Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Nothing Comes Easy Part 1

A loud pop came from below the vehicle. I was immediately shook from being entranced by the flashes of green leaves flickering outside my front seat window. My eyes shifted from the trees to my gyrating knees up my convulsing arm to Akra’s open-mouthed, what-just-happened, keep-it-together face. From the back seat of our newly rented 4x4, the phrase “pull the car over now” was on loop in a forceful female Dutch accent. Smoke started creeping out of the hood and crawling up the driver side window. Akra, his hands rattling in rhythm with the steering wheel, navigated the Land Rover to a halt at the bottom of a hill.

After two weeks of interviews in the capital and jumping through the last vestige of hoops for the Makerere School of Public Health’s IRB committee, I helped organize a weekend pilgrimage to South Sudan to witness the end of the semi-autonomous state’s historic referendum. For the past two months, Mr. and Mrs. M’s children have been on holiday from school making their home a little too crowded for me to have the luxury of my own work space. For this reason, I’ve been opting to stay at a Dutch-run guesthouse on the Catholic hill of Kampala known as Rubaga. The converted mansion serves as a boarding house for volunteers and researchers from around the world, thus appropriately titled International Contact Uganda, or affectionately called the ICU. A nice twist on a dreaded place to wind up in the hospital. Travelers passing through the inn bring with them stories from all over East Africa, and earlier last week we began getting reports from Juba. One visitor, a young Dutch anthropologist who had just returned from the South Sudanese capital, proclaimed, “You can feel the excitement of history in the streets of that city, like the Berlin wall coming down.”

With accounts like his bouncing around the walls of the ICU, a number of us began plotting a brief break from our work to become voyeurs of history being made. My co-conspirators included Bjorn, a German psychology student investigating how being orphaned by AIDS impacts personality development, Sophie, a Dutch international relations student looking into the utility of solar powered water purifiers, and Margriet, the guest house’s manager who last year gave up a directorship at the Ritz in Barcelona to find new challenges for herself in small corners of the world. Sophie and Margriet had a friend working in Juba, a Dutch anthropology grad student, who was glad to host us. After we made arrangements through him, all we needed was a way to get there. That was my job.

For most of its 55 years of existence, the Republic of Sudan has been in civil war. Like most modern conflicts in Africa, it’s no surprise that the seeds for Sudan’s strife were planted deep by its colonialist past. Originally, the British had governed the Arabic North and Christian-predominate South separately. But after World War II, a more unified administrative unit was formed, which centralized power in Khartoum and made Arabic the official language for the English speaking South. At the time of independence, Southern Sudanese leaders were not invited to take part in political negotiations, which in essence replaced the British priorities for the land with those of the North. Subsequently, violence became the voice for Southern autonomy, lead by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) since 1983 and resulting in the world’s longest running civil war with 2.5 million deaths from famine, disease, and causalities.

In 2005, a peace agreement was signed which required a referendum to be held amongst the Southern Sudanese people to determine whether the region should remain united with the North or be an independent nation. It was the final moments of this decisive democratic process that we wanted to witness and to celebrate.

Two days before our departure, I got a great deal on renting a Land Rover for the month through a relative of a friend. Akra and I went to inspect the 4x4 at a compound outside the city. The owner was a chain smoking 60 year old man, whose age was only evident by his dark grey hair, which he kept hidden under a plain black baseball cap. He dressed in a baggy white shirt and pants and had a long gold chain necklace dangling over his chest. His 20 dogs, which all appeared to be some variant of a German shepherd, barked and growled from their chains as we approached the vehicle. It looked to be a model from the last decade, had a little difficulty starting, and rattled a bit more than our Carolla when we took it for a test drive. But with a price one-fourth the going rate, we couldn’t turn it down. In hindsight, I should have been a little more suspicious after its owner felt the need to tell me between each cigarette he smoked, “I would never sell a bum car to a friend of my sister, you can trust me.”

With our semi-dated 4x4 in hand, we were set. The plan was easy. My co-conspirators and I would drive with Akra to Juba. Estimate times for the 400 mile drive were between 10 and 12 hours. After a couple days Akra and I would return to Gulu while the others would bus back from there to Kampala.

3 hours into our trip, we were stranded on the roadside.

After the Land Rover rolled to a stop, we quickly scurried out of it. With smoke still streaming out the right side of the hood, denial kicked in, and we tried to convince ourselves that car was just overheated. Akra popped the hood. We immediately heard the sound of fluid dripping onto a hot pipe and sizzling into smoke. Then through the bowels of the engine, we saw the problem. Parallel with the front axle, there was a bent shaft attached to a round circular disk with two rings, one was broken in half. Bjorn hypothesized that something must haven fallen off from the car back where we heard the loud bang. He set off to find it, while I tried to flag down a car to hitch a ride to the nearest mechanic shop.

The German psychology student walked a quarter mile down the road before he saw a mob of villagers coming towards him. Front and center in the crowd was a man carrying a metal tube the length of a forearm and the shape of a mace. Bjorn immediately turned around and increased his pace back to the car. I was explaining our plight to a good Samaritan who heeded my roadside thumb waving when I noticed the crowd gathering around my fellow foreigners. A middle-aged villager cradling the rusted bludgeon in the folds of his tattered blue button-up shirt claimed that the fractured auto part had struck his neighbor in the head. He demanded that we give him money as compensation for the injury. I refused to pay on the grounds that no injured man could be produced. The good Samaritan, however, took on the role of peace mediator and talked me into giving the man a few thousand schillings (about a dollar) for carrying the metal object back to us. The crowd dispersed and Akra and I caught a ride to the nearest town 5 miles down the road to find a mechanic.

30 minutes later, we returned to the car along with a repairman who brought all his tools in a plastic bucket. He identified the broken part as the damper, which is needed for stabilizing 4 wheel drive vehicles. After only a few seconds under the car, he said, "This is going to be a big job." He wasn't kidding. 6 hours later he had taken off both front wheels, and was still unable to dislodge the other bent half of the damper left attached to the vehicle. Frustrated and still uncertain of where he would even find the spare part, the mechanic gave up his quest for a roadside repair. He estimated that it would take several days for the car to be operational again. After relaying the mechanic's diagnosis and prognosis to the vehicle's owner, Akra elected to stay behind with the Land Rover, while the rest of us would catch a taxi to Gulu, spend the night there and then find another ride to Juba in the morning.

By this point, it was getting dark, and traveling after sundown is something always to be avoided in Uganda. We were only 70 kilometers from Gulu, but it would still be hours before we arrived there...

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