Friday, 10 September 2010

Thinking inside the box

Wednesday 8th September

For reasons which escape me, Sudan bans the use of cameras without an official permit. And even though South Sudan seeks independence from the North next year, the rule still applies. Indeed my team leader tells me that a policeman reprimanded a visitor recently for looking too long at the bridge over the Nile. 

It’s not that I set out to be different, but I’m not very good at copying the way other people do things. Long ago, I went for a job with a consultancy firm. A man in a suit chatted with me in a bar at Victoria, then invited me to an event called an Assessment Centre, where they gave us pastries and orange juice. They talked a lot about thinking outside the box, pushing the envelope, and blue sky thinking. Next day, the chap in the suit rang me to say that perhaps I thought just a little too far out of the box for his clients. Mrs M professed brief indignation at his folly, and went off to work.

This evening I am thinking inside the box.

Like many buildings in Juba, my hotel bedroom is a pre-fab hut.  It is made of grey coated metal panels, linked by galvanised struts. They seem to treasure protective plastic on things here, and it hangs like sunburnt skin from the roof.  Fortunately my room also comes with air-con and a lady called Saaeda who cleans it and washes my socks. And the hotel seems to have recruited from all over the region to cook rather tasty versions of TexMex, Jalfrezi, Irish stew, and Ugandan matoke plantains.

My pre-fab is in CAT Alley, as we call it, as this part of the hotel “camp” is largely populated by freelancers under contract to CATatonix, the celebrated consulting firm. CAT Alley is also home to many cats who remind me of Mandallay’s dear departed Trinny. We had thought her looks to be Egyptian, but these pussies' fine bone structure, ginger blotches on white fur, and ringed tails suggest that Trinny too may have been South Sudanese. Either way, Trinny must have been a lady of the Nile. For the great glory of my hotel is that it is on the west bank of the White Nile, a great conveyor of water, a quarter mile wide, by which we eat our big East African breakfasts and dinners. We also take pastries from the breakfast buffet in paper napkins for lunch.

In the morning, my associates and I leave our tin boxes, and enter a 4X4. We bounce over the dirt till we get to Juba’s small network of paved roads, and then fan out with our papers and pastries, to our various ministries and offices. These are also largely in pre-fabs of grey coated metal panels. We spend much of the day stabbing at our rectangular laptops, to the background of each others’ conversations through thin walls. My boss entertains me by talking about the plays he is writing, and his forthcoming book on Juba Arabic, that he says is a pidgin of classical Arabic. He skypes his brother in Khartoum, and the whole family joins in. Then he shares a bag of hot, fat cassava chips with me. My laptop goes on standby.

In order not to lose my wits entirely, I have to seize the sliver of day between the working box and the sleeping box. So at 5.30 I chivvy my zealous fellows to the 4X4 to jig back to our night-time cuboids, where we can watch the rectangular portable television, or type more rectangular emails, if there is a connection.

Running shoes on. My relaxed team leader says it may not be wise to leave the beaten track. The war has been over for five years, but land mines are still a possibility. He later explains that the landmines in question are deposited by people who lack access to Thomas Crapper's contraption, or even to a pit-latrine.

At last, a brief moment without rectangles. The cars, motorbikes, children and animals criss-cross between the pot holes and obstacles. Many of the tracks are just made by feet and vehicles. All around are hovels of laths, wattle, cardboard, plastic sheeting emblazoned with UNHCR, most homes barely more than shelters, and no taller than me. These seem to be returnees from abroad, or country people in search of work. People sit, wash, cook, eat in the open.

I hear voices, African languages of which I know nothing, then suddenly a few slightly more familiar sounds, perhaps Juba Arabic.

Old men and children cheer me on, and some join me for a few yards. We negotiate a herd of goats being driven towards the market pen, where men holding tethered animals are in earnest debate. A rich goaty aroma rises with the dust. Tall long-horned cattle look over the fencing. Beside a footpath is a rough plot patterned with mounds, perhaps for cassava plants. 

 “Morning!” shout the children at any time of day. Or “How are you?”, and once “Give me one pound.” They carry jerry cans to fetch water, from where I have not discovered. Ours comes from a borehole below the hotel. It is clean, but makes the tea taste of salt and earth. Suddenly I get a biff on the bum, and turn to see a young girl, waving her plastic water can triumphantly, shrieking with laughter with her brother.

The dusty remnant of sunset at my back guides me East over the potholes to the flashing green illuminated palms of the hotel entrance. I sit by the blackening surface of the Nile, and watch ghostly branches bobbing in the water.

If I’m honest, I’m rather disappointed that no one has apparently seen the moon tonight in time to declare Eid, so we could all have a day off. I could take my laptop through the heat down to the trees and easy chairs beside the river. But they haven’t.

Instead I lie on the bed, and two miracles happen. Mrs M hooks my phone up to Skype, despite her professed ignorance of any invention more modern than the Biro.The other miracle is that all three Ms find their tongues to grace me with a version of their lives appropriate to an old man.

Tomorrow is another box. I wonder what’s in the envelope.

Sorry for late posting. T 'internet isn't what it might be here.

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