There Is a Country collects eight engrossing pieces by South Sudanese authors—the first collection of its kind, from the youngest country in the world. Wrestling with a history marked by war and displacement, the work here presents a fresh and necessary account of an emerging nation, past and present. In vivid, gripping prose, There Is a Country’s stories explore youth and love, life and death: a first glimpse of what South Sudanese literature has to offer.
Port Sudan Journal
The bus pulled to a halt at the station a few minutes past nine. Port Sudan was dark and humid.
I was exhausted from the twelve-hour journey from Khartoum, and now I was in a new world altogether. I needed a cold shower, but there was no public shower in sight. The air was still, and the palm trees looked like junk-metal statues. I sat on a wooden bench, deciding it would be my bed for the night.
The Red Sea was a kilometer or so away. Against a hazy background like a dull watercolor painting, I could see the silhouette of ships’ masts, standing still. Modern Arabic music blared from a cassette player in a nearby restaurant.
I could see people eating there, through the large, open windows: men clad in white jallabia robes, taking in their late-evening meal. I envied them. Some of these late eaters could be night workers in the factories, or bachelors too lazy to cook for themselves, or travelers, or late arrivals like me. Smoke spiraled up from the coal in the restaurant’s firepit. I imagined they were roasting goat heads. The aroma reminded me of my home, hundreds of miles away, in South Sudan.
I was too broke to afford a meal. I knew that all the money I had in the world was just enough for me to board a commuter bus, a rickshaw, or maybe a donkey. But what I didn’t know was where I would go.
A man who looked like a traveler sat down near me. Despite the night, he had on dark glasses. Maybe he had a problem with his eyes? Maybe he was a thief, or a spy? There were many of them working for the new regime.
I pulled my small luggage closer to me.
I was twenty-five years old. Out of college. Out of work. I was broke, living rough, and trying to explore the world. That black rucksack contained my few belongings: a pair of blue jeans, a brown T-shirt, flip-flops, three worn-out pairs of boxer shorts, a toothbrush, a comb, five novels, a pencil, and my diary. The diary had been a birthday present from my Ugandan friend, given to me before I’d left home. It was as if he knew that one day I would be far away, wandering without a destination in mind.
Behind me I had buried my past. In front of me was an abstract painting that I was to decipher while I was still stupid enough and strong enough to do it. I was in Port Sudan looking for my uncle.
“Traveling late?” the stranger in the dark glasses asked me. He had a booming, baritone voice. Sudanese make friends easily, even with the devil.
I looked at his face, but I only saw the dark lenses.
I didn’t think I would be able to recognize him if I met him in a bread queue the following day.
“I’m not traveling,” I lied.
He turned his face in the direction of the port and the police station; the Sudanese flag hovered on its roof. 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 hand had landed on my cheek. He did not bother to see if he had killed the parasite that fed on him.
“Are you expecting a visitor on the next bus?”
“No,” I said.
I was hungry and tired. I was not in the mood for conversation with a stranger.
“I don’t mean to pry,” he said, “but when I saw that you were alone, I decided to come and speak with you.
I live in the suburbs. You look like a stranger in this town. Are you not?”
I decided to tell him the truth.
“I arrived from Khartoum this evening. I don’t know how to find my way to my uncle’s.”
Immediately, I regretted telling him so much. If he was indeed a thief, then here I was setting myself up as a soft target.
The man’s face turned in my direction, but through his glasses, I couldn’t tell if he was looking at me. A fat white cat mew-mewed its way past us and headed in the direction of the restaurant.
“Where does your uncle live?” the man asked.
“I really don’t know much about him.”
“Do you have a place to spend the night?”
I kept quiet for a few seconds.
“Right here,” I said. “On this bench.”
The man was silent for some time.
“This place is a den of thieves and sea jinn,” he said.
I recalled the cat that had just passed by. I recalled the stories I used to hear back home, of spirits moving among mortals in the form of cats. I was scared. I was scared of this man whose eyes were concealed. Maybe he was a phantom himself.
The man dug his hand into his right shirt pocket and fished out some money. Without looking or counting, he gave the money to me.
“You should find a cheap guesthouse and something to eat,” the man said. “Go in peace.”
Then he left. I decided to keep the money for a darker day.
