Port Sudan Journal
By Victor Lugala
The end of my journey to Port Sudan was the beginning of yet another torturous journey in my life. This sea side city was like a large open prison. The common stereotype here held that, a stranger who enters the port remains shackled to the strings of an octopus in the sea bed. I refused to believe it but at the same time I was wary of the thought. I didn’t come here to sentence myself to life prison, anyway. I was just a sojourner, and that is how I convinced myself. Or perhaps time or fate would tell my next destination. But for the moment I was not confined to any form of solitude, yet I was lonely. I fasted and starved, watered my thirst in the Red Sea, and meditated on a statue-like rock facing the grey, Red Sea hills. I lubricated my internal wounds with my ego. And I wiped my tears of sorrow with the pink sponge of my tongue. I laughed, only to remain sane and hopeful.
Within this open prison, the vibrations of life around me permeated my wild dreams: donkeys brayed, drinkers reveled, sex workers indulged in aberration, the singing of sewing machines in shop verandahs blended with Indian melodies that escaped from the open roof of a cinema hall. At night there were occasional barking of dogs, singing and giggling of children; and later when the night became old, there were sporadic, tortured complains of iron beds groaning under the weight of couples making love.
I found solace in the sunrise and the sunset. The warmth of the tropical sun gave me hope. As if I was really a prisoner on parole, I budgeted on dear time that one day, just one day, when that prison gate flung open, I would cut myself loose from the octopus strings and dash to Nirvana without looking back. But the much awaited D-Day was more or less like a far-fetched dream with various scenarios, mutating every now and then, a pigment of my imagination that was ephemeral though.
I read my life backwards in retrospect, and I saw no dregs or traces left to envy or miss. Everything seemed banal, the reason for this odyssey into the belly of the shark. Perceived destination? Spain, where the shark would spit me on the sandy beaches of Barcelona. If there were no military coup to scuttle my pipe dream, I would be sipping red wine served by a Spanish princess. She would teach me Catalan by day, and at night we would make love by moonlight. But isn’t the demise of one beautiful dream reason enough to conceive of another, how ugly it may be?
The passenger bus pulled to a halt at the station a few minutes past 9 pm. Port Sudan was humid. The air was still and the palm trees looked like junk metal statues. I sat on a wooden bench which I chose would be my bed for the night. I was exhausted from the twelve-hour journey from Khartoum. I was now in a new world all together. I badly needed a cold shower but there was no public shower in sight. The Red Sea was a kilometer or so away. Against a hazy background like a dull water colour painting, I could see the silhouette of ships’ masts, still.
Modern Arab music blared from a cassette player in a nearby restaurant. I envied the patrons who ate their late evening meal. They were men clad in white jellabia robes. Some of these late eaters maybe night workers in the dock or factories, or bachelors too lazy to cook for themselves, or travelers, or late arrivals like me. Smoke spiraled from the coal for roasting goat heads. The mouth-watering aroma escaping from the restaurant reminded me of home, which was hundreds of miles away, in southern Sudan. I didn’t want my thoughts to dwell much on the restaurant food because I was too broke to afford a meal. All the money I had in the world was just enough for me to board a commuter bus, rickshaw or even a donkey to, I don’t know where.
A man who looked like a traveler but without luggage came and sat near me. Despite the night he put on dark glasses. Maybe he had a problem with his eyes? I wondered. Maybe he was a spy – there were many of them working for the new military regime. Or maybe he was a thief. When I thought of this stranger being a probable thief, I pulled my small luggage closer to me. The black rucksack contained my earthly belongings: a pair of blue jeans, a brown T-shirt, flip-flops, three worn-out boxer shorts, a tooth brush, a comb, five novels, a pencil and diary. The last item reminded me of the person who gave it to me as a birthday present. My Ugandan friend gave me the diary because he thought I could use it for rendering my thoughts and recollections; as if he knew that one day I would be far away, wandering in limbo.
I was now twenty-five years old. Out of college. Out of work. Idle, broke, living rough and trying to explore the world. I was suffering in silence and lonely but I was still happy; I seemed to have enjoyed it that way. The experience was painfully sweet. Behind me I had buried my past, in front of me, was an abstract painting that I was to decipher while I was still alive, trying to squeeze life out of a cruel world.
Then the stranger in dark glasses engaged me in a small talk. "Are you traveling late?" Sudanese make friends easily, even with the devil. I looked at his face but I only saw dark glasses. I don’t think I could identify him the following day if I met him in a bread queue. "I’m not traveling," I said.
He turned his face in the direction of the Port. As if pricked by a pin, he twisted his body slowly like a spring and slapped his left shoulder blade with his right paw. I cringed as if his paw had landed on my cheek. The man never bothered to know if he had killed the parasite that fed on him. "Are you expecting a visitor on the next bus?" He asked in a booming, baritone voice. "No." I was hungry and tired and I was not in the mood for a conversation with a stranger. "I don’t mean to be inquisitive, but when I saw that you were lonesome, I decided to chat you up, I live in the suburbs. You look like a stranger in this town, aren’t you?" said the man. "Yes indeed, I arrived from Khartoum this evening. And…and…er….I don’t know how to find my way to my uncle’s place." I regretted telling him all that. If he was indeed a thief, then here I was setting myself as a soft target.
