He is the Finance Officer and he was well dressed on that day as he is always well dressed. Many will wear a full suit every day or randomly throughout the week because that is one of a half dozen outfits and all have their turn in the rotation. You will be in a t-shirt or a polo shirt and just the thought of a suit jacket will make you begin to feel the sweat. Today he wore a dress shirt and slacks that were too short for his long legs. His dress shoes had long, narrow toes and they were covered in brown dust from the unpaved road in front of the office. He is very tall and very dark and very uncompromising. He is a Dinka. It is very wrong to make one person your picture of a whole people. But to me he is what I think of a Dinka to be. He is made up of some of the best and worst of his people and their traditions. He is boxed in by those traditions and he knows it, but he follows them and he attempts to flourish despite it. I like him because of this - there is an authenticity about someone who is uncompromisingly, unapologetically, and inflexibly who he is and where he comes from. I suspect he is what our cowboys were or what we expected them to be and, anyway, this is very much a frontier town. Also he is good humored and does not take himself too seriously, which is not very Dinka of him. I like him for that and also I like him because he is colorful in his opinions and hardworking and he does not give too many excuses for what he does.
We were in Juba because he had been in his village to arrange his marriage and I had come to the capitol to spend the holidays. He had been away two months. The first month had used up a year of earned leave and for the second month I had given him unpaid leave. He had not returned when he was supposed to and for this I should have begun the termination process. But it is hard to find a finance person you trust and I had spent a lot of time training him and, anyway, as I said, I liked him. So I gave him a warning letter and a month of unpaid leave and this had gotten me in trouble with the Country Director.
We were in the logistics office, which is always busy - or should always be busy - whether there are programs running or not. So I led him out and into an empty room where we could talk.
‘So tell me how things have been going,’ I said after we greeted each other again.
‘Yes, so you know I was in the village and now it was down to two of us competing for the lady.’
‘Yes, I remember. Who is left that you still compete against?’
‘The one that now lives in Australia his people found him another lady. So the one that remains is the student in Wau,’ he said. ‘She does not want him but his father is old friends with her father. So you see how it is.’
‘Yes, I see.’
‘The family did not want to choose me so I took her,’ he said.
‘You took her a second time?’
‘Yes, the first time was when I was in Malakal and I called my friends to take her for me,’ he said
‘Yes, I remember, and then the girl’s family beat and kidnapped your uncle.’
‘So you took her again?’
‘Yes, but she went with me.’
‘I see. How did you do it?’ I asked.
‘You know,’ he said, ‘I did not want anyone to know I was in the village. I did not tell anyone but one of my people. I bought a mobile and he gave it to her to communicate with me. I sent her airtime from my mobile. You know, I spent three days in the bush with only water and packages of biscuits waiting for her. Her family always watched her but sometimes she called me when she went to the latrine. Then in the night after three days she called me after they all went to sleep. So I came in the village and I took her.’
‘Where did you take her?’
‘We spent two days in the bush. We stayed in an empty tukul away from the village.’
I imagined him in the bush with this lady who was probably still a girl and him wearing his dress clothes because maybe that was all he had or because that is where he was in the clothing rotation.
‘You took her to the bush,’ I said. I was repeating it because it is a way of actively listening and I have found it works quite well here.
‘Yes. Then the lady’s family went to the police and the police arrested my father and mother.’
‘They arrested your parents because you took the girl?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Then, after we were two days in the bush, we went footing to Bor. When my phone had a signal, my parents called and told me they were arrested. So I had to come back.’
‘When I came back, they let my parents out of prison and they arrested me.’
‘How long were you in jail?’
‘For three days and they fined me.’
‘And the girl went back to her parents?’
‘Yes, they took her back.’
‘And why is it that the girl’s family does not like you?’
‘It is the father and grandfather and uncle that are against me but the rest likes me just fine,’ he said.
‘And the girl likes you?’
‘And you like the girl?’
‘Even after the two days together in the bush?’
He looked questioningly.
‘Sometimes you will spend time with a girl and find that you don’t like her so much as you thought you did.’
‘Yes, I like her very much,’ he said.
‘OK then. So, two days in the bush,’ I said. This was me listening again.
There was a moment as we thought about this - perhaps each thinking something different or perhaps thinking the same thing. ‘So, did you...?’ I said, making a gesture with my hands.
He smiled because he understood or because he did not understand but he did not answer and I did not press him.
‘So why does the father and grandfather and uncle not like you?’ I said.
‘You know, it is because I talk to them,’ he said.
‘The rest of the family they like me but at the family meeting the father and grandfather and uncle - they are the head of the family and they overrule the others.’
‘Yes, I see. So what will happen now?’
‘So now,’ he said, pausing and then continuing, ‘the girl must escape. If she escapes they will see that she has made her decision.’
‘She must run away from home.’
‘Yes. Maybe this will have to happen two or three more times. But I cannot take her again. Now she will have to escape on her own. When she escapes, then she will contact me and I will have my friends take her again. I left 500 pounds with one so that he can conduct her away, maybe to Malakal.’
‘And if she comes to Malakal?’ I asked.
‘Then the judge would make her father settle. Then they would accept my best offer because they would know that she will not come back.’
