Friday, 29 October 2010

Guns and Butter

 Boda-bodas at sunset

I’ve told you before how people here appear to prize the plastic protective wrapping on things, long after it’s served its usual purpose.  Drivers of boda-bodas – the motorbikes that pass for taxis – like to keep rotting bubble wrap on the mirrors and indicators. It certainly adds to the sense of adventure. I heard a rumour that South Sudan might change from driving on the right to driving on the left, but from current traffic behaviour it wouldn't make much difference. Mrs M will be glad to know that a wise freelance eschews the bravado of the boda-boda for a more robust steed.
The authorities staged a little practice riot the other day. Afterwards the police sloped back to their barracks sweating beneath their riot helmets, and with cling-film dripping from their transparent riot shields.

I don’t remember our constabulary parading cling-film at the Orgreave coking plant as they taunted the miners with truncheon on shield. Although I was not in full sympathy with the boys, and perhaps girls, in blue on that occasion, you won’t find any cling-film on my shield either.

As Juba inches towards voter registration on 14th November for the January referendum on partition, there seems to be a change of mood here. For instance, the camp was overwhelmed last week by large numbers of men, politicians perhaps, supported by almost as many armed minders. The politicos sat around the large umbrellas on our terrace in circles of twelve or more, sometimes staying in extended silence for many hours. Then someone’s phone would ring and he would jump up, shouting angrily into it for some minutes, so loud that the Nile almost stopped in its tracks.

I was told that these were delegates, or perhaps delegates to delegates, to a conference at the Nyakuron Cultural Centre, where various factions of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement were patching up their differences ahead of the referendum. “Peace is very expensive,” remarked my fellow traveller, “all those hotel bills and per diems.” 

In case you are unfamiliar with the life of the freelance, the per diem or subsistence allowance is, exactly, meat and drink to the freelance. As a rule, my per diem is inadequate, yours is generous, but theirs is an unseemly abuse of public money.

I watched the delegates or the delegates’ delegates from the big comfy chairs by the smooth Nile where I had slumped happily next to a soldier or policeman. He was half looking on, half enjoying the shade of the mango tree like me, and held a large gun easily. It was smaller than an AK47 which is the only one I recognise, but it wasn’t a pea-shooter either. Its metal stock was shiny with wear. No bubble-wrap here: South Sudan has been at war, off and on, for fifty years.

The sad fact is that my ignorance of life in South Sudan has grown many times faster than any pin-prick of insight in my six weeks here. I feel, above all, more thoroughly foreign than in most of my holiday destinations. Apart from anything else, Sudan, even South Sudan, is just so big. A colleague staggered in yesterday after nipping out to the next town, a 100 miles away or so. It was an exhausting ten hour round trip on the worst roads, many flooded, that he had ever encountered. It made my recent triathlon look like a walk in the park, which you may say is the truth of the matter. 

Political conversations with one’s host are always tricky for the freelance. The Juba Times and the Sudan Tribune have news but it’s hard to grasp when you haven’t been there. And being in Juba just doesn’t count as being in South Sudan.

Some of the expatriates I meet don’t express strong opinions about much beyond the pre-fabricated office that contains their ministry or aid chest, perhaps because some don’t get out much more than I do. Those who do go further, sometimes tell me more: at the hash (of which more another day, when I can bear to describe it) I learned of the military build-up at the disputed border in the oil fields, and the steady emigration of those who can get away from it. I listen, dumb. It's hard to explain to a newbie jubie.

Actions speak as loud as words. Christmas seems a good time for many to take an extended holiday till after the referendum. I shall be off next week.

* * *

Meanwhile, perhaps the SPLM is following the example of Louis XIV who kept his courtiers busy and out of the way in the palace and gardens of Versailles.

Versailles: the way forward for Juba? 

The Sun King's design for living must be a serious contender in any challenge to replace the grubby grid of Juba with something more socially and aesthetically desirable. For my money, and fortunately it isn't, I'd say Versailles was a nose ahead of the preposteropolis recently proposed by some of my fellow travellers.

Yes, we are leading the way here. Keeping the delegates afloat with per diems in Juba's finest riverside palace is an excellent way of sustaining jaw-jaw - which is always better, as the man said, than war-war.

Keep buggering on, Clemmie.

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