The man’s face turned in my direction, but owing to his dark glasses I couldn’t tell whether he was looking at me. A fat white cat purred and mew-mewed its way passed us and headed in the direction of the restaurant. "Where does your uncle reside? Where does he work? How long has he been here?" He asked in succession. "I really don’t know much about him, but he is my long lost uncle," I said. "And where are you going to sleep?" I kept quiet for a few seconds then replied: "right here at the station. On the bench." The man was silent for some time before saying, "you must be kidding, boy. How can you sleep in this place? Don’t you know that this place is a den of thieves and sea jinn?" When I remembered the fat white cat that passed by, I recalled the stories I used to hear back home, of sea spirits moving among mortals in the form of cats. I was scared. I was scared of this man whose eyes were concealed in dark glasses. Maybe he was a phantom himself. He dug his right hand into his shirt pocket and fished out some money. Without looking or counting he gave me the money saying, "go and rent a cheap guest house for the night so that tomorrow you could go and look for your uncle with a sober mind. Go in peace."
I took a cab and asked the driver to take me to the nearest police station. I was not a self-confessed criminal, but I turned myself over to the long arm of the law for security and protection. And the first person I met was the superintendent and I addressed myself to him in a criminal-statement-like fashion: "I just arrived from Khartoum…." Before I could finish my well rehearsed statement, the police superintendent whose eye bags were heavy with sleep, interrupted, "so what?" I said to him: "so far so good, I want a space to rest my ribs just for the night." The man looked at me and at my small luggage and said: "we have a lot of space in the cell, free of charge." Then he laughed sarcastically. With skinny fingers he pointed and said: "go behind that water tank, over there….you’ll find other lazy people like you who hate work because they can sleep and snore in the police compound without paying a cent for their safety. Go and sleep! When you wake up in the morning wash your face in the tap and go to look for menial work in the port, you hear that!"
If I thought I was the only homeless person that night, I was wrong. And I was more than happy to join an army of street children who snored on the sand within the police compound. I lay on my back, using my luggage as a headrest. I was exhausted and all I wanted was sweet sleep. I gazed at the clear sky and I saw that it was limitless and fathomless. I didn’t know where God was hiding in that endless expanse. I counted the stars until I dozed off.
"Allah Akhbar …Allahhhh Akhbar," the man of Allah woke me at the crack of dawn. I rubbed the dust from my body and proceeded to the tap to wash away the sleep from my eyes. There was a leftover stick of cigarette in my pocket. I lit it and waited for the orange sun to appear.
Port Sudan town. An ancient mosaic of architecture: thick stone-walled fortresses, mosques with leaning minarets, a cathedral with a gong as big as a beer drum, dark mansions with cobwebbed balconies overlooking the dark-blue Red Sea – the route to the world of my imagination and longing: Barcelona, Rome, Nicosia, Sardinia.
I wandered the streets of the town hoping to bump on a lady called chance to take me by the hand and lead me to a place I would temporarily cherish as home. But chance had no appointment with me. I passed men clad in Jellabia robes soiled with red dirt as if they had rolled in a heap of snuff. Men with curly, long hair - sculptured wooded combs engraved with Arabic calligraphy projected from the mane of their hair like antennas. They chewed twigs for cleaning their teeth and spat with spirited abandon. They squinted and spoke in a language other than Arabic, their own mother tongue. And they were proud in their ruggedness. I asked for directions and their hearts smiled at me with kindness I have never felt before.
"Take that green and red bus. It will take you straight to where many of your people live. God bless the feet of a journeying man," said one of the men.
Before me was a sprawling slum which was poverty incarnate: makeshift shacks, seedy alleys, valleys dotted with fresh and dry cakes of shit, bare-chested skinny kids in tatters, an open-air market buzzing with green flies, dump heaps suffocating with rot, scavenger dogs and cats sleeping in the shade of kiosks, donkeys carting drums of saline drinking water, smelly severed goat heads with gnashed teeth roasting on a hot grill. The smell of poverty pervaded and perverted the mind.
Despite all these I felt pleasantly dead in this oblivious world as I trailed behind a volunteer escort. He wore unkempt hair that was dusty. His unwashed and crumpled clothes smelled of stale sweat, dirt and poverty. His muddy feet felt unwelcome in a pair of flip-flops that did not match. He stopped to beg for a pinch of snuff from another slum dweller with a protuberant lower lip that bagged a ball of quid. They exchanged pleasantries and spat in parallel directions.
