From the air, South Sudan looks like a decrepit village rising into a city. Dusty roads wind around red, green and blue roofed buildings. There are clusters of huts. You can count the tarmacked roads from the air. The KQ flight is only a quarter full and across the aisle is a mzungu – face white as sheet, craning to see the famous troubled country below. The youngest country in the world. She has a charmed look. I wonder what she’s thinking. I wonder how much time she has spent in Africa. She could be one of those who have been in many conflict areas in Africa or she could be new. A first timer. She’d have told her family, “I will send you guys a postcard from Africa,” because she imagined there will be a post office where you can go and buy stamps and send postcards. Of course. I couldn’t even get a fridge magnet in South Sudan. And I looked.
Sadly, if South Sudan is your first port of call in Africa, your stereotypical, media-influenced view of Africa will just be reinforced. Because South Sudan is a different animal; scarred by decades and decades of war. You see it in its character. Its jaded. Its spine is bowed. But South Sudan has had enough and it’s saying, “Can we do this differently, folks?”
Well, can they?
When we touched down and our plane maneuvered its way around the numerous special mission planes, loading and offloading humanitarian goods, we saw sitting on the hot tarmac an army van, the ones with the massive machine guns mounted on its back, patrolling the airport. Grim looking blue-black men – not dark, but blue–black men – hang behind this van that had its headlights on, clutching special assault rifles and a motley of other weaponry. I saw a rocket launcher. A bloody rocket launcher! They were all thin and long-limbed and risqué. Some were in dark Ray Bans – black glass against black faces – you couldn’t even tell where the dark glasses started and the flesh ended. The sun bounced off them.
And nothing prepares you for this scene.
Actually nothing prepares you for South Sudan.The heat continued to rise from the tarmac. The army men with their guns drove around the airport, a show of might. I felt like I was in a scene from Beast of No Nation – only there was no single person who looked like Idris. The women fanning themselves weren’t doing it because of the soldiers but because of the heat.
My minder told me not to point at soldiers. At some point over lunch I asked him how one can differentiate a Dinka from a Nuer for instance and he shot me a nervous look and put his finger on his lips. “Walls have ears,” he said. South Sudan is a bit like a human body that has suffered a bad bout of malaria and is only just recovering. There is a bad taste in the mouth and a sense of lethargy. The appetite isn’t quite back yet. It feels fragile. And jumpy.
If the city surprises you, the countryside will shock you. We travelled south to Nimule, towards the border of Uganda. It’s green and vast and largely uninhabited. Small bomas made up of huts ran alongside the road. There were green hills and shallow valleys. Smoke from charcoal dealers meandered up to the unfiltered blue spotless sky. Often without warning a small boy in military uniform would step onto the road and raise his thin hand consisting of more elbow than arm. Our driver pulled over. The boy with jumpy inquisitive eyes would peer at us in the car and speak to the man seated in the front seat, a lanky security guy in civvies, who then produces an ID and mumbles words in their mother tongue. I caught “mission” and we are waved through. There are numerous checkpoints like that ahead ran by boys and young men with no boots and lots of authority. That and demining crew who closed the road with ribbons as they dismantled landmines.
I went about interviewing military men in government offices. Men who have seen battle, no doubt. Now they are tied to desks. They are large and towering and black. Their offices have loud Chinese furniture with light doors that can’t keep out the wind. Their egos fill the room.Their desks are like their cars – large, and they struggle to accommodate those egos. They wear their military and police uniforms to the office. And their chairs, my goodness! Their chairs are gallant and elaborate and they rise behind them like the thrones of pharaohs. I suspected that a man is judged by the size of his chair down there. When I put on my voice recorder they’d peer at it suspiciously. Most were accommodative and quick to laugh. Have you seen a big black military guy laughing? Oh, you want a big military guy to be laughing, not frowning.
The offices always had hangers-on seated around, some in military uniform and some in civvies. They just sat there, staring at you with dead eyes and ignoring the heat. Some took calls in the room and spoke loudly. The big man would ring a bell on his desk and a lady would stumble in with a tray full of bottled water. Every office was like that; a ringing bell and water. I have never hydrated so much in my life. This is how the youngest country in the world sets onto a path of development. Of course they have a long way to go, but at least they are on their way.
On the first night we were taken to a bar called Juba Raha. There was a band playing rhumba music. Bands are huge in Juba and they all play Congolese music, which makes me know that indeed the Luos descended from there. They also have an obsession with big cars and status and titles. They are tall and dark. Playing at Juba Raha there was a ragtag band called the Rising Star. Great vocals. Uber entertainers. Men smoked shisha. Shisha might be the preserve of the upmarket here in Nairobi but in Juba it’s smoked outside dukas and kiosks. It’s status-less. At Juba Raha ageing men smoked it, with their endless legs stretched before them.
South Sudanese people can’t dance for shit. They can’t. We went out each night. Not one person could dance. They just shifted their super tall bodies around on the dance floor, as if they had just eaten a very heavy lunch. When a man liked a number the band was playing, he would walk up and put a note on the man’s forehead and stick it there because of course he would be sweating. If it was a woman he would stick it in between her breasts. The society is very patriarchal. And they don’t make any excuses for it.
There is a word I learnt in Juba. A lovely word that I heard one night, after an altercation at a parking lot where a guy who was giving us a lift – a security agent – scratched a parked car as he reversed and he uttered those words. He kept saying, “I’m not scared of a Muonyjang. I’m not scared of a Muonyjang.” And I asked later, “What is this Muonyjang?” because it sounded epic and dusty, something revered and covered in a banana leaf and kept on a rafter of a hut. Not to be touched by children. A Muonyjang.
I was told that’s Dinka to mean “Man of men.”
A Dinka man, believes that there are men, then there is a Dinka man, a Muonyjang, a man of men.