I was scared by what the man had said about thieves and sea jinn roaming the city at night, so I decided to spend the night at the police station. The first person I met there was the superintendent, and I addressed myself to him in a confessional fashion: I have just arrived from Khartoum…
Before I could finish my rehearsed statement, the man, whose eyes were heavy with sleep, interrupted.
“So what?” he said.
So far, so good, I thought. “I want a place to spend the night.”
The man looked at me and at my luggage.
“We have a lot of space in the cell,” he said. “Free of charge.” Then he laughed sarcastically.
I stared at him.
“All right,” he said. “Behind that water tank, over there.”
I joined an army of street children who snored on the sand within the police compound. I rested on my back, using my luggage as a headrest. I was exhausted, and all
I wanted was some sleep. I gazed at the limitless, starry sky. Where was God hiding in that endless expanse?
I counted the stars until I dozed off.
Allah Hu Akbar! Allah Hu Akbar! The man of Allah woke me at 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 a cigarette in my pocket. I lit it and waited for the 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. I wandered the streets of hoping to be led to a place I would temporarily cherish as home.
I passed men clad in jallabia robes soiled with red dirt as if they had rolled in a heap of snuff. Men with long, curly hair—sculptured wooden combs engraved with Arabic calligraphy projected from their manes like antennas. They chewed the twigs they used for cleaning their teeth and spat with abandon. They squinted and spoke in their own mother tongue. And they were proud in their ruggedness. I asked for directions.
Take that green and red bus, they said. It will take you straight to where your people live.
When I arrived, I found a sprawling slum: makeshift shacks, seedy alleys, valleys dotted with fresh and dry cakes of shit, skinny, bare-chested kids in tattered clothes, 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 roasted on a hot grill.
The smell of poverty pervaded and perverted the mind. I trailed behind a man who had volunteered to be my guide. His hair was unkempt and dusty, and his unwashed and crumpled clothes smelled of stale sweat and dirt. 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 held a ball of quid. They exchanged pleasantries and spat in parallel directions.
“I’m taking this visitor to Juma,” the escort said. “He came from Juba—sorry, I meant Khartoum.”
“Welcome to Port Sudan, man. And feel at home,” said the other man, extending a hand and displaying its network of bulging veins.
As we approached a dingy kiosk, a simple structure of soft wood and cardboard plastered with posters of European soccer stars and anti-polio campaigns, I could hear the singing of a sewing machine. The sound evoked distant memories of shop verandas in Juba, of sewing machines pedaled by home boys brought up on cassava and bush meat.
My guide 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 Khartoum.”
The tailor’s jutted his head out of the window of the kiosk like a man peeping out of a moving train. Our eyes met, and then we exchanged smiles.
“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 my uncle for the forceful handshake, for he knew not that I was starving. Maybe this was how folks here greeted people.
As we got into some small banter, my escort waited 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 guide’s dirty palm. Without a word of good-bye, the man went to enter a dingy, makeshift building with a porous fence. I could hear murmurs, the laughter of women, and masculine voices arguing. 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. Men drank, women drank, and even children drank. They drank merisa-—a fermented brew that came in buckets, scooped up with small bowls or calabashes.
I blended in with everything within a few months. I woke up around six in the morning, joining the early risers in the slum, went down to the cobbled valley, unzipped my pants to my knees, and relieved myself like everyone. Women with assorted complexions also relieved themselves here. We used all sorts of wipers for cleaning up: rough cement, paper bags, newspapers, water, stones, twigs.
Relieving oneself in the open, in commune with nature—this experience in itself was almost pleasant. At night, the valley turned into a den of fornicators and drug abusers.
I became part of the slum community. I painted pictures to illustrate the dangers of the major twin killers in the area: malaria and HIV/AIDS. Then I found a job at a tire factory. I hated the menial work, and I was told that the carbon monoxide shortened people’s lives, but I loved the money.
I organized a strike, so I was fired. 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 smoke-filled home was like a crèche. She had several kids from different men who were tax evaders. They gained nothing and lost nothing. She took my money and lectured me on the New Testament.
One day I went to play cards at the community center. That lucky afternoon, I won the game, which earned me a little cash. I bought a sandwich and some cigarettes. I ate the snack and planned to smoke when I got home.
