
were trying to understand the strange English language we were using to
communicate our feelings. After the war, people flocked here from every
corner of the globe. Our children and adults in this city today cannot
differentiate between our construction workers from
Mongolia, Korea, China and Japan. Seeing them in town, they always
shout “Ching-Chong, Ching-Chong.” And for our people, others trekked from
the north with their form of English and some from refugee camps with
their English. Majority of those who remained resisting the enemies got
their spoken version of their English under trees in the bush. As it was
a custom, AK-47 on your shoulders, one hand holding pen and eyes divided
between blackboard and Antonov bombers in the skies above.

At first I couldn’t understand the girl. The way she was twisting her
head to grab my words showed, she too, was having difficulty
understanding me. Perhaps she had taken some lessons on conversional
English before she crossed the borders here. As we say here, her few
English terms were enough to ‘drink water’ in this thriving city.

“How much you pay me sir?” The girl asked, she narrowed the remaining
space that existed between us as we stood in the cold. Bending my head
for an answer, the girl broke my hesitancy.

“You pay me $150.”

“That’s too much.” I protested.

“You want me, I go with you, OK, 100 dollars, good?”

“Good.” I succumbed.

“You want zigi-zigi you pay $100 now!”

“No problem.”

“We go now?”

“Yes we go now.” She never said anything thereafter. There are seven
currencies operating here. American dollars are overpowering our newly
printed Pounds, the peace prize between us and our former enemies.

I ignited quickly and we pulled slowly through the main gates of Nile
Paradise Inn. Dodging a few potholes behind the National Stadium, we
drove to some unfamiliar places across the city bridge and passed
through dense mango tress, distressing the dead at old cemetery. Peace
hasn’t brought calm to them yet. The living has since invaded
portions of the old cemetery. Old tales and memories of ghosts,
apparitions and dogs devouring dead bodies no longer threaten the
radical new generation. When we left the eastern cemetery fence and
slowed down, I decided to acquaint myself with the person seated next to
me in the front seat. Until then, her body whiff was only killing my
sense.

“What is your name?” I asked.

“Me?”

“Yes”

“Chantal”

“Chantal? That’s a beautiful name!”

“And your….. name?”

“I’m Lokule.  How is this city?” I inquired.

“No good!”

“Why?”

“Boda-Boda boys ran away with my bag. My money, my phone.”

“That’s bad.”

“Yes sir.”

Chantal remained silent for a few minutes while I moved in and out of
potholes. I guessed she had already gained confidence in me, her new
treasure.

“You are beautiful. Where are you from Chantal?”

“Congo DR.”

“Congo?”

“Yes from Kisangani.”

“Kisangani is a good city.”

“You go there?”

“No I know people from there?”

“Who you know?”

“I know Wamba and Bizima and …..I forgot the rest.”

“You are politician?”

“No, a teacher.” I said.

Chantal smiled, still rubbing softly green screen of her Nokia phone,
the type being sold here by Zain like cowries. I never bothered to ask Chantal’s
phone number. Who did not learn how to be selective with phone numbers in Juba?

“Chantal I like Congo.”

“Why?”

“Music”

“Who you like?”

“You mean musician?”

“Yes”

“Koffi”

“Koffi Olomide no good. I like Madilu.”

“I like Koffi.” At mention of Koffi, the Kisanganian-born superstar, Chantal peeled her lips in disapproval.

As we turned towards Luri Square, in front of us were some
youths in the stillness of the night twisting their hands
violently, others were hurling stones at their friends across the road
that divided them.

“They are Niggers drive quickly. Drive quickly. Bad boys.” Chantal
ordered.

“Why?” I asked.

“They beat and kill people.”

“Did you see police patrol there?” I pointed at the passing red van of
the security personnel guarding our city at night. We cruised along the
new tarred roads and passed by massive construction
sites. When the journey was turning into sightseeing, with no sign of
halting, Chantal decided to ask, “if your home is far, just let us
return to Nile Paradise.”

“No we are near my home.” The interest I exhibited to Chantal proved I
was serious and meant more by outing with her, only fishing out for an
appropriate place for our big deal.

“Do you have CDs?”

“No my car doesn’t play disks. Only MP3.”

“I mean this. This!” Chantal pulled flashy pack of condoms from her
bag.

“I do not carry any. My wife Nora will kill me.” I confessed to Chantal.

“If you do not have you pay me 5 dollars OK?”

“Good Chantal.” I approved.

A few meters from the central traffic square with street lights
on, we stopped and entered another Ethiopian restaurant. The place was
quiet with few tables spread around like a poor man’s crops.

“Bring us two Stim please.” I told a waitress who lazily walked to us.

As we waited for our drink, we sat closely like doves on top of
dilapidated school walls; out of the tense commotion of Nile Paradise
Inn.

“Chantal where do you stay?” I queried.

“Jebel Kujur.”

“Do you have work there?”

“No”

“You have mother, father and brothers?”

“Yes they are in Kisangani.”

“Do you go there?”

“Yes, but the custom authority takes lot of money from us.”

“Sorry for that, our government is still young.”

“Chantal, my name is Lokule and you are my daughter. My wife is
called Nora, she is running a local organization call DLI,
Daughters of Light International. This is her card and this is mine.
Tomorrow go to Old Juba Town and ask for DLI office near Ramadan & Sons
Super Market. Nora will help you?” I assured Chantal.

“Thank you but you have wasted my time this night, what will I eat
tomorrow?”

“OK I will pay you for today.”

“Now you have to take me home, my sisters will be looking for me.”

“I will do that Chantal.”

Chantal guided me through narrow roads leading to Jebel; between two
thatched houses, she told me to stop. “I live here.” It was too dark.
Getting out of the seat gently, Chantal leaned closely towards me, her
wet long hair flowing across my shoulders. I whispered in her ears, “my
wife is a lioness; she will tear my flesh to pieces if she
smells that Cocoa butter on me.”

Chantal straightened herself and dashed into the dark,
weaving and staggering each time she skipped over stones.
Disappearing like a ghost I will never meet again.

 

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