I want to say something. But I don’t want it to mean anything else other than what I mean. I also don’t have to keep disclaiming that I’m straight before I say certain things. Because I am. No, really, I am. If I was even Bi, I would say it. Or allude strongly to it. It’s not like you are going to come to my digs and beat me up for liking men. And it’s not like we drink together so you going to never pay my bill. Sexuality is personal, no man lies on the bed you make. But I’m straight, sawa?
Having said that (goodness, ati having said that, how old am I?) I think there was something extremely romantic about those South Sudanese men. And by romance I don’t mean the romance of love, I mean the adventurous romance. The romance defined by Webster as “marked by the imaginative or emotional appeal of what is heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious or idealised.”
Are we together there at the back?
First South Sudanese men are tall! Very tall. You haven’t seen a tall man until you see a tall South Sudanese man. An assaulting height. And it’s this height that you notice even if you don’t want to notice, because it “diminishes” you as a man. When you stand next to a man and you are forced to look up at him, the dynamics of that interaction immediately change. Those men are tall. 6’2’’ is average height there. I interviewed this military guy who was a good 6’9’’ with the girth of a Prado to boot. (Hehe) Goodness, he stood up to shake my hand and when I placed my hand in his, I felt like a flower girl. I felt like those girls in white that used to wait to receive Baba Moi at the airport from his overseas trips. My hand disappeared in his. He held my hand like I was a young boy. Big men with big hands.
Then they are dark. A shade of dark that isn’t in the colour spectrum. It’s the kind of dark in which you can see your reflection. And it’s a beautiful smooth dark. Their skin has a very lovely sheen – both women and men. Tall and black and menacing.
I saw a man at the airport wearing a Kaunda suit. By the way South Sudan is the land of Kaunda Suits. Men love ‘em there. One night Dickson Migiro took us to this club called Nest and there I saw a guy clubbing in a full Kaunda Suit. Right in the middle of the club! It was like seeing a giraffe standing outside that Barclays ATM on Loita Street. I was flummoxed. I thought to myself, so this guy showered, opened his wardrobe and said, “I’m going to rock this Kaunda Suit because today I plan to kill them ladies.” Maybe he had a specific Kaunda Suit for going to the club with. Oh, and most South Sudanese ladies have weaves. I’m just saying. In fact I turned to the PR girl – Ann – and asked her, “Is it me or do these mamas all have weaves?” and she said, “Oh yeah. They love it.”
Anyway, back to that chap wearing a Kaunda Suit at the airport. He was easily 6’11”, very athletic, dark as a taboo, and with a small set of very white teeth running in his mouth. He had a face that seemed to have been carefully sculpted from a hardwood and then roasted in a kiln. His chin was solid, angular and perfect. His cheeks sunk in the right places, drawing small pools of shadows in the process; and he had these set of high cheekbones that gave him a half-menacing look. On his high forehead were those tribal incisions and I could tell from them that he was a Dinka from the way they ended into a V shape at the bridge of his forehead. His fingers were long and tough looking like sprouting roots of a medicinal tree, ending in uncut cigar-like stubs at the end. Then he had those small, aggressive, penetrative, and somewhat vindictive eyes that you couldn’t stare into for too long. Eyes that could wear out an enemy before his weapon did. He was a picture, that man.
We all walk around thinking that we are very male. We tell each other in bars, “you guy, you are a man so you can’t back down.” We say, “mimi ni mwanaume” when we want to prove a point. Then you find yourself next to this man in a Kaunda suit at the airport and you know that he is a different kind of man, the kind that you aren’t. You feel like a bad wolf sitting next to a lion.
Our flight was delayed so we sat in that dreadful steaming airport that smelled of batshit (literally) and this man looked around in that half bored, half alert way. He was an elegant man. And I’m never going to write those words again ever in my writing career. The way he carried himself, I could tell he didn’t belong in that Kaunda suit. It had been thrust on him. Clothes were wasted on him. They simply hang on his frame. He exuded something primal. Something primitive. Primeval. Outmoded. An antiquated man. He seemed like a time traveler from a past century, grudgingly passing through a strange modern time.
Sitting next to him was like sitting next to an electric plant, and feeling it hum with current. You could feel the manhood hum from this guy, his male-ness filling the air around him. He vibrated with testosterone. A Muonyajang, a man of men. I have seen men like these before, in Pokot and in Turkana. I once interviewed a 19-year old Pokot warrior during the Rift Valley festivals where they try to bring the Pokots and Turkanas together for the sake of peace and that boy was not a boy at all. But such things you have to be there to fathom.
The guys reading this are probably saying, “Oh come on now, Chocolate Man, you have a crash on another man?” Zii. You will only say this when the only men you have interacted with wear polo shirts with upturned collars, drink Heineken and say things like, “si you kuja?”
I was telling my office-mate, Fred, about this guy. And he stopped working on his laptop and listened to me with this look in his eyes. His mouth was closed but his eyes said “wow.”
In the plane, I wondered about that main in a Kaunda Suit. I wondered if a man his type who pays 150 heads of cattle for a woman, a man who can run for many kilometers in the dark during a raid, wrestle other men, walk barefoot on the hot African earth, love his cows more than he loves his woman, a man who is socialised never to back down, to cede to any man, a man like that, does he believe in foreplay? What kind of fathers are they? What dreams do they have?Is he the kind of man who will hold a woman’s hand or is this weakness? Does he cuddle, or is that a sign of weakness? When does he get vulnerable? What makes him vulnerable? How does he show fear?
OK, that’s enough. I have exhausted my gay quota for this year.
In other less manly news, my Creative Writing Masterclass will kick off between 8th to 10th June. We have now opened registration. To lock down a slot please email me [email protected].