"I’m escorting this visitor to Juma. He came from Juba, sorry, I mean Khartoum," said the escort, pointing at me with an index finger with overgrown, dirty nail. "Welcome to Port Sudan, man. And feel at home, man," said the other man as he extended a hand with a network of bulging veins. We shook hands as if we knew each other before. His beer breath hit my face with crude friendship. The man’s breath and firm handshake summarized the life ahead of me. My mind raced into an obscure and insecure future recycled from the present trash. It was humid and I felt thirsty and homesick.
As we approached a dingy kiosk, a simple structure of soft wood cardboard, plastered with posters of European soccer stars and anti-polio campaign, I could hear the singing of a sewing machine. The singing of the machine evoked distant memories of shop verandahs in Juba lined with sewing machines pedaled by home boys brought up on cassava and bush meat. My escort stood in front of the kiosk. He looked at the man behind the sewing machine and then smiled in my direction. "Juma, I bring you a visitor from Juba, no, the national capital Khartoum. Look at your visitor, do you know him, look." The tailor’s head jutted out of the window of the kiosk like a man peeping out of a moving train. Our eyes met, then we exchanged smiles. I’ve never met this man before. He smiled sheepishly as if trying to locate me. To avoid an embarrassing situation I told him that my name was Pio, the son of his cousin brother who passed away a decade ago. "Son of my brother, welcome to salty Port Sudan." He jumped out of the kiosk, embraced my small frame and shook my hand vigorously. I forgave him for the vigorous handshake, for he knew not that I was starving. Maybe this was how folks here greeted people.
As we got into a small banter my escort waited all the while impatiently, shifting from one leg to the other. I didn’t know what he was waiting for, until I saw my uncle dig his hand into his trouser pocket. When he removed it, he squeezed something into the escort’s dirty palm. Without a word of goodbye, he entered a dingy, makeshift building with a porous fence. There were murmurs, laughter of women and arguing masculine voices. Some of the people who emerged from there moved with unsteady steps. This was the way of life here. And if you lived here or at the periphery of the slum, you learned to live that way. The slum dwellers drank to drown their sorrow of living below the poverty line. Men drank, women drank, and even children drank. They drank merisa – a fermented brew that came in buckets and scooped with small bowls or calabashes.
Days rolled into weeks, and weeks became months and the military junta that seized power in a military coup began to dig its roots deeper to entrench and consolidate its position as a power to be reckoned with. Commercial Banks and government parastatals went up in smoke; money and vital documents disappeared in thin air as loyalists of the regime amassed stolen wealth. For now I must forget the idea of ever going to Spain. Not for now, maybe not forever.
Within a few months of my arrival to Port Sudan my life was reduced to a daily routine, dull and boring. I woke up at 6am. With a toothbrush in my mouth, I often joined the early risers in the slum, down the cobbled valley, unbuttoned and unzipped and lowered my pants to my knees. Then mechanically I squatted, to ease myself within the view of all and sundry. This is where transparency is made visible. Women, with assorted bums and complexions also relieved themselves here. We used all sorts of wipers for cleaning up: rough cement paper bags, newspapers, water, stones, twigs. It was a pleasant experience easing oneself in the open, where one communed with or even cursed nature with abandon. At night the valley turned into a den of fornicators and drug abusers.
I became part of the slum community and often contributed ideas towards the betterment of life among the youth. I painted pictures to illustrate the dangers of the major twin killer diseases: malaria and HIV/AIDS.
I was part of the communal life, but I badly needed work to support myself materially. My first job was at a tyre plant. I hated the menial work, but I loved the money. I hated the work because I was told that the carbon monoxide shortened people’s lives. Other people before me hated the labour too. One folk I suspected from the south like me hated the factory and his immediate bosses who were bullies. He had no kind words for them in graffiti scribbled on the wall of a toilet:
The boss is always right
Because he farts orders
In the ears of the real owner of this country
The carbon-coloured Sudanese
The sinews of his hands
To enrich others….
I labored for one month and fired on the second for plotting a workers’ strike. I was more than happy to leave before carbon-induced cancer corroded my lungs. I took my last pay and threw it into the lap of a Nubian woman whose artificial hair tickled the valley separating her nipples. Her ever smoke-filled home was like a crèche. She had a dozen kids from a dozen men who were tax evaders. They gained nothing and lost nothing. She took my money and lectured me on the New Testament. She said it was not an accident that Jesus Christ had thirteen apostles. And anyway, according to her, the thirteenth apostle, the one called Iscariot, was a reject who on his own volition experimented with suicide. Whenever I felt lonely I would pay the Nubian woman a visit, to drink ereqi, listen to Nubian music from a battered cassette player. Each night I slept on her rope bed I dreamt of Nubian harems and Nubian murals.