My uncle was still at the kiosk, enjoying the singing of the sewing machine. When I parted the gunnysack curtain of our home’s entrance, the cardboard door was ajar; the padlock lay on the dirt floor. I entered the shack and nearly fainted. The room was swept clean of all our belongings. “Shit! Shit!” I shouted at the top of my voice. I had nothing but the jeans and worn-out T-shirt I was wearing.
After the theft, the Nubian woman wanted to take me under her wing, but I refused. I wanted independence.
I wanted to go away, far away from this life of grinding poverty and the mayhem of the slum. I wanted to break free from this open prison.
The year was 1990. I remember it vividly, because Nelson Mandela was a free man. Or rather, the year I remember, but not the month, nor the day of the week. I had lost all sense of time. I was broke, starving, dreaming of nothing.
I was trapped in a time warp.
It was a quiet evening, and humid. I was sitting by the Red Sea. I threw pebbles into the transparent waters, counting my age backward, but the past was irretrievable. My memories were corrupted, and I would need to restart my life. I looked straight into the horizon, and saw a tired ship groaning with cargo flying a strange flag. The ship would proceed southward, to Mombasa, Maputo, Port Elizabeth, and then back to Port Said and onward, rotating around the world. Maybe that was the ship that would bear me somewhere new, or toss me overboard. I could 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.
I’ll camp here tonight, I told myself. And when the tired ship docks and is relieved of its cargo, I’ll pretend to be a ship cleaner. That would be the opportunity for me to slip in and hide in the hold among the rats, cockroaches, spiders, and spirits of the sea.
Darkness embraced the water, except for the beacons in the distance. Behind me lay the sleepy city twinkling with bulbs of dull colors. Pangs of hunger began to torment me. The menacing buzz of mosquitoes hummed in my ears, filling me with thoughts of malaria. I trudged back to the city, forcing along my light frame.
I decided to pass by the Merreikh Football Club to play dominoes or cards for money. If I won, I would have some beans and a piece of bread; if I was lucky enough, I would drink some tea.
I hated playing dominoes with those Bedouins, I must confess. They continually insulted me. Sometimes I imagined cutting off their large ears, which stuck out like artificial appendages. I thought of how those chaps would look without their ears. Like chickens without wings.
The club was full that night. When a good number of ships docked at the port, they brought cargo and sailors and money and diseases. I signed up for a game and went to sit on a rickety wooden bench to watch TV. There wasn’t much on except for the usual religious sloganeering, propaganda, and Egyptian soaps. I was fed up with it all. I eyed the steaming metal pot of horse beans near the cashier’s table. My mouth watered. The cashier stood by, counting a wad of worn-out, oily banknotes. I envied his position. He didn’t sleep on an empty stomach.
Although the bulbs 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? The harder I looked, the more it resembled a wallet. My mouth went dry.
I walked over to the cashier’s table. He was busy arranging his wad of money like a pack of cards. I stood before him, pretending I intended 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 had fallen into the sand. I bent over the object I saw before me, grabbing it with a shaky hand. It was indeed a wallet.
I didn’t want to know who might have lost it. I straightened myself up and looked directly into the eyes of the cashier, who seemed to not have noticed a thing.
“Maybe I’ll eat after my game?” I said aloud, to no one in particular, although I really wanted the cashier to hear it. Then I left, trying to be quick but look casual. I would not be playing any games.
I entered Abbas Restaurant and went straight to the toilet. I looked around at the four walls, painted with murals of shit. Then I reached for my trouser pocket and fished out the slim leather wallet. I held my breath and opened it.
My eyes popped out when I saw the contents: an American hundred-dollar bill, and a color passport-size photograph of a young woman with an aquiline nose, thin lips, and heavily lined eyebrows. Her hennaed hair was half covered with a white veil. Even if she was just 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 I was looking for. Carrying that bill would be like walking with death in my pocket. It was a curse. If the state security agents caught me with it, they would not hesitate to send me to the gallows without giving me a chance to tell them how I’d stumbled on the money in the first place. I would be labeled an agent of imperialism, colonialism, Americanism, and every other ism you could think of.