‘Better to accept your offer of cows than to get nothing,’ I said.
‘Yes. You see how it is?’
‘Yes, I see,’ I said.
We both thought about how it is but I think we thought very different things in that moment. I could not know the thoughts that were in his head but I wondered about them and I had my own ideas. It certainly was all very dramatic, I thought, rival suitors, a deal between old friends, a bride price in cows and cash, a kidnapping, a reverse kidnapping, a stakeout, them running away together, then jail and fines, and probably plenty of other things that he had not told me about but that I could make up. It would make a damn fine story if you could write it well, I thought, but I did not think I could. To write well, I figured, you have to believe in what you are writing or at least take it seriously. I felt bad that I did not because I was skeptical that this was really love. Maybe it was not love only inexperience or maybe it was pride - him seeing a thing that he could not have and seeing that as reason enough to want it. And maybe her playing out that first act of rebellion that is how we know when a girl becomes a woman.
I thought about how quickly I could summarize this biggest event of their lives into something trivial and that made me feel very bad. I felt bad for him because his labors deserved more than my skepticism and mostly I felt bad for myself that I should be so skeptical about what someone else felt. He is inexperienced and certainly she is, but that is not a bad thing. They might be inexperienced but that doesn’t make the feelings any less real. Still, you do a lot of stupid things when you’re inexperienced, I thought. You do a lot of stupid things anyways, I corrected myself, but especially when you are inexperienced.
Then I was remembering my inexperience and how it was on my first proper date, which seemed like long ago but was suddenly quite vivid in my mind. I had taken her to one of those places where you order at the counter and then they bring the food to your table. It was not fast food but it was not very far from it. We took our drinks and selected a table and then she went to the restroom. As she was going, I turned clumsily to follow her with my eyes and, when I did, I knocked over her soft drink. It was my first crisis situation so I allowed myself a few moments to panic. When she returned she saw the pool of Coca Cola and a large caution sign and a man was mopping it up. Then she discovered me at another table. I think I was pretending to check my phone or maybe it was a pager back then.
‘The waitress knocked your drink over,’ I said, looking up as casually as I could manage.
‘There are no waitresses here,’ she said.
There was a moment while we examined each other.
‘Yeah, I knocked your drink over,’ I said, recognizing that I was defeated.
She was very magnanimous in that her first of many victories over me.
The rest of the evening went very much the same: me trying to be entertaining as I drove us to the laser show and her pointing out that I had missed the freeway exit and then us returning the other way and me missing it again. Then, after the laser show, it was us enjoying the view of the city from the observatory while everyone else departed and then us getting locked in until eventually the security guard discovered us. It was a fiasco of a first date and it was a very fine success. So I learned something important after that experience: if you are not rich or gorgeous or an athlete or a musician, then you’re best strategy is to make the most amusing ass that you can of yourself.
So I thought of that and that thinking led to other thoughts. The spilling of the drink made me remember when I was on the flight to Jordan before going to start my first mission in Iraq. The drinks were served and I took a red wine. I poured a near full glass and then placed it in the cup holder while I reach down for my headphones. When I came up my hand struck the cup and the wine went all over my khaki pants. So I spent the rest of the flight wet and cold and deeply purple stained so that I had to carry a blanket in front of my crotch whenever I went to the lavatory. When I arrived in Jordan six hours later and my new colleagues collected me at the airport, I decided it was better not to blame in on the flight attendant.
Then it seemed like a long time had passed while I was thinking and I decided that I should say something.
‘It seems that you have done what you can do and you made preparations for what needs to happen next.’
‘Yes,’ he agreed.
‘So now you have to trust her to do her part, I guess.’
‘Yes. You know, it has been very hard but I think she will do it,’ he said and he sounded very tired. He did not sound enthusiastic as he had sounded two months before in Malakal when he had told me the plans for his conquest.
‘They will have to accept me,’ he had said with as much confidence as one could imagine.
Now that confidence was gone and he looked a little older and wiser and very tired.
‘It sounds like it has been very hard,’ I repeated.
‘You like her that much?’ I said. I decided that I would ask it again and, if he answered it well, then maybe I could suspend my skepticism. Maybe if he could wait all that time in the bush and then make the long walk to Bor and then return because it was what he had to do, knowing that he would lose her and go to jail - maybe if he go through all that and tell me about it and be at his lowest point, and then answer this question and make me believe it...at least I wanted to be somebody who would believe it.
‘Yes, I like her very much.’
‘OK,’ I said satisfied and a moment later, feeling better, I decided, ‘You have fought very hard and I think it will work out.’
‘Yes,’ he said.
Maybe he appreciated my effort at confidence in his situation or maybe it was what he needed to hear at that moment because now he was smiling and you could see he was proud of himself.
He considered this and so did I until it seemed like time to say something again.
‘So then will you be returning to us in Malakal while you wait for her to escape?’ I asked.
‘Now,’ he said, ‘you know, when they arrested me, they fined me 2,000 pounds. I’m broke. So you see how it is?’
I smiled because it was all so damned amusing and it did not matter if I believed it because it was real and happening now.
‘Yes I see how it is,’ I said. ‘Come on. We will arrange it with logistics and you will fly back with me tomorrow.’