One day I went to play cards at the Community Center. That lucky afternoon I won the game that earned me some little cash. I bought a sandwich and some cigarettes. I ate the snack and planned to smoke the cigarette when I got home. My uncle was still at the kiosk enjoying the singing of the sewing machine. When I parted the gunny sack curtain of our entrance, the cardboard door was ajar and the padlock lay forlornly on the dirt floor. When I entered the shack I nearly fainted. The shack was swept clean of our earthly belongings. "Shit! Shit! And stinking shit!" I shouted at the top of my voice. I missed my books, but not the clothes. I was reduced to the jeans and worn-out T-shirt I was wearing. But it was fun sleeping in a pair of boxer shorts with a torn front, which made peeing an easy affair.
After the theft, the Nubian woman wanted to take me under her wings. I refused. I wanted independence. I wanted to go away, far away from this fucking life of grinding poverty, slum madness, and what not. Did I hear a voice say second-class citizen? And who is the first-class citizen, anyway, the president and his wife and well-fed kids? I wanted to break free from this open prison. My parole was over and I just wanted to disappear and reappear among total strangers who would not know my past and immediate present, other than being just a mere mortal, hoping to make meaning out of my miserable life.
It might have been a long a slumber of sorts; but honestly I never knew that date. The year was 1990, all right, I remembered vividly because Nelson Mandela was walking a free man. The year I remembered, yes, but not the month, not even the day of the week. Does it bother me? I had no sense of time either. I was broke, starving, dreaming of nothing. I was trapped in a time warp.
It was a quiet evening, and humid. And there I sat by the Red Sea. I threw pebbles into the transparent waters of the Sea, counting my age backwards but the glorious past was irretrievable like the memory of a crashed computer. The file was corrupted and therefore I needed to restart my life all over. I looked straight in the horizon. And I saw a tired ship groaning with cargo flying a strange flag. From here it would proceed southwards, to Mombassa, Maputo, Port Elizabeth, and then it will sail back to Port Said, and onwards in its rotation of the world. Maybe that is the ship that would bear me to Spain, or if I’m tossed overboard I would drift on the back of a shark that would transport me to Calcutta or even Papua New Guinea to be initiated into the black brotherhood by eating termites and herbs. The ship began to hoot tootoooooot huhuhuuuuu like a prolonged fart. I’ll camp here tonight and when the tired ship docks and is relieved of its cargo, I’ll pretend to be a ship cleaner. That will be the only golden opportunity for me to slip in and hide in the basement among the rats, cockroaches, spiders and spirits of the sea.
Darkness embraced the sea, except for the beacons in the distance. Behind me lay the sleepy city twinkling with bulbs of dull colours. The pangs of hunger began to torment my tummy. Mosquitoes menacingly sung unwelcome choruses of malaria in my ears. I helped my light frame up and trudged back to the city. I felt heavy carrying an invisible question mark on my head. I decided to pass by the Meriekh Football Club to play dominoes or cards for money; and if I win I will have some beans and a maimed piece of bread and probably drink some tea if I’m lucky enough. I hate playing dominoes with those Bedouins, I must confess. They insult me a lot. Sometimes I imagine cutting off their large ears that stick out like artificial appendages. I can imagine how these chaps would look like without their ears. Maybe they would look like chickens without wings? Hunger knows how to plug a bloke’s ears from insults, anyway, I convinced myself.
. The club was full that very tonight. When a good number of ships dock at the port they bring cargo and sailors and money and sexually transmitted infections. I booked for a game and went to sit on a rickety wooden bench to watch TV. There wasn’t much in the news except for the usual religious sloganeering, propaganda and Egyptian soaps. I was terribly fed up with these state lies. I eyed the steaming metal pot of horse beans near the cashier’s table. My mouth watered. I looked at the cashier counting a wad of worn-out, oily and dirty banknotes. I envied his position because at least for him he doesn’t sleep on an empty stomach, not even on the day of the last military coup. Although the bulb glowed dimly, my eyes fell on a crumpled piece of something that looked like a dry leaf, or was it a piece of cloth or a talisman? But the harder I looked at it the more it resembled money. My mouth went dry and I felt guilty without committing any crime. I walked over to the cashier’s table. The cashier was busy arranging his wad of money like a pack of cards according to the denominations. I stood before the cashier pretending to buy some food. I dug my right hand into my empty pocket and removed it with a clenched fist. "Oops!" I exclaimed, pretending my money fell in the sand. I bent over the object I saw before, grabbing it with a shaky hand; and by God, it was a wallet. I didn’t want to know who might have lost it. Instead I straightened myself and looked directly in the eyes of the cashier who seemed not to notice a thing. "Maybe I’ll eat after my game?" I said this aloud to no one in particular, although I really wanted the cashier to hear. And I went away without playing the game either.