There was a feast at the Nubian’s place. Three of her boys had undergone circumcision that morning. The cut had nothing to do with a rite of passage; it was simple hygiene. Even men who had not been circumcised when they were boys were now going to the hospital to reduce their chances of getting HIV.
In the backyard, Nubian women were out-cooking one another and gossiping about the occasion. Circumcision is good for men. It’s healthy. A circumcised dick is better than one with a hanging forehead. Me, I can’t sleep with an uncircumcised man. Sister, a dick is a dick, circumcised or not. I just can’t sleep with a dirty, uncircumcised thing. Look at this penis discriminator!
The women went on. Rania, don’t be ignorant. Haven’t you heard that AIDS lurks in the loose skins of uncircumcised dicks? They all laughed as the delicious aroma of food escaped from around them: sizzling onions, assorted spices, peanut butter, barbecue.
The weather was stifling. Everyone was sweating, and it was worse for the women who were cooking the food. They sweated profusely, yet continued to crack salacious jokes.
The men, on the other hand, were discussing matters to do with the security of the slum. They were not talking about thieves or rapists or con men; they were talking about the police. The previous morning a truckload of officers had descended on the neighborhood in one of their regular sweeps across the city.
I’d sworn they wouldn’t get any clue to where I hid my hundred-dollar bill. I had folded it into a bit of polyethylene and sewed it into the waist of my jeans. All the same, the previous day I had panicked just like anyone else.
The Nubian woman was an illicit beer queen. Since she’d gotten into the business almost a decade ago, she had been bailing out other women, but she had never landed in jail herself for possessing or selling illicit drinks. Some women whispered that she had a charm that kept the police at bay. But the truth is that she was smart, and had connections with the powerful people of the law: army officers, police officers, customs officers, port officials.
The circumcised boys sat on a mat. They wore loose calico robes. They ate cakes and candies to assuage the pain of their wounds. They enjoyed the company of the other kids from the neighborhood, talking in low tones and giggling. Their mother, the Nubian woman, coordinated the agenda of the occasion, moving from the makeshift kitchen in the backyard and giving orders to the young ladies to supply the men in the shade with more free beer.
It was an afternoon of eating, drinking, talking, and laughing. All of the visitors had kind words for the Nubian. They praised her for being a successful single mother. She was lavished with compliments for the food and beer, all free of charge and all delicious. I was even given a packet of Benson & Hedges cigarettes.
Then there was a dance that lasted until the wee hours of the night. The men beat drums improvised from tins, benches, and chairs. The women sang and thumped the ground with their feet, enticing the men with a suggestive dance. With their braids and artificial hair extensions, they swung their heads left and right, their hair hitting their shoulders while their palms worked on their bums, imitating a drumbeat. They produced a rhythm that sent the men into a frenzy.
The roosters were about to crow when I finally made my way home. When I woke up the following morning, my head pounded; I didn’t have an appetite, and each time I belched there was an unpleasant smell of rotten egg in my mouth. I was constipated. When the Nubian woman sent for me, I forced myself to take a bath. I never knew why she had failed to maintain a husband; this woman knew everything to do with beer and hangovers and taking care of men, and she had prepared a breakfast for me. I ditched the solid food and concentrated on the green peppered-goat-leg soup. Sweat exploded from my forehead. I felt alive again.
I hopped from one backbreaking job to another just to keep afloat. Our people say, “It’s work that makes a man what he is”; I had purged myself of all shame to do these odd jobs. 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.
At other times, though, I imagined I was a protagonist in a motion picture: Rambo, James Bond, Jackie Chan. Someone that had to beat all the odds to emerge a hero. Patience and determination kept me moving from one day to the next, hoping against hope.
Beginning in the morning and until around 2 pm, I washed cars at the beach. In the evening, I taught a Beja revolutionary the English language. He wanted to learn it to equip himself in case the BBC asked him for an interview, and in order to haggle for arms on the black market. The more I washed those cars and taught the Beja man, the more I became disgusted with myself, the system, the government—disgusted with everything.
But this anger could be quelled by a cup of spiced coffee brewed by the Beja man himself. After the lessons, we sat at the coffee shop overlooking the Koranic school and listened to the shrill voices of the children chanting verses and committing them to memory. After several cups of black coffee, I would excuse myself, and my pupil would take up an urn to wash his hands, face, and feet in preparation for the evening prayers.
