The Time for Celebration Was Over

When the date for independence was approaching they said the new terminal would be built in time. It was to be ready to receive the dignitaries that would come from many countries to celebrate the occasion. The workers were put in shifts around the clock and they worked harder and longer and later than they had ever worked before that. when I saw them on a dry day during the rainy season some weeks before the independence they had a chinese foreman. He paced the construction site amidst the timber and the rebar and the cement blocks and shouted for them to work harder. But, as I said, that was as hard as they had ever worked or knew how to work and he was the only one that would receive a bonus if the terminal was constructed on time. I came again some few days before the independence and there were more of them and they worked still harder but the terminal was still a skeleton and, by then, they had passed the point where more men and harder work could change the equation.

Juba seen from Jebel

I came again when I left some days after the independence when hopes were still high and flags still waved and banners still hung, but the time for celebration was over. Now it was the time for running a government, for rebuilding the petroleum rigs and the roads to them, for pacifying the tribes that stole cattle, and for breaking the rebel militias that harassed the northern border. Then the work on the terminal had slowed. The workers were fewer and their pace was less hurried.

Now it was some months later and I arrived again. From the window of the plane that stopped beside the single runway where the staircase was rolled over, I saw that the work on the terminal was further along. The skeleton had flesh but no guts inside it and no wiring like arteries along the beams and the wall studs.

I sat beside Sarah on the 737 that had brought us from Malakal along the northern border. It was her first time on Ethiopian Airlines and my first time on anything more than a prop jet between there and the capitol. The modern world was coming, I thought. We sat until the aisle had emptied. Then on the ground, walking to the terminal, she asked how long I thought until the airport would be on the level of Nairobi. 10-15 years is what I thought, knowing that Nairobi was not a particularly good airport.

‘More if they go back to war,’ I added.

In the terminal beside the baggage counter we kissed again on the cheek and she went to pass through customs and then re-board the airplane. I moved to one side where I could see between the bodies that crowded the wooden counters where the bags were manually ushered after coming out of the x-ray machine. There was as much activity in the waiting as I had ever seen anywhere. Some bags had to be checked by a soldier and every bag had an owner that shoved his way in to get at it and a commotion that was created for the shoving and because there was nothing else to do for the rest of those that still waited.

One man was fat and squat and wore a gray suit with a pin of the country’s flag on the lapel. A tall, old army officer - probably a colonel - came over to look for his bag. He wore a green uniform and a beret with a tassel. His trousers were too short for his long, old legs and I thought that was funny. They, the officer and the squat one in the suit, bumped and the gray suit said something to the green uniform. The green uniform liked what the gray suit said and he laughed. It was too much laugh for anything clever that the gray suit could have said. The gray suit took license from this and he said something else. This time is was not so funny as the first and the laughing was muted. Soon the two discovered their bags and they went back into the crowd.

Where they had gone then another man came to that calm spot within the commotion. He stood watching the suitcases as they came out of the x-ray machine. Another man had spotted him from a distance and the two greeted each other. They put a hand on each other’s shoulder and then they shook hands and embraced. Each held something in his hand - the one held an envelop and the other a mobile phone. As they spoke the one placed the envelop in the breast pocket of his suit jacket and the other placed the phone in the pocket of his polo shirt. I could not understand them but I figured I understood well enough what they said to one another.

‘Hello, brother.’

‘Ah, my brother, hello.’

‘You are most welcome.’

‘Thank you, brother, and you too are welcome. You are well, brother?’

‘Very well, very well. You are well?’

I too am well. And your family, they are well?’

‘Yes, very well. Thank you, brother, and yours - they are well?’

‘Oh, yes, quite well. Thank you.’

‘You are most welcome.’

‘Thank you. I greet you.’

Here or hereabouts the exchange faded out and they stood watching the bags pass through the x-ray machine. More bags had arrived and the great commotion had swelled around the baggage counter. Now they spoke no more until the one in the suit jacket identified his luggage.

‘Fine to see you, brother. Be well,’ he said as they shook and he went to join the commotion around the counter.

‘Likewise, brother. Take good care.’

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