I entered Abbas Restaurant and went straight to the toilet as if I had a running stomach. I looked around the four walls of the toilet, painted with murals of shit. I reached for my trouser pocket and fished out the slim leather wallet. I held my breath and opened it. My! My! My eyes popped out when I saw the contents of the wallet: a one hundred dollar bill and a coloured passport-size photograph of a young woman with an aquiline nose, thin lips, and heavy mascara lined her eyebrows, and her hennaed hair was half covered with a white veil. The woman’s photo made me happy although I didn’t know her. Even if she was an image, for me she was God-sent. However, what saddened me most was the dollar note. I was broke and badly needed money but it was not American money that I was looking for. The dollar in my pocket was like walking with death in my pocket. It was a curse. If the state security agents caught me red-handed with it the kangaroo courts would not hesitate to send me to the gallows without giving me a chance to tell them how I stumbled on the American money in the first place. I would be labeled an agent of imperialism, colonialism, Americanism and other isms you can think of. Curse the military junta!
There was a feast at the Nubian’s place. Three of her boys underwent circumcision that morning. The cut had nothing to do with initiation of passage, but simple hygiene. Even men who were not circumcised when they were boys, were now going to the hospital to be circumcised, they said; ‘it reduces the chances of getting HIV/AIDS.’
In the backyard, Nubian women were outdoing each other in the art of cooking and making salacious remarks about the occasion. "Circumcision is good for men. It is healthy. A circumcised dick is better than one with a hanging forehead. Me I can’t sleep with an uncircumcised man," declared another woman’s voice.
"Sister, a dick is a dick, circumcised or not," interjected another one amidst laughter.
"But I told you I just can’t sleep with a dirty uncircumcised thing," insisted the other one.
"Look at this penis discriminator," shouted another woman. The other one slapped her palms and said, "Rania, you’re really ignorant, haven’t you been told that AIDS lurks in the loose skins of uncircumcised dicks?" The women laughed at this as the delicious aroma of cooking food escaped from the Nubian’s backyard: sizzling onions, assorted spices, peanut butter, barbecue. There was also an overwhelming feminine scent lingering in the vicinity. It is during ceremonies, funerals and suchlike festivities that the Sudanese woman exhibits her unique, innovative cooking skills. Woe to a Sudanese woman who is a bad cook, her husband will be snatched by other women who cook to conquer the heart of a man. They say; "the route to a man’s heart is through his belly."
The Nubian sent one of the parking boys to fetch a block of ice for cooling drinking water. The weather was damn hot. Everybody was sweating, worse for the women who were cooking food for the visitors. They sweated profusely and continued to crack salacious jokes. After all, wasn’t the occasion a constant reminder to warrant such loose talk?
The men on the other hand were discussing matters to do with the security of the slum. Not about thieves or rapists or conmen. They talked about the police. The previous morning a truckload of them descended on the slum in their regular swoops on the slums in the Port city. Whatever their motive was this time, I swore they wouldn’t get any clue to where I hid my dollar. I had folded it into a polythene paper and sewed it in the waist of my jeans trouser. All the same I had panicked just like anyone else in the slum. The Nubian was an illicit beer queen. And since she got into the business almost a decade ago, she has been bailing other imprudent women, but she has never landed in jail for possessing or selling illicit drinks. Some women whispered that she had a charm that kept police at bay. But besides that, she had good connections with the powerful people of the law: army officers, police officers, Customs officers, Port officials. She brings them virgin girls to shut their eyes, ears and mouths.
The circumcised boys sat on a mat. They wore loose calico robes locally known as Jallabia. They ate cakes and candies to assuage the pain of their manly wounds. They enjoyed the company of other kids from the neighbourhood. They talked in low tones and giggled. The boys’ mother, the Nubian, coordinated the agenda of the occasion, moving from the makeshift kitchen in the backyard, giving orders to the young ladies to supply the men in the makeshift shade with more free beer. She also made sure the circumcised boys stayed put. "Boys, if you know that you are circumcised and it hurts, remain where you are seated, don’t even think of sneaking out to play football," the Nubian warned the boys who affirmed with a lazy nod of their heads.
The afternoon became old and the young evening gave meaning to life. There was eating, drinking, talking and laughing. The revelers had kind words for the Nubian. They praised her for being a successful single mother. Who doesn’t reap praises for supplying people with good food and beer free of charge? I was even amply supplied with a packet of Benson & Hedges cigarettes.
In a low tone one of the guests who I knew asked me about the war in the south. I raised my thumb up. He smiled. "I hear the Nuba and the Westerners are joining the war?" He remarked questioningly. I told him that the war had united all the marginalized people of the Sudan, and quickly changed the topic to something else, for you could never trust a character who posed like a brother.
"I hear they are planning to raze the slum soon," said one man who sounded a bit tipsy. But another elderly man who didn’t give a hoot about informers announced, "let them raze it, but only if they want to turn the slum into a killing field. Let them dare, if they want to turn this place into a lake of blood!"
Then there was a dance until the wee hours of the night. The men beat drums improvised from tins, benches, chairs. The women sung, thumped the ground with their feet and ululated. The women enticed the men with a suggestive dance. With their braids and artificial hair they swung their heads left and right, the artificial hair hitting their left and right shoulders, while their palms worked on their bums, imitating a drum beat. And as they slapped their buttocks in unison they produced a rhythm that sent the men into frenzy. I reeled home when the cocks were about to crow.