A military junta overthrew the government. Sugar and bread queues grew longer by the day, and casual jobs became scarce. Breadwinners struggled to make ends meet. Those who couldn’t get jobs as dockworkers or in the factories went to work in the agricultural operations to the south. One popular operation was called Salum (likely a corruption of Shalom), a one-time colonial post. Salum was like a hippie village: farmhands smoked pot, drank alcohol, and went to bed with the prostitutes who bootlegged the liquor.
I found work there as a farmhand growing animal fodder. It was a relief to get lost in the wilderness, far away from the real world. I buried my head in manure, plowed my plots, and soaked my skin in the saline well. We ate dry fish and okra and washed it all down with Ethiopian coffee. We played dominoes by moonlight and slept on gunnysacks like prisoners.
One day I received a letter. I never wrote nor received letters; I immediately suspected that this one might have been an arrest warrant. The new government’s security agents had been cracking down on drugs and counterfeit goods, and on unwanted currencies like the hundred-dollar bill in my possession; maybe they’d gotten wind of what I had. But who gave them the lead?
The bearer of the letter was a fellow farmhand. It had been given to him by a woman in a local bar back in the slum a week earlier; he said that she had told him that the letter was very urgent. I tore open the envelope, unfolded the letter, and read it. It had been scribbled out in an unsteady handwriting. It said my uncle Juma was very ill.
I dropped my head. I had a strange feeling that I couldn’t explain, and my worry was heightened when I thought of what might have happened in the week it had taken the letter to reach me. But what worried me most was the message from the same man telling me that the woman who had given him the letter had told him that somebody else was desperately looking for me. I didn’t sleep that night.
Early the next morning, I removed the American money from the waist of my jeans, wrapped it in another polyethylene bag, and put it into an old bottle of jam I had been using as my salt container. I was anxious to go and see my ill uncle, but at the same time, I couldn’t shake my fear of being arrested for being in possession of American money. I closed tight the lid of that bottle and buried it in my shack. Then I left for the slum.
I made the one-hour journey in the bed of a Toyota pickup. When we reached the slum, I decided I would stop at the pharmacy to get some drugs for Uncle Juma, despite the fact that I didn’t know what he was suffering from. In the end I bought some painkillers, just in case he needed them.
As I rushed home, I was aware of 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 their own affairs. At the corner by the bakery, I met the man who had escorted me to Uncle Juma when I’d first arrived. He looked at me and I could see his eyes turning moist. He didn’t shake my hand, but put both his hands together with the open palms facing upward. Muslims do this to express condolence.
I was seized with panic. He told me that they had buried Uncle Juma the day before. He held me by the hand and escorted me home. When the women recognized me, they started wailing. I threw down my small bundle of clothes and burst into tears.
Uncle Juma had died alone in his sleep. He had become too ill to go to the hospital. He left no will, uttered no last word to anyone.
After my uncle’s death, I wanted to start a new chapter in my life. I felt very lonely, but I had yet to decide in which direction to put my foot.
One day I went into town to catch up with the latest news and job opportunities, and to eavesdrop on the rumor mill in case the ban on the dollar had been lifted. I decided to visit one of the tailors I knew.
Before we could finish with our pleasantries, he told me that somebody had been looking for me. He said the man had claimed I was related to him. I made it known to the tailor that the only relation I had in Port Sudan was dead.
“What is the name of the man?” I asked the tailor.
He only knew him by his nickname, Karlos.
“And does this Karlos know my name?”
“Yes. He mentioned your name.”
A moment later, a man of medium height approached the veranda where we were standing. He was waving his face with a newspaper. The man was dark, and he wore dark glasses, the ones fancied by the state security agents. He smiled at the tailor.
“Son of my elder brother!” the man said. His handshake was paternal, warm. His voice was the voice of the man who had sat near me on the bench at the bus station the night I arrived in Port Sudan, a year or so ago.
He smiled again, offering up my late father’s full name. I realized that I could see the spitting image of my father in the gap separating his front teeth.
To buy There Is a Country, click here.
To read the book’s introduction
by editor Nyuol Lueth Tong, click here.