Juba’s Gala Nights
By John Oryem
The previous weekend was really a dull one. Many returnees from exile had been crowding our home; even our bedroom was not spared. Since we arrived here after the 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 – it’s better than being with walls and dogs in exile.” I pleaded.
“Remember, my green card is still with me, I can leave this city anytime with my children.” Nora threatened.
“Woman, for me I have come for good. I will die here where my ancestors are.” I warned.
When she is in a good mood some days, Nora would be excited to share her experiences at her organization’s office with me. 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 had 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 turn 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 go on for years. The day we gathered our strength to tell them to fend for themselves or contribute to our scanty resources, Mama told our secret plan with Nora and flatly said “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 cannot 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 was not raining sometimes, we sat with Nora behind our house, transferring constantly as we followed, sitting on lower chairs sipping cups of 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 travelling in rainstorms.” I said to Nora. Clouds above became darker. It has been so long since we had special a bonding. Rains gave us good cover that night as our guests crowded themselves into 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 built a sanctuary for some. Just last Wednesday, by coincidence, I met Hon. Madame Kani at her 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.
“You are our heroine and a role model; our situation requires 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 on weekends. Last October, the daily Observer published an interview with theFirst Lady. She cited Women for better Tomorrow as her favourite show. Occasionally I volunteer as her chauffer, dropping her at the station especially when it is a live phone-in presentation.
Ever since we came back here from exile, Nora has become 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 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 always comments if I complain about Nora’s uncooperative attitude. It was Nora’s initiatives to establish DLI. She shared great stories with me from other women who advocate with her on children’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,” she would repeatedly tell me when I praised her hard work. “Rehabilitation of rejected people in a society like ours isn’t easy.”
“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 with 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 into the bush and forced you to negotiate with our foes!”
“Nora, now rehabilitate this falling house.”
“I shall do that 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 awaited the 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 centre of attraction after hosting successful performances by visiting the 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 the River Nile side. It was already 9 pm. Like those before me, I parked between two mango trees, a few meters away from defying the dust and heat of Nile Paradise Inn. There are no signs indicating parking lots for VIP or ordinary clients. 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 a 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 appetisers 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 the dimly lighted yard. They wore clothes next to nakedness, exhibiting their flesh and muscles 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 its feet with Michael Jackson’s moon walking. Disco lights, deceptive festive fumes rise from behind the curtains at 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 them come 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 generations 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 some 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 was 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 the live performance was on. When our eyes met, he said “hi”. I responded to him with a 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 a dominating role in the round, unnecessarily enlarging my arms to acquire a 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 clothes, ripened mangoes kept on falling violently between us and on tables next to us. No one picked them 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 crowding the ministries since peace returned to this city.
“I was under this very tree, studying for my secondary school certificate 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 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 spoke to Legge boldly.
“Prostitution is all over the world.” Legge said.
“Look at that Land Cruiser, it is carrying those girls for people in power; they cannot come here, they will be too shameful. Even Dobi girls are here! Who could imagine one day that Dobi girls will be useless like today? Go to the Isolation Ward at the City Teaching Hospital and see for yourself.” The man went on talking to 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 hands briefly but when her phone rang she dropped my hand. It was 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 sea of thoughts, I questioned myself, “Do these people here really use condoms?” My mind quickly raced back to Lujang’s story when we still were in the bush. “One day if God is to let the sky loose so that the whole of 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 was 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 were 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 a few pocket coins from clients who reached golden deals and were 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 gazelles 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 competed 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 a 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 hands, we drifted far away from preying 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?”
“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.”
“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 at 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. A 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 constructions workers from Mongolia, Korea, China and Japan. At their sight 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. The majority of those who remained resisting the enemies got their spoken version of English under trees in the bush. As it was a custom, AK-47 on your shoulder, 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 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!”
“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 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 the old cemetery. Peace hasn’t brought calm to them yet. The living have 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.
“Chantal? That’s beautiful name!”
“And your….. name?”
“How is this city?” I inquired.
“Boda-Boda boys ran away with my bag. My money, my phone.”
Chantal remained silent for 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?”
“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 the softly green screen of her Nokia phone, the type being sold here like cowries. I never bothered to ask Chantal’s phone number. Who did not learn how to be selective with phone numbers?
“Chantal I like Congo.”
“Who you like?”
“You mean musician?”
“Koffi Olomide no good. I like Madilu.”
“I like Koffi.” At mention of Koffi, Chantal peeled her lips in disapproval.
As we turned towards Luri Square, in front of us were some youth 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 newly 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 deal.
“Do you have CDs?”
“No my car doesn’t play disks. Only MP3.”
“I mean this. This!” Chantal pulled a flashy pack of condoms from her bag.
“I do not carry any. My wife Nora would 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, we stopped and entered another Ethiopian restaurant. The place was quiet with a 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.
“Do you have work there?”
“You have mother, father and brothers?”
“Yes they are in Kisangani.”
“Do you go there?”
“Yes, but the customs 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 the 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,” she said.
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, waving and staggering each time she skipped over stones. Disappearing like a ghost I will never meet again.