When I woke up the following morning my head pounded like a drum. I lost appetite, and each time I belched there was an unpleasant smell of rotten egg in my mouth. I had constipated. I forced myself to take bath when the Nubian sent for me. This woman knows matters to do with beer and hangovers, but I never knew why she has failed to maintain a husband. She had prepared some breakfast for me. I ditched the solid food and concentrated on the green peppered goat leg soup. Sweat exploded from my forehead, arms and armpits, and I felt alive again.
The feast was over. It was another day and I had to go back to my original self. Work. I hopped from one backbreaking job to another just to keep afloat. Our people say; "it is work that makes a man what he is." I had purged myself of all shame to do the odd jobs I’ve been doing since I came to Port Sudan. There was time when I despaired, when salvation refused to come my way. The fact that Port Sudan was at the edge of the Red Sea was enough to convince me that I had hit a dead end. But when I refused to end up in a mental house, I got to terms with my predicament. I accepted it as one would, with a tough exam. I had one abstract determination, though. Mine was an odyssey from somewhere to nowhere. But then, I realised that even that nowhere was a loci, a destination, that is mathematically speaking. And it was this so-called nowhere that I was keen to discover in my limited time on this very planet. I assumed I was a protagonist in a motion picture: a Rambo, a James Bond, a Jackie Chan who would beat all imaginary odds to emerge a hero. Patience and determination kept me moving from one day to the next, hoping against hope. I lived for today and ridiculed yesterday that is, but a faint memory in my sub-conscious self.
I read my few books from cover to cover again and again as if I was preparing to defend a PhD thesis. Then I started reading the Bible from Genesis to Revelation and back to where I started. And I identified the biblical journey with mine. I was glad that I had started the Genesis of my long journey with a step of the right, or is it the wrong foot forward? I reinvented the wheel somewhere in the house of Ezekiel, negotiating the thorny path via Job’s; stumbling upon the Beautiful song when Delilah was shaving King Solomon’s pubic hair; I remixed Boney M in the Psalm. I was never tired of the long journey but looked forward with glowing hope to a beautiful Revelation. I kept the candle of hope flickering.
The night before, I had a dream, which to me was as real as the circumcision ceremony at the Nubian’s place. I was lying in a hammock, half asleep, rocking between the Horn of Africa and the rocky terrain of Yemen, underneath was the mighty Red Sea bubbling with hot water. Somalia was a stone throw away, still exploding with rocket propelled grenades and ghat. I was half asleep, defying deep sleep for the obvious reasons. I didn’t want to end up like a chicken in the boiling mighty Red Sea.
I started work on two different jobs. But it was nothing to smile about toiling. From morning till something past 2 pm, I washed cars at the beach. I also learnt how to drive them. And in the evening I taught an aspiring Beja revolutionary the English language. He wanted to learn the foreign language to equip himself with the basics for communication in case the BBC asked him for an interview. He knows that besides arms, it is also journalists who are capable of making or ruining revolutionaries. He needed the English language to haggle for arms in the black-market. The more I washed the cars and taught the Beja man, the more I became vexed with myself, the system, and the military junta altogether. But this anger was washed away with a cup of spiced coffee brewed by the Beja man himself. After the English lesson, we sat at the coffee shop overlooking the Koranic school. The shrill voices of minors chanted Koranic verses, committing them to memory. After several cups of black, spiced coffee and a few dates, I would excuse myself to go home as my pupil took an urn to wash his hands, face, feet, in preparation for the evening prayers. The evenings were almost the same when the orange ball of the sun sunk behind the grey Red Sea hills.
I woke up morning, messed up with wet dreams, yet relieved of the burden: the tank of semen inside me was now empty. I didn’t have a girl friend, I didn’t need one. Girl friends here were a source of stress. They wanted to get married. No sooner do you befriend one than she’ll trick you into making her pregnant. And when her belly bulged with one’s seed, she’ll want to be married. I was unable to feed myself, leave alone an extra mouth. Let me be. Alternatively, there were many sugar mummies hunting for young men to enslave. Sugar mummies in Port Sudan were so generous with their money which they made from selling illicit alcohol and even drugs brought by seamen.
Once a young man was trapped in the armpits of a sugar mummy she’ll give you money to spend on cigarettes, designer clothes, booze and fun (but not with young ladies). After indulging you on all those things, you are expected to pay her back by making her feel comfortable in bed. When reckless boozers come to her place and start a fist fight you are expected to be around to play the role of a peace keeper, but mostly a bouncer. You are supposed to fight the trouble makers and then throw them out. The problem with these sugar mummies were that, the moment you disappointed them or when they got fed up with you because you became a liability, they would throw you in the streets.
Uncle Juma was a man loved by many in the slum. He was a cool guy who never wanted to ruffle the feathers of other people. He was a simple man with a monotonous and limited routine life. He woke up very early each morning and dutifully went to his tailoring kiosk. And very late in the evening he returned home only to chat a bit and sleep. I never saw him drink tea except for the local brew called kwete, which he relished so much to the point of addiction. A day never passed without him taking the stuff, even when he had fever.
My uncle made friends easily, many of whom flocked to his tailoring kiosk to while away the afternoon with a hearty laugh, for he was a master story-teller and a consummate conversationalist. He was the type of person who could turn a dull moment into bliss. On account of his good humouredness he rarely got angry. In fact I never saw him angry, except one day when he discovered that his former girlfriend had infected him with a deadly sexual disease and ran away to Tokar or Gorora. Since he was my uncle, I didn’t know how to ask him what the disease was. But all along I suspected the worse virus.
He told me a lot of stories about his adventure as a young man when he left Juba in a torn shirt and patched khaki shorts for Khartoum and later to Port Sudan. For some inexplicable reason he never talked about our relatives back home. One day he came back home drunk and told me for the first time that he ran away from home because his step-mother mistreated him a lot. He said he stowed away in a Nile ferry, hiding in the toilet until he was discovered on the third day of the journey. A northern Sudanese soldier who was returning to Khartoum after serving in the south, adopted him for ten years until he learned the craft of tailoring when he decided to make it to Port Sudan. After that brief revelation of his former life uncle never mentioned anything about home, neither did he want to be reminded. I suspected the mistreatment he suffered in the hands of his step-mother traumatized him a lot. Since he ran away from home when he was probably ten years old, he never returned. Sometimes he used to joke about death, saying that he didn’t mind being planted in the nearest cemetery, because, for him, soil is the same everywhere, it does not discriminate.
I got used to this state of affairs of not sharing or talking about family matters with my uncle. After he parted ways with his runaway girlfriend he became somewhat lonely although it was hard for outsiders to notice. Sometimes in his dreams at night he muttered the name Rosa Rosa his ex-girlfriend of many years. He was serious with the relationship but it seemed Rosa lived life on her own terms as a slum whore. Uncle didn’t want to be reminded of her. Her name was being whispered in the local bars in the slum. People said she was a dangerous woman who had infected many young men in the slum with the bad sexual disease. Some even went to an extent of saying that some of the people she had infected had started dying. Other women who said they knew more about Rosa’s secret life said that before she ran away, she had compiled a long list of men in the slum she had gone to bed with and infected with the deadly virus. Men who suspected their names were in Rosa’s list either changed locations or suffered in silence, and one of them committed suicide.
Nine months after the military junta overthrew a democratically elected government, living standards took a nose dive. Sugar and bread queues grew longer by the day as casual jobs became scarce and breadwinners in the Port city - mainly men - struggled to make ends meet. Those who couldn’t get jobs as porters in the port or factories went to work in agricultural schemes to the south of Port Sudan. One of this popular schemes was called Salum (probably a corruption of Shalom), a one time colonial post.
Salum was more or less like a hippy village: farmhands smoked pot, drank illicit alcohol and went to bed with prostitutes who bootlegged the illicit alcohol. The agricultural schemes which were far away from the long hand of the law were paradise to the owners who were northern Sudanese tycoons who reveled in the loose life of smoking pot, drinking and gambling.
It was here that I temporarily settled as a farmhand, growing animal fodder for a morsel. It was a relief to get lost in the wilderness, very far away from the real world of cinema, ice cream, Coca-Cola, newspapers. I buried my head in manure, ploughed plots of animal fodder and soaked my skin in the saline well. We ate dry fish, okra, and dates and washed down with Ethiopian black coffee. We played dominoes by moonlight and slept on gunny sacks like prisoners. One day I returned from the field dog-tired only to find a wild friend coiled on my bed of gunny sack. A cobra. I didn’t know whether it was a sign of good luck or a foretelling of more bitter days ahead. I just shoed it away and it obliged as it slowly slithered into the nearby plots of tomatoes.
Salum was a tiny world within specific parameters. Beyond the ten kilometer square radius of the agricultural scheme was an extensive tract of sand and shrub, and beyond that lay the scattered shelters of the Bedouin Beja. They lived in isolation to avoid the pollution of civilization like cigarettes, trousers and shirts - even a Beja dog can tell a typical Beja from a non Beja by their attire. While their dogs are used to their masters’ flowing jallabia and a waist jacket, they would bark and even maul a stranger wearing a shirt and trouser.
Living in Salum was a sure way of being away from the long hand of the law. For if tycoons and farmhands smoked hashish with abandon without being arrested, how could the police smoke me out of here on account to possessing some American dollars? Who else could suspect me of being an American mercenary or imperialist agent? As long as the military regime was in power, and as long as the dollar was an illegal tender which was punishable by death with hanging, I would stay put. I was almost getting closer to confirming the local belief that Port Sudan was a prison, and we the prisoners were being tied with threads of an omnipotent octopus in the seabed.
One day I received a hand delivered letter that made me skeptical about the message, which to me was like a trap. For nearly two years I never wrote nor received letters. I suspected the letter might have been a warrant of arrest from the security agents fighting drugs and counterfeit goods, including unwanted currencies like the dollar in my possession. Maybe they got wind of what I had, but who gave them the lead? I was cock sure nobody knew I had a dollar note on me, unless the security surveillance system had improved technologically.
For a while I ignored the letter and concentrated on the bearer of the letter, a fellow farmhand. He was given the letter by a woman in a local bar back in the township. The woman had told him that the letter was very urgent, the reason why he took the trouble of delivering the letter before he reached his shack, which was not far from where he found me. I tore the envelop open and proceeded to read the letter aloud in front of the bearer. The letter was scribbled in an unsteady handwriting – like the handwriting of a drunk person.
Port Sudan, 14/12/91
Dear nephew Pio,
This may be my last communication with you. I’m very ill. Come. Uncle Juma.
I dropped my head and for a moment my mouth went dry and my heart beat abnormally faster. And my eyes welled with tears. I had a strange feeling that I couldn’t explain. I received the letter a week late, heightening my worry. But what worried me most was the message from the same man telling me that the woman who gave him the letter had told him that somebody was badly looking for me.
"How does the man look like? And why is he looking for me?" I knew I hadn’t taken a loan from somebody. All the same, I was directing my questions to the wrong person, for he was just a messenger.
That night I didn’t sleep a wink. I was anxious to go and see my ill uncle. But at the same time I was afraid of being arrested for being in possession of American money.
Very early that morning I removed the American money from the waist of my jeans trousers, wrapped it in a polythene bag and put it into an old bottle of jam which was my salt container. I closed tight the lid of my cursed treasure bottle and buried it in my shack. Then I safely left for the township. I traveled the one-hour journey on the back of a Toyota pick-up vehicle. Temperatures had started to fall and it was extremely cold on the back of the open vehicle. I developed a running nose.
When I alighted from the pick-up I wanted to proceed to the township pharmacy to get some drugs for my uncle, but I didn’t know what to buy because I didn’t know what he suffered from. All the same, I bought some pain killers just in case he needed them.
As I rushed home I saw some people peeping through the slits of their bush fences. They looked at me and whispered to each other. I didn’t know whether they were talking about me or talking their own things. At the corner of the bakery I met the man who escorted me to my uncle the first time I came here. He looked at me and I could see his eyes turning moist. Before I could ask him what the matter was, he didn’t shake my hand, but put both his hands together with the open palms facing upwards. Muslims do this to express condolence. All of a sudden I was seized with panic when the man told me they buried my uncle the day before.
He held me by the hand and escorted me home. When the women mourners recognized me they started wailing. I threw down my small bundle of clothes and burst into tears.
My uncle died alone in his sleep. He became too ill to go to hospital. He left no will, he uttered no last word to anybody, except for the note I got from him.
After my uncle’s death I wanted to start a new chapter in my life. Since the person I had come to see was no more, I felt very lonely, and I wanted to move on or return, but I was yet to decide which direction to put my foot. I wanted to leave the open prison after being in remand for one year or so.
One day when I got over with the passing of my uncle I went into town to catch up with the latest news, job opportunities and eavesdrop on the rumour mill in case the ban on the dollar had been lifted.
I visited one of the tailors I knew. But before we could finish with the pleasantries, he told me that somebody was seriously looking for me. He said the man claimed I was related to him. I was suspicious about this so-called relative, and I made it known to the tailor that the only relation I had in Port Sudan was dead. "He just left a short while ago. Sit down, have a cup of hibiscus tea and make yourself comfortable. If you’re lucky enough he may return," the tailor said to me. At the back of my mind, I didn’t want to meet this man without a name. I suspected he could be one of the police informers hunting for dealers in illegal currencies.
"What is the name of the man?" I asked the tailor, but he only knew him by his nickname of Karlos. "And does this Karlos of yours say he knows my name?" With confidence he said, "yes, he mentioned your name Pio, unless there is another Pio that we don’t know in this Port Sudan."
While I slurped the hibiscus tea, a man of medium height approached the verandah where we sat with the tailor. He was waving his face with a newspaper. The man was dark and he wore dark glasses, the one fancied by the state security agents. He smiled at the tailor. "Karlos, you must be a lucky man, meet your nephew Pio." Karlos shook my hand while smiling. His handshake was paternal, warm. But it was difficult to read his mood because his eyes were sealed with the dark sun glasses. When he started talking to me, calling me; "son of my elder brother", mentioning my late father’s full names, I immediately saw the unmistakable spitting image of my dad in the gap separating his front row teeth. And his voice was the voice of the man who sat near me on the bench at the bus station the night I arrived Port Sudan a